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150 Years Ago: Sunday, May 12, 1861


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Today the first “contraband” slave of the war, George Scott, becomes a scout in the Union army. Scott had recently escaped a plantation near Yorktown in southeast Virginia. While he made his way south towards the still-Union occupied Fort Monroe, he observed that Virginian forces had thrown up two fortifications between Yorktown and the Fort. Union General Benjamin Butler had issued orders shortly after the war started that all “contraband” arriving in Union lines be brought to his headquarters for debriefing. Butler’s officers were impressed with his information; Scott agrees to accompany a Union officer on several scouting trips behind Virginian lines to obtain more specific intelligence. 
In New York City, Mary Lincoln creates a sensation when she appears at Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Beecher was the brother of famous writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had written “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The church itself also served a duel purpose as part of the Underground Railroad. The newspapers are reporting that Mary is to spend several days in the city “for the purpose of shopping and relaxing from the arduous cares and duties of the White House.” It was not uncommon for the President to provide false information on the duration of Mary’s trips in an effort to increase her safety, so only time will determine the true length of her stay. Back in Washington, Mary’s husband Abraham would spend the morning on a three hour cruise on the Potomac River with Secretary of State William Seward and political mastermind Thurlow Weed. 
Colonel Thomas Jackson has been sending multiple wires for days to Robert E. Lee, Commander of all Virginia forces. Jackson is in charge of securing Harpers Ferry, but he’s determined that he needs thousands more men and supplies to accomplish the job given to him. So far Lee has tried to be as accommodating as possible, but he is beginning to feel that maybe Jackson doesn’t realize Lee has to protect the whole state, not just one strategically placed city on the Potomac. Today Lee turns down Jackson’s request for 5,000 more muskets. The reason? Jackson already had 3,000 armed men and Lee had already issued another 3,000 muskets, giving Jackson 1,000 additional muskets that he didn’t need; another 5,000 makes no sense at a time where resources are limited. Lee also informs Jackson that there is no artillery to provide, so he has to make due with what he has. On a positive note, Lee does send him a regiment of Alabama troops and has plans for two more. This should be enough to hold Harpers Ferry, but Lee cautions him to “abstain from all provocation for attack as long as possible.” 
In St. Louis, the riots over the previous two days have ended and USA General William Harney is working to get things under control. He issues an open letter to the people of St. Louis and Missouri, regretting the actions taken by the Union while he was in Washington City and promising to only use the military as a “last resort to preserve the peace.” Citizens of St. Louis are starting to voice their anger over German immigrants, as they currently make up a large part of Union regiments stationed there. Many want the Germans to be forcibly removed from the city.
Lord Richard Lyons had been sent to Washington City as a British envoy two years ago. He had watched the conflict unfold and like many observers felt it was unavoidable. With the United States split in two, Lyons has to deal with two key problems: a possible attack on Canada by the Union and a potential cotton shortage from Union blockades of the southern coast. He is also very untrusting of the U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, as he thinks Seward may opt to provoke war with foreign powers in order to divert attention from the crisis at home. Both the U.S. and Confederacy are eager to have Britain on their side; for now the country was neutral. The South will have the bigger challenge, as Lord Lyons had once written that “the taint of slavery will render the cause of the South loathsome to the civilized world”, a feeling many foreign powers share. Today Lord Lyons writes a letter to Lord Russell, Her British Majesty’s Foreign Secretary: 
“Little apparent change in the state of affairs has taken place during the last week. Actual hostilities have not yet begun. Militiamen from the North continue to arrive at Washington, but none have yet attempted to pass into Virginia or any other of the seceded States. There are even some people who still hope that a civil war may be avoided. It would be sad to believe that such hopes are altogether unfounded. They rest, however, entirely on the supposition that the existing excitement in the North will wear itself out; that the North, becoming convinced in time of the fruitlessness of a victory, however complete, will acquiesce in the separation which, for a time at least, appears inevitable, and will let the South depart in peace. 
No one, I think, the least acquainted with the South assigns a shorter period than a year to the war, if a war there must be. Few consider it probable that in a year’s time the North will have made any real progress toward subduing the South by force of arms. 
It must be admitted, however, that the prognostications on both sides are merely conjectural. Nothing has yet occurred to test either the determination of the North or the endurance of the South. The extent to which it will be possible to establish a blockade by sea and land, which will really straiten the South for provisions, and the amount of suffering which the South will endure rather than submit, have yet to be proven. The troops who must make the first campaign are on both sides almost exclusively composed of regiments of militiamen, brought together from places widely separated, having little acquaintance with or confidence in each other; more or less well drilled as single regiments, but totally unused to be manoeuvred in large bodies. Horses, mules, and other means of transport, necessary for moving troops in masses, are wanting to both the contending parties. The wealth of the North will give it greater facilities for supplying these deficiencies; but, on the other hand, the Southern soldiers, standing on the defensive, and surrounded by a friendly population, can better dispense with them. The courage of both sides may be taken to be equal. The North has numbers and wealth; but the Southern men are more accustomed to the use of arms, and a campaign will much less disturb their ordinary habits or interfere with the demands of business. The North may, perhaps, be more easily induced to sacrifice their pride, and desist from an attempt to crush a rebellion, than the South be forced into a submission which they believe to be incompatible not only with their freedom and their fortunes, but even with their safety in the midst of their slave population. 
To an Englishman sincerely interested in the welfare of this country the present state of things is peculiarly painful. Abhorrence of Slavery; respect for law; more complete community of race and language, enlist his sympathies on the side of the North. On the other hand, he cannot but reflect that any encouragement to the predominant war feeling in the North cannot but be injurious to both sections of the country. The prosecution of the war can lead only to the exhaustion of the North, by an expenditure of life and money on an enterprise in which success and failure would be alike disastrous. If must tend to the utter devastation of the South.”

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Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. The site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.

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