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150 Years Ago: Tuesday, May 14, 1861


On May 4, William Orton Williams had been taken to Governors Island in New York and held as a prisoner at the direction of his boss, General Winfield Scott. He had warned Robert E. Lee’s family of a takeover of their home and had tried to resign so he could join the Confederacy, but in a rare move Scott didn’t let him resign as he had let others. Today Williams writes Scott so he can explain his position; he wants Scott to reconsider his imprisonment and let him resign. His long letter includes the following text:

I do not approve of the course of the South Generally, nor the way in which Virginia has acted as a state; but individual disapprobation of her conduct will do as little towards bringing her back into the Union, on her former footing, as the marching of hostile armies into her Territory.”

If the policy is to conquer the seceded states by invading armies, they can only return to the government as devastated provinces. Which under the present constitution, the US cannot legally hold. Consequently at the end of this unhappy war, either the South as a subjugated Territory or the North as Victors, will be under a military dictator or other form of consolidated military jurisdiction (and I incline strongly to the belief that this first is the more probable) or there will be two governments each adapted to the customs and education of those over whom they will be established.

If the former of these two premises be true, I have to choose whether I will be one of the oppressors of my kinsman or share with them the tyranny with which I otherwise might have helped to burden them.

If the second hypothesis be true and I remain on the side of the north, I must become a stranger in a strange land – far from the sod under which my ancestors lie buried. I can never again revisit the scenes of my childhood without meeting at every step the ghosts of those who may well say – we deserved better things at your hands.

You can never tell the mental agony which I suffered, during the last three weeks of my sojourn in Washington….

With sentiments of the most profound admiration I remain

Yours with greatest respect, Orton Williams

The First Wheeling Convention continues today with John S. Carlile at the helm. He was a merchant, lawyer, slave holder and politician, and had served as a senator. He had been a delegate at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in April where he had voted against secession. Currently he is leading the movement of 27 northwestern Virginia counties for recognition of their anti-secessionist movement. Today he proposes a resolution to show their loyalty for Virginia and the Union by proposing to form a new state called New Virginia. His resolution is met with great enthusiasm and cheers for the Union.

Since the Baltimore Riots earlier in this month, the city has been under guard every night. The Maryland legislature has now convened, which will leave Governor Thomas H. Hicks to do as he pleases. The legislature did perform one last act before its departure, appointing two commissioners to visit Confederate President Jefferson Davis and United States President Abraham Lincoln.

Today U.S. General Benjamin Butler does the unthinkable: he seizes the city of Baltimore without the knowledge or permission of Washington.

Butler also issues a proclamation in Baltimore, Maryland, suspending the writ of habeas corpus. President Lincoln had already done this along the railway lines between Philadelphia and Washington, but this was the first time a city had been put under this rule. Butler goes to great lengths to spell out what will not be allowed and what will be considered treasonous and punishable. He also states that “No flag, banner, ensign or device of the so-called Confederate States, or any of them, will be permitted to be raised or shown in this department, and the exhibition of either of them by evil-disposed persons will be deemed and taken to be evidence of a design to afford aid and comfort to the enemies of the country.”

Butler’s proclamation gives the U.S. military the right to seize whatever they need to aid their cause; members of the 8th New York seize 2,900 muskets and 3,500 pipes which had been property of the Baltimore. The weapons are transported in 60 wagons to Fort McHenry, which had protected the city during the War of 1812 and had inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “Star Spangled Banner.” Newspaper correspondents who have traveled to the area are reporting that the Virginians have strongly fortified Harpers Ferry, Virginia and the Maryland Heights across the river.

John F. Reynolds is a former West Point graduate who served in the Mexican War with honor and earned the respect of many men. During this time he formed close friendships with Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis A. Armistead, both who are currently serving in California – though Hancock is trying to get a transfer to help the war effort in the East and Armistead is leaning towards resigning and joining the Confederate effort. Reynolds was made Commandant of Cadets at West Point in September 1860 and has also been teaching artillery, cavalry and infantry tactics. He is secretly engaged to Katherine May Hewitt, but because she is a Catholic and Reynolds is a Protestant they have yet to marry or tell anyone about it. Several weeks ago he was offered a position as aide-de-camp to General Winfield Scott, but Reynolds declined. Today he is appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 14th U.S. Infantry, which is originally organized in Connecticut.

In Ohio, George B. McClellan is promoted to Major General. Only one person in the U.S. military holds a higher rank: General Winfield Scott.

He doesn’t know it yet, but William T. Sherman is commissioned as Colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment. This is a new regiment that has yet to be formed of three-month volunteers.

Tonight will be the last night Mary Custis Lee spends at her home in Arlington. Tomorrow she will depart, knowing she will likely never see her home again.

About thecivilwarproject

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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