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150 Years Ago: Thursday, May 23, 1861


Julia Taft, along with her older brother half-brother Charles Sabin Taft, her three younger brothers and their playmates Willie and Tad Lincoln, watch the 11th New York Fire Zouaves participate in their “gymnastic drills” in camp led by Lincoln family friend Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth is in great spirits and jokingly tells the boys that the Zouaves are “his monkeys” given their great agility. When the Tafts and Lincolns leave, Ellsworth stands at the corner, lifts up his cap and merrily shouts “Come again!”, looking “very bright and handsome” in Julia’s eyes.

In Virginia, citizens vote for the Ordinance of Secession; 78% vote for secession, with the other 22% against it. Virginia will officially be the tenth state to become part of the Confederate States of America, with a final Tennessee vote pending in June. The anti-secession, northwestern Virginia delegates who met at the First Wheeling Convention ten days ago know that with this vote, their job has now only started. The result of the vote today is unacceptable, and they will continue with their plan to meet again on June 11.

C.S.A. General Joseph E. Johnston arrives at Harper’s Ferry to take command; up until now Colonel Thomas J. Jackson has been organizing and leading military efforts here. Yesterday Jackson had strategically placed troops along a 44 mile stretch of rail. Today between 11am and noon, 46 trains had filled up east and westbound lanes on the B & O (Baltimore & Ohio) Railroad lines. With the troops he had put in place just yesterday, Jackson barricades the ends of the tracks; the trains and items the 386 cars contain are now property of the Confederacy. In addition to the reward of knowing he had just pulled off a brilliant plan on Virginia’s first “official” day of war, Jackson will also be rewarded with his future horse named Little Sorrel, who was part of a large herd of horses found on the train. Jackson initially was going to call the horse “Fancy” and give it as a gift to his wife Mary Anna, but the horse fit his own riding style so perfectly that he keeps it for himself.

General Benjamin Butler runs into a key issue on his second day at Fort Monroe. Three runaway slaves appear, hoping that Butler will take them into safety. Butler issues a declaration regarding “contraband of war”, stating that any contraband – including slaves – will be kept and not returned. This sets a very important precedent that will allow slaves to escape behind Union lines to safety and out of bondage.

In the afternoon, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln attends a flag presentation ceremony at Camp Cameron (located in Georgetown). Patriotic ladies of New York present a “beautiful and rich National flag” to the 7th New York. “The raising of the flag was of course greeted with deafening huzzas, accompanied by the music of the regimental band to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.”

Governors of three key western states – William Dennison (Ohio), Oliver Perry Morton (Indiana) and Richard Yates (Illinois) – meet in Indianapolis. The topic of their discussion focuses on Kentucky, as each of their states have Kentucky along their southern border. They believe that the Union needs to take possession of four prominent points within the state, including Louisville, Covington, Newport and Columbus, along with the railroads leading south from those points. If Kentuckians can’t be found to do this, then they believe it is their responsibility to prevent secessionists from controlling the state. They:

  • Want General George B. McClellan to be given the necessary authority to carry out their plan
  • Believe the loyalty of Kentucky should be secured before any movement further south takes place
  • Pledge appropriations made by the legislatures of their states in aid of the U.S. government
  • Agree that additional aid from their states can be relied upon to sustain the the U.S. government in the “vigorous” prosecution of the war
  • Want McClellan to be given authority to also occupy points in Tennessee and Missouri

Around 8pm the New York Fire Zouaves Regiment is ordered to be ready to move at a moment’s notice to board the steamers Mount Vernon and James Guy for Alexandria, Virginia. It’s leader, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, quickly writes two letters: one to his parents, the other to his fiancee Carrie Spafford.

To his parents:

My dear Father and Mother: The Regiment is ordered to move across the river tonight. We have no means of knowing what reception we are to meet with. I am inclined to the opinion that our entrance to the City of Alexandria will be hotly contested, as I am just informed that a large force have arrived there today.

My dear parents, it may be my lot to be injured in some manner. Whatever may happen, cherish the consolation that I was engaged in the performance of a sacred duty; and tonight, thinking over the probabilities of tomorrow and the occurrences of the past, I am so perfectly content to accept whatever my fortune may be, confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow will have some purpose even in the fate of one like me. My darling and ever loved parents, good-bye. God bless, protect and care for you.” Elmer

And to Carrie:

My own darling Kitty. My Regiment is ordered to cross the river and move on Alexandria within six hours. We may meet with a warm reception & my darling among so many careless fellows one is somewhat likely to be hit.

If anything should happen — Darling just accept this assurance, the only thing I can leave you — The highest happiness I looked for on earth was a union with you — You have more than realized the hopes I formed regarding your advancement — And I believe I love you with all the ardor I am capable of — You know my darling any attempt of mine to convey an adequate expression of my feelings must be simply futile — God bless you, as you deserve and grant you a happy and useful life and us a union hereafter. Truly your own, Elmer.

P. S. Give my love to mother & father (such they truly were to me) and thank them again for all their kindness to me — I regret I can make no better return for it — Again good bye. God bless you my own darling. Elmer.

The 1st Michigan commanded by Colonel Orlando B. Wilcox, along with an artillery & cavalry company of U.S. military regulars, will join the Fire Zouaves in crossing the Potomac into Virginia.

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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