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150 Years Ago: Tuesday, July 16, 1861

Washington resident Rose O’Neal Greenhow contacts Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard for the second time in one week. This time she has copies of orders that show Union General Irvin McDowell is planning to march 35,000 troops to capture Manassas, Virginia, followed by a move to the Confederate capital of Richmond. She knows when the Union forces will leave Washington, what route they will take and what strategy they plan to use for battle. Beauregard wires Confederate President Jefferson Davis to request reinforcements. Davis orders General Joseph E. Johnston to move from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas Junction.

U.S. Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman is given orders to move his brigade. They are to leave at 2pm, at which time they are to march 10 miles to Vienna, Virginia. Sherman writes to his wife Ellen back in Lancaster, Ohio, informing her that he is moving out. He expects a battle the next day, maybe in Fairfax, Virginia. There is talk of Manassas Junction, where Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard is headquartered. Sherman gives Ellen instructions to “watch her investments” and provides messages for her to pass onto others. Not knowing what the upcoming days will bring, he closes with “Good bye, and believe me always most affectionately yours.”

U.S. General Winfield Scott and General Irvin McDowell continue to express concerns to President Lincoln, his cabinet and legislators on using raw and undisciplined volunteers in a major battle. But the orders have been set and troops are already on the move. It’s been over ninety days since Fort Sumter. Most people had predicted a ninety day war and are growing impatient with the lack of action.

It’s time to push south, engage in a victorious battle and take Richmond.

150 Years Ago: Monday, July 15, 1861

Though Virginians had moved very quickly back in May to secure Harpers Ferry, today forces retreat and head south. But before doing so, they confiscate what they can from the armory and burn the buildings to the ground.

Positioned at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Virginia is the USS Mount Vernon, an old civilian steamer that has been converted for use in the U.S. Navy. Captain Oliver S. Glisson sends a letter to the commander of the North Atlantic Squadron in which he writes about slaves looking to escape to protection behind Union lines.

“I have to report, that this morning at daylight we observed a boat adrift near Stingray Light House and soon after discovered a man in the Light House. We manned a boat, armed her, and sent her with an officer to pick up the boat, and to ascertain who was in the Light House.

At 8h30m the boat returned bringing with her six Negroes who had deserted from the shore during the night and taken shelter in the Light House casting their boat adrift to avoid detection.

I have rationed these Negroes on board of this Vessel, until I receive orders from you as to their disposal.

They appear to be much frightened and state that the people on shore are about arming the Negroes with the intention of placing them in the front of Battle. Their taking this course has caused much excitement amongst the Negro population, who are deserting in every direction. Two other boats made their escape last night in the hope of being picked up by some Vessel passing in the Bay.”

150 Years Ago: Sunday, July 14, 1861

Outside of Washington at Camp Clark, approximately two thousand Rhode Island volunteers are drilling, preparing and waiting. Anxious and likely nervous as to their fate, many take this time to write to their loved ones.

Thirty-two year old Major Sullivan Ballou, a highly educated lawyer and promising state politician, had joined the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry over a month ago. Earlier today, Ballou had written his wife Sarah as he had been working on arrangements for her to come visit him in Washington. But throughout the course of the day the rumors about upcoming battle plans have become prominent and hard to ignore. Tonight, Ballou pens a second letter to his wife. In a more somber tone, he writes what is in his heart, as he may not have a chance to ever write or see her again.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movements may be of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle field for my Country, I am ready.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, when after having eaten for long years the bitter fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and fondly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contests with my love of Country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm Summer Sabbath night, when two-thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death, while I am suspicious that death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people – another name of Honor that I love more than I fear death, has called upon me and I have obeyed.

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and burns me unresistably on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys – they will grow up as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long – and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dim memories of childhood. Sarah I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.

Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.

Sullivan

Almost 130 years later, this letter will be immortalized in Ken Burn’s documentary “The Civil War.” For many, Ballou’s words represent what countless men must have also felt as they sat in their camp at night, away from their loved ones and the life they knew, with an impending battle ahead where hundreds – and often thousands – would die, never to return home again.

Ballou does not send the letter, but instead puts it in the trunk with the rest of his personal belongings.

150 Years Ago: Saturday, July 13, 1861

In Corrick’s Ford, Virginia, the 23rd Virginia is defeated by General Thomas A. Morris’s Indiana Brigade. It is here that Confederate General Robert S. Garnett is killed, and becomes the first general lost in the war. This is a loss for the Confederacy, as it takes the Union-supporting western Virginia states out of their control.

In Missouri, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon issues an order to halt the publication of the St. Louis State Journal due to its pro-Confederacy stance.

150 Years Ago: Friday, July 12, 1861

The Confederate government understands the importance of the western states and territories. They have been able to claim forts and installations in Oklahoma territory that were abandoned by the Union. Today the Confederacy signs a treaty with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian nations to further solidify their presence in the region. The treaty has 64 terms and gives the Indians a sense of protection from other regional tribes.

150 Years Ago: Thursday, July 11, 1861

Though a day behind schedule, U.S. Brigadier General William Rosecrans and his men engage Confederate troops in western Virginia led by C.S.A. Brigadier General Robert Garnett. The Battle of Rich Mountain engages the Confederates while they are split in two. In terms of manpower it is not a fair battle, with 2,000 Union troops against 310 Rebels. The Confederate forces fight hard and hold off the Union for more than two hours at the Rich Mountain pass with only a single cannon. But in the end the Union is victorious and the Confederates retreat; Union forces will follow them in the upcoming days.

The battle is small, but it successfully pushes Confederates from the B&O Railroad lines and disrupts Confederate recruiting in an area that has been pro-Union and anti-secession. Though Rosecrans had done the planning and execution for the attack, it was overseen by Major General George B. McClellan, who takes full credit for its success. McClellan does not give any credit to Rosecrans in his official report.

John Singleton Mosby had been against secession, but had enlisted in the Washington Mounted Rifles when Virginia left the Union. Today Mosby has his first encounter with Federal cavalry just south of Martinsburg, Virginia. His patrol captures two Union soldiers and then pushes the others to Martinsburg.

In Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary go to Camp Clark to review the troops. There are rumors in the camp that the army might be moving soon, but no one knows for certain if this is true.

150 Years Ago: Wednesday, July 10, 1861

Charles Benedict Calvert, a U.S. Representative from Maryland, writes U.S. President Abraham Lincoln regarding the resolution passed in the House yesterday. The resolution, which releases the military from obligation to recapture fugitive slaves, has angered many slaveholders in the border state of Maryland. Calvert has seen Union troops take fugitive slaves and employ them; in some cases, they have been sent with troops into Virginia. Calvert requests that fugitive slaves be kept in the camps in a “place of confinement” until owners have a chance to come and claim them. Ideally, Calvert prefers that the camps refuse to take in any fugitive slaves at all. Lincoln understands that the Union’s relationship with Maryland is a delicate one; he cannot lose the state to the Confederacy. While the House resolution stands, Lincoln will not support it. For Lincoln, the war is not about emancipation; it is about taking down the rebellion and keeping the country together.

In Richmond, Virginia, the city continues to work on its defenses. With Washington City only 100 miles away, the Confederate government knows that its capital will be a prime target for the Union. The Richmond Daily Dispatch reports:

“The late action of the State Convention, together with the resolution passed by the Council on Monday, has made the services of the free Negroes of the city available to do such work; and if those who are now encumbering the city with their worse than useless presence were immediately set to work, the whole of the defenses could soon be completed, and at the same time our operations be relieved of the anomalous condition they have lately presented, of labor performed by volunteer free Negroes, who came more than a hundred miles to work on the defenses of the city, while hundreds of the same class are now in our midst, idle and vicious, and corrupting our slaves.”

The U.S. Senate takes time today to pass a bill authorizing the employment of 500,000 volunteers – with an appropriation of $600 million – for the single purpose of suppressing the rebellion.

In cities across the Union, newspapers continue to advertise for medical supplies, writing materials and volunteers to support the military effort.

U.S. General George McClellan directs General William Rosecrans to attack Confederate forces at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, Virginia. Rosecrans has the advantage when it comes to manpower, but his men are slowed down by unfamiliar roads and uneven land. The attack simply cannot take place today.

A resident of Washington, Horatio Nelson Taft, was going to visit the Rhode Island camp today with his daughter Julia, but with the downpour of rain they decide against it. In his diary, Taft writes that there “has been nothing like a dry time yet this season.” Taft feels that a battle is now impending, as regiments have started to move into Virginia. “My impression is the Rebels will run”, he writes.

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