Today is U.S. First Lady Mary Lincoln’s 44th birthday. But 52 miles south of the city there is no celebration; instead, the day brings the most senseless slaughter that the country has seen to date.
With most of U.S. General Ambrose Burnside’s troops now across the Rappahannock River, the Confederates expect an attack. C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee knows his position is a strong one; most of his men are located on Marye’s Heights, which overlooks the city. The Confederates have a stone wall for protection and the high ground. All they have to do is wait for the Union troops to come to them, which will be no easy task. They have to advance through 200 yards of cannon fire without cover, cross a narrow canal over three small bridges, and then advance against Confederate infantry lined up firing down on them from behind a stone wall. Lee and one of his most trusted Generals, James Longstreet, look to Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, who has been responsible for setting each piece of artillery now aimed at the enemy. Lee believes that artillery will be key in winning this battle. When asked by his superiors for an assessment of their preparedness, Alexander states that “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
Across the Rappahannock River at his headquarters at Chatham House, Burnside issues his attack orders early in the morning. He calls for an assault against Jackson’s Corp by Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division, after which will follow an advance against Marye’s Heights by Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Burnside uses ambiguous and hesitant language in his orders, which may reflect a lack of confidence in his plan or his uncertainty of Lee’s troop positions.
Burnside believes that he is only facing part of Lee’s army on the heights behind the city. He plans to use artillery on Stafford Heights to control the battlefield on either side of the river. While Sumner moves towards the heights as a diversion, Burnside will take Franklin’s stronger left wing and have him storm the ridgeline south of the city, taking Lee by surprise. Once the ridgeline is taken, Franklin is to sweep north into the city while Sumner’s wing continues the attack on the heights. The final goal is the same for both Franklin and Sumner: seize Marye’s Heights.
Franklin and his key Major Generals, John F. Reynolds and William “Baldy” Smith, agree that the best way to defeat Lee is to roll up Jackson’s front. They had waited until 3am that morning for instructions, thinking they would move early, but instead they don’t receive a go-ahead until 7:30 a.m. As they read Burnside’s instructions, they find that it is not an approval for an all-out attack. One division “at least” is to seize the heights near Hamilton’s Crossing “if possible”, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. The rest of the command is to be in position for a rapid move up the old Richmond Road towards Maryes Heights, which will only work if Jackson falls back towards the city.
Reynold’s 1st Corps is picked for the drive up the heights with approximately 5,000 men. The privilege of leading the assault goes to the Pennsylvania Reserves, led by Major General George Meade. Reynolds chooses them because he trusts the men and their commander more than anyone else. At 8:30 a.m. Meade leads his three brigades towards Jackson’s position. Jackson’s men put up a difficult fight. At one point Jackson feels his men are losing their position; he orders the “Rebel yell” and his men slam into the exhausted and outnumbered Pennsylvanians. One Union private will later say that “The action was close-handed and men fell like leaves in autumn. It seems miraculous that any of us escaped at all.”
Sumner receives similar orders from Burnside, using the same language to send one division “at least” to attack Marye’s Heights. Sumner waits until the fog finally lifts at 10 a.m. and then begins to line up his troops in the city streets. Around noon, the first brigade under Brigadier General Nathan Kimball marches out of the city and towards the heights. As they reach the canal ditch they encounter a bottleneck, which is spanned by partially destroyed bridges established at only three locations. Once they cross, they try as best as they can to reform their lines and march up the muddy slope towards the stone wall. The Confederate artillery and massed musket fire opens up a storm around them once they are within 125 feet of the wall; Kimball is severely wounded and his men suffer 25% casualties. None of them reach the wall. Some start to run away from the fire, but most get on the ground with some attempting to fire at the stone wall but with no impact.
An hour later at 1 p.m., Major General William H. French sends out two additional brigades, and the same thing occurs: the men march out of the city, they bottleneck at the canal, they reform lines and make their way up the muddy slope, only to be fired upon by Confederate shells in every direction. These two brigades suffer 50% casualties.
Sumner now looks to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and his men. Hancock first sends in Brigadier General Samuel K. Zook, followed by the famed Irish Brigade led by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher. Thirty-nine year old Meagher, originally from Ireland, had been the leader of the Young Irelanders in Ireland’s Rebellion of 1848. He had been convicted of sedition and sentenced to death, but instead was transported out of Ireland to Australia. In 1852 Meagher had made his way to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where he studied law, worked as a journalist and held traveling lectures on the Irish cause. He had joined the army immediately at the start of the Civil War and encouraged Irish immigrants to support the Union by joining what was eventually his “Irish Brigade,” which has an outstanding reputation. By complete coincidence, Meagher and his men are aimed at attacking an area at the stone wall defended by fellow Irishmen of C.S.A. Colonel Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One of the Confederates spot the Irish Brigade’s green regimental flags approaching them and cries out “Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” But McMillan orders his troops to “Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!” Meagher’s men come very close to reaching the stone wall but are repulsed; 545 are killed, wounded or missing out of 1,200. One of the men, U.S. Private Josiah Marshall Favill, will later write that:
“Immediately the hill in front was hid from view by a continuous sheet of flame…The rebel infantry poured in a murderous fire while their guns from every available point fired shot and shell and canister. The losses were so tremendous, that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure. I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other. Just then there was no romance, no glorious pomp, nothing but disgust for the genius who planned so frightful a slaughter.
By 2:15 p.m. one of Burnside’s staff officers wires his boss regarding Franklin’s Left Division, stating that “Meade and Gibbon badly used up…enemy in force and threatening on left…engaged now heavily in front…too late to advance either to left or front.” There are men waiting to be used, but they are never called in to assist. The Pennsylvania Reserves had gone in outnumbered six to one and against a very strong position held by Jackson; they suffer 40% casualties.
Around 2:30 p.m. Burnside orders continued waves of assaults on the Confederates, convinced he can break through. Brigadier Samuel Sturgis’s brigade attacks and are all thrown back with terrible losses. Not a single soldier gets to the stone wall. As Lee watches the slaughter, he turns to Longstreet and says “It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it.”
After more than two hours of fighting, four Union divisions have failed to take the heights; there are already 5,125 casualties. No progress has been made. Rather than reconsider his approach, Burnside continues to order the same path. He sends orders to Franklin to renew his assault on Jackson’s troops and now orders his Center Grand Division led by Major General Joseph Hooker to cross the Rappahannock into the city and take the same path to the heights as the others who have gone before him.
First Hooker personally performs reconnaissance – something Burnside nor Sumner had done – so he can assess the situation. He returns to Burnside’s headquarters and advises him against the attack. While Burnside and Hooker argue, the Confederates take the time to strengthen their position even more by adding Major General George Pickett’s division and one of Major General John Bell Hood’s brigades to reinforce Marye’s Heights. The Union men still on the field continued to fight or to take cover as best they can, using their dead comrades as shields. Though he had not received orders from Hooker, Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield sends his division over to relieve Sturgis’s men, but they are hit hard by sharpshooter and artillery fire and provide no effective relief to Sturgis.
A soldier in Hancock’s division reports movement in the Confederate lines that lead some to believe that the Confederates might be retreating. Though this seems unlikely, a division of Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys is ordered to attack and capitalize on the situation. Humphreys leads his first brigade on horseback, with his men moving over and around fallen troops with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles; some of the fallen men clutched at the passing pant legs, urging their comrades not to go forward, causing the brigade to become disorganized in their advance. The charge reaches within 50 yards of the wall before being cut down by concentrated rifle fire.
By 4 p.m., Hooker returns from his meeting with Burnside, unable to convince him to stop the attacks. While Humphreys is still attacking, Hooker reluctantly sends in Brigadier General George W. Getty, but this time focuses on the leftmost portion of Marye’s Heights. They move along an unfinished railroad line and are able to get very close to the Confederate line without detection in the gathering twilight, but eventually they are detected, fired upon and repulsed.
At 6:30 p.m. it is dark. Franklin never did follow Burnside’s orders for a second attack towards Jackson’s position. Despite strong protests from his generals, especially Winfield Scott Hancock, Burnside orders his reserves to march over the river and attack the stone wall. Humphreys’ men are told the previous attacks have failed because the men stopped to fire their weapons. They advance with unloaded weapons, planning to use only bayonets. As Hooker watches the last assault, he says “I think I’ve lost as many men as my orders required.”
Seven Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time. There was a total of fourteen individual charges that resulted in 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Confederates losses at Marye’s Heights total around 1,200. C.S.A. James Longstreet later would write that “The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless.”
As the mounted courier/orderly for Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe, Frank Thompson (aka Sarah Emma Edmonds, a female disguised as a male so she could enlist in the Union Army), had been in constant motion and often close to the hottest action during the battle as she spent the day riding up and down the lines carrying messages and relaying orders. The only time in 12 hours that she got off the saddle was to assist an officer of the 79th New York, who lay writhing in agony on the field, having been seized with cramps and spasms and was in extreme pain. Emma provided him with some powerful medicine that got him back on his horse, at his General’s side, within the hour. While many noticed “Frank’s” bravery that day, not everyone was as heroic. Thompson would write that “I never saw, til then, a man deliberately shoot himself, with his own pistol, in order to save the rebels the satisfaction of doing so, as it would seem. As one brigade was ordered into the line of battle, I saw an officer take out his pistol and shoot himself through the side – not mortally, I am sorry to say, but just sufficient enough to unfit him for duty. He was carried to the rear, protesting that it was done by accident.”
From behind the Union lines, London Times reporter Francis Charles Lawley witnesses the wholesale bloodletting:
There, in every attitude of death, lying so close to each other that you might step from body to body, lay acres of the Federal dead. Within the town layers of corpses stretched in the balconies of houses as though taking a siesta. More appalling to look at were piles of arms and legs, amputated as soon as their owners had been carried off the field.”
U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers would later write about what he experienced today:
We slept upon our arms last night and daylight this morning found us in line. The battle began at an early hour and the shot and shell screeched and screamed over our heads. To our right we could see the fight going on for the heights beyond and back of Fredericksburg. General Sumner tried to take the hills but failed. The city was on fire in several places, and the noise was deafening. We could see the long lines of Union troops move up the hill and melt away before the Rebel fire. But we were not idle, although at times there would be a lull in our front and we could watch the fight on the right. At 3pm our Regiment was sent down to the left of the line and ordered to support a Battery. This was no fun for us, for we had to stand the Rebel shells fired at the Battery. Just at dark the firing ceased, but what a scene was before us. The dead and wounded covered the ground in all directions. Ambulances were sent out to pick up the wounded, but the enemy opened fire upon them, and wounded were left to suffer. During the evening if a match was lighted it would bring a shell from the Rebel forts on the hills. At 8pm we were ordered to the rear and our Division rested for the night.
That night “Frank” Thompson rides three miles south from her camp to Franklin’s headquarters to obtain instructions for the morning. Franklin’s house, once owned by Mr. Barnard, has been destroyed from the fighting. Along they way she is haunted by the constant moans from the wounded. The night is bitterly cold, which is causing extreme suffering. Major General Darius Couch would write “as fast as men died they stiffened in the wintery air and on the front line were rolled forward for protection to the living. Frozen men were placed like dumb sentries.” For Emma, this was the darkest night she has witnessed in her military career.
“So I am informed on pretty good authority…” writes John F. Reynolds to his sisters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; he has received word of his promotion to Major General. Though it is not official, he is confident enough to nominate his staff for promotion and also adds two new officers.
Though the promotion is welcome news, Reynolds is more excited about the plates he saw of photos taken at Warrenton by photographer Alexander Gardner. “I was taken in one with Burnside sitting on the stump of a tree, and it was very good. If you can ever get a copy of it do so – I saw only the plates.” He had arrived too late to be photographed with the other generals, but in the picture with Burnside he stood off his left shoulder. He apparently thought the picture showed the qualities that he liked in himself; a proud officer of the 1st Corp. Strong, firm, yet soft and caring. Even though he had photos taken of himself before, the enthusiasm over this photo was a first for him.
It’s been several weeks since his last letter to his fiancee Molly in St. Louis, Missouri; today U.S. Captain James Love writes her a long letter from his camp in Nashville, Tennessee:
It is a rainy Sunday Afternoon, and I must needs improve it! Would you believe it? I have actually been to church this morning, almost the first opportunity I have had in Dixie! It was an episcopal church with its gorgeous worship windows, & music. I entered into it fully & with feeling even to the responses, but was miserably disappointed in the sermon. It only lasted 10 or 15 minutes & there was literally & truly nothing in it. It treated of the season of Advent, of which this is the first Sunday & explained what was good “Church”? doctrine on that head. Neither did I hear a word of the war. Now when the war is left out in Nashville, now the very center of a great war & all its havoc & devastation, where all the people thereof flew from the presence of both Armies as from a plague – all the Sermon & prayers had better been left out. He might have even prayed for peace & every hated foe he had (the hypocrite) would have prayed with him, but he didn’t even do that, but let him rest. I enjoyed the meeting, & not less so that there was numerous pretty girls there.
Well as I said, it is raining and all nature looks muddy & desolate. I feel it, for I got wet coming from church, & the rain had put out our fire, so I sat for a while in the Tent the charity of the Doctor has vouchsafed to me – not the care of Uncle Sam – for he now pleads poverty & expects of us hard work in return for few comforts.
Such is our experience. I speak for thousands of officers, the working men of the army not the butterfly grubs, who lay around great cities, devouring the substance of the government & making the very name of an officer at home a stench in the eyes of the people – but I could not stand it & I came to head Qts. where I found newspapers & correspondence hold sway, & I joined as you see the majority. It is the first time in three weeks I’ve been here that I could get the time or the quietness to write to you – or any other private matter, so it is the more welcome. I have had such a busy time since my health allowed me to go to work – that my promotion, I fear will not promote it – writing is a sickly position, & when every thing has to be just so as red tape & precision & figures will have it. It is even worse. I have a stove, & hot air inside – while frost & rain & sunshine hold revel outside.
But the day is breaking & ere the New Year – old scores of work will be cleared off & new I hope will not accumulate – if I can help it. Then I can enjoy myself in camp & have a horse on the march. I have already had time for many pleasant round games of Cards, & much literature in the shape of the daily papers in the evening. So much for Hd. Qts. & an open railroad.
I said nature looked gloomy. The leaves have been falling slowly but surely with most the colors of the rainbow, ere & after they fell. Cotton has been picked or burnt & so the seasons travel and tomorrow is the first of December, or the beginning of Winter. Although we have been laying here – our men have been working hard in guard duty & fatigue duties their time is filled up – building fortifications & guarding forage trains while the rest of our Div. has been marching & chasing after guerillas & the advance of the enemy who are still entrenched at Murfreesboro 40 miles off just where we were three months ago. We will soon be fully outfitted for a Southern campaign, & I suppose we must travel as light as the “secesh” if we wish to catch them, so we wont be over burdened with tents or clothing, (on the Wagons) on the contrary it must be on our backs, aye both our house our cooking utensils and our rations, such is life in the Army now. I pity those of weak constitution – even under a southern winter, but I prefer a Southern to a Kansas one myself although we were comfortably fixed there – and as I said I expect now to have a horse, & a servant & the concomitant chances for comfort.
I looked for a letter from you today, but as I was disappointed I revenge myself characteristically.
I hope you are all as well as heart could wish you – in body & mind. I wish you well through the holidays, & all your fatigues in the soldiers cause or that of their destitute better halves. May they prosper & you achieve a success. I hope Sallie & all the rest are well. I am so sorry that I cant join you. My present position precludes it altogether so I may have to run another year if the exigencies of the war last so long, but there is no use speculating. A fortunate chance might send me on the way tomorrow.
I will send you a Journal that if you change names of Divisions & Regts will give a better account than I can of our movements for Nov.
I will also try and send you a Nashville paper occasionally & now with love & kisses for the present for Christmas & New Years – good night –
I am my dear Molly
James E. Love
It appears to be a quiet day for everyone, including U.S. President Lincoln, who attends a rare religious service with his wife Mary at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.
George Robertson is a long-time Kentucky lawyer and professor who once served as legal counsel for Abraham Lincoln and other Illinois heirs of Robert Todd, Mary Lincoln’s now deceased father. George and U.S. President Lincoln have been exchanging correspondence since September, when Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the
Emancipation Proclamation that now is set to go into effect in almost a month. Robertson had complained to Lincoln that Union troops were “forcibly detaining the slaves of Union Kentuckians” and asked him to prevent such an action. To make matters worse, the policy has now personally affected Robertson as one of his slaves fled to the camp of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry, commanded by Colonel William Utley. Per established Union military guidelines on how runaway slaves should be treated, Utley enforced those rules and not only refused to return the slave but also banned Robertson from visiting the camp. In retaliation, Robertson – now a judge – had Utley indicted for harboring a slave and sued him in a U.S. District Court. Lincoln has been receiving exasperated correspondence from Utley and Robertson on the matter. Lincoln takes up his pen and proposes an offer to Robertson in an effort to end the situation:
My dear Sir: A few days since I had a dispatch from you which I did not answer. If I were to be wounded personally, I think I would not shun it. But it is the life of the nation. I now understand the trouble is with Col. Utley; that he has five slaves in his camp, four of whom belong to rebels, and one belonging to you. If this be true, convey yours to Col. Utley, so that he can make him free, and I will pay you any sum not exceeding five hundred dollars. Yours, A. LINCOLN
Lincoln hopes that his offer to pay Robertson for his runaway slave will be accepted; then the charges against Utley are dropped and more importantly, Robertson’s slave is free and no longer has to feel threatened that his old master may forcibly bring him back. It’s an interesting but not a rare situation, to have someone in support of the Union but still wanting to keep the institution of slavery intact.
In Richmond, Virginia, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is writing a more urgent letter to the governors of the Confederate states. He appeals for aid and assistance in enrolling conscripts (their version of a military draft) and in securing more supplies (guns, clothing and food) for army use. In addition, Davis strongly pushes for the continued use of slave labor in building defensive works for the army. If the slaves can do the hard manual labor in building the defenses, then the Confederate Army can reserve their energy for fighting and winning battles. The use of slaves for military purposes is a difficult thing to ask for, as many Southern women are relying on slave labor to help keep the farms running and afloat while their husbands are away fighting for the cause.
Union Commanding General Ambrose Burnside cannot catch a break. He has his pontoon boats, but Confederate General Robert E. Lee has his cannons and arms aimed at the Rappahannock River; if Burnside’s men try to connect the boats to build the two bridges needed for the army to cross, their position will be attacked. Also, in his haste to move quickly and take action in his new leading role, Burnside had failed to establish a working supply line. He had ordered train depots at Aquia Creek to be rebuilt weeks ago, but only today a working rail line is finally established so the large army can be supplied with food and other necessary goods.
Burnside had began the Fredericksburg to Richmond campaign with vigor, but now he found himself stuck. The rain continued to fall and the river was rising. The fords were all becoming impassable, especially for his army of over 110,000. The roads were a sloppy, muddy mess, which slowed any travel by foot or wagon. He has always been focused on crossing at Fredericksburg, but now that Lee’s troops are firmly and well positioned, Major General Edwin Sumner, leader of the Grand Division that would be the first to cross, asks Burnside to reconsider as he felt the move would mean undeniable slaughter of his men. Sumner suggests that Burnside “look down the river” instead.
From Washington City it was clear to President Lincoln that his new General that was so quick to move is now frozen and going nowhere. He had seen it before with previous General George B. McClellan, but Lincoln, as he had done with McClellan, thought that maybe if he met with Burnside one-on-one he could boost his confidence and talk Burnside into taking some kind of action. Without notifying his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton or General-In-Chief Henry Halleck, Lincoln makes his way to Acquia Creek, Virginia and arrives late that evening with Burnside there to greet him. They go aboard the steamer Baltimore almost immediately; but it is too late for such a serious discussion. Lincoln decides that both should get a good night’s sleep and the true meeting of the minds can wait until morning.
In Baltimore, Maryland, nine-year-old Thomas “Tad” Lincoln has been spending the last couple of days at Barnum’s Hotel with Augustus “Gus” Gumpert, a well-to-do Philadelphia tobacco dealer that Mrs. Lincoln conducts business with and also a man whom Tad is very found of and considers his friend. Joining them is Thomas Cross, a White House messenger who is often charged with looking after Tad. Gus receives a telegram from Mary Lincoln, who has been on yet another shopping trip in New York City; she is leaving for Washington and would like Mr. Cross to come back with Tad tomorrow. It’s possible that the Lincoln’s knew they would both be away from home and thought Tad would be happier away from the city on his own adventure instead of left behind at the White House.
Daily Highlights/Updates – November 15, 2012
George Randolph has only been the Confederate Secretary of War just short of eight months. During this time he has helped reform the department, improving procurement of supplies and implementing the conscription law. He has helped strengthen southern and western defenses, but is constantly in conflict with C.S.A President Jefferson Davis. Davis had at one time been an experienced military leader, earning great distinction in the Mexican War. This experience leads him to be more vocal and involved in the South’s military strategy, much to the frustration of Randolph. With his health weakening due to tuberculosis, Randolph submits his resignation.
As if he doesn’t have enough to deal with, C.S.A. President Davis often receives letters from citizens with various requests, which can range from the practical to the absurd. Today he receives one from Mary Jane Lipscomb:
I am compelled by necessity to call your attention to the following state of facts, and the peculiar situation in which events have thrown me, must be my apology for this intrusion upon your time.
I am the wife of Joel Q. Lipscomb now a Soldier in the Confederate service. 1st Battalion Alabama, Artillery. Immediately upon the passage of the Conscript law– before any exemptions were made known, and under the impression that he would be compelled to go into the service at any sacrifice he proceeded to Mobile and entered the service under Gen. [John H.] Forney–where he is now stationed.
We have a farm in Choctaw County, Alabama with over forty negroes thereon, now entirely without a superintendent, negroes running at large, with the usual confusion and destruction in such cases, and your Excellency must be aware of the fact, that through the agency of the Conscript law, the male population of the country has been taken away, hence the utter impossibility of procuring an overseer or superintendent at all reliable.
I have been compelled to leave my home in Choctaw County and come here to reside temporarily with my Father untill some one could be had to control our slaves. Thus your Excellency will see that I am eighty miles from my home– our farm and negroes, like a ship without sail or rudder, that a general wreck and destruction must ensue without relief. I have sought in vain for aid. I addressed a Petition to the Hon. Secretary of War setting forth all these facts; that officer has not found time to answer in any shape, and I am left the only and last alternative of appealing to both the Justice and magnanimity of the Government to afford relief before irreparable ruin overtakes us, and I know of no other avenue now, through which to approach the Government, but to go directly to its Head who controls the temporal destiny of us all– I therefore ask that an order be issued from the proper authorities directed to the proper Military officer that my said husband be detailed set-apart or exempted under the Conscript law to take charge of our said farm and negroes as the produce raised upon said farm under proper management will be worth much more to the country than the Services of individual, Your Excellency will please be so kind as to let me hear from this, either forward me an order to be presented to Gen, Forney or forward it to that officer. Your Excellency is doubtless in constant attention to the ponderous business of the Government with that undying solicitude that could alone be upheld by a love of Freedom Constitutional liberty and the great principles of self Government yet I hope your Excellency will find time enough amidst all this, to give me a hearing and grant me the relief sought for.
N. B. (meaning “take special note”) It is thought by many that we will have trouble here about Christmas holidays, with our slaves, growing out of the Emancipation Proclamation of the Lincoln Government.
In Washington City, U.S. President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase head to the nearby Navy Yard and meet up with the yard’s commandant, John Dahgren. Lincoln is fascinated with technology and is there to witness a test of the new Hyde rocket (invented by Joshua Hyde), which carries a war head with an adjustable time fuse. After the fuse is set everyone takes a step back; instead of launching the rocket blasts apart while in place and releases a puff of fire. The test is a failure but the miracle is that no one is hurt in the process.
John Hay, one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries, has scandal on his mind. The talented White House gardener, John Watt, has been involved in financial schemes that include double-billing Congress and attempting to extort money from the Lincoln family. Yet Watt is a personal friend of First Lady Mary Lincoln; he has made himself available as someone who can help her “navigate the political landscape” to get what she wants. And what Mary wants is the best of everything when it comes to possessions. Mary is unsuspecting, as she is told it’s how things have always been done. In fact, Watt is currently with Mary in New York City assisting her with more purchases. But it appears that Watt’s days might be numbered, as Hay writes in his diary that “Hell is to pay about Watt’s affairs. I think the Tycoon begins to suspect him. I wish he could be struck by lightning.” (TCWP note: “Tycoon was an affectionate nickname given to the President by the White House staff; it is a Japanese term that means “military leader.”)
Time for prayer and religious worship is important to many men who serve in the Union army, especially when one considers the dangers they face on and off the battlefield. In Washington City, President Lincoln issues a General Order respecting the observance of the Sabbath day in the Army and Navy:
The President, Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, desires and enjoins the orderly observance of the Sabbath by the officers and men in military and naval service. The importance for man and beast of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiment of a Christian people, and a due regard for the Divine will, demand that Sunday labor in the Army and Navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity.
The discipline and character of the national forces should not suffer nor the cause they defend the imperiled, by the profanation of the day or name of the Most High. At this time of public distress adopting the words of Washington in 1776, “men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality.” The first general order issued by the Father of his Country after the Declaration of Independence indicates the spirit in which our institutions were founded and should ever be defended: “The general hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”
C.S.A. Major General Thomas J. Jackson provides an update to General Joseph E. Johnston, who is in charge of operations in Northern Virginia. Jackson informs Johnston that since the Confederates pulled out of Romney, Virginia (TCWP note: Present-day Romney is located in West Virginia), Union troops have since returned to retake possession. The Union is also moving approximately 3,000 troops 26 miles south to Moorefield. But the most important news is regarding re-enlistments, as the Confederacy is in desperate need to not only recruit, but to retain who they have. Jackson has provided those who re-list with an incentive: an authorized furlough. So far the results are encouraging.
The Alton Military Prison has only been in operation for three days but it’s already facing overcrowding issues. Chas C. Smith, U.S. Captain of the 13th Infantry, sends a letter to U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Burbank letting him know that he received yet another shipment of prisoners last night. They have rented buildings adjacent to the prison for storage and the quartermaster’s department, and the resident surgeon is looking for a suitable building for a hospital but has yet to find one. So far there has been no trouble with any of the prisoners, but soon there will not be room for the 13th Infantry to have quarters within the prison walls.
Under U.S. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s instructions, most of the Union troops depart Fort Henry this morning and proceed about five miles utilizing Dover and Ridge Roads. Along the route troops are met by C.S.A. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is utilizing his cavalry to screen their movements. When Forrest observes a change of direction made by McClernand’s division after an initial encounter, he makes a quick decision to move his cavalry to Indian Creek, where they will wait to intercept them.
Three of Forrest’s squadrons dismount and wait for the large Union force to arrive. Once they do, Forrest orders a charge. The Union cavalry are given orders to move out of the way before the charge, leaving the 8th Illinois to take on Forrest and his men. The infantry opens a terrific fire at short range against the charging Confederate cavalry. A Union Battery arrives shortly after the firing begins and assists in breaking up the attack. Forrest withdraws his men behind the shelter of the Fort for the evening.
The USS Carondelet is the first Union gunboat to arrive up the river. They promptly fire numerous shells into Fort Donelson to test the strength of its defenses. There are no casualties or damage from the act. They pull out of range and await their orders for tomorrow.
Grant finally arrives at nightfall, where he sets up headquarters at Widow Crisp’s house. This puts him near the left side of the front of the line and a mile from the Cumberland River.
Over 740 miles away in Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln has spent most of his 53rd birthday at the bedside of 11-year-old son Willie. Willie has been very ill for over ten days now and is growing weaker and more shadow-like each day that passes. He is not allowed to see other children and is too ill to get out of bed, so the President and his wife Mary have been spending most of their time at Willie’s bedside. They comfort and sooth their child, read him stories and remind him that Tad and his favorite pony that he always insisted on riding every day are waiting for him to get better. The White House staff, including dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, also take turns keeping Willie company so he is never left alone. Willie is a favorite among the White House staff; he’s intelligent and vivacious, but has a kind and tender heart. To see him in this state is almost too much for them to bear, but all they can do is pray for him to get better.
It’s dawn in Fort Henry, Tennessee. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman and Colonel Adolphus Heiman have spent the last 24 hours preparing for a Union attack. The defense at the Fort is low, with only nine guns remaining above the rising river water. Tilghman knows that they don’t have the resources to hold the Fort. He makes the decision to take the majority of his 3,000 troops and move them 12 miles south overland to Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Along the way Union cavalry attempt to pursue them, but the roads are muddy and it makes fighting difficult, so the only damage they inflict is capturing a few Confederate prisoners.
This Confederate move leaves only a handful of artillerymen at Fort Henry. Heiman sends a message requesting reinforcements to Major General Leonidas Polk, who is more than 70 miles west in Columbus, Kentucky. He knows that reinforcements are very unlikely. The situation appears helpless, especially when Heiman receives reconnaissance information that greatly exaggerates the Union troop numbers and their movements. Tilghman and Heiman wait at their post, ready to receive a Union attack. It doesn’t come.
In Washington City, President Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son Willie is sick. He lies in bed with a fever and is finding it difficult to breathe. His mother Mary spends most of the day sitting beside his bed, holding his feverish hand in her own. Willie has been sick for a couple of weeks now, fluctuating between bad and good days. Today is one of the worse days he’s had. He’s been stuck inside and isolated from anything fun; he misses his younger brother Tad, his pony and their goats, Nanny and Nanko. His mother’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, keeps coming into the room, gently reminding his mother that she needs to get ready for this evening. He can tell his mother does not want to leave his side, but as First Lady she has a responsibility. She leans over to kiss him and smooths his brown hair, then heads across the hall to get ready after instructing the staff to interrupt her at any time if Willie’s status changes in the slightest. Doctors reassure her that Willie appears to be improving and is in no harm.
The highly anticipated and criticized White House ball is this evening. Between 600 & 700 invitations were sent out just days ago to politicians, diplomats, military leaders and members of high society. Holding the event had been of much debate, given Willie’s poor health and the simple fact that many in the President’s circle – including the President himself – thought it would be distasteful to celebrate and have lavish fun while hundreds of thousands of soldiers were in tents in the cold and rain, away from their loved ones. But there was also the argument that White House parties were tradition, so the Lincoln’s agreed to a modified engagement to suit the times. Everything has been carefully planned down to every last detail, but Mary adds a last minute change: Because of Willie’s illness, there will be no dancing tonight.
With the help of Elizabeth, Mary puts on a white satin gown with a low neck and short sleeves, trimmed with black lace flounces which are looped up with knots of ribbon. Last week they had received the news that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had passed away in December. One of England’s primary diplomats, Lord Richard Lyons, is going to attend tonight so Mary had requested that Elizabeth incorporate black into the dress to symbolize mourning and sympathy for the Queen’s loss. To finish the outfit Mary graces the top of her head with a floral headdress, which is a signature look she often uses for White House events.
It’s time for the President and First Lady to make their entrance and greet their guests. Abraham comes into the room, gazing and smiling upon his wife. “Ooohh…our cat has a long tail tonight,” he says playfully to Mary and Elizabeth. He notices that once again she chose to have Elizabeth make her a dress with a very low and revealing neckline. Mary looks upon her husband for approval. Abraham is not willing to give her complete satisfaction. “Mother, it is my opinion that if some of that tail was nearer the head it would be in better style.” Mary knows this is the best she will get out of her husband; he does not understand the heavy burden on her to have the most fashionable attire and to appear as beautiful as possible so the press & high ranks of society will not criticize her appearance. She once again instructs her staff to summon her if there is any change in Willie’s condition and heads downstairs with her husband.
The Marine Band plays in the Central Hall while the President, First Lady and their son Robert (who is home from Harvard) stand at the receiving door of the East Room. This event is the first official showcase of Mary’s $20,000 expenditures (using government money) to remodel the dingy and outdated White House they had acquired, so visitors are allowed to walk in the various rooms on the first floor. Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of Major General John C. Fremont, greets the President and notices that his face seems very sad. Instead of welcoming his guests, the President speaks of his sick boy Willie. He tells Jessie and her husband that his son is very ill and that he fears the result. Jessie expresses their hopes for Willie’s recovery and walks away feeling a great deal of pity for a man with such a grieved appearance.
Approximately 500 guests fill the rooms, making it a packed house while still providing space to comfortably move about. For several hours guests listen to the band playing respectable and patriotic songs, including a new song called “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Around midnight everyone makes their way into the State Room for dinner, only to find two larges pieces of ornamental confectionery. The center object representing the steamer “Union”, armed and bearing the “Stars and Stripes.” On a side table is a model of Fort Sumter also built out of sugar and provisioned with game. The food has been brought in from New York and contains a variety of delicacies, which are said to cost over $1,000; though several would maintain later that the President paid for this out of his own pocket and did not use taxpayer money.
Throughout the night both Abraham and Mary sneak upstairs to check on Willie, whose health appears to be worsening. Guests stay as late as 3am and many call the evening a great success, though some still strongly disagree with the choice to hold such a lavish function during a war. This debate will not end after tonight.