April 1862… a pivotal month of the war

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, generally called the “start” of the American Civil War.  I don’t know what to call the 155th other than just “155th.”  Likewise, I have no smart name for the 151st anniversaries of the surrender at Appomattox (last Saturday) or Lincoln’s assassination (coming Thursday).  Having just experienced the sesquicentennial years, I trust we are all aware that April 1861 and April 1865 serve as convenient bookends of the Civil War.  And thus we see a number of good, scholarly works aimed to explain the events from those months. That is, in my opinion, a focus well spent.  Yet, there is a lot of “in between” laying between those two Aprils which is also due focus.

One “in between” that has always struck my fancy is April 1862.  Just a lot of moving parts in that spring month.  Consider –

  • April 4- Major-General George McClellan lead the Army of the Potomac up the Peninsula toward Confederate defenses at Yorktown.
  • April 6 – General Albert Sidney Johnston’s army struck Major-General U.S. Grant’s force camped around Pittsburg Landing.
  • April 7- Major-General John Pope landed a force at Watson’s Landing, on the Tennessee shore below New Madrid, Missouri, and behind Island No. 10.
  • April 10 – Federal batteries directed by (then) Captain Quincy Gillmore opened fire on Fort Pulaski.
  • April 12 – James Andrews hijacked the locomotive General at Big Shanty, Georgia.
  • April 17 – Major-General Nathaniel Banks occupied New Market, Virginia, with Major-General Thomas Jackson’s command falling back to the vicinity of Harrisonburg.
  • April 18 – Federal fleet under Commodore David Farragut began bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip downstream from New Orleans. Days later the fleet would run past those forts.
  • April 26 – After a month long siege, Confederates surrendered Fort Macon on the North Carolina coast.

Those being, mostly, start or end points of longer campaigns or operations.  The conclusions seen were:

  • A prolonged siege at Yorktown.
  • Over 23,000 casualties and a major Confederate reverse at Shiloh.
  • Some 7,000 Confederates captured at Island No. 10 and the Mississippi laid open south nearly (Fort Pillow) to Memphis.
  • New Orleans lost to the Confederacy – both as a port and manufacturing center.
  • Savannah mostly closed as a port.
  • The coast of North Carolina, save Wilmington, under Federal control.  As were large portions of the Shenandoah Valley, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

I added the Great Locomotive Chase entry as it had some impact on the Confederate logistic system at the time.

Furthermore, in a era without the benefit (or handicap) of the 24-hour news cycle, the timing of that raid reminds us how these events were connected in time. Imagine the newspaper headlines each morning, as the events unfolded.  In learning about the war, we approached the initial study by chapters… nicely defined chapters covering specific campaigns.

But unfortunately a format that failed to give us that appreciation for how those events were experienced – real time.  Those of us who waded into the sesquicentennial gained much from “real time, 150 years after the fact” following.  And I do hope that added to the perspective of many.  However I think in general that historians have not done enough to demonstrate the connection between these events and how such factored into the course of the war.  Nor have us students done enough to bring out those connections in our studies.  Thus several logical, time-line groupings of events have not received due attention.  There were several pivotal weeks and months in which the course of the war turned.

April 1862 was one of them.  The war entered its first mature campaign season… from the plains of Kansas to the Atlantic Ocean (and beyond).  And given the victories cited above, April 1862 might have been a turning point sending the Confederacy to an early end.  As a “western theater guy” I am fond of saying the Confederates lost the war at Shiloh on the night of April 6, 1862 and the Federals won the war atop Missionary Ridge on November 24, 1863.  Easterners will disagree, but the fact is defeat at Shiloh broke the back of the Confederate army in the west.  Shiloh set-up Vicksburg.  Vicksburg set-up Chattanooga and that Missionary Ridge thing.  Missionary Ridge set-up Atlanta.  And from Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Columbia, and Fayetteville … and set-up Appomattox. The long way around, to be sure.  But that’s how my “western-centered” perspective views it… feel free to disagree.

Yet from the opposite side of the coin, April 1862 was also an important set-up for the Confederacy. Consider the closures… or results… from some of those Federal actions:

  • The Army of the Potomac invested Yorktown, not taking that place until the first days of May.
  • Major-General Henry Halleck took direct control of the advance toward Corinth, Mississippi, concentrating forces across the western theater for a slow pursuit.  The Crossroads of the Confederacy would not be in Federal hands until the end of May.
  • Major-General Samuel Curtiss, due to logistic constraints and in spite of a victory at Pea Ridge in March, fell back into Missouri.

This turn of events, again happening concurrently, gave openings and created angles which the Confederates could exploit. One of those, of course, being Jackson’s Valley Campaign.  That campaign, and actions on other fronts, setup six months in which the Confederacy would reach its zenith… and take the war onto northern soil.

Maybe April 1862 was not the turning point it could have been.  And maybe it was not the most important thirty days of the Civil War.  But I submit it was a pivotal month in the course of the war.

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