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.

Chasing guerrillas along the Mississippi: The 34th New Jersey Infantry at Island No. 10

The 34th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry formed in the fall of 1863.  Men from Mercer, Salem, Burlington, and Camden counties filled the ranks (along with some from New York and Philadelphia).  The regiment left Camp Parker, outside Trenton, in mid-November that year, heading to the front lines.  Instead of an assignment to the Army of the Potomac, as one might logically presume, the 34th went west as part of the surge of forces sent to Nashville and then towards Chattanooga in the aftermath of defeat at Chickamauga (with the 34th posted around Bridgeport).  After that crisis passed, the 34th moved down the Tennessee River to garrison western Kentucky, and part of west Tennessee, through the winter of 1864.  (Hat tip here to my friend Jim Lamason for helping track down the background on this regiment.)

Following a brief stay at Union City, Tennessee, and a foray chasing Confederate Major-General Nathan B. Forrest,  Colonel William Hudson Lawrence moved the regiment at Columbus, Kentucky as part of the District of Cairo (Illinois).  The main threat to that sector were guerrilla bands.  So one company of the 34th was mounted as a mobile force.  Furthermore two companies of the regiment went down river to Island No. 10 to help control the area around Kentucky (New Madrid) Bend.  There Captain Robert M. Ekings commanded Companies B and C of the regiment, comprising of 4 officers and 170 men, with seven heavy guns and one field piece.

Throughout the winter, Ekings operated against the irregulars from his base on the river.  On March 6, he sent a detachment of twelve men under First Sergeant John Connor (Company C) to “arrest a gang of 3 men who were reported to have murdered a negro the day previous; and also one Joseph Malady, a notorious guerrilla and horse-thief.”  After moving seven miles upriver, the detachment found Malady and other parties had escaped.  On their way back, a guerrilla force under Captains Parks and Bradford (no first names offered) ambushed the detachment.  Connor estimated the guerrilla force at 75 to 125 men in strength. Late that evening, Connor and his men  made their escape using a raft and reached Island No. 10 that evening.

The action on the 6th promoted Federal authorities to mount a larger operation to clear out these guerrillas under Parks and Bradford, with Ekings leading.  On this day (March 18) in 1864, Ekings left Island No. 10 with a force charged with scouting the area around Tiptonville, Tennessee and clearing out these bands:

I have the honor to report that in obedience to orders from district headquarters, bearing date March 11, 1864, on the evening of the 18th instant I embarked on the steamer John Rowe, and crossing the river landed on the Tennessee shore, opposite the island, 60 colored troops, under the command of Capt. J.B. Rogers, Company C, Seventh Louisiana Infantry, of African descent, with orders to scour the country between Island 10 and Tiptonville. With the remainder of my force, 40 men of Company C, Thirty-fourth New New Jersey Infantry, I proceeded to New Madrid, Mo., where I was re-enforced by 30 infantry of the Second Missouri Heavy Artillery, and 20 men of the First Missouri Cavalry ordered to join me, at my request, by Major Rabb, commanding that post.


I disembarked at Riley’s Landing, 7 miles below Tiptonville, and commenced a northward march, carefully examining the country as I advanced. I could discover no guerrillas, with one exception. A certain Obadiah Green, a brother-in-law of the guerrilla leader Bradford, was captured by us at Bradford’s house. We reached the island about sunset on the 19th instant. From the best information I could obtain I should be inclined to the opinion that the guerrillas under Parks and Bradford had left Madrid Bend about a week previous to the scout under my command.

I would point out, as seen with the notation of earthworks on the fortifications on the map, the area patrolled was that fought over in April 1862 when Island No. 10 fell.  Ekings’ scouting netted far shy of the 75 to 125 suspected in the area, possibly because those men had withdrawn to join with a large raid led by Forrest, which was just kicking off at that time.

But let’s take a few steps back and look at the big picture here.  Over the last month, I’ve posted sections of Colonel Charles Wainwright’s diary in which he asks, “Why don’t they send the men to the [Army of the Potomac]?”  And here we see New Jersey men, who I think Wainwright would argue should have been in the Army of the Potomac, posted to Virginia, sitting on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River.  Not just any island, but a location well behind the front lines, fought over some two years before.

The activities of Ekings and the 34th New Jersey were not the stuff which historians reference often in the “big books.”  Boring, mundane, and inconsequential, you might say.  But the posting of Ekings’ two companies speaks to the problem facing Federal leaders in the spring of 1864 – how to put enough men on the front lines to prosecute the war, while at the same time retaining enough force in the rear areas for security, law, and order.  Why didn’t they send the men to Wainwright in Virginia?  Because the the army needed them elsewhere too.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 32, Part I, Serial 57, pages 491-2 and 623-4.)

Front Line Blog: Considering Island No. 10

Looking for my regular daily post here on “To the Sound of the Guns?”

Well click over to the Civil War Monitor’s The Front Line Blog for the first of a set of articles on Island No. 10.  And if you haven’t done so already, please make The Front Line one of your daily stops as you browse through the Civil War blogosphere.

Over the years I’ve given a few… very few… tours of the area where the battlefield of Island No. 10.  Sort of hard to get folks excited about slopping through the mud to see a place that is almost nothing like its wartime appearance.  I’ve given a few presentations to roundtables and other groups.  One theme I like to emphasize is the engineering work.  In addition to army vs. army, the campaign hinged upon the timeless man vs. river.  That story line was repeated on several occasions from March 1862 through July 1863 (and in smaller ways well beyond).