Confederate Capital moved to Richmond; Death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth; War Preparations Continue: May 1861

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

After the firing on Fort Sumter in April, both sides began preparations for war, and more states were forced to pick one side or the other. On May 6th, both the Arkansas and Tennessee legislatures passed ordinances of secession. And on May 20th, North Carolina became the eleventh and final state to secede. Although border states Missouri and Kentucky would have both Confederate and Union governments, neither one would actually leave the Union.

In Missouri, one of those in favor of the state joining the Confederacy was Governor Claiborne F. Jackson. Jackson and the pro-secessionist Missouri State Militia came up with a plan to capture the Federal arsenal at St. Louis. The militia went into camp on the western edge of the city under the pretext of military drill and training. Captain Nathaniel Lyon, in command of the arsenal, and Francis P. Blair, a prominent local politician, knew the true purpose of the encampment and organized some volunteer Home Guard regiments loyal to the Union. On May 10th these units, and some U.S. regular army soldiers with a total strength of approximately 7000 troops, marched out to the militia camp and demanded its surrender. Outnumbered 10 to one, the militia men surrendered and were marched into St. Louis as prisoners.

A crowd largely sympathetic to the prisoners gathered as they marched in. For reasons that are unclear, someone in the Unionist ranks felt threatened enough by the actions of the crowd that shots were fired into it (Lyon claimed it was in response to attacks by the crowds). When it was over 28 civilians were killed and mobs had taken to the streets. At least six more were killed the next day before things settled down. This action pushed some people to side with the Confederacy, but the arsenal was secured and Missouri remained in the Union.

Not everyone in St. Louis favored the Confederacy. One of the pro Union people in the crowd that day was former U.S. Army officer and West Point graduate William T.  Sherman. Earlier in the year, Sherman had resigned his position as  the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy (now Louisiana State University) and had taken a job with a railroad in St. Louis. Not one to sit on the sidelines, Sherman contacted the War Department offering his services if he was granted an officer’s commission. He was appointed Colonel of the newly forming 13th Infantry of the Regular U.S. Army.

Confederate Capital Moved to Richmond, Virginia

Soon after Virginia seceded from the Union, that state offered Richmond as the location for the capital of the Confederate States. Richmond had economic and industrial advantages over the much smaller current capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. It was also felt that moving to Richmond would help solidify support for the Confederacy in Virginia, and on May 20th, the Confederate Congress approved the relocation of the government to Richmond.

The Death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

On May 24th, the Federals began a small offensive operation as Union troops crossed the Potomac River and occupied Alexandria, Virginia. One of the Union regiments was the 11th New York Infantry under the command of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a 24 year old officer  who was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. While securing the town, Ellsworth saw a Confederate Flag displayed above the Marshall House Inn. Ellsworth and four other men went up the stairs and cut the flag down. Ellsworth came down the stairs carrying the flag and was shot in the chest and killed  by the Inn’s owner, James W. Jackson. Jackson himself was immediately shot and killed by a Union soldier.

Ellsworth’s death prompted an outpouring of grief in the north.  He was the first Union Army officer killed in the Civil War. His funeral was held a few days later in the East Room of the White House.

Throughout May 1861, both sides continued their war preparations. Recruitment of soldiers and appropriation of  money to equip the rapidly growing armies went on in every state, north and south, and patriotic speeches were made.

On May 15th Governor Alexander Randall of Wisconsin delivered a speech to a joint session of the state legislature. Randall talked about the political situation in the country and asked the legislature to provide “at least one million of dollars” to equip and train Wisconsin’s volunteer soldiers immediately, so they would be ready to go when called upon. Randall closed his speech leaving no doubt where he stood on what course of action the U.S. government should take:

“There can be no more compromises, no settlements, no treating with rebels, no concessions; nothing now but absolute submission to the power and jurisdiction and authority of the Government of the United States.

“The people will never consent to any cessation of the war, forced so wickedly upon us, until the traitors are hung or driven into ignominious exile. This war began where Charleston is; it should end where Charleston was. The Supreme Ruler can but smile upon the efforts of the law loving, government loving, liberty loving people of this land, in resisting the disruption of this Union. These gathering armies are the instruments of His vengeance, to execute his just judgements; they are his flails wherewith on God’s great Southern threshing floor, He will pound rebellion for its sins.”

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