150 Years Ago in the Civil War
Fighting continued on several fronts as the event filled summer of 1864 moved into August.
The capture of the Confederate port at Mobile, Alabama had long been a Union objective, and in August of 1864, action was finally taken. Three forts–Gaines, Morgan, and Powell–plus four gunboats including the iron clad CSS Tennessee guarded the bay. The Confederates also placed mines, called torpedoes at that time, in many locations in the bay. On August 5th, Farragut attacked with a combined Navy and Army expedition of 18 ships and 2400 troops. Farragut’s fleet managed to get past the guns of Fort Morgan, although the ironclad USS Tecumseh struck a mine and sank. The Union fleet captured or sank the ships in the Confederate fleet. Federal forces then invested the forts using ground troops and naval gunfire.
Fort Powell, smallest of the three, was bombarded by naval gunfire and it’s defenders abandoned at night on August 5th. Fort Gaines surrendered on August 7th. Fort Morgan held out until August 23rd before surrendering. Although the city of Mobile would not be taken by the Federals until April of 1865, the capture of Mobile Bay ended its days as a Confederate port for blockade runners. For more on the Battle of Mobile Bay, see my post here.
In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, General Jubal Early’s Corps continued to be a threat to Washington DC and Maryland. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant decided there needed to be a change in command of the Union forces in that area, and he named Major General Philip Sheridan commander of the new Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan’s new command was formed by combining all Union forces in the area and consisted of the 6th, 8th, and 19th Corps, plus Sheridan’s cavalry corps from the Army of the Potomac.
Sheridan assumed command on August 7th at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. He had been ordered to be cautious and avoid defeat in his initial actions. This was due at least in part to the upcoming presidential election; Abraham Lincoln’s reelection chances would not be helped by a significant defeat on the battlefield. In accordance with his orders. Sheridan fought several engagements with Early’s forces in the northern Shenandoah in August and followed a conservative approach.
Further south in Virginia, Grant continued siege operations around Petersburg, but there was active fighting also. On the 14th, the Union 2nd and 10th Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock attacked Confederates at Deep Bottom, southeast of Richmond. Fighting continued off and on through the 20th, when Hancock withdrew. The Confederates had successfully fought off the Federal advance, but the battle did force Robert E. Lee to move troops from the Petersburg lines to defend Richmond, thinning the lines at Petersburg, and preventing the Shenandoah from being reinforced.
In mid-August, Grant sent the Union 5th Corps, backed up by the 9th Corps, west from the Petersburg siege lines and attacked the Confederates at Globe Tavern on the Weldon Railroad, which was a vital supply line running down to North Carolina. The fighting lasted from the 18th through the 21st, and resulted in the Union capturing several miles of track. Reinforced by a division of the 2nd Corps, the Federals spent the next few days destroying miles of the rail line. On the 25th, a Confederate attack at Reams Station finally stopped the Federal track destruction. The Rebel victory in what was called the Second Battle of Reams Station resulted in a withdrawal of Union forces back to the Petersburg lines. The Weldon Railroad was destroyed for several miles south of Petersburg; Confederate supplies on the Weldon bound for Petersburg now had to be unloaded from rail cars and transported around the destroyed area by wagon train.
Though the trans Mississippi region was cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, fighting there continued, mostly with small raids and guerilla activities, especially in Missouri. The government in Richmond asked for reinforcements from that region to help at Mobile and Atlanta, but the constant Union gunboat patrols on the Mississippi River prevented any kind of large scale troop movements across the river. General Sterling Price organized roughly 12,000 or so cavalrymen and left Princeton, Arkansas on August 29th headed north to Missouri, where he had planned an ambitious expedition to capture St. Louis and eventually drive Federal forces out of Missouri.
In Georgia, Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign continued despite frequent cavalry attacks on his supply lines in northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee by General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, and by General Nathan Bedford Forrest farther west. Forrest boldly attacked Memphis on August 21st, briefly occupying the city before once again getting away from frustrated Union authorities.
Through much of the month, Sherman had engaged in a partial siege of Atlanta, partial because the city and John Bell Hood’s army was still receiving supplies via the Macon and Western Railroad, which entered Atlanta from the south. Cavalry raids had cut the line briefly but it had been quickly repaired and was back in service almost immediately. Sherman decided that a massive troop movement to the west of Atlanta followed by a swing to the south and an attack on the railroad would successfully destroy that supply line and force the surrender or abandonment of Atlanta by Hood’s army. On August 25th, Sherman began the movement with six divisions, totaling some 60,000 men.
In Washington, the failure to achieve large scale decisive victories despite enormous numbers of casualties was taking a toll on the Abraham Lincoln Administration. There were loud calls in the press to replace Lincoln as the presidential nominee of the National Union Party, a combination of Republicans and War Democrats. Many politicians and other observers believed Lincoln’s chances for reelection were slim to none, and he was urged to repeal the Emancipation Proclamation to improve his chances. The President would have none of that. “I would be damned in time and in eternity if I return to slavery the black men who have fought for this country” he told one advocate of repeal.
Lincoln faced the real possibility that he would be defeated for reelection, and that next president might cut a deal to end the war by allowing slavery to continue, or by allowing the Union to dissolve in exchange for peace. On August 23rd, Lincoln presented to his Cabinet a memo that was folded so that it could not be read. He asked each member to sign the back of the memo without reading it. All did so. In the memo, known as the Blind Memorandum, Lincoln wrote:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.
If he was defeated in the election in November, Lincoln intended to do whatever he could to win the war before the next president was sworn in March of 1865. On August 31st, George McClellan, the general fired twice by Lincoln, was nominated by the Democratic party for President of the United States. Lincoln needed a big battlefield victory to convince the voters that the war was indeed winnable. The victory at Mobile Bay helped, but something bigger was needed, either in Virginia or in Georgia.
Back in Atlanta, Sherman’s forces closed in on the town of Jonesboro on the Macon and Western Railroad south of Atlanta. Hood sent two corps of Confederates to meet the Union threat. Fighting began at Jonesboro on the 31st of the month, and continued into September. The Lincoln Administration, and popular support for the Union war effort, was hanging in the balance, but that big victory needed to turn the tide was just around the corner in early September.