150 Years Ago in the Civil War
While the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac remained deadlocked around Petersburg and Richmond, there was a great deal of action in other places around the Confederacy, and beyond it in October 1864.
In Georgia, Major General William T. Sherman’s army was occupying Atlanta, but General John Bell Hood’s Confederate army was still in the area. In early October, Hood attacked Sherman’s main supply line along the Western and Atlantic Railroad north of Atlanta, capturing Federal outposts and destroying tracks and infrastructure.
Sherman took this threat to his supply lines seriously, and dispatched a large portion of his army north, including a brigade under Brigadier General John M. Corse sent to reinforce a major supply base at Allatoona, Georgia. On the morning of October 5th, a Confederate division under Major General Samuel French arrived at the outer Union defenses at Allatoona and demanded that the outnumbered Federals surrender. Corse refused and the battle was on. After a two and a half hour fight, the Federals pulled back to an earthen fort at the head of Allatoona Pass, where they stubbornly held out against continued Confederate attacks. With ammunition running out and reports of Union reinforcements on the way, French finally withdrew late in the afternoon. Corse’s command had suffered 706 total casualties–and inflicted 799–in this Battle of Allatoona Pass, but it held the pass and saved the supply base. Hood would move his army west to Alabama later in the month.
In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Union army under Major General Philip Sheridan spent the beginning of the month destroying crops, barns, grain mills, and capturing livestock for food for his own troops. These actions were undertaken to deny agricultural products to the Confederate armies, whose commissary departments already had shortages. On October 9th, Federal cavalry routed Confederate cavalry at the Battle of Tom’s Brook. Federal forces were in control in the Shenandoah but Lieutenant General Jubal Early was determined to strike a blow with his depleted Army of the Valley.
On the morning of October 19th, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah was camped along Cedar Creek. Sheridan was in Winchester, Virginia, where he had spent the night on his return from a strategy conference in Washington D.C. Early attacked before dawn, taking the Federals by surprise and driving the 8th and 19th Corps back. The Union 6th Corps was able to set up an effective defense, but by 10:30, it too was in retreat.
Sheridan was on his way back from Winchester and heard the sounds of battle. Sheridan rode faster as it became apparent his army was in retreat. Upon arrival, the general rallied his men and launched an afternoon counterattack that drove the Confederates from the field and turned The Battle of Cedar Creek from defeat into a decisive Union victory.
On the same day that the Battle of Cedar Creek was going on in Virginia, another very different action occurred far to the north. In St. Albans, Vermont, a few miles from the Canadian border, approximately 20 Confederate soldiers under Lt. Bennett Young robbed the town’s three banks of $208,000 and unsuccessfully attempted to set the downtown buildings on fire before escaping into Canada. The men had drifted into town over a period of several days dressed in civilian clothes. After the surprised townspeople realized what was happening, they began exchanging gunfire with the raiders. One St. Albans resident was killed and two others were wounded; one raider was wounded. Young had planned the raid well, and had horses taken from local livery stables waiting. A posse was formed and pursued the raiders, and the Canadian authorities were notified.
The raiders made it to Canada, where 14 were eventually arrested. There were lengthy legal proceedings that concluded that the Confederates were carrying out an act of war, and not a criminal bank robbery, and all were set free, The Canadians also reimbursed the St. Albans banks $88,000, which is the amount found on the arrested men. One man who eluded capture made it back to the Confederacy, but it’s unknown if the others returned. It’s also uncertain if any of the money taken reached the Confederate treasury.The St. Albans Raid was the northernmost land action of the Civil War.
The North had a daring raid of its own in October. On the night of the 27th, a small steamer under the command of Navy Lieutenant William B. Cushing steamed up the Roanoke River to Plymouth, North Carolina. The steamer was equipped with a spar mounted lanyard operated torpedo. Cushing’s target was the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle, which was anchored at Plymouth. The steamer successfully made it past the Rebel outer defenses but was spotted as it neared the Albemarle. Despite heavy gunfire from shore and the crew of the Albemarle, Cushing successfully placed the charge and detonated it, sinking the Albemarle.
Cushing and his crew of 14 jumped into the water in an effort to escape. Eleven were captured and two drowned; only Cushing and one other man escaped. Cushing, who participated in several raids during the Civil War that would be considered Special Operations today, was hailed as a hero in the north.
Elsewhere at sea, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Florida was captured at Bahia, Brazil by the USS Wachusett on October 7rh, which led to protests by the Brazilian government. The capture of the Florida in the Bahia harbor was a violation of Brazilian neutrality, but Wachusett’s captain was determined to capture it anyway. Also during the month, Admiral David Porter, who had spent a large portion of the war on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, assumed command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron on October 12th.
In Missouri, General Sterling Price’s raid into that state continued. Price had hoped to take St. Louis but concluded that the city was too well fortified to be taken. He then headed west, fighting several engagements along the way. The decisive fighting in the campaign occurred on October 23rd at Westport, now part of Kansas City. Price faced the Union Army of the Border under Major General Samuel Curtis, in his front, with Union cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasanton closing in from the southeast. Price decided to attack Curtis first and then take care of Pleasanton. However, Curtis had established strong lines that withstood numerous attacks. Pleasonton’s cavalry arrived on the scene and joined in the fighting. Price, now under fighting in two directions, withdrew to the south and through Kansas, with Union troops harassing him along the way.
Price’s attempt to retake Missouri for the Confederacy ended in failure. Though guerilla activities and skirmishes continued until the end of the war, the Battle of Westport was the last large scale action in Missouri. As a footnote to the campaign, notorious Confederate guerilla leader William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, who had led the raid and massacre at Centralia, Missouri, in September as an offshoot of the campaign, was ambushed and killed by Union troops near Albany, Missouri, on October 26th.
As the calendar turned to November, Union successes on the battlefield in October would help secure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection, Sherman would begin his historic March to the Sea, and the month would end with an extremely costly battle in Tennessee.