This Day in the Civil War

Saturday Nov. 16 1861

The USS San Jacinto pulled into port at Ft. Monroe, Va., with four more passengers than she had had when she left: Confederate Commissioners Mason and Slidell and their two male secretaries. Captain Charles Wilkes had taken them off the British mail packet Trent a few days earlier, after compelling the unarmed vessel to heave to under threat of arms. As news of the seizure spread through the North, Wilkes was being hailed as a hero for the capture. The Confederates were taken to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor for imprisonment. Newspaper headlines applauded the event as helping prevent foreign intervention in the War, little realizing that the headlines in Europe were announcing just the opposite.

Sunday Nov. 16 1862

U.S. Gen. Ambrose Burnside had found himself in a job he did not want, command of the Army of the Potomac, due in large part to Abraham Lincoln’s frustration with his predecessor, George McClellan. McClellan had largely created the army out of the mobs of disorganized civilians who had rushed to enlist, but then didn’t seem to want to get any of them hurt by actually fighting anybody. Burnside’s orders, whether spoken or not, were clear: go fight somebody, preferably Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Therefore, despite the date, he today ordered his men to pack up and march across the Rappahannock River. There was some difficulty with the units of Confederate forces who were keeping an eye on them, leading to a skirmish at the river crossing known as U.S. Ford.

Monday Nov. 16 1863

After Gettysburg, James Longstreet’s corps had been detached from the Army of Northern Virginia and sent West to assist the Army of Tennessee. They arrived just in time to help win the Battle of Chickamauga, but since then they had had little to do except help maintain the siege of the Union forces stuck in Chattanooga. Finally they had headed in the direction of Knoxville, and today Longstreet was at the little town of Campbell’s Station. Burnside’s forces were nearby, and if Confederate intelligence had been just a little better, or if the army could have moved just a little faster, events could have been greatly different. Longstreet, however, did not move quite fast enough to cut off Burnside’s retreat, and his forces escaped into Knoxville.

Wednesday Nov. 16 1864

The last of the two wings of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army pulled out of Atlanta today, leaving the city a smoking ruin behind them. In a calculated move to, as Sherman said, bring the realities of the battlefield’s suffering to the civilians who supported the troops, a new style of war targeting the home front was invented. From this point forward Sherman’s troops would carry no supplies but ammunition, and tents for those who wanted to carry them. They would live off the land entirely, taking or destroying everything in their path. The bitterness this “dishonorable” style of war left in the hearts of Georgians was immense.

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