Civil War anniversary: first escaped slave to take up arms against Confederacy

Civil WarAs the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War over the next four years, there’ll be a lot of mentions of “firsts”. Here at Gadling we’ve already covered first land battle of the Civil War and the first significant battle of the Civil War. One lesser-known but significant anniversary is happening today.

By June of 1861 there had been very little fighting. Both sides were preparing for their first campaigns and securing important bases. One important Union foothold was Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. From there it would be possible to launch a second front against the rebellious state.

The Confederates wanted to take it. At the moment they didn’t have the strength to assault the well-defended fort, so a force of 1,200 men kept a close watch on it from a few miles away at Big Bethel Church and Little Bethel Church.

Union commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler decided to push the Confederates back from these positions and sent 2,500 men on the night of June 9 to get in position for a predawn attack on Little Bethel. The area had already been scouted by George Scott, a runaway slave hired by the army as a guide. Butler wrote in his orders, “George Scott to have a shooting iron.” This is the first known instance of a black man being legally allowed to take up arms against the South.

A night march was not a good idea for inexperienced soldiers. One group fired on another thinking they were rebels. Two men were killed and 19 wounded. The friendly fire also alerted the Confederates at Little Bethel, who withdrew to Big Bethel where the rest of the rebel army prepared a warm reception for the Yankees. They were dug in at a strong position overlooking the bridge over Big Bethel Creek.

Despite the loss of surprise, the Union troops forged ahead and came upon the bridge early in the morning. They crossed the creek at two points but fell back under heavy fire from the entrenchments. Deciding another attempt would be fruitless, they returned to Fort Monroe. The Union side lost 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing. The Confederates lost one killed and 7 wounded.

%Gallery-126108%There’s no record of whether George Scott actually participated in the fighting, but the fact that he was legally allowed to carry a weapon was significant. It wasn’t the first time black men had done so, however. Over in Kansas, abolitionist senator Jim Lane raided Missouri farms to kill slave owners and free slaves. At least one report mentions that some armed black men rode with him. Senator Lane was acting beyond the law but didn’t care.

It would be some time before black units were formed and used in battle. Most African-Americans in the army were used for manual labor. The First Kansas Colored Volunteers was the first black unit of the American army to see battle when it defeated rebel guerrillas at Island Mound, Missouri, on 29 October 1862. At this point it was an illegal unit run by none other than Senator Jim Lane, but it eventually got recognition as a Union army regiment.

Like all too many Civil War battlefields, the site of Big Bethel is not well preserved and much of it has been built over. The Raleigh Civil War Round Table is currently trying save what’s left. Civil War Round Tables are found all over the U.S. and are often at the forefront of local research and preservation. If you want to learn more about the war in your area, joining the local Round Table is a great way to start.

The Hampton History Museum will be commemorating the battle tomorrow with the dedication of a monument to the Union soldiers who fought and died as well as a wreath laying at the monument of the Confederate soldier who died.

Thanks to the Civil War Daily Gazette for reminding me of this important anniversary. This blog gives daily coverage of the war and makes for great reading for anyone interested in this historic conflict.

[Photo courtesy of African-American Union sergeant courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This image dates from 1864 and is not of George Scott. No images of him are known to exist.]

Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

Civil War reenactment battles to watch or join

I heard that this weekend there are Civil War reenactors on the state house lawn in Columbus. This reminded me of my two friends who have dabbled in Civil War reenacting. Each dress up in period soldier attire– one is in Confederate gray and the other is Union blue. As reenactors, they meet up other reenactors to act out a particular slice of history. There are rules involved for how reenactments are done.

It’s not a matter of running around on a field any which way, but following the patterns and paths of what actually happened during particular battles during the Civil War. Clothing reenactors wear are to fit the time period and reenactors are often not supposed to take pictures. One of my friends said that he took a few pictures once when he was “killed” and down on the ground, but he had to be quick so people wouldn’t notice.

The Web site Civil War Reenactment HQ lists several reenactment events and locations. Many reenactments include Civil War campsites and interpretive talks geared for various ages, parades and food.