Guest Columns

TEEGARDEN: RELIVING CIVIL WAR HISTORY

‘Civil War Days’ in April worth remembering

The twelve days from April 4 through April 15 commemorate some of the most significant events in America’s Civil War history:

1861

April 12: General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate forces, along with Fire Eater Edmund Ruffin and rowdy Charleston, South Carolina civilians, fire the “first shots” of the Civil War, bombarding Forth Sumter, a federal fort in the Charleston Harbor. I put “first shots” in quotations because I often think of “Bleeding Kansas” or John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, or the attack of federal troops by armed rioters in Baltimore, as equally worthy of “first shot” status.

April 15: President Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteer troops to serve 90-day enlistment terms (a somewhat optimistic timeframe, it turns out).

1862

April 6-7: The Battle of Shiloh, near Pittsburgh Landing in Tennessee. Confederate forces, led by General Albert Sydney Johnston, launched an early morning surprise attack on General U.S. Grant’s Union troops (The Army of the Tennessee). Casualties were extremely heavy on both sides, and up until that time, this was far and away the bloodiest conflict in American history. Sadly, these figures would be eclipsed numerous times throughout the remaining three years of the war. Grant’s forces, with their backs to the Tennessee River, held back the Rebels on that first day, and were re-enforced that evening by General Buell’s Army and a “Lost Division” under the command of General Lew Wallace, which had been wandering around looking for the frontlines of battle for the entire day. With these additional troops, Grant drove the Confederates from the field of battle on the second day.


1865

April 4: One day after Richmond fell to Union forces (Confederate government and troops fled the city), Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad, entered the fallen Capitol of the Confederacy, to the enthusiastic approval and celebration of Richmond’s newly freed African American residents. At the urging of his military guide, the President sat down in Jefferson Davis’ chair in the “Confederate White House.”

April 9: After several days of vigorous and relentless pursuit by General Grant’s forces, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, had run out of options. General Lee surrendered to General Grant in the town of Appomattox Courthouse, at the home of Wilmer Mclean. Grant’s terms were endorsed at the time by Lee as generous and likely to have good impact on the morale and well being of his defeated Rebel forces (Through Jubal Early and other “revisionists,” this magnanimous gesture by Grant, with Lincoln’s endorsement, would soon be obscured along with other important historical facts, by the falsehoods of the “Myth of the Lost Cause”).

April 14: John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater assassinates President Lincoln. It had been published earlier that General Grant and his wife would also be in attendance with the Lincolns. However, Julia Dent Grant, like so many others, was not comfortable in the company of Mary Todd Lincoln, so her husband graciously declined the invitation at the last minute.

In light of the magnitude of this tragic event, it’s not surprising that little attention is given to other parts of the plot to destroy the U.S. government that evening. Secretary of State William Seward, who was already in bed at home, recovering from a carriage accident, was so severely beaten by one of Booth’s henchmen that his son and others who attended him were incredulous that he survived. In the meantime, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase were also slated for attack, but other Booth cronies got “cold feet” when the time came to act.

April 15: Abraham Lincoln dies in a private home across the street from Ford’s Theater, where he has been lingering in an unconscious state since the night before. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton memorably states: “Now he belongs to the Ages.” (Some will later argue that Stanton said: “Now he belongs to the Angels”). Both would be true statements, I suppose, and, regardless of which version is accurate, on that day, the very best of the “Better Angels of Our Nature” left us, the first President of the United States to be murdered.

I apologize for the somewhat stilted listing of dates in this week’s column; I’m currently arriving at Shiloh National Military Park (I drove from Denver, and highly recommend air travel for sane people). I wanted to highlight these dates for The Colorado Statesman readers, because each of the events mentioned above includes at least one topic for future columns on the Civil War, its causes, and its consequences.

Finally, if you’re interested in more information about John Wilkes Booth’s overall plot, his henchmen, and his flight into southern Maryland and Virginia, where he was finally caught after relentless pursuit, I highly recommend Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson (2006, William Morrow). It’s been out in paperback for a while, and is both historically fascinating and nothing short of a “can’t put it down” adventure and detective story.

Patrick Teegarden will be sending dispatches from his road trip through Civil War territory over the next couple of weeks. He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.