This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 16: War by telegram.
The fall of 1861 is bereft of major fighting until Union Major Gen. George B. McClellan gets a disastrous battle going — by telegram. Oct. 21, 1861, witnesses a badly coordinated attempt by Union forces to cross in boats from Maryland to the Confederate-held Virginia side of the Potomac River, northwest of Washington. Their aim: to seize a key railroad juncture at Leesburg, Va. But Union forces will get no further than the steep Virginia slope of the Potomac riverbank at the Battle of Ball's Bluff. It all began with a line in a seemingly innocuous McClellan telegram to a subordinate, Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone. McClellan advises Stone, commander of troops along the Potomac, to "keep a good lookout upon Leesburg," adding "perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them." Stone obliges by sending two Union companies across the river the night of Oct. 20, 1861. They scale the bluff and report back that it's a dangerous, steep slope. The next day, thousands of Union troops begin crossing, their incursion begun. But Confederates above on the heights at Ball's Bluff fiercely counterattack. Heavy Confederate cannon and rifle fire drives the green federal forces back down the bluff, many splashing mortally wounded and bleeding into the river. Others drown trying to swim away in uniform. When it's over, hundreds of Union troops are dead and hundreds more are missing or taken prisoner — out of roughly 1,780 ill-trained Union troops seeing their first action. A leader of the Union attack, Col. Edward D. Baker, who served in the U.S. Senate from Oregon, is killed. Baker is a good friend of President Abraham Lincoln and the Union rout causes such an uproar in Washington that a congressional oversight committee is formed for the conduct of the war.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 23: Wired: Telegraph from coast to coast.
The nation is divided by war but now is linked at last from coast to coast by a transcontinental telegraph this week in 1861. For some time, the telegraph's eastern terminus only extended from the Atlantic to Nebraska and it's western terminus stretched from the California coast to Nevada. But Western Union and allied companies succeed in the Herculean task of stringing the slender telegraph wire over deserts and mountains, putting East and West into a new dawn of instant communication. It has been hard, dirty work for laborers who cut down forests to make stout telegraph poles, carting them in oxen-pulled wagons across rugged passes to be planted and strung with mile after mile of wire. The fabled Pony Express continued to bridge the gap for a while. But now both sides of the continent can instantly trade messages of battles lost and won, news large and small. One of the first messages sent announces the death to Oregon of its popular senator, Edward Baker, killed days earlier in fighting in Virginia. The telegraph soon will revolutionize battlefield communications while allowing a new conduit for the news dispatches of The Associated Press. Also this week, a public referendum is held on Oct. 24, 1861, in which a majority in the future state of West Virginia votes for statehood. The intent is to break away from Virginia amid opposition to the Confederacy. In June 1863, West Virginia will become the 35th state, allied with the North as war drags on. This week also sees feverish recruiting of thousands of young men on both sides. The Cleveland Plain Dealer of Ohio — for one — runs a recruitment ad urging prospects to sign up: "If You Do Not Want To Be Drafted, Rally Under the Good Old Flag! Wanted ... Young men that have any regard for their Country."
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 23: U.S. Army's general-in-chief retires.
A hero of the Mexican War of 1846-48, Winfield Scott departs at the end of October 1861 as general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He had served for more than half a century under 14 presidents, but now age and infirmity force him to retire as he makes way for a young and up-and-coming rival, George B. McClellan. In his 70s when the Civil War began, Scott weighed more than 300 pounds and could no longer ride a horse. Federal forces did not fare well at the war's outset and that took a political toll on Scott. But many still credit his so-called Anaconda Plan for blockading Southern seaports and inland rivers as a key peg in an eventual Union victory in 1865. News dispatches report on Oct. 28, 1861, that Scott is bowing out because of health reasons. "The scarred and worn out veteran Gen. Scott will voluntarily retire from his rank and duties ... solely on account of his physical infirmities," The New York Tribune reports. The same dispatch notes several voices in Congress are calling on his rising successor, McClellan, to immediately rout the Confederates in battle: "The popular demand of their constituents is that Gen. McClellan, or some one else, shall right off whip the Rebels on the south side of the Potomac, in a pitched battle, and as near Bull Run as is possible, and from thence roll the tide of war steadily Southward." Far from major battle, there is barely even skirmishing. The Associated Press reports on Oct. 25, 1861, that federal scouts crossed the Potomac River near Edwards Ferry but "not a sign of a man or horse was heard, except the splash of the oars of a boat some distance up the river." Nonetheless, rebel pickets are occasionally engaged and a rebel battery is shelled though "the enemy did not reply" with any large guns.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 30: Scott formally resigns, tension on the Potomac.
The U.S. Army's elderly general-in-chief Winfield Scott formally submits his resignation Oct. 31, 1861, to President Lincoln, eclipsed by Major Gen. George B. McClellan. Reports speculate Scott became increasingly dismayed as McClellan reorganized whole divisions with his own men in key posts. Even his security team gets a boost. Among those promoted, a "Capt. Barker of Gen. McClellan's body-guard has been promoted to Major, and authorities to increase his command to a squadron" one report by The Associated Press notes. Separately, AP reports no fighting of note — "all quiet on the entire line of the Potomac" — though one South Carolina soldier is caught in northern Virginia by Union pickets. Unease continues in the U.S. capital about the enemy just to the South. Reports arise that the Confederates have many flatboats capable of quickly crossing the Potomac. And the Charleston Courier of South Carolina boasts: "our army stands alone in a line of battle .. with bristling bayonets and furbished swords" arrayed across Virginia, ready to fight. The paper reports hundreds of northern prisoners last held in Richmond, Va., are being moved much further south to jails and guarded camps — some as bands play "Dixie" and Southern townspeople turn out to see the ragtag "Yankees" pass through. The paper calls one lot of 150 prisoners the "poorest looking specimens of humanity we have yet seen." Elsewhere, weather turns stormy off the Carolinas as a gale stymies federal warships seeking to enforce Lincoln's blockade of Southern seaports. The AP reports Nov. 5 that a "great storm at Hatteras Inlet" off North Carolina has made life miserable for drenched Union troops occupying coastal forts. After the storm, the report adds: "Five rebel steamers came near the inlet yesterday, but returned after firing a couple of shots."