The Efforts of Union Generals in the Eastern Theatre Comes to Naught and the North Star Takes a Shot at Its Hometown Boy
By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society
May 9, 1863 North Star–Radicalism
Nothing is more common now, when everything depends on a united North, than for the Radicals to fulminate their extreme abolition notions – ignoring both the Constitution and the Union. Their leaders in Congress have boldly proclaimed this sentiment. “Who,” shouted the Abolitionist Bingham, Ohio member of Congress, at the last session, “in the name of God wants the Cotton States, or any other State this side of perdition, to remain in the Union, if slavery is to continue.” Thaddeus Stevens has uttered, if possible, still more extreme sentiments. It tells the whole story. They do not want and do not mean to have the Old Union. It is a direct assault upon the loyalty of the Border States, which have furnished thousands of troops for the Federal army – of States which have ever claimed the right to regulate their own internal negro policy. But the Radicals make no distinction between those slave states which remain true to the Old Flag, and those which have fought against it so long. Were the seceded states to lay down their arms to-day, and propose a full return to loyalty and the Union, these men would say “No” to their submission. And what is more, this class of radicals has always wanted, in some way or somehow, to drive off the slave states.
But the Northern Democracy and Conservative sentiment arraigns boldly this Radical treason to the Constitution as they arraign secession, and fight both – one by the ballot and the other in the field.
Thaddeus Stevens, born in Danville and raised in the area, had gone on to graduate from Dartmouth College, become a successful lawyer and businessman and represent Pennsylvania in the US House of Representatives. He was one of the leading radical Abolitionists of his day and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee that controlled the nation’s purse strings. Radical Republicans also dominated the US Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which was constantly berating Union generals for their ineptitude. The North Star strongly supported the restoration of the Union; however, the paper was extremely skeptical about the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in rebel states. It was clearly miffed at the ascendancy of the radical wing of the Republican party.
May 9 1863 North Star
The marches and successes of General Banks are exciting exultation and hope, and gain for him that confidence and regard that his character and deeds merit. He is evidently using all his energies to carry out in his Department the purposes of the Government, and win great advantages to be gained holding the Mississippi…
…From the time he left here for Louisiana, he has been the subject of sneers and reproaches by a class of Radicals who are always growling at whatever is wise and beneficial, honest and truly patriotic. Mr. Summers “franked” paper gave us, a little while ago, the following evidence of its amiability: – “The rebels have set a high price on [General] Butler’s head for nothing, we should thank them. It is not much to be sure, but such as it is, they are welcome to it.”
Notwithstanding such malevolence we believe his career is onward and upward, and although we have no sympathy with his partisan affinities, his praiseworthy acts in the public service shall ever receive our grateful acknowledgements.
General Benjamin Butler was a “political” general, a former governor of Massachusetts appointed to his military rank by President Lincoln. He commanded the Union troops that captured New Orleans a year earlier and now occupied the city. The general had earned the sobriquets “Beast” and “Spoons”: the former for his heavy-handed censorship of newspapers in Louisiana and his infamous “General Order 28,” which authorized his troops to treat the ladies of New Orleans as prostitutes in retaliation for the habit of some women who had taken to emptying the contents of the chamber pots from balconies on to the heads of Union soldiers below. The “Spoons” referred to Butler’s reputation for confiscating silverware and other valuables from the wealthy.
General Butler hated General Nathanial Banks, also a former governor of Massachusetts, reportedly because they were political rivals, the good press that he enjoyed, and Banks’ reputation as the most accomplished of the political generals.
May 9, 1863
Dispatches From General Banks, Washington, May 1
The National Republican of May 1 publishes semi-official dispatches from General Banks, dated near St. Martinsville, 17th – From them it appears that when General Banks left Baton Rouge, three regiments of colored troops were left for its defense – The results among others of Gen Banks’ expedition are: accomplishing a march of over 200 miles; beating the enemy in three battles – two on land and one on Ground Lake; dispersing the rebel army; utterly destroying the rebel navy; capturing the foundries of the enemy at Franklin and New Iberia, and demoralizing the salt works, 10 miles west of the latter place; capturing the cargo equipage of the enemy; also, several guns and between one and two thousand prisoners, and so deranging the plans of the rebels that they cannot for some months, if ever, reorganize his land and naval forces in that portion of Louisiana. Our loss in the two land battles was 800 to 700. Nothing could exceed the conduct of the officers and men in Gen Banks’ command.
The dispatches say we have not only destroyed the army and navy of the enemy, and captured the essentials for the reorganization of his force, but we have also in our possession his ablest officers of the land and sea.
May 16, 1863
Gen Hooker’s Repulse. We now have pretty accurate information as to the result of the recent advance of the Potomac Army. It was a failure, to say the least – a repulse it would be called by military entities. While we, in common with all loyal citizens, sincerely regret that General Hooker was not successful in reaching Richmond, and in destroying the rebel army – while all must deplore the necessity he was under of re-crossing the river, and regret that the advance terminated without accomplishing anything decisive…
From all that we now learn, Gen. Hooker did the best he could. He was not well supported, by some of his troops; and the unexpected, not to say disgraceful panic of the Eleventh Corps, was a great and fatal injury to his plans.
The Vermont Brigade at Fredericksburg
From all accounts it appears that the Vermont brigade had heavy work to do at Fredericksburg; and all accounts also agree that they did their work well exhibiting undaunted courage and bravery – probably saving by their restless charge, the corps of Sedgwick from annihilation. They made the first charge, in connection with other troops, when the heights were carried by storm; and the next day the 6th regiment made another terrible and successful charge, when the enemy, under Longstreet, drove us from the heights, and thus saved the division. In these encounters, many a brave man fell to rise no more.
An officer of the 6th Vermont sends to the Green Mountain Freeman, the following graphic account of the fight at Fredericksburg; and the part which that regiment took in it.
Camp of the 6th Vermont
I am not sure that you have heard all about our movements, through the papers, as a corps, but not probably as a regiment. We crossed the river on Saturday night, the 2nd instant, and moved towards the heights at day-break of Sunday. About one o’clock P.M. we charged – our right forcing one of the strongest works. We passed over a plain half a mile wide, then through a ravine where the rebels slaughtered the Irish brigade, in the first attack, last December and then up the heights, our regiment being the second one on the crest, having passed by two other regiments on the charge. The rebels showered shells upon us from the heights, but our rapid movements prevented them seriously harming us…
The next morning, with my glass, I watched the rebel firing on the heights; we had won the day before, coming in from the northward, no one being there to oppose them. You can imagine what my feelings were. I don’t know whether I was most grieved, angered or indignant. All we gained was lost! I suppose the General thought the rebels were on the road to Richmond and he was anxious to push on and join Hooker.
The rebels were now on three sides of us, and a four o’clock they charged upon us, starting out of the woods with a tremendous yell… Our regiment lay close upon the ground, behind a little crest. The men were ordered to fire only at the word of command. We waited until the enemy were within twenty feet of our guns, then rose, fired, and came on fast, they went back faster. Just our regiment drove back the line, took nearly as many prisoners as we had in the regiment.
….We drove the rebels back nearly a mile, over the entire ground, they had won, and held it unaided until dark, when we were ordered to fall back.
The Colonel and I and many of the line officers now wear rebel swords. The General says the Vermont Brigade saved the corps, and I know that had we given way as the other regiments, did, all must have been lost.
But by later in the month, the press had soured on the exploits of General Hooker.
May 23, 1863 North Star–The Campaign on the Rappahannock
The New York Evening Post – a decided Administration journal – has the following, among other criticisms, on the recent repulse of our army on the Rappahannock. The fact was it was more than a repulse – it was a severe defeat. Gen Hooker in the first place didn’t have enough men …secondly… Hooker was outgeneraled and out-maneuvered. The masterly movement of Stonewall Jackson, in cutting his way through the woods, and suddenly in the most unexpected manner appearing on our flank, with some 30,000 men, was a brilliant feat that will long renown to the credit of Jackson, in future history. Then, again, in the way of Sedgwick’s corps was prevented from joining Hooker, is another evidence of the superior strategy of the rebel Generals.
The “Campaign on the Rappahannock” is better known today as the Battle of Chancellorsville. Remember that the Army of the Potomac had seen Gen McClellan fired in the fall, succeeded by Gen Burnside, who presided over the December debacle at Fredericksburg and then promptly resigned his command. Now it was General Joseph Hooker’s turn.
The Union’s goal in the eastern theatre was ultimately the destruction of General Lee’s forces and the capture of Richmond, the Confederate capitol. In order to force the issue, General Hooker devised an elaborate plan to split his forces with some crossing the Rappahannock and attacking Fredericksburg again – of which the 1st Vermont Brigade was a part – and other forces moving south. His objective was to trap the forces of General Lee.
However, Lee’s troops shadowed Union maneuvers and collected enough intelligence to figure out that Hooker was planning a two-pronged attack. Hooker then became timid and took up a defensive position in Chancellorsville where he was outflanked by Stonewall Jackson. Ultimately, Lee pushed the Federals out of Fredericksburg and the Army of the Potomac again found itself withdrawing back towards Washington. This set the stage for Lee’s next northern adventure, which would end in disaster.