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What Happened in May 1861 ©




Lincoln Begins Building an Army


In the two weeks that passed after Lincoln published his April 15 proclamation, calling upon the loyal state governors to send him regiments of militiamen, the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey went to their legislatures and obtained authority to muster their militiamen into regiments for a term of three months, and to use state funds to purchase rifles, ammunition, clothing, accruements, wagons, horses and artillery for the use of Lincoln’s government. (At this time Lincoln had little money in the treasury to draw upon.)


As the men mustered into companies in their respective states, and moved to camps where they were organized into regiments, the governors appointed general officers to command their state forces. In New York, Governor Morgan made John A. Dix and Charles Sandford “major-generals of state militia." Governor Dennison of Ohio gave the same title to George B. McClellan. Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania did the same with Robert Patterson. Massachusetts Governor Andrews gave this rank to Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks, and Governor Sprague of Rhode Island gave it to Ambrose Burnside.


In Washington, President Lincoln, through his agent, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Regular army’s general-in-chief, made these state militia general officers “major-generals of volunteers." Scott, with Lincoln’s approval, divided the territory covering the loyal states bordering on the Potomac and Ohio rivers into “departments," and placed these officers in command of them: McClellan was assigned command of the Department of the Ohio, which eventually came to include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and western Virginia. Patterson was assigned the Department of Washington which included Pennsylvania and Delaware. A few weeks later, Patterson was switched to the “Department of Pennsylvania," and John Mansfield, a colonel in the Regular army, took command of the Department of Washington, now limited to the District of Columbia. Dix was assigned recruitment duty in New York City. Butler was assigned the Department of Maryland, including Baltimore, then, replaced by Massachusetts militia general, Nathaniel Banks, he was moved to Fort Monroe. Charles Sandford was placed in command of the New York regiments which, by the middle of May, constituted the largest state force encamped at the Capital and would be the first to invade Virginia.


By May 3, having been bombarded by the loyal state governors to muster more men into service, Lincoln realized that he could abandon all pretense of acting in conformance to the Constitution. He had restricted his first call for troops to a three month term of service in order to conform to the restrictions imposed upon the President by the Militia Act of 1795, which , in section 2, specified that, “whenever the laws of the Union shall be opposed in any state by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by ordinary means, it shall be lawful for the President to call forth the militia, and the use of the militia may be continued until the expiration of thirty days after the commencement of the then next session of Congress."



Lincoln had purposely chosen July 4th as the day for the special session of Congress to convene, to give himself time to bring the Army into existence, depending upon unfolding events to convince the Congress to continue the war he had created. Now, with the response from the governors so uniformly supportive of his initial action and their clamor rising for the mustering of more troops, he knew the likelihood slim that the Congress would repudiate his actions. So, with an eye on the coming secession referendum in Virginia, he decided to get moving with military offensive actions, which required volunteers committed to long term enlistments.


Thus, on May 3, he published the following call, based on nothing at all but the gamble he would not be impeached in July.


Whereas existing exigencies (i.e., “necessity") demand immediate measures for the protection of the National Constitution and the preservation of the Union. . . to which end a military force (for offensive operations) appears to be indispensably necessary I call into the service of the United States 42,034 volunteers, to serve for a period of three years, plus men enough to fill eight new regiments in the Regular army.


The Governors instantly respond to Lincoln:


Governor Curtin: “We have more than the requisition of troops called by you, now in the field. The Legislature has authorized the formation of twenty-five additional regiments as Pennsylvania’s reserve and has granted the necessary funds to support them."


Governor Olden, of New Jersey: “Four regiments start tomorrow."


Governor Andrews of Massachusetts: ten thousand drilling, hoping for call."


Governor Fairbanks of Vermont: “Two regiments waiting for orders."


Governor Buckingham of Connecticut: “One regiment ready."


Governor Sprague of Rhode Island: “One regiment and a field battery ready."


Governor Washburn of Maine: “Four regiments nearly ready."


Governor Dennison of Ohio: “Twenty-two regiments in camp, under drill; Legislature has approved $3 million."


On May 6, Governor Randall of Wisconsin wrote Lincoln:


“The governors of several of the states met on Friday last, at Cleveland. We make you these suggestions: We must control the business of the Mississippi and the Ohio. There is a spirit invoked by this rebellion among the liberty-loving people of the country that is driving them to action and if the government will not permit them to act for it, they will act for themselves. It is better for the government to direct this current than to let it run wild. There is a conviction of great wrongs to be redressed. If the government does not act at once there will be a war among the Border States. Call for three hundred thousand. These states cannot be satisfied with call after call for raw troops. They would not be soldiers but marks for the enemy to shoot at. We want authority to put more men in the field."


The Problem of the Three Month Men

In response to the governors’ enthusiasm, Lincoln, through Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, encouraged them to induce the three month volunteers, still in state camps, to muster, or remuster as the case may be, into United States service for three years. Governor Curtin, of Pennsylvania, wired Cameron in reply: “I have prepared a circular to be sent to the colonels embracing the suggestion of your dispatch. On May 13, Cameron wired Curtin: “How many regiments that have been mustered into service for three months are willing to be remustered for three years?" The next day Curtin answered: “Keim’s division of six regiments would not go for three years. No regiment as yet mustered in for three years." Cameron replied to this with, “Ten regiments are assigned to Pennsylvania under second call, for three years service." Curtin responded on May 20: “Patterson claims that his entire division has been mustered into service as three month men. An order was issued by me on April 17th, directing Patterson to march his division at once. Patterson claims that, under this order, the seven regiments of the division were mustered in."


Upon Lincoln’s first call, the Pennsylvania Legislature was not in session. Governor Curtin, on his own authority, called for 25,000 men. Cameron refused to accept all of them, as the number exceeded the quota then assigned. Curtin then called the Legislature into session and it passed an act authorizing the organization of fifteen additional regiments into the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. These troops as they came into camp were then sworn into the service of the State and were subject, under the state law, to the call of the National Government.




The Problem of Who Commands Who

Up to the time of Lincoln’s call for three year volunteers, he allowed all the officers, whatever their rank, to be appointed by the governors. After the call, he specified that the commissioned officers of the company and regiment levels were to be appointed by the governors or by the men, but the general officers only by him. The force of three year volunteers was to be organized into three divisions, each composed of from three to four brigades, and each brigade to have four regiments. Each division was to be commanded by a major-general and each brigade by a brigadier-general. In this way, Lincoln cut the governors out of the chain of command between himself and the troops in the field; henceforth, the governors could not give orders to the generals and the company and regimental officers could take orders only from the generals. Lincoln now had his hand firmly on the throttle.


The Problem of Choosing a Strategic Plan of Operations

Lincoln’s purpose, in making his second call, was to use the 42,000 three year volunteers as the core of an army to operate against the Confederate army assembling at Manassas Junction. Though he knew the military forces gathering in Virginia intended to act on the defensive, he meant to attack them as soon as he could assemble an army capable of taking the field against them—as soon as the people of Virginia ratified the Ordinance of Secession, that is.


Confederate detachments were then occupying a defensive line, trying to block Lincoln’s invasion, that would eventually stretch from the Potomac at Vienna, cutting the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, south through Fairfax Courthouse, cutting the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, to the Occoquan River.




But General Scott had a different idea.


On May 3, the day Lincoln published his second call, 74 year old General Scott wrote to 34 year old George McClellan, disclosing what he was thinking:


“It will not be prudent to rely on the three month men for offensive operations as their term of service will expire. We must rely greatly on a blockade (Lincoln, at Scott’s behest, had proclaimed a blockade late in April). I propose a movement down the Mississippi. We will need twenty gun boats, forty steamers, and sixty thousand men. It is probable you will be invited to command this army. The great danger to this plan is the impatience of our Union friends (read Lincoln). They will be unwilling to wait for the slow instructions, for the rise of the rivers, for the return of the frost." A few days later, he wrote again to McClellan, to say: “I proposed to establish an army of regulars, say 80,000, to be divided into two columns, to clear the Mississippi to the Gulf."



General Scott has been, for the most part, forgotten by this generation of Americans. Those who know his name think of him as old, feeble, barely able to move, which, of course, by 1861, he was. But his writings show that his mind was still sharp, filled with the knowledge and experience gained from almost fifty years military service, and which included his organizing and commanding the little American army (the core of which were regulars) that invaded Mexico, in 1846; marched 600 miles into her interior and, six months later, brought her government down, forcing a treaty that doubled the size of the territory of the United States.


The Theater of the War

General Scott understood clearly that conquering the Southern States by war would not happen quickly; rather than the war ending with a grand battle like Waterloo, it would end, he knew, in the economic strangulation of the country—one way or another. The strangulation could happen two ways—by armies fighting armies across its breadth, or by a military blockade that sealed the country from the world. By either method it would take years to conquer the South, but the latter method would be less destructive of the people and infrastructure of the South, making a durable peace more likely to take hold quicker. So General Scott, a native born Virginian, thought.


Scott’s strategic vision was focused on taking immediate control of the navigation of the Mississippi which would cut off Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas from the Confederacy, and would lead to the occupation of Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. Meanwhile, the naval blockade would, in large measure, eventually prevent the Confederacy from receiving substantial support from the seas. Only after time had allowed a huge army of drilled regulars to develop, would an advance be made into the depths of the South.


With the wide river of the Ohio making it practically impossible for the Confederacy to retaliate against Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, backed as they were by Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, it’s only choice would be to direct its military energy toward Pennsylvania where it would face the combined forces of that State, New York, New Jersey, and New England. If the Confederacy were to take the offensive against the North, as far as Scott was concerned it would be battering itself against an impenetrable wall while it exhausted its supplies.


But though he seemingly listened to Scott initially, Lincoln had, in his mind, a quite different approach. He was not willing to take what seemed to him an approach that had no certain end at a definite time and which left the North sitting on its hands—something he could not afford politically to do. His strategic vision was to use the great numerical strength in men and material that the North enjoyed, to crush the South’s resistance to his rule as fast as the men could be organized into armies and march into the heartland of the Confederacy. In his mind, the more territory he could seize and hold, the more evidence he could show the Northern people and the world that his government was winning; and thus induce the people to endure the war, and the world not to take the Confederacy’s side. And as long as the North endured and the world did not give the South military support, Lincoln was certain the rebel states could not escape the Union’s grasp.


Lincoln’s General Strategic Idea: “Cut em to Pieces"



The West Point Graduates Scramble For Rank


From all over the Union they came: McClellan quit his position as a railroad president, and seized the chance to command the Ohio State Militia; Grant, employed as a shopkeeper in Galena, Illinois, coming under the wing of Illinois Governor Yates, gained command of the 21st Illinois volunteer regiment and went into camp with it at Springfield; Sherman, employed as president of a military college in Louisiana, resigned and hurried to Washington, where his brother, John Sherman, U.S. Senator from Ohio, introduced him to Lincoln, which netted him a commission as a colonel in the Regular army and got him a place on General Scott’s headquarters staff; Ambrose Burnside, employed as a cashier with the Illinois Central Railroad, took command of the Rhode Island Militia and, by May, was in Washington with two regiments and an artillery battery. John Fremont, returning from Europe, was in Washington by late May, looking for a slot at the major-general level. Henry Halleck, practicing law in San Francisco, gained command of the California State Militia and would eventually become a major-general in the Regular army, rising by 1862 to the position of Lincoln’s general-in-chief. And Joe Hooker, employed in California as a poor rancher, set sail for Washington in May with $700 in his pocket.


Then there is the special case of forty-three year old Major Irvin McDowell. By the beginning of May, thinking offensively, Lincoln had set his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, and his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, to work with the loyal state governors, to find the money to pay for the cost of bringing the volunteers into his service, and to get the volunteers to Washington and Cincinnati. In performing their work, both secretaries came in personal contact with McDowell, who as a member of Scott’s staff was acting as the mustering officer for the District of Columbia’s militia. As a consequence of his position, McDowell became responsible for organizing the militia into regiments. As the loyal state regiments arrived at Washington, they came within his command and Lincoln took notice of him, the two men having been introduced by Chase.


Realizing that he and Scott entertained divergent views of military strategy, and that Scott would resist his wishes, probably using his control of the officer corps as a device to neutralize him, Lincoln decided to make McDowell his boy, by offering him a commission as brigadier-general in the Regular army.



Lincoln Invades Virginia

If You Can Kill Virginia, You Can Kill The Confederacy


The New York Times

As soon as the people of Virginia ratified their State’s Ordinance of Secession, Lincoln began orchestrating movements of military forces into Virginia. At Washington, New York State Militia Major General, Charles Sandford, led a force of New York and Rhode Island Volunteers across the three bridges linking Washington with Virginia and occupied the city of Arlington and the Lee family plantation on Arlington Heights, making the Lee family mansion his headquarters.


Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

In the course of this, Lincoln suffered his first personal loss of the war. Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, of the Eleventh New York Regiment—the “New York Fire Zouaves"—was shot and killed, when he barged into a private house in Alexandria and charged up a flight of stairs to rip down a Confederate flag flying on a pole from the roof. (On the way up the stairs, a man stepped from a room and shot him dead.) Ellsworth’s corpse was carried to the White House and placed in the East Room, as Lincoln stood over it, in tears; crying, “My boy! My boy!" Thus, you reap what you sow.


Pennsylvania State Militia Major General Robert Patterson (also commissioned, like Sandford, a major-general of volunteers by Lincoln) began assembling a force of seventeen regiments of Pennsylvania three month volunteers at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to invade the Shenandoah Valley, occupy Harper’s Ferry, and move on Martinsburg where the repair shops and train sheds of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad were located. Though not a West Point graduate, Patterson had been a general officer in the U.S. Army, and had acted as General Scott’s second-in-command for a short time during the War with Mexico. The same age as Scott, Patterson was assumed to be the right man to carry the war into the Valley.


Patterson in 1847


Patterson in 1861


Benjamin Butler, who had been replaced by Nathaniel Banks after occupying Baltimore with troops early in the month, was at Fort Monroe with Massachusetts troops. He would do nothing but hold the fort.


George McClellan, commissioned by Lincoln a major-general in the Regular army late in May, had spent the early part of the month, promoting himself, by writing personal letters to Lincoln, Chase, Cameron, and Scott, proposing one plan of operations for his troops after another. First, he proposed that 80,000 men be assigned to his department for a movement across the Ohio River, to move south through the valley of the Great Kanawha and toward Richmond. A fanstasy everyone knew. The next plan he offered, was to move his proposed army into Kentucky and march on Nashville, and then head for Alabama and Georgia. When these plans reached Lincoln’s desk and he expressed interest, General Scott dismissed them on the ground that they entailed overland marches that would break down the men, their horses and wagons. Rather than attempt to subdue the Confederacy, piece meal, Scott tried to convince Lincoln, it should be enveloped—by establishing a cordon of posts on the Mississippi down to its mouth, and by blockading the seaboard with warships. But Lincoln would have none of it, appointing McClellan the first regular army major general with the expectation that, like McDowell in the East, Mac would be his boy in the West.


McClellan knew how to flatter: on May 9, when it became apparent to him that General Scott was not pleased with his end-around communications with politicians, he sent Scott a long personal letter full of bull: “The first aim of my life," he wrote, “is to justify the good opinion you have of me, and to prove that the great soldier of our country can not only command armies himself but teach others to do so. I do not expect your mantle to fall on my shoulders, but I hope it will be said I was a worthy disciple of your school." At the same time, the two-faced jerk was writing Ohio Governor William Dennison: “The apathy in Washington is very discouraging . . . they are entirely too slow for such an emergency and I almost regret having entered upon my present duty." And, a few days later, he wrote this to Dennison: “General Scott is eminently sensitive, and does not take suggestions kindly from subordinates, especially when they conflict with his preconceived notions." He was already angling to undercut Scott and slip into his place.


On May 24, the day following the No vote on secession by twenty-five of the counties in northwestern Virginia, Lincoln through Scott sent McClellan the message that he wished him to move into Virginia. Scott wrote McClellan: “We have information Virginia troops have reached Grafton (a point on the B & O Railroad). Can you counter it? Act promptly." The next day, from his headquarters at Cincinnati, McClellan sent orders to several regiments posted at Parkersburg and Wheeling, to move up the spurs of the B & O Railroad and drive the rebels away from Grafton.




Grafton Railroad Crossing


May 27, 1861

Lieut. Gen. Winfield Scott:

Two bridges burned last night near Farmington, on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Have ordered the First Regiment West Virginia and one Ohio regiment to move at once by rail from Wheeling on Fairmont, occupying bridges as they go. Two Ohio regiments ordered to occupy Parkersburg and move toward Grafton.

GEO B. McCLELLAN, Major-General


General McClellan was off and running in the Virginia hinterland. Irvin McDowell, on the other hand, was now front and center; having been promoted by Lincoln to brigadier-general in the Regular army, Lincoln used the promotion to induce McDowell, over General Scott’s objection, to assume command of the new Department of Virginia, supplanting New York State Militia General Sandford. McDowell arrived at Lee’s mansion at Arlington Heights on May 29. Immediately he ordered the regiments that were there to be organized into three brigades and placed them under the newly promoted Regular army colonels ordered to report to him. Then he wrote to General Scott’s adjutant.


May 29, 1861


I am aware we are not, theoretically speaking, at war with the State of Virginia, and we are not here, in an enemy’s country; but since the courts are not functioning, should not cases of depredations be handled by military commission as similar cases were in Mexico? It is a question of policy I beg to submit to the General-in-Chief. The plea that a man is a secessionist is set up by the depredators as a justification for their acts. (precedent for Mr. Yoo)

Irvin McDowell, Brigadier-General commanding


Then he wrote a letter to Mrs. Lee.


Hdqs. Department of Northeastern Virginia

Arlington, May 30, 1861

Mrs. R.E. Lee:

MADAM: I am here temporarily in camp on the grounds, preferring this to sleeping in the house. I assure you it has been and will be my earnest endeavor to have all things so ordered that on your return you will find things as little disturbed as possible. Everything has been done as you desired with respect to your servants, and your wishes, as far as possible have been complied with. I trust, Madam, you will not consider it an intrusion if I say I have the most sincere sympathy for your distress, and I shall be always ready to do whatever may alleviate it.



McDowell and Staff on the Steps of Mrs. Lee’s Home




The World Sits Back and Waits


In early May, Lord John Russell, British Secretary of State, announced in the House of Commons that a British naval force had been dispatched to the coast of the United States, to protect English commercial interests; and that France and Great Britain had agreed to take the same course of recognition of the Confederate Government. At the same time, he received Confederate ambassadors, in the manner in which Secretary of State William Seward had received them in Washington earlier. Learning of this from Charles Francis Adams, the United States Ambassador to Britain, Seward wrote instructions.


“As to the blockade, you will say that by our own laws and the law of nations, this government has a clear right to suppress insurrection. An exclusion of commerce from national ports which have been seized by insurgents is a proper means to that end and, thus, we expect the blockade to be respected by Great Britain. If it doesn’t, a war may ensue between the United States and one, two, or even more European nations. Great Britain has but to wait a few months, and all her present inconveniences will cease with all our own troubles."



Seward is kidding. According to the law of nations, as it existed at the time, a blockade such as Lincoln had proclaimed was permissible only between belligerents, not between a government and what it deemed to be insurgents. The purpose of a blockage is to isolate and weaken an enemy. That this may be done effectively, the merchant ships of neutral nations may be stopped and searched on the high seas, and in case they carry contraband, or are bound for a blockaded port, they may be seized and brought before a prize court for condemnation. Similarly, the enemy may, under the law of nations, resort to the measure of using privateers on the high seas for the same purpose. Such conduct, under the law of nations, is lawful only in time of war. As a result of the two American governments’ positions—the one blockading, the other privateering—Lord Russell counseled the Queen that the British Government was bound to recognize that they were both entitled to claim the rights, and be responsible for the obligations, of belligerents. (Something our government still doesn’t accept; it calls something war but ignores the obligations.)



Queen Victoria


In consequence, on May 13, the Queen of England proclaimed that she recognized a state of war existed between Lincoln’s government and Davis’s, and that therefore both were entitled to belligerent rights. Within a week France, Spain, and the Netherlands followed Britain’s lead.


As Lord Russell told Adams, the reality was that eight million citizens of the Confederacy were in open revolt against Lincoln’s government. “It is not our practice," Russell said, “to treat eight million free men as pirates and to hang their sailors if they attempt to stop our merchant ships. It seems to me that you have expected us to discourage the South. How this is to be done, except by waging war against it, I am at a loss to imagine."


William Seward answered this with an Alice-in-Wonderland concoction: “We shall never admit that Great Britain and France have recognized the insurgents as a belligerent party. You say you have declared it. We reply, `but not to us.’ You rejoin: `The public declaration of the Queen concludes the fact.’ We, nevertheless, reply: ‘It must be not her declaration, but the fact, that concludes the fact.’"


On May 21, Lord Russell told the Confederate ambassadors that Great Britain would recognize the Confederate Government as legitimate, as opposed to belligerent, upon the first decided Confederate success. Napoleon III told the ambassadors when they reached Paris that France would follow Britain’s lead. The threat, which Adams reported, did not dissuade Lincoln from rushing his people into the abyss.



The People Waive Their Civil Liberties


The New York Times

May 29, 1861

Chief Justice Roger Taney

“It is the fuction of judges to apply the law,

not teach morality or preach religion"

Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works


About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg, several times.

Sesquicentennial Articles

Battle of Gettysburg
General Robert E. Lee
General JEB Stuart
General Jubal Early
Confederate Commanders
General Joseph Hooker
Union Generals
American Civil War Exhibits
State Battle Maps
Civil War Timeline
Women in the Civil War

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