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No Distinction Whatsoever

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Studio portrait, unidentified African American Union Soldier, 22nd Colored Infantry Regiment

Nothing is ever simple. Complex issues are too often boiled down and reduced to a single factoid or a talking point. The real story can only be pieced together by plowing through mounds of seemingly tedious routine paperwork. In fact, historians are often the only people to appreciate the beauty of bureaucracy.

The correspondence of the War Department, a lot of which was conducted by telegraph and is now contained in the USMT ledgers, is a prime example of the extraordinary value of seemingly mundane and boring government paperwork.

A case in point: on April 17, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, who had assumed the command of the Union armed forces a month before, suspended prisoner of war exchanges.  It is very tempting to take any pronouncement by a general of Grant’s caliber for a straightforward order.

Yet April 17, 1864 was just an installment in a long and convoluted story of the prisoner exchange. Both sides of the Civil War divide believed that they were fighting a just war and professed their commitment to the norms of civilized warfare.  Equitable exchange of prisoners, accomplished by a cartel or agreement between the belligerents, was one of these norms.

The cartel, codified on July 22, 1862, called for equal exchange, man for man, as matched in the rank, branch of service, and the state of health. The exchanged soldiers and officers would return to the ranks. Those men for whom no exact match could be found, were paroled; the parolees were barred from taking up arms until the formal exchange could be arranged.

The cartel ambled along, punctuated by claims of breaches of trust, retaliations and counter-retaliations, until the Union army started recruiting African American soldiers. The Confederates refused to apply the “man-for-man” exchange to black soldiers. The act of the Confederate Congress of May 1, 1863 mandated that black Union troops were to be “delivered” to the authorities of the state where they had been captured “to be dealt with according to the present or future law” of the state, which meant either death or slavery.

In response, Stanton’s War Department halted all exchanges. In early July, Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks ignored this directive to parole the entire garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The War Department had to remind the generals that all exchanges were suspended until “the rebel authorities” demonstrated a “better understanding in relation to the cartel.”

The negotiations were resumed in December 1863, after Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, appointed Benjamin F. Butler as a special agent. Butler’s instructions directed him to ensure “the protection of the Government” for “colored soldiers of the United States and the officers commanding them.”

On April 9, 1864, Butler submitted a lengthy memorandum to Stanton. He acknowledged that there were many issues with the process but insisted that the United States must honor the cartel, for the sake of “the good sense of the country, the justice of the Government, or humanity toward our suffering brother soldiers in the Confederate prisons.”

Yet there was a red line. The United States could not permit to have “those black men whom we have made free, uniformed and armed, and put in our service, when captured, being treated as slaves.” If the Confederate authorities refused to exchange black soldiers “man-for-man,” the entire cartel would have to be set aside. Butler then proposed to negotiate away all outstanding problems, so that this one crucial issue “may be left standing sharply alone.”

Somewhat taken aback, Stanton referred Butler’s memorandum to Grant. Grant responded on April 17, in a letter to Butler which is often miscast as an order.

Grant agreed with Butler: “no distinction whatsoever shall be made between white and colored prisoners; the only question being where they, at the time of the capture, in the military service of the United States.”

On August 10, 1864, the Confederate commissioner agreed to a “man-to-man” exchange. When Butler inquired whether the exchange would cover black troops, there was no reply.

 

Bickering Generals

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

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The telegraph offered a revolutionary breakthrough in communications, however, no technology could ease personal tensions or alleviate turf wars. Two telegrams spotted by hungmung, one of our valiant volunteers, offer an intriguing insight into one of such conflict.

Both telegrams were received in Washington on February 7, 1862.  Both involved Henry W. Halleck (Alden), then the commander of the Department of the Missouri; George B. McClellan (Andes), the general-in-chief of Union armies; and Don Carlos Buell (Alvord), the head of the Department of the Ohio. The telegrams were part of a complicated but little known conflict over the course of action in the West.

Lincoln urged speedy occupation of the heavily Unionist Tennessee, but McClellan and his old friend Buell wanted instead to target Nashville. The heads of two Western departments, Halleck and Buell, could not get along. When Buell came up with a plan to launch a dual advance on the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers, Halleck dismissed the plan as “madness” on the grounds that the Union troops in the West were too scattered to provide for any sort of sustained campaign.

Things got even more complicated in late January 1862. McClellan, perhaps hoping to score some political points, proposed to shift the fighting to Kentucky and then move on to East Tennessee. Upon his request, the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent his Assistant Secretary Thomas A. Scott to explore the logistics of transferring some 60,000 troops from McClellan’s command to Buell’s headquarters in Louisville.

On January 29, McClellan fired off a telegram to Halleck warning him of the impending Confederate expedition into Kentucky. The next day, Halleck ordered Ulysses S. Grant to start immediately for Fort Henry.

At the same time Buell decided to go to East Tennessee after all. When Halleck, who was getting cold feet about the operation, asked Buell either to transfer some of his troops or to stage a diversion, Buell was less than enthusiastic, even after McClellan urged his friend to help Halleck by switching the line of attack from East Tennessee to Bowling Green, Ky.

In the second telegram, Buell telegraphed McClellan complaining about Halleck’s move which, although “right in its strategic bearing” had been commenced without “appreciation, preparation, or concert.” Now that it had “become of vast magnitude,” Buell noted that he was indeed contemplating “a change of the line to support” but warned that this sudden change of direction was “hazardous.”

The telegram appears in on pp. 587-588 of vol. 7 of the 1st Series of the Official Records. It is clear that the publication differs from the ledger record. For example, the phrase “without appreciation, preparation, or concert,” was edited to read “without appreciation – preparative or concert.”

Moreover, the publication does not include the telegram that, as the ledger shows, immediately preceded it.  The telegram at the top of the page was published some sixteen years later; it appears on p. 206 of vol. 52 (part I). It was also printed with errors: it seems to indicate that the telegram was sent from Washington, D.C. and addressed to an “L. Thomas.” As seen in the ledger, the telegram was in fact addressed to General George Thomas and sent from Buell’s headquarters in Louisville. Because the telegrams were printed out of sequence and with serious errors, the connection between them has long been overlooked.

As the ledger shows, Buell was indeed contemplating the transfer of some Ohio and Indiana regiments. Also, the published version of the telegram from Buell to McClellan features a time-stamp that seems to show it took almost 12 hours to transmit it: the message sent at midnight of February 6 was received at 11:30 a.m. of February 7. The ledger, however, shows no time stamp on this or the preceding telegram. In fact, there were only two more telegrams that similarly lacked the time stamp. All four were received on February 7 and all followed a confidential report from Thomas A. Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War to his boss Edwin M. Stanton.

That report, which also does not appear in OR, describes Scott’s effort to facilitate the confusing and bitter communications between Halleck’s and Buell’s departments. It appears that our telegrams were attached to the report. The ledger shows that the telegrams were received along with the report by a USMT operator in Washington at 1:30 a.m. rather than 11:30 a.m. of February 7.

Generals bickering on the battlefield is nothing new. What is interesting is to see how that bickering has been captured and then reinterpreted over time. These messages  offer a confirmation of the primary importance of our job here at Decoding the Civil War.

Ledger 7, Received

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The cover of the above ledger is not all that exciting to look at. But within that cover is the first of the hard earned rewards from the Ledger Challenge. This is the cover of Ledger 7, the first ledger we received with consensus data from the 20 finished during those exciting two weeks. The consensus text has been reviewed and published in the Huntington Digital Library. Coming in at 400 pages, with some 460 telegrams, it took us a while to go through it. The contents of the ledger are varied, covering the period from late May to early July 1863, and include various (sometimes conflicting) reports from Vicksburg, potential traitors in Indiana, and the start of Gettysburg.

Our volunteers worked hard on all 20 ledgers. We want to say, again, thank you for that effort. Ledger 7 shows that the effort is bearing fruit. We are already hard at work on the next ledger, and the others are going through the consensus processing now.

As we publish these ledgers, we will link to them on the Results page of the Decoding the Civil War site.

 

 

 

Wooooo Hoooooo!

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As a follow-up to Mario’s post on Monday, I just wanted to share that we have officially passed 100,000 classifications for the project! Well done transcribers! The end (of phase 1) may not quite be nigh, but it is in sight.

Challenge Demolished

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Decoding the Civil War has just finished its two-week transcription challenge. Our original goal was simple: complete 10 ledgers. Well, we reached that goal in the first six days. Deciding to ask our volunteers for a little more, we added 10 more ledgers. The challenge became 20 ledgers in two weeks. We can happily say that we have met that goal as well.

That is correct—all of our wonderful volunteers have completed an incredible 20 ledgers! The ledgers are:

mssEC_01; mssEC_02; mssEC_04; mssEC_05; mssEC_06; mssEC_07; mssEC_08; mssEC_09; mssEC_10; mssEC_11; mssEC_12; mssEC_15; mssEC_17; mssEC_20; mssEC_21; mssEC_22; mssEC_25; mssEC_33; mssEC_34; mssEC_35.

That is a total of 9,998 classifications, an average of 714 transcriptions a day, far exceeding our goal of 425 classifications per day! We also added 727 volunteers. Welcome to all of you! You and our veteran volunteers have helped make this a very successful challenge.

The researchers now have their hands full reviewing the consensus data and getting it transferred into the Huntington Digital Library. Keep checking our Results  page to see new ledgers added.

So it is time to strike up the band, and order extra rations to all our volunteers! We have 30962 classifications left. That is still quite a bit, but remember that we have completed almost 10,000 in the last two weeks, and 87,150 classifications since the project started last June.

We ask you to keep your enthusiasm up and those fingers flying. Let’s try to finish them by June 30th!

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Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

With a Brave Army and a Just Cause

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Executive Mansion
Washington, April 30, 1864
Lieutenant General Grant.
Not expecting to see you again
before the Spring Campaign opens, I wish to express,
in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have
done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The
particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to
know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleas=
ed with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints
or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that
any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great
numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points
are less likely to escape your attention than they would
be mine. If there is anything wanting which is with=
in my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may
God sustain you.
Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

The Civil War, born of a grave constitutional crisis over slavery, tested many provisions of the Constitution that hitherto had remained mere abstractions. One of these was Article II Section 2 which proclaimed the President “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”

The extent of these powers was unclear and was subject of fierce debates, most famously those over the constitutionality of suspension of the writ of habeas corpus or emancipate the enemy slaves by means of a presidential proclamation. It was also unclear to what extent commander-in-chief should be involved in the actual business of commanding the army and navy.

On April 30, 1864, as Ulysses S. Grant was preparing to embark on what would become the bloodiest campaign of the war, the President wrote the above letter to the newly appointed Lieutenant General–a title that only George Washington had borne before.

Lincoln, acutely aware of his lack of military experience, generally refrained from giving orders. He left the planning, and the follow through, of the campaign in Grant’s hands, much as he had done with other generals. And many times had Lincoln been disappointed and frustrated by their performance. This time, however, he had found the correct general. Grant devised a campaign in the Spring of 1864 that would lead to the final collapse of the Confederacy a year later.

A Seance in the White House

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By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

On April 25, 1863, the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette published a piece titled “Lincoln and Spirits” dated April 23 and bylined to one Mr. Melton. The report described a “spiritual soiree” in the Red Room of the White House hosted by the President of the United States and attended by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The President’s guest of honor was Melton’s friend, one Mr. Charles E. Shockle, and the purpose of the meeting was to test his “wonderful alleged superpowers.”

The mere fact of the President attending a spiritual séance seemed quite unremarkable.  By the beginning of the Civil War, spiritualism, born in the “burned over district” of upstate New York in the 1840s, had become a popular obsession, subject to fervent belief, amused skepticism, and harsh criticism.

The bereaved and disconsolate anxiously seized on the chance to talk to the departed loved ones. More fortunate delighted in tipping tables, pieces of furniture moving on their own volition, and messages from beyond the grave. It also helped that “spirits” who popped up in parlors and living rooms tended to endorse the causes of their earthly hosts or share their political preferences.

Lending additional credence to the mediums was the fact that “spirits” made their presence known by repeated knocking or rapping, which was followed by “automatic” messages appearing on blank sheets of paper, which evoked telegraphic communications.

As the war raged on, thousands of grief-stricken men and women invited mediums to their homes. One such homes was the White House. It was a matter of common knowledge that Mrs. Lincoln, buckling under the pressures of life in war-time Washington and pining for her dead sons Eddie and Willy, resorted to various mediums and spirit guides.

The séance was off to a brisk start, when the President was briefly called away. The annoyed spirits, who had assembled with the sole purpose of convincing the Chief Executive of their power, took it up with the Cabinet members, pinching Secretary Stanton’s ears and tweaking Secretary Welles’ generous beard.

After Lincoln returned, the spirits calmed down and duly moved the tables, swayed the portrait of Henry Clay that adorned the wall “more than a foot,” and hoisted “two candelabras, presented by the Dey of Algiers to President Adams” to the ceiling, before placing the Mr. Shockle under “spiritual influence” that was so “powerful that twice during the evening restoratives were applied.”

In short order, knocks were heard “directly beneath the President’s feet” and a blank sheet of paper covered by a handkerchief requisitioned from Stanton revealed a message from none other than Henry Knox, the Secretary of War under George Washington. For an otherworldly presence, Knox was rather explicit: “Haste makes waste, but delays cause vexations. Give vitality by energy. Use every means to subdue. Proclamations are useless; make a bold front and fight the enemy; leave traitors at home to the care of loyal men. Less note of preparation, less parade and policy talk, more action.”

When the President politely inquired if it was within “within the scope of his ability” to predict the “when the rebellion will be put down,” Knox’s spirit assured Lincoln that “Washington, Lafayette, Franklin, Wilberforce, Napoleon, and myself have held frequent consultations upon this point.” The advice of the illustrious panel, as Lincoln sarcastically quipped, “sounded very much like the talk of my cabinet: Napoleon “says concentrate your forces upon one point; Lafayette thinks that the rebellion will die of exhaustion; Franklin sees the end approaching, as the South must give up for want of mechanical ability to compete against Norther mechanics.” Wilberforce, the message concluded, “sees hope only a negro army.”

The spirits then prophesized that “English people” would demand that “England’s aristocracy” stop propping up their Southern brethren. As the piece-de-résistance, the spirit of Stephen A. Douglass delivered a full-blown oration, imploring his old rival to “throw aside all advisers who hesitate about the policy to be pursued” and prophesying a surge in “the popular approval which would follow one or two victories” that were sure to follow “ere long.”

This was quite a story. It was immediately reprinted in Northern and Southern newspapers before the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette published a retraction on June 6, 1863, calling it a “humbug.”  Two weeks later the spiritualist publication Banner of Light followed suit. Yet the story grew legs. Lincoln’s numerous detractors seized on the story to paint him at best as a deluded individual and at worst, a demon-worshipper. In the fall of 1863, Ohio Democrats painted a picture “the Nation demonized, and its president a spirit-rapper.” Spiritualism’s advocates cited the incident as the ultimate endorsement.

Repeated ever since, the episode has fed various strains of Lincoln scholarship, from the exploration of his spirituality to speculations of his interest in the occult and paranormal, even though Gideon Welles made no mention of the séance in his diary, and there are no records of either Charles E. Shockle or a Boston reporter named Melton. (The latter is frequently conflated with Melton Prior, the famous journalist and artist for the London Illustrated News.)

To be clear, the story is in fact a piece of fiction. It is a combination of a fictional personal letter, opinion piece, and a Lincoln joke, complete with samples of the president’s unique blend of sarcasm and amused observation of human folly and digs at the members of his cabinet. It is somewhat reminiscent of the missives of Orpheus C. Kerr, the ingenious creation of R.H. Newell, which were too full of rather fanciful (and hilarious) accounts of the president.

It is no surprise that a piece featuring various departed historical celebrities urging the president to press on with the war effort, cautioning him against “traitors” and the “spirit of party,” and promoting a “negro army” would appear in a Boston Republican newspaper. Nor was the image of Lincoln as a conscientious and level-headed war-time leader who, despite his sound skepticism, was willing to listen to good advice even if it came from beyond the grave.

As we proceed with the challenge, let us follow Lincoln’s example and heed the spirits’ advice to “give vitality by energy.”


Sources:

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: The soldier’s grave, 1862, Jay T. Last Collection (UDID 383505)