“This Is War”: The Construction of the Laird Rams

By Hannah Christensen ‘17

By the spring of 1863, American ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams had a much bigger problem than the activities of British-built Confederate raiders on his hands: the construction of two 230-foot long ironclad rams in the Laird shipyard at Birkenhead that evidence suggested were destined for the Confederacy. At 230 feet long and 40 feet wide, with 6-7 foot iron spears at the front, rotating turret batteries, full iron plating, and a top speed of 10 knots, these ships were the Americans’ worst nightmare. Lincoln’s cabinet even considered blatantly ignoring Britain’s “neutrality” and sending a U.S. Navy squadron to destroy the rams, which had been under construction since the previous summer.

In the summer of 1862, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Russell Mallory sent orders to one of the Confederacy’s agents in England, James Bulloch, to go ahead with plans to have two large ironclads built for the Confederate Navy. Identified as Nos. 294 and 295, the ships were supposed to be completed by the Laird firm by March and April of 1863, respectively, and delivered to Liverpool for pickup. Bulloch had originally decided that both ships should be built in the same yard to cut cost, decrease potential Union interest in their construction, and hopefully speed up production. However, any hope of reduced Union interest disappeared quickly. Union spies, informants, and agents were everywhere, and their activities only increased, particularly in spring 1863, as the ships were nearing completion.

The HMS Wivern, originally built for the Confederate Navy. Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

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Black Servicemen on the Seas: African Americans in the Union Navy

By Hannah Christensen ’17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Unknown sailor. Tintype. Approximately 19,000 black men served in the Navy, a much smaller number than the 180,000 who served in on land. The entire Union military totaled 2,000,000; one in ten Union soldiers was a black man. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

When the Civil War began, the United States Navy’s Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Commodore Silas H. Stringham, sought to blockade the entire Eastern Seaboard of the Confederacy. It faced two major problems: a shortage of manpower and an abundance of fugitive slaves flocking to the Union fleet. The commander of one vessel, Commander O.S. Glisson, had fifteen refugees on his ship, none of whom he intended to return to their owners. Glisson wrote to Commodore Stringham asking for advice, and Stringham wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles with an idea. Arguing that “if Negroes are to be used in this contest . . . they should be used to preserve the Government,” Stringham asked permission to recruit these fugitive slaves. Secretary Welles knew the Navy needed men, so he approved the request.

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Lincoln’s First 100 Days

By Hannah Christensen ‘17

Imagine trying to avoid a civil war and then having to figure out how to fight one—all in one’s first 100 days in office and all without Congress. That was what Abraham Lincoln’s first 100 days as president essentially looked like. From his first full day in office on March 5th, 1861 to his 100th day in the middle of June, Lincoln barely had time to handle the things presidents normally did, never mind relax.

Lincoln Inauguration 1861
Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration on March 4, 1861. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 5th, one of the first items on his desk was a letter from Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter had been surrounded by Confederate troops since South Carolina seceded in December of 1860, and now the situation was desperate. According to Anderson, they had about six weeks’ worth of provisions left before they would have to surrender. Otherwise, based on Anderson’s estimate, reinforcing the fort was going to take 20,000 men—4,000 more than the entire army—and might trigger fighting. Lincoln’s general-in-chief, General Winfield Scott, recommended surrender. On his first full day in office, Lincoln was facing the possibility of having to break both of his electoral promises regarding war: holding onto government property and waiting for the Confederates to move first. Continue reading “Lincoln’s First 100 Days”

The Corwin Amendment: The Last Last-Minute Attempt to Save the Union

By Hannah Christensen ’17

At around 5:20AM on March 4, 1861—Inauguration Day—the Senate voted 24-12 to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would permanently preserve slavery in the states where it currently existed. If successfully ratified, it would become the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—and hopefully avert the secession crisis and the impending Civil War. However, only six states had ratified the amendment by early 1862, and the amendment died soon after. The last attempt to stop the Civil War, an attempt which had been in the works since shortly after the presidential election, had failed.

Photo of Congressman Thomas Corwin (R, OH), the chair of the House committee established to develop a way to avert the secession crisis. He introduced the Corwin Amendment in the House, in addition to lending his name to it. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Two potential reasons for its failure were the speed with which the secession movement acted and the inability of Southern moderates to realize the threat the movement posed. In the almost immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, the secession movement was rapidly gaining steam in the Deep South. Just days after the election, South Carolina’s state legislature called for a state convention. A month later, South Carolinians elected delegates to the convention, and two weeks later—on December 20th—South Carolina seceded from the Union. Many Northerners—convinced most of the pro-Secession voters were being brainwashed by radical politicians—did not take this movement seriously at first and Republicans in particular saw no need to do anything about it, least of all compromise.

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The 2016 Fortenbaugh Lecture: Individual Responses to Lincoln’s Assassination

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Every year on November 19th, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a distinguished scholar of the Civil War Era is invited to speak as part of the Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture and present an aspect of the Civil War in a format that the general public can understand. This year, the 55th annual Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture was delivered by Dr. Martha Hodes of New York University. Dr. Hodes’ lecture was based on her book Mourning Lincoln and argued, based on personal primary sources from the immediate aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, that Americans’ responses were by no means consistent. Not everyone mourned, nor was everyone totally focused on the assassination, partly because there were differing visions for the nation’s future.

Martha Hodes' book Mourning Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Yale University Press
Martha Hodes’ book Mourning Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Yale University Press

At the beginning of her lecture, Dr. Hodes explained that she has always mentioned Lincoln’s assassination in the course she teaches on the Civil War, but  she did not become more interested in the event until after 9/11. She said it made her think about “how people respond to transformative events on the scale of everyday life.” She began to wonder how individual people responded to such a transformative event as Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and came up with the idea of writing a book about it because no one had written about the assassination using individuals’ own, private words. Continue reading “The 2016 Fortenbaugh Lecture: Individual Responses to Lincoln’s Assassination”

Something Must Be Done: The Construction and Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Not only did the armies leave something of a state of chaos behind them after the battle of Gettysburg; they also left their dead buried poorly almost everywhere. Within days, the combination of rain and pigs rooting around the battlefield had exposed multiple skeletons and partially-decomposed bodies. The smell was horrendous, and residents and visitors alike were shocked by the state of the burials.

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin was among these visitors. After seeing the state of affairs during his tour of the battlefield on July 10th, Curtin appointed local attorney David Wills to act as his “agent” in affairs related to Pennsylvania’s dead. As agent, Wills did everything from helping families locate loved ones’ bodies to disinterring and sending those remains home. This process was made more complicated by the fact that those grave markers that existed were only partially legible, if at all.

Wills also got to know other state agents, including William Yates Selleck of Wisconsin and Henry Edwards of Massachusetts. It was Edwards and Massachusetts officials who brought up the idea of purchasing part of the battlefield to turn into a cemetery. Wills also got the head of the Christian Commission of Pennsylvania, Andrew B. Cross, in on the idea. When Wills wrote to Governor Curtin about it on July 24th, the governor quickly authorized him to get to work. Continue reading “Something Must Be Done: The Construction and Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg”

Five Conventions, Four Candidates, and Three Parties: Chaos before the Election of 1860

By Hannah Christensen ’17

This alone might sound like a good indication of the turbulent politics of 1860, but there is more to the story. Three of the 1860 nominating conventions were Democratic, one was Republican, and one was Constitutional Unionist. They ultimately produced four candidates for president, two of them Democrats.

It all started with the Democratic nominating convention in Charleston, South Carolina. As the delegates gathered, several things became evident: Charleston was a poor choice for hosting, party unity was the key to victory, having any kind of slave code plank in the platform would guarantee defeat, and agreeing on a single candidate would be difficult. The northwestern delegates supported Stephen Douglas, but the others were divided between Senator R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Vice-president John Breckinridge, former Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie, and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Perhaps more concerning than this was the rumor that Alabama delegate W. L. Yancy had convinced his delegation to threaten to withdraw from the convention if they could not get a slave-code plank—Congressional protection of slavery in the Territories—into the platform.

Eventually, that happened. From April 23rd to May 3rd, the convention struggled to agree on much of anything. Despite their belief in the importance of party unity, the delegates spent three days arguing about basic organizational matters before turning their attention to the platform and nominations on April 26th. On the 27th, the platform committee presented one majority and two minority reports. The majority report reaffirmed the 1856 platform, with several additions: no abolition of slavery in the Territories, some state legislatures’ attempts to avoid the fugitive slave law were hostile to the Constitution. It also stated that the government had a duty to protect property wherever it had authority and naturalized citizens in foreign countries, as well as to acquire Cuba as soon as possible. The principle minority platform affirmed the 1856 platform. It proclaimed that the Democratic Party would hold to court decisions on property rights, promised protection to all citizens at home and abroad, pledged government aid for a Pacific railroad, pushed for the acquisition of Cuba, and proclaimed resistance to the fugitive slave law unconstitutional. The other minority report merely repeated the 1856 platform. Continue reading “Five Conventions, Four Candidates, and Three Parties: Chaos before the Election of 1860”

First In the Nation’s History: Gettysburg From Battlefield Memorial Association to National Park

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Just over a month after the Battle of Gettysburg turned the town on its head, local attorney David McConaughy sent a letter to several prominent citizens suggesting that “there could be no more fitting and expressive memorial of the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our army…than the battle-field itself.” He had already purchased some of the ground, and in order to keep the effort going, he suggested trying to get Pennsylvania citizens to contribute money to purchase and preserve more. In order to manage this fund and the battlefield, McConaughy proposed the formation of a preservation association and made a plan to seek its formal incorporation by the State Legislature. The idea went over well with the local citizens, and on September 5, 1863, they and McConaughy met to consider the matter of battlefield preservation. What they established was Gettysburg’s first preservation organization and the nation’s earliest attempt to preserve a Civil War battlefield.

The beginnings of battlefield preservation went hand in hand with another post-battle development: the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. David Wills and McConaughy presented competing solutions to the problem of where to put thousands of Union dead, and Wills’ plan won out. McConaughy’s plan was designed to benefit the local Evergreen Cemetery, while Wills had planned for an entirely separate cemetery. McConaughy then turned his attention to battlefield preservation: he and the group of citizens that met on September 5th created the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA), which created a fund for preservation purposes to be supported by voluntary subscriptions at $10 per share. They also appointed a provisional committee from which an executive committee would be elected; they would also appoint local committees across Pennsylvania.

When the fund was large enough, the subscribers were supposed to elect trustees, meet at Gettysburg, and organize. The officers on Gettysburg’s preliminary committee consisted of Joseph R. Ingersoll (chair), Dr. Samuel S. Schmucker and Rev. J. Ziegler (vice chairs), T. D. Carson (treasurer), and David McConaughy (secretary). The executive committee consisted entirely of Gettysburg residents and included J. B. Danner, J. L. Schich, D. A. Buehler, David McConaughy, R. G. McCreary, George Arnold, and T. D. Carson.

View of woods near the location where General John Reynolds was killed c. July 1863. This area was one of the first parts of the battlefield purchased on behalf of the GBMA. Photo via Library of Congress.

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