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A Nation Divided.  The Civil War in contemporary prints
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1861: May

[ Anaconda Plan | More states secede | Early Engagements | "Contraband" | Col. Ellsworth | Refreshment Saloons ]


Anaconda Plan

Winfield Scott
On May 3rd, Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the United States, wrote a letter to his protégé, George McClellan, outlining his plan on how to subdue the rebellion in the southern states:
We rely greatly on the sure operation of a complete blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf ports soon to commence. In connection with such blockade we propose a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean...the object being to clear out and keep open this great line of communication in connection with the strict blockade of the seaboard, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.
This plan, soon dubbed the "Anaconda Plan" was designed to cut off necessary supplies and cut the Confederacy in half. A blockade had already been established on the southern ports by Lincoln the previous month, so the issue was where to focus the attention of the military.

Scott's Anaconda Plan
This plan was ridiculed by those who believed that decisive military action, in particular a direct assault by land into Virginia, would win the war in short order. That belief proved illusionary and it is interesting that it was, in fact, essentially this plan which eventually won the war for the North.

Blockade map
The blockade was established, with the Union commissioning 500 ships which destroyed or captured about 1,500 blockade runners during the war. A completely effective blockade of such a vast coastline (about 3,000 miles) was, of course, impossible and something like five out of every six blockade runners got through. Still, the blockade did effectively curtail the ability of the South to export their goods and thus denied them needed capital throughout the war. When the Union finally got around to taking control of the Mississippi River, the Confederacy was doomed.

More states secede

Map of Confederacy
In May, the Confederacy essentially took its final form. On May 6th, Arkansas voted to secede from the Union and on that same day the Tennessee legislature voted to have a public referendum on secession on June 8th; however, the state also formed an alliance with the Confederacy and thereafter acted as though it had already officially seceded. Finally, on May 20th, North Carolina became the last of the southern states to join with the Confederacy, now essentially eleven states strong. On the same day North Carolina secedes, the capital of the Confederacy is moved from Montgomery to Richmond, Virginia.

Early Engagements

The federal Fort Monroe had a commanding position at the mouth of the Hampton Roads near the southern end of Chesapeake Bay, providing an excellent base for the blockade of southern shipping. The Virginia militia began fortifications to protect Norfolk, including the building of battlements at Sewell's Point, across from Fort Monroe. On May 18th through 20th, the USS Monticello and a battery on Sewell's Point exchanged gunfire, though to little effect for either side. A similar engagement took place from May 29th to June 1st, between U.S. naval forces and a Confederate battery at Aquia Creek on the Potomac River.


Benj. Butler
On May 23rd, three slaves--Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend--escaped to the Union's Fort Monroe. They had been sent by their owner to work on the Confederate battlements at Sewell's Point and they soon took an opportunity to row at night across Hampton Roads, where they were then taken to the fort's commander, General Benjamin Butler.

According to the Fugitive Slave Law, Butler should have returned the slaves to their owner. However, not only was their owner in rebellion against the United States, but the slaves had been working at building fortifications to threaten his command. Thus Butler argued that with Virginia's secession there was no longer a legal obligation to return the slaves and that he would seize them as "contraband of war."

Though Lincoln had been insisting that he was not threatening slavery in the South, he accepted Butler's argument and let the ruling stand; from thence forward, any slaves escaping to the North were accepted as "contraband." This had a profound impact on the war. When slaves in the South heard about this, they were encouraged to escape, and these runaways--numbering perhaps half a million--became a major source for manpower that were used by the Union Army both for workers and later for soldiers.


Col Ellsworth
When he was killed at age 24 on May 24th, 1861, Elmer E. Ellsworth became the first Union martyr. In 1860, Ellsworth began work at Abraham Lincoln's Springfield law office, becoming the future President's close friend. Just before the war began, Ellsworth, a native of New York, went to New York City to raise the 11th New York Volunteer Regiment, which he soon took to Washington.

Ellsworth and the Fire Zouaves
Ellsworth was a student of military history and he greatly admired the Algerian troops with the French army in North Africa, the Zouaves, so he designed the uniforms for his troops based on the Zouaves. Many of the volunteers in his regiment were from the New York City volunteer fire departments and so the troop soon became known as the "Fire Zouaves."

Death of Col Ellsworth
Virginia's voters ratified the state's secession from the Union on May 23rd, so the federal government sent forces to secure Alexandria the next day, including Ellsworth's Zouaves. Ellsworth decided that he would remove the very large Confederate flag that had been flying from an Alexandria inn, the Marshall House. Accompanied by four troopers, Ellsworth climbed to the roof and removed the flag without any trouble, but upon descending back down the stairs, he was hit with a gun blast by the inn's owner, James Jackson, a rabid slavery defender. Jackson was immediately killed by one of Ellsworth's men, but not before Ellsworth became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War.

Little Zouave
Lincoln was distraught by Ellsworth's death, and his body was laid in state at the White House and then later in New York City. Ellsworth became a national hero and "Remember Ellsworth" became a rallying cry throughout the North. Many patriotic prints were made of Ellsworth and his death and the Zouaves became the most famous troops in the army. The elaborate and gaudy Zouave uniforms were soon discarded in the dirty reality of the war, but in early 1861 they were a proud symbol of Union resolve.

Refreshment Saloons

Philadelphia Refreshment Saloons
During the Civil War large numbers of soldiers passed through Philadelphia on their way south. Troops from the northeast were ferried across the Delaware River to the foot of Washington Avenue, whence they marched to the depot of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. There they boarded trains that took them across Gray's Ferry and south towards the war.

Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon
A local grocer, Barzilai S. Brown, conceived the notion of an organized volunteer group to provide encouragement and sustenance for the soldiers on their brief transit through Philadelphia. His idea led to the opening in May 1861 of the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, followed shortly afterwards by the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon located on Otsego Street just south of Washington. In these saloons the troops were furnished with washing facilities, food, and the opportunity of writing letters home, which were then stamped for free. Each of the saloons served hundreds of thousands of grateful soldiers during the course of the war.

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