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Civil War Turning Points: Highlights from the American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

Posted on 10/14/2014

The October release of the American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes documents discussing turning points in the war itself, the reputations of several prominent participants, and the ferocioius trench warfare that would later come to define the Western Front in World War I.

Within Fort Sumter; or, A View of Major Anderson's Garrison Family for One Hundred and Ten Days by One of the Company (1861)
By Miss A. Fletcher

In this volume, Miss A. Fletcher vividly describes life within Fort Sumter until its siege and eventual evacuation. She includes detailed accounts of the supply of rations, hastily constructed barracks within the fort, and the dramatic communications prior to the outbreak of war between U.S. Army office Major Robert Anderson and the Governor of South Carolina. On January 9, 1861, after the Union supply ship, Star of the West, was fired upon and forced to retreat from Charleston Harbor, Anderson wrote the following to Governor Francis Pickens:

Sir:—Two of your batteries fired this morning on an unarmed vessel bearing the flag of my Government. As I have not been notified that war has been declared by South Carolina against the United States, I can not but think this a hostile act committed without your sanction or authority. Under that hope I refrain from opening a fire on your batteries. I have the honor, therefore, respectfully to ask whether the above mentioned act—one which, I believe, is without parallel in the history of our country, or any other civilized government—was committed in obedience to your instructions, and notify you, if it is not disclaimed, that I regard it as an act of war. And I shall not, after reasonable time for the return of my messenger, permit any vessel to pass within the range of guns of my fort.

In order to save, as far as it is in my power, the shedding of blood, I beg you will take due notification of my decision for the good of all concerned. Hoping, however, your answer may justify a further continuance of forbearance on my part...

The governor responded by saying any attempt to re-enforce Fort Sumter or to re-take other forts in South Carolina would be regarded as... act of coercion on the part of the United States Government. Due notice of this was sent to all approaching vessels; and the Star of the West, despite of warning, having entered the harbor with troops, was, consequently, fired into.

Over the next several months Major Anderson refused to abandon his post and the government of South Carolina prevented the fort from being resupplied. On April 11, Anderson responded to a formal demand by General Beauregard for the immediate evacuation of Fort Sumter:

Sir:—I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication, demanding the evacuation of this Fort, and to say in reply thereto that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and my obligations to my Government prevent my compliance.

Early on April 12, Anderson received the following message:

By virtue of Brigadier General Beauregard’s command, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the line of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.

The Civil War had begun.

A Statement of the Case of Brigadier-General Joseph W. Revere, United States Volunteers: Tried by Court-Martial, and Dismissed from the Service of the United States, August 10th, 1863 (1863)
By Joseph Warren Revere

Joseph Warren Revere, grandson of Paul Revere, was a career officer in the Army and Navy. Prior to the Civil War he served in both the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War and was commended for bravery in battle. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, division commander Major General Hiram Berry was mortally wounded and command was passed to Revere. After the battle, and withdrawal of Union forces, Revere was blamed for the loss and later court-martialed over a controversial order he described as a “regrouping effort” but others considered a retreat.

Revere was charged with “Misbehavior before the Enemy” and “Neglect of Duty,” but did not offer a defense at his court-martial because he felt the burden of proof had not been met and he would be acquitted. However, after being found guilty and dismissed from the Army, Revere presented his case to the public, saying:

I submit this statement in the belief that the public, more fully informed than the Court, will exonerate me from the censure cast upon me by its sentence.

Revere gave a detailed and convincing rebuttal of the charges against him before concluding with the following personal appeal:

The greater part of my life has been devoted, in the profession of arms, to the service of my country, following naturally the traditions of a family which gave one not undistinguished name to the Revolutionary War, and which has offered two other of its members to death for the State, in this one. I have been for thirty years a sailor and a soldier. Had I been a politician in epaulettes, plying in the camp the arts of the caucus, and eking out by chicane defects in soldiership; or had I been lifted from some low employment to a rank won only by servility, and held only by pliancy, there might be retributive, though indirect, justice in this sentence. But I have been more versed in war than in intrigue. On all that Court, eminent as most of its members were, there was not one who was not my junior in length of employment in the United States service. I am censured for conduct to the prejudice of discipline, after having served for twenty years, under the iron discipline of the old navy, without a reproach on that score—after having held in Mexico, in 1851, the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and instructor of artillery, conferred in view of my fitness as a disciplinarian—after being appointed a brigadier-general of volunteers, on the recommendation of General Hooker himself, founded expressly on my known experience in discipline, and justified, before and since, by the severe and exact enforcement of that military virtue, for which I am well known in our present army, and which has borne its fruits in the brilliant reputation of the 7th New Jersey Volunteers, trained and originally commanded by me*—after having served in the battles of the Peninsula, during the campaign of Pope, and at Fredericksburg, with wounds, but without a blemish upon my military character, in that or any other respect. Surely, the testimony of such a record to the improbability of the offence, should have outweighed all but the most direct and absolute proof that it was committed. At least, with such a record, I had a right to expect from the Court, even with my defence unheard, greater lenity than is shown in this cruel sentence—and from the President, even though his attention scarcely rested upon my case, some indulgence for one who has given the prime of his life, without military reproach hitherto, to the service of the State. Upon that record, and this Statement, asking only an impartial hearing, I invoke the judgment of that public opinion to which all are amenable, and which seldom fails, in the end, to do justice.

*This regiment, at the battle of Chancellorsville, captured five regimental colors and 360 prisoners, a larger number than the force they took into the action.

Findings of the Court of Inquiry, and Reviews of the Judge-Advocate-General and of the General of the Army, in the Case of Major-General G.K. Warren (1883)

Gouverneur Kemble Warren was a civil engineer and general in the Union Army; he is commonly remembered as the “Hero of Little Round Top” for his defense of the rocky site during the Battle of Gettysburg. Regardless of his role at Gettysburg, Warren did not enjoy the support of his immediate superior, General Philip Sheridan, or that of General Ulysses Grant. In his Personal Memoirs Grant wrote of Warren after the Battle of White Oak Road:

He was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.

General Sheridan had also become dissatisfied with Warren’s performance in battles following Gettysburg and had been given written permission by Grant to relieve Warren if Sheridan felt it was for the good of the service. At the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Sheridan judged that Warren had moved too slowly into the attack and criticized Warren for not being at the front of his columns. He relieved Warren of his command on the spot. Warren attempted to clear his name and restore his reputation but was unable to present his case to a court of inquiry until Grant had left the presidency. In his 1879 application for a court of inquiry Warren addressed the Secretary of War and gave his reason for asking for the court as follows:

Early in the morning of April 1, 1865, the Fifth Army Corps was detached from the left wing of the Army of the Potomac, under Major-General Meade, where it had previously been, and, joining with the command of Major-General Sheridan, fought with him the battle of Five Forks, where we won a victory remarkable for its completeness. After the close of the battle, while at the head of my army corps, directed by me through the continuance of the battle, and led by me in the final assault, in which latter my horse was fatally shot, with several thousand prisoners, twelve battle standards, and a battery of artillery in our hands, with no armed foe in sight, I received, about 7 p.m., a written order from General Sheridan relieving me, and directing me to report in person to Lieutenant-General Grant.

This order came without any assigned reason, nor had there been any real discordance between us. Surprised, I sought General Sheridan and asked him what it meant; to which his only reply was, ‘Obey the order!’ I proceeded at once to General Grant, ten miles distant. * * * He told me he had given General Sheridan the authority to relieve me if he thought necessary, but gave no reason for its use on this occasion.

Unfortunately for Warren, the court of inquiry not only supported Sheridan’s decision but also suggested the matter was no longer a concern to anyone but historians. The finding of the court of inquiry concludes with the following:

No one has questioned the patriotism, integrity, and great intelligence of General Warren. These are attested by a long record of most excellent service, but in the clash of arms at and near Five Forks, March 31 and April 1, 1865, his personal activity fell short of the standard fixed by General Sheridan, on whom alone rested the great responsibility for that and succeeding days.

My conclusion is that General Sheridan was perfectly justified in his action in this case, and he must be fully and entirely sustained if the United States expects great victories by her armies in the future.

All the other branches settled by this court belong to the domain of history rather than of military inquiry.

Was General Thomas Slow at Nashville? With a Description of the Greatest Calvaly Movement of the War and General James H. Wilson's Calvalry Operations in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia (1896)
By Henry V. Boynton

The Battle of Nashville took place on December 15-16, 1864 and represented the end of large-scale fighting in the Western Theater. In one of the largest victories of the Union Army, Major-General George Henry Thomas’s forces routed Lieutenant-General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee and destroyed it as an effective fighting force. Thomas was known as a slow and deliberate general; he was nicknamed “Sledge of Nashville” and “Slow Trot Thomas,” but his caution should not be conflated with inaction.

Over 30 years after Thomas and his forces won the Battle of Nashville, Henry V. Boynton, the author of this work, felt obligated to defend General Thomas’s reputation against charges levied by writers “stumbling upon interesting dispatches of notable campaigns, read[ing] them in connection with the ill-considered and hasty criticisms of the hot times which brought them forth, and, finding questions settled twenty years ago, but entirely new to themselves, [who]…proceed to reveal them as new things to the new generation.”

One such hasty criticism came from General Grant, but was also later retracted, as noted by Boynton:

That General Thomas was not slow at Nashville is ancient history. General Grant, who was the first to charge it, was also the first to withdraw the imputation, by declaring in his official report that at the time he had been very impatient over what appeared as unnecessary delay on the part of Thomas, ‘but his final defeat of Hood was so complete that it will be accepted as a vindication of that distinguished officer’s judgment.’

Boynton argued that “the ostensible reason for heralding Thomas as slow… was that he insisted upon concentrating his infantry force and remounting his cavalry.” Before going on to describe “the greatest cavalry movement of the war,” Boynton further rebuked Thomas’s critics, writing:

In touching upon General Thomas’s persistence in getting his cavalry ready, it would be very natural for a surface student to quote Secretary Stanton: ‘If he waits for Wilson to get ready, Gabriel will be blowing his last horn,’ and treat it as conclusive proof of Thomas’s dilatoriness and Stanton’s final opinion. But just far enough under the surface to escape the eyes of historical amateurs, lies the splendid and unparalleled fact that in eight winter days after the date of that dispatch General James H. Wilson, Thomas’s chief of cavalry, had impressed horses enough, with those furnished on previous requisitions, to raise the effective mounted force at Nashville from 5500 to 13,500 and that on the eighth day General Wilson went into action with 12,000 mounted men, and had besides one brigade of 1500 men engaged in an independent movement.

Elliott's Brigade: How It Held the Crater and Saved Petersburg. A Story of the Bloodiest Hand-to-Hand Conflict of the War... (1915)
By Charles Pinckney Elliott

Although preserving “an authentic record of a portion of the rather remarkable record of General Stephen Elliott” was the primary motivation for this publication, it also provides perspective of the brutal trench warfare that would come to be most often associated with World War I. The following is just one of several descriptions of the new landscape of warfare:

The hill slopes from the trench’s front and rear. Immediately north there were four or five traverses running to the rear perpendicular to the main trench perhaps 20 yards. These traverses were erected to protect the line from an enfilading fire of the enemy on our left.

Besides the traverses there were many ditches to obtain access to the rear. In the sides of these ditches close to the trench officers burrowed holes in which to sleep. Some of these were covered with mounds of earth. There was a ditch in the extreme rear which communicated with all the traverses and ditches. No wonder that some of the Federal officers compared this network of ditches to the catacombs of Rome!

McMaster also recalled fighting the Union forces within the trenches:

Soon thereafter I observed that there was a small space of the trench in front of me vacant, and on stepping into it I saw two muskets which two Federal soldiers were trying to shoot around the bend down the line without exposing their bodies. The balls harmlessly entered the breastwork. I immediately concluded it was not a safe place for the commander of the brigade and hurried down the trench a few yards.

For more information about The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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