Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Union Soldiers in Northern Virginia Welcome Victories From Far Afield

Although the military situation in Northern Virginia was relatively calm in February 1862, elsewhere in the Confederacy the Union Army was on the move and scoring important victories.  Ft. Henry fell to Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on February 6, followed by Ft. Donelson on February 16.  The Union capture of the two forts opened the path for an advance into the state of Tennessee along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.  Meanwhile, the Union secured a key foothold on the North Carolina coast when Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough beat an inferior Confederate force at Roanoke Island on February 7-8.   The news of the distant victories reached the Union Army's winter camps in Virginia and boosted the men's confidence in their cause.  Perhaps the defeat of the Rebellion would come sooner rather than later.

"Capture of Roanoke Island, Feby. 8th 1862: By the federal forces, under Command of Genl. Ambrose E. Burnside, and gunboats under Commodore L.M. Goldsborough," Currier & Ives (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Brig. Gen. George G. Meade, a brigade commander with the Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley, wrote to his wife on February 9 about the capture of Ft. Henry.  He asked her enthusiastically, "Is not the news from Tennessee glorious?"  (Meade 245.)  Meade felt that Ft. Henry, along with the victories at Dranesville and Mill Springs, Kentucky "prove most conclusively that [the Confederates] are not invincible, and will run just as soon, if not sooner, than we will."  (Meade 245.)  He reported that these wins "have had a most beneficial effect on our morale, and I think all hands are now here looking forward to the period when we can do something."  (Meade 245.)  A few days later, on February 11, Meade told his wife:
To-night we have the good news that Roanoke Island has been taken by the Burnside fleet, and while I write the camp is cheering all around me. There are no particulars, so that our cheers are unmingled with mourning.  (Meade 245.)
All told, however, Meade was still a bit measured in his enthusiasm.  In a February 16 letter, he warned:
Foolish people consider the war over because we have had a few victories, but I consider it just begun. I believe, though, if we continue to be as fortunate as we have recently been, that it will not be long before the other side will have enough of it.  (Meade 246-47.)
Enlisted men in Northern Virginia rejoiced at the news of the recent wins.  Elijah Brown, a private from Co. F, 2nd Vermont at Camp Griffin in Lewinsville, wrote to his sister on February 14 about the capture of Roanoke Island:
The Burnside Expedition has gained [] A great Victory . . . .  Sissy we shall have them well cornered soon they will have to give up soon and surrender to the Gallant Banner of stars and stripes . . . .*
A.F. Hill of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves described with perhaps a bit of embellishment his regiment's reaction as a mounted messenger rode into Camp Pierpont with news of Ft. Donelson's surrender:
A soul-stirring cheer went up; every man in the regiment shouted with gladness on hearing the welcome news. Other regiments took up the cheer, and ere long fifteen thousand men were yelling at the top of their voices; and they continued to do so until they were hoarse.
Our brass band now came forth, took its position on the most elevated spot in our regimental street, and played all the national airs they could think of; beginning with "Hail Columbia," and winding up with "Yankee Doodle." The whole regiment gathered around, cheering at intervals in a deafening manner.  (Hill 198.)

Hill noted that most men felt that the victory spelled the end of the war, although one soldier dared to shout, "Ah boys, the war is not over yet."  (Hill 199.)  This young man was more realistic in his assessment than many would have cared to admit. 
Dan Mason, a corporal with Co. D, 6th Vermont at Camp Griffin, summed up the impact of February's victories in a letter to his fiancee on February 22:
One month has wrought a great change.  our army has been successful at every point. many Forts & important places with thousands of rebel prisoners have been taken by our gallant troops. As you will get the news in the papers long before this reaches you I will not give the particulars here. The daily newspapers (which are brought from Washington every day by little news boys) are filled with cheering news. Our arms are crowned with successs at every point. Camp Griffin is often made wild with joy on receiving the glorious news loud hurahs rend the air. it is deafening to hear the shouts of the excited soldiers. the wildest enthusiasm prevails.*
Mason, however, also doubted the prospects for an advance in Northern Virginia anytime soon.  He told his fiancee that "it is so very muddy now (& has been for the last 6 or 8 weeks) that it is impossible to move heavy artillery & the baggage waggons which must nessessarily attend the advance of an army." 

Mason was on to something.  The Army of the Potomac would have to wait a bit longer before Gen. George McClellan would make a move, and even longer before a major victory on the battlefield.  Until that time, the soldiers around the nation's capital would have to draw inspiration from Union victories elsewhere.

*The spelling and grammar in the soldiers' letters are as in the original.

A.F. Hill, Our Boys: The Personal Experiences of a Soldier with the Army of the Potomac (1864); Letters of Elijah Brown, On-Line Collection, Vermont Historical Society; Letters of Dan Mason, On-Line Collection, Vermont Historical Society; George G. Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1 (1913).

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