As Lecky Harper sat at his desk in late March or early April 1862, his thoughts must have turned to what would happen next in the war. His prediction was that a big battle was brewing in the west, probably near Corinth, Miss., and it could decide the fate of the country.
He was right about a big battle brewing out west, but Harper, like many others, did not yet understand that one battle wasn’t going to end this war. Ironically, his editorial appeared on April 8, two days after the battle of Shiloh. Reports of the battle must have come in on the telegraph, so what did Harper think when he saw them after having already written his prediction? And why didn’t he predict a big battle in Virginia? Gen. George McClellan had moved a 105,000-man army to the Virginia Peninsula and began a siege of Yorktown on April 5.
And since McClellan immediately began to complain that he was outnumbered and the destruction of his army wouldn’t be his fault, wouldn’t it be logical to expect the Confederates to try to crush the supposedly inferior force?
In the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson attacked Kernstown on March 23 (reported in the Banner as a fight at Winchester), apparently acting on false information that Union forces were leaving the town. Jackson was repulsed, but the fight makes more sense as part of Jackson’s brilliant Valley Campaign, which effectively kept a significant number of reinforcements from being sent to McClellan, and showed how a small force, using speed and daring, can neutralize a larger force.
Maybe people had given up trying to predict when McClellan would fight, since so many predictions had been wrong so far. And the “Young Napoleon” would badly stain his reputation by how he conducted the Peninsula Campaign.
Convinced he was outnumbered, McClellan spent a month laying siege to Yorktown. Gen. John B. McGruder and his 10,000 defenders evacuated the city in early May.
It’s easy to look back today and see what was happening, but how clear was it to somebody sitting in Mount Vernon and relying on contradictory and partisan sources for telegraph reports of what was going on in a growing war with multiple fronts?
But the editorial is interesting, maybe more for what he got wrong than what he got right.
Here it is:
“There is every indication that a bloody and decisive battle at or near Corinth, Miss., which is at the junction of the Memphis and Charleston and Mobile and Charleston Railroads. The rebels are concentrating an immense army there, which extends all the way up to Island No. 10 on the Mississippi. Gen. Beauregard has taken the command in person, and it is believed that he has at least 100,000 well-disciplined men around him. The army under Gen. Buell is presumed to be quite as large if not larger than that of he rebels. This army is now in motion, and according to our latest advices was within a few miles of Beauregard’s forces. If the Federal army is successful in this great battle, we think it will be the death blow of the rebellion; for in that event Memphis will be taken, and the navigation of the Mississippi River will soon be opened to New Orleans. But, on the other hand, if the rebels succeed, they will gain more than they have lost by defeats since the war began, and they confidently hope that their independence will then be secured.
“The rebels are fully posted in regard to the strength and movements of the Federal army, as the main body of the army has to pass directly through Nashville, which is Secesh all over. Beauregard, it is said, has transferred a large body of the Potomac army to this new scene of conflict; and Gen. Bragg has brought up his entire force of well-drilled artillerists from Pensacola. The rebels, therefore will make this their death struggle; they will fight long and desperately. But Buell appears to be confident of victory, and this confidence is shared by every officer and soldier under his command.”
•Gen. Don Carlos Buell, a native of Lowell, Ohio, was not in command of Union forces in the area. Gen. Henry Halleck was in overall command. Buell, who commanded the force which had occupied Nashville, was marching with his 25,000 men to unite with Gen. U.S. Grant, encamped with his army of 40,000 (many of them green recruits) at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Halleck planned for the combined force, about 65,000 men, to move against the Confederate base at Corinth, Mississippi.
•Gen. John Pope was operating with another force on the Mississippi River, moving against Island No. 10 in cooperation with a fleet of gunboats.
•Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was not in command of the Confederate forces in West Tennessee. In command was Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Beauregard, although a Southern hero of Fort Sumter and First Bull Run, did not get along well with his superiors, especially President Jefferson Davis, and had been transferred west to serve as second in command under Johnston, who had managed to gather about 45,000 men at Corinth.
Johnston, who had seen his defenses in Tennessee crumble in the face of the successes by Grant at forts Henry and Donelson and by Gen. George Thomas in eastern Kentucky, determined that he had to strike Grant before he was reinforced by Buell.
It is not uncommon to find, in the early months of the war, opinions being expressed that one decisive battle would end the war. They did not yet recognize the nature of this war, but the coming battle of Shiloh would open many eyes, as would events in Virginia during the next few months.
Next to Harper’s editorial on the coming battle is a story on what should be done with the black prisoners at Camp Chase. They were not soldiers, but were servants – cooks, waiters, etc. — for the Confederate officers taken at Fort Donelson.
Apparently the Legislature was questioning why they were even at Camp Chase, since they had not been in arms against the government.
The first part of the article is unreadable, but the Banner argues that whether they were fighting, cooking or blacking boots, they were prisoners of war, made so by the military, and the legislature had no business interfering.
The Banner used the incident to raise the question of what the government should do with all the hundreds and thousands of escaped slaves who had sought refuge at Port Royal, Fortress Monroe and elsewhere.
No answer was offered, but Harper raises the classic argument pro-slavery northern Democrats used against proposals to free the slaves:
“If all these negroes and thousands and perhaps millions of others are to be set free, as proposed by the wise politicians of the Republican party, and they come to live here amongst us in the North, we shall certainly have a beautiful state of society! The laboring man, who makes his $1.00 a day, and the mechanic who earns his $1.30 a day, will probably find themselves thrown out of employment — homeless and penniless — all for the benefit, glory and ‘freedom’ of the slave!’” (Although he used a far more offensive term.)