In spring 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac took the offensive on the Virginia Peninsula, where its ultimate target was Richmond, the Confederate capital. Northern morale was high. Recent Union victories in the West prompted expectations of a similar outcome in the Peninsula Campaign that would lead to a swift and successful end to the war.

As the Army of the Potomac pushed forward, it was hampered not only by Confederate forces but also inclement weather, inferior roads, geographical surprises not indicated on the army’s unsatisfactory maps, and overcautious leadership. It was further hampered by Stonewall Jackson’s spring Shenandoah Valley Campaign and, after June 1, by the skill of the new commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee. After the failure of the Peninsula Campaign, the Union suffered additional disappointing setbacks. General Lee’s first incursion into Northern territory ended with heavy Union and Confederate losses along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, when more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in action in this, the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War.

Contraband Relief

While principally celebrated for its revelations concerning domestic life in the Lincoln White House, Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes (1868) also provides insights on the activities of the African American community in Washington, DC. Keckley (sometimes spelled Keckly), a former slave and the dressmaker to First Lady Mary Lincoln, became sensitive to the hardships faced by the 40,000 refugees from slavery who flooded into the nation’s capital during the war, often lacking the most basic necessities of life. In 1862, Keckley founded and became first president of the Contraband Relief Association. Utilizing her White House connections, she was able to draw financial and moral support from such prominent figures as Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and the President and Mrs. Lincoln.

Elizabeth Keckley (1818–1907). Behind the Scenes or Forty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. New York: G. W. Carlton, 1868. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (050.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0050p2]

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Spreading the News

This map, published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 30, 1862, shows the forts and other defenses standing between Captain David Farragut’s (1801–1870) naval squadron and the Confederacy’s largest city, New Orleans, a prime target in the Union’s quest to control the Mississippi River. All three vessels of Farragut’s fleet made it past the forts—stunning news to the people of New Orleans, where alarm bells rang and the Confederate garrison commander, Major General Mansfield Lovell, declared martial law. Newspapers and journals were among the most readily available and inexpensive sources of maps for the public. Occasionally produced in serial literature prior to the nineteenth century, maps were not published with any regularity until the American Civil War.

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 1862. Newspaper Section, Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (052.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0052]

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The Mississippi River

In April 1862, U.S. captain David G. Farragut’s naval fleet battled past fortifications in the Mississippi River approaching New Orleans, prompting the city’s surrender on April 25. With New Orleans under Union control, the Confederacy had lost its largest city, an important port, and the Union gained a bastion on the lower Mississippi, a vital western transportation route. In a letter to the Union quartermaster general Montgomery C. Meigs, Navy lieutenant David D. Porter echoed Winfield Scott’s earlier prediction that New Orleans was the key to the Mississippi River and the survival of the Confederacy.

David Dixon Porter (1813–1891), in the hand of a clerk, to Montgomery C. Meigs (1816–1892), May 14, 1862. Page 2. Montgomery C. Meigs Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (051.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0051, cw0051p001]

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Emancipation in the District of Columbia

When the District of Columbia was established in 1800, the laws of Maryland, including its slave laws, remained in force. Additional laws on slavery and free blacks were then made by the U.S. Congress for the District, and by Southern standards its slave codes were moderate. Slaves were permitted to hire out their services and to live apart from their masters. Free blacks were permitted to live in the city and to operate private schools. On April 16, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill abolishing slavery that compensated loyal Union slave owners in the District up to $300 for each slave freed. The bill also authorized colonization for willing freed slaves. An Emancipation Claims Commission hired a Baltimore slave trader to assess the value of each freed slave, and awarded compensation for 2,989 slaves. Looking to publish the news in his periodical The Independent, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher wired Abraham Lincoln for confirmation that the national capital was now free territory.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) to Abraham Lincoln, April 16, 1862. Telegram. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (048.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0048]

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Slave Code for the District

Slavery in the United States was governed by an extensive body of law developed from the 1660s to the 1860s. Every slave state had its own slave code and body of court decisions. All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited through the mother, and defined slaves as property, usually in the same terms as those applied to real estate. Slaves, being property, could not own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of a contract, no slave marriage had any legal standing. All codes also had sections regulating free blacks, who were still subject to controls on their movements and employment. After emancipation, freed slaves were often required to leave the state in which they had been enslaved. The printed slavery code exhibited here was published in March 1862, just one month before slavery in the District ended.

The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia, Together with Notes and Judicial Decisions Explanatory of the Same by a Member of the Washington Bar. Washington, D.C.: L. Towers, 1862. Law Library, Library of Congress (049.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0049]

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Money Problems

Confederate forces were not warmly welcomed in areas of Virginia that would subsequently form the state of West Virginia. Tensions between the citizens of Charleston and the occupying forces of Major General William Loring can be detected in this General Order of 1862, specifically relating to the use of Confederate notes. The depreciation of Confederate currency was already well underway in the second year of the war and shopkeepers could not have been happy to accept the increasingly worthless paper money as legal tender. The lack of a sound currency would bedevil the South for the entire conflict.

General Order, Head Quarters. Charleston, Virginia: 1862. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (054.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0054]

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Financing the War

Fighting a war is one thing, paying for it is another. Both sides resorted to borrowing, taxation, issuing treasury bonds, and printing money to finance the war. The Confederacy relied more heavily on printed money, which devalued quickly without a gold standard behind it. Backed by a more stable economy, Northern currency better retained its value. The distinctive green ink on the reverse of Northern bills led them to be called “greenbacks,” still a synonym for paper money.

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  • $1000 Confederate bond, issued May 5, 1862. Confederate States of America Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (055.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0055]

  • “Greenback” United States $1 bill featuring portrait of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase (1808–1873), 1862. Reverse. United States Department of the Treasury Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (053.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0053, cw0053p1]

  • Confederate $50 bill, 1864. Rose Bell Knox Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (056.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0056]

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Getting a Bird's Eye View

While hot air balloons were not new technology in the 1860s, they were put into practical operation during the Civil War by providing aerial reconnaissance for commanders on the ground. The best known aeronaut of the war, Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, made frequent ascents on behalf of the North during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, where he observed enemy positions and fortifications, and reported on troop movements. Despite its success, the Union’s Balloon Corps disbanded in 1863. Aerial reconnaissance was but one of the new technologies put to a military purpose on both sides.

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Casualties of War

Disease accounted for the largest percentage of deaths during the Civil War, but actual combat produced hundreds of thousands of casualties in both the “killed” and “wounded” categories. Caring for the wounded and burying the dead provided logistical challenges for commanders and medical personnel, especially when the enemy controlled the field of battle. “Stonewall” Jackson chastised a Union general for not evacuating his casualties in the time Jackson allowed, which no doubt contributed to the soldiers’ suffering.

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Domestic Concerns

The 1861 withdrawal of the Southern delegations resulted in the chambers of the United States Congress being half-empty. However, with Southern Democrats no longer blocking Northern interests, the Congress, in spring and summer 1862, the 37th Congress passed three of the most far reaching pieces of domestic legislation from the second half of the nineteenth century: the Homestead Act, which provided to applicants free farmland west of the Mississippi River; the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, which bestowed land for states to finance the establishment of agricultural colleges; and the Pacific Railroad Act, which led to the construction of a transcontinental railroad.

Congressional Directory 37th Congress. Washington, D.C.: 1862. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (067.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0067, cw0067p1]

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Battle of Chickahominy

This bird’s eye view shows Richmond (in the background) and depicts the brutal Battle of Chickahominy (also known as First Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill), which was actually fought on June 27 and 28, 1862. Lee struck Union general Fitz John Porter at Gaines’ Mill while McClellan, erroneously thinking his forces were outnumbered since part of them were trapped south of the swollen Chickahominy River. The river was far more volatile than Union forces initially appreciated. Prone to flooding, it could easily submerge low-lying bridges across it. One such low-lying bridge is depicted in this watercolor drawing by Philadelphia-born soldier artist William M’Ilvaine, a member of the 5th New York Infantry, who served under McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign.

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Taking Account

Like many newspapers of the time, the Richmond Whig provided daily casualty reports of state regiments. It took multiple issues to report casualties for the first Battle of Cold Harbor (Gaines’ Mill) on June 27, 1862. Although a victory for Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee, the battle was costly for several Virginia companies, some losing more than half of their members. Anxious families turned to their local daily newspaper for the most recent word of loved ones engaged in combat. Newspapers often received the list of killed in action and wounded well in advance of next of kin. Their sorrow was likely compounded by the knowledge that those killed in battle might not be returned home for burial but were instead interred in mass graves on or near the battlefield.

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), July2–3, 1862. Page 2. Newspaper Section, Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (187.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0187, cw0187p1]

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The Lincoln Boys

President Lincoln’s youngest children, Willie and Tad, brought a sense of joy to the White House and provided a distraction from the Civil War. The boys played games in the large attic, entertained the White House staff, and relaxed with family. Sadly, both children died young. On February 20, 1862, Willie died of typhoid fever. In 1871, Tad died of heart failure at age eighteen.

Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. [Willie and Tad Lincoln, sons of President Abraham Lincoln, with their cousin Lockwood Todd], April 1861. Albumen silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (069.00.00) [Digital ID# LC-DIG-ppmsca-19325]

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Grieving Mothers

Fatalities during the war were not limited to the battlefield, as both first families discovered. The Davises lost five-year-old Joseph in 1864 when he fell to his death from their porch in Richmond. Water piped into the White House from the polluted Potomac River likely caused the typhoid fever to which eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln succumbed in 1862. Mary Lincoln grieved so intensely for Willie that her family feared for her sanity. She ultimately found comfort in spiritualism, which was popular in the mid-nineteenth century.

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  • Mary Todd Lincoln to Julia Ann Sprigg, May 29, 1862. Page 2. Mary Todd Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (068.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0068, cw0068p1]

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  • Uriah Clark. Plain Guide to Spiritualism: A Hand-book for Skeptics, Inquirers, Clergymen, Believers, Lecturers, Mediums, Editors, and All Who Need a Thorough Guide to the Phenomena, Science, Philosophy, Religion and Reforms of Modern Spiritualism. Boston: William White & Co., 1863. Harry Houdini Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (070.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0070]

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“Kiss Me before I Die Mother”

The most sung about figure in all Civil War music may be “Mother.” The formulaic tear-jerker frequently invoked Mother in the last words of a dying soldier. She embodies the sentimentality of the era and reminds us of the unprecedented number of soldiers under the age of twenty who fought in the Civil War. “Kiss Me before I Die Mother” is a Southern contribution to the genre. The spare cover and inferior paper are indicative of the paper and ink shortages faced by publishers in the South.

E. Clark Isley, composer. “Kiss Me before I Die Mother.” Augusta, Georgia: Blackmar & Bro., ca. 1862. Music Division, Library of Congress (213.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0213]

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A Map of the Valley

Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, a topographic engineer in the Confederate Army worked principally in the West Virginia and Virginia areas that he had toured during his earlier geological studies. He prepared maps and provided geographic intelligence for Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Richard Ewell, Jubal A. Early, and John B. Gordon. Hotchkiss’s remarkable “Map of the Shenandoah Valley,” measuring approximately three feet by eight feet, was prepared at the request of Stonewall Jackson. It shows the offensive and defensive points of the Shenandoah Valley from the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry to Lexington,Virginia. Hotchkiss also filled several notebooks, like those shown here, with topographic and strategic drawings that he stated “were made on horseback just as they now appear.”

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The Bloody Day

The battle along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, proved to be the bloodiest single day of the entire war. Casualties on both sides numbered more than 23,000. The followng day, photographer Mathew Brady displayed photographs of the dead soldiers in his New York City gallery, prompting the New York Times to state that the images had “done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.” Originating in the mid-nineteenth century, stereoscopic views brought the consequences of the nation’s costly fratricidal conflict into hundreds of thousands of homes during the Civil War.

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The Battlefield at Antietam

Maps based on eyewitness battle accounts, such as William H. Willcox’s depiction of the Antietam battlefield, were highly sought after by the public. Willcox served at Antietam as Topographical Officer and Additional Aide-de-camp on the staff of U.S. Brigadier General Abner Doubleday, once thought to have been the inventor of baseball.

William H. Willcox. Map of the Battlefield of Antietam. Philadelphia: P.S. Duval & Son, 1862. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (075.00.00) [Digital ID# g3844s-cw0252000]

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Minie Balls: Small but Lethal

The hollow base of the cone-shaped minie ball (named for French inventor Claude Minié) expanded when the gunpowder ignited, thereby catching its grooves in the interior rifling of the gun and increasing the velocity and accuracy of the bullet. The longer, effective firing range of minie balls also turned mass infantry assaults into mass slaughter until military tactics caught up with the destructive power of the new technology. The ubiquitous minie balls have been collected as battlefield souvenirs ever since.

Minie ball, ca. 1862–1865. Nathaniel Sisson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (071.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0071]

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Weapons of Destruction

When Josiah Gorgas (1818–1883) was appointed chief of the Confederate Bureau of Ordnance in April 1861, the South lacked the industrial capacity to produce the arms and ammunition necessary to fight a major war. Gorgas set about solving the problem by establishing the Bureau of Foreign Supplies to oversee the importation of arms and manufacturing equipment from Europe. He also worked to create a Southern industrial system specifically designed to meet the needs of the Confederate Army. Despite an assortment of handicaps that included an inferior rail system, the South was able to procure and manufacture vast amounts of war materials by the middle of the war.

Ordnance Bureau. The Field Manual for Use of the Officers on Ordnance Duty. Richmond: Ritchie & Dunnavant, 1862. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (072.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0072]

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Lee's “Lost Orders” and McClellan's Wasted Opportunity

Following his tactical success in the Battle of Second Manassas (Second Bull Run, August 28–30, 1862), General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into western Maryland to secure supplies—and in the vain hope of winning its people to the Confederate cause. Under Special Orders No. 191 Lee divided his army during the Maryland Campaign, creating a vulnerability that Union general George McClellan discovered after a lost copy of Lee’s orders had been found by a Union private. Despite boasting of the trap he would set, McClellan moved too cautiously to make full use of the intelligence, giving Lee time to reunite his forces. What could have been a decisive Union victory instead left the Union simply holding the field at Antietam after the costliest single day of combat during the Civil War.

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  • George B. McClellan (1826–1885) to Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), September 13, 1862. Telegram. Page 2. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (077.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0077, cw0077p1]

  • Robert E. Lee (1807–1870). Special Order No. 191, September 9, 1862. Page 2. George Brinton McClellan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (078.00.00) [Digital ID# al0143, al0143_p1]

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Antietam, September 17, 1862

Confederate cavalryman James Steptoe Johnston of the 11th Mississippi Volunteers wrote a long letter to his sweetheart Mary about the heat and confusion of battle he experienced at Antietam (Sharpsburg). Johnston predicted that newspapers on both sides would claim a victory, but that in truth it had been a close, bloody, and hard-fought contest without a clear winner. According to Johnston, a flag of truce brought Yankees and Confederates together on the field, where they discussed a mutual desire for the fighting to end.

James Steptoe Johnston (1843–1924) to Mary Green, September 22, 1862. Page 2 - Page 3. Mercer Green Johnston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (076.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0076, cw0076p1, cw0076p2]

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“More and More of an Abolitionist”

For some Union soldiers, exposure to southern slavery profoundly altered their views on the institution. Some increasingly disapproved of slavery and returning escaped slaves. Others reacted negatively to the idea of fighting a war for which emancipation was a stated war aim. Even before President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, John P. Jones wrote to his wife from Medon, Tennessee, of his increasing sympathies for abolitionism after seeing the inhumanity with which slaves could be treated. He also rejoiced that military policy no longer forced soldiers to return escaped slaves, which had made him feel like a “slave catcher.”

John P. Jones to his wife, August 24, 1862. Donald Benham Civil War Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (079.00.00) [Digital ID# cw0079p1]

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A Battle Cry of Freedom

Although not decisive in a military sense, the Battle of Antietam changed the course of the war by providing President Lincoln the opportunity to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, thereby adding emancipation to the Union’s war aims. Michael Shiner, an African American employee at the Washington Navy Yard, included the text of Lincoln’s proclamation (possibly written out by his grandson Louis Alexander) in his diary for 1862. For Shiner, himself a former slave, the significance of the proclamation was clear and did not require additional explanation for posterity.

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