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[Detail] The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865

Early Military Campaigns

Following the fall of Fort Sumter, the states of Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee seceded from the Union. With Virginia's secession and threats that Maryland would soon follow, the capital was in peril. A number of skirmishes occurred on the outskirts of the District of Columbia; on May 24, Taft reported that one such skirmish took the life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a former student in Lincoln's law office, after he had removed a Confederate flag from a building in Alexandria. On the following day Taft wrote:

Another most exciting day. Rumours of fighting on the other side of the river were rife all over the City the middle of the day but were without foundation. The Funeral of Col Ellsworth took place from the Prests [President's] House. . . . During the middle of the day soldiers were seen running with muskets in hand to join their companies, many being ordered out today.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 1, May 25, 1861"

Throughout May and June, as more Union forces streamed into the city, rumors continued to circulate about an impending battle near the capital. On the evening of July 21, 1861, Taft wrote of hearing guns all day from a battle raging near Washington at Manassas Junction, Virginia. The following day he wrote, "squads of soldiers have been pouring into the City all day;" the soldiers were retreating from the battlefield.

Read through Taft's diary entries for May through June 1861, noting news that indicates success for the Union and news that indicates success for the Confederacy. Which side seemed to be having the greatest early success? Can you find evidence that this affected Taft's view on the war?

In February 1862, news from the western theater was uplifting: General Ulysses Grant struck Confederate forces in Tennessee and, with Commodore Andrew Foote's gunboat squadron captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Ten days later, Union forces took Fort Donaldson on the Cumberland River. In early April, Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Missouri, was captured and early news was received of Grant's victory at Shiloh, Tennessee (Pittsburg Landing), near Corinth, Mississippi, prompting Taft to write:

The proud "Southerners" had better strike the word chivalry from their vocabulary. I think they are a race of bombaster cowards and events are proveing it every day. We have had one Bull Run. They have a "Bully Run" every time they meet our troops.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 1, April 9, 1862"

During the same period, however, news from the Eastern front was less encouraging. On April 8, 1862, Taft mentioned General McClellan was having "a desperate time of it at Yorktown" during the Peninsula Campaign.

Taft did not make diary entries between April 11 and December 31, 1862. On January 14, 1863, having once again begun writing daily diary entries in the new year, Taft expressed a sense of doom about the future of the Union:

As gloomy and as dark as two years ago are the days now. When we look into the future for our Country Dark days were those, and it looks dark now for the preservation of our Union. Our vast armies seem to be lying idle or baffled everywhere by our alert enimies. But worse than all there are indications of mutiny among ourselves. The weakness and imbecility of the Govt manifested in the Management of the War has raised a storm in the north and west that looks dark and threatening. People are tired and sick of the war, and now the Political leaders say, and the mass of the people believe, that the object of the war is now not what it was (to preserve the Union). But, to free the Negroes (an abolition War) and they hate abolitionists as well as the Negroes. . . . Well, the War must Continue for a long while yet.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, January 14, 1863"
  • What factors caused Taft to fear for the future of the Union? What events might have caused him to accuse the government of "weakness and imbecility"?
  • According to Taft, how did people feel about the various purposes of the war? What events might have provoked his characterizing the war as one of abolition?

Taft was away from Washington from July through September 1863. When he renewed his diary entries on October 5, he remarked:

Perhaps I might have made it interesting to have continued my diary. But I have been absent some time since my last date, and important events it is true have occurred, great Battles have been fought, and great Victories have been won by our arms. The month of July saw our arms victorious everywhere. Vicksburg & Port Hudson on the Miss River were captured. Over 30,000 prisoners were taken in the first and 7000 in the last place. The Very important Battle of Gettysburge in Penn'a was fought on the 3rd July where the Rebels were signaly beaten and Genl Lee driven back into Virginia.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, October 5, 1863"

Read the reflective entries Taft wrote on December 30 and 31, 1863:

  • According to Taft, what kinds of military operations were occurring at the end of the year? Why was military activity so limited?
  • What thoughts keep Taft from enjoying his solitude on New Year's Eve?
  • How does Taft characterize the mood in the South and North at year's end?
  • Taft cites a quotation from U.S. Naval Officer Stephen Decatur: "May she always be in the right. But my Country right or wrong." How does this quotation from 1815 apply to the situation in 1863? Do you agree with the quotation? Explain your answer.