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This Week in the Civil War

By The Associated Press
March 2, 2012
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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 4, 1862: New Madrid besieged, battle of ironclads.

This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, Union forces besiege New Madrid, Mo., seeking to gain control at this juncture of the Mississippi River. The attackers march overland, arriving near New Madrid on March 3, 1862. The siege will last for days and only after heavy Union guns are brought in will the Confederate defenders retreat. Union forces will occupy the recently deserted city on March 14, 1862. Now the fight for control of the Mississippi will shift to other areas of the river -- with The Associated Press reporting the Confederates "have a very strong position" on Island No. 10, not far from New Madrid. This week also sees a new era of naval warfare open when ironclad ships -- vessels sheathed in stout armor -- clash near Hampton Roads, Va. On March 8, 1862, the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia attacks a squadron of Union naval forces at Hampton Roads, destroying two ships and stranding a third, the Minnesota. The Monitor arrives the following day and the battle is on. The two ironclads circle and fire at each other for several hours that morning, neither sinking or seriously damaging the other. At midday, the Monitor attempts to ram the Virginia but a steering malfunction leads the Monitor to miss the Virginia's fantail. As the Monitor passes the stern of the Virginia, the Monitor's pilothouse is hit by a shell and breaks off action. Soon the Virginia retreats to the nearby Elizabeth River, unable to finish off the damaged Minnesota. The outcome is indecisive. Union forces still dominate Hampton Roads and the Confederates still control several rivers and nearby Norfolk, Va. But history has been made. Though French and British fleets had begun building ironclad ships by the time the American conflict opened, the new naval technology hadn't been tried in battle until now.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 11, 1862: McClellan's demotion, River shelling.

This week in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln relieves Major Gen. George B. McClellan of his title as general-in-chief of all federal armies. McClellan is a greater organizer who whipped once-disorganized Union troops into a veritable fighting force. But Lincoln and others in Washington are growing impatient after repeatedly urging McClellan to attack Confederate foes. Despite Lincoln's action, McClellan still commands the Army of the Potomac, a key cog in the federal war machine. Yet Lincoln will have to wait weeks for McClellan to finish preparations to marshal n elaborate campaign against Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, that will later be waged -- unsuccessfully -- from the Virginia coastal peninsula. Elsewhere this week, Union forces occupy New Madrid in Missouri but frequent shelling continues nearby on the Mississippi River. An Associated Press reporter in a dispatch March 16, 1862, reports he is aboard a federal flagship in a flotilla patrolling the river and sporadic artillery firing has erupted near the Confederate stronghold at Island No. 10. "The flotilla got under way at 5:30 a.m. this morning and dropped down slowly till about 7 o'clock where the flag ship, being about 27 miles ahead and six miles above the island, discovered a stern wheel steamer run out from Shelter Point on the Kentucky shore, and started down the river. Four shells were thrown after her, but the distance, however, was too great for the shots to take effect." The AP correspondent reports a day later that Confederate forces at Island No. 10 have formidable encampments, large enough to hold thousands of troops. He notes "46 guns have been counted" and adds that more than tension fills the air: "Firing was heard in the direction of New Madrid all day."

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 18, 1862: Confederate Cabinet Shake-up, Stonewall Attacks.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, beset by recent military setbacks, orders a major Cabinet reshuffle this week 150 years ago in the Civil War. The Confederate leader orders on March 18, 1862, that George W. Randolph -- a Virginia native and grandson of Thomas Jefferson -- take charge as Confederate war secretary. Randolph succeeds Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin, who was criticized for his handling of the department and now moves to secretary of state. Randolph will go on in the next eight months to reorganize and bolster the Confederate war machinery for the battles ahead. Despite recent reversals for the Confederacy, the war is still young. An Associated Press dispatch in early March speaks of growing federal worries about a vexing Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, now ranging about the Virginia countryside. AP's correspondent reports: "Intelligence from Winchester leads to the belief that General Jackson is there in full force." Indeed, some 3,400 Confederate troops commanded by Jackson will clash with a far larger Union force of about 8,500 troops on March 23, 1862, not far away at Kernston, Va. Federal forces stop Jackson's daring drive, but his campaign sounds alarm bells in Washington. President Abraham Lincoln, wary of Jackson's threat to the capital from Virginia's neighboring Shenandoah Valley, redirects defensive forces to protect Washington's back door just when Union Gen. George B. McClellan is pressing for all the troops the federal War Department can spare him. McClellan argues a huge force is needed for an all-out attack on Richmond he is planning for his upcoming Peninsula Campaign. And after his campaign fails later in 1862, McClellan will claim he could have captured the seat of the Confederacy if he had had those extra troops at his command.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 25, 1862: Fighting out West, McClellan's moves.

A battle unfolded out West 150 years ago this week during the Civil War. On March 26, 1862, a Confederate force of about 300 Texas fighters camped near Glorieta Pass in New Mexico Territory -- a strategic location at the southernmost end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the Santa Fe trail. Several hundred approaching Union soldiers led by Maj. John M. Chivington went on the attack, pressing in on the Confederates until artillery fire threw the federal fighters back. Chivington split his force into two groups on each side of the pass and put the Rebels in a crossfire before fighting halted for the day. The next day both sides regrouped and fighting wouldn't resume again until March 28, 1862, with the Union side swelled by hundreds of reinforcements. Confederates held their ground as the battle surged back and forth in the coming hours. Eventually a wearied Confederate force retreated to Santa Fe -- and eventually back to Texas -- securing a strategic Union victory in a key point of the conflict out West. Elsewhere Union Gen. George B. McClellan has begun a long-awaited step of moving thousands of troops, heavy artillery, armaments and supplies to Fort Monroe off Virginia as he prepares for a major federal assault on Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. For weeks and even months, McClellan had come under criticism for not waging an all-out offensive sooner. But now he was on the move. Nonetheless, retThe Springfield Daily Republican in Massachusetts, indicates McClellan had already lost some element of surprise ahead of what would be his ill-fated Virginia peninsula campaign. A dispatch in the paper reported: "The latest accounts from Richmond show that the rebels are crowding troops down upon the York and James River, showing they know where to expect Gen. McClellan."

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