June 13, 1864. On this date, The New York Times ran a short story that read: “A gentleman in conversation remarked to President LINCOLN on Friday that nothing could defeat him but GRANT’s capture of Richmond, to be followed by his nomination at [the Democratic Party’s convention in] Chicago and acceptance. [The Democrats eventually nominated former General George B. McClellan.] ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘I feel very much like the man who said he didn’t want to die particularly, but if he had got to die, that was precisely the disease he would like to die of.'”
War’s Longest Engagement Begins
June 15, 1864. On June 15, General Ulysses S. Grant began a siege of Petersburg, VA, less than 25 miles from Richmond. Petersburg would not fall until April 3, 1865, less than a week before the end of the war. The siege was the longest sustained military operation of the war.
Federal Law Grants Black Soldiers Equal Pay, But Not All Black Soldiers Were Treated Equally. Problem Finessed by Relying Ingeniously on ‘God’s Higher Law’
“On June 15, 1864 Congress finally enacted legislation granting equal pay to Negro soldiers. The law was made retroactive to January 1, 1864 for all black soldiers, and retroactive to the time of enlistment for those Negroes who had been free on April 19, 1861. The distinction between freemen and freedmen created a serious dilemma for some regiments. Most Northern black regiments had both free Negroes and ex-slaves in their ranks; even the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiments included a few men who had escaped from slavery after April 19, 1861. Morale in such regiments would be impaired if some of the men received more back pay than others. Colonel E.N. Hallowell of the Fifty-fourth worked out an inspired solution to the problem. The fact of freedom before April 19, 1861, was established by the soldier’s oath. Hallowell invented the following oath: ‘You do solemnly swear that you owed no man unrequited labor on or before the 19th day of April, 1861. So help you God.’ This became known as the ‘Quaker Oath,’ and even those men of the Fifty-fourth who had been slaves took the oath in good conscience ‘by God’s higher law, if not by their country’s.’ Several other Northern Negro regiments imitated Hallowell’s oath.”
James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965, 1991), p. 206
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert
Union Warship Battles Confederate Raider off the French Coast
June 19, 1864. In late July 1862, a wooden sloop of war was secretly launched for the Confederacy by John Laird Sons and Company, Birkenhead, Cheshire, England. The vessel, a highly successful Confederate raider that attacked Union merchant shipping, was to become one of the most famous warships in the Civil War.
In an effort to hide the fact that a Confederate warship had been made in England, it was sailed to the Azores with a British civilian crew. On August 24, 1862, in international waters off the Portuguese Island of Terceira, it was commissioned as a Confederate man of war and renamed the C.S.S. Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. The 24 officers were a mix of British and Confederates, whereas the crew was mainly British, for a total of 145 men.
From August 1852 until December 1863 the Alabama completed seven separate expeditionary raids against Union merchant shipping; they took place on both sides of the north and south Atlantic, and even the East Indies in the Pacific Ocean. Her crew boarded 450 vessels, captured or sank 65, took over 2,000 seamen and passengers prisoner, and caused nearly $6,000,000 in losses, the equivalent of approximately $123,000,000 today. She did not attempt to visit any of the Confederate ports which were under blockade by the Union Navy, but she did fight a battle in the Gulf of Mexico and sink the Union side-wheeler, U.S.S. Hatteras. To Captain Semmes’s credit, the Alabama suffered no casualties.
On June 11, 1864, after spending 534 days out of 657 days at sea, the Alabama put into Cherbourg Harbor, in France, for much-needed repairs. Three days later, the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which had been hunting Confederate raiders, found her there, and set up a patrol outside of the harbor to intercept her if she tried to leave. Several days later, Captain Semmes decided to take the Kearsarge on in battle, and sent the U.S. Consul in Cherbourg a note to that effect; the message was transmitted to the captain of the Kearsarge.
The battle commenced at about 11:00 a.m. on June 19, 1864 in open water about seven miles from Cherbourg harbor with the two warships circling in opposite directions around a common center. Thousands of French civilians lined the Cherbourg breakwater and nearby cliffs to watch the battle.
Firing started when the vessels were about a mile and a half apart and continued as they closed to about 1,000 yards. The Alabama fired almost 350 shots, but they were not particularly accurate. Moreover, the ship’s gunpowder and fuses had deteriorated and the guns did not always fire. The Kearsarge‘s gunners fired half as frequently, but they were more deliberate; they aimed for the Alabama‘s waterline, and were more accurate. After about an hour, the badly damaged Alabama began to sink, and Captain Semmes surrendered. As the ship sank, the Kearsarge and a British yacht that had been watching the battle rescued Semmes and most of the crew. The Alabama suffered nine killed and 21 wounded, including Captain Semmes; the Kearsarge had only three wounded.
The loss of the Alabama left the Confederacy with only two other British-built raiders, Florida and Shenandoah, as significant threats to Federal shipping. The Florida surrendered at Bahia, Brazil in October 1864. The Shenandoah survived the war and finally gave herself up to British authorities at Liverpool in November 1865.
After the war, both Great Britain and the U.S. had claims against the other that needed to be settled. Chief among the U.S. claims were the losses to the owners of merchant ships, fishing boats, and whalers caused by the seizures and sinkings of their vessels by the British-built and armed raiders, the Alabama, the Florida, and the Shenandoah. The arguments over these various claims went on for years, and feelings ran high on both sides and could have caused a war.
Finally, under the Treaty of Washington, negotiated on May 8, 1871, committees of arbitration were established to deal with the claims. On September 14, 1872, an arbitration committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, awarded the United States $15.5 million for losses. . . . These terms were accepted by both countries, and peace was maintained.
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, by Ned Bradford (1956);
A Diplomatic History of the American People by Thomas A. Bailey, by Thomas A. Bailey (1958);
The Growth of American Foreign Policy, A History, by Richard W. Leopold (1962);
The Union Reader, Richard B. Harwell, ed. (1958), p. 274:
– Submitted by Donald J. Miner