150 Years Ago This Week: Lincoln signs his death warrant?

February 1864

Federal forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William Sherman left Mississippi’s capital city at Jackson on Saturday, Feb. 6, and headed east toward their objective: The important railroad center at Meridian. Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. William Sooy Smith, ordered to support Gen. Sherman’s campaign, left Memphis the same day.

In Virginia, Federal forces in Culpeper County crossed the Rapidan River at Morton’s Ford, intending to attack elements of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in Orange County. The Federals immediately ran into trouble; heavy firing by the Confederates sent the Union troops back across the Rapidan by nightfall.

On the peninsula below Richmond, a Federal column commanded by Brig. Isaac Wistar left Yorktown on a raid against the Confederate capital. Ordered by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the intent was to release Union prisoners of war held in Libby Prison and at Belle Isle. The raid failed three days later, largely due to secrecy of the raid being compromised by Pvt. William Boyle, a Union soldier held in custody and awaiting a court-martial for murder.

Pvt. Boyle bribed his guard, who allowed him to escape. Captured by Confederates, Pvt. Boyle revealed details of Gen. Wistar’s raid; the Southerners immediately began strengthening Confederate forces and defenses around Richmond. This failed raid was to have serious influence on a much larger raid being considered at the end of February.

On Feb. 7, Gen. Sherman’s men engaged Confederates under Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk at Brandon, Morton and Sataria as the Union troops advanced on Meridian, Miss. Two nights later, on Feb. 9 in Richmond, after laboring some 65 nights using tableware and bowls, 109 Union officers led by a coal miner, Col. Thomas Rose, 77th Pennsylvania Infantry, escaped from Libby Prison through a tunnel.

This was the largest and most sensational prison escape of the war, and one which would also have strong influences on the large Federal raid being considered against Richmond at the end of the month. The escapees included Lt. Col. Abel Streight of Indiana, a noted Union raider. Of the 109 officers who escaped, 59 reached Union lines at Yorktown; 48 were captured by Confederates and returned to Libby Prison, and two drowned in the James River.

Following the escape, Confederate prison authorities buried a large amount of gunpowder in the prison floor, intending to blow up Libby Prison should another escape attempt be made or should the prison be the focus of a raid to free the Union officers. That night, before attending one of the largest parties held at the White House that season, Abraham Lincoln sat for several photographic portraits, include the one currently used on the $5 bill.

A fire in the White House stables broke out on Feb. 10, killing six horses and ponies, including some of Tad Lincoln’s favorites. The President attempted to get the animals out but was not successful. On Thursday, Feb. 11, Confederate cavalry raiders led by Major Harry Gilmor attacked a B&O Railroad passenger train near Kearneysville, W. Va.. The raiders derailed the train and robbed the passengers and crew.

At 9.25 p.m. that same night, Mr. Lincoln sent a telegram to Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, commanding a Union cavalry division in the winter quarters of the Army of the Potomac near Stevensburg in Culpeper County. The telegram requested Gen. Kilpatrick to meet with the president at the White House in Washington. In light of what was to take place at the end of February, and in April of 1865, it could be argued that President Lincoln had, by sending this telegram to the general, just signed his own death warrant.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.