May 1862

Washington:  On May 5, 1862, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and Secretary of Treasury Chase left Washington D.C. by ship to Fort Monroe, where they observed Union soldiers on the way to join the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia.  On May 20, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, allowing anyone who improves a parcel up to 160 acres for a period of five years to take title to it; later, this would be a key instrument in the settlement of the west by a large number of war veterans.  On the 24th, Lincoln issued new orders to General Fremont to advance on Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley; this is to be done in concert with General McDowell, and this effectively ends McClellan’s plan to increase the size of his force with troops under either or both of these other Union commanders.  The month ended with Lincoln pressing McClellan to either attack Richmond, or return to defend the nation’s capital.

Richmond:  On May 13, with General McClellan’s forces clsing in on the Confederate capital, President Davis’s wife Varina joined those who were leaving for safer environs.

Eastern Theater:  The last major engagement in the east was the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.

The month of May, 1862, began with the Union’s Peninsular Campaign in progress.  On the first, General McClellan’s troops, who had laid siege to Yorktown, prepared to attack.  Two days later, Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s command evacuated York.  On the 5th, the retreating Rebels fought advancing Union forces at Williamsburg.  May 7 saw Confederates under General G. W. Smith attack Federals under General Franklin in the Shenandoah Valley, where the Rebels hoped to keep the road from Williamsburg to Yorktown protected.  The same day, President Lincoln visited the U.S.S. Monitor, which had fought the historic first battle between ironclads with the Confederate Merrimack the previous March 9.  The next day, General Stonewall Jackson defeated an attack by Union General Robert Schenck, whose retreat toward Franklin, West Virginia, was pursued.  The President met with McClellan on May 9, while Southern forces evacuated Norfolk, Virginia, with a great loss of materials.  On the 10th, President Lincoln personally superintended the movement of Federal troops to occupy Norfolk and Portsmouth, after they had earlier burned the naval yard at Gosport, Virginia; meanwhile, Jackson closed in on Franklin.  By the 15th of May, Union forces were closing in on Richmond as General Johnston’s forces retreated back across the Chickahominy River.  On the 17th, Union General McDowell was at Fredericksburg, where he received orders to close in on Richmond to complement McClellan’s efforts.  May 18 saw Suffolk fall, 17 miles south of Norfolk, while Jackson continued to pursue Federals in the Valley.  By the 20th, McClellan was only 8 miles from Richmond, and Jackson and General Richard Ewell moved to prevent Union General Banks from moving to help McClellan.  On the 23rd, Lincoln met with McDowell at Fredericksburg, and Jackson defeated 8,000 Union soldiers at Front Royal, West Virginia.  On May 25th, Jackson and Ewell attacked Banks at one of the many Battles of Winchester of the Civil War; Banks held for a time, but was eventually forced to fall back toward Harper’s Ferry.  May 30 saw Jackson forced to fall back to avoid being cut off by Union forces under Generals Fremont and McDowell.  An inconclusive engagement was fought by Johnston’s and McClellan’s armies in the Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines; however, this turned out to be a wonderful day for the South as a result of an unfortunate injury suffered by General Johnston; as a result of this misfortune, he was replaced as commander of the Confederate forces around Richmond by none other than Robert E. Lee (see the Official Record of the Month below).  So the month ended on what we now know was a very high note for the Confederacy, though things looked bleak with McClellan so close to Richmond.

The next major land engagement was the Seven Days Battle , which began in less than a month on June 25, 1862.

Western Theater:  The last major engagement in the West was the Battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862.

On May 9 at Hilton Head, South Carolina, Union General David Hunter issued an order freeing the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; this move was made without authority from Washington and it was later repudiated by President Lincoln on May 19.  A week later, General Benjamin Butler issued the famous “Woman Order” in New Orleans; in response to perceived abuse from the women of New Orleans, Butler ordered that any female showing contempt for the United States would be regarded as a “woman of the town plying her avocation.”  (For more information on the “Woman Order,” visit:, but remember to use the "back" arrow at the top to return here when you are done!)  While this was never expressly revoked, it added “fuel” to the growing “fire” to remove Butler.  On the 29th, Southern General Beauregard was forced by Federals under General Halleck to leave Corinth, Mississippi, and move toward Tupelo.  The next day, Halleck occupied Corinth and took over 2,000 prisoners.

The next major engagement in the west was the Battle of Murfreesboro in December of 1862.

Naval:  On May 10 at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, 8 Confederate gunboats attacked 7 Union ironclads in the Mississippi; two Union ships were sunk (the Cincinnati and the Mound City).  Despite these losses, the better prepared Union force succeeded in forcing the Rebel boats back to Memphis.  Two days later, Confederates destroyed the historic Merrimack to prevent it from falling into the hands of the advancing Federals; the Merrimack had fought the Union Monitor in the historic first battle between two ironclads the previous March 9.  One might consider May 18 to be the start of a very long Union campaign to take the important Mississippi River city of Vicksburg, as Union Flag Officer David Farragut began an advance intended to take control of the river at that location.

Primary source:  The Civil War Day By Day, edited by John S. Bowman, Dorset Press, Greenwich, CT, 1989.



RICHMOND, VA., June 1, 1862

General R. E. LEE:

      SIR: The unfortunate casualty which has deprived the army in front of Richmond of its immediate commander, General Johnston, renders it necessary to interfere temporarily with the duties to which you were assigned in connection with the general service, but only so far as to make you available for command in the field of a particular army. You will assume command of the armies in Eastern Virginia and in North Carolina, and give such orders as may be needful and proper.

                                                                                                             Very respectfully,

                                                                                                             JEFFERSON DAVIS.

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 14 [S# 14]

Source for Official Reports of the Month:  The Civil War CD-ROM, by Guild Press of Indiana, 435 Gradle Drive, Carmel, IN, 46032, 317-848-6421.


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