The Agony of August-1861

Northern opinion continues to reel from July’s defeat. Abolitionists and the Lincoln Administration take differing courses on the issue of slavery. General Fremont in Missouri and two Confederate diplomats–James Mason and John Slidell in Virginia–take steps which will give President Lincoln a domestic crisis on the slavery issue and an international crisis which may lead to war with Great Britain. Lincoln asks for prayer. The Kingdom of Hawaii declares its neutrality. And in China a concubine comes to power through intrigue in the royal court.


August–Rochester, New York–In this month’s issue of his Monthly, Frederick Douglass analyzes the differences between the rebels and the federal government. “While the South does not hesitate to employ their slaves against the Government, the Government refuses to accept the services of any colored citizen in suppressing the rebellion, lest they should lead to the freedom of the slaves, and thus inflict too heavy a blow upon the slaveholding rebels. . . . The slaveholders have no scruples; they wage this war with unrelenting and desperate earnestness, sustained and fed by immeasurable malice, unmixed, and as deadly as the poison from the fang of a rattlesnake. Herein is the secret of their success . . . the quenchless fire of a deadly hate, which spurns all restraints of law and humanity, and walks to its purpose with a single eye and a determined hand.”

August 3–Saturday–Off the coast of Virginia–A Union naval officer ascends in a tethered hot-air balloon to reconnoiter Confederate controlled Hampton Roads. It is the first balloon ascent from a ship in naval history.

 August 3–Mexico–The Confederate Minister advises the government that Mexican peonage and Southern slavery are the same and if the Confederacy fails, thousands of Southerners will migrate to Mexico and bring their slaves.

August 5–Washington–President Lincoln signs into law a number of bills passed during the special session of Congress, including a new issue of bonds, a tariff increase and the first direct income tax (3% on all incomes over $800).

August 6–Tuesday–Norwich, Connecticut–Birth of Edith K Carow, who will become the wife of Theodore Roosevelt and will serve as First Lady

August 6–Washington–Congress passes the First Confiscation Act or the Confiscation Act of 1861 which allows Federal authorities to seize property used in the insurrection, essentially freeing slaves forced to participate in the Confederate war effort and forbidding reimbursement to slave owners for work done by slaves for Union forces.

August 7–Virginia–Confederate forces burn the village of Hampton, near the Union-held Fort Monroe. General Benjamin Butler had been planning to use the village to house slaves who have sought protection in the Union lines.

Wilson's Creekl

August 10–Saturday–Missouri–In the worst battle fought in the state, Confederate troops route a Federal column at Wilson’s Creek. Union causalities total 1,317, Confederate causalities amount to 1,230.

August 11–Illinois–Today’s Chicago Tribune responds to complaints about Secretary of War Simon Cameron. “He may be ambitious of higher honors at the hands of his countrymen; he may have failed to comprehend all the bearings and relations of the great rebellion, and thus misled may have gone astray, but there is not a shadow of proof, that we have seen, which shows that his office is managed corruptly.”

August 12–Monday–Washington–President Lincoln issues a proclamation for a national day of prayer and fasting on the last Thursday in September to restore peace and national unity and “that the united prayer of the nation may ascend to the Throne of Grace and bring down plentiful blessings upon our Country.”

August 12–Frederick Douglass writes to Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and politician, about the war’s opportunity to abolish slavery. “For the sake of Eternal Justice continue to urge upon the Government with all your powers of persuasion the duty of breaking the yoke. Now is the time. . . . It were weak as well as wicked not to strike now.”

August 12–Death of Eliphalet Remington, gunsmith and founder of Remington Arms Company. He is 67 years of age.

August 15–Thursday–General George McClellan assumes command of the U S Army of the Potomac.

August 15–New York City–Lawyer and businessman George Templeton Strong confides to the pages of diary that “We are not yet fighting in earnest, not even yet. Our sluggish, good-natured, pachydermatous Northern people requires a deal of kicking to heat its blood. Not a traitor is hanged after four months of rampant belligerent rebellion. We must change all this.”

August 18–Sunday–In the pages of her diary, Mrs Mary Chesnut, South Carolina socialite, complains about Horace Greeley’s newspaper. “The New York Tribune is so unfair. It began by howling to get rid of us: we were so wicked. Now that we are so willing to leave them to their over-righteous self-consciousness, they cry: ‘Crush our enemy, or they will subjugate us.’ The idea that we want to invade or subjugate anybody; we would be only too grateful to be left alone. We ask no more of gods or men.”

August 18–Albany, New York–Thurlow Weed, a politician and friend of Secretary of State Seward, writes to President Lincoln, complaining about the lack of victories. “Something should be done to restore confidence; to rekindle enthusiasm; to awaken Hopes, or all is lost. For all the sacrifices made and being made, the Country needs, and will demand, results. Without victories, the Tax Gatherers will prove unwelcome visitors. Without showing ourselves strong enough to put down Rebellion, Foreign Governments will soon intervene to put it up! It is, of course, easier to detect the existence of evils, than to furnish remedies. But you are the Head of this great Nation. I know how faithfully you serve, and how devotedly you love the Union. It never before was in such danger.”

August 19–Monday–Switzerland–Climbers make the first successful ascent of Weisshorn, the fifth highest summit in the Alps.

Cixi--Dowager Empress of China


August 22–China–The Emperor Xianfeng, the 9th emperor of Qing Dynasty, dies at the Chengde Mountain Resort. He is only 30 years old and has reigned 11 years. His one surviving son, Zaichun, only 6 years old, is the named successor. However, as the result of a palace coup, one of his concubines, a woman named Yi, will subsequently rule China for the next 47 years, as the Empress Dowager Cixi

August 23–Boston, Massachusetts–An article in today’s Liberator asserts that despite denials in many Northern newspapers that the slavery question has any thing to do with the war, most people know that slavery is the major issue. “Now, is the American press so weak and blind as to suppose that the masses of the people are to be satisfied with this explanation? . . . . we hear the rattle of the chains of four million slaves. This is the rattle which reverberates in the heart of the American people, and it will continue until the last link is severed that holds men in bondage.” The article encourages the Federal government to accept the enlistments of black men.

First edition of The Liberator-1831

August 23–Williamsport Maryland–In a private letter to President Lincoln, his friend Ward Lamon, now a U S Marshal, writes, “So far as I am able to judge, I believe that more than one half of the women in Maryland are secessionists. I had a quarrel with one, a few days ago. . . . I think I satisfied her that I had little respect for an Enemy dressed in either pants or petticoats–I treat all alike.”

August 24–Saturday–President Jeff Davis names James Mason as Confederate commissioner to Great Britain and John Slidell as Confederate commissioner to France.

August 24–New York City–Responding to editorials in British and Canadian newspapers encouraging immediate abolition of slavery, Harper’s Weekly editorializes that it can not be done right none. However, the paper notes, “That . . . slavery will come out of this war unscathed is impossible. The mere escape of slaves will weaken the institution irrecoverably in the States where the war is waged . . . . Nor will it ever be forgotten that slavery was the root of the rebellion. It may be taken for granted that the national territories are forever sealed against the institution; and it needs but little foresight to perceive that, within a year, emancipation will be in progress in Maryland and the District of Columbia . . . . and what other accidents may befall the institution in the course of the war—no one, of course, can guess. But we think that, on reflection, people in England and in Canada will perceive that neither Mr. Lincoln nor Congress could, at this stage in the affair, have pursued the course they recommend.”

Harpers Weekly-August 24-1861

August 24–France–Pierre Berthier, a French geologist and mining engineer who forty years before discovered the mineral bauxite, dies at age 79.

August 25–Louisiana–Today’s edition of the New Orleans Daily Picayune discusses the paper money issued by the Confederate government and coming into circulation. “No good citizen will do anything to discredit the authorized paper issues of a Government sustained by an unanimous people and engaged in a struggle for independence, which it is the duty of every patriot to give aid to by every means in his power.”

 August 26–Hawaii–King Kamehameha IV proclaims the neutrality of his kingdom during the American Civil War.

King Kamehameha IV of Hawaii

August 27–Ohio–Today’s Cleveland Herald reports that pro-Union “feeling in North Carolina is strong and growing stronger day by day.”

August 28–Wednesday–Ulysses S Grant receives command of the Federal forces in Southern Illinois and Southeastern Missouri.

August 29–Thursday–Mary Chesnut comments in her diary on what happens to some women now that there is actually war happening. “Women who come before the public are in a bad box now. False hair is taken off and searched for papers. Bustles are ‘suspect.’ All manner of things, they say, come over the border under the huge hoops now worn; so they are ruthlessly torn off.”

Rev Samuel J May

August 30–Friday–Frederick Douglass writes to Reverend Samuel J May, Unitarian minister, abolitionist and uncle of Louisa May Alcott, about rumored plans to stimulate slave insurrections in the Confederacy. “I am sick of seeing mere isolated, extemporaneous insurrections the only result of which is the shooting and hanging of the few brave men who take part in them. . . . Whenever the government is ready to make the war, a war for freedom and progress and will receive the services of black men on the same terms upon which it receives that of other men I pledge myself to do one man’s work in supplying the Government.”

August 30–Missouri–General John C. Fremont declares martial law in Missouri and frees the slaves of all active Confederates in the state.

August 31–Atchison, Kansas–In today’s edition of Freedom’s Champion the paper takes issue with those want immediate peace. “The only form of ‘peace’ now existing as possible is the hauling down of the United States flag . . . and the . . . recognition of the Secession flag. They who think of this sort of peace ought to maintain it by additional propositions for a standing army of at least three hundred thousand men to be stretched in cordons from the line of the Susquehanna river, along all the bluffs of the Ohio and Missouri rivers with fortresses to be erected on these bluffs costing at least $500 000,000 for, unless this standing army follow and stand in these fortresses, the peace would not last–nay, not even long enough to build the fortresses!”

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  • Chris Catalfamo  On August 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Nice blog John. Oddly I have also been doing a monthly article for the Indiana Gazette. Month by month–but mine is much more local with only a Timeline for national and sometimes international events

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