By Dr. Walter G. Howell
In January 1861, the army of the United States was among the smallest in the world, and the army of the confederacy did not exist. The federal army, still called the “Old Army,” numbered about 16,000 soldiers, scattered across the country. The officer corps had 1,098 officers, the majority graduates of West Point. Because there was no mandatory retirement, an officer could serve as long as he chose. There were four line officers of general rank in the army in 1861, only one under seventy years of age. New graduates of West Point had to accept a brevet – an honorary rank –and were put on a waiting list until there was a vacancy.
After the attack on Fort Sumter, the army of the United States underwent rapid growth. Lincoln issued a call for volunteers from loyal states. An army command structure was quickly organized, dominated by West Pointers. Those officers volunteering from state militia regiments had to deal with a surplus of regular army officers. Political connections helped many to break through the regular army barrier to promotion. By July 1861, after the defeat at Bull Run (Manassas), the federal army was 186,751 soldiers in size. By January 1862, the federal army numbered 575,917 – the largest army in the world.
In February 1861, the Confederate government in Montgomery created the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, composed of volunteer regiments from the states of the Confederacy. The initial call was for state militia to serve for one year, paid and supplied by the Confederate government. In Mississippi, as in other states, many units volunteered for sixty or ninety days (The Raymond Fuciliers was one such unit). The Mississippi College Rifles volunteered for one year. By the time of Manassas (Bull Run), the Confederate army totaled 112,040. By January 1862, the Confederate army numbered 351,418 – the second largest army in the world.
The Mississippi College Rifles’ last engagement in 1861 was at Edward’s Ferry on the Potomac River across from Maryland. It was a costly battle. The Rifles not only lost their regimental commander, Colonel E. R. Burt, but also the company commander, Captain Johnson Welborn; and two enlisted men were wounded and had to be sent home. Burt, former state auditor, was killed in the battle. A Colonel Griffin replaced him.
After Captain Welborn left for Mississippi, an election for his temporary successor was held. Lt. Joseph Buckles, an original Rifle from Franklin County, received 39 votes; Felix Bramlett, also an “original” from Clinton, and Henry Robertson of Bolton each received one vote. The ballot, undated, identified the unit as “the Clinton College Rifles.” After Welborn’s resignation was received, a second election for commander of “the Clinton College Rifles” was held on December 16, 1861, and Lt. William Lewis of Clinton, an original Rifle, received 46 votes to 25 for John Green of Copiah County.
Both armies were in winter quarters on the Virginia front when President Lincoln ordered General George McClellan to prepare for an invasion of Virginia in early 1862. While McClellan began preparing for what many called the “maelstrom of 1862,” Confederate troops made their decisions about reenlisting, since their enlistments were about to expire. The Mississippi College Rifles agreed to reenlist for two years, though the Confederate government had instructed all units to reenlist for three. The Confederate government also promised enlistees a fifty-day furlough and a cash bonus. There would be no leaves, however, for the Rifles or any of the Confederate army in Virginia.
In April 1862, McClellan launched the Peninsula Campaign, with the goal of ending the rebellion.
Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the sixth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.