History Happenings May: Civil War and WWII | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

History Happenings May: Civil War and WWII

Painting of the Constitutional Convention
In this month’s History Happenings, Mark Bielski shares a few events of note that happened during World War II and the American Civil War. As Ralph W. Emerson wrote, “What potent blood hath modest May.”

Pre-Civil War or Antebellum Days

1787 – Nothing happens in a vacuum, so the Civil War disagreement did not just begin with the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Discord was well in evidence when the delegates from twelve states met for the Constitutional Convention that began in May of that year. Only twelve, because Rhode Island had refused to be a part of it. The state did not send any delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 because they were afraid of exactly what ended up happening. That is, they were afraid that the convention would create a new set of laws that would give too much power to the national government.
Virginian George Mason warned that slavery would “bring the judgment of Heaven” upon the new country. However, the Constitution included three clauses that allowed slavery: The Fugitive slave law decreed that runaway slaves must be returned to their owners; second, with regard to the slave trade, importation of slaves would be allowed until 1808; and lastly, one slave would represent three-fifths of a white citizen. This third clause was for the purpose of apportioning congressional representatives on the basis of population. This by no means suggested that on a given election day five slaves could band together and send three of their comrades to go vote for them.

1824 May – Congress passed a Protective Tariff Act restricting some imports that caused some South Carolinians to question whether it was worth staying in the Union. In May of 1828, the “Tariff of Abominations” designed to protect northern industry caused more southern dissatisfaction.

1856 May – Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, gave an oration attacking not only the institution of slavery, but two Senators personally, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina for supporting it in his “Crime Against Kansas” speech. Three days later, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks, Butler’s cousin, entered the chamber and severely beat Sumner with a cane. The bleeding and unconscious Sumner had to be carried from the floor, while Brooks walked away unscathed. The “Caning” incident made Sumner a martyr in the North, while many Southerners proclaimed Brooks a champion for defending the honor of his relative.
Later in the month in Kansas, an attack on anti-slavery settlers in Lawrence left one man dead.  A few days later, rabid abolitionist John Brown led his para-military group to kill five pro-slavery Kansans at Pottawatomie Creek.

1860 – On 18 May, Abraham Lincoln received the Republican presidential nomination in Chicago. As a moderate he and the party adopted a platform that prohibited slavery in the new territories, but allowed its continuation in the current slave-holding states. By the end of the year, he had won the election by electoral majority but only carried a plurality of the popular votes. He did not carry a single Southern state. South Carolina seceded that December and the country was moving inexorably toward war.

American Civil War

May 6 & 20 – Arkansas and North Carolina became the ninth and tenth states to secede from the Union.  Tennessee would join the Confederacy in June.
May 24 – Federal troops crossed the Potomac River to occupy Alexandria, Virginia as a small Confederate garrison withdrew with minor skirmishing. The owner of the Marshall House hotel, James Jackson had the secession flag flying proudly as Union troops moved into the center of town. Colonel James Ellsworth led a troop of New York Zouaves to rush the hotel and remove the flag when Jackson confronted him armed with a shotgun. When Ellsworth did not back down, Jackson fatally shot him. He was in turn felled by a musket ball from Private Brownell, part of his command.

President Lincoln was personally acquainted with the Ellsworth family, and wrote a heartfelt letter of condolence to the parents. He also had the young colonel’s funeral services held at the White House that weekend.  

May 1 – After the city of New Orleans surrendered to the Union fleet and Admiral David Farragut at the end of April, General Benjamin Butler and his troops began the Union occupation.  In his diary, he referred to the city as “untamed” and governed by mob rule. After his experience in Baltimore, in which a pro-secession citizens confronted his Massachusetts troops when they marched through the city, Butler was determined to rule with an iron hand. He summoned the mayor to his headquarters at the St. Charles Hotel to lay down the terms of occupation. When he deemed that the protesting New Orleanians outside in the streets were a “too clamorous and obstreperous mob,” the Union General summoned his artillery company from the 6th Maine to disperse the crowd—by a barrage from their six Napoleons if necessary.     Later, when addressing the “mob,” he noticed a man wearing a torn fragment of the Stars and Stripes in his lapel. He learned that this was William B. Mumford, the man who had hauled down the U.S. flag from the Mint’s roof and presented it to the roiling mass of citizens below. They had gathered to vociferously protest the arrival of the Union army and navy. They subsequently gathered up the flag and traipsed over to City Hall where the surrender negotiations were occurring, dragging it and tearing it to shreds. The angry mob then hurled the remnants of the Stars and Stripes through the open window of the meeting room. When Butler learned of this, he vowed to Farragut to find and hang the culprit. He lived up to his promise and had Mumford hanged on the grounds of the Mint.     This was just the beginning of his rather brief, but corrupt, tyrannical rule. He should, however, receive credit for cleaning up the city as it had never been before.    He acquired the moniker “Spoons” for his supposed penchant for confiscating silverware and other valuables from the homes of wealthy residents. Even Naval Commander David Dixon Porter, with whom Butler feuded throughout the war, labeled him a “spoon lifter and plate stealer.” The other sobriquet applied to him was “Beast.” This name arose primarily from the issuance of General Order 28, or “Woman’s Order.” In it, he decreed that any woman who insulted or showed contempt for a U.S. officer or soldier “shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her trade.” It spurred outrage throughout the South, consternation in the North and drew protests from some European governments.     

On 2 May in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia,  General Stonewall Jackson executed a brilliant flanking attack on the Union right.  In a surprise attack, his Confederates smashed into and routed the Union XI Corps under General Oliver O. Howard. That night, while leading a group of officers on a night reconnaissance ride, Jackson was mistakenly wounded by friendly fire.     Jackson had his left arm amputated and contracted pneumonia.  


We usually think of WWII as beginning on 1 September 1939 with the German Invasion of Poland. However, in the Far East the conflict had been underway for several years. The Japanese had invaded and occupied Manchuria in September 1931.  

17 May – U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull announced that there would be no arms embargo on Japan nor China. It would not be an effective means of restoring peace. Japan, he stated, had the ability to manufacture its own munitions for war if embargoed. China was dependent on importation of arms and Japan would simply seize arms shipments intended for China. 

13 May – Newly appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain gave his famoush speech to the House of Commons in Parliament.  After forming a “War Cabinet,” comprised of members of different political factions, he emphasized the grievous situation for the country.  

“We are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history. . . . many prepartations have to be made here at home. . . .[and] I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He went on to say that Britain was going “to wage war against a monstrous tyranny,  never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”  

5 May – The capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, staged a triumphal welcome for Emperor Haile Selassie. He had to flee in 1936 when Mussolini’s Italian Fascists marched into his country.  Now, supported by British forces and his own Ethiopian troops, Selassie thanked God and the Allies for restoring him to his country.  

9 May – The German Reich Commissioner in the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart placed the entire country under martial law. He had thousands of Dutchmen suspected of resisting the Nazi occupation arrested and imposed a daily curfew of 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Printing of unapproved literature was banned and men aged 18-35 were registered and subject to deportation as slave labor to Germany factories.  

23 May – Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the Nazi SS and Deputy Reichsfuhrer, had been arrested by British military police near Hamburg. He was masquerading as a small-town constable when apprehended. After a strip search, a British doctor was conducting a physical examination when Himmler crushed a cyanide capsule between his teeth. Despite attempts to pump his stomach and revive him, Himmler expired and many of Nazi Germany’s secrets died with him.

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