On this day in 1862, Union General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, commander of the Department of the South, dies in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Born in Kentucky in 1809 or 1810, Mitchel grew up in Lebanon, Ohio. He attended West Point, where he excelled in mathematics, and graduated in 1829 along with future Confederate leaders Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Mitchel taught at West Point before becoming a surveyor on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Railroad. In the mid-1830s, he accepted a professorship at Cincinnati College and eventually gained acclaim as a lecturer on astronomy. His lecture tours in the United States and Europe helped fund the Cincinnati Observatory, which he directed when it opened in 1845.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Mitchel became a brigadier general in the Army of the Ohio under General Don Carlos Buell and participated in operations in Kentucky and Tennessee in 1862. Mitchel also directed raids into northern Alabama, capturing Huntsville in April 1862. Mitchel was a critic of the "soft war," or limited approach, of many Northern generals, and his actions made him a target of conservative Northern newspapers. Advocating a tougher stance against Southern civilians and the institution of slavery, he confiscated the property of prominent Confederates and protected slaves who escaped to his lines well before the practice was mandated by Federal policy.
In July 1862, Mitchel was named commander of the Department of the South. He moved to headquarters in South Carolina, where he oversaw the building of schools and homes for slaves in the captured territory. This movement, begun by his predecessor, General David Hunter, is considered the first experiment in the reconstruction of the South. However, Mitchel's participation in this project was cut short by his death from yellow fever on October 30.