The Civil War Part 1: The Opening Years

The Revolution of 1861

By February of 1861 the Confederate States of America had been organized with their capital at Montgomery, Alabama, though it would later be moved to the larger city of Richmond. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was sworn in as provisional first president. A cabinet was formed and the new government began to function within three months of the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the event that precipitated the action.

Jefferson DavisThe Constitution of the Confederate States of America was adopted on March 11, 1861. As much of it was taken directly from the United States Constitution, the process of creating it required far less time than had been needed in Philadelphia in 1787. The Preamble announced the creation of sovereign and independent states that would form a “permanent federal government,” thus incorporating the states’ right doctrine from the outset. The structure of the Confederate government was essentially the same as that of the United States, with the exception that the president was limited to one six-year term. The rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights were enumerated in the basic document. A section of that article stated that “No … law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” The Confederate Constitution also extended the right of slave ownership to any territories that might join the Confederacy in the future.

All those events occurred before Abraham Lincoln left Illinois. President Buchanan did his best to hold things together, but obviously a crisis was at hand, and the new president would have to deal with it. As Lincoln made his way slowly from Springfield to Washington via New York State, he was met by well-wishers along the way—including a little girl who had urged him to grow beard to hide his ugliness. He eventually was smuggled into Washington in the middle of the night, since the city found itself in the midst of Confederate sympathizers.

President Lincoln took office facing an unprecedented crisis—and the Constitution offered no guidance on how to confront the situation. Lincoln put together a balanced cabinet, headed by Secretary of State William Seward, who hoped to conciliate the South. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, who had also sought the Republican nomination in 1860, was a spokesman for abolitionists. His first Secretary of War was Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, but he was soon replaced by Edwin Stanton. Edward Bates of Missouri became Lincoln’s Attorney General. (See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, New York, 1955. A fine full biography is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, New York, 1996.)

The president’s problem was how to enforce the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land, without being accused of starting a war. His dilemma lay in the fact that if he ignored Southern occupation of Federal territory, he would be, in effect, recognizing Southern independence. On the other hand, the Confederacy also faced a dilemma: If it allowed President Lincoln to treat what they considered former Federal property as still belonging to the United States, then they would be acknowledging that they were not sovereign over such territory. Lincoln decided to place the burden of resolving the issue on the South.

Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861

Since South Carolina was the first state to secede, President Lincoln focused his attention on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln’s decision to re-supply the fort with an unarmed vessel shifted the dilemma to the Confederacy. If the Confederate government allowed a Union vessel to enter the harbor and re-supply the fort, it would be acknowledging that it lacked full sovereignty over its own territory. If, on the other hand, the South were to use force to prevent the fort from being re-supplied by firing on an unarmed ship, then they would be held guilty of firing the shot that started the war. In the end the Confederacy took the second option.

Lincoln’s decision to send a ship full of provisions but without armament to supply the hungry garrison led the Confederate government to decide that it could not allow what it deemed a foreign country to enter its territory without permission. Thus General P.G.T. Beauregard was ordered not to allow the resupply to take place, and to fire on Fort Sumter. fort sumterLincoln positioned the Confederacy in such a way that they were obliged to fire the first shot on the American flag, which occurred in April 12, 1861.

The Confederates shelled Fort Sumter for several hours, causing much damage but no serious casualties. The Commander, Major Anderson, surrendered the fort the next day. Lincoln then called for 75,000 3-month volunteers to end the “Insurrection.” This caused four upper South slave states to secede: North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas. Southerners considered Lincoln’s call an act of aggression that denied them their right to self-determination. In Lincoln’s view secession was undemocratic because it challenged the results of a freely held election. (In the 1869 case of Texas v. White, the United States Supreme Court ruled that secession was unconstitutional on the grounds that the Union of states was meant to be permanent.) In 1861, Northerners were committed to saving the Union, not to freeing the slaves. The fact that the South had fired on the United States flag was enough to send thousands of young men to volunteer to fight for the Union.

Both sides expected a short war—neither was prepared for a drawn-out conflict. Both Yankees and Confederates expected it to be over in a matter of weeks. One Southerner held up a handkerchief and declared he would be able to soak up all the blood that would be shed with that single piece of cloth.

The Blue and the Gray

Historians have argued for years about possible outcomes of the Civil War. A consensus has been reached among many historians that because of the substantial difference in resources available to the North and the South, the North was bound to win. The North’s larger population, its wealth and industrial power, and the fact that the Union government already had relations with other nations all seemed to make the outcome a foregone conclusion. Relative to the North, however, the Confederacy had far more resources available than the Patriots had possessed in 1775. (The body of literature on the Civil War is huge. Two excellent works are James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, New York, 1988; and Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative,3 vols., New York, 1958. See additional titles in the reading section.)

In addition it should be noted that the North and South had different objectives: the North had to pursue an aggressive strategy; it could not force the Confederate states back into the Union without invading the South and winning a decisive victory. The South, on the other hand, did not really need a total victory—a draw would suffice. It just needed to keep the war going until the North ran out of patience and resources. (The outcomes of the American Revolution and the Vietnam War both suggest that victory can be achieved in this ways; the British were not driven out of North America, nor were the Americans driven out of Vietnam.)

The Union strategy initially conceived by General Winfield Scott sought to divide and conquer the South. He envisioned a complete blockade of the South by hemming the Confederate states in on both land and sea. He then planned to force them to a position where surrender was the only option. The main points of Scott’s strategy included a blockade of the Confederate coastline. They would control the Mississippi and cut off Southern use of the waterway, seizing the capital of Richmond. As the war progressed, Union forces would divide the Confederacy along a line through Georgia. The Northern press derided Scott's plan and dubbed it the “Anaconda Plan.” The press and other critics called for an “On to Richmond!” approach, thinking that a swift attack would bring quick victory.

In addition to directing the conduct of the war as Commander-in-Chief, President Lincoln was also concerned with keeping other nations out of the conflict and keeping the remaining border states, especially Kentucky and Maryland, in the Union. (Lincoln no doubt recalled that without French assistance, the American Revolution might have ended differently.)

The Confederate strategy, as initially mapped out and to some extent put into practice, though not successfully, was to take Washington and advance into Maryland and Pennsylvania, cutting the Northeast off from the rest of the nation. The South also sought to defend its homeland with aggressive tactics, which eventually proved very costly. The primary goal of Confederate foreign policy was to gain recognition of their independence and to gain assistance through intervention in the conflict on their behalf. The South attempted to gain foreign assistance, especially from Great Britain. They believed that cotton was “king,” and that British dependence on Southern cotton would cause her to intervene and assist the South. For a variety of reasons Great Britain did not follow that course, not wanting, among other things, to cut herself off from Northern grain supplies. Alternative sources of cotton (Egypt and India) were also a factor.

Northern advantages were fairly obvious: a larger population, greater industrial capacity, better railroad system, control of the Navy, an established government with diplomatic ties to other nations, and a mature political organization. Northern disadvantages included the fact that the United States Army was small and mostly confined to the Western theaters. President Lincoln knew little of warfare or foreign affairs, though he was a quick study.

Southern advantages were perhaps less obvious but nonetheless real: The South had interior lines, meaning they could shift forces more rapidly than the Union; Northern business interests were tied to the South; the South had outstanding military leaders, including President Jefferson Davis, who had served as U.S. secretary of war; the South could take advantage of their defensive position, and they had a more homogenous population. Southern disadvantages included the fact that the states’ rights philosophy tended to hamper unity. Furthermore, President Davis was politically handicapped by a one-party system which did not provide for a “loyal opposition.”

The Balance: Southern problems included the fact that the Confederate government had to be created—they had plenty of experienced leaders, but the basic machinery had to be established. Post offices and such continued to function, but government offices, clerks, etc., needed to be organized. All things considered, the outcome could have gone either way.

The war was fought in two theaters, East and West, but the Washington-Richmond line became the main line of concern. There was also significant action on lesser fronts such as the trans-Mississippi area, the Southern coasts and on the high seas. The naval war was fought by cruisers, raiders, and blockade runners, and by gunboats and transports in operations along inland waterways. Although Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” was scorned, it eventually won the war.

April 19 Blockade. One of Lincoln’s first acts was to proclaim a blockade of the Southern coastline. He faced a legal dilemma, however, which was how to avoid recognizing the South as a belligerent power. Lincoln was concerned over possible British responses and did not want to influence her position away from that of neutrality. Lincoln’s hope was that because Great Britain was the world’s leading naval power and relied on blockades as a war measure, she would recognize the Union blockade. Lincoln and Seward were concerned about other international responses, but it was likely that most nations would follow Great Britain's lead. Lincoln’s overriding diplomatic challenge was to keep the South isolated. As the war progressed, amphibious operations carried out by Union forces brought much of the Southern coastline and many Southern ports under Federal control.

Early Actions. Once the shots were fired on Fort Sumter, both sides knew that war had begun. The tension that had been mounting for more than a decade was broken, and for a brief period, many felt a sense of relief. In the South, however, the mood soon turned to one of grim determination, a deep-seated belief that the North would at last pay for its arrogance in trying to dictate to the South. The steady drumbeat of abolitionist sentiment had infuriated many in the South, and the prospect of disruption of the Southern way of life was more than many could bear. Southerners whose feelings of loyalty to the Union remained intact learned quickly to keep silent—to challenge the cause of the South was tantamount to treason. For some Southerners who realized the power that lay in Northern industry and numbers, the future looked grim and foreboding. Yet thousands of young men in the South were more than prepared to fight for what they saw as their rights.

To understand the mood in the North, one needs to recall Daniel Webster’s Union address of 1831 as well as his speech in the 1850 Compromise debates. The idea of the Union was powerful. When Beauregard ordered his batteries to fire on the American flag, thousands in the North were outraged. They flocked to the enlistment offices in numbers far greater than could be processed. American flags appeared in thousands of windows, and a well-known New York diarist wrote, GOD SAVE THE UNION, AND CONFOUND ITS ENEMIES! AMEN! (The Diary of George Templeton Strong 1835-1875 was published in 1952 in 4 volumes.)

As both sides organize themselves for war, skirmishes broke out along the border areas between the Union and the Confederacy. In western Virginia, citizens met and decided that the 50 counties west of the Appalachians where slavery was scarce would carry out their own act of secession. They voted to leave the state of Virginia and create a new state. West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863.

The West Virginia region was also the scene of the heaviest fighting before the real war began. General George McClellan, who would eventually lead the Union Army of the Potomac, oversaw the fighting in the region. He won a small-scale victory at the Battle of Philippi, which cleared the Confederates out of the Kanawha River Valley. McClellan sent dispatches to Washington claiming credit for his actions, though much of the success was the work of his subordinates, especially General William S. Rosecrans. McClellan’s flaw as a general, which ultimately doomed his career, was his willingness to take full credit for everything that happened within his command, while quickly blaming others for his failures.

First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. July 21, 1861.

The first relatively large battle was fought less than 25 miles from Washington. The opening weeks of the war were unsettling for President Lincoln, as significant numbers of troops were slow to arrive in Washington. Part of the difficulty lay in the fact that Maryland was a slave state and several units had to actually fight their way through Baltimore in order to get to the nation's capital. Alternative routes were eventually established, and by June a number of regiments had begun to assemble.

battleThe Union commander, Major General Irvin McDowell, realizing that his troops had had little training, was reluctant to take them into battle. President Lincoln pointed out, however, that the Southern troops and had no more training than the Union men, and he urged McDowell to begin to move. On July 21, McDowell's 30,000 men advanced towards the Confederate positions along Bull Run Creek near Manassas, Virginia. The march out from Washington revealed that federal troops were poorly trained. They lacked water discipline, draining their canteens early in the march, which caused them to break ranks in search of fresh supplies. In similar fashion they showed that they were not a highly trained military organization. The Confederates, waiting in defensive positions, were perhaps better prepared, as they had time to establish their defenses, although they were also less than fully trained.

The realities of war had not yet sunk in on either population—spectators from both Washington and Richmond traveled to the battle site in carriages and other conveyances in order to observe the action, as if it were some sort of sporting event. They soon discovered that war was not a game. 

The Confederates waiting for the Yankees were under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. General McDowell’s battle plan was reasonable, but it depended upon Confederate reinforcements being blocked and other secondary actions that failed. The fighting started fairly early and for much of the day, the Union troops fought well. But as the day wore on and the heat intensified and casualties mounted, the resolve of the Federal soldiers finally broke. As individual fighting men began to scurry from the battlefield, they were pursued by officers on horseback and shouting at them to return. 

The actions by those inexperienced officers were misinterpreted by other soldiers within view; they thought a general retreat had been ordered. The result was that more men joined the hasty, ill-organized retreat until the entire Union force was heading back for Washington, discarding weapons and equipment along the way. Meanwhile, the spectators who had come out in carriages with spy-glasses and picnic lunches to observe and the day’s activities joined the panicky retreat, as wagon masters and swearing teamsters added to the din and confusion. The scene was later vividly described in detail by British journalist William Howard Russell, who was thereafter known as “Bull Run Russell.”

The Confederate rebel yell had supposedly unnerved the Union troops, but when President Jefferson Davis urged his commanders to pursue the fleeing Yankees, it was discovered that they were just as disorganized as the Union troops and did not follow up on their action. The battle was clearly a defeat for the Union, but it was far from being decisive.

In the end, the importance of the Battle of Bull Run is that it generated a considerable amount of confidence in the Confederate soldiers. They came to believe that their fierce rebel yell and their undaunted courage would carry the day in any battle against even a superior sized Union force. That overconfidence was to cost the Confederates dearly over the next few years. On the Union side, those who had been predicting and hoping for a quick, decisive victory quickly became disillusioned. Union leaders from President Lincoln on down began to realize that they needed to dig in for the long haul and prepare for a lengthy contest. Thus the Battle of Bull Run was a wake-up call for the Union which, at the same time, bred a dangerous sense of overconfidence in the Confederates.

General McClellanGeneral McDowell was relieved of his command and was replaced by perhaps the most controversial Union General of the war, General George B. McClellan. McClellan achieved moderate success in western Virginia with a force of 20,000 troops and had won a several minor engagements. Much of McClellan's success, however, had been attributable to his subordinates; “Little Mac,” who was his own press secretary, sent glowing reports of his achievements to Washington. President Lincoln, beginning what would be a long and frustrating search to find a competent general to lead his eastern armies, gave command of the army in Washington to McClellan, who soon became known as the “Young Napoleon.”

As McClellan busied himself reorganizing the Union Army of the Potomac, the Union suffered another defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff above Washington. A former U.S. Senator, Col. Edward D. Baker, made several tactical blunders which led to the decimation of Union forces. Repercussions included the forming of a congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.

As the two sides continued to organize their armies and train enlistees who flocked to the Union and Confederate colors, little major action occurred on land for the remainder of 1861. In November federal naval forces captured Port Royal, South Carolina, as part of the effort to establish a blockade around the Confederacy. In that regard relations with England were to become the most critical; the Union blockade during the opening months of the war was mostly a paper blockade. In order for a naval blockade to be legal under international law, it had to be enforced with naval vessels on the scene. Early in the war the Union Navy lacked sufficient vessels and sailors to achieve that end. The Union advantage in this matter was that Great Britain, as a maritime nation, had depended heavily on blockades in the past and would likely continue to do so into the future. Thus Great Britain tended to overlook the minor violation of international law resulting from the weakness of the Union blockade.

The Trent Affair. Relations between the two nations took a sour turn, however, when information was obtained that two Confederate agents, James Mason and John Slidell, had been embarked in a British ship, H.M.S. Trent, on a diplomatic mission to establish Confederate relations in Europe. Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto stopped the Trent and removed the Confederate agents and their secretaries over the protests of the captain of the Trent. The British government lodged immediate protests, and an embarrassed President Lincoln was obliged to release Mason and Slidell and eventually issue a formal apology. British Canada, feeling threatened by a disturbance with its southern neighbor, doubled the size of its militia from 50,000 to 100,000. Despite enthusiastic support in the North for Captain Wilkes’s actions, the British accepted President Lincoln’s apology, and the affair died.

One of the unsung heroes of the Civil War for the Union was the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., son of John Quincy Adams. Inheriting the diplomatic skill of his father, Adams performed brilliantly, as he was sometimes obliged to sidestep the heavy-handed diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State Seward. During the Trent affair, as well as during subsequent diplomatic crises, Adams performed an extremely valuable service in helping to keep Great Britain out of the war, a condition that was vital for Union victory.

Raising again the point about the inevitability of the outcome of the war, it seems clear that if Great Britain or France had entered the war on the Confederate side, a Southern victory might well have been assured. Lincoln’s major diplomatic challenge was to fight the war in such a way so as not to irritate Great Britain, whose lead would be followed by the French. Gauging British sympathies was not easy; some elements in Great Britain were sympathetic to the Southern position, while others, correctly perceiving that slavery was an underlying cause of the war, were well disposed toward Lincoln and the Union.

On November 1 General George B. McClellan was appointed General in Chief upon the retirement of General Winfield Scott, whom McClellan rather ungraciously helped usher out the door. McClellan was a superb organizer, and he soon began an excellent regimen of training to bring the growing Union Army up to fighting trim. He replaced incompetent officers with more capable men and began to build up the Army of the Potomac, which, when well led, could stand against any army in the world. The problem with General McClellan was that he was reluctant to lead it into battle; a series of parades and reviews thrilled Congress and the Washington community but left Lincoln frustrated and unimpressed. When illness forced McClellan to his bed for what seemed to Lincoln an overlong recuperation, Lincoln sent a note to McClellan suggesting that if the General had no immediate plans for using his army, the president might like to borrow it. McClellan did not respond well to such jibes and accused Lincoln of being a meddler.

In November Major General Henry W. Halleck, known as “Old Brains” for his authoritative writings on warfare, made some replacements in the western commands, but the Union forces in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys were still divided. Gen. Don Carlos Buell commanded forces in central and eastern Kentucky, while Brigadier General Ulysses Grant and others commanded other western areas. Grant, who had left the Army in 1854 under something of a cloud because of his alleged drinking habits, had to talk his way into an officer’s commission at the outbreak of the war. He had, however, quickly demonstrated his natural military skills. He won a small battle at Belmont in November, 1861, but in those early days of fighting a small victory was noticed. Grant was gradually given more responsibility.

Summary of 1861: Both sides began uncertainly. Young men flocked to colors for “Union” (North) and “Liberty” (South), each feeling it was upholding the “principles of 1776.” President Lincoln, less experienced in military matters than President Davis, began to educate himself in the ways of war. He was a quick study. Davis, more experienced, had difficulties arising from his political situation; the South had a single party political system. Thus criticism of the Confederate president took on a personal flavor, a condition exacerbated by Davis’s prickly personality.

1862: The War in the West

On January 15, 1862, President Lincoln replaced the inefficient Secretary of War Simon Cameron with Edwin M. Stanton. Stanton, a skilled lawyer, had been attorney general under President Buchanan and had adamantly opposed to secession, although President Buchanan was at first willing to tolerate it. As a Democrat, he opposed Lincoln during the 1860 campaign, but agreed to work as legal assistant to Secretary Cameron. At first he was very critical of Lincoln’s abilities, but within a few months of close working with the president, who spent much of his time in the War Department, Stanton began to appreciate Lincoln’s honesty and dedication to the Union cause. He eventually became a Republican and one of Abraham Lincoln’s most trusted and loyal advisers.

footeIn January General George H. Thomas defeated a Confederate force at Mill Springs, Kentucky, and then teamed up with General Grant to begin moving into Tennessee. Grant engaged Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote (left) to work with his ground troops in attacking Fort Henry, which lay on the Tennessee River in northwest Tennessee. Foote sent his gunboats up the river to bombard the fort, and Grant placed his troops ashore on either side. The Confederate commander, however, decided to abandon the fort and sent his soldiers to Fort Donelson, which lay 10 miles to the east on the Cumberland River. When Fort Henry surrendered, Union armies had use of the Tennessee River all away to Alabama.

Following the fall of Fort Henry, Grant sent Foote’s gunboats down the Tennessee, up the Ohio and thence up the Cumberland River toward Fort Donelson. Meanwhile he marched his army overland and surrounded the fort. The Confederate commanders attempted to break out but were unable to penetrate Grant’s lines. Two Confederate generals departed through Union lines under a white flag, leaving General Simon Bolivar Buckner in charge. Although Fort Donelson artillery drove off Flag Officer Foote’s gunboats, Grant had a firm hold on the fort. When Buckner asked Grant for terms, Grant responded that no terms except “unconditional surrender” could be accepted. He added, “I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Thereafter Gen. Ulysses S. Grant became known as “unconditional surrender” Grant.

Buckner, an old friend of Grant from prewar days, told the victor, “Sam, if I'd been in charge the whole time, you never would have gotten away with it.” Grant supposedly responded, “Buckner, if you had been in charge, I never would have tried.” Whether true or not, the anecdote illustrates a factor that played itself out numerous times in the Civil War; often the opposing commanders knew each other. Many had served together in the Mexican war and elsewhere, and they often gauged their tactics according to their knowledge of what their opponents would be likely to do.

Shiloh. The victory at Fort Donelson was a major success, and the Union celebrated its first hero. Combined with the Union victories at Middle Creek, Kentucky, under Colonel (and future president) James Garfield and General George Thomas’s victory at Mill Springs, Kentucky, the Confederates were driven out of Kentucky, and Union forces controlled the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as well all the railroads in western Tennessee. General Grant had established himself as an effective commander and continued moving further into Tennessee. Grant moved his Army up the Tennessee River to a point known as Pittsburg Landing, about 15 miles northwest of the Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee intersection, where he was waiting to combine forces with General Don Carlos Buell. Although the area was lightly settled, a church in the vicinity named Shiloh gave its name to the battle, which was fought on April 6 and 7, 1862.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, reputed to be the finest officer in the Confederate army, decided to attack before Grant could be reinforced, and he launched an assault early on April 6. Not realizing that the Confederates were so close, Grant had neglected to fortify his position and instead was drilling his troops. Grant was not even on the scene when his troops were caught off guard by Johnston’s Confederates, but although they were hard-pressed, the Union Army managed to hang on during a long day of fierce fighting, taking a stand at a sunken road that became known as the “hornet’s nest.” Johnston was mortally wounded during the first day’s fighting, and command was turned over to General P.G.T. Beauregard. During the night General Buell’s troops arrived and crossed the Tennessee River to join Grant’s men. Early on the morning of April 7, the fighting resumed, and Beauregard, having suffered heavy casualties, retired from the field and took his army back to Corinth, Mississippi. A pursuit led by General William T. Sherman on April 8 was unsuccessful, but the victory had been substantial.

Casualties at Shiloh numbered over 23,000, with the Union having suffered more losses. The Confederates lost a larger percentage of their troops, however. The total casualties exceeded all of America's previous wars put together, yet it was by no means the costliest battle of the Civil War. Despite his successes, rumors about Grant’s former drinking problems and other political machinations brought criticism of him in Washington. President Lincoln said, however, “I can't spare this man: He fights.”

Part of the reason for President Lincoln’s response to the criticism of Grant was that his general in the East, George B. McClellan, was moving so slowly that even his impressive reviews had begun to lose their luster. The administration and Congress wanted victories, not parades. McClellan initially planned a direct assault on Richmond, but when he advanced across the Potomac, he discovered that the Confederates had withdrawn southward, so he conceived a new battle plan. (After the Confederates departed, it was discovered that much of the “artillery” trained on Washington was actually logs painted black; the press dubbed them “Quaker cannon.”) He decided to take the entire Army of the Potomac down the river for which it was named and land it on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. As a superb organizer and logistician, McClellan moved his army efficiently; the problems began when it was time to fight.

The Monitor and the Merrimack. While McClellan was preparing his campaign during early March, a famous naval battle took place in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Confederate Navy had captured the former U.S.S. Merrimack, rebuilt it with heavy iron platingand renamed it monitor merrimackC.S.S. Virginia. The ironclad Confederate ship had maneuvered out of the harbor and easily destroyed several Union warships, as cannonballs bounced off her heavy metal plates. During the night after the first day of fighting, a strange-looking Union craft arrived, the U.S.S. Monitor. The Monitor, the invention of John Ericsson, possessed but a single gun, but it was mounted inside a revolving turret, and its iron plating made it impervious to shells. On March 9 the Monitor and the Virginia (Merrimack) fought it out in Hampton Roads, and the small “cheese box on a raft” neutralized the Confederate threat, which might have disrupted the Union blockading fleet. It was the first “battle of ironclads,” and although it was more or less indecisive, it provided a glimpse of future naval warfare.

At the outbreak of the war the Union Navy had been nothing but a motley collection of ships, few of them formidable. But the U.S. government purchased ships of all kinds for use in the blockade, and began a building program in August, 1861. Within a year the number of ships sailing in and out of Southern ports had been substantially reduced, and as Union forces captured various ports and islands along the Southern coast, the blockade gradually grew tighter. Early in the war, the odds of successfully running the blockade were approximately nine in ten; as the Union blockade tightened, the chances of a blockade runner getting through dropped to about one in three.

McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. After months of preparation, General McClellan began his Peninsula Campaign on March 17, moving the Army of the Potomac by ship to a location east-southeast of the Confederate capital of Richmond. McClellan’s plan was to invade Richmond by advancing up the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. McClellan failed to grasp the nature of modern warfare—he thought it uncivilized to consider crushing the South and destroying carefully trained military units. He was an unsurpassed military administrator and planner, but he did not like to risk damage to his well prepared army. Thus McClellan conducted his Peninsula Campaign with too much caution.

On April 5 he began a siege of Yorktown, which led to occupation of the city. If Yorktown had been a strategically significant, fortified city, a siege—which involves intricate engineering maneuvers—might have made sense. But as one Confederate officer said in derision, “Only McClellan would besiege an undefended city.”

As had happened with Grant at Fort Donelson, familiarity with the mindset of one’s opponent arose in this campaign. Being aware of McClellan's “over-cautiousness” (as Lincoln put it), Confederate commanders went out of their way to befuddle their slow-moving opponent. Confederate General John McGruder, known from his West Point days as “Prince John” because of his acting ability, marched troops back and forth behind his lines to create the illusion of a larger force than he actually possessed. McClellan engaged the well known detective Allan Pinkerton as his intelligence adviser. Pinkerton, demonstrating what is sometimes a propensity among intelligence officers to play it safe by overestimating enemy strength, played right into McClellan’s fears. During the campaign McClellan’s forces were assisted by Union gunboats, another measure of the effectiveness of the Union “river navy,” sometimes undervalued by Civil War historians in retrospect.

As McClellan moved closer to Richmond against light Confederate resistance, he constantly misjudged the strength of the Southern army and repeatedly called on Washington for additional forces. As The Union army was advancing toward Richmond, General Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson was operating in the Shenandoah Valley with an army of troops who moved so fast they were known as “foot cavalry.” His campaign lasted from late March until early June and kept some 40,000 Union troops under Union Generals Banks and Frémont constantly occupied. Concerned about the security of the national capital, President Lincoln was held in a state of worry, partially due to McClellan's repeated requests for reinforcements.

Gen. JohnstonMcClellan eventually advanced so close to Richmond that his troops could see the church spires in the city and hear their bells ringing on Sunday morning. With McClellan’s troops stretched on either side of the Chickahominy River, General Joseph Johnston decided to take the battle to his enemy. On May 31 and June 1 the two armies clashed in the battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), with high casualties on both sides. The outcome was a tactical draw, but General Johnston was wounded and was soon replaced by General Robert E. Lee.

Lee had earned a reputation for cautiousness himself during the early days of the war. After losing a small battle in western Virginia, he was placed in charge of organizing defensive emplacements along the Southern coast. President Davis then brought him to Richmond and put him in charge of defense of the capital, where he earned the nickname of “King of Spades” for digging extensive trenches around the capital. His reputation was soon to change, however.

As McClellan sat idly by, Lee extended his lines and reorganized his troops, now designated the Army of Northern Virginia. Joined by Jackson’s men who had moved into the Richmond area from their Valley campaign, Lee once again took on the Union Army of the Potomac. This clash became known as the Seven Days’ Battles: Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, and Malvern Hill. Lee was an excellent tactician, and unlike McClellan, he had a bold and masterful plan for the Seven Days’ battle, which again placed McClellan on the defensive. Unfortunately for Lee, his plan may have been too sophisticated, and the Confederate generals had difficulty carrying it out. Even Jackson’s Corps was not up to the level it had achieved during his Valley campaign; his movements were uncharacteristically slow.

During the fighting east of Richmond, Major General Jeb Stuart, Lee’s cavalry commander, made a bold ride completely around the Union Army, attacking supply trains and disrupting communications. As fine a commander as Stuart was, however, his daring cavalry tactics sometimes failed to produce decisive results. During that early stage of the conflict, Confederate cavalry was superior to the Union’s horse soldiers, but that important factor was also destined to change.

Once again, the loss of life during the Seven Days was appalling. At the last battle at Malvern Hill, Union artillery demonstrated its skill and value on the battlefield by repeatedly breaking up Confederate attacks. Half of the Confederate casualties were caused by Union artillery. Following the battle Confederate General D.H. Hill said that what had occurred “was not war—it was murder.” Despite the impressive performance by McClellan’s troops in combat, the Peninsular Campaign itself was a strategic failure. Total casualties numbered some 36,000 on both sides. McClellan withdrew his battered army, and Lincoln ordered it back to Washington. Lee's men licked their wounds and prepared to move northward again on the Richmond-Washington axis.

Second Battle of Bull Run. While McClellan was moving his army back to disembarkation points in Alexandria, General John Pope, who had won a small but notable victory at Island #10 on the Mississippi River north of Memphis, took command of the troops in and around Washington. His command was called the Army of Virginia. Pope got off to a bad start by suggesting in a speech to his men that Western soldiers were better than those in the East.

Pope planned to move South on Richmond while Lee was still defending the eastern approaches to the capital. But Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson’s corps to block Pope’s advance. Pope met Jackson, who was soon reinforced by the rest of Lee’s army, on August 29 and 30 at the Second Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run. Jackson’s men, soon reinforced by Longstreet’s corps, trapped Pope’s army, which had left a flank exposed. Two days of fighting left the Union Army battered. As McClellan had done nothing to assist Pope, bitter recriminations followed on the northern side, including charges that Union General Fitz-John Porter had been reluctant in battle. As often happens in times of military disappointment, the hunt for scapegoats was on. The stage was now set for the first major battle in the North as Lee prepared to invade into Maryland in order to relieve pressure on Virginia.

Antietam: The First Turning Point

As Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving north toward the Maryland border, Lincoln faced a dilemma. General John Pope had not proved to be the leader Lincoln was looking for. McClellan’s peninsular campaign had been a strategic failure, and he had not assisted Pope as he had been directed to do. Criticism of “Little Mac” grew in Congress, and Lincoln was loath to place him back in command of the Army of the Potomac. But he knew McClellan was a good organizer and that he was well liked by his troops, so he kept him in command. Pope’s Army of Virginia was absorbed by McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. McClellan set out to block Lee as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac into Maryland.

General LeeLee hoped to be able to recruit successfully in areas theoretically sympathetic to the South, but slavery in Maryland was mostly located on the peninsula, not in the more western mountainous areas. He also hoped that a dramatic blow on northern soil would unnerve the Northern public, who would then demand a negotiated peace. He also wanted to relieve pressure on Virginia and procure badly needed supplies in what he assumed would be the friendly Maryland countryside.

Part of Lee’s army moved into Harpers Ferry and captured that important city while the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia moved in the direction of Hagerstown. McClellan, meanwhile, was moving north from Rockville towards Frederick, Maryland, on a more or less parallel path with Lee. While the movement was under way, two of McClellan’s scouts found an interesting looking piece of paper wrapped around some cigars in an abandoned Confederate camp. It seemed to be a battle order, and indeed it was. It showed the general disposition of Lee’s army, indicating that Lee had sent portions of his army in different directions. The knowledge that Lee’s forces were divided gave McClellan an extraordinary advantage. McClellan, however, failed to exploit the intelligence windfall, despite his boast that this time he would “lick Bobby Lee.”

On September 14 the Battle of South Mountain, between Frederick and Hagerstown in Maryland, delayed the Union advance while Lee concentrated his army at the little village of Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek. By the time McClellan caught up, most of Lee’s army was reunited.

On the morning of September 17 McClellan attacked. Lee’s back was to the Potomac, and his outnumbered army faced possible destruction. But rather than attacking broadly and decisively, McClellan advanced his army in piecemeal fashion, giving Lee time to regroup and reposition his men. The fighting started in a large cornfield which was soon bathed in red. Lee’s men pulled back to a sunken road as the attack continued; by late afternoon the fighting was taking place along Antietam Creek in a position that came to be known as Burnside’s Bridge.

The intense fighting made the Battle of Antietam the bloodiest single day of combat in all of American history; over 20,000 casualties on both sides were inflicted. Military historians have concluded that had McClellan attacked aggressively and used all of his forces—one entire Union Corps of 30,00 men never saw action—the result might have been a decisive defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia, with dire consequences for the Confederacy. (It is worth noting that if McClellan had defeated Lee decisively, forcing the Confederacy to surrender, the war would have ended with slavery still intact. That fact would no doubt have boded ill for the future.)

The bloody battle turned out to be a tactical draw. It was, however, a strategic defeat for Lee, who had to withdraw back into Virginia. McClellan failed to pursue Lee and instead decided to rest and recuperate his army at the scene of the battle; another opportunity had been lost. Frustrated, Lincoln wrote to McClellan, “I have read your dispatch about … fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”

The Battle of Antietam, despite Lincoln’s disappointment, did have two important consequences: Lincoln’s release of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and a crucial British cabinet meeting to discuss possible recognition of Confederate independence was canceled.

Emancipation. President Lincoln had thought long and hard about the relationship between slavery and the Civil War from the very beginning of the conflict. Horace Greeley, the prominent abolitionist newspaper editor, challenged the president in an open letter to state his intentions regarding slavery in the summer of 1862. Lincoln responded by saying that if he thought he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do so. He also stated that if he thought he could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves he would do that, then added that if he felt he could save the Union by freeing some of the slaves and leaving others in bondage, that he would do that as well. In the end, that is what he did.

Several Union generals had jumped the gun by declaring slaves contraband and freeing them. Lincoln had to countermand their orders because he was still worried about losing the border states of Kentucky and Missouri. But an idea took shape in Lincoln’s mind. He decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. However. he did not want to do so when Union military fortunes looked bleak, lest it seem like a desperation move. Although Antietam was not a decisive victory, it was close enough for Lincoln’s purpose, since Lee had retreated back to Virginia. Thus President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days after the battle of Antietam. The declaration announced that as of January 1, 1863, slaves in territory controlled by the Confederacy were to be forever free. He did not free all the slaves because he felt he did not have the constitutional authority to do so. Instead, he used the Confederacy’s own position regarding slaves against them: he counted them as property, property that had value in time of war and was therefore subject to being confiscated as contraband. (See Emancipation Proclamation.)

Thus the Battle of Antietam was a turning point because it demonstrated that Lee could not sustain an offensive on Union soil. Although the battle was the costliest in American history, the losses were approximately equal. But the North could tolerate them far better than the Confederacy because it had a much larger manpower pool on which to draw. In that sense Antietam was significant for the war, if not a turning point in the military sense.

Although it is widely believed that the Emancipation Proclamation initially freed no slaves, in fact there were thousands who immediately took advantage of it. The Emancipation Proclamation fundamentally altered the goals of the conflict for both sides. Lincoln's first concern was to save the Union; although Lincoln abhorred slavery, ending the “peculiar institution” was secondary to him. (Those who believe that Lincoln cared more about saving the Union than about ending slavery miss the point: If the Confederacy had won the war and become independent, Lincoln could have done nothing about the status of slavery in North America. It is also clear from the Confederate Constitution and the prewar political rhetoric that slavery would have continued for a long time after the end of the conflict, perhaps even into the 20th century.)

Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it was fairly certain that if the Union prevailed, it would be a Union in which slavery would no longer exist. So from merely saving the Union, the goal for the North became to save the Union without the institution of slavery. It is interesting to note that by the end of the war in late 1864-early 1865, the Confederacy had apparently changed its goal in the war as well, which had been to preserve Southern society with slavery intact. Instead their goal became to gain independence, even if they had to give up slavery in order to get it.

In December 1864 Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin sent a secret delegation to Great Britain to plead one last time for their assistance in becoming independent. In exchange for Britain’s help, the Confederacy would voluntarily end the institution of slavery. It was too late for Great Britain to intervene, however, and the Confederacy decided to arm the slaves anyway in order to help them become independent. Had that occurred, it almost certainly would have tended to undermine status of slavery in the South. Before that happened, the war ended, the Confederacy lost its bid for independence, and slavery ended with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The Battle of Antietam had an additional important result besides giving Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. As mentioned above, a major goal of the Confederacy was to gain recognition of their independence by a major power, and the most likely nation to do that was Great Britain. Had Great Britain recognized the Confederacy and offered support, it is probable that the Confederate States of America would have become independent.

Not long before the Battle of Antietam it began to look as though intervention by the British might come to pass. In the opening days of the conflict the Union had suffered a diplomatic humiliation over the Trent affair. At about the same time as the Trent affair, Secretary of State William Seward suggested that the president might want to provoke Spain and perhaps France into a conflict in order to reunify the country, a suggestion which Lincoln wisely ignored. The British were quite dependent upon Southern cotton to supply their mills, and other factors supported friendly relationships between Great Britain and the Confederacy. Thus, recognition and intervention on the part of Great Britain was no far-fetched idea. (See James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 270-71. Seward initially doubted Lincoln’s competence and assumed that he would be the real power in the administration, taking several brash actions on his own. Quickly recognizing his mistake in judgment, Seward became one of Lincoln’s most effective and loyal supporters.)

On the other hand, it was apparent that the British people and government did not want to provoke the United States into war. Nevertheless, as the early lack of Union success on the battlefields opened the possibility of an eventual Confederate victory, Great Britain began to move in the direction of recognition of the South and perhaps further involvement in the war on the Confederate side. Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone made a speech about that time stating that Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders had not only made an army and a navy, “they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation.” (Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, 8th ed, New York: Appleton 1970, 337.)

Prime Minister Palmerston had discussed the possibility of recognition of the Confederacy with the Lord Russell at the Foreign Office. Palmerston, aware of the “great conflict” taking place near Washington, counseled caution. He wrote to Russell, “If the Federals sustain a grave defeat, they may be at once ready for mediation, and iron should be struck while it is hot. If, on the other hand, they should have the best of it, we may wait a while and see what may follow." Similarly, during the American Revolution, the French, after secretly aiding the colonies, had waited for an indication that the Americans might be able to win on the battlefield. Having seen that occur at Saratoga in 1777, France recognized American independence and formed a military alliance with the new nation. In 1862 British leaders began to believe that a victory on Union soil might be what they were looking for. But although Lee’s intrepid Army of Northern Virginia held its own against the superior Union force, Lee was forced to retreat, and the tactical draw certainly did not equate to a strategic victory. The British hesitated, Lincoln acted, and the moment for recognition quickly passed.

McClellan Dismissed. Following the battle President Lincoln visited McClellan at Antietam and listened patiently while the general reviewed the outcome of the fighting. President Lincoln congratulated the Union troops and commiserated with wounded Confederate soldiers. In a private conversation with McClellan, the president apparently chastised his general for failing to move in pursuit of Lee. (He had said to an aide that McClellan had “the slows.”) When McClellan did not take Lincoln's suggestion, he was finally relieved of command. He did not again participate in the war, but he ran for president as a Democrat against Lincoln in 1864 and later served as Governor of New Jersey.

Fredericksburg. Lincoln turned command of the Army of the Potomac over to General Ambrose Burnside, who had commanded a corps at Antietam. Lee had retreated to the vicinity of Fredericksburg and had taken a position along some elevated ground known as Marye’s Heights. The Rappahannock River lay between Lee’s troops and the advancing Union Army. Burnside devised an elaborate plan to cross the river with pontoon bridges and attack Lee on the other side. Construction of the bridges was made difficult by Confederate sharpshooters harassing engineers building the bridges. Union artillery, meanwhile, shelled the city of Fredericksburg, leaving damage whose remnants are still visible in some buildings.

On December 13 Burnside’s men finally crossed the river and assaulted the Confederate troops, who were protected by a stone wall and a sunken road at the base of Marye’s Heights. Although part of Burnside’s plan worked fairly well, the slaughter in front of Marye’s Heights was one of the worst of the war; Union troops were mowed down and fell on top of dead or wounded comrades. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, whose eloquent descriptions of his war experiences are unsurpassed, recalled surveying the battlefield during the night following the action. He spoke of the “weird, unearthly, terrible” sounds made by wounded and dying men, who called out in the darkness, “some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun.”

stones riverThe North was shocked by the magnitude of the defeat, and Lincoln was in the depths of despair. He said to an associate, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” The battered army moved back north to a position west of Fredericksburg. General Burnside would soon be replaced at his own request, and Lincoln’s search for a winning general to command the Army of the Potomac continued.

Murfreesboro-Stones River. On December 31 Union General William S. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland engaged a Confederate force under General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee near Murfreesboro. Rosecrans had pursued Bragg from Kentucky following Bragg’s loss at Perryville. Bragg’s men began the attack on the morning of December 31, but after some initial gains, the Union established a strong defensive line. After a pause on New Year’s Day, the two armies again clashed on January 2 and 3. In three days of fierce fighting Union artillery had again proved decisive. On January 4 Bragg took his army from the field and retreated deeper into Tennessee. A relieved President Lincoln sent a congratulatory telegram to General Rosecrans, saying, “I can never forget, if I remember anything, that at the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the country scarcely could have lived over.” The victory at Stones River lifted the president and the country out of the depressing state that had set in following the disaster at Fredericksburg. (Stones River National Military Park left.)

Summary of 1862. The Union had made little progress in the East; even with the heavy losses they had suffered, the Federals were no closer to Richmond. Lincoln and much of the North remained in despair—historian James McPherson has called it the “winter of Northern discontent.” The picture in the West was substantially brighter for the Union. General Grant had fought well, and Southern commanders seemed unable to prevent the Union armies from moving deeper into Southern territory. Union forces controlled much of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as well as the Ohio as far as Memphis. Benjamin Butler had captured New Orleans in early 1862, and the Union armies in the West were ready to converge on the last great stronghold of Vicksburg.

Confederate forces had fared quite well in the East, turning back McClellan’s Peninsular campaign and routing Pope at Manassas. But Lee’s invasion of the North was costly; they had suffered heavy losses and did not appear to be exhausting federal resources, despite victories at Fredericksburg and elsewhere.

1863: The Year of Decision: The Year 1863 Changed the Course of the War, moving the Confederacy to a defensive posture from which they never recovered.

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