American Civil War

Edited by: Robert Guisepi



Warren W. Hassler, Jr.: Emeritus Professor of American History, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac and others.

The political course of the war
For the next four years the Union and the Confederacy were locked in conflict--by far the most titanic waged in the Western Hemisphere.

The policies pursued by the governments of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were astonishingly similar. Both presidents at first relied upon volunteers to man the armies, and both administrations were poorly prepared to arm and equip the hordes of young men who flocked to the colors in the initial stages of the war. As the fighting progressed, both governments reluctantly resorted to conscription--the Confederates first, in early 1862, and the Federal government more slowly, with an ineffective measure of late 1862 followed by a more stringent law in 1863. Both governments pursued an essentially laissez-faire policy in economic matters, with little effort to control prices, wages, or profits. Only the railroads were subject to close government regulation in both regions; and the Confederacy, in constructing some of its own powder mills, made a few experiments in "state socialism." Neither Lincoln's nor Davis' administration knew how to cope with financing the war; neither developed an effective system of taxation until late in the conflict, and both relied heavily upon borrowing. Faced with a shortage of funds, both governments were obliged to turn to the printing press and to issue fiat money; the U.S. government issued $432,000,000 in "greenbacks" (as this irredeemable, non-interest-bearing paper money was called), while the Confederacy printed over $1,554,000,000 in such paper currency. In consequence, both sections experienced runaway inflation, which was much more drastic in the South, where, by the end of the war, flour sold at $1,000 a barrel.

Even toward slavery, the root cause of the war, the policies of the two warring governments were surprisingly similar. The Confederate constitution, which was in most other ways similar to that of the United States, expressly guaranteed the institution of Negro slavery. Despite pressure from abolitionists, Lincoln's administration was not disposed to disturb the "peculiar institution," if only because any move toward emancipation would upset the loyalty of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri--the four slave states that remained in the Union.

Moves toward emancipation
Gradually, however, under the pressure of war, both governments moved to end slavery. Lincoln came to see that emancipation of the blacks would favorably influence European opinion toward the Northern cause, would deprive the Confederates of their productive labor force on the farms, and would add much-needed recruits to the Federal armies. In September 1862 he issued his preliminary proclamation of emancipation, promising to free all slaves in rebel territory by Jan. 1, 1863, unless those states returned to the Union; and when the Confederates remained obdurate, he followed it with his promised final proclamation. A natural accompaniment of emancipation was the use of black troops, and by the end of the war the number of blacks who served in the Federal armies totaled 178,895. Uncertain of the constitutionality of his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln urged Congress to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment; but this was not done until Jan. 31, 1865, and the actual ratification did not take place until after the war.

Meanwhile the Confederacy, though much more slowly, was also inevitably drifting in the direction of emancipation. The South's desperate need for troops caused many military men, including Robert E. Lee, to demand the recruitment of blacks; finally, in March 1865 the Confederate congress authorized the raising of Negro regiments. Though a few blacks were recruited for the Confederate armies, none actually served in battle because surrender was at hand. In yet another way Davis' government showed its awareness of slavery's inevitable end when, in a belated diplomatic mission to seek assistance from Europe, the Confederacy in March 1865 promised to emancipate the slaves in return for diplomatic recognition. Nothing came of the proposal, but it is further evidence that by the end of the war both North and South realized that slavery was doomed.

Sectional dissatisfaction
As war leaders, both Lincoln and Davis came under severe attack in their own sections. Both had to face problems of disloyalty. In Lincoln's case, the Irish immigrants to the eastern cities and the Southern-born settlers of the northwestern states were especially hostile to the Negro and, therefore, to emancipation, while many other Northerners became tired and disaffected as the war dragged on interminably. Residents of the Southern hill country, where slavery never had much of a foothold, were similarly hostile toward Davis. Furthermore, in order to wage war, both presidents had to strengthen the powers of central government, thus further accelerating the process of national integration that had brought on the war. Both administrations were, in consequence, vigorously attacked by state governors, who resented the encroachment upon their authority and who strongly favored local autonomy.

The extent of Northern dissatisfaction was indicated in the congressional elections of 1862, when Lincoln and his party sustained a severe rebuff at the polls and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was drastically reduced. Similarly in the Confederacy the congressional elections of 1863 went so strongly against the administration that Davis was able to command a majority for his measures only through the continued support of representatives and senators from the states of the upper South, which were under control of the Federal army and consequently unable to hold new elections.

As late as August 1864, Lincoln despaired of his reelection to the presidency and fully expected that the Democratic candidate, General George B. McClellan, would defeat him. Davis, at about the same time, was openly attacked by Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. But Federal military victories, especially William T. Sherman's capture of Atlanta, greatly strengthened Lincoln; and, as the war came to a triumphant close for the North, he attained new heights of popularity. Davis' administration, on the other hand, lost support with each successive defeat, and in January 1865 the Confederate congress insisted that Davis make Robert E. Lee the supreme commander of all Southern forces. (Some, it is clear, would have preferred to make the general dictator.)

The military background of the war
Comparison of North and South
At first glance it seemed that the 23 states of the Union were more than a match for the 11 seceding Southern states--South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. There were approximately 21,000,000 people in the North compared with some 9,000,000 in the South (of whom about 3,500,000 were Negro slaves). In addition, the Federals possessed over 100,000 manufacturing plants as against 18,000 south of the Potomac River, and more than 70 percent of the railroads were in the North. Furthermore, the Union had at its command a 30-to-1 superiority in arms production, a 2-to-1 edge in available manpower, and a great preponderance in commercial and financial resources. It had a functioning government and a small but efficient regular army and navy.

The Confederacy was not predestined to defeat, however. The Southern armies had the advantage of fighting on interior lines, and their military tradition had bulked large in the history of the United States before 1860. Moreover, the long Confederate coastline of 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers) seemed to defy blockade; and the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, hoped to receive decisive foreign aid and intervention. Finally, the gray-clad Southern soldiers were fighting for the intangible but strong objectives of home and white supremacy. So the Southern cause was not a lost one; indeed, other nations had won independence against equally heavy odds.

The high commands
Command problems plagued both sides. Of the two rival commanders in chief, most people in 1861 thought Davis to be abler than Lincoln. Davis was a West Point graduate, a hero of the Mexican War, a capable secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, and a U.S. representative and senator from Mississippi; whereas Lincoln--who had served in the Illinois state legislature and as an undistinguished one-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives--could boast of only a brief period of military service in the Black Hawk War, in which he did not perform well.

As president and commander in chief of the Confederate forces, Davis revealed many fine qualities, including patience, courage, dignity, restraint, firmness, energy, determination, and honesty; but he was flawed by his excessive pride, hypersensitivity to criticism, and inability to delegate minor details to his subordinates. To a large extent Davis was his own secretary of war, although five different men served in that post during the lifetime of the Confederacy. Davis himself also filled the position of general in chief of the Confederate armies until he named Lee to that position on Feb. 6, 1865, when the Confederacy was near collapse. In naval affairs--an area about which he knew little--the Confederate president seldom intervened directly, allowing the competent secretary of the navy, Stephen Mallory, to handle the Southern naval buildup and operations on the water. Although his position was onerous and perhaps could not have been filled so well by any other Southern political leader, Davis' overall performance in office left something to be desired.

To the astonishment of many, Lincoln grew in stature with time and experience, and by 1864 he had become a consummate war director. But he had much to learn at first, especially in strategic and tactical matters and in his choices of army commanders. With an ineffective first secretary of war--Simon Cameron--Lincoln unhesitatingly insinuated himself directly into the planning of military movements. Edwin M. Stanton, appointed to the secretaryship on Jan. 20, 1862, was equally untutored in military affairs, but he was fully as active a participant as his superior.

Winfield Scott was the Federal general in chief when Lincoln took office. The 75-year-old Scott--a hero of the War of 1812 and of the Mexican War--was a magnificent and distinguished soldier whose mind was still keen, but he was physically incapacitated and had to be retired from the service on Nov. 1, 1861. Scott was replaced by young George B. McClellan, an able and imaginative general in chief but one who had difficulty in establishing harmonious and effective relations with Lincoln. Because of this and because he had to campaign with his own Army of the Potomac, McClellan was relieved as general in chief on March 11, 1862. He was eventually succeeded on July 11 by the limited Henry W. Halleck, who held the position until replaced by Ulysses S. Grant on March 9, 1864. Halleck then became chief of staff under Grant in a long-needed streamlining of the Federal high command. Grant served efficaciously as general in chief throughout the remainder of the war.

After the initial call by Lincoln and Davis for troops and as the war lengthened indeterminately, both sides turned to raising massive armies of volunteers. Local citizens of prominence and means would organize regiments that were uniformed and accoutred at first under the aegis of the states and then mustered into the service of the Union and Confederate governments. As the war dragged on, the two governments had to resort to conscription to fill the ranks being so swiftly thinned by battle casualties.

Strategic plans
In the area of grand strategy, Davis persistently adhered to the defensive, permitting only occasional "spoiling" forays into Northern territory. Yet perhaps the Confederates' best chance of winning would have been an early grand offensive into the Union states before the Lincoln administration could find its ablest generals and bring the preponderant resources of the North to bear against the South.

Lincoln, on the other hand, in order to crush the rebellion and reestablish the authority of the Federal government, had to direct his blue-clad armies to invade, capture, and hold most of the vital areas of the Confederacy. His grand strategy was based on Scott's so-called Anaconda plan, a design that evolved from strategic ideas discussed in messages between Scott and McClellan on April 27, May 3, and May 21, 1861. It called for a Union blockade of the Confederacy's littoral as well as a decisive thrust down the Mississippi River and an ensuing strangulation of the South by Federal land and naval forces. But it was to take four years of grim, unrelenting warfare and enormous casualties and devastation before the Confederates could be defeated and the Union preserved.

The land war
American Civil War: The main area of the eastern campaigns, 1861-65.
The war in 1861
The first military operations took place in northwestern Virginia, where non-slaveholding pro-Unionists sought to secede from the Confederacy. McClellan, in command of Federal forces in southern Ohio, advanced on his own initiative in the early summer of 1861 into western Virginia with about 20,000 men. He encountered smaller forces sent there by Lee, then in Richmond in command of all Virginia troops. Although showing signs of occasional hesitation, McClellan quickly won three small but significant battles: at Philippi on June 3, at Rich Mountain on July 11, and at Carrick's (or Corrick's) Ford on July 13. McClellan's casualties were light, and his victories went far toward eliminating Confederate resistance in northwestern Virginia, which had refused to recognize secession, and paving the way for the admittance into the Union of the new state of West Virginia in 1863.

Meanwhile, sizable armies were gathering around the Federal capital of Washington, D.C., and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. Federal forces abandoned Harpers Ferry on April 18, and it was quickly occupied by Southern forces, who held it for a time. The Federal naval base at Norfolk was prematurely abandoned to the enemy on April 20. On May 6 Lee ordered a Confederate force--soon to be commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard--northward to hold the rail hub of Manassas Junction, some 26 miles (42 kilometers) southwest of Washington. With Lincoln's approval, Scott appointed Irvin McDowell to command the main Federal army, being hastily collected near Washington. But political pressure and Northern public opinion impelled Lincoln, against Scott's advice, to order McDowell's still-untrained army forward to push the enemy back from Manassas. Meanwhile, Federal forces were to hold Confederate soldiers under Joseph E. Johnston in the Shenandoah valley near Winchester, thus preventing them from reinforcing Beauregard along the Bull Run near Manassas.

McDowell advanced from Washington on July 16 with some 32,000 men and moved slowly toward Bull Run. Two days later a reconnaissance in force was repulsed by the Confederates at Mitchell's and Blackburn's Fords, and when McDowell attacked on July 21 in the First Battle of Bull Run (in the South, First Manassas), he discovered that Johnston had escaped the Federals in the valley and had joined Beauregard near Manassas just in time, bringing the total Confederate force to around 28,000. McDowell's sharp attacks with green troops forced the equally untrained Southerners back a bit, but a strong defensive stand by Thomas Jonathan Jackson (who thereby gained the nickname "Stonewall") enabled the Confederates to check and finally throw back the Federals in the afternoon. The Federal retreat to Washington soon became a rout. McDowell lost 2,708 men--killed, wounded, and missing (including prisoners)--against a Southern loss of 1,981. Both sides now settled down to a long war.

The war in the East in 1862
Fresh from his victories in western Virginia, McClellan was called to Washington to replace Scott. There he began to mold the Army of the Potomac into a resolute, effective shield and sword of the Union. But personality clashes and unrelenting opposition to McClellan from the Radical Republicans in Congress hampered the sometimes tactless, conservative, Democratic general. It took time to drill, discipline, and equip this force of considerably more than 100,000 men, but as fall blended into winter loud demands arose that McClellan advance against Johnston's Confederate forces at Centreville and Manassas. McClellan, however, fell seriously ill with typhoid fever in December, and when he had recovered weeks later he found that Lincoln, desperately eager for action, had ordered him to advance on Feb. 22, 1862. Long debates ensued between president and commander. When in March McClellan finally began his Peninsular Campaign, he discovered that Lincoln and Stanton had withheld large numbers of his command in front of Washington for the defense of the capital--forces that were actually not needed there. Upon taking command of the army in the field, McClellan was relieved of his duties as general in chief.

The Peninsular Campaign
Advancing up the historic peninsula between the York and James rivers, McClellan began a month-long siege of Yorktown and captured that stronghold on May 4, 1862. A Confederate rearguard action at Williamsburg the next day delayed the blue-clads, who then slowly moved up through heavy rain to within four miles of Richmond. Striving to seize the initiative, Johnston attacked McClellan's left wing at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) on May 31 and, after scoring initial gains, was checked; Johnston was severely wounded, and Lee, who had been serving as Davis' military adviser, succeeded Johnston in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan counterattacked on June 1 and forced the Southerners back into the environs of Richmond. The Federals suffered a total of 5,031 casualties out of a force of nearly 100,000, while the Confederates lost 6,134 of about 74,000 men.

As McClellan inched forward toward Richmond in June, Lee prepared a counterstroke. He recalled from the Shenandoah valley Jackson's forces--which had threatened Harpers Ferry and had brilliantly defeated several scattered Federal armies--and, with about 90,000 soldiers, attacked McClellan on June 26 to begin the fighting of the Seven Days' Battles (usually dated June 25-July 1). In the ensuing days at Mechanicsville, Gaines's Mill, Savage's Station, Frayser's Farm (Glendale), and Malvern Hill, Lee tried unsuccessfully to crush the Army of the Potomac, which McClellan was moving to another base on the James River; but the Confederate chieftain had at least saved Richmond. McClellan inflicted 20,614 casualties on Lee while suffering 15,849 himself.  McClellan felt he could not move upon Richmond without considerable reinforcement, and against his protests his army was withdrawn from the peninsula to Washington by Lincoln and the new general in chief, Halleck. Many of McClellan's units were given to a new Federal Army commander, John Pope, who was directed to move overland against Richmond.

Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and Antietam
Pope advanced confidently toward the Rappahannock River with his Army of Virginia, while Lee, once McClellan had been pulled back from near Richmond, moved northward to confront Pope before the latter could be joined by all of McClellan's troops. Daringly splitting his army, Lee sent Jackson to destroy Pope's base at Manassas, while he himself advanced via another route with James Longstreet's half of the army. Pope opened the Second Battle of Bull Run (in the South, Second Manassas) on August 29 with heavy but futile attacks on Jackson. The next day Lee arrived and crushed the Federal left with a massive flank assault by Longstreet, which, combined with Jackson's counterattacks, drove the Northerners back in rout upon Washington. Pope lost 16,054 men out of a force of about 70,000, while Lee lost 9,197 out of about 55,000. With the Federal soldiers now lacking confidence in Pope, Lincoln relieved him and merged his forces into McClellan's Army of the Potomac.

Lee followed up his advantage with his first invasion of the North, pushing as far as Frederick, Md. McClellan had to reorganize his army on the march, a task that he performed capably. But he was beset by contradictory orders: Lincoln urged him to pursue Lee more swiftly; Halleck directed him to slow down and to stay closer to Washington. Biding his time, McClellan pressed forward and wrested the initiative from Lee by attacking and defeating a Confederate force at three gaps of the South Mountain between Frederick and Hagerstown on September 14. Lee fell back into a cramped defensive position along the Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Md., where he was reinforced by Jackson, who had just captured about 11,500 Federals at Harpers Ferry. After a delay, McClellan struck the Confederates on September 17 in the bloodiest single-day's battle of the war. Although gaining some ground, the Federals were unable to drive the Confederate army into the Potomac; but Lee was compelled to retreat back into Virginia. At Antietam, McClellan lost 12,410 of some 69,000 engaged, while Lee lost 13,724 of perhaps 52,000 effectives. When McClellan did not pursue Lee as quickly as Lincoln and Halleck thought he should, he was replaced in command by Ambrose E. Burnside, who had been an ineffective corps commander at Antietam.

Burnside delayed for a number of weeks before marching his reinforced army of 120,281 men to a point across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Va. On December 13 he ordered a series of 16 hopeless, piecemeal, frontal assaults across open ground against Lee's army of 78,513 troops, drawn up in an impregnable position atop high ground and behind a stone wall. The Federals were repelled with staggering losses; Burnside had lost 12,653 men, compared to Lee's 5,309. The plunging Federal morale was reflected in an increasing number of desertions. Therefore, on Jan. 25, 1863, Lincoln replaced Burnside with a proficient corps commander, Joseph ("Fighting Joe") Hooker, who was a harsh critic of other generals and even of the president. Both armies went into winter quarters near Fredericksburg.

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