At 4:30 A.M. on April 12, 1861, a lightning-like flash and thunderous roar shattered the predawn stillness at Charleston, South Carolina. A mortar shell arced across the sky, its burning fuse etching a parabolic path toward Fort Sumter. Moments after the shell exploded, guns ringing the harbor began battering the fort as if “an army of devils were swooping around it.” For thirty-four hours artillery commanded by General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard fired at Sumter, setting numerous fires and knocking huge masonry flakes in all directions. Miraculously, the seemingly murderous barrage killed none of the fort’s soldiers or workmen. But the commanding officer, Major Robert Anderson, who had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point, knew the good luck could not continue. Having satisfied the demands of duty and honor, he ordered the Stars and Stripes lowered and the white flag raised. The Civil War had begun.
Decades of sectional disagreements over the expansion of slavery into the territories and, for a small minority of northerners, the moral implications of the institution, fueled sharp differences over states’ rights versus national authority and propelled the divided nation toward that fateful moment in Charleston Harbor. Once war became a reality, many people on both sides offered predictions regarding its probable duration and who would triumph. Few, however, foresaw exactly what the war would be like. Most people optimistically predicted a brief conflict waged with the romantic heroism of a Sir Walter Scott novel. Instead, the outlines of modern total warfare emerged during a four-year ordeal. Since both sides fought for unlimited objectives—the North for reunion and (eventually) emancipation, the South for independence and slavery’s preservation—a compromise solution was impossible. No short, restrained war would convince either side to yield; only a prolonged and brutal struggle would resolve the issue.
As the North and South pursued their objectives, sheer numbers of men and industrial capacity became extremely significant. One Confederate general wrote that the war became one “in which the whole population and whole production of a country (the soldiers and the subsistence of armies) are to be put on a war footing, where every institution is to be made auxiliary to war, where every citizen and every industry is to have for the time but the one attribute—that of contributing to the public defense.” Neither belligerent could depend upon improvised measures to equip, feed, and transport its huge armies. Men with administrative skills working behind the lines were equal in importance to men at the front. Furthermore, the coordination of logistical and strategic matters on a vast scale could not be left to individual states. Massive mobilization required an unprecedented degree of centralized national control over military policy.
Mobilizing for War
The North’s warmaking resources were much greater than the Confederacy’s. Roughly speaking, in 1861 the Union could draw upon a white population of 20 million, the South upon 6 million. Two other demographic factors influenced the numerical balance. First, the South contained nearly 4 million slaves who were initially a military asset, laboring in fields and factories and thereby releasing a high percentage of white males for military service. However, after 1862–1863, when the North began enlisting black troops, the slaves progressively became a northern asset. Second, between 1861 and 1865 more than 800,000 immigrants arrived in the North, including a high proportion of males liable for military service. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of the Union Army’s men were foreign-born. Ultimately more than 2 million men served in the Union Army, which reached its peak strength of about 1 million late in the war. Perhaps 750,000 men fought in the Confederate Army, which had a maximum strength of 464,500 in late 1863.11 This nearly total mobilization of southern white males created a dilemma: Fattening the thin gray ranks limited the number of workers in agriculture, mines, foundries, and supply bureaus, risking such reduced output that the soldiers could not be fed and supplied.
The Confederacy did not have the financial structure to wage a long war. It had few banking experts and institutions, had very little specie at its disposal, and had its wealth invested primarily in land and slaves, which were hard to convert into liquid capital. For income the South traditionally sold cotton to the North and to Europe, but the war interrupted this trade. These financial weaknesses undermined the South’s ability to pay for the war by fiscally responsible means. Taxation produced less than 5 percent of the Confederacy’s income. The Confederate constitution prohibited protective tariffs, and although the congress enacted a variety of tax measures, they produced little revenue. The South also tried to borrow money at home and abroad, but few southerners had money to invest, and foreigners had doubts about the new nation’s survival. In all, bonds produced less than 33 percent of government income. By necessity rather than choice, Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger turned to the printing press, churning out more than $1.5 billion in paper money, which represented approximately two-thirds of Confederate wartime revenue. As in the Revolution, overabundant paper money combined with severe commodity shortages to create rampant inflation.
Compared to the South, inflation was not so severe in the North, which also financed the war through taxation, loans, and paper money. However, drawing upon its superior fiscal strength, the Union relied primarily upon taxes and borrowing, the former yielding approximately 21 percent of government income, the latter 63 percent. Beginning in 1862 Congress also authorized the Treasury Department to print paper money, called “greenbacks.” During the war it issued $450 million in greenbacks, but this represented only one-sixth of government expenditures.
The North’s industrial superiority was also impressive. In 1860 the northern states had 110,000 manufacturing establishments, while the southern states had only 18,000. The total value of manufactured goods in Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi was less than $85 million, but New York’s alone was almost $380 million. However, these numbers do not completely reveal the South’s industrial weakness. Southern states relied on northern technological know-how and skilled labor, and many skilled laborers went back north. The Confederacy’s raw-materials base could not support needed industrial expansion. For instance, during the year ending June 1, 1860, the states forming the Confederacy produced 36,790 tons of pig iron, while the figure for Pennsylvania alone was 580,049 tons. Furthermore, Confederate mines and factories, clustered in the upper south and in coastal cities, were vulnerable to enemy assault.
Railroads were the indispensable element in Civil War transportation, but the South contained only 9,000 of the 30,000 miles of track in 1860. Again, these figures do not fully expose the disparity. Most southern lines were short and single track. The numerous and competitive railroad companies used different track gauges, and when rival lines entered a city, they invariably remained unconnected. Gaps existed in seemingly continuous lines, tracks and bridges were often poorly constructed, and repair facilities were negligible. Locomotives, rolling stock, and rails were scarce, and the South could not produce them during the war. The government’s reluctance to supervise the railroads compounded all these problems. In May 1863 the Confederate congress granted the government broad authority over the railroads, but President Jefferson Davis hesitated to wield the power. Not until early 1865, far too late, did the Confederacy finally take control of the railroads.
The South did not have a railroad network that tied its scant industrial base together or readily permitted long-distance strategic movements. Only one genuine trunk line, running from Memphis through Corinth, Chattanooga, and Lynchburg to Richmond, linked the Mississippi Valley with Virginia. A second trunk line from Vicksburg to Atlanta, where it branched to Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah, remained unfinished. Four lateral lines crossed those two “main” railroads. One ran from Memphis to Jackson to New Orleans; another stretched from Columbus, Kentucky, through Corinth to Mobile; a third connected Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta; the fourth hopscotched along the seaboard from Savannah to Charleston to Wilmington, then ran north to Petersburg and Richmond. Should the North sever any of these fragile arteries, the result would be disastrous.
Northern railroads formed a much better network and suffered less than their southern counterparts from different gauges, poor terminal facilities, gaps, shoddy workmanship, and shortages. The North’s industrial facilities allowed it to produce ample rolling stock and rails. Equally important, President Abraham Lincoln did not share Davis’s sensitivity about government interference with railroads. In January 1862 Congress authorized Lincoln to take possession of any railroads whenever public safety warranted it and place them under military control. The next month Lincoln appointed Daniel C. McCallum director of the United States Military Railroads, and in May the president took formal possession of all railroads. However, he intimated that provided a company sustained the war effort, he would not actually seize the railroad and direct its internal affairs. The president also saw to it that cooperative lines received government aid. He secured such a high degree of cooperation that McCallum’s organization, with but a few exceptions, operated only railroads captured or built in Confederate territory.
Northern water and wagon transportation was also better. Yankee sea power restricted Confederate coastal traffic, and Union gunboats soon plied most of the great western rivers. The South had few barges and steamboats and could not build very many; the North’s situation was the opposite. While railroads and steamboats were vitally important, armies straying from the railhead and wharf depended upon horse- and mule-drawn wagons. When Confederate wagons fell into disrepair, shortages of iron tires and leather goods delayed or prevented repair or replacement. When Union wagons broke down, quartermasters simply requisitioned new ones.
Divisiveness within southern society exacerbated its manpower and resource problems. Southern Unionists were especially numerous in the Appalachian highlands, where, vowed a Knoxville newspaper editor, they would “fight secession leaders till Hell froze over, and then fight them on the ice.” This was no idle boast. Viewing the mountain Unionists as a traitorous wedge thrusting into the Confederacy’s heartland, the South conducted military operations into the region but could not eradicate the loyalists. Two mounted regiments escaped from North Carolina to fight for the Union, thousands of east Tennesseans joined bluecoated units, and northern Alabama Unionists formed the Federal 1st Alabama Cavalry. In all, more than 100,000 southern Unionists fought for the North, with every Confederate state except South Carolina providing at least a battalion of white soldiers for the Union Army. Given the South’s limited manpower and the North’s seemingly insatiable need for soldiers, this “missing” southern army that turned up in the enemy’s ranks was a crucial element in the ultimate Confederate defeat.
States’ rights enthusiasts also disrupted southern harmony. The Confederate constitution guaranteed state sovereignty. Unwilling to surrender much state power, prominent politicians such as Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and Governors Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Zebulon B. Vance of North Carolina resisted the centralization of authority necessary for efficient warmaking.
Although facing long odds, the Confederate cause was far from hopeless. Many imponderables made northern advantages less imposing than they seemed. One of the greatest uncertainties was the fate of four border slave states that had not seceded. Delaware’s resources were minimal, but Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri contained 2.5 million whites and extensive agriculture and industrial resources. Should these states join the Confederacy, the manpower and resources imbalance would be partially addressed. Another unknown was the war’s duration. The North required considerable time to convert its warmaking potential into actual military power. A short war would render the North’s manpower and industrial superiority superfluous. Foreign intervention was also possible; the South expected English and perhaps French assistance. Because it supplied four-fifths of the cotton used in European mills, the South felt confident that the English and French economies would falter without its raw material. When war began, the Confederacy, by popular consensus rather than government decree, imposed a cotton embargo, anticipating European recognition and aid in return for renewed cotton shipments.
High-level leadership could also make a difference, and a comparison of the commanders in chief seemingly favored the South. An 1828 West Point graduate, Jefferson Davis performed gallant Mexican War service and served in both houses of Congress before becoming President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, a position he administered with considerable skill. Lincoln served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one term in the House of Representatives and was best remembered for his humorous yarns and great strength. He was ignorant of the theory and history of war, and his own military experience was a fifty-day militia stint during the Black Hawk War, when, he said only half-jokingly, he led charges against wild onion beds and lost blood battling mosquitoes. By training and experience Davis seemed ideally qualified to lead a nation at war; Lincoln appeared equally unqualified.
And, finally, what of morale? Statistics and accounting ledgers do not win wars, but courage and tenacity at home and at the front are often decisive. The South’s determination seemed more certain than the North’s. Men on both sides viewed the situation through the past’s prism, and history apparently favored the Confederacy. Southerners considered themselves akin to their Revolutionary forefathers, fighting for lofty principles against a tyrannical government and in defense of home and hearth. On the other hand, cast in the conqueror’s role, the North had a task similar to Britain’s during the Revolution. How long would northerners sustain a war to force southern states back into a Union they hated, especially if the cost in blood and treasure became high? From the first some northerners, especially Peace Democrats, urged the Lincoln administration to let the South go.
The widespread sentiment that southerners were more militarily inclined than Yankees reinforced the South’s sense of invincibility. Whether Confederates were more militant is debatable, but large numbers of people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line thought they were. Many antebellum Americans believed that northeastern commercialism sapped manly virtues, while plantation life accustomed young men to live outdoors, to ride and shoot, and to enjoy violence. Thus in the eastern theater where Union armies came from the northeast, southerners may have had a psychological edge. When a Confederate boasted that he could whip ten Yankees, many Yankees believed him.
War Aims and Strategies
As telegraph lines spread the news of Fort Sumter across the sundered nation, the Lincoln and Davis administrations pondered their strategic options. Strategy flows from an amalgam of factors. National policy is of primary importance, but strategists must also consider geography, local political pressure, military theory and training, resources and logistics, foreign opinion, and enemy intentions. The North’s initial policy objective was to reunite the Union by conquest and subjugation if necessary, which required offensive operations and complete military victory. For the South, which only needed to defend itself, a stalemated war that eroded northern determination and brought foreign assistance would suffice. Thus the strategic equation was simply stated: Could the North conquer the Confederacy before the South convinced the northern populace and the British government that it was unconquerable?
As the combatants surveyed the battleline, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Kansas prairies and more than 3,500 miles along the coast, four main theaters were evident. Compressed between Chesapeake Bay and the Appalachians, the eastern theater consisted of two subtheaters: The Shenandoah Valley, and the remainder of Virginia east of the mountains. The Shenandoah was a bountiful southern granary and an excellent invasion route into the North, allowing Confederate forces to threaten Washington and other cities, as well as two vital northern transportation systems, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. By contrast, the Valley was a strategic dead end for northern forces, channeling them deeper into the mountains. In eastern Virginia, four large rivers (the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac) and several lesser streams flowed west to east, dividing the region between Washington and Richmond. These waterways made superb defensive positions against an army coming overland but provided penetration routes deep into the interior if northern invaders came by sea. Thus while each combatant had inviting possibilities for conducting end runs around the enemy’s right flank, a direct approach toward Richmond or Washington would involve desperate fighting. With both capitals located in the eastern theater, events there exerted an especially strong pull on national emotions and strategy.
Lying between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, the expansive western theater also had two subtheaters: Middle and east Tennessee, and the Mississippi River line. Here geography favored the Union, since no natural barriers—unless Kentucky seceded—barred an advance. The Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers ran north and south, puncturing any defensive line. The third theater was the trans-Mississippi region, equally vast but not as important, and events in the eastern and western theaters determined its fate. The last theater was the sea, controlled by the North. What happened on the oceans and along the Confederate seaboard greatly influenced the war in the two critical land theaters.
Union strategy evolved gradually, ultimately combining a strategy of exhaustion with one of annihilation. In the broadest terms, the North’s high command emphasized an exhaustion strategy in the western theater, where the rivers provided penetration routes into the South’s most important resource areas, and emphasized annihilation in the constricted eastern theater, where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia blocked any southward advance. The strategies interacted in a cycle that, for the South, was vicious. West of the Appalachians the Union exhausted the South’s warmaking capacity by conquering territory, crippling its railroad system, and capturing cities possessing logistical and political significance. The North thereby deprived Confederate armies of logistical resources and cut them off from their manpower pool, while sapping the southern populace’s will to continue resistance. In the process the North also practically annihilated the enemy’s main field armies both in the west and in Virginia. As the Union battered the weakening gray armies in battle and Confederate morale cracked, the South was less able to defend its remaining resources and communications networks. By late 1864 the South’s capacity for defense had been so reduced that the Union could send massive raids into the enemy’s shrinking domain with virtual impunity.
Commanding General Winfield Scott made the first coherent strategic proposal, the so-called Anaconda Plan, named after the South American snake that slowly crushes its victims. Scott’s plan was essentially a strategy of exhaustion. He wanted to impose a naval blockade to seal the Confederacy off from Europe and thrust down the Mississippi to isolate the trans-Mississippi west. The eastern half of the Confederacy would become a peninsula surrounded on three sides by Yankee naval power and bottled up on the landward side by massive armies. Having grasped the victim in the reptile’s constricting coil, the North would wait for suffocation to begin, allowing southern Unionists to reassert control and bring the seceded states back into the Union. In focusing attention on the blockade and the Mississippi, Scott highlighted two essential elements of northern strategy. However, his plan contained a fundamental weakness: The anaconda dealt death slowly, and the public and prominent politicians wanted a rattlesnake-quick strike at Richmond.
Many generals also wanted more decisive action than what Scott proposed, and they spoke of ending the rebellion by destroying enemy armies in great battles. Lincoln realized that Confederate armies were vital Union objectives, urging his generals to “destroy the rebel army if possible” and expressing disappointment when they failed to do so. However, tactical problems made annihilation of an army in a single battle virtually impossible. As Union armies marched south, their numerical superiority dissipated as commanders had to detach troops for garrison duty and to guard ever-lengthening supply lines. Although generally outnumbering the South, the North rarely had overwhelming numerical superiority on the battlefield. And if Confederates assumed the tactical defensive, they could fight on more than equal terms, since the rifle made one entrenched defender worth several attackers. Ideally northern generals should combine a strategic offensive with the tactical defensive, but this prescription was easier stated than filled.
Even if the Union mauled a Confederate army, pursuit of the beaten foe was difficult. The retreating army moved through friendly country and along its lines of communications, destroying the railroads and bridges, denuding the region of supplies, and leaving rear guards to hinder the pursuer. Aside from having to reorganize after sustaining heavy casualties, the victorious army had to rebuild the communications lines, bring supplies forward, and frequently pause to deploy against the enemy rear guards. Even an army that was grievously hurt in battle usually managed to escape, rebuild, and fight again. An army could eventually be destroyed, but only through the cumulative effects of logistical deprivation and attrition in numerous battles.
To Scott’s concepts regarding the blockade and the Mississippi and to the desire for war-ending climactic battles, Lincoln added an astute perception. He realized the Confederacy would be hard pressed to resist constant, simultaneous advances, which the North’s greater manpower and material made possible. As he wrote to General Don Carlos Buell, the North must menace the enemy “with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.” However, the concept of simultaneous advances had two impediments, one conceptual and the other geographic. The president’s strategic insight ran counter to the prevailing military principles of concentration and mass, which demanded only one offensive at a time. For example, in the winter of 1861–1862 the Army of the Potomac’s commander developed a plan that called for a single army of 273,000 men and 600 artillery pieces to operate as a juggernaut that would flatten the South in one campaign. Any other operations would be decidedly secondary, designed solely to support this massive force. The geographic constraint was that although rivers were relatively secure routes of invasion, once the North reached the source of the Cumberland and Tennessee and controlled the Mississippi, it would have to depend on railroads, which were fragile; wherever they supported Union penetrations, Confederate cavalry units and guerrilla bands raided the vulnerable tracks and bridges, creating nearly insuperable logistical problems.
Late in the war Ulysses S. Grant added one last element to Union strategy: Sending army-sized raids to devastate the rebels’ remaining logistical base. The raiding strategy not only eliminated the necessity to garrison more territory and to protect supply lines, but it also meant Union forces could avoid costly battles against Confederate armies deployed on the tactical defensive. The raiding force departed one point in occupied territory, moved rapidly through a region living primarily off the land, destroyed everything of military value in its path, and emerged at a different locale. Grant’s foremost subordinate, William T. Sherman, perceived that these raids also had a psychological impact, undermining the South’s morale by demonstrating its incapacity for effective defense. By 1865 the Union had virtually ceased trying to capture more Southern territory and instead relied almost exclusively on raids against enemy logistics.
Four key tasks dominated northern strategy after the war’s first year. Control of the Mississippi would deprive the Confederacy of valuable supplies, such as Texas beef and grain. An offensive through middle and east Tennessee and then along the Chattanooga-Atlanta axis would liberate loyal east Tennesseans, deny the rebels access to Tennessee’s resources, cut the South’s best east-west railroad, and make possible a further movement toward Mobile or Savannah, slicing the Confederacy again and further disrupting its communications routes. Incessant military activity in Virginia would destroy Lee’s army and, secondarily, capture the enemy capital. Finally, as land forces opened the Mississippi, cracked the Appalachian barrier, ravaged southern logistics, and hammered Lee’s army, the Union Navy would tighten the blockade and support amphibious coastal assaults.
With limited resources to protect an enormous country, how could the Confederacy forestall a northern victory? In trying to answer this question, Confederate strategists wrestled with two fundamental problems. One was a matter of priorities. With enemy pressure in several places at once, which area was most crucial for survival, the eastern or western theater—and within the broad spaces of the latter, the Mississippi line or Tennessee? Since both theaters had prominent advocates, especially Lee for the eastern and Beauregard for the western, the Davis administration vacillated instead of making hard choices. The other question was whether the South should invade the North or stand behind its borders fending off Union assaults. Lee was the foremost proponent of an offensive defensive, arguing that winning battles on northern soil would hasten enemy demoralization and European intervention, allow hungry southern armies to feast on northern crops, and bolster home-front morale. A passive defensive policy would yield the initiative by giving the Union time to mobilize and the choice of when and where to fight. Others disagreed. Invasion might rally the northern population to the war effort and weaken the South’s appeal to world opinion by making the Confederacy seem the aggressor. Tenacious defense better served Confederate purposes, particularly considering the advantage firepower conferred on the defense. Buffeted by conflicting advice, Davis advocated defending southern boundaries, but on three occasions he sanctioned invasions.
For defense Davis adopted the traditional American system of geographic departmental commands. The system, which the president hoped would reconcile the needs for both local and national defense, meshed with Confederate political and logistical realities. Every Confederate state felt threatened, since each one faced potential invasion from either the land or sea. States’ rights oratory aside, all the southern states wanted the central government to bear the major defense burden. Wide distribution of Confederate forces placated state and local politicians. Since the South’s transportation network made the centralization of logistical resources difficult, Davis’s system required each department to protect the resources of its geographic area, and it gave the department a virtual monopoly on that region’s raw materials, munitions, factory production, and food.
The departmental system also permitted strategic flexibility, since boundaries could be redrawn as the logistical and strategic situation changed. In 1861, for example, when military intelligence regarding the strength and objectives of Union forces was often inaccurate, Davis created a patchwork of small departments. However, as the strategic picture clarified in 1862–1863, Davis consolidated the departments into four major regional commands: the trans-Mississippi; the Department of the West, embracing the Mississippi and Tennessee subtheaters; the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; and Lee’s command in Virginia and North Carolina. No matter what the departmental boundaries were, the Confederate high command could conduct an active defense through interdepartmental troop concentrations, either to exploit strategic opportunities or to parry enemy thrusts. To facilitate these periodic concentrations, the government maintained a railroad pipeline at least partially filled with reserves. The pipeline concept involved sending troops from garrisons nearest the point of concentration and replacing them with units from more distant garrisons.
Although essentially sound, Davis’s departmental system and the strategy of dispersed forces capable of concentration contained flaws. One problem was that Davis granted departmental commanders considerable autonomy on the assumption that they best understood the local situation. Having drawn the boundaries, selected the commanders, and granted discretion, Davis usually refused to order interdepartmental cooperation, relying instead on requests and friendly collaboration. All too often, however, departmental commanders became possessive of their men and resources and, without positive orders, refused to cooperate. Sometimes department boundaries were inappropriate. As one example, the belief that the Mississippi marked a natural division between departments ensnared the Confederacy’s river defense in command squabbles. Finally, the South had to preserve its rail lines to maintain the ability to deploy reserves between departments rapidly.
Even as the belligerent governments grappled with strategic problems, troops were mobilizing. On March 6, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress authorized Davis to call out the militia for six months and to accept 100,000 twelve-month volunteers. Between March 9 and April 16 Davis called for 60,200 volunteers. Responding to Fort Sumter, the Confederate congress passed several laws authorizing more volunteers, some for “any length of time” the president prescribed and others for the war’s duration. Under these various measures six-month, one-year, and long-term recruits entered Confederate service. Meanwhile, on April 15 Lincoln called for 75,000 three-month militia, basing his proclamation on the Militia Act of 1792. Throughout the North most states responded with alacrity to the quotas assigned by the War Department and overrecruited. The government accepted 91,816 men, but governors clamored for the War Department to take still more troops. Acting without legal authority, Lincoln increased the regular Army by 22,714 men and the Navy by 18,000 and called for 42,034 three-year volunteers. Again more men responded than the government called for, and governors urged the administration to increase their troop quotas. When Congress convened on July 4, the president asked sanction for his extralegal action and for authority to raise at least another 400,000 three-year volunteers. Congress assented to both requests, even raising the president’s figure to 500,000 men.
Early northern and southern manpower mobilization was similar in four respects. First, both sides relied on newly raised volunteer armies rather than existing military institutions. The northern regular Army, which remained a distinct organization from the volunteers, expanded very little during the war. The Confederacy established a regular army that attained an authorized strength of 15,000, but few men ever enlisted in it. Most northern states refurbished their militias, which served as internal security forces, garrisoned forts and prisoner-of-war camps, guarded communications lines and industries, and patrolled the Canadian and Indian frontiers. During invasion scares states mobilized thousands of militiamen. But the militia’s primary role was, as the Indiana adjutant general admitted, to serve “as the nursery from which the old regiments and batteries of volunteers were to be recruited and new ones organized.” Southern militias performed similar functions in some states. However, they also played a harmful role that had no northern equivalent: States’ rights governors utilized their state forces to challenge Richmond’s centralized authority, hindering efficient manpower mobilization.
Second, prewar volunteer militia units supplied many recruits, giving each side a core of partially trained and equipped men. Third, the states, not the national governments, controlled mobilization, exhibiting far more vigor than the overburdened, understaffed war departments. State authorities and, in some cases, glory-seeking individuals enlisted the men, formed the regiments, and sent them off to war. Finally, more troops rallied to the colors faster than the governments (state or national) could provide for them. As one Indiana volunteer remembered, all his “regiment lacked of being a good fighting machine was guns, ammunition, cartridge boxes, canteens, haversacks, knapsacks, blankets, etc., with a proper knowledge of how all these equipments could be used with effect.”
Amid massive administrative confusion, with both sides trying to organize and provision hectically raised troops, the war’s first skirmishes occurred. The South’s victory at Fort Sumter was largely symbolic, but within a few days it gained two more substantive successes; and to the worried Lincoln administration Confederate forces appeared close to an even greater achievement, the capture of Washington. Confronted by Virginia militiamen on April 18, the small Union garrison guarding Harpers Ferry abandoned the arsenal. The Yankees left it ablaze, but southerners salvaged much priceless equipment before they withdrew farther up the Shenandoah to Winchester. Three days later Virginia militiamen occupied the Norfolk Navy Yard, gaining intact the nation’s largest naval base, with hundreds of modern artillery pieces, construction and repair facilities, and several ships under repair, including the Merrimack, which burned to the waterline during the Yankee evacuation. Teeming with Confederate sympathizers and situated between slave states, Washington was practically defenseless. Fearing an enemy coup d’état, Lincoln waited with mounting anxiety for militia to arrive. Fortunately, less than forty-eight hours after receiving his call, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew had four regiments commanded by Benjamin F. Butler heading for Washington. No state had a better volunteer militia, and on April 19 the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived. Other units quickly followed, and on May 24 troops undertook the North’s first southward advance. Crossing the Potomac, they occupied Alexandria and Arlington Heights.
The Union had not only saved the capital but gained western Virginia. In late May General George B. McClellan, commanding the Department of the Ohio, ordered a force to aid the area’s Unionists and protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In a six-week campaign, McClellan’s men maneuvered the Confederates out of western Virginia. McClellan’s reputation soared, and with Federal guns inspiring confidence, the loyal mountaineers eventually formed a separate state (West Virginia), which entered the Union in 1863. Three months of war produced no big battles, and neither side gained an appreciable advantage. The preservation of Washington and the occupation of western Virginia counterbalanced the South’s successes at Fort Sumter, Harpers Ferry, and Norfolk. However, within a three-week midsummer span the Confederacy won two stunning victories, one on the banks of a meandering Virginia stream, the other 800 miles to the west along a Missouri creek. Yet in 1861 the South would lose the most important struggle, the struggle for the border states.
General Irvin McDowell, a husky man with a prodigious appetite, was not yet hungry for a battle. He had never commanded so much as a regiment in action, yet he now led 35,000 officers and men stationed at Alexandria. Organizing the mixture of militia, three-year volunteers, and a few regulars took time, and like most professional soldiers, McDowell believed troops should be thoroughly trained and disciplined. The general did not want to fight, but he could not avoid it. Sentiment increased daily for an offensive, and Lincoln felt the pressure. The ninety-day militia enlistments expired soon, a demonstration of northern vigor would discourage European intervention, and northern morale needed a boost. Although General Scott supported his subordinate in counseling delay, general impatience overrode the generals’ prudence. The president ordered McDowell to advance, resulting in the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) on July 21.
McDowell’s objective was Richmond, but first he had to get through Manassas Junction, where Beauregard had 22,000 Confederates posted behind Bull Run. The southerners had several advantages. First, the rebel general learned when Lincoln had ordered McDowell to move forward. Thus alerted, Beauregard received reinforcements from Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Shenandoah, which was able to elude a larger Union army commanded by Robert Patterson and withdraw from the valley via the Manassas Gap Railroad. This was the first time railroads played an important role in a strategic maneuver. Although the Confederates were as untrained as their opponents, they fought on the defensive. Tired and thirsty after their long march, northern troops became disorganized as they attacked. Despite these southern advantages, McDowell’s battle plan almost produced a Union victory. An assault on the enemy left flank initially drove the gray line back. But resistance stiffened around the Henry House Hill, where one of Johnston’s brigades, commanded by Thomas J. Jackson, fought ferociously. “Look!” cried a fellow general to rebel stragglers. “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Jackson bought enough time for Beauregard to bring reinforcements from his right flank and for Johnston’s last brigade to arrive. Literally stepping out of the railroad cars and into the battle, Edmund Kirby Smith’s troops spearheaded a counterattack. The bluecoats gave ground grudgingly at first, but the retreat became a rout, the jaded men fleeing toward Washington. Disorganized by their own attack, the Confederates could not immediately pursue. That night it rained, turning the roads to mud and making an advance toward Washington impossible.
While Confederates in Virginia were mired in mud and dispirited Yankees huddled behind the capital’s defenses, armies were on the move in Missouri. A whirlwind campaign by Nathaniel Lyon, the commander of the St. Louis federal arsenal, saved St. Louis from militia raised by secessionist Governor Claiborne Jackson and drove an enemy army commanded by Sterling Price out of Jefferson City. Retreating into the southwest corner of the state, Price received reinforcements and turned northward. Having advanced to Springfield with 6,000 men, Lyon found himself outnumbered at least two to one. Rather than retreat, he launched a dawn attack on August 10. Catching the Confederates by surprise along Wilson’s Creek, Union forces achieved initial success. However, the Confederates rallied, and when Lyon took a bullet through his heart the leaderless bluecoats retreated. Lacking sufficient strength to attack St. Louis, Price marched due north, placing the western half of Missouri in Confederate hands.
The casualty figures from the war’s first major battles sent a shudder across the land. At Bull Run the North had about 3,000 casualties, the South 2,000. Wilson’s Creek produced another 1,317 Union and 1,230 Confederate casualties. Small by later standards, these figures seemed ghastly. For southerners, success took the sting out of the losses, and they crowed about their martial ability. But the Confederacy was unable to capitalize on its victories. The capture of Washington and St. Louis might have produced a decisive political and diplomatic impact, but tactical battlefield successes without permanent strategic implications did not shatter northern morale or earn European recognition. Although some northerners believed Bull Run proved enemy invincibility, the defeat spurred Congress to greater war preparations. It passed a bill for another 500,000 volunteers. Added to the 500,000 authorized earlier in the month, Congress had voted for a million-man volunteer army! In response, Confederate legislators authorized 400,000 volunteers.
While weathering battlefield setbacks, the North achieved an important strategic victory by keeping the three crucial border states out of the Confederacy. The Lincoln administration prevailed in each state by a different course of events. The government used drastic measures in Maryland, suspending the writ of habeas corpus in parts of the state, occupying Baltimore and other pro-South areas, and arbitrarily arresting hundreds of citizens. If Lincoln’s iron hand grasped Maryland, the president put on a velvet glove for Kentucky. Hoping to avoid a painful choice between North and South, Kentucky formally proclaimed neutrality in mid-May. Initially both belligerents respected Kentucky’s neutrality. But a Union force at Cairo under Ulysses S. Grant alarmed Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who feared the Federals would occupy the strategic bluffs at Columbus, Kentucky. Grant had orders to take the city on September 5, but Polk moved faster, occupying it on September 3. Grant then took Paducah and Smithland at the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. In rapid sequence both sides had violated Kentucky neutrality, but the South had done so first. The angry state legislature demanded Confederate withdrawal and openly sided with the Union.
Lyon’s offensive had shattered Missouri’s efforts to achieve a Kentucky-like neutrality and plunged the state into four years of civil war within the larger Civil War. When Lyon drove Confederate forces into the state’s far corner, a Unionist-dominated state convention met in Jefferson City and appointed Hamilton R. Gamble as governor. In retaliation, Governor Jackson’s government passed a secession ordinance—and in November the Confederacy admitted Missouri—but the secessionists lacked sufficient military power to control the state. Baffled by Missouri’s politics, distracted by its rampant lawlessness, and surrounded by a fawning staff, John C. Fremont, who commanded the Western Department, brought little stability to the chaotic situation. The renowned Pathfinder was also unable to launch a thrust down the Mississippi as Lincoln had hoped, but in October he finally mounted an offensive that pushed Price toward the Arkansas border. As in Maryland, superior military strength kept Missouri in the Union.
Union control could not save the border areas from the special agony of a true brothers’ war, as approximately 160,000 whites from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri served in Union blue and perhaps 85,000 in Confederate gray. Moreover, especially in regions where Unionists and secessionists lived side by side, guerrilla warfare ravaged the land as both vied for control over local communities. Although few in numbers, the irregulars cast a squalid pall of barbarism wherever they roamed, fighting with malignant fury for the Union or the Confederacy but also for personal gain, revenge, and other parochial agendas. The guerrilla conflict blurred the distinction between war and murder and soldier and civilian and brought terror and misery to those caught in its path.
Guerrillas were of two types. The Confederacy organized some units under the Partisan Ranger Act of April 1862. With a guerrilla warfare tradition dating from the Revolution and an exaggerated notion of the romanticism associated with irregular operations, southerners formed dozens of ranger units. The most famous was John S. Mosby’s. Operating in Union-occupied areas of Virginia, the “Gray Ghost” kept his men under military discipline and bedeviled the Yankee invaders. But most rangers were less disciplined and less effective. Other guerrillas arose spontaneously in response to local conditions, especially in the Kansas-Missouri region. For the Confederacy William C. Quantrill deservedly earned an infamous reputation. But he was not alone. Among many others, “Bloody Bill” Anderson rode with enemy scalps dangling from his horse’s bridle, and Coleman Younger and Frank and Jesse James displayed the thuggery that made them postwar outlaws. Nor did southern supporters have a monopoly on bestiality. Unionist Jayhawkers such as James H. Lane, Charles R. Jennison, and James Montgomery and Tennessee loyalists under Fielding Hurst matched them atrocity for atrocity. Other irregulars like Champ Ferguson, “Tinker Dave” Beatty, and Martin Hart terrorized enemy soldiers and civilians alike and brought the war to doorsteps far removed from conventional battlefields.
Although they maintained a rebel presence in border areas, Confederate guerrillas could not win Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, or western Virginia for the South, and this northern domination of the border had momentous consequences. It deprived the South of men and resources. Washington remained linked with the North, and southern armies were stretched across southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee rather than along the Ohio River’s south bank, which would have been a more easily defended border. Had the South controlled Missouri, it would have outflanked the Old Northwest and dominated a much longer stretch of the Mississippi. In winning the border, the Union established essential preconditions for ultimate success.
By late fall the North also had an array of new commanders. McDowell’s defeat, Patterson’s incompetence, and Fremont’s ineptitude demanded changes. The day after Bull Run a telegram summoned McClellan to Washington to succeed McDowell; Nathaniel Banks soon replaced Patterson; and in late October David Hunter took Fremont’s place. After his ungracious maneuvering forced Winfield Scott’s retirement, McClellan also became commanding general. When Lincoln wondered whether his duties as an army commander and as the commanding general of the army might be too burdensome, McClellan assured him that “I can do it all.” One of his first acts was to reorganize the high command west of the Appalachians. Henry W. Halleck replaced Hunter in the Department of the West, and Buell assumed command of the Department of the Ohio. Their principal subordinates were, respectively, Grant at Cairo and George H. Thomas at Lebanon, Kentucky.
These officers represented almost a typology of Civil War generalship. All but Banks were West Pointers, and Academy-trained officers dominated high command positions, North and South. Although some officers of southern background put nation above state—Scott and Thomas were Virginians—many resigned their United States commissions to receive new ones from the Confederate States. Lee was only the most famous of 313 regular Army officers (and more than 300 Navy officers) who joined the Confederacy. While professionals monopolized the highest levels of command, the majority of generals were nonprofessionals appointed for their political influence or—at least in the North, with its more heterogeneous population—their leadership of ethnic groups. For the Union, Banks, Butler, and John A. McClernand were powerful politicians, Franz Sigel and Carl Schurz were prominent German-Americans, and Thomas Meagher was an important Irish-American. Confederate politician-generals included John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Robert Toombs. West Pointers detested the nonprofessionals. As Halleck wrote, “It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men.” Although most nonprofessional generals were inept, this had not always been true: Pepperrell, Washington, Greene, Jackson, Taylor—none had professional training. Furthermore, numerous Civil War professionals were also incompetent, while some amateurs, such as John A. Logan and Benjamin M. Prentiss for the North and Nathan B. Forrest for the South, performed creditably. Even had the failure of many nonprofessionals been predictable, neither Lincoln nor Davis would have dispensed with them. In a people’s war requiring mass armies and high morale, using popular leaders made military and political sense. Rallying diverse constituencies, they strengthened national cohesion and determination.
Broadly speaking, two types of Union generals emerged. Some emphasized their difficulties and the enemy’s opportunities and had little stomach for fighting. They often made their opponents look better than they were. Although unique in several respects—no other general had such a well-developed messianic complex or such an aura of patronizing arrogance—McClellan epitomized this category. McClellan was generally overcautious. A superb organizer and administrator, he strove for perfect arrangements down to the last percussion cap before beginning a campaign. Since perfection could never be achieved, he always planned to move but rarely did so—and then only slowly. McClellan chronically overestimated enemy strength, another deterrent to precipitate activity. He seemed to believe that the South, being more militant and led by a West Pointer, must be better prepared than the North.
McClellan was also reluctant to fight battles. Perhaps he recognized that technological developments made battlefield decisiveness difficult. Maybe he sincerely believed that maneuvering against the enemy’s communications and occupying enemy terrain would win the war without much fighting. More likely McClellan feared taking risks and was paralyzed by the prospect of carnage. As he wrote to his wife, “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses and poor suffering wounded!” Although admirable humanity, this attitude often makes for poor generalship. Finally, the “Young Napoleon” despised political “interference” in military affairs, especially by such amateurs as Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. By mid-1862 McClellan regarded both men with contempt. Ignoring the nation’s civilian leadership as much as possible, he misunderstood the political currents that drove and shaped a people’s war, especially when Lincoln considered adding the destruction of slavery as an official Union war aim. Rejecting any shift toward a “hard war” policy of confiscation and emancipation, McClellan remained wedded to a war of moderation and conciliation toward the South, even as events were revealing the inadequacies of that approach.
In his defense, McClellan may have suffered from rising too high too fast. Caught in the transition from the limited war of 1861 to the total war of 1862 and organizing a truly large army for the first time, he lacked precedents. Staff, communications, and logistical techniques had not yet adjusted to the new complexities posed by mass and distance. Only trial and error, under circumstances in which error could be fatal, produced the necessary adjustments. Furthermore, he commanded at a time when Confederate armies were at their peak in strength and spirit.
Generals in the second category, personified by Grant, saw their opportunities and their opponent’s problems and, while not exactly relishing battle, never hesitated to fight. Grant had the advantage of moving gradually up the chain of command, but he also exhibited intellectual flexibility and learned from mistakes, including his own. He realized that only complete conquest—including the destruction of slavery—would subdue the South, and he was determined to get on with the task. His philosophy left little time for perfecting arrangements. What counted was marching and fighting, even if it involved great risks. Unlike McClellan, who fluctuated between excessive optimism and acute pessimism in a crisis, Grant remained calm. His humility equaled McClellan’s arrogance. He engaged in none of McClellan’s peacock-like displays, preferring to sit quietly on a stump whittling sticks or smoking a cigar. Yet this ordinary-looking midwesterner waged war with a relentlessness beyond McClellan’s ken.
But McClellan, Halleck, and Buell commanded in 1861, and northerners who expected decisive action did not get much. McClellan rejuvenated the Army of the Potomac and put it on display at public reviews. The well-ordered columns and bustling staff officers inspired confidence—and questioning. When would McClellan hurl his impressive host toward Richmond? Not this year, as it turned out. However, McClellan did order a reconnaissance in force toward Leesburg, resulting in a humiliating defeat at Ball’s Bluff on October 21. Insignificant militarily, the battle had important political consequences. Radical Republican congressmen were demanding a stern war, including emancipation and arming of the slaves, that would fundamentally reconstruct southern society. McClellan’s inactivity, proslavery sentiments, and Democratic politics aroused their suspicions. Would he fight their kind of war? Was he even loyal to the Union? Dismayed by Ball’s Bluff, Radicals convinced Congress to create a Committee on the Conduct of the War. Using secretive procedures, the committee asserted Congress’s right to exercise war powers, praising generals who agreed with the Radicals’ philosophy and badgering those who seemed unwilling to wage war to the hilt.
Halleck and Buell also failed to make progress. Lincoln wanted Halleck to open the Mississippi line, Buell to invade east Tennessee. Considering the logistical problems in east Tennessee insurmountable, Buell eyed Nashville and asked Halleck to cooperate in an advance on the city. Preoccupied with the chaos in Missouri, Halleck declined. Nor would Buell assist Halleck. Refusing to cooperate with each other, neither achieved Lincoln’s objectives, though Halleck made major strides in pacifying Missouri. As in the East, only one minor battle occurred. On November 7 Grant led a 3,100-man force down the Mississippi in transports to attack Belmont, Missouri, across the river from Columbus. In a repetition of Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, Union retreat followed initial success, the Federals barely escaping to their transports. While other Union forces were immobile, Grant had fought hard, demonstrating remarkable poise despite his army’s perilous escape.
Still, Belmont was a loss, reinforcing the North’s sense of failure as the South won every battle. Yet the northern situation was promising. Although its successes were less spectacular, they had greater long-term potential. Along with holding the border states, the Union began to benefit from its sea power, blockading the South and, in cooperation with the Army, cleaving coastal enclaves out of enemy territory. Lincoln proclaimed the blockade in April, but the Navy had only forty-two ships in commission, and all but fourteen were on foreign stations. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles undertook an expansion program, recalling the distant ships, refitting old vessels, building new ones, and buying or chartering merchantmen for conversion to warships. Welles also appointed a Strategy Board that considered ways to make the blockade more effective. It recommended the capture of advanced bases to supplement the Navy’s existing southern bases at Hampton Roads and Key West. In late August a joint Army-Navy expedition captured Hatteras Inlet, two weeks later the Navy took Ship Island in the Gulf, and in early November another combined operation captured Port Royal between Charleston and Savannah. By December the blockade still leaked, but with more ships becoming available and the southern coast proving vulnerable, it promised to become much tighter. As 1861 ended, the war had already lasted longer than most people expected, and it showed signs of becoming much larger and longer. Neither side was winning, and neither was quitting.
A Year of Indecisive Battles
Frequent and generally inconclusive battles, several of monstrous proportions, characterized 1862. From January to June dramatic Union victories occurred in all four theaters, and Confederate defeat appeared certain. But inept Union generalship and better southern leadership halted the Federal advances. The Confederacy launched late-summer counteroffensives that the North blunted during September and October. Then late in the year the South smashed renewed Union offensives on three fronts.
As the year began, gloom pervaded the Confederate high command. In Virginia a few small forces guarded the Shenandoah Valley and Joseph E. Johnston, wondering if he could stop an offensive by McClellan’s 150,000-man army, commanded 50,000 men at Centerville. Equally anxious was Albert S. Johnston, who commanded all forces from the Appalachians to Indian Territory, a vast domain containing only a few widely dispersed troops over whom Johnston exercised only nominal control. His subordinate in the trans-Mississippi, Earl Van Dorn, had 20,000 men to oppose 30,000 Federals. In the western theater Johnston had troops at four positions. Polk held the Mississippi line with 17,000 men at Columbus, confronting Grant’s 20,000 at Cairo. Anchoring the right flank, Felix K. Zollicoffer commanded 4,000 men in front of Cumberland Gap, watching Thomas’s 8,000 at Barbourville. In the center the North could invade along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad or up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. William J. Hardee at Bowling Green with 25,000 troops sat astride the railroad, facing Buell’s 60,000 soldiers stationed southwest of Louisville. Perhaps 5,000 men garrisoned Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland.
Confederate defenses in the middle and east Tennessee subtheater collapsed first. Prodded by McClellan, Buell ordered Thomas to attack Zollicoffer. At the Battle of Mill Springs (or Fishing Creek) on January 19, the South suffered its first significant battlefield defeat. In late January Grant suggested that he could capture Fort Henry, and Halleck consented to the expedition. The next day Grant was underway with 15,000 troops and the Western Flotilla, which consisted of river steamers covered with heavy wooden planking (timberclads) and ironclad gunboats. A Navy captain, Andrew H. Foote, commanded the flotilla, although it was under Army control until transferred to the Navy Department in October. When Foote’s gunboats attacked on February 6, the Confederates surrendered even before Grant’s infantry arrived. With Foote’s gunboats roaming up the Tennessee, the Federals had cut Johnston’s army in half and outflanked both wings. Johnston retreated from Bowling Green, sending half his men to Donelson and the rest to Nashville. He also dispatched Beauregard to Columbus to withdraw that wing of the army, leaving only enough men to garrison New Madrid, Island No. 10, and Fort Pillow.
Meanwhile, Halleck ordered Grant to move against Fort Donelson, a more formidable position than Fort Henry. The Confederates repulsed attacks by Grant’s infantry on February 13 and Foote’s flotilla on the 14th, and the next day attempted a breakout, tearing a gap in Grant’s right flank. With the door to Nashville wide open, Gideon Pillow, who commanded the attack, inexplicably ordered the troops back to their original positions. With sure instinct Grant counterattacked, breaching the enemy lines. The next day the fort surrendered. Grant’s victories were a disaster for the South. The loss of men and material in the forts was serious, and Donelson’s capitulation made Nashville untenable, forcing Johnston to retreat again. He established a new defensive line from Memphis through Corinth to Chattanooga that, like his original positions, lacked natural defensive barriers. Worse, it left the region drained by the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in Union hands, crippling Confederate logistics.
Southern woes increased when Van Dorn lost the Battle of Pea Ridge. During a winter campaign Samuel Curtis’s 12,000-man Union army pushed Price into Arkansas, where he received reinforcements. Before he could attempt another Missouri invasion, all Confederates in the trans-Mississippi came under Van Dorn’s command. Leading 20,000 men northward, Van Dorn attacked Curtis at Pea Ridge. The Confederates mauled the Federals on March 7, but Curtis counterattacked the next morning, shattering Van Dorn’s army. The battle secured the North’s hold on Missouri and made Arkansas vulnerable to invasion.
The southern situation was desperate, but the Union was unable to exploit its successes, giving Johnston time to rally his demoralized forces and to receive reinforcements. Halleck, whom Lincoln promoted to overall western commander on March 11, had ordered Grant up the Tennessee River but warned him not to fight a battle until Buell joined him. With his 40,000 men concentrated near Shiloh, Grant waited as Buell advanced from Nashville with 35,000 soldiers. While the Federals wasted most of March, Johnston benefited from the South’s first great strategic concentration in the west. Braxton Bragg brought 10,000 men from Mobile and Pensacola, and Daniel Ruggles came from New Orleans with 5,000 more. Combining the reinforcements with the troops from Columbus and Bowling Green, Johnston had 45,000 men. He had also ordered Van Dorn to cross the Mississippi, but he could not wait for him since the Confederates had to strike Grant before Buell arrived. The twenty-mile march to Shiloh was mass confusion, and although the Confederate plan depended on surprise, troops test-fired their rifles and buglers practiced their calls. Yet when the rebels came screaming out of the woodlands on April 6, they achieved surprise. Grant’s overall assessment of the situation was so deeply flawed that on the previous day he assured Halleck no attack was imminent.
The attack smashed into divisions commanded by Sherman, McClernand, and Prentiss, driving them back. However, Prentiss’s men reformed along a sunken country lane, where the Union line held temporarily. Absent when the attack began, Grant reached the scene to find his army apparently wrecked. Coolly he organized ammunition trains, ordered Lew Wallace, whose division was camped five miles away, to come immediately, and requested Buell’s advance elements to hurry. Recognizing the importance of Prentiss’s position, dubbed the Hornets’ Nest, he ordered the former militia colonel to hold at all costs. Prentiss did so, aided by a serious tactical error by the Confederate generals: Instead of outflanking the Hornets’ Nest, they sent repeated frontal charges against it, in effect killing off their own men. Not until early evening did they force Prentiss to surrender, and the Confederate advance soon halted due to darkness, ammunition shortages, and disorganization. That night Beauregard, who succeeded the fatally wounded Johnston, telegraphed Richmond that the South had won “a complete victory.” It had—almost. But Grant used the time bought with blood to organize a new line closer to the river. During the night Wallace arrived, and 20,000 of Buell’s men crossed the Tennessee. Grant had more men at dawn on April 7 than when the battle began, and after a morning of hard fighting the southern forces retreated. Like the Confederates after Bull Run, Grant’s victorious soldiers, as disorganized and exhausted by the fighting as the vanquished, were unable to pursue. The inability to follow tactical success with effective pursuit characterized almost every Civil War battle.
“War,” as Confederate cavalryman Nathan B. Forrest observed, “means fighting. And fighting means killing.” Shiloh proved it. The first massive battle, Shiloh dwarfed every previous engagement. Minimally trained citizen-soldiers fought with a savage tenacity befitting veteran regulars. Each side had more than 1,700 killed and 8,000 wounded, but Confederate losses were harder to bear. The South not only lost irreplaceable men but also failed to restore the balance of power in the middle and east Tennessee subtheater.
Serious southern losses occurred almost simultaneously along the Mississippi, where John Pope captured the Confederate garrison at New Madrid on March 13 and, with help from Foote’s gunboats, Island No. 10 on April 7. Foote turned the Western Flotilla over to Captain Charles H. Davis in early May. A month later the gunboats caused the evacuation of Fort Pillow, and on June 6 Memphis fell. Southern defenders on the Mississippi were driven to Vicksburg, which in midsummer 1862 was vulnerable from both directions since the Union had also captured New Orleans.
While Confederate defenses in the trans-Mississippi and western theaters crumbled, Federal operations along the coast achieved victories at Roanoke Island, Fort Pulaski, and New Orleans. On February 8 an expedition commanded by Ambrose Burnside and supported by the Navy overran Roanoke Island and, in the next few weeks, captured North Carolina’s inland seaports, depriving the South of blockade-running outlets. Two months later Fort Pulaski, guarding the entrance to Savannah, Georgia, surrendered, and the blockading fleet had one less port to watch. The North won an even greater triumph at New Orleans, the South’s most vital port. Forts Jackson and St. Philip, located seventy miles below New Orleans, protected the city. Just below the forts a submerged barrier of hulks and logs would supposedly stop approaching ships, giving the forts’ artillerymen stationary targets. Gunboats and fire rafts supplemented these defenses. The citizens of New Orleans believed they lived in the Confederacy’s safest city, but they did not reckon with David G. Farragut.
Commanding eighteen warships and twenty mortar schooners and accompanied by Butler’s 18,000 soldiers aboard transports, Farragut sailed up the Mississippi. On April 18 the mortar schooners opened fire on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, but after six days of constant shelling the defenses remained virtually intact. Rather than admit failure, Farragut decided on a daring plan. Northern gunboats punched a hole in the barrier, and in the predawn hours of April 24 his warships steamed past the forts. The enemy bombardment was so fierce the water seemed ablaze and the Southern gunboats fought heroically, but the Union fleet endured the artillery fire, fought off the enemy gunboats, and dodged the fire rafts. About noon the next day Yankee warships arrived at New Orleans, which was defenseless since most of its garrison had joined Johnston. A naval landing party accepted the city’s surrender, and on May 1 Butler’s occupation troops arrived.
The loss of New Orleans, with its factories, ordnance complex, and shipbuilding facilities, was worse than the loss of Nashville. Another entryway for blockade-runners was slammed shut, and the South lost control of the lower Mississippi, allowing Farragut to take Baton Rouge and Natchez without resistance and steam to Vicksburg before going back downriver. In June Farragut brought his saltwater fleet back upriver, meeting Davis’s freshwater ironclads a few miles above Vicksburg. The entire Mississippi was in Union hands, but only briefly. Although the combined naval forces pounded Vicksburg, the city could not be captured without a large land force. Farragut appealed in vain to Halleck for assistance, and the North lost an opportunity to gain permanent control of the river. Instead, Davis returned to Memphis, Farragut dropped downriver to New Orleans, the Confederates turned Vicksburg into a bastion and fortified Port Hudson further to the south, and the Yankees frittered away the summer.
Arriving at Shiloh after the battle, Halleck spent three weeks amassing a 120,000-man army. Intent on avoiding a Shiloh-like surprise, he moved toward Corinth at a snail’s pace, averaging about a mile a day. When the Federals reached Corinth in late May, Beauregard retreated to Tupelo without giving battle. Halleck had excellent possibilities for further action. He could pursue the Confederate army or, holding a vital railroad crossroads, he could strike toward Vicksburg, Mobile, or Chattanooga. “Old Brains” chose Chattanooga as the next target. He retained a substantial force at Corinth, used aggressive Grant to occupy territory northward to Memphis, and sent cautious Buell toward Chattanooga. Entrusted with Halleck’s sole offensive mission, Buell moved slowly, and enemy cavalry raids by John H. Morgan and Forrest caused further delays as they destroyed supply dumps and railroad bridges, tore up track, and captured Union outposts. Buell’s unhurried pace, rebel depredations against his communications lines, and Halleck’s passive strategy in west Tennessee forfeited the initiative to the South.
Just as improbably, the Confederacy gained the initiative in the eastern theater after McClellan’s spring campaign carried his army to within sight of Richmond’s church spires. Throughout the fall and winter McClellan’s inactivity and reticence in divulging his plans strained the president’s patience. When McClellan finally explained his strategy, Lincoln did not like it. The general proposed a waterborne movement to Urbana, which would place his army behind Johnston’s. McClellan would defeat the enemy force as it retreated to protect Richmond and then occupy the city, ending the war. Lincoln preferred an overland advance to shield Washington with the army and more readily force Johnston to fight. But McClellan was a professional and Lincoln an amateur. Reluctantly, the president accepted McClellan’s plan.
However, Lincoln issued several orders indicating his distrust of the general and his strategy. On March 8 he divided the Army of the Potomac into four corps, a reorganization McClellan opposed, and appointed the corps commanders. Three of them favored Lincoln’s overland approach, and as a group they leaned toward the Radicals in Congress, who despised McClellan. The president also ordered McClellan to leave Washington “entirely secure” and insisted that the movement down Chesapeake Bay begin by March 18. With bold action tearing open Confederate defenses in the west, Lincoln demanded a simultaneous advance in the eastern theater. On March 11 he demoted McClellan by removing him from the position of commanding general. The president named no replacement; he and Stanton would perform the commanding general’s duties. Finally, Lincoln created a Mountain Department embracing western Virginia and east Tennessee, commanded by Fremont. Since the Radicals supported Fremont, his resurrection after his Missouri fiasco indicated the prevailing political currents, especially when viewed in conjunction with McClellan’s demotion. During the upcoming campaign McClellan became convinced that he confronted two enemies: The gray army in his front and politicians to his rear. Lincoln and Stanton, he feared, had joined the Radicals in a conspiracy to engineer his downfall.
While still reeling from Lincoln’s unsettling orders, the Union commander received more dismaying news. On March 9 McClellan learned the Confederates had fallen back to Culpeper, a move that dislocated his Urbana scheme, since a landing there would no longer be in Johnston’s rear. However, McClellan decided he could still go by sea, landing at Fort Monroe and marching toward Richmond up the Peninsula, the southeastern Virginia district formed by the York and James Rivers. As he examined this prospect, McClellan preferred it. Union troops already held Fort Monroe, and the Navy could protect both flanks. Lincoln did not like this amphibious operation any better than the Urbana plan, but he acceded to it.
An armada of 400 vessels had barely started transporting troops to Fort Monroe when McClellan’s army began to shrink. As Banks’s army redeployed from the Valley to protect Washington, Stonewall Jackson’s 3,500-man army attacked Banks’s last remaining unit, James Shields’s 9,000-man division, at Kernstown. Although Shields defeated Jackson, who had underestimated enemy strength, the Confederacy won a strategic victory, for the attack deranged Union troop movements. Would Jackson have attacked Shields without an equal or larger force? Were the Confederates preparing a thrust at Harpers Ferry, or even Washington? The War Department ordered Banks back to the Valley and detached a division from McClellan’s command, sending it to Fremont. And what troops remained to protect Washington? In Lincoln’s estimation, not enough. Stanton ordered McDowell’s corps not to move to the Peninsula. Believing that Union forces were on the verge of winning the war, Stanton also closed the volunteer recruiting service. McClellan lost not only a third of his men but also the prospect of receiving replacements. Yet McClellan still outnumbered Johnston about two to one, though he refused to believe it.
Advancing in early April, the Union army encountered the rebels’ Yorktown line. Defended by a minimal force and fake cannons, the line appeared strong to McClellan, who considered a frontal assault risky. He resorted to siege operations, which consumed a month. Just when McClellan was ready to smash Yorktown with enormous siege guns, the Confederates withdrew. As they retreated, they had to abandon Norfolk, a severe blow to the Confederate navy. Plodding up the Peninsula, McClellan found that the Chickahominy River presented a problem. With his base at White House on the York River, the Union commander kept his army north of the Chickahominy, but he would have to cross it to attack Richmond. He also believed he would need reinforcements and beseeched Lincoln for McDowell’s corps, stationed at Fredericksburg. On May 17 the president agreed, but he insisted that McDowell move overland. Stanton ordered McClellan to extend his right flank to meet McDowell. Thus McClellan had to straddle the Chickahominy, maintaining communications with his base and awaiting McDowell while at the same time advancing on the Confederate capital.
The Confederates considered McDowell’s movement a potential calamity, as Johnston could be crushed between McClellan and McDowell. In desperation Johnston planned to attack McClellan, who had reorganized his army into five corps, before McDowell arrived. McClellan had pushed two corps across the Chickahominy, which, swollen by recent rains, separated the unequal halves of his army. Johnston would strike the three corps on the north bank to drive them away from McDowell. Meanwhile, acting as Davis’s military adviser, Robert E. Lee proposed sidetracking McDowell by unleashing Jackson in the Shenandoah. Lee’s advice initiated one of the war’s most brilliant campaigns.
On May 23 Jackson pounded a Union garrison at Front Royal and moved down the Valley, simulating an advance on Washington. After momentary panic Lincoln recognized Jackson’s thrust as a diversion, not an invasion. He also realized the North had an opportunity to trap Stonewall’s 17,000-man army between Fremont, Banks, and McDowell. Ordering McDowell to countermarch away from McClellan toward the upper Shenandoah, Lincoln urged the three commanders to move swiftly and cooperate fully. They did neither, and Jackson, combining knowledge of the terrain with rapid marching, foiled the efforts of 60,000 Federals to spring the trap. Jackson’s Valley campaign allowed Johnston to reorient his attack against McClellan. When news arrived that McDowell had reversed directions, Johnston decided to assault McClellan’s weaker south wing. At the Battle of Fair Oaks (or Seven Pines) on May 31 the South came close to victory, but Union reinforcements crossed the Chickahominy on one half-destroyed bridge, and the advance stalled. The next day the Yankees pushed the rebels back to their starting point.
The strategically insignificant battle had momentous consequences. Johnston was badly wounded, and on June 1 Davis appointed Lee to replace him. Nothing in the new commander’s previous Civil War experience foretold the fame he would achieve leading the Army of Northern Virginia to destruction, and to immortality in military annals. Like Grant at Belmont, Lee began on an unpromising note. He was sent to oust the Federals from western Virginia; his strategy miscarried, and troops derisively called him “Granny Lee” and “Evacuating Lee.” While commanding the southern Atlantic coast, he earned another unflattering nickname, “the King of Spades,” by ordering his men to dig entrenchments. No nicknames could have been less apt, because Lee’s early wartime activities concealed his true character. No general surpassed him in audacity and aggressiveness. If McClellan took no risks, Lee perhaps took too many. He preferred the bold offensive, seeking in true Napoleonic fashion to destroy, not merely defeat, the enemy army. Dedicated to winning a battle of annihilation, he sometimes imprudently continued attacking beyond any reasonable prospect of success. Lee also needed to broaden his view of the war. Exhibiting a narrow parochialism, he believed Virginia was the most important war zone. He underestimated the problems Confederate commanders faced in the western and trans-Mississippi theaters and the significance of those theaters for southern survival. Yet Lee served the South well. Although costing the Confederacy dearly, his victories against great odds buoyed Confederate morale and depressed the North. Furthermore, Lee’s emphasis on his native state was not entirely emotional. Richmond, the South’s primary industrial center, acquired great symbolic value, and the Virginia countryside furnished men, mounts, food, and other logistical assets.
Lee’s defense of Virginia through daring offensive operations began shortly after he assumed command. During June McClellan shifted all but Fitz-John Porter’s 30,000-man corps south of the Chickahominy and repeatedly promised he would attack—as soon as he received more reinforcements. Although Lee had 85,000 men, McClellan thought he had 200,000. Not until June 25 did the Union commander launch a reconnaissance in force, but by then Lee had the Confederate army poised to strike. Learning from his cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, that Porter’s corps was vulnerable, Lee proposed holding off McClellan’s four corps (70,000 men) with 30,000 soldiers and attacking Porter with 55,000, including Jackson’s command. With Porter destroyed, McClellan would be cut off from White House. Lee believed McClellan would retreat toward the York River to protect his lines of supply and communications. The Confederates would then shred the Union army with constant attacks.
On June 26 the Confederates initiated the Seven Days Battles, which consisted of five engagements: Mechanicsville (June 26), Gaines’ Mill (June 27), Savage Station (June 29), Glendale, or Frayser’s Farm (June 30), and Malvern Hill (July 1). Throughout the week few things went right for Lee. Jackson invariably attacked late. Poor maps, deplorable intelligence, and inadequate staff work resulted in uncoordinated assaults. McClellan did not do what Lee expected. Instead of fighting toward White House, he shifted to Harrison’s Landing on the James, executing a midcampaign change of base. Lee lost every battle except Gaines’ Mill and failed to annihilate the Army of the Potomac. Particularly at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill he hurled his men against formidable defenses. As one division commander said after Malvern Hill, “It was not war—it was murder.” The Seven Days cost the South more than 20,500 casualties, the North about 16,500. Yet Lee became a hero. His offensive battered the Federals away from Richmond and wrenched the initiative from the enemy. McClellan, who did not consider his change of base a retreat, believed he had conducted a brilliant campaign, especially since he thought he was fighting against a larger army without any help from the Lincoln administration. “If I save this army now,” he wrote to Stanton during the furious combat, “I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
Lee soon gave the South more reason to believe in him. On the day Lee attacked at Mechanicsville, Lincoln consolidated the commands of Banks, Fremont, and McDowell into the Army of Virginia under Pope. On July 11 the president brought another westerner east, elevating Halleck, who had been so successful in the west, to the post of commanding general (or, as it was also called, general in chief). Lincoln had hoped Halleck would take responsibility for command and strategic decisions, but Halleck disappointed him, refusing to give orders on his own authority since he considered himself as “simply a military adviser to the Secretary of War and the President,” who “must obey and carry out what they decide upon, whether I concur with their decisions or not.” However, Halleck was an efficient administrator, a valuable talent in mass total war, and generally a source of sound advice. The first major question Lincoln asked Halleck was what to do with the armies of Pope and McClellan. Should they be concentrated? If so, on the James under McClellan or the Rappahannock under Pope? Acting on Halleck’s recommendation, Lincoln decided that McClellan should evacuate the Peninsula. Bitterly resenting this decision, detesting Pope, and convinced “that the dolts in Washington are bent on my destruction,” McClellan moved with inexcusable slowness, wasting more time than Pope had to spare, for Lee was hurrying north.
Having organized his army into corps commanded by Jackson and James Longstreet, Lee moved toward Pope before McClellan’s withdrawal began, leaving Richmond sparsely defended but confident that McClellan would miss the opportunity. Jackson led the advance, defeating Banks’s corps at Cedar Mountain on August 9, and within two weeks Lee’s 55,000 men faced Pope’s 65,000 across the Rappahannock. Violating every military maxim, Lee divided his army, sending Jackson with 23,000 men far to the west around Pope’s right flank and into his rear. Jackson destroyed the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction and assumed a defensive position near the First Bull Run battlefield. Pope found Jackson late on August 28 and erroneously assumed that the retreating Confederates were trapped. Longstreet and Lee were following in the footsteps of Jackson, whose task was to hold on until they arrived. As the Yankees assaulted Jackson on the 29th, Lee and Longstreet reached the battlefield and took up a position lurking on Pope’s left flank. The next afternoon, when renewed enemy attacks nearly overwhelmed Stonewall’s position, Longstreet crushed the Union flank and sent Pope in disarray toward Washington. Another humiliating defeat, the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas) cost the Yankees 16,000 casualties. But Lee, whose casualties were 9,200, had failed to destroy Pope’s army.
After his successive victories over McClellan and Pope pushed the invaders out of most of Virginia, Lee prepared to carry the war into enemy territory. But he would not move northward alone. During the fall the South made its only coordinated offensive of the war, attempting simultaneous invasions of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and western Tennessee. The Confederacy wanted to “liberate” Maryland and Kentucky and allow its armies to live off the enemy countryside. Many southerners believed victories beyond the Potomac and along the Ohio would foster northern war-weariness and inspire British intervention. The prospect of foreign aid was not fanciful. In May 1861 the British government had issued a neutrality proclamation granting the Confederacy belligerent status. In mid-July 1862, Parliament debated a motion for Confederate recognition, and two months later Foreign Secretary Lord Russell and Prime Minister Palmerston considered offering to mediate the conflict. But as the North’s ambassador to the Court of St. James noted, “Great Britain always looks to her own interest as a paramount law of her action in foreign affairs.” Recognition would best serve British interests if the Confederacy looked like a sure winner. As Palmerston told Lord Russell, “The Iron should be struck while it is hot” if “the Federals sustain a great Defeat.”
As it splashed across the Potomac in early September, Lee’s 50,000-man army was not in good condition. Many soldiers suffered acute diarrhea from eating green corn; others hobbled on shoeless sore feet. The high command was also in poor health. Lee’s hands were in splints, Jackson had a sore spine, and Longstreet was in pain from a raw heel blister. With this bedraggled force Lee planned to sever the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad and destroy the Union army. He was sanguine, for he knew that Lincoln had reappointed McClellan to command. McClellan’s behavior during Second Bull Run incensed the president, who believed McClellan wanted Pope to fail. Yet Lincoln needed someone who could whip Pope’s dispirited troops into fighting shape, and, he said, if McClellan “can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.” “Little Mac” felt vindicated, writing that “I have been called upon to save the country” again, just as after First Bull Run.
McClellan actually did have the chance to save the country. When the Federals did not evacuate Harpers Ferry as Lee expected, the Confederate commander decided to eliminate this potential trouble spot threatening his lines of supply and communication. In Special Order No. 191 he detailed a daring dispersion of his army. Under Jackson’s overall command, three columns would converge on Harpers Ferry while Longstreet remained at Boonsboro just west of South Mountain. On September 13 Union soldiers found a copy of Lee’s order, which they sent to McClellan. Few generals have had so much good luck and done so little with it. With exact knowledge of Lee’s deployments and with his own 88,000-man army at Frederick, McClellan could crush the enemy piecemeal if he moved rapidly. Unbeknownst to the Union commander, the situation was even more favorable, because Lee had sent Longstreet to Hagerstown, leaving only Daniel H. Hill’s division at Boonsboro. Instead of marching immediately, McClellan waited until the 14th, when, despite a Thermopylae-like fight by the rebels, the Union army gained two gaps in South Mountain. Lee, who had recalled Longstreet, contemplated retreat. But the next day, learning that Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry, he decided to fight. Assuming a position behind Antietam Creek, he awaited Jackson, who arrived on the 16th. Straggling had thinned Lee’s ranks to about 40,000 men. Believing Lee had at least 100,000, McClellan spent a day and a half preparing to attack, giving Lee’s army time to concentrate.
The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) on September 17 unfolded from north to south. Initially Joseph Hooker’s command struck the Confederate left, where the fighting raged with demoniacal fury, men screaming and laughing hysterically at the frenzy of death. Then Edwin V. Sumner’s corps smashed into the southern center, where, wrote a Union colonel, “it seemed as if heaven and earth vibrated with the stunning roar” of battle. Finally Ambrose Burnside’s corps crunched Lee’s right, breaking the Confederate line. Dramatically, Jackson’s last division arrived on the double-quick after a grueling forced march from Harpers Ferry, filling the breach and hurling the Yankees back. The disjointed attacks negated Union numerical superiority, allowing Lee to shift men from one threatened sector to another. Furthermore, McClellan refused to commit 20,000 reserves, fearful that somewhere out there Lee was massing the rest of his troops for a counterattack. Actually, every Confederate division was on the firing line. Antietam was the war’s bloodiest day. As darkness encased the melancholy field, more than 24,000 men lay dead and wounded, 13,000 of them in gray. Despite his severe losses, Lee not only held his position on the 18th but contemplated an attack! However, his discouraged subordinates convinced him that an offensive would be foolhardy. Even more incredibly, McClellan did not attack. That evening Lee retreated, and McClellan did not pursue. The Federal commander took complete pride in his success, but Lincoln was angry that McClellan’s success was not more complete.
Although tactically indecisive, Antietam had important consequences. Five days after the battle Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, transforming a war for the Union into a war for freedom. The basic document was ready in July, but Lincoln delayed issuing it until the Union cause looked more hopeful, as it did after the Antietam half-victory. Paradoxically, in July McClellan had urged the president to follow a moderate policy, arguing that neither the confiscation of rebel property nor political executions nor “forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Contrary to the Lincoln administration’s expectations, the emancipation policy initially increased the chances of British intervention. Several leading British statesmen believed that the Union’s conversion to emancipation was hypocritical, a desperate move to salvage victory by inciting servile insurrections throughout the Confederacy. Appalled by the prospect of a brutal race war, they argued that England should intervene not only to preserve its economic interests but also for humanitarian reasons. But in early November, the British secretary for war explained to the ministry the dire consequences for England if war erupted with the Union, and interventionist sentiment quickly abated. By early 1863, with the British population increasingly supporting the North’s antislavery position, an alliance between England and the South was most unlikely.
The western theater invasions also ended in repulses. Angered by Beauregard’s retreat to Tupelo, Davis replaced him with Braxton Bragg, an excellent organizer but a poor tactician. Watching Buell’s slow progress toward Chattanooga, Bragg left Van Dorn holding Vicksburg with 16,000 soldiers and Price at Tupelo with another 16,000. With 32,000 men Bragg “raced” Buell to Chattanooga. The Yankees had a six-week head start, but by utilizing a circuitous railroad route to Mobile, Montgomery, and Atlanta, Bragg got there first. In conjunction with Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding a smaller force at Knoxville, Bragg planned a Kentucky invasion. Since each commanded a separate department, neither could command the other. In mid-August Smith moved into central Kentucky, capturing Lexington and Frankfort. Bragg entered Kentucky in late August along a more westerly parallel track, getting ahead of Buell, who was hurrying toward Louisville. Capturing Munfordsville, Bragg stood between Buell and the Ohio and was astride the Federals’ supply and communications lines. However, Bragg foolishly moved to Bardstown, allowing the Union army to slip past him to Louisville.
In early October Buell headed southeast, stumbling into a Confederate force at Perryville on the 8th. Buell thought he faced Bragg’s entire army, but only three gray divisions were on hand. Bragg, meanwhile, believed he confronted only a small Federal force, but almost 40,000 bluecoats were on the field. The rebel commander attacked and outfought Buell, but he retreated after learning the enemy’s true strength and linked up with Smith at Harrodsburg. The failure to coordinate operations earlier in the campaign may have deprived the Confederates of success. Now Smith wanted to fight, but Bragg retreated to Chattanooga. Coming on the heels of Antietam, Perryville depressed the South and boosted northern morale, but Lincoln felt frustrated. Emulating McClellan, Buell went to Nashville instead of pursuing the enemy. Based on past performance he would be there for some time, reorganizing and preparing, before moving again.
Bragg wanted Van Dorn and Price to strike northward in conjunction with his invasion but allowed them to work out the details. Commanding separate departments, they could not agree on joint plans. Price preferred an advance toward Nashville and perhaps Paducah, while Van Dorn looked toward Memphis and St. Louis. Price captured Iuka, but Grant counterattacked with converging columns under Edward O.C. Ord and William S. Rosecrans. Price narrowly escaped on September 19, his invasion plans foiled. He joined Van Dorn for an attack on Corinth, commanded by Rosecrans, where a savage battle occurred on October 3–4. As at Antietam and Perryville, an indecisive struggle ended with a Confederate retreat.
After repelling the Confederates on three fronts, the Yankees renewed their advances, stalled since spring, in Virginia and in both western subtheaters. As Lincoln perceived the strategic situation, the North needed unrelenting simultaneous offensives against three cities: Richmond to destroy Lee’s army; Chattanooga to protect Kentucky and Tennessee and open the gateway into the South’s interior; and Vicksburg to secure the Mississippi. The president believed McClellan and Buell would never do the hard fighting necessary to achieve these objectives. They feared defeat more than they craved victory, detested emancipation, and, as Lincoln said about McClellan, “did not want to hurt the enemy.” Burnside replaced McClellan, and Rosecrans replaced Buell. The commander in chief made one other change, sending Banks to New Orleans to succeed Butler. The one Army commander who remained in his post was Grant, about whom Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Both Banks and Grant had Vicksburg as their target. Unknown (at least officially) to Grant or Banks, a third force would also converge on the South’s river Gibraltar. In October Lincoln secretly gave John McClernand, one of Grant’s divisional commanders and a powerful prewar Democrat, authority to recruit an army in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. With the assistance of Davis’s gunboats, he would move downriver against Vicksburg.
Although proclaiming his own incapacity for high command, Burnside seemed an admirable choice. Personally brave, he had conquered Roanoke Island and fought at Antietam, where he urged McClellan to renew the battle on September 18. Tragically, he assessed his abilities accurately. When he assumed command, the Union army was at Warrenton. Instead of advancing against Lee’s forces at Culpeper, Burnside proposed an eastward movement to Fredericksburg followed by a drive on Richmond. While Lincoln opposed substituting the capital for Lee’s army as the main objective, he approved the plan. Success depended on rapid marching to sidestep Lee and the timely arrival of pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock. Burnside’s army covered forty miles in two days, leaving Lee temporarily baffled as to its destination. However, unpardonable errors caused by Halleck delayed the pontoons a week. By then Lee had reacted, getting his army into a stout defensive position along a series of ridges west and south of Fredericksburg. On the left, Longstreet held Marye’s Heights; on the right, Jackson’s corps occupied Prospect Hill. Recovered from Antietam, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered 75,000 men.
Burnside’s army, 113,000 strong and divided into grand divisions under Sumner, Hooker, and William B. Franklin, crossed the Rappahannock on December 11–12. Franklin’s division opened the battle on the 13th, temporarily breaching Jackson’s line before a furious counterattack closed the gap. Meanwhile Sumner’s men hurled themselves futilely against Marye’s Heights. With Sumner’s division wrecked, Burnside ordered Hooker to storm the Heights. Hooker, known as “Fighting Joe,” prophetically protested that the task was suicidal, but Burnside would not retract the order, and the Yankees, said Longstreet, “were swept from the field like chaff before the wind.” Darkness finally ended the massacre. In the one-sided killing match the North suffered 12,600 casualties, the South fewer than 5,000. This was not Lincoln’s idea of hard fighting. “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it,” he said when told of the battle’s outcome.
News from the Mississippi River did not elevate Lincoln from the nether world. While McClernand recruited his army and forwarded regiments to Memphis, Grant began an overland advance on Vicksburg. But, suspicious of McClernand’s activities, he requested clarification of his authority. Halleck, who favored professionals over nonprofessionals, replied that Grant had “command of all troops sent to your Department, and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.” Grant immediately ordered Sherman to Memphis, where he commandeered McClernand’s troops and made a riverborne descent to Vicksburg. Both prongs of Grant’s offensive ended badly. Forrest destroyed long stretches of Grant’s main rail line, and on December 20 Van Dorn wrecked his supply base at Holly Springs. His communications with the North broken and deprived of supplies, Grant withdrew to Memphis, abandoning forever any idea of taking Vicksburg by the overland route. The frailty of railroads made prolonged campaigning deep in enemy territory too difficult. Without Grant to worry about, the Confederates easily repulsed Sherman’s assault against Chickasaw Bayou on December 29. Meanwhile, snarled in Louisiana’s administrative problems and confronted by Confederates at Port Hudson, Banks came upriver no farther than Baton Rouge.
Rosecrans also failed to attain his objective, though at least he won a battle. On December 26 his 44,000-man Army of the Cumberland moved from Nashville toward Murfreesboro, where Bragg had concentrated his 36,000-man Army of Tennessee. The night of December 30 found the armies encamped within earshot of each other. Southern bands blared “Dixie,” Federals countered with “Yankee Doodle,” and then one band struck up “Home Sweet Home.” Soon the cedar thickets rang with dozens of bands playing the tune, accompanied by thousands of voices with southern drawls and northwestern twangs. In the morning the killing began. Bragg crumpled the Union right, the combat roar becoming so loud that men paused in midcharge to stuff their ears with cotton plucked from open bolls. Although jackknifed into a tortured position, the Union lines held. Neither side attacked on New Year’s Day, but on the 2d Bragg tried to settle the issue, hitting the Union left. After initial success the attack stalled, and on the evening of the 3d Bragg withdrew to Tullahoma. Approximately one-third of the men on each side were casualties. For the North the Battle of Stones River (or Murfreesboro) helped offset the Fredericksburg disaster and Vicksburg debacle and gave Lincoln a much-needed win to coincide with the official enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1. But the victory was not decisive. Success so mangled Rosecrans’s army that it would remain at Murfreesboro for six months recuperating. Bragg’s army, battered but intact, still blocked the pathway to Chattanooga.
The year of nearly continuous indecisive battles that ended at Stones River proved one point decisively: The war would not be short. Neither side derived comfort from this realization. The North’s inability to make better progress in subduing the South fostered discontent across the political spectrum. Radicals demanded harsher war, while Peace Democrats preached conciliation. Antiwar sentiment was particularly strong in the northwest, where some Democrats came close to treason in their criticism of the administration’s war effort. Actually the North had made considerable progress during the year, especially in the west. When 1861 ended, Union forces were poised along a line from southern Missouri to Cairo and up the Ohio to western Virginia. As 1863 began, Union armies held new positions from northern Arkansas to Memphis, Corinth, and Murfreesboro. Although the Yankees were still at bay, a ripple of defeatism twinged the South. The western territorial losses and the death and maiming of tens of thousands of the Confederacy’s bravest men discouraged even the most resolute rebels. A drastic decline in the home-front standard of living resulting from the twin evils of commodity shortages and monetary inflation fueled the discontent. As the South assessed its prospects for independence, the future was perhaps more discouraging than the past. No one perceived this more clearly than Davis. “Our maximum strength has been mobilized,” he told the secretary of war, “while the enemy is just beginning to put forth his might.”