YET, when war did arise between the states in 1861, it was not many months before it found its focus at Yorktown, exactly at the spot surrendered by the British to Washington eighty years earlier. It is an odd sensation to scramble over Redoubts 9 and 10, now so carefully conserved by the National Park Service and labelled to commemorate the desperate hand-to-hand struggles of the night of 14 October 1781, in the knowledge that the humps and declivities felt under one’s feet may not have been delved by redcoats at all but record the reworking of the British defences by Magruder’s grey-coated soldiers in the spring of 1862. This is bloodied ground, of that there is no doubt; but it is ground twice bloodied, first in the struggle for America’s independence, then in the war to found a more perfect Union; of exactly who did what and when on the double battlefield of Yorktown, the upturned soil gives the visitor no clue at all.
I came to Yorktown in 1992 by a circuitous route, deliberately chosen because I wished to impose discovery of new territory upon old familiarity with places already visited and routes travelled before. I began in Richmond. It was that city which General John Magruder was seeking to defend in the spring of 1862. It had also been my entry point to the South when I started on my great American journey in the summer of 1957. Then it had been Richmond’s Gone with the Wind charm which had left the impression, the pillared severity of the state capitol in its formal gardens, the traces of Federal elegance in the terraces across the square; but I had been in a hurry, hastening on to see the battlefield of Petersburg and to reach the Carolinas, and I saw scarcely more of Richmond than its ceremonial centre. On another, unintended visit, a freak January storm which had closed the airports from Washington southward had driven me on to Trailways and at Richmond snowed me to a dead stop. A midnight trudge through the snow in search of lodging had shown me nothing at all of the city but left the reminder that even in the South a winter campaign could be as harsh as in Pennsylvania.
In 1992 I had leisure to explore. I took my time. It was worth the delay. At St. John’s Church, where in 1775 the firebrand Patrick Henry had made his inflammatory “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, I attended Episcopalian Sunday eucharist. Roman Catholic though I am, I always find myself drawn when abroad to the places of worship and the services of the Anglican Communion. It is the claim, almost part of the creed of the Church of England, that it is the “Church of the English,” and the claim has powerful cultural force. I feel it strongly. I have felt it in the stark and now often desolate Gothic boxes left by the British in their Indian cantonments where stucco peels from the façade and headstones lean at crazy angles in the untended dust of the graveyard. I have felt it in the neat, discreet Victorian All Saints’ and Christ Churches, built for rich summer congregations, to be found in the shadow of the better hotels on the French and Italian rivieras. I have felt it strongly, of all places, in Jerusalem, where the pitch-pine pews, over-coloured stained glass, and lists of former incumbents in St. George’s cause a pang of homesickness I cannot distingush from religious emotion. English Catholicism is deeply English; the echo I catch there of Hymns Ancient and Modern, of the Book of Common Prayer, and of metrical psalms, which all the English of whatever Christian denomination carry in their inner ear, arouses in me a rush of piety that does not come even in Christianity’s most sacred place at the Holy Sepulchre.
At St. John’s the predictable sensations returned. This was almost England. Steep, cobbled, tree-shaded streets of Georgian or Regency houses—Colonial or Federal though Americans might call them—surround a graveyard of old brick, mown grass, and elaborate tombstone inscriptions, and a decent, steepled eighteenth-century church which might stand in any prosperous London suburb, Hampstead or Highgate or Clapham, of equal date. Only the murmur of pigeons and the faint chill cast by shadow on the hottest English day lacked to complete the illusion. Inside the similarities were even more exact: box pews, a three-decker pulpit, and, beside the flags of the United States and the state of Virginia hanging in the apse, those of the colony of Virginia, George III’s United Kingdom, and the Episcopal Church. The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer was recited with dignity, a devout congregation took communion at the altar rails, deeply familiar Anglican hymns were sung at the entry and the recessional. I repeated the words of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in a spirit of heartfelt fellowship with the American Anglicans in the pews beside me.
There was much else that was English about Richmond’s eastern district: terraced housefronts, neat front gardens behind cast-iron railings, high brick walls hiding the sanctuaries of grandees long dead. The atmosphere, if anything, was of the moneyed urban England of my childhood, where families had occupied the same address for generations, neighbours called only with warning and then with ceremony, and the lower social orders intruded but as tradesmen or servants. The atmosphere carried me back in time, but to places I knew very well. When I left East for South Richmond, as I did after Sunday service to head for the Yorktown peninsula, the transition was not from one period of my life to another but between continents. In the streets around St. John’s Church I might have been in some genteel part of my home country; in the wasteland below the James River, I was in Africa. This was not because South Richmond is black, though black it is and poor as well; there are great tracts of poor, black America in the Northern cities which are not African at all but have their highrise, concrete counterparts now, alas, in Europe also. South Richmond, by contrast, instantly recalled to me those endless, shapeless, gap-toothed, onestorey, cinderblock, corrugated, clapboard sprawls which Africans attach as if by cellular redivision to the city centres which the Europeans have planted wherever wealth is to be found in the continent. I have traversed their interminable highways—in South Richmond it is the venerable U.S. 1—in Banjul (formerly Bathhurst) in the Gambia, in Harare (formerly Salisbury) in Zimbabwe, in Nairobi, in Pretoria, and in Johannesburg. It is an unvarying townscape, part bidonville, part open-air market, part salvage dump, part car repair shop, part wayside eating place, part improvised sports field, part terrain vague. It has characteristic features, among which are wide dusty roadside verges, tumbledown fencing between plots, regular succession of half-completed permanent buildings, abandoned in mid-construction for want of money, materials, or municipal permission, an extraordinary variety of eccentrically hand-lettered signs advertising food, entertainment, professional and commercial services, second-hand goods for sale, spare parts, insurance, undertaking, necromancy, beer, lodging, or merely the stray thoughts or observations upon life of residents and bystanders.
A uniform ingredient of the scene both in Africa and in the Southern states is the sectarian, go-it-alone churches—of Antioch, Judah, Jerusalem, God’s Disciples, Bible Christians, True Gospel, Whole Baptism, Testament, Pentecost, Holiness, God in Christ—which promise, within their shanty walls, every variety of religious experience from Coptic episcopacy to the priesthood of all through the gift of tongues. Here is an extraordinary and inexplicable domestic koine, for the ancestors of the black Americans who live in places like South Richmond were kidnapped from Africa long before its modern, suburban sprawls sprang up, while few in modern times have made and returned from a transatlantic crossing. What is the determinant? It cannot be cultural, for black Americans are very American indeed. Perhaps it is climatic; perhaps it is the availability of space, of which both Africans and Americans have more than any other inhabitants of the fertile zones; perhaps, incorrect though the thought is, the determinant is ethnic. Who can say that the preference for the temporary and makeshift, a preference akin to that of Central Asians for the mobile or collapsible, was not something which Africans brought with them in their enforced translation to the Amcricas and which persists? There was so much that was taken from them by their white enslavers and so much which was alien that was imposed. Can it be that their replication of the contemporary African townscape represents an expression of choice, of historical memory, and of that submerged but persistent rebellion against their uprooting which is the abiding legacy of slavery?
The affinities are too obvious to ignore. My route through South Richmond, though my destination was Yorktown, was taking me to the region where slavery in English America began, for in 1619 the first cargo of Africans was imported into the original English foothold on the continent at Jamestown. Jamestown can be reached from Richmond by road. I chose instead to approach it by water, as the English who came to settle had done in 1607, sailing from the Atlantic between Capes Charles and Henry into Chesapeake Bay. I could not retrace that route, but my second-best was still arresting. Leaving Richmond behind—here as almost everywhere in the United States, the abrupt transition from the densely built-up to the deeply rural surprises the European—I drove through farmland and forest along State Route 10 by Burrowville, Spring Grove, and Surry to the ferry at Scotland. A tremendous tropical storm descended as I passed the signposts to tidewater plantations, and the head of the James estuary was still crowned by towering thunderheads as we set off at speed across the channel. I love ferries, take them wherever they can be found, and treasure memories of crossings in the Sea of Marmara from Turkey-in-Europe to Asia, from Gourock across the Clyde to Dunoon, from La Rochelle to the Ile de Ré, from Cyprus to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, from Canakkale to Gallipoli, from Kyle of Lochalsh over the sea to Skye.
The Scotland–Jamestown crossing is but a spit in the wind in the American scale of things but a dramatic maritime excursion for an Englishman across a waterway wider than any found at home. Surely the waterfront cannot much have changed since the Susan Constant, Discovery, or Godspeed nosed their way in from the ocean nearly four hundred years ago? The outline of some enormous industrial construction—power station or refinery—cleaves the horizon away towards Richmond. Nearer at hand and on every side the forest descends unbroken to the shore, blue-green, lush, silent, and mysterious. The mystery deepens within the remains of Jamestown itself. Travel in America accustoms one to the phenomenon of the abandoned place, the town that once was and is no more, but the eeriness of human relinquishment is heightened here by the oldness of what is left: the tower of a church that might rise over any English village, the windowless brick carapace of a gentleman’s mansion, which an inscription records was burnt by Cornwallis’s soldiers in 1781, burnt by Union troops in 1862, burnt by accident in 1895. It had made a stronger effort to survive than most habitations in America from which a settled population had departed to try its luck elsewhere. Jamestown, however, had never had luck on its side. Riverside fevers, failure of crops, and Indian raids had harried its inhabitants near to extinction at times; a ponderous graveside sensation weighs on the visitor as he makes his way from the excavated foundations of one seventeenth-century dwelling house to the next in the narrow grass-sown strip between the encompassing forest and the sodden foreshore of the estuary. Jamestown must always have been, as it certainly now is, oppressed by a feeling of being hemmed in, of subsisting as nothing more than a remote toehold at the extremity of seaborne communication with the Old World. This can never have seemed, as Quebec dramatically looks, the gateway to a continent. It remains what it was when the English debarked, a tidewater backwater, offering neither welcome nor escape. It is not surprising that by 1699 it had fallen into decay and that the Governor of Virginia had migrated to the higher, drier, better surroundings of Williamsburg a few miles inland.
Yet Jamestown discloses one relic for the historian, particularly the military historian, guaranteed to fire the imagination, particularly an imagination attuned to the power of geography in this continent to impose and reimpose fortification at the same spot. Jamestown, of course, had been fortified—against Indians, perhaps also against the Spaniards who roved as far north as the Chesapeake in the sixteenth century and founded a short-lived mission, Ajacan, near or at Jamestown itself—but the fortications fell constantly into decay, as visitors complained in 1610 and 1617. Jamestown’s real strength was that it was almost an island, its strategic significance that it commanded the first good landing at the point where the James River narrows from the sea; hence the Scotland ferry. It was an obvious and necessary spot for the Confederates to fortify again once war came to the Chesapeake in 1862, and they did so. Adjacent to the tower and forlorn unroofed nave of Jamestown’s church stands a typical little Civil War quadrilateral earthwork, much overgrown now, as dank and gloomy as an earthwork of the English Civil War might be if any as well preserved had survived, and testimony both to the topological sense which had caused John Smith and his companions to choose Jamestown Island as a point of entry to America in 1607 and to the determination of the South to defend its capital and heartland against a Union offensive in the aftermath of the easy victories of 1861.
The little Jamestown earthwork opened my eyes. Again, I had not realised before I came to see for myself how militarised the whole of the Yorktown peninsula was, how much fought over, how bloodily contested. The placenames that commonly occur in the military history of this part of Virginia are few: Yorktown, Richmond, Petersburg. I had never heard—I might be excused—of the Jamestown Fort, but less excusably I had never heard either of the battle of Williamsburg, and I made no connection at all between Fortress Monroe, the base and starting point for the northern offensive against Richmond, and Old Point Comfort, which Cornwallis had declined to occupy as a defended place guarding Hampton Roads in 1781. It was time to explore further.
From the causeway that joins Jamestown island to the peninsula I turned westward towards Richmond to survey the countryside through which redcoats and revolutionaries had manoeuvred against each other in the spring and summer of 1781 and McClellan’s men had pushed their way towards the city in May 1862. This road crosses Green Spring Battlefield Park, where Cornwallis turned and savaged Anthony Wayne’s men on 6 July 1781, and then runs alongside the line of great plantations, Sherwood Forest, Westover, Berkeley, Shirley, whose properties stretch down to the banks of the James. These are rich men’s houses, as grand as the grandest manor houses in England, approached by tree-lined avenues, filled with fine eighteenth-century furniture, and surrounded by the extensive outbuildings that go with a large estate in a productive countryside. Two are the residences of Presidents—Tyler at Sherwood Forest, Harrison at Berkeley, which Virginians also claim was the place of the first celebration of Thanksgiving in 1619; it was one of McClellan’s headquarters in 1862, and at it his subordinate, Daniel Butterfield, composed the haunting “Taps,” played every evening at American military posts when the flag is lowered. Less visited—there is an irritating tourist industry atmosphere at Berkeley, birthplace of Robert E. Lee’s mother, where the guides wear colonial dress and lapse into mechanical guidebook patter at the sight of a visitor—is Westover church, half hidden by forest across the meadows from State Route 5. It satisfies all the criteria of the seeker-out of Anglican atmosphere in the Communion’s distant parts: shadowed interior, Georgian gothic round-headed windows, box pews filled with buttoned hassocks, tablets listing the Ten Commandments on each side of the altar, over it the arms of George III of England embroidered on damask under a carved Hanoverian crown. The location is sylvan, secluded, and isolated, yet carefully tended, and the building yields, at the moment of entry, an authentic English village church smell, compounded of mouse droppings, decaying hymnbooks, and sepulchral dust, the universal odour of Anglican sanctity. It was not a surprise to read that it had been vandalised by Union troops in 1862.
The parish was established in 1619, but the church in its present form was brand-new when Cornwallis passed by Westover in 1781 on his way to Point of Fork on the Upper James and then back again to Richmond and Williamsburg. It was thither I turned to follow his route. Williamsburg, rescued from decay and a twentieth-century sort of vandalism by John D. Rockefeller in 1926—a garage in the centre advertised itself by a placard reading TOOT-AN-CUM-IN—is much derided. Purists dismiss it as Disneyland with taste. Certainly there is much that is modern masquerading as old, notably the Governor’s Palace, which is new from the ground up. There is plenty of old Williamsburg, none the less, and that has a used and lived-in look which conveys an authentically colonial feel. The College of William and Mary is, after all, the oldest degree-granting institution in North America after Harvard, has been at work since 1693, and its buildings abut quite naturally on to the restored streets. The brick paths that border them have the same higgledly-piggledy look as those in Gilbert White’s famous vicarage garden at Selborne, where he was writing his Natural History while Williamsburg was a seat of colonial government; the forge, if tidier, is much as I remember blacksmiths’ forges in the West Country of my boyhood, where there are old-fashioned shops today even more cluttered with obsolete saleables in illegibly labelled pigeonholes than their reconstructed lookalikes which line Duke of Gloucester Street at Williamsburg. The interior of the parish church, recovered from crass Victorianisation by the Rev. Dr. Goodwin at the beginning of the century, is heavy with the atmosphere of three hundred years of worship, but its most arresting historical association is with the 1862 battle; after it was over the floor was covered with wounded soldiers brought in from the surrounding fields, including many of the four hundred Confederates too badly injured to be evacuated by the retreating army.
The Confederates had by then already retreated ten miles from their original positions at and south of Yorktown, some of them following the line of the Colonial Parkway, built in the 1930s as a New Deal enterprise to alleviate local unemployment, which links the three historic places, Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Uncluttered by building of any sort, it carries the visitor through towering forest swiftly and rather mysteriously to the site of the British surrender of 1781. Little evidence of that survives; by contrast, there is a moving reminder of another foreign presence, that of the French. The United States has been generous in the tribute it pays to those who helped win its victory. Near Fusiliers’ Redoubt, at the waterside above the York River, are listed the names of the 320 Frenchmen who died in the siege and of the regiments from which they came, Beaujolais, Bourbonnais, Brie, Foix, Gâtinais, Picardie, all historic provinces of France, the Irish emigré regiment of Dillon, and the Royal-Deux-Ponts, whose soldiers’ German names reveal its origins in the border regions won from the Habsburgs in Louis XIV’s wars. For anyone who has visited the military sites of New France, there is an odd feeling of revanche about this quiet little spot, a counterpoint to the poignancy of the memorials on the Plains of Abraham and in the old city of Quebec. “This monument is dedicated to the sailors and soldiers of the French Expeditionary Corps who died for the independence of the United States during the Campaign of Yorktown.” France has, after all, left its military stamp upon the continent, by an act which determined that the British victors of 1763 should not long enjoy their triumph on the St. Lawrence.
The exact site of the French monument is marked by the National Park Service as French Trench, though traces of that earthwork have disappeared. Elsewhere they are meticulously preserved, as is everything in the Service’s care. What a magnificent institution it is, unequalled in the world. I have talked to its young officers—those who meet visitors seem always to be young college graduates—at dozens of places across the United States, from the battleship graveyard at Pearl Harbor to restored Fort Sumter, target of the first bombardment of the Civil War, in the harbour at Charleston. I invariably experience the oddest sensation when I do: that here are the representatives of an organisation most closely akin to one of the colonial services of the vanished British or French Empire. That has something to do with their crisp khaki-drill uniforms, the faint snap of military discipline about their manner and movements, but more with the sense conveyed of their membership of a body with a continental mission, dedicated to the conservation of a cultural empire’s history, human and natural. They might indeed be seen as the Federal government’s district commissioners, for they work often in the country’s wildest places, and as ethnographers, forest officers, archaeologists, geologists, cartographers, exactly as colonial servants did in days of empire.
Great though the achievements of the colonial services were in the sphere of field research and conservation, however, those of the Park Service are far greater in scale and quality. Its battlefield parks in particular surpass all others in the care with which the remains are preserved and explained to the visitor, and Yorktown is an excellent example. I have only one quibble. The Park Service treats it as a battlefield of 1781. There are no references on the ground to the operations of 1862, and so no clues as to how the Confederates reused the old earthworks to make their defences against the Union invasion of the tip of the peninsula. Use them they did, none the less; indeed, Magruder also extended his position across the York River into Gloucester on the opposite point a thousand yards away, just as Cornwallis had done, with the same object of denying the enemy the chance to run shipping up the York towards the head of navigation at West Point, in his war. Magruder’s defences, however, were much more extensive than Cornwallis’s had been. They ran right across the peninsula from Yorktown along the sluggish and swampy Warwick River to reach the James in an area called Mulberry Island. Eight miles in length, they consisted of batteries at each end to command the rivers, rifle pits, and redoubts in between guarding the only two roads that led to Richmond, and a chain of inundations that rendered the valley of the Warwick nearly impassable.
When McClellan saw the obstacle Magruder had constructed, he wrote to his wife for books on the Anglo-French siege of Sebastopol, which had taken place only eight years earlier and at which he had been present as an observer. “I cannot turn Yorktown without a battle,” he explained to a brother officer, “in which I must use heavy artillery and go through the preliminary operations of a siege.” He was correct in his anticipations, but too casual about the difficulties. His army, which had started to debark at the tip of the peninsula on 22 March, began operations against the Yorktown lines on 4 April but did not pass through them until a month later on 4 May. Why had it taken so long? What, more important, was the plan which had brought McClellan to the site of Cornwallis’s surrender in the first place? Why, when North and South confronted each other across hundreds of miles of dry land, from the District of Columbia to the borders of Indiana, had the Union’s chief general decided, as the British had done eighty-six years earlier, to set about reducing rebellion by amphibious invasion?
McClellan’s transhipment of the main Union army from the outskirts of Washington to the shores of Chesapeake Bay a hundred miles southward came about through his desire to strike at “the heart of the enemy’s power in the East.” That, however, is not an explanation of his strategy. “On to Richmond!” had been the cry in Washington in July 1861 and also in McDowell’s army that had marched out of the Union capital towards the Confederacy’s—recently transferred from Montgomery, Alabama—to do battle with Beauregard. The battle—at Manassas Junction on Bull Run Creek, a tributary of the Potomac on which Washington stands—had, however, not gone well. It had ended, indeed, in Confederate victory. The North, stronger in every way, in numbers, in industry, in agricultural production, in liquid wealth, in extent of territory, suddenly found itself not on the offensive but the defensive. It was Washington, not Richmond, that was at risk after Bull Run, and the Confederates were to sustain the threat for the next eight months, not only by keeping an army in being within thirty miles of Washington but by cheekily closing the Potomac’s outlet to Chesapeake Bay with batteries sited downstream at Occoquan and Aquia creeks; they even interdicted upstream navigation by keeping hold of Leesburg, not only a river town but also the terminus of the railway from Alexandria, Washington’s twin city, in the Potomac Valley. At a time when rivers were still as important as the novel railways as means of communication, the two often sharing routes for railway engineering reasons, the South thus blocked the Federal capital’s access both to the Chesapeake, its outlet to the Atlantic, and to the head of the Shenandoah Valley, the great strategic corridor which marches parallel to the fertile and settled lowlands of Maryland and northern Virginia, the cockpit of the Civil War.
At the very outset, therefore, the South had disrupted the North’s opening, overall, and long-term strategy, which was to gain control of the Confederacy’s seaward and internal borders—roughly the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers—and then to crush it by concentric offensives. This “Anaconda” strategy, as it was called, was conceived by General Winfield Scott, victor of the war against Mexico of 1846–48 and general-in-chief at the outset of the War Between the States. Its attraction to the government of President Abraham Lincoln was that it promised to be relatively bloodless, a major consideration when the Union lacked troops and, besides, still hoped to end the conflict by reconciliation rather than slaughter. In April 1861 the army of the United States numbered only sixteen thousand and it was largely deployed in the Far West, garrisoning the forts which protected the settlers who were already making their way across the Mississippi or Missouri to claim “free” land in Indian territory. North and South were urgently raising larger armies, and in both regions there were numbers of pre-war volunteer units—Zouaves, Blues, Grays—which could be put into the field. Until armies of hundreds rather than tens of thousands could be enlisted, equipped, and trained, however, conventional campaigning in the European style was beyond the power of either contestant. Hence the attraction of the Anaconda Plan to the North. It had other advantages. Though a third of the United States’ regular officers had “gone with their states,” so effectively joining the Confederacy, almost the whole of the navy remained under Federal control, and so did some of the key coastal fortifications, including Fortress Monroe at Old Point Comfort on the Yorktown peninsula, Forts Taylor and Jefferson at Key West off the tip of Florida, and Fort Pickens at the north of Pensacola Bay, near Mobile, Alabama; giant brick or masonry mastodons of the Third System, built at enormous expense between 1815 and 1860 (Fort Jefferson was still incomplete), they were designed to resist siege for fifteen to fifty days. The makings of a maritime squeeze on the Confederacy thus lay to hand, once the navy could organise itself to impose a blockade of the South’s major points of seaboard entry at Chesapeake Bay, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.
In retrospect, the Anaconda Plan can be seen as an equivalent of those earlier strategies, devised by the French against the English, by the British and the American colonists against the French, and by the British against the American revolutionaries, to use the geography of the continent as a means of imposing control over one of its regions. France at the end of the seventeenth century set out to confine the English to the Atlantic seaboard by using its ownership of the St. Lawrence, Great Lakes, and Mississippi water chain as an ultimate stop line, from which its own troops and Indian allies could mount short-range offensives along the subsidiary rivers—Richelieu, Mohawk, Ohio—to harass the outlying settlements and check attempts by the much more numerous colonists of New England, New York, and Virginia to acquire land on their northern and western borders; within the water chain, they had counted on their familiarity with what would be called “the Old Northwest” to block the gaps through the Appalachians, thus ensuring that the English colonies would remain coastal enclaves, without access to the riches of the interior.
French strategy had failed for two reasons: want of numbers—of both settlers and soldiers—to match those in the English colonies and want of sufficient naval strength to hold the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the “gateway to a continent,” and to carry war against Britain’s naval bases in Nova Scotia, New England, and New York. As a result, the immensely strong geographical position of New France had been reduced piecemeal, first by the British capture of Louisbourg in 1758, then by the “rolling up” of the St. Lawrence line, via the Mohawk and the Richelieu, finally by Wolfe’s amphibious attack on Quebec, culminating in his victory on the Plains of Abraham.
British strategy between 1776 and 1781 reverted to that pursued by the French during King William’s, Queen Anne’s, and King George’s wars, with the difference that command of the sea, exercised for most of the War of the Revolution by the Royal Navy, conferred advantages that France had not then enjoyed. Britain’s hope was that through the use of the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes line, which it continued to control, attacks could be mounted into the hinterland of the rebellious colonies, that New England and New York in particular could be separated from the rest by bisection along the Hudson–Lake Champlain–Richelieu route and that, from strong sea-supplied bases in the coastal cities—Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah—their armies of regulars could bring the amateur Continental troops to battle, defeat them, and reduce the Revolution step by step. The strategy was absolutely correct but failed for reasons which the French would have recognised all too well, and for others particular to circumstances. Want of numbers was paramount. Though the British troops always exceeded their enemies in quality, they could rarely achieve preponderance at a decisive point, and they were often too weak absolutely to exercise power over the enormous distances at which the sheer scale of North America required them to operate. Thus the advantages conferred by their possession of Canada were negated by their inability both to protect it and to find an offensive surplus with which to strike down the strategic corridors into the American rear. On the contrary, it was the Americans—Benedict Arnold in his Kennebec River expedition to Quebec in 1775, Arnold again on the Mohawk in 1777, George Rogers Clark by his penetration to the Mississippi in 1778–79—who showed the initiative in the great spaces of the interior, where the British were never at home. When they did attempt a long-range expedition, by General Burgoyne down the Lake Champlain route in 1777, American superiority in warfare “American-style”—earlier it would have been called “Indian”—brought the enterprise to a halt.
Britain’s determination to retain the great colonial seaports failed also for want of numbers. Its army in America was strong enough, when supported by the Royal Navy, to hold two or three at the same time—New York, Charleston, and Savannah, for example, in 1780–81—but never all six of the key points together. As a result, the blockade was never impermeable, which meant that George Washington had always had an open doorway to the sea at one or more points—Boston after 1776, Newport, Rhode Island, as well after 1779—through which supplies and eventually French troops could be landed to join him. Throughout the Revolutionary War, moreover, he had played against the British the technique earlier employed by the French to confine their enemies to the Atlantic seaboard by use of a natural obstacle. Theirs was the line of the Appalachians; Washington, operating east of the Appalachians on the coastal levels, had sheltered behind the Delaware and the little tributaries of the Hudson, the Raritan, and the Passaic, rivers which provided cover for his base camps and for his evasive marching and countermarching that held the British at bay and occasionally exposed them to surprise attack, as at Trenton and Princeton. It was at best a delaying, not a war-winning strategy; but when in 1781 the Royal Navy temporarily lost control of American waters to the French, at a moment when the British generals’ want of numbers ashore had also lost them control of almost all of the interland, the pieces suddenly fell into Washington’s hand. The natural boundaries of the theatre of operations and most of its entry points—the Mohawk and Hudson corridors, Boston, Newport, the mouth of the Chesapeake—were in the Americans’ hands or commanded by their French allies. The British zone had effectively been bisected, in that Clinton in New York could not come to the rescue of Cornwallis at Yorktown at the critical juncture. The result was that their war for America fell apart in their fingers.
It might have been, if reflected upon, a promising augury for the Union, which in 1861 occupied a position not unakin to that held by Washington’s armies in 1780. True, the British had then retained their New York stronghold. New York State, New England, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, however, had been cleared, the Ohio and Illinois country was American, and only the Carolinas and Georgia were under British control; Virginia was disputed territory. A sort of Anaconda was working, therefore, to Washington’s advantage, and, when French sea power came into play on his side, the vice would be closed. Since, in 1861, the Union also dominated Ohio and Illinois, absolutely controlled New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had a foothold in Virginia and enjoyed as a given the naval superiority only brought to Washington by the retreat of the Royal Navy from American waters in the summer of 1781, it might have seemed that the South’s position was too precarious to be maintained.
Against the analogy of 1780, however, might be argued that of 1812–14, when the British had attempted to break into what would become the territory of the Confederacy—in retaliation for the United States’ efforts to break into Canada by the familiar river and lake routes—by amphibious expedition and had failed at the points of entry. True, they had burnt the city of Washington, but they had been deterred by Baltimore’s defences and at New Orleans had suffered a resounding defeat. All this implied that the Confederacy would be a tough nut to crack. Careful analysis reinforced the impression. Geographically the Confederacy was very strong indeed, commanding magnificent natural frontiers. Admittedly it was, industrially, commercially, and demographically, at a severe disadvantage to the Union: its white population was only 5.5 million, while the North’s was 22 million; its railway density was half that of the North’s; in 1860 it had produced only 3 per cent of the nation’s firearms, 6 per cent of its cloth, and overall only one-ninth of the whole United States’ industrial output, all the rest coming from the burgeoning factories of the twenty-two Northern states. Commercially, moreover, it depended for income upon the export of cotton and tobacco, into markets which were closed to it in the North by the war itself and in the outside world by blockade or embargo, not effective at the outset but threatening eventually to be very constricting indeed.
On the other hand, while the Confederate landmass offered four avenues of strategic penetration to its Northern neighbour, none was an easy option. On the Atlantic and Gulf coasts the same difficulties presented themselves to the Union as they had to the British in the War of 1812–14, notably the fortified closure of the lower Mississippi at New Orleans. In the interior, meanwhile, a chain of Confederate strongpoints on the upper Mississippi and its dependent rivers, particularly the Cumberland and Tennessee, blocked ingress from the states of Indiana and Illinois. North Carolina and Kentucky appeared to offer a gap east of the Mississippi which led into the Southern heartland, bypassing Virginia; but no north–south railways ran that way, indeed no railways at all, and few navigable north–south rivers either. On the contrary, the region was blocked off from the North by the diagonal line of the Appalachians, rough, unpopulated terrain and a formidable defence to the “low country” of the Carolinas and Georgia, offering few gaps, as the French, British, and colonial Americans had all found in their time, for movement either towards the great internal basin or, more important, to the North and towards the Atlantic seaboard.
“On to Richmond,” the easy slogan of the summer of 1861, had not therefore been a false exhortation after all. Given the closure of the coasts, the closure of the Mississippi, and the obstacle of the Appalachians, the only geographically open frontier between North and South indeed lay in the narrow strip between the Shenandoah Mountains and the Potomac, scarcely fifty miles wide. It was not after all so surprising that a trifling stream like Bull Run—crossed in one second today by a commuter’s car on Route 66 in or out of the District of Columbia—could, if defended stoutly by patriotic Southerners under generals like Joseph E. Johnston and Stonewall Jackson, close definitively the North’s main axis of advance into the South’s enormous territory. Enormous it was; with a coastline almost 2,500 miles long, from Chesapeake Bay to the Mexican border, an east-west span of 1,500 miles, and a north–south depth of 600 miles, the Confederacy had a land area of 750,000 square miles, as large as that of modern France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain combined. As a military commentator writing in The Times of London in 1861 remarked, the North’s task, if it espoused an offensive, was to “reduce and hold in permanent subjection a tract of country nearly as large as Russia in Europe.” He went on to conclude that “just as England during the revolution had to give up conquering the colonies so the North will have to give up conquering the South.”
Not only did the South have strong natural frontiers. Its interior also presented a complex of geographical difficulties to an invader from almost any direction. There was, first of all, the railway problem. Though 30,000 miles of track had been laid within the United States by 1860, more than 20,000 miles of that ran in Northern territory. There, moreover, it formed several large east–west trunk systems, in particular those from Boston to Chicago via Buffalo, Toledo, and Detroit on the Great Lakes, from New York and Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on the Forks of the Ohio, and thence to Chicago again, and from Philadelphia to Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri, where the Missouri and Illinois rivers join the Mississippi. Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburg, and St. Louis, all former French fur-trading and strategic ports, are familiar from the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Southward from the trunk routes, however, there were few branches into the Confederacy and none which formed trunk routes. The only useful connections were at Louisville, Kentucky, from which lines ran down to the Tennessee cities of Nashville and Memphis, and at Washington, D.C., from which the line ran to Richmond and then to Wilmington—Cornwallis’s bolthole in 1780—in North Carolina. The South’s railways served the South only; that they did so inadequately was no help to the Union. Not until it could get an army to Chattanooga or Atlanta in the South’s heartland would it be in a position to dominate the Confederate network and turn its use to its own purposes; and that eventuality was not to occur, after much bloody fighting, until the very end of 1863.
Then there was the road problem. A scheme for a system of national highways had been drawn up as early as 1808, the “Gallatin Plan,” but cost always impeded its realisation and, with the coming of the railways, the need for long-distance communication by road, still a medium for the foot traveller or riding, pack, or draught animal alone, was overtaken. Lengths of National Turnpike, linking Washington with St. Louis and the state of Maine with Georgia, existed, but there were long gaps, to say nothing of execrable surfaces. Moreover, roads were still conceived as part of an internal waterway-portage system, harking back to the wilderness days of the eighteenth century. Roads commonly served “heads of navigation” on the rivers, as indeed local railways did, rather than superimposing their own long-distance pattern of communications on geography, as expected by the traveller today.
As a result, there were no strategic avenues of advance by road leading into the Confederacy open to the Union in 1861, nor would there be any throughout the course of the war. That state of affairs invested the alternative communications medium of internal waterways with the greatest importance, since the steamboat was in many ways superior to the steam train as a long-distance carrier, while the ramifications of the Missouri–Mississippi–Ohio river system offered a multitude of branchings that penetrated the Confederacy from many directions; many, moreover, had been improved by canalisation before 1860 and had been interconnected by canal construction. Once again, however, detailed analysis revealed that the majority of long-distance water routes—the Erie Canal linking Albany with Buffalo in New York, the Wabash and Erie Canal linking the Ohio River with the Great Lakes, the Illinois and Michigan Canal linking Chicago with the Mississippi—lay in Union territory. There were four canals in the South, but the Southern rivers, the Mississippi itself excepted, were all short for navigational purposes; only the Cumberland and the Tennessee, tributaries of the Ohio and so of the Mississippi also, reach for any useful distance, and they terminated for purposes of navigation at Nashville and Chattanooga respectively. The waterway map revealed in consequence that an enormous area of the Confederacy, embracing most of the upcountry of Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Virginia, could not be reached by water or indeed by railway or road. This area formed what might be called a National Redoubt, irreducible by any offensive effort that the North might contemplate directing against it.
So, “On to Richmond”; but how? That was the burning question in Washington in the summer of 1861, in the aftermath of the humiliating setback at Manassas thirty miles to the south. Far away in the west, the Union was opening a campaign at St. Louis on the Mississippi and Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio which, by January 1862, would put the formidable but as yet unknown Ulysses S. Grant into action at Cairo, where the Ohio and Mississippi join. It would be the start of a campaign that would open up the head of the Mississippi to a long-range Union offensive, culminating eighteen months later in the victory of Vicksburg and the extension of the North’s control along the whole length of the river from New Orleans, which Commodore Farragut would capture in 1862, to Memphis, Tennessee. That triumph was unanticipated and unforeseeable in the months after Bull Run. The war appeared to have its focus on the doorsteps of the national capital, not in the interior of the United States, and what President Lincoln, his government, Congress, and Northern public opinion demanded was a scheme of things that would begin to beat the Confederate Army of northern Virginia back to its starting place. What form should such a scheme take?
The South itself had determined that the North’s response to secession should be offensive or invasive through its own aggressive conduct at the opening of the war. Reason argued for a different Southern strategy altogether. Given the Confederacy’s strong natural frontiers, enormous size, and intermittent connection with the national communication system, there were the best of reasons for standing on the defensive, guarding the key points of northern Virginia, the head of the Mississippi, New Orleans, and the Cumberland or Tennessee rivers, while building up a navy to protect the coastline and interrupt blockade, and at the same time pressing by sober diplomacy for recognition abroad. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, seems at the outset to have sympathised with this Fabian approach, which would have used time as a weapon and worked towards disheartening the Union while accustoming the outside world to the existence of two Anglo-Saxon Americas rather than one alone. Confederate Fabianism, Professor James McPherson has suggested in his magnificent history of the war, was defeated for two reasons, both of which bit at the start: the first was strong political and public opposition within the seceding states to the exposure of any part of Confederate territory to a Union offensive; as a result, available troop strength was dispersed in small armies at a variety of points, including the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, not all of which were threatened at the outset. The second was Southern hubris; Southerners, with some reason, thought themselves a warrior people, to whom a strategy of wait-and-see was an indignity. Persuaded that they could beat any number of Yankees in fair fight, they sought battle in the belief that favourable decision must flow from it. “The idea of waiting for blows, instead of inflicting them,” the Richmond Examiner declared in September 1861, “is altogether unsuited to the genius of our people. The aggressive policy is the truly defensive one. A column pushed forward into Pennsylvania or Ohio is worth more to us, as a defensive measure, than a whole tier of seacoast batteries from Norfolk to the Rio Grande.”
There was a confusion of purpose here; the South could not at the same time stage successful offensives and protect its whole perimeter: “he who defends everything,” Frederick the Great had said, “defends nothing.” During 1861–62 it did mount a series of successful offensives and counteroffensives, at Manassas, at Ball’s Bluff on the Potomac above Washington, at Wilson’s Creek far away in the west, and, above all, in the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson bemused, bamboozled, and consistently beat his Northern opponents in the months April–June 1862. Meanwhile, however, the North was accumulating solid, strategic gains around the South’s water frontiers precisely because of the Confederate want of those “seaboard batteries”—though of effective naval strength also—whose value the Richmond Examiner had comprehensively dismissed. The gains were not the outcome of any tit-for-tat policy of retaliation, but a function of the maritime element of the Anaconda Plan. Impermeable blockade required more ships than the United States Navy could hope to find at the outset, though it added to their number by every means possible—building, requisition, conversion—throughout 1861–62. It also required active means to close the point of navigable entry into the Confederacy’s 3,500 miles of coastline; they included “ten major ports and 180 inlets, bays and river mouths,” Professor McPherson has calculated. It was these on which the North set about laying its hand during 1861–62.
Its first success came in August 1861 at Cape Hatteras, South Carolina, and it was of great significance. America’s Atlantic coast is a surprise to Europeans, particularly to those from western Britain and France, who expect the edge of a continent to end in steep cliffs descending abruptly to the sea. Between Maine and Florida there are scarcely any cliffs at all, only dunes, swamps, and forested lowlands against which tidewater laps, a coast often separated from the ocean itself by chains of offshore islands. The gradual transition from dry land to the deep is particularly marked off the northern coast of North Carolina, which lies behind a chain of barrier islands and is approachable by large ships only through the gap at Cape Hatteras. By securing the Cape, it could be seen, some two hundred miles of Confederate coastline might be sterilised against military use; on 29 August a Northern amphibious force battered the Cape’s half-completed forts, Clark and Hatteras, into surrender and so achieved that purpose.
In November the success was repeated at Port Royal, south of Charleston, South Carolina, where two Confederate forts protected the entrance to the largest natural harbour on the Atlantic coat. It had not been developed commercially, for it lacked a navigable river connection with the interior, but it made a fine anchorage for blockade runners and would do, conversely, for Union ships on blockading duty. Again, the defences were overcome in a single day’s bombardment, and another stretch of coastline was thus denied to Confederate use. The process continued. Ship Island, between Mobile and New Orleans, had been captured in September. In January 1862, General Ambrose Burnside led an amphibious expedition to Roanoke Island, the site of the abortive English settlement of the sixteenth century north of Cape Hatteras, overcame resistance, took control of Albemarle Sound, which provided Richmond with an alternative exit to the Atlantic, and went on to capture all its ports and those in Pamlico Sound behind Cape Hatteras as well, including Beaufort and New Bern, the latter of extra importance because from there rail links led into the interior. Finally, in April, Union sailors and soldiers achieved the most remarkable of all these seizures of coastal strongholds in their attack on Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River. The fortress, built from 1829 onwards, was one of the monsters of the Third System, specially reinforced in rear with giant timber baulks to help absorb the shock of shot striking the outer face of its immensely thick walls. This enormously expensive method of construction proved no use at all against the North’s newly developed rifled artillery. In two days, ten batteries set up on an adjoining island—they were named for such leading Union generals as Grant, Sherman, Burnside, Halleck, and McClellan—and firing at ranges of up to three thousand yards, broke the carapace open, while shells from heavy mortars devastated the interior. Local Confederate forces lacked both the artillery to counter-bombard and landing craft to launch troops against the Union gunners. The operation was a perfect demonstration of the North’s amphibious freedom of action which, by this offensive, completed its acquisition of a chain of coastal footholds and protected anchorages running from Fortress Monroe at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to Mobile in the estuary of the Alabama River. At the outset of the amphibious campaign, the United States Navy had retained only two Southern bases from which to conduct a blockade, Fortress Monroe and the offshore island of Key West. By its end, it was the South which was left with only two Atlantic ports, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, the pivots of Cornwallis’s campaign before Yorktown eighty years earlier.
The North’s amphibious offensive was not maritime alone. It was riverine as well; the logic of North American geography, which had determined so much of the course of the continent’s earlier wars, impressed itself on the strategy of the Civil War at an early stage. While Fort Pulaski was coming under attack on the Atlantic coast, Commodore David Farragut, who would become the North’s foremost admiral, was launching another amphibious assault on the two great Third System works at the mouth of the Mississippi, Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Unlike Pulaski, these were not battered into submission, but boldly bypassed in a night attack after days of bombardment; when Farragut reached the city of New Orleans the following day, 25 April, he debarked marines to seize it while the garrison of the forts mutinied and surrendered. The fall of New Orleans was a crippling blow to the Southern war effort, not so much because it closed another exit to the sea, though that was bad enough, but because it positioned a Northern striking force at the entry to the Confederacy’s largest internal axis of manoeuvre. Scott’s Anaconda Plan required the bisection of the South along the line of the Mississippi, chiefly to deprive the cotton and tobacco states to the east—the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia—of the livestock resources of Texas and Arkansas. An ancillary outcome of such a bisection, however, would be to provide the North with a line of departure from the eastern bank of the great river—at the railheads of Memphis and Vicksburg and along such tributaries and sub-tributaries as the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, which led into the Southern heartland from the western direction—from which a succession of parallel offensives could be securely mounted.
These offensives had already begun when Farragut seized New Orleans, largely thanks to the initiative of the unknown Ulysses S. Grant, a disgraced West Pointer to whom the Civil War had offered the chance to remake his military career. The North’s desperate need for trained officers brought him the colonelcy of a volunteer Illinois regiment; his efficiency in command of it rapidly elevated him to lead a brigade. Grant had an extraordinary interest in topography—his private store of maps had been called into use during the Mexican War of 1846–48 to supply a lack at headquarters—and an uncanny eye for country, which he could read as if by feel; “I will take no backward step” was one of his favourite remarks, and he would usually choose to ride his way through a wilderness to his objective after a false start rather than begin again. He seems to have deciphered the strategic geography of the western theatre at a glance. Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate commander of the Western Military Department, had fixed upon Columbus, Kentucky, as the key to his theatre. It stands on the Mississippi just below the confluence with the Ohio and not far from the points where the Ohio is joined by the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Where those two are at their closest he had built two forts, Henry and Donelson, to block any Northern penetration downriver, while at Columbus on the Mississippi itself he had constructed a “Gibraltar of the West.” The importance of this cordon of forts lay in its denial to the Union not only of the water routes leading southward, but of the southerly rail connections as well, particularly the long lateral route running parallel to the front between Memphis on the Mississippi and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the spurs from it which led to Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Corinth, Mississippi, and Decatur, Alabama.
Grant, on his own initiative, thrust a wedge into this cordon in September 1861 by seizing Paducah, where the Tennessee joins the Ohio; then, after, winning a small diversionary battle at Belmont in Missouri, he addressed himself to the main issue, Confederate control of the Ohio–Mississippi river system. His superior was Henry Halleck, whose headquarters were at St. Louis, far upstream; Halleck’s jealousy of his fellow general Don Carlos Buell, based at Louisville on the Ohio, and his own wait-and-see attitude deterred him from action; “too much haste will ruin everything,” he told Lincoln in January 1862 when urged to get a move on. Grant needed no such urging. During January he talked Halleck into letting him and the commander of the river flotilla of armoured gunboats, Andrew Foote, embark on an offensive against Forts Henry and Donelson by land and water. Steamboats brought Grant’s troops to Fort Henry on the Tennessee; Foote’s ironclads bombarded it from the river. On 6 February, the garrison fled overland to Fort Donelson, only twelve miles away on the Cumberland. By 14 February, Foote had got four of his gunboats, which had to steam up the Tennessee to the Ohio before steaming down the Cumberland to the scene of action, in position, and their fire, concerted with that of the army, quickly brought the Confederate commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner, to ask for terms. There had been hard fighting and he thought himself entitled to fair treatment, all the more because he had helped Grant with money during Grant’s dog days ten years earlier. His old comrade coldly replied that “no terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted,” thus bringing Confederate resistance to an end, winning a name for himself as “unconditional surrender” Grant, and implanting an abiding ethic in the American style of making war.
This loss of Forts Henry and Donelson broke Albert Sidney Johnston’s western cordon apart, unlocked the Cumberland and Tennessee system to the Union, and led in short order to the abandonment of the “Gibraltar of the West” at Columbus, guarding the upper reaches of the Mississippi, and to the capture on 8 April of its subordinate downstream fortress at Island No. 10. Union progress was now relentless. Fort Pillow, further downstream, was abandoned in the face of the Union’s river flotilla on 4 June; two days later Memphis, one of the largest cities on the Mississippi and the junction of three railroads, fell too. On 25 May the Confederates had also been forced to abandon Corinth, the rail centre on the track midway between Memphis and Chattanooga, thus leaving the flanks of the Appalachians as the only barrier against the advance of the Union’s western armies into the heartland of the Confederacy; as Nashville, the state capital of Tennessee, had fallen to Don Carlos Buell without a fight on 23 February, almost the whole of Kentucky and Tennessee—that land beyond the Cumberland Gap which Daniel Boone had roamed in the 1770s—had passed under Union control.
The only check to the Union’s steamroller advance into what had formed so much of the Old Northwest had been imposed in early April at a tiny place called Shiloh, far down the Tennessee River, known to the Confederates as Pittsburg Landing. There Grant, in the first great battle of his career, had won a victory, but at terrible cost. Believing after his string of successes that he had the Confederates on the run, he prepared to attack Albert Sidney Johnston without making allowance for the possibility that Johnston might be preparing to attack him. That, however, was the case, for Johnston had determined to protect the rail centre of Corinth at all costs. On 6 April he took Grant by surprise in the broken, wooded, and swampy country around the isolated Shiloh church—a nightmare landscape for a general, since small creeks and streams cut through it from a dozen directions—panicked many of his soldiers, inflicted heavy losses, and threatened to reverse the whole course of the western campaign thus far. It was only because Grant kept his nerve, took advantage of the defensive opportunities this un-chosen battlefield offered, used the artillery in his gunboats to bombard the Southern positions, and committed his reserves correctly on the second day of battle that he was able to retrieve the situation. On the evening of 7 April, Johnston decided to withdraw, but he had so exhausted Grant’s army that it was unable to follow. When the casualties were counted, they were found to total nearly twice those suffered in all the major battles of the war yet fought.
Geography and logistics had worked to the North’s advantage up to that point. What Shiloh made clear was that as the North more closely approached those regions of the Confederacy for which it had to fight if it were to survive, guts on the battlefield rather than skill at the map table would bring decision. The South would fight desperately in Tennessee to hold the barrier of the Appalachians against the Union’s western armies: that was to be proved on the Stones River campaign, at the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga in 1863, and in Hood’s madcap counteroffensive towards Franklin and Nashville in 1864. It was to be proved more immediately on the Mississippi. Farragut’s seizure of New Orleans in April 1862, which postdated Grant’s bloody victory at Shiloh, led swiftly to the capture of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital, and the beautiful riverside resort of Natchez, but thereafter progress up the Mississippi was checked. In June Farragut got up to Vicksburg, but artillery on the high riverside bluff there prevented him from establishing a proper link with Foote’s gunboats which had come down to the city via Memphis; a locally constructed Confederate ironclad, CSS Arkansas, temporarily won local command of the river and Farragut retreated downstream to await a Union success on land. There were to be several diverse attempts, including the cutting of a canal at the neck of the Mississippi loop on which Vicksburg stands, but none succeeded. Right into the summer of 1863 Vicksburg was to stand as an apparently impregnable fortress on the great river, frustrating all efforts by Sherman and Grant to take the city or bypass it to east or west. Geography—the meanders of the Mississippi and its tributaries, its commanding bluffs and its impenetrable swamps—had here worked to the Confederacy’s full advantage.
Vicksburg was eventually to be brought to capitulate. In the spring of 1862, however, that outcome lay over a year in the future. When Lincoln contemplated the strategic situation of the Union at the beginning of April, he could form only the following picture, by no means a wholly gloomy one but conforming patchily to the Anaconda Plan of the early months of the war.
In the west, thanks to Grant’s initiative, the head of the Ohio–Cumberland–Tennessee river system was under Union control and a start had been made at using those waterways to penetrate the state of Tennessee, threaten the Chattanooga–Memphis rail link, and menace upper Alabama and Mississippi. In the Gulf, the ports of Mobile and Pensacola—where Fort Pickens had been held for the Union from the outset—were under Federal control, while Farragut was about to begin his successful assault on the mouth of the Mississippi. Along the Atlantic coast, all major ports, harbours, inlets, estuaries, and fortresses were in Northern hands and denied to Confederate use, except for Charleston and Wilmington in the Carolinas. Chesapeake Bay was stoppered by a Federal presence at Fortress Monroe, while the United States Navy, though it could not intercept all blockade runners, commanded the eastern seaboard. The isolation of the South from the outside world seemed, therefore, to be well under way. The North did not look to be at risk of attack, as long as the line of the Potomac River could be held secure. The Confederates had retreated generally to the parallel Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers forty miles to the south. McClellan’s arguments that he should be allowed to transfer the army by sea from Washington and Alexandria for an attack on Richmond, though they had alarmed Lincoln from the start, at length prevailed. Beginning on 22 March 1862, McClellan set about shipping 100,000 men, 300 pieces of artillery, and 25,000 animals in 400 transports down Chesapeake Bay to the tip of the peninsula between the York and James rivers, guarded by Fortress Monroe at Old Comfort Point. This spur of rich, old-settled land would henceforth in American military history become “the Peninsula.”