IRVIN MCDOWELL HAD COME A LONG WAY since he said to Sherman on the White House steps in April, “You should have asked for a brigadier general’s rank. You’re just as fit for it as I am.” Now perhaps not even Sherman, still a colonel, commanding a brigade in his fellow Ohioan’s army, would have replied as he did then. A West Pointer, in his early forties—he and Beauregard had been classmates—McDowell was six feet tall and heavy-set, with dark brown hair and a grizzled beard worn in the French style. He had attended military school in France and later spent a year’s leave of absence there, so that, in addition to wearing a distinctive beard, he was one of the few regular army officers with a first-hand knowledge of the classical tactics texts, mostly French. His manner was modest and friendly in the main, but this was marred from time to time by a tendency to be impulsive and dogmatic in conversation, which offended many people. Some were appalled as well by his gargantuan appetite, one witness telling how he watched in dismay while McDowell, after a full meal, polished off a whole watermelon for dessert and pronounced it “monstrous fine!” He had a strong will along certain lines, as for instance in his belief that alcohol was an evil. Once when his horse fell on him and knocked him out, the surgeon who tried to administer some brandy found his teeth so firmly clamped that they could not be pried apart, and McDowell was proud that, even unconscious, he would not take liquor.
Now, indeed, marching at the head of an army whose fitness for testing under fire he himself had doubted, he had need to clamp his teeth still tighter and call on all his self-control. Since setting out, prodded into motion by a civilian President who discounted the unpreparedness by remarking that the men of both armies were “green alike”—which did not at all take into account that one of them (McDowell’s) would be required to execute a tactical march in the presence of the enemy—he had watched his fears come true. While congressmen and other members of Washington society, some of them accompanied by ladies with picnic hampers, harried the column with buggies and gigs, the troops went along with the lark, lending the march the holiday air of an outing. They not only broke ranks for berry-picking; they discarded their packs and “spare” equipment, including their cumbersome cartridge boxes, and ate up the rations intended to carry them through the fighting.
Re-issuing ammunition and food had cost him a day of valuable time, in addition to the one already lost in wretched marching, and now as he spent another day with his army brought up short at Centerville while he explored the roads and fords leading down to and across Bull Run, where the rebels were improving their position, the worst of his fears was rumored to be fact: Johnston had reached Manassas, leaving Patterson holding the bag out in the Valley. As he rose before daylight Sunday morning, having completed his reconnaissance, issued the orders for attack, and eaten his usual oversized supper the night before, it was no wonder he was experiencing the discomfort of an upset digestion. Even McDowell’s iron stomach had gone back on him, cramping his midriff with twinges of pain and tightening the tension on his nerves.
Despite the twinges as he waited for the roar of guns to announce that the attack was rolling, there was confidence in his bearing. He felt that his tactical plan, based as it was on careful preparations, was a sound one. A study of the map had shown a battlefield resembling a spraddled X. Bull Run flowed from the northwest to the southeast to form one cross-member; Warrenton Turnpike ran arrow straight, southwest-northeast, to form the other. The stream was steep-banked, dominated by high ground and difficult to cross except at fords above and below a stone bridge spanning the run where the turnpike intersected it. McDowell had planned to attack on the left, that flank affording the best approach to Richmond; but when reconnaissance showed that the fords below the bridge were strongly held by rebel infantry and artillery, he looked to his right. Upstream, out the western arm of the X, he found what he was seeking. Cavalry patrols reported good crossings lightly held in that direction: one at Sudley Springs, all the way out the western arm, and another about halfway out. Both were suitable for wheeled vehicles, the troopers reported, which meant that the main effort, launched by way of these two crossings, could be supported by the superior Federal artillery. Now McDowell had his attack plan, and he committed it to paper.
Of his four divisions, each with about 8000 men, two would demonstrate against the run, while the other two executed a turning movement against the Confederate left flank. The First Division, under Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, would move “toward the stone bridge … to feint the main attack upon this point.” The Fourth Division, under Colonel D. S. Miles, would be held in reserve near Centerville, at the tip of the eastern arm of the X, but one of its brigades would make a “false attack” on Blackburn’s Ford, halfway down the eastern leg and midway between Centerville and Manassas. As the Second and Third Divisions, under Colonels David Hunter and S. P. Heintzelman, having made their turning movement and launched their attack, swept down the south bank of the stream, crumpling the Confederate line of battle, they would uncover the bridge and the fords, permitting the First and Fourth Divisions to cross the run and strengthen the main effort with fresh troops. This time there were no admonitions as to what would “not be pardonable”; the troops were to drive right through, with more of savagery than caution. Richmond lay beyond the roll of the southern horizon.
Sound as the plan was, it was also complicated, involving two feints by half the army and a flank attack by the other half, with the main effort to be made at right angles to the line of advance. McDowell knew that much depended on soldierly obedience to orders. Yet his commanders were regulars, and despite their clumsy performance on the long march, he felt that he could count on them for a short one. As a professional soldier he also knew that much would depend on luck, good and bad, but in this connection all he could do was hope for the former and guard against the latter. For one thing, to forestall delay he could order an early start, and this he did. The holding divisions were to leave their camps by 3 a.m. to open the demonstrations at Stone Bridge and Blackburn’s Ford, while the turning column was to set out even earlier, at 2 o’clock, in order to clear Sudley Springs by 7 at the latest.
And so it was. The troops lurched into motion on schedule, some having had but very little sleep, others having had no sleep at all, and now again it was stop and go but mostly stop, just as on the other march, except that now there was the added confusion of darkness and bone-deep weariness as they stumbled over logs and roots and were stabbed at by branches in the woods, clanking as they ran to catch up or stood stock-still to breathe the thick dust of the “sacred soil.” About 9.30—two and one-half hours behind schedule—the head of the column reached Sudley Springs, where the men were halted to rest and drink. Away downstream, opposite the stone bridge and the ford, the guns of the other two divisions had been booming with false aggressiveness for more than three hours now.
Beauregard at Manassas, midway between the straddled feet of the X, had no intention of awaiting his classmate’s pleasure. When Johnston had joined him Saturday with about half of his 9000 men, the rest being due to arrive in the night, the Creole general’s spirits rose. Now that his army was about to be almost equal to the enemy’s, he would attack. He made his dispositions accordingly, concentrating his regiments along the eastern leg of the X, from Stone Bridge down to Union Mills Ford, where the crossing would be made in force to envelop the Federal left and crush it while he marched on Centerville.
Thus Beauregard and McDowell, on opposite sides of Bull Run, had more or less identical plans, each intending to execute a turning movement by the right flank to strike his opponent’s left. If both had moved according to plan, the two armies might have grappled and spun round and round, like a pair of dancers clutching each other and twirling to the accompaniment of cannon. However, this could only happen if both moved on schedule. And late as McDowell was, Beauregard was later.
In the first place there was trouble on the railroad from Manassas Gap, and though some of Johnston’s men had been assigned a share in the forward movement, the remainder of them did not arrive that night. In the second place, the attack order was ambiguous and vague. There was to be an advance across the run, then an advance on Centerville, and though each section of the plan ended: “The order to advance will be given by the commander in chief,” it was not clear to the brigade commanders just which advance was meant. They took it to mean the advance on the crossing, whereas Beauregard intended it to mean the second advance, after the crossing had been forced. Accordingly, early Sunday morning at Manassas, while Beauregard listened for the roar of guns, there was only silence from the right.
Then there arrived from Mitchell’s Ford, two miles below Stone Bridge, a messenger who reported that the enemy had appeared in strength to the left front of that position; and as if to reinforce this information there came a sound of firing from the vicinity of the bridge. To guard against a crossing, Beauregard sent his reserve brigades, under Brigadier Generals Barnard Bee and T. J. Jackson, to strengthen the few troops he had stationed there, on the left flank of his army. All this time he listened for the boom of cannon to indicate that his attack was underway on the right. From that direction, all he heard was silence; but northward, from the direction of the bridge, the cannonade was swelling to a roar. At 8 o’clock Beauregard left his office at Manassas Junction to establish field headquarters on Lookout Hill, in the rear of Mitchell’s Ford.
From there, of course, the roar of guns was louder, coming from both the left and right, Stone Bridge and Blackburn’s Ford, but still there were no signs of an advance across the run. By 9 o’clock Beauregard had begun to suspect that the Federal main body was elsewhere, probably on one of his flanks, preparing to surprise him. Just then, as if in substantiation of his fears, a message arrived from a signal officer:
I see a body of troops crossing Bull Run about two miles above the Stone Bridge. The head of the column is in the woods on this side. The rear of the column is in the woods on the other side. About a half-mile of its length is visible in the open ground between. I can see both infantry and artillery.
Beauregard reacted fast. While a dust cloud floated up from that direction to show the enemy in force, he sent couriers after Bee and Jackson, instructing them to march above the bridge, and ordered Colonel Wade Hampton, just arrived from Richmond with 600 South Carolinians, also to proceed to the exposed flank. When these commands joined the brigade of Colonel N. G. Evans, already posted near the bridge, he would have about 6500 men on the left: barely one-fourth of his army. Still, in spite of a rumor that the mystery column raising its ominous dust cloud might be Patterson, arrived from the Valley with 30,000 men, Beauregard was hoping that somehow the long overdue attack on the enemy left might have smashed through for a counterstroke. Then a message arrived from Brigadier General R. S. Ewell at Union Mills Ford. He had waited all this time for orders; now he was going forward without them. Beauregard despaired. This late, the attack could do no good; it would serve only to make those troops unavailable to help stem whatever success the enemy might achieve on the left. With his army so scattered, it hardly seemed possible to organize any sort of effective resistance. “My heart for a moment failed me,” he said later.
Johnston was also there on Lookout Hill, the ranking Confederate, though so far he had left the dispositions in Beauregard’s hands, being himself unfamiliar with the terrain. He watched with increasing concern as things went from bad to worse, the dust cloud spreading on the left while Beauregard did what he could to meet the challenge, recalling from across the run the brigades of Ewell, D. R. Jones, and James Longstreet. By 11 o’clock the fury beyond Stone Bridge was approaching crescendo. The tearing clatter of musketry swelled the uproar of the guns, and powdersmoke boiled up dead-white out of the dust. Johnston, chafing under his self-imposed inaction, at last could bear it no longer. “The battle is there,” he told Beauregard; “I am going!” And he went.
Beauregard was not far behind him. Remaining only long enough to order Brigadier General T. H. Holmes and Colonel Jubal Early to march their brigades to the left, he overtook Johnston soon after noon, the Virginian having paused to send a couple of unemployed batteries into action, and the two went on together, accompanied by their staffs. They rode past wounded and frightened men, dazed and blood-stained stragglers from the fight which they could hear but could not see until, climbing a wooded hill, they reached the crest at about 12.30, to find the battle raging below them, a panorama of jetting smoke and furious movement.
A few gray regiments were in action, their muskets flashing pink in the swirl of smoke. Others, shattered by the blue onslaught, were streaming for the rear. Across the line of their retreat a fresh Confederate brigade stood just behind the crest of a ridge adjoining the hill the generals watched from. Their ranks aligned steadily on both sides of a battery whose six guns were firing rapidly into the advancing mass of Federals, these troops had the determined, steadfast appearance of veterans. Otherwise the field had a look of impending disaster.
McDowell at last had got his flanking divisions over the run at Sudley Springs, doubling the column to speed the crossing. It was smartly done, the blue ranks closely packed, water squelching in their shoes after their splash across the creek. But as they emerged from the woods about a mile south of the ford, Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s Rhode Islanders heading the advance, they ran into fire from two Confederate regiments drawn up to meet them with two smooth-bore six-pounders barking aggressively on the flank. These were South Carolinians and Louisianians; their commander, Colonel Evans, charged with defending the stone bridge, had soon determined that the cannonade there was no more than a feint. Evans—called “Shanks” because of the thinness of his legs—was an old line soldier, resentful at having been stationed far to the left of where the main effort was intended. When he observed the dust cloud to the northwest, beyond the flank of the army, he saw his opportunity and acted on his own initiative. Leaving a handful to guard the bridge, he marched his thousand men upstream to block the path of 13,000 Federals.
The meeting engagement was sudden and furious, the gray troops having the advantage of firing the first volley. As they were beginning to come apart under pressure, they were joined by the Mississippians, Alabamians and Georgians in the brigade of General Bee, who like Evans had marched without orders toward the point of danger. All the cotton states were represented, presently reinforced by Hampton’s Legion, which also came onto the field at a critical time. Then, as the tide turned again, the Federals exerting the pressure of their numbers, in war as in peace the fire-eaters looked to Virginia. On a ridge to their rear—as Johnston and Beauregard had observed, arriving at this moment—Jackson’s Virginians were staunchly aligned on their guns.
“There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!” Bee shouted. “Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.”
Jackson too had arrived at a critical moment, but instead of rushing into the melee on the plain, he had formed his troops on the reverse slope of the ridge, protected from artillery and ready for whatever moved against them. When an officer came crying, “General! the day is going against us!” the stern-lipped Jackson calmly replied: “If you think so, sir, you had better not say anything about it.” Another reported, “General, they are beating us back!” “Sir, we’ll give them the bayonet,” Jackson said.
Over the crest and down the hill, high on the western leg of the X, the battle raged around a small frame house where the eighty-year-old widow Judith Henry lay dying. When the Union troops came pounding south from Sudley Springs her invalid sons carried her on a mattress to the shelter of a ravine, but she begged so piteously to be allowed to die in her own bed that they brought her back, and there she had her wish. A shell killed her the instant they laid her down, and her body was riddled with bullets as the house began to flame.
In a dense blue mass, avenging the months of rebel boasting and insults to the flag, the Federal infantry roared to the attack. The advance had cleared the stone bridge now; Tyler’s division poured across, adding its weight to the charge. Bee fell, shot as he rallied his men, who leaderless gave back before the cheering ranks of Federal attackers. On they came, their battle flags slanting forward in the sunlight, up the hill and over the crest, where Jackson’s men stood sighting down their muskets. For a moment the blue soldiers were outlined black against the sky, and then it was as if the earth exploded in their faces. One volley struck them, then another, and the survivors stumbled back down the slope, where their officers were shouting for them to reform.
By now there were 18,000 Union troops on this quarter of the field. Supported by well-served rifled guns, the men who had been repulsed closed ranks and presently they charged again, up the slope and over the crest where the Virginians were waiting. But it was too late; the crisis had passed. Johnston and Beauregard had come down off the adjoining hill, Beauregard to ride along the battle line, replacing fallen commanders with members of his staff and making at intervals a speech in which, he said, he “sought to infuse into the hearts of my officers and men the confidence and determined spirit of resistance to this wicked invasion of the homes of a free people,” while Johnston established a command post to the rear, at a road intersection where troops from the right and reinforcements from the Valley could be rushed to where the issue was in doubt. As fast as they came within reach he spurred them toward the fight on Henry Hill. There, while the battle raged on the forward slope—disintegrated by now into a strung-out, seemingly disconnected series of hand-to-hand skirmishes by knots of men clustered about their shot-ripped flags, each man fighting as if the outcome of the whole battle depended on himself alone—Beauregard used them to strengthen the line along the crest and to extend the left, where McDowell was attempting to envelop the Confederate defense.
The Union commander advanced two batteries of rifled guns, intending to support them with a regiment of New York Fire Zouaves. As these men in baggy trousers were forming off to the right, Colonel J. E. B. Stuart mistook them for an Alabama outfit, similarly clad, which he thought was facing rear, about to retreat. “Don’t run, boys; we’re here!” he cried, riding toward them at the head of his cavalry regiment. By the time he saw his mistake, it was too late to turn back. So he charged, his troopers slashing at the white turbans of the men in blue and scarlet, who panicked and scattered in gaudy confusion, leaving the eleven guns unsupported, and a Virginia infantry regiment ran forward to deliver at seventy yards a volley that toppled every cannoneer. The guns were out of action.
Back on the crest, having watched all this, the Confederates were cheering. Jackson rode up and down his line. “Steady, men; all’s well,” he kept saying. Then, as the Federal infantry pushed forward again, he gave his troops instructions: “Hold your fire until they’re on you. Then fire and give them the bayonet. And when you charge, yell like furies!”
By now Beauregard had what he had been building toward. Johnston had been feeding him men, including Brigadier General Kirby Smith’s brigade from the Valley army, just off the cars from Manassas Gap, and Beauregard had built a solid line along both flanks of Jackson, extending the left westward until it not only met the threat from that direction, but overlapped the Federal right. The general was ready and so were his men, heartened by their recent success and the arrival of reinforcements. About 3.30, as if by signal, the gray line surged forward. “Yell like furies,” Jackson had told his soldiers, and now they did. From flank to flank, for the first time in the war, the weird halloo of the rebel yell went up, as if twenty thousand foxhunters were closing on a quarry.
The Federals had watched the rebel line as it thickened and lengthened to their front and on their flank. Now the opposing forces were roughly equal. But the blue troops did not know this; they only knew that the enemy was receiving reinforcements, while they themselves got none. “Where are our reserves?” they asked in consternation after the scattering of the zouaves and the loss of their two most effective batteries near the center of the field. Wearied by thirteen hours of marching on dusty roads at night and fighting under a July sun, they began to reason that they had been too thoroughly mismanaged for mere incompetence to account for all the blunders. They were angry and dismayed, and from point to point along the front a strange cry broke out: “Betrayed! We are betrayed! Sold out!” When the long gray line sprang at them, bayonets snapping and glinting in the sunlight as the shrill, unearthly quaver of the rebel yell came surging down the slope, they faltered. Then they broke. They turned and fled past officers on horseback flailing the smoke with sabers while screaming for them to stand. They ran and they kept on running, many of them throwing down their rifles in order to travel lighter and run faster. “Betrayed! Sold out!” some shouted hoarsely as they fled, explaining—as all men apparently always must—the logic behind their fear.
So far the retreat was mainly sullen, with more grim anger than panic in the ranks. It had not yet become a rout, though the Southerners were doing what they could to make it one. Kirby Smith had ridden down the line as his troops came off the cars to form for battle within the sound of guns and the sight of smoke boiling over the northward ridge. “This is the signal, men,” he cried, the back of his hand to the bill of his cap; “the watchword is Sumter!” It didn’t make much sense but it sounded fine, and the Valley soldiers cheered him riding past. He was wounded as soon as he reached the field; Colonel Arnold Elzey took command. Coming presently into sight of a mass of infantry drawn across the road ahead—whether Union or Confederate none could tell with the naked eye—Elzey halted the column. As he raised his binoculars a breeze stirred the drifting smoke; flags rippled stiffly from their staffs. “Stars and Stripes! Stars and Stripes! Give it to them, boys!” he yelled, and led his regiments forward at a run. Early’s brigade had come up, too, their cheers swelling the din on the left as the whole gray line, curving away northeastward along the crest of Henry Hill, came whooping down upon the startled men in blue.
While his flanking column fell back over the run, McDowell did what he could to save the day. Two brigades, withdrawn from the fords below Stone Bridge, along with the one reserve brigade and some regiments just arrived from Alexandria, were combined to form a rally line near Centerville, in hopes that the retreaters from the crushed right flank would fall in here to challenge the Confederate counterattack. But it was no use. Anger was fast giving way to panic as the retreat gathered momentum. These men were bound for the Potomac, along a road that had been traveled prophetically that morning by a regiment of infantry and a battery of field artillery; their enlistments expiring today, they had declined any share in the battle, and deaf alike to pleas and jeers had returned to Washington for discharge. Panic was contagious. Troops from the proposed rally line fell in with the skulkers going past, and now the more or less sullen retreat became a rout, the column once more harried by the carriages and victorias of the junketing politicians who had driven out to see the Union reëstablished. Now, somehow, across the run and down the western leg of that spraddled X, in a roiling cauldron of dust and smoke with fitful, pinkish-yellow stabs of fire mixed in, the carefree lark had been transmuted into something out of a nightmare. “Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped!” the civilians heard the soldiers shout as they came surging up the pike. Darkness spread and the moon came out: a full moon like the one that had flooded the landscape two months ago, when the Grand Army crossed the Potomac to take potshots at an occasional scampering rebel.
Disorderly as the column was, it made good time. In that one night, returning north, McDowell’s army covered more distance than it had managed to cover in three days of southward marching the week before.
On the Confederate side there was disorganization, too. It was of a different kind, however, proceeding from the elation of victory rather than from the depression of defeat. The two were strangely alike. Belief that the battle was won produced very much the same effect, as far as concerted action went, as belief that the battle was lost. In either case it was over, and southern leaders could accomplish no more toward organizing pursuit along the turnpike than their northern counterparts could accomplish toward organizing a rally line across it. On the left, above Stone Bridge, the regiments were halted for realignment, all possibility of control being gone; while on the right, where the brigades had forced their way across the fords below the bridge, pursuit was abandoned and the men recalled to the south bank of the run to meet a false alarm of an attack at Union Mills. One brigadier, Longstreet—he had already crossed and recrossed the stream five times that day—was commanded to fall back just as he gave the order for his batteries to open fire on the retreating Federal column. Stuart’s cavalry, swinging wide around Sudley Springs, should have been free to accomplish most; but the troopers soon were burdened with so many prisoners picked up along the way that they lost all mobility, and presently they dwindled to a squad. It was the same all along the line. Little could be done to gather the potential fruits of victory.
Even Jefferson Davis, braced for disaster as he rode from Manassas Junction through the backwash of the army, lost some measure of his self-control in the sudden release from anxiety when he emerged to find the Union soldiers fleeing from the charging men in gray. Meeting Colonel Elzey he conferred the first battlefield promotion of the war: “General Elzey, you are the Blücher of the day!” He joined the horseback chase toward Sudley Springs, and everywhere he encountered rejoicing and elation. In the gathering dusk, coming upon a body of men he thought were stragglers, he began a speech to rally them, only to learn that they were Jackson’s Virginians, who had done so much to win the battle. Their commander was in a nearby dressing station, having a wounded finger bandaged. “Give me ten thousand men,” he was saying, “and I would be in Washington tomorrow.”
Davis rather thought so, too. He rode back to see Johnston and Beauregard at the latter’s Manassas headquarters. The generals were as elated as their men; but when the President asked what forces were pushing the beaten enemy, they replied that the troops were confused and hungry and needed rest; pursuit had ended for the night. Davis was unwilling to reconcile himself to this, but presently a slow rain came on, turning the dust to mud all over eastern Virginia, and there was no longer even a question of the possibility of pursuit. Out on the field, along the turnpike and the run and in the angles of the X they formed, the drizzle soaked the dead and fell upon the wounded of both armies.
Among them was Major Roberdeau Wheat, commander of the Louisiana Tigers, who had opened the fight alongside Evans above Stone Bridge. He was a lawyer and had been a soldier of fortune, fighting with Carravajal in Mexico, Walker in Nicaragua, and Garibaldi in Sicily; but now a Union bullet had gone through both of his lungs and a surgeon told him he must die.
“I don’t feel like dying yet,” Wheat said.
The doctor insisted: “There is no instance on record of recovery from such a wound.”
“Well, then,” the lawyer-soldier replied, “I will put my case on record.”
Next morning at breakfast Davis wrote out for Beauregard, subject to the approval of Congress, a promotion to full general. Then he returned to Richmond, where the bodies of General Bee and other leaders killed on yesterday’s field were to lie in state, with honor guards and fitting obsequies. In spite of such causes for individual grief, the people in the capital were as elated as the soldiers around Manassas. Here as there, the feeling was that the Yankees had been shown for once and for all. The war was won. Independence was a fact beyond all doubt. Even the casualty lists, the source of their sorrow, reinforced their conviction of superiority to anything the North could bring against them.
The Confederates had lost almost two thousand, but the Union army had lost more than three thousand; 387 were dead in gray, 481 in blue. Only among the wounded were the Northerners outnumbered, 1582 to 1124, and this in itself was interpreted as a credit to the South; what, they asked, could be nobler than for a soldier to bleed for his country? However, they found the principal support for their opinion in the amount of captured equipment and the number of prisoners taken. Fifteen hundred Yankees had thrown down their arms and submitted to being marched away to prison, while in the Confederate ranks only eight were listed as missing, and no one believed that even these had surrendered. Equipment captured during the battle, or garnered from the field when the fighting was over, included 28 artillery pieces, 17 of them rifled, as well as 37 caissons, half a million rounds of small-arms ammunition, 500 muskets, and nine flags.
Later in the week, while southern outpost riders once more gazed across the Potomac at the spires of Washington, the wounded were brought to Richmond to be cared for—including Rob Wheat, who had put his case on record. The ladies turned out with an enthusiasm which sometimes tried the patience of the men. Asked if he wanted his face washed, one replied: “Well, ma’am, it’s been washed twenty times already. But go ahead, if you want to.” Prisoners came to Richmond, too, where a three-story tobacco warehouse had been hurriedly converted into a military prison. From the sidewalk, citizens tried to bribe the guards for a glimpse at a real live Yankee: especially New York Congressman Alfred Ely, who had strolled too near the scene of battle just as the lines gave way and was discovered trying to hide behind a tree. President Davis sent him two fine white wool blankets to keep him warm in the warehouse prison, and the people in general approved of such chivalry. They felt that they could afford to be magnanimous, now that the war was won.
Lincoln, who had gone out for his Sunday drive believing the battle a Union victory, returned at sundown to find that the Secretary of State had come looking for him, white and shaky, and had left a message that McDowell had been whipped and was falling back. Hurrying to the War Department, he read a telegram confirming the bad news: “General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centerville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army.” He returned to the White House and spent the night on a sofa in the cabinet room while bedraggled politicians, with the startled expressions of men emerging from nightmares, brought him eye-witness accounts of the disaster. Next morning, through windows lashed by rain, he watched his soldiers stagger up the streets, many of them so exhausted that they stumbled and slept in yards and on the steps of houses, oblivious to the pelting rain and the women who moved among them offering coffee.
General Scott and others with long faces soon arrived. “Sir, I am the greatest coward in America,” Scott told one of them. “I deserve removal because I did not stand up, when my army was not in condition for fighting, and resist it to the last.” Lincoln broke in: “Your conversation seems to imply that I forced you to fight this battle.” The old general hesitated. He believed this was quite literally true, but he would not be rude. “I have never served a President who has been kinder to me than you have been,” he said evasively, leaving Lincoln to draw from this what solace he could.
While Davis was soaring from anxiety to elation and Lincoln was moving in the opposite direction, downhill from elation to anxiety, others around the country and the world were reacting according to their natures. Horace Greeley, who had clamored for invasion, removed the banner “Forward to Richmond!” from the masthead of his New York Tribune, and after what he called “my seventh sleepless night—yours, too, doubtless”—wrote to Lincoln: “On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair. If it is best for the country and for mankind that we make peace with the rebels at once and on their own terms, do not shrink even from that.” Tecumseh Sherman, reassembling his scattered brigade, wrote privately: “Nobody, no man, can save the country. Our men are not good soldiers. They brag, but don’t perform, complain sadly if they don’t get everything they want, and a march of a few miles uses them up. It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.” One English journalist at least believed he could guess what was in store. “So short lived has been the American Union,” the London Times observed, “that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall.”
Allowing for journalistic license, “sullen, scorching, black despair” was scarcely an overstatement. All along the troubled line, from Missouri to the Atlantic, the gloom was lighted at only one point. In western Virginia, scene of the Philippi Races and the rout at Carrick’s Ford, there was a commander with a Napoleonic flair who lifted men’s hearts and brought cheers. Lincoln looked in that direction, the long sad face grown longer and sadder in the past few hours, and there he believed he found his man of destiny. On that same Monday, while fugitives from Sunday’s battle still limped across Long Bridge and slept in the rain, he summoned him by telegraph:
General George B. McClellan
Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Charge Rosecrans or some other general with your present department and come hither without delay.
Lincoln was already dealing with two men of destiny: Robert Anderson, the hero of Sumter, and John Charles Frémont, the California Pathfinder. They were to save Kentucky and Missouri for the Union, both having ties in the states to which they had been sent. Anderson was a Bluegrass native, and Frémont, though Georgia-born, had made important Missouri connections by eloping with the daughter of old Thomas Hart Benton, who lived long enough to be reconciled to the match.
In Kentucky the contest was political, swinging around the problem of the state’s declared neutrality. Her sympathies were southern but her interests lay northward, beyond the Ohio, Lincoln having guaranteed the inviolability of her property in slaves. What was more, her desire for peace was reinforced by the knowledge that her “dark and bloody ground,” as it was called, would be the scene of bitterest fighting if war came. Therefore, after the furor of Sumter and the departure into Confederate ranks of the eastern border states and Tennessee, the governor and both houses of the legislature announced that Kentucky would defend her borders, north and south, against invaders from either direction, and the people signified their approval in the special congressional election of late June, when nine out of the ten men sent to Washington were Unionists, and again in the August legislature races, which also were overwhelming Union victories.
Meanwhile Kentucky had become a recruiting ground for agents of both armies. The state militia, under Simon Bolivar Buckner, a West Pointer and a wealthy Kentucky aristocrat, was the largest and probably the best-drilled body of nonregular troops in the country. Its 10,000 members were pro-Confederate, but this threat was countered by the Home Guard, swiftly organized under William Nelson, a six-foot five-inch, three-hundred-pound U.S. Navy lieutenant who distributed 10,000 “Lincoln rifles” among men of strong pro-Union beliefs. Whatever caution their political leaders might show, Kentuckians did not stand aside from individual bloodshed; 35,000 would fight for the South before the war was over, while more than twice that many would fight for the North, including 14,000 of her Negroes. Here the conflict was quite literally “a war of brothers.” Senator John J. Crittenden typified the predicament of his state; he who had done so much for peace had two sons who became major generals in the opposing armies. Likewise Henry Clay, that other great compromiser, had three grandsons who fought to preserve the Union and four who enlisted on the other side. All over the state, instances such as these were reproduced and multiplied. Fathers and sons, brothers and cousins were split on issues that split the nation. Kentucky was in truth a house divided. The question was in which direction the house would fall.
Commissioned a brigadier after the public acclaim that greeted him when he landed in New York from Fort Sumter, Anderson was sent west in late August. He had said that his heart was not in the struggle, that if Kentucky seceded he would go to Europe and wait the war out. But now that his native state expressed intentions of holding firm, he determined to take the field. Frail and aged beyond his fifty-six years, he was warned by his physicians that he might break under the stress of active duty: to which, according to a Washington newspaper interview, he replied that “the Union men of Kentucky were calling on him to lead them and that he must and would fall in a most glorious cause.”
Out of respect for his state’s declared neutrality, and despite his official designation as commander of the Military Department of Kentucky, he established headquarters in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio, and attempted to direct operations from there. He did little, for there was little he could do; which gave the impression that he was biding his time, waiting for the Bluegrass leaders to evolve their own decisions unmolested. Considering their touchy sensibilities—so violently in favor of peace that they were willing to fight for it—this was the best he could possibly have done. It was more, at any rate, than his opponent Leonidas Polk could do.
Polk was a West Pointer who had gone into the ministry and done well. Aged fifty-five at the outbreak of the war, he was Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana. Visiting Richmond in June he dropped by to see his Academy schoolmate Jefferson Davis, and when he emerged from the President’s office he held, to his surprise, the commission of a Confederate major general and appointment to the command of troops in the Mississippi Valley. Northerners expressed horror at such sacrilege, but Southerners were delighted with this transfer from the Army of the Lord. Polk himself, considering his new duty temporary, did not resign his bishopric. He felt, he said, “like a man who has dropped his business when his house is on fire, to put it out; for as soon as the war is over I will return to my proper calling.”
Just now, however, the bishop-general was alarmed at the development of events in Kentucky, which had gone from bad to worse from the Confederate point of view. Not only was the legislature pro-Unionist, but in mid-July, feeling that his position was somehow dishonorable or anyhow equivocal, Buckner resigned as head of the militia, which then disbanded, its guns and equipment passing into the hands of the Home Guard. At this rate Kentucky would soon be irretrievably gone. One of the first things Polk did when he arrived at his Memphis headquarters was to order a concentration of Confederate troops at Union City, in northwest Tennessee, prepared to cross the border and occupy Columbus, Kentucky—which Polk saw as the key to the upper Mississippi—whenever some Federal act of aggression made such a movement plausible.
Anderson, marking time in Cincinnati, would give him no such provocation, but Frémont, across the way, was more precipitate. On August 28 he instructed Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to take command of “a combined forward movement” and “to occupy Columbus, Ky. as soon as possible.” That city’s pro-southern citizens had already petitioned the Confederates to march to their defense, and now that he had an excuse Polk moved quickly. Not waiting to deal with an accomplished act of aggression, but hastening to forestall one, he ordered his troops to cross the border. They occupied Columbus on September 4, the day before the Federals were scheduled to arrive. Grant, thus checked, countered by crossing the border and occupying Paducah, strategically located at the junction of the Ohio and the Tennessee. Now both Confederate and Union soldiers, in rapid sequence, had violated Kentucky’s declared neutrality.
The reaction, which was immediate, was directed mainly against the Southerners, since they had entered first and could make a less effective show of moral indignation. Anderson left Cincinnati at last, transferring his headquarters to Frankfort, where he appeared before the legislature on September 7 and was given an ovation. Four days later, though it sent no such angry communication to Grant or Frémont, this body issued a formal demand that the Confederacy withdraw its troops. When this injunction was not obeyed, it passed on the 18th an act creating a military force to expel them.
Neutrality was over. Politically, Kentucky had chosen the Union. She had a star in the Confederate flag and a secessionist legislature at Russellville, but these represented hardly anything more than the Kentuckians in the southern army. If she was to be reclaimed, if the northern boundary of the new nation was to reach the natural barrier of the Ohio, it would have to be accomplished by force of arms.
Much of the credit was due Anderson, who had waited. He had spoken of glory on setting out, but there had been little of that for him in his native Kentucky; he had said goodbye to glory in Charleston harbor. And now his physician’s prediction came true. His health broke and he was given indefinite sick leave, Sherman replacing him in mid-October. Thus the Union’s first man of destiny left the scene. Afterwards brevetted a major general and retired, he spent the war years in New York City, pointed out on the avenue as he took his daily constitutional, still the hero of Sumter, wearing a long military cloak across his shoulders to hide his stars. He read the war news in the papers and took a particular pride in the career of Sherman, who had served under him as a junior lieutenant in the peacetime army; “One of my boys,” he called him.
Lincoln’s second man of destiny was quite different from the first, as indeed he had need to be. In Missouri the secession question had long since passed the political stage. Here there was bloodshed from the outset, and all through the last half of the opening year it was touch and go, a series of furious skirmishes, marches and countermarches by confused commanders, occupations, evacuations, and several full-scale battles. Jesse James studied tactics here, and Mark Twain skedaddled.
Whatever talents Frémont might show, and he was reputed to have many, the ability to wait and do nothing was not one of them. Heading westward on the day of McDowell’s defeat on the plains of Manassas, he fell into Missouri’s seething cauldron toward the end of July, when he established headquarters in St Louis. Apprised of the situation—disaffection throughout the state, bands of marauders roaming at will, Confederates massed along the southern border—he sent telegrams in all directions, from Washington D.C. out to California, calling for reinforcements. None were forthcoming, but apparently relieved just by the effort of having tried, Frémont settled down at once to making plans for the future.
Something of a mystic, he was a man of action, too, and within the widening circle of his glory he had a magnetism that drew men to him. With the help of such guides as Kit Carson he had explored and mapped the Rocky Mountain passes through which settlers came west. Under his leadership—the Pathfinder, they called him—they broke California loose from Mexico and joined her to the Union, rewarding Frémont by making him one of her first two senators, as well as one of her first millionaires, and subsequently the Republican Party’s first presidential nominee. He was in France at the outbreak of war, but he came straight to Washington, where Lincoln made him a major general and sent him westward. His slender yet muscular body evidenced a youthfulness which the touches of gray in his hair and beard only served to emphasize by contrast, as if they represented not so much his forty-eight years, but rather the width of experience and adventure he had packed into them. His features were regular, his glance piercing. There was drama in his gestures, and his voice had overtones of music.
“I have given you carte blanche. You must use your own judgment, and do the best you can,” Lincoln had told him, saying goodbye on the portico of the White House. And now in Missouri Frémont took him at his word.
While the news from Manassas dampened Unionist spirits, he continued to exorcise dismay with works and projects. After ordering intrenchments thrown around St Louis to secure it from attack, he occupied and fortified Cape Girardeau, above Cairo, as well as the railheads at Ironton and Rolla and the state capital at Jefferson City. Such actions were mainly defensive, but Frémont had offensive conceptions as well, and of these such occupations were a part. Poring over strategic maps in his headquarters, which he saw as the storm center of events, he looked beyond the present crisis and evolved a master plan for Federal efforts in the West. Whoever controlled the trunk controlled the tree; whoever held the Mississippi Valley, he discerned from his coign of vantage, “would hold the country by the heart.” Missouri was only a starting point, elemental but essential to the plan, “of which the great object was the descent of the Mississippi River.” With Memphis and Vicksburg lopped off, and finally New Orleans, the Confederacy would wither like a tree with a severed taproot.
Cairo was the key, and having secured it he went ahead. He began construction of 38 mortar boats and two gunboats to scour the rivers, and ordered Grant to seize Columbus, or, as it turned out—since Polk moved first, and thereby won the race and lost Kentucky—Paducah, which served as well. Whatever fit the plan got full attention; whatever did not fit got brushed aside. Some, in fact, found him too vague and exalted for their taste—Grant, for example, who recorded: “He sat in a room in full uniform with his maps before him. When you went in he would point out one line or another in a mysterious manner, never asking you to take a seat. You left without the least idea of what he meant or what he wanted you to do.”
It was true that he was difficult to get at. To protect his privacy from obscure brigadiers like Grant while he worked eighteen hours a day in the three-story St Louis mansion which served as headquarters, he had a bodyguard of 300 men, “the very best material Kentucky could afford; average height 5 feet 11½ inches, and measuring 40½ inches around the breast.” Resplendent in feathers and loops of the gold braid known locally as “chicken guts,” his personal staff included Hungarians and Italians with titles such as “adlatus to the chief” and names that were hardly pronounceable to a Missouri tongue; Emavic, Meizarras, Kalamaneuzze were three among many. The list ran long, causing one of his Confederate opponents to remark as he read it, “There’s too much tail to that kite.”
Whether he would soar or not, Frémont kept his gaze on far horizons. Down in the southwest corner of the state he had a compact, well-drilled army of 6000, including 1200 regulars and several batteries of artillery. Its commander, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, had been active against rebellion from the start. Back in May, disguised in women’s clothes, including a bonnet and veil to hide his red hair and whiskers, he had ridden in an open carriage to reconnoiter a secessionist camp. Afterwards he surrounded the place, forced its surrender under the muzzles of his guns, and marched the would-be Confederates off to prison, shooting down two dozen civilians when a crowd on the streets of St Louis attempted to interfere. By similar forthright action he had saved for the Union the arms in the Federal arsenal there. He was a hard-bitten, capable New Englander, forty-three years old, well acquainted with violence and well adapted for countering that particular brand of it being met with in Missouri. “I was born among the rocks,” he once remarked.
So far, however, Lyon had no part in the plan Frémont was spending long hours evolving. In June he had led his troops southwest, intending to secure that section of the state and then move into Arkansas, with Little Rock as his goal. By early August he was beyond Springfield, near the border, but breakdowns along his line of supply had made his army ragged, ill-shod, low on ammunition, and disheartened. Frémont, intent on his master plan, could send no reinforcements. What was worse, the Confederates encamped to Lyon’s front around Cow-skin Prairie were growing stronger every day. He estimated their strength at 20,000; it was “impractical to advance.” On August 4 he reported: “I am under the painful necessity of retreating, and can at most only hope to make my retreat good. I am in too great haste to explain more fully.” On the 6th he fell back to a position around Springfield, and the Confederates came on after him, pausing a few miles south before making the final pounce.
They were not as formidable as Lyon thought, and for several reasons. Though they numbered about 12,000—twice the size of the Union force—for the most part they were miserably equipped and poorly organized, under commanders who were divided in their counsels and ambitions. The majority were Missouri militia led by Sterling Price, a fifty-two-year-old Virginia-born ex-governor who thought so little of West Pointers that he inserted a notice in the papers, indignantly quashing a rumor that he had received a formal military education. His men had neither uniforms nor tents; many had no arms at all, while others had only shotguns or 1812-style flintlocks, and as substitutes for artillery projectiles they had laid in a stock of smooth stones, rusty chains, and iron rods to be shot from their eight antiquated cannon. The remainder, under Ben McCulloch of Tennessee, forty years old and a former Texas Ranger, were somewhat better equipped, being regular Confederate troops.
Price was a major general, McCulloch a brigadier, both veterans of the Mexican War; but the latter, who held his commission directly from Richmond, did not feel that the former should outrank him, and refused to combine the two forces unless the Missourian would yield command. Price, called Old Pap by his men—they asserted that their general had “won more battles in Mexico than McCulloch ever witnessed”—was so anxious to fall upon Lyon that he agreed to the stipulation. As soon as Lyon began his retreat, McCulloch led the combined forces after him. They went into camp along Wilson’s Creek, ten miles short of Springfield, where the Federals had halted. McCulloch drew up plans for attack. The movement began on August 9, but was called off because of threatening rain; the troops returned to camp and settled down to sleep, not bothering to put out pickets. At dawn the storm of Lyon’s attack exploded in their rear.
The red-haired Federal was also a veteran of Mexico, where he had won promotion for valor, capturing three guns at Cerro Gordo. In the spirit of those days, instead of waiting to receive attack or risking being struck while in motion, he had decided to deliver a blow that would permit him to retreat unmolested. The fact that he was outnumbered two to one—three to one, as he thought—did not discourage this, but rather—in Lyon’s eyes, at any rate—demanded it. He felt that his army would do a better job of delivering an attack than of standing to receive one. With his men somewhat heartened by a day’s rest and the arrival of shoes from the railhead at Rolla, he distributed the shoes on the afternoon of the 9th and set out south for Springfield. Soon after midnight, the Confederates having averted a meeting engagement by turning back in the face of lowering weather, he had his troops within striking distance of the rebel camp on Wilson’s Creek.
He had not minded the rain, and he counted the darkness a positive advantage. Under its cover he disposed his army for one of those complicated envelopments so popular in the early days of the war, when the generals and the soldiers they commanded were least capable of executing them. One column, under Colonel Franz Sigel—two regiments of infantry, two troops of cavalry, and a six-gun battery of artillery—was sent on a wide swing to hit the enemy rear, while Lyon struck in front with the main body, southward down the western bank where most of the rebels lay snug in their blankets. He detached one regiment of regulars—First Infantry, U.S. Army: about as regular as troops could be—sending them beyond the creek to handle whatever Confederates might have pitched their camps on that side.
Sigel set out; Lyon waited in the darkness. Nothing stirred in the rebel camp. As dawn paled the rising ground beyond the creek, the limbs of trees coming black against the sky, there was a sudden spatter of musketry—the skirmishers had opened fire—then the roar and flash of guns like summer lightning on the far horizon: Sigel had come up from the south and was in action, on time and in place. Lyon ordered the main body forward, east and west of the creek, closing the upper jaw of his tactical vise.
Everything was moiling confusion in the camps along the creekbed, guns booming north and south as men came out of their blankets in various stages of undress, tousle-haired, half asleep, and badly frightened. Under the stress of that first panic many fled. Some returned, rather shamefaced. Others ran, and kept on running, right out of the war. Yet those who stood were hard-core men from Arkansas and Louisiana, Texas and Missouri, wanting only to be told what to do. McCulloch and his aides soon established a line of resistance, and these men fell in eagerly. Price had yielded the command, but he was there, too, his white hair streaming in the wind as he rode up and down the line of his rallied Missourians, shouting encouragement. Under such leadership, the Southerners assembled in time to meet the attack from both directions. The battle that followed set the pattern for all such encounters in the West.
Few of the romantic preconceptions as to brilliant maneuver and individual gallantry were realized. Fighting at close quarters because of the short-range Confederate flintlocks and muzzle-loading fowling pieces, a regiment would walk up to the firing line, deliver a volley, then reload and deliver another, continuing this until it dissolved and was replaced by another regiment, which repeated the process, melting away in the heat of that furnace and being in turn replaced. No fighting anywhere ever required greater courage, yet individual gallantry seemed strangely out of place. A plume in a man’s hat, for example, accomplished nothing except to make him a more conspicuous target. Nor did the rebel yell ring out on the banks of Wilson’s Creek. There was little cheering on either side; for a cheer seemed as oddly out of place as a plume. The men went about their deadly business of firing and reloading and melting away in a grim silence broken only by the rattling crash of musketry and the deeper roar of guns, with the screams of the injured sometimes piercing the din. Far from resembling panoplied war, it was more like reciprocal murder.
In such a battle the weight of numbers told. Sigel’s surprise attack from the south became a rout almost as soon as he encountered resistance. His men broke, stampeded, and did not stop till they got back to Springfield, having abandoned their colors and all but one of their guns. To the north, Lyon’s men were wavering, too. East of the creek the regulars, lacking reinforcements, were blasted off the field. The main body, west of the creek, stood manfully to their work for a while; but presently, the Confederates clustering thicker and thicker to their front, new regiments arriving after their success in dealing with other columns of attack, the Federals began to look back over their shoulders, apprehensive. Lyon rode among them, calling for them to stand firm in the face of gathering resistance. As he sought thus to rally them, a bullet creased his scalp. A second struck his thigh, a third his ankle. His horse was shot and fell dead under him. Stunned, Lyon limped slowly toward the rear, shaking his head. “I fear the day is lost,” he said. Presently, though, recovering from the shock and depression, he secured another mount and rode again into the fight, at a place where the troops were about to give way. Swinging his hat he called for them to follow him, and when they rallied he led them forward. Near the point of deepest penetration, a bullet struck his heart and he went down. His men fled, shaken by the loss of their red-bearded leader.
It was Manassas all over again. Once the Federal troops gave way, they did not stand upon the order of their going, but retreated pell-mell to Springfield and then to Rolla, leaving their fallen comrades on the field: Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa farmboys, lying dead in their new shoes, and the brave Lyon, whose body McCulloch forwarded through the lines under a flag of truce, only to recapture it when the Unionists fell back from Springfield, abandoning it in its coffin in the courthouse.
The fighting had been bloody; “the severest battle since Waterloo,” one participant called it. Within four hours each side had suffered about 1200 casualties. In one-third the time, and with less than one-third the number of troops involved, more than half as many men had fallen along Wilson’s Creek as had fallen along Bull Run. Yet here too, as after that battle three weeks before, on the banks of that other rural stream 800 miles away, one side was about as disorganized by victory as the other was by defeat. Though there was broad open daylight for pursuit, the Confederates could not be put into column to press the retreating Federals. All the same, the battle was taken as further proof, if such was needed, of the obvious superiority of the southern fighting man, and in Missouri as in Virginia there was the feeling that, now that the Yankees had been shown what they were up against, there was no real need for giving chase.
In Richmond, President Davis announced the victory in much the same tone of quiet exultation he had used for the announcement in July. Then, out of respect for Missouri’s “neutrality,” he ordered McCulloch to return to Arkansas with his Confederate troops, awaiting an invitation from the secessionist legislature soon to assemble in Neosho, Lyon having scattered them from Jefferson City in July. Price and his native militiamen followed slowly as the Federals fell back. The battle was therefore inconclusive in results, since Lyon had been retreating anyhow.
One thing it did, at any rate. It removed Frémont’s transfixed gaze from far horizons. The lopping descent of the Mississippi could never be accomplished without Missouri under control. Galvanized by reports of the battle, which indicated that he was in danger of losing his starting-point, he reacted first according to pattern, wiring the Secretary of War for reinforcements: “Let the governor of Ohio be ordered forthwith to send me what disposable force he has; also governors of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Order the utmost promptitude.” This done—though nothing came of it—he sent five regiments to strengthen the defeated men at Rolla, and declared martial law in St Louis. Other rebel columns were reported to be advancing, however, and all over the northern portion of the state, guerillas were coming out of hiding, emboldened by Confederate successes.
As the month wore on, Frémont realized that something had to be done to stem the tide. The week before the battle, Congress had passed a confiscation act prescribing certain penalties against persons in rebellion. Now Frémont issued a proclamation of his own, with real teeth in it, written in one night and printed for distribution the following morning. Drawing a line from Fort Leavenworth to Cape Girardeau, he directed that any unauthorized person found under arms north of this line would be tried by court martial, the sentence being death before a firing squad. In addition he announced as confiscated the property, real and personal, of all Missourians who should be “proved to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field.” Nor was that all. “And their slaves, if any they have,” he added, “are hereby declared freemen.”
Emancipation: feared or hoped for, the word had been spoken at last. The reaction came from several directions: first from down in the southeast corner of the state, where the Missouri brigadier, M. Jeff Thompson, issued a proclamation of his own. “For every member of the Missouri State Guard, or soldier of our allies the Confederate States, who shall be put to death in pursuance of said order of General Frémont,” he avowed, “I will Hang, Draw and Quarter a minion of said Abraham Lincoln … so help me God!” Throughout the North, on the other hand, antislavery radicals were delighted. They had wanted a proclamation such as Frémont’s all along, and now they had a champion who said plainly, “War consists not only in battles, but in well-considered movements which bring the same results.” In Kentucky the reaction was otherwise. A Unionist volunteer company threw down its arms on receiving the news, and the legislature balked on the verge of landing the state officially in the Federal camp. Lincoln thus was caught between two fires, having to offend either the abolitionist wing of his own party, which clamored for emancipation, or the loyal men of the border states, who had been promised nonintervention on the slavery question. Three of the latter wired from Louisville: “There is not a day to be lost in disavowing emancipation, or Kentucky is gone over the mill dam.”
Lincoln was circumspect, threading his way. He wrote to Frémont “in a spirit of caution, and not of censure,” explaining the predicament and requesting that the Pathfinder modify the edict so as to conform to the recent act of Congress. As for the use of firing squads, he reminded the general that the Confederates would retaliate “man for man, indefinitely,” and directed that no shootings were to take place without presidential approval. Frémont waited six days, then replied that he would not “change or shade it. It was worth a victory in the field,” he earnestly maintained. As Commander in Chief, Lincoln could order it modified; otherwise, the proclamation stood.
This letter was entrusted to no ordinary courier, but was taken to Washington by Jessie Benton Frémont, an illustrious father’s ambitious daughter, who had been at her husband’s elbow all the while. She arrived after two days and nights on the cars, and, despite the late hour at which she checked into Willard’s, sent a note to the White House, asking when she might deliver the message. A card was brought: “Now, at once. A. Lincoln.” She had not had time to rest or change her clothes, but she went immediately. The President was waiting. “Well?” he said.
She found his manner “hard,” she later declared, and when she handed him the letter he smiled “with an expression not agreeable.” When she attempted to reinforce her husband’s defense of the proclamation, enlarging upon his explanation that the war must be won by more than the force of arms and that Europe would cheer a blow struck at slavery, Lincoln interrupted her lecture by remarking, “You are quite a female politician.” At this she lost her temper and reminded Lincoln that the Pathfinder was beyond the ordinary run of soldiers. If the President wanted to “try titles,” he would find Frémont a worthy adversary. “He is a man and I am his wife!” she added hotly. Lincoln had not doubted that Frémont was a man, or that Jessie was his wife; but having stirred up this hornets’ nest, he mustered what tact he could to try to calm her. It was not enough. She “left in anger,” he said afterwards, “flaunting her handkerchief before my face.”
Returning westward she traveled in the wake of a letter addressed to her husband in St Louis. Signed “Your Obt Servt A Lincoln,” it began: “Yours of the 8th, in answer to mine of the 2d instant, is just received,” and remarked that while the President “perceived in general no objection” to the proclamation, he could not allow an Act of Congress to be overridden; therefore he would assume responsibility for revoking so much of Frémont’s edict as failed to conform to that Act. “Your answer … expresses the preference on your part that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do.” Thus he drew the teeth of the proclamation for the sake of the border Unionists, while for the sake of the abolitionists he explained that this was done, not because of its policy—to which he “perceived in general no objection”—but simply because it was unlawful, interfering as it did with the prerogative of Congress, where the most vociferous of the abolitionists sat.
Such wary action pacified the conservatives, but the antislavery radicals were by no means satisfied. In this first open break within his party Lincoln was assailed on the floor of the Senate, in the press, and from the pulpit. Protests were especially loud among the German emigrants in Missouri—“the St Louis Dutch,” their enemies called them—whose devotion to the general was redoubled. Jessie Frémont’s threat that her husband might set up for himself and try titles with the President began to seem quite possible.
Meanwhile, alarming reports of a different kind were arriving from the West, where $12,000,000 had gone down the drain for steamboats, fortifications, uniforms, food, and ice for sherry cobblers. Graft and extravagances were charged against the men surrounding Frémont—“a gang of California robbers and scoundrels,” the head of a congressional investigating committee called them, adding that while the general refused to confer with men of honor and wisdom, these boodlers “rule, control and direct everything.” Lincoln wrote to Major General David Hunter, who had commanded the flanking column at Manassas, saying of Frémont: “He needs to have by his side a man of large experience. Will you not, for me, take that place? Your rank is one grade too high to be ordered to it, but will you not serve the country and oblige me by taking it voluntarily?” Hunter knew well enough what was meant. He also knew an opportunity when he saw one; and he set out at once for St Louis.
There was a need for military wisdom and alertness, for bushwhackers were plundering the state while Price moved northward with his 15,000 militia, their shortage of arms somewhat repaired by 3000 Union rifles picked up after the fight at Wilson’s Creek. At Lexington they besieged Mulligan’s Irish Guard, 2800 men intrenched on the campus of the Masonic College. Price was low on percussion caps, but when a supply arrived in mid-September he attacked, keeping his casualties down by advancing his men behind water-soaked bales of hemp which they jimmied along as a sort of sliding breastwork. The Irish surrendered, and Price, with 3000 more rifles and a single-handed victory to his credit, issued a call for his fellow Missourians to flock to his standard: “Do I hear your shouts? Is that your war-cry which echoes through the land? Are you coming? Fifty thousand men! Missouri shall move to victory with the tread of a giant. Come on, my brave boys, 50,000 heroic, gallant, unconquerable, Southern men! We await your coming.”
Once more Frémont was galvanized. “I am taking the field myself,” he telegraphed Washington. “Please notify the President immediately.” He assembled five divisions, 38,000 men, and set out after Price. He had not lost sight of his goal, however. “My plan is New Orleans straight,” he wrote his wife, October 7 from Tipton, adding: “I think it can be done gloriously.”
It might be done gloriously, but not by Frémont; Lincoln had marked him for destruction. Having found that the Pathfinder would not hesitate to embarrass him politically, the President sent observers to investigate his competence in other matters. In addition to the rumors of graft, the Adjutant General and the Secretary of War had both reported the general unfit for his post: an opinion shared by Brigadier General Samuel Curtis in St Louis, who wrote that Frémont lacked “the intelligence, the experience, and the sagacity necessary to his command.” Such reports, in themselves, justified removal; but Jessie Frémont’s threat, reinforced by warnings from observers—“[Frémont] does not intend to yield his command at your bidding,” one flatly declared—made the problem of procedure a difficult one, and Lincoln continued to exercise caution. On October 28 he sent General Curtis two orders for delivery: one relieving Frémont, the other appointing Hunter in his place. Curtis was told to deliver them only on condition that Frémont had not won a battle or was not about to fight one; Lincoln would not risk the clamor that would follow the dismissal of a general on the eve of an engagement or the morrow of a victory.
News of the order had leaked to the press, however, and Frémont, in camp southwest of Springfield, surrounded by his bodyguard and army, was forewarned. Disguised as a farmer with information about the rebels, a captain detailed by Curtis to deliver Lincoln’s order got past Frémont’s pickets at 5 a.m., November 1. At headquarters he was told that he could not see the general in person but that his information would be passed on. The captain declined, saying he would wait. He waited hours on end, and then at last was ushered into the presence. Removing the order from the lining of his coat, he handed it to the general. Frémont read it, then frowned. “Sir,” he said, trembling with anger, “how did you get admission into my lines?”
There was one chance. A victory would abrogate the order and vindicate his generalship. He placed the disguised captain in arrest to prevent the spread of news of his relief, stirred up the camp, and prepared to fall upon the enemy to his front. But there was no enemy to his front. Undetected, Price had fallen back beyond his reach, recruits and all, and the captain-messenger, having overheard the password, had escaped. Next morning, rounding out one hundred days of glory, Frémont issued a farewell address, beginning: “Soldiers! I regret to leave you,” and requesting loyalty to his successor. Then he set out for St Louis to join his wife, who remarked when she received the news of his downfall: “Oh, if my husband had only been more positive! But he never did assert himself enough. That was his greatest fault.”
While these two men of destiny rose and fell, a third was rising fast, and he kept rising. On the day Frémont received his dismissal, McClellan was appointed to head all the armies of the nation, superseding his old chieftain Winfield Scott. Much had been done in the three months since his arrival, five days after the Bull Run disaster. The army of 50,000 which he then found waiting for him—“a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac,” he called it—had grown to 168,000 well-trained, spirited men, superbly equipped and worshipful of the commander who had accomplished their transformation.
Out in western Virginia when he received the telegram ordering him to “come hither without delay,” he rode sixty miles on horseback to the nearest railway station and caught the train for the capital. Given command of the Washington army on the day after his arrival, he found the city “almost in condition to have been taken by a dash of a regiment of cavalry,” and himself looked up to from all sides as the deliverer. “I find myself in a new and strange position here,” he wrote his wife that evening; “President, cabinet, Gen. Scott, and all deferring to me. By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land.” With a strong belief in his ability to set things straight, he had gone to work at once. “I see already the main causes of our recent failure,” he declared; “I am sure that I can remedy these, and am confident that I can lead these armies of men to victory.”
Employing two regiments of regulars as military police—hard-faced men who had stood fast, taking up position after rear-guard position during the Bull Run retreat—he cleared the bars and hotel lobbies of stragglers and shirkers, requiring officers and men alike to show passes authorizing their absence from their outfits. The crests of the hills ringing the city were fortified, the slopes whitened overnight by tent camps that sprang up as the three-year volunteers arrived in answer to Lincoln’s call for 400,000 on the morrow of Manassas. Soon the men within the encampments far outnumbered the population of the city they encircled. The clatter of musketry came from the firing ranges, a ragged uproar punctuated by the cries of sergeants on the drill fields: “Your left! Yourleft! Now you’ve got it; damn you, hold it! Left!” Thus McClellan set about restoring order, securing the defenses of the capital as a prelude to the offensive, which he intended to launch as soon as possible. “I shall carry this thing en grand,” he wrote, “and crush the rebels in one campaign.”
Rigid discipline was the order of the day, and the commander himself was on hand to see it inforced. Something new had come into the war; Little Mac, the soldiers called this man who had transformed them from a whipped mob into a hot-blooded army that seemed never to have known the taste of defeat. He brought out the best in them and restored their pride, and they hurrahed whenever he appeared on horseback, which he frequently did, accompanied by his staff, a glittering cavalcade that included two genuine princes of the blood: the Comte de Paris, pretender to the throne of France, and the Duc de Chartres, known respectively to their fellow officers as Captain Parry and Captain Chatters. There was also an American prince among them, John Jacob Astor, who lived in a style that outshone the Europeans, served by his own valet, steward, chef, and female companions whom he took driving four-in-hand, at once the glory and the despair of Washington society.
Yet even in such company as this, of foreign and domestic royalty, McClellan was dominant. The fame that had preceded him was enhanced by his arrival, and unlike Frémont, whose brilliant first impression soon wore thin, McClellan improved with acquaintance. He did not seem young; he was young, with all the vigor and clear-eyed forcefulness that went with being thirty-four. His eyes were blue, unclouded by suspicion, his glance direct. He wore his dark auburn hair parted far on the left and brushed straight across, adding a certain boyish charm to his air of forthright manliness. Clean-shaven save for a faint goatee and a heavy, rather straggly mustache which hid his mouth except when he threw back his head to laugh, he had strong, regular features that gave cartoonists little to catch hold of. He was of average height, five feet nine and one-half inches, yet was so robust and stockily built—his chest massive, his well-shaped head set firmly on a muscular neck; “a neck such as not one man in ten thousand possesses,” an admirer wrote—that he seemed short. The Young Napoleon, journalists had begun to call him, and photographers posed him standing with folded arms, frowning into the lens as if he were dictating terms for the camera’s surrender.
Galloping twelve hours a day or poring over paperwork by lamplight, he had in fact the Napoleonic touch. Men looking at him somehow saw themselves as they would have liked to be, and he could therefore draw on their best efforts. He could be firm or he could temper justice. When two regiments mutinied, declaring that their time was up and they were leaving, McClellan handled each in a different way. The ringleaders of one were sent to the Dry Tortugas to serve out their enlistments at hard labor. In the other case he merely took away the regimental colors and kept them in the hall of his headquarters until the mutineers should earn by good behavior the right to have them back, which they presently did. Both regiments soon cheered him to the echo whenever he came riding through their camps.
Within ten days of his arrival he could write, “I have restored order completely.” Training now entered a new phase, with emphasis on the development of unit pride, as the men learned to polish equipment to new degrees of brightness and step to parade-ground music Reviews were staged, the massed columns swinging past reviewing stands, eyes-right, guidons snapping, where the generals and distinguished civilians stood and ladies in hoop skirts watched from under parasols. Then, for climax, McClellan himself rode down the line, his charger Dan Webster setting a pace that made the staff string out behind, the rather desperate faces of the junior officers at the rear affording much amusement to the men in ranks. Yet even they, who had sat up half the night, scrubbing and polishing cloth and leather, could see the purpose behind the panoply and the results that purpose yielded. The young general had an eye for everything. A dingy cartridge box or a special gleam on a pair of shoes could bring a sudden frown or a smile of pride, and the men were disconsolate or happy, depending on which expression flickered across the youthful face. They cheered him riding past, and when he acknowledged the cheers with his jaunty salute, they cheered again. Even the salute was something special. He “gave his cap a little twirl,” one witness wrote, “which with his bow and smile seemed to carry a little of personal good fellowship even to the humblest private soldier. If the cheer was repeated he would turn in the saddle and repeat the salute.” It was reciprocal. Between them they felt that they were forging the finest army the world had ever seen.
Yet all was not as confident in McClellan’s mind as the soldiers judged from his manner on parade. In the small hours of the night, alone in his quarters, musing upon the example of McDowell, whose army had been wrecked on the very plains where the Confederates were still massing under the same victorious commanders, he took counsel of his fears. Soon after his arrival, in the flush of early confidence, he had written: “I flatter myself that Beauregard has gained his last victory.” Now he wrote, “I have scarcely slept one moment for the last three nights, knowing well that the enemy intend some movement and fully recognizing our own weakness. If Beauregard does not attack tonight I shall look upon it as a dispensation of Providence. He ought to do it.” The dispensation was granted, but that did not keep McClellan from complaining: “I am here in a terrible place. The enemy have from three to four times my force.”
Such figures were not guesswork. They came from his chief of intelligence, Allan Pinkerton, the railroad detective who had herded Lincoln through Baltimore on the eve of inauguration, and they were detailed and explicit, based on reports from agents planted behind the rebel lines. Earlier in August, Pinkerton had shown his chief that the forces around Manassas amounted to beyond 100,000 men. This estimate grew steadily as the agents grew more industrious, until by early October, as the days drew in and shadows lengthened, McClellan was reporting: “The enemy have a force on the Potomac not less than 150,000 strong, well drilled and equipped, ably commanded, and strongly intrenched.”
What was worse—or was at least more irritating—it seemed to him that he not only had to contend with the threat of overwhelming numbers across the river, but there was a Virginian here in Washington against whom he must also fight his way: Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, second only to the Father of his Country on the list of the nation’s military heroes and the first person McClellan had called on to pay his respects when he arrived. Scott had been a great man in his day, six feet four and a quarter inches tall, resplendent in epaulets of solid gold and wearing an aura of victory through two wars. Yet now, as he said himself, “broken down by many particular hurts, besides the general infirmities of age,” he could no longer mount a horse and had to be assisted out of his chair before he could rise. When he would indicate troop positions on a wall map, an aide stood by to wield the pointer. “I have become an incumbrance to the Army as well as to myself,” he confessed, with pain to his enormous pride.
McClellan’s original feelings of veneration and pity (“It made me feel a little strangely when I went into the President’s last evening with the old general leaning on me; I could see that many marked the contrast”) had turned to resentment and exasperation as Scott continued to get in the way of his plans. Regular army officers commanding companies and battalions of regulars should not be transferred to lead brigades and divisions of volunteers; a hard core of trained regulars, officered by regulars, was needed. Divisions should not even be created; the brigade had been the largest unit in the army he took to Mexico, where he had accomplished maneuvers that now were described in the history books and tactics manuals. Ensconced between McClellan and Lincoln, and between McClellan and the War Department, Scott advanced these views and delayed the reorganization. Worst of all, the old general put little stock in the Pinkerton reports. Regardless of what was set down in black and white, he would not believe the Union army was outnumbered. When McClellan reported his fears for the safety of the capital, Scott protested: “Relying upon our numbers, our forts, and the Potomac River, I am confident in the opposite direction.”
“He understands nothing, appreciates nothing,” McClellan declared on August 8, and on the 9th: “Gen. Scott is the great obstacle. He will not comprehend the danger. I have to fight my way against him.” Five days later he was saying outright, “Gen. Scott is the most dangerous antagonist I have.” Plainly, the old general had to go. As McClellan had already told his wife, “The people call upon me to save the country. I must save it, and I cannot respect anything that is in the way.” It was not his doing, he wrote. “I was called to it; my previous life seems to have been unwittingly directed to this great end.”
With military acumen, he attacked where his adversary was weakest: in his pride. Snubbing him in public and differing with him abruptly in private councils, he goaded him into such trembling fury that the old man requested to be placed on the retired list as soon as possible, “to seek the palliatives of physical pain and exertion.” Lincoln felt he could not spare him yet, however, and asked him to stay on, which Scott reluctantly agreed to do. McClellan kept at him, and at last in early October at a War Department meeting Scott turned heavily in his chair, addressing McClellan who lounged in the doorway: “You were called here by my advice. The times require vigilance and activity. I am not active and never shall be again. When I proposed that you should come here to aid, not supersede me, you had my friendship and confidence. You still have my confidence.”
A week before, there had been an incident which seemed to support the old man’s opinion that the force across the river might not be as powerful as McClellan claimed. About halfway between Washington and Fairfax Courthouse, less than ten miles from the former, was Munson’s Hill, the nearest enemy outpost, from which Confederate pickets could look out and see the unfinished dome of the Capitol itself. On the last day of August, on his own responsibility—partly because the rebels had been taking potshots, but mostly because he could no longer abide the impudence of their dominating an area where his men were learning to drill—a New Jersey colonel pushed his regiment forward against the height. This took courage, for the graybacks had a gun up there, black against the skyline. After a few shots and the fall of a few New Jersey boys, though the cannon itself was providently silent, the colonel fell back, with at least the satisfaction of having protested. A month later, September 28, Johnston apparently having decided that the outpost could be captured or destroyed by a more determined push, the Federals woke to find the hill unoccupied. They went up somewhat cautiously, for the gun was still in position and it seemed unlikely that the rebels would abandon ordinance. Then the revelation came. The cannon was not iron but wood, a peeled log painted black, a Quaker gun.
There was general indignation as the newspapers spread word of how McClellan had been tricked, held at bay by the frown of a wooden cannon. Sightseers, riding out to Munson’s Hill to be amused and to exercise their wit, could not see what was clear to army Intelligence: that if Johnston hadn’t wanted them to think he was equipped with wooden guns he would never have left one in position when he drew back. With the swift, uncluttered logic of civilians, all they could see was the painted log itself, complete with a pair of rickety wagon wheels, and the fact that the Confederates had fallen back unpushed. Mutterings began to be heard against the Young Napoleon, especially among senators and businessmen, who wanted a short quick fight no matter how bloody. The daily bulletin, “All quiet along the Potomac,” which had given the war its first indigenous popular song and which had been so reassuring through the weeks of unease that followed defeat, was greeted now with derision.
Then suddenly, as if to reinforce the army’s caution, that quiet was shattered by proof that the rebels on the southern bank had something more than wooden ordinance.
In late October, when the leaves were turning and a brisk promise of winter came down the wind, McClellan received word that Johnston was preparing to evacuate Leesburg, up the Potomac about two-thirds of the way to Harpers Ferry. This time he acted. If Old Joe was ready to fall back, Little Mac at least would give him a nudge to hasten his going.
First, though, he must determine if Johnston was really ready to leave. One division was sent up the Virginia shore to investigate, and another, training in Maryland opposite where the Confederates were reported to be sending their baggage to the rear, was told that it might have a share in the reconnaissance. The Union general across the river halted at Dranesville, ten miles short of Leesburg, content to do his observing from there. The commander on the Maryland side, however—Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, who read his instructions as permission to push things—believed that the best way to discover the enemy’s strength was to provoke him into showing it. Accordingly, a couple of regiments were put across the Potomac at Edwards Ferry, while others were sent on a night march to complete the envelopment by crossing at Harrison’s Island, three miles upstream.
Here the operation was necessarily slow, being made in three small boats with a combined capacity of 25 men. By dawn, one regiment was on the island, looking out across the other half of the river at the wooded Virginia bank. It reared up tall there, over a hundred feet, steep and mean-looking; Ball’s Bluff, it was called, and from beyond its rim they heard a nervous popping of musketry, each shot as flat and distinct as a handclap, only more so. They were Massachusetts boys, and they looked at one another, wondering. No one had told them on the drill field or in bivouac that the war might be like this. They continued the crossing, still in groups of 25, herded by their officers, and took a meandering cow path up the bluff toward the hollow-sounding spatter of rifle fire.
At the top, in explanation of the firing—it had a sharper sound up here, less mysterious but considerably more deadly, with the occasional twang of a ricochet mixed in—they found another Massachusetts outfit drawn up in a glade, returning shots that were coming at them from beyond the brush and timber at the far end of the clearing. These men had crossed the river during the night; their colonel, a Boston lawyer, had taken a patrol almost to Leesburg without uncovering the rebel camp; but presently, coming under fire from scouts or pickets, he had drawn back to the glade above the bluff and assembled his troops to meet the threat that seemed to be building up beyond the brush. He and his men were glad to see their sister Bay State regiment arrive as reinforcements from the island, and he sent word to General Stone of what had happened. In reply the general instructed him to hold what he had: Colonel Edward D. Baker was crossing with his Pennsylvania regiment, and would take command when he arrived.
Baker was someone special, not only a colonel but a full-fledged senator, a one-time Illinois lawyer and an intimate friend of Abraham Lincoln, whose second son had been named for him. Veteran of the Mexican War and the California gold rush, in 1860 he had moved to Oregon at the invitation of the people, who promptly elected him to the U.S. Senate. There he became the Administration’s chief far-western spokesman, riding in the presidential carriage on inauguration day and introducing Lincoln for the inaugural address. He welcomed the nation’s angry reaction to Sumter; “I want sudden, bold, forward, determined war,” he told the Senate, and personally raised a Philadelphia regiment. He did not resign his Senate seat, however, and would not accept a major general’s commission from his friend the Commander in Chief, since by law this would have required his resignation from Congress. From time to time he would return from the field, appearing in full uniform on the floor of the Senate, where he would unbuckle his sword, lay it across his desktop, and launch an oratorical attack upon those of his fellow lawmakers who appeared to favor any compromise with secession. At fifty he was clean-shaven and handsome, with a high forehead and a fondness for declaiming poetry. “Press where ye see my white plume shine amidst the ranks of war,” he quoted as he took the field.
Now on this October 21, coming up the bluff with his Pennsylvanians, he was happy to be where bullets were flying. “I congratulate you, sir, on the prospect of a battle,” he told the Massachusetts colonel, shaking hands as he assumed command. In point of fact, it was more than a prospect; he had a battle on his hands already, as he soon found out.
He had managed to get two guns across the river, and now he put them into action, shelling the brush from which the rebel sniping was getting more vicious all the time. Then he went back to the lip of the bluff and, peering down, saw a New York outfit known as the Tammany Regiment toiling up the cow path. This would make a total of four Union regiments on the field. Baker felt confident and expansive. Spotting the colonel at the head of the climbing column, he waved gaily and greeted him with a quotation from “The Lady of the Lake”:
“One blast upon your bugle horn
Is worth a thousand men.”
Reaching the top of the bluff, the New York colonel—a West Pointer and the only professional soldier on a field in charge of lawyers and politicians—was amazed to find Baker so confident and buoyant over a situation in which, to the military eye at any rate, the danger in front was exceeded only by the confusion in the rear. The Confederates, holding high ground beyond the brush and timber where their snipers were picking off men in the glade almost at will, obviously were building up to launching an attack; whereas the Federals, backed up to the rim of a steep drop with an unfordable river one hundred feet below, were doing little more than dodging bullets and listening to their senator-colonel sing out quotations from Walter Scott.
About this time, one of the two guns recoiled sharply and toppled backward off the bluff; the other was already silent, its cannoneers dropped or driven away by snipers. It seemed to the New Yorker that events were moving swiftly toward disaster. Suddenly Baker seemed to realize it, too. He hurried along the wavering line, calling for his soldiers to stand fast. Perhaps he had some counter-movement in mind. If so, no one ever learned it. For just then, by way of climax, he who had called for sudden, bold, forward, determined war received it in the form of a bullet through the brain, which left him not even time for a dying quotation.
The Confederates out in the brush were Mississippians and Virginians, three regiments of the former and one of the latter, brigaded under Shanks Evans, who had marched above the stone bridge at Bull Run to meet McDowell’s flank attack head-on. Evans was not here today, but his men had absorbed what he had taught them. Maneuvering on familiar ground, they had allowed the Yankees to penetrate almost to their Leesburg camp, then had taken them under fire and followed them back to the bluff. There, while the Federals drew into a compact mass in the ten-acre glade above the river, with reinforcements coming up to render the mass even more compact and the target plumper, the Southerners kept up a galling fire, some of them even climbing trees to do so. All this while, two of the four regiments returning from a march to meet the empty threat downriver, their battle line was forming in the timber. There was no hurry. By now they saw clearly that the Yanks were too rattled to organize a charge, and they were enjoying their advantage thoroughly; particularly the Mississippians, who were reminded of turkey-shoots down home. It was late afternoon before the gray line was ready. Then their officers led them forward, and the rebel yell quavered above the crash of snapping brush and trampled saplings.
What followed was pandemonium. Colonel Baker had just fallen, and the troops drawn up to meet the onslaught were demoralized when a group of soldiers carried the colonel’s body to the rear. They thought it was the beginning of a retreat. As it turned out, they were right. Remembering the limited capacity of the boats, each man wanted to be in the first wave heading for the Maryland shore and no man wanted to be among the last, with all those screeching fiends in gray concentrating their fire on him. “A kind of shiver ran through the huddled mass upon the brow of the cliff,” a Confederate later wrote. Then, as he watched, “it gave way; rushed a few steps; then, in one wild, panic-stricken herd, rolled, leaped, tumbled over the precipice.” The descent was steep, with jagged rocks, but they would not wait to take the roundabout cowpath. They leaped and kept on leaping, some still clutching their muskets, and tumbled onto the heads and bayonets of the men below, with resultant screams of pain and terror. Presently, the witness added, “the side of the bluff was worn smooth by the number sliding down.”
Some Confederates hesitated in pursuit, horrified at the results of the panic they had just been doing their utmost to create. They shook this off, however, and running to the rim of the bluff they fired into the huddled, leaping rout of blue-clad men as fast as they could manipulate ramrods and triggers. On the narrow bank and in the water—lashed by bullets until the surface boiled “as white as in a great hail storm,” one declared—the scene was worse than the one back on the summit. The wounded had been coming down all day, to be ferried across for medical care and safety. Just as two such boatloads were leaving, their comrades came hurtling down the bluff. Making straight for the loaded boats, they filled them till they swamped and went all the way under, and those of the wounded too badly hurt to swim were swept away and drowned. A flatboat Colonel Baker had horsed out of a nearby canal, using it to get his guns across, was scrambled into until it was almost awash. The fugitives set out in this, but presently, live men ducking and dodging and shot men falling heavily on the gunwales, it capsized and thirty or forty were drowned. One skiff remained, a sheet-metal lifeboat, which soon was so riddled by bullets that it sank, and that left none.
It was dusk by now, the pearly gunsmoke turning blue, the pink stabs of muzzle-flashes deepening to scarlet as they stitched the lip of the bluff overhead. Marooned, many of the fugitives surrendered. A few removed their clothes and swam to safety across the bullet-lashed Potomac. Still others discovered a neck-deep ford leading over to Harrison’s Island and got away in the darkness.
Confederate casualties were negligible, but Union losses approached 1000—over 200 shot and more than 700 captured. Prominent men were among them, including a grandson of Paul Revere, a son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and a nephew of James Russell Lowell. Most prominent of all, however, was the senator from Oregon, Edward D. Baker, called Ned by his friend the President. Back in Washington, Lincoln was at army headquarters while the telegraph clicked off news of the disaster. When the death of Ned Baker came over the wire, Lincoln sat for five minutes, stunned, then made his way unaccompanied through the anteroom, breast heaving, tears streaming down his cheeks. As he stepped out into the street he stumbled, groping blindly, and almost fell. Orderlies and newspapermen jumped to help him, but he recovered his balance and went on alone, leaving them the memory of a weeping President.
Thus Lincoln received the news, with sorrow and tears. Baker’s fellow congressmen received it otherwise. Their breasts heaved, too, but with quite different emotions. Men who had squirmed with impatience at the army’s over-cautiousness in coming to grips with the rebels now raged against a rashness which had snuffed out one of the Senate’s brightest stars. Someone had blundered and blundered badly, and they were out to fix the blame, determined to revenge their martyred colleague. And their rage brought out of this clash on the bluff above the Potomac a new influence, a new force to shape the character of the conflict: the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Senator Ben Wade of Ohio was its chairman, an all-out abolitionist with keen little jet-black eyes and bulldog flews, the upper lip overhanging the lower one at the corners of his mouth, a figure to frighten the disloyal or the inefficient or the merely unlucky. Congress was voting a million dollars a day for war expenses, and now they were out to get their money’s worth, in the form of at least a share in its prosecution. “We must stir ourselves,” Wade said, “on account of the expense.”
Star Chamber-like, the committee’s meeting room was in the Capitol basement, and here the military were summoned to answer accusations without being faced by their accusers or even being allowed to learn their names. General Stone was the first. It was Stone who had ordered Baker across the river; whatever had happened there was clearly his fault. He was suspect anyhow. Back in September he had issued general orders admonishing his men “not to incite and encourage insubordination among the colored servants in the neighborhood of the camps.” That in itself was enough for Wade; but further investigation turned up all sorts of things. There had been strange bonfires, mysterious messengers passing between the lines, and much else. Before long it became clear to the committee that Stone had sent those men across the river to get them butchered, probably after prearrangement with the enemy. He was called up, confronted with the evidence, such as it was—but not with the ones who gave it—and when he protested that he was the man who had guarded the capital through the dark week following Sumter (“I could have surrendered Washington,” he reminded them) they were unimpressed. He was relieved of his command, placed in a cell at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor, and kept there under lock and key, an example to all who dared the wrath of the joint committee.
All this took time, a matter of months. The man they were really after was McClellan, who had Democratic leanings—it was true he had voted only once, but that once had been for Douglas—in addition to being a “soft war” man, with a concern for rebel property rights, including slaves. Beyond McClellan was Lincoln, who had some of the same attributes, and if they were not precisely after Lincoln’s scalp—he had too many votes behind him for that—they intended at least to put some iron in his backbone. Stone was merely an opportunity that popped up, a chance to install the machine and test it, too, even as it was being installed. The trial run had worked out fine, with Stone lodged in a prison cell beyond the help of Lincoln or McClellan. Now they would pass on to bigger things. Ben Wade and his colleagues were out to make this fight a war to the knife, and Stone was their warning to anyone who might think otherwise.
McClellan was aware of this, of course, and was on guard. “I have a set of men to deal with unscrupulous and false,” he told his wife. “If possible they will throw whatever blame there is on my shoulders, and I do not intend to be sacrificed by such people.” It made him wary, coupled as it was with a belief that he was outnumbered by the enemy to his front. Ball’s Bluff had reinforced that belief, and he felt a deep-down sadness.
“There is many a good fellow that wears the shoulder-straps going under the sod before this thing is over,” he told Lincoln soon after they received word of Baker’s death. Then he added, by way of consolation: “There is no loss too great to be repaired. If I should get knocked on the head, Mr President, you will put another man into my shoes.”
“I want you to take care of yourself,” Lincoln said.
Presently there was more cause than ever for him to want Little Mac to take care of himself. Within eleven days of the Ball’s Bluff fiasco, General Scott having at last broken completely under the pointed snubs and contradictions, McClellan was given command of all the Union armies. The old Virginian’s renewed application for retirement was accepted November 1. “Wherever I may spend my little remainder of life,” he wrote, “my frequent and latest prayer will be, ‘God save the Union.’ ” The same day, McClellan was appointed to fill his place, in addition to remaining in command of the Washington army.
Lincoln was worried that the young general might feel overburdened by the increased responsibility. So that evening—while out in Missouri the captain disguised as a farmer was being held incommunicado, having delivered the order relieving Frémont—Lincoln went to McClellan’s headquarters to see how he was bearing up.
He found him in high spirits, glad to be out from under the dead weight of General Scott. Lincoln was pleased to find him so, but he wondered whether McClellan was fully aware of how much he was undertaking. After expressing his pleasure that the change had been made, the President added: “I should be perfectly satisfied if I thought this vast increase of responsibility would not embarrass you.”
“It is a great relief, sir!” McClellan answered. “I feel as if several tons were taken from my shoulders today. I am now in contact with you and the Secretary. I am not embarrassed by intervention.”
“Well,” Lincoln said, “draw on me for all the sense I have, and all the information.” Still wondering, however, if McClellan was as aware of the weight that had been added as he was of the weight that had been taken away, he returned to the point: “In addition to your present command, the supreme command of the Army will entail a vast labor upon you.”
“I can do it all,” McClellan told him.
After a few hours’ sleep the following night, McClellan and his staff got out of their beds at 4 o’clock in the morning, mounted their horses, and, accompanied by a squadron of cavalry, escorted General Scott to the railway station. It was rainy and pitch dark. On the depot platform the gaslight glittered blackly on the officers’ rain-suits, so that they seemed clad in lacquered armor.
Touched by this show of respect, as well as by a general order McClellan had issued that day in his praise—“let us do nothing that can cause him to blush for us,” it ended; “let no defeat of the army he has so long commanded embitter his last years, but let our victories illuminate the close of a life so grand”—the old warrior was cordial to the man who had made his final weeks in Washington a torment. He sent his regards to the young general’s wife and baby, and added that his sensations were “very peculiar” on leaving active duty. Then, the clank of sabers and chink of spur-chains somewhat muffled under the rubberized suits, he received his goodbye salute and boarded the train, which then pulled out.
McClellan returned to his quarters and his bed. Rising for the second time that morning, he found his mind so impressed by the farewell at the depot a few hours ago that he took time to describe it in a letter to his wife. After forwarding Scott’s greetings to her and the new baby, he philosophized on what he had seen: “The sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget. I saw there the end of a long, active, and industrious life, the end of the career of the first soldier of his nation; and it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk; hardly anyone there to see him off but his successor. Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.”
The old soldier had faded away—had gone, in fact, to live for a time at Delmonico’s in New York, where he could get his fill of terrapin; “the best food vouchsafed by Providence to man,” he called it, admiring a steaming forkful held six inches above his plate. Yet he had left a great deal more behind him than the memory of that final scene from which his young successor drew a moral. In the ’40s, commanding in Mexico, he had conducted, on a live-ammunition training ground, a postgraduate course in the art of war for officers who, having fought against Mexicans, would find a broader scope for their talents when they fought against each other in the ’60s. Landing at Vera Cruz, outflanking Cerro Gordo, cutting loose from his base in hostile country to reduce Chapultepec and occupy Mexico City, he had established models for operations that would be repeated, time and again, on a larger scale, so that to list the men who received their baptism of fire under his direction was practically to call the roll of army commanders and generals-in-chief, both North and South, in the war that was building toward a climax at the time of his retirement. All this was much, but he had done still more. He had provided a plan for total war: Scott’s Anaconda.
As a Virginian, older than the capital he was defending, he believed he knew the temper of the people across the Potomac and the Ohio. Their love for the Union was as deep as his own, he believed, and in time—provided they could be made to feel the dull reality of war against a more powerful opponent, without being pricked in their hot-blooded pride by the bayonets of a penetrating army—they would see the error of their angry choice and renounce the men who had led them into a wilderness, away from the direction in which their devotion and true interests lay. Out of this belief he evolved his plan, though what was called an anaconda might better have been described as a water serpent.
All down the eastern seaboard, from Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys, thence along the shores of the Gulf, counter-clockwise from the Keys to Matamoros, he would establish a deep-water naval blockade to wall the Confederacy off from Europe and whatever aid might come from that direction. Meanwhile, down the length of the Mississippi, from Cairo past New Orleans, he would send an army of 60,000 “rough-vigor fellows” backed by gunboats, thus cutting the Southerners off from the cattle and cereals of Texas, as well as from such foreign help as might be forwarded through the neutral ports of Mexico. Having seized all this he would hold on tight, neither advancing nor yielding ground, and within those constricting coils the South would become in very fact a political and economic wilderness, the awful hug of the serpent producing results which bursting shells and prodding bayonets could never bring about. The flame of rebellion, so difficult to stamp out—as an experienced military leader, Scott was thoroughly aware of all the problems of subduing a hostile and determined people—would die from lack of fuel or be smothered by sheer boredom. Unionist sentiment, unprovoked, would reassert itself. The people would come to their senses and force their hot-headed wrong-minded leaders to sue for peace and readmission to the Union, which they never should have left.
Such was Scott’s Anaconda. From the outset, it came in for a considerable measure of ridicule—especially from cartoonists, who confused the metaphor by sketching the old general in a turban, sitting cross-legged as he tried to charm the southern cobra with a flute—as well as violent opposition from such spokesmen as Senator-Colonel Baker, who demanded bold and forward war and would not see that either of these adjectives could be applied to the so-called anaconda plan. Also it was believed to have overrated Unionist sentiment in the South, though whether this was so or not was presently removed to the realm of conjecture; McDowell’s march on Manassas, which Scott opposed, applied the goad which the plan would have avoided. It certainly ran against the grain of McClellan’s expressed intention to “crush the rebels in one campaign” by an overland march on Richmond. Yet in other respects, of all the plans evolved by many men, right up to the end, it was the first to recognize and utilize the North’s tremendous advantage of numbers and material, and it was the first to emphasize the importance of the Mississippi Valley in an over-all view of the war.
Lincoln, at any rate, welcomed it, studied it, and acted on those parts of it which seemed to him most feasible at that stage of the contest. On April 19—the day the 6th Massachusetts was mobbed in Baltimore and the Friday after the Friday whose dawn saw Sumter under fire in Charleston harbor—he proclaimed a blockade of the southern coast. Proclaiming and enforcing were two different things, however, especially considering the size of the fleet charged with transferring the blockade from dry paper to salt water. At that date the Union navy, scattered over the seven seas, included 42 ships, 555 guns, and 7600 sailors, and though by the end of the year this had been consolidated and increased to 264 ships, 2557 guns, and 22,000 sailors, the magnitude of the task ahead made a navy of almost any size seem small.
The anaconda was required to hug a circumference of about five thousand miles, two-fifths dry land and rivers and the remaining three-fifths shoreline. This 3000-mile coastal portion, belly and crotch of the continent, bisected by the phallic droop of the Florida peninsula, was doubled along much of its length, both in the Atlantic and the Gulf, by intricate mazes of sandbars, lagoons, and outlying islands, which, though less forbidding at first glance than the rocky shores of New England, were obviously at second glance much harder to patrol. Nassau and Havana were less than 700 miles, respectively, from Charleston and New Orleans, while Bermuda was but slightly farther from Wilmington. Such good harbors were few, but each had many entrances and outlets. It would be a slow ship, conned by a clumsy skipper indeed, that could not come and go by the dark of the moon, undetected in making its run to or from the safety of those neutral ports.
Knowing all this, Southerners laughed at the anaconda, much as the northern cartoonists were doing, especially that portion of it covered by the blockade proclamation, and predicted—quite accurately, as it turned out—that when Yankee sailors began patrolling the swampy littoral they would discover that even the mosquitoes had enlisted in the resistance. Besides, there was an economic consideration beyond all this, by which the blockade might be reckoned a positive good from the southern point of view, a reinforcement of one of the most powerful weapons in the Confederate arsenal. Cotton, the raw material of Great Britain’s second leading industry, as well as the answer to France’s feverish quest for prosperity, was the white gold key that would unlock and swing ajar the door through which foreign intervention would come marching. Remembering the effectiveness of Jefferson’s embargo on tobacco, of which the Colonies had not controlled the world supply, the South could expect much greater results from an embargo on cotton, on which she held a world monopoly. Going without tobacco had been unpleasant for Europeans, but they would find it downright impossible to manage without cotton. Unfortunately, there had been a bumper crop the year before; French and English warehouses were bulging with the surplus. But that only lengthened the time factor. When the reserve dwindled and the white stream that fed the jennies and looms and the workers who tended them was shut off, Europe would come knocking at Jefferson Davis’ door, offering recognition and the goods of war, the might of the British navy and the use of armies that had blasted Napoleon himself clean off the pages of military history. For all these reasons the South could laugh at and even welcome the proposed blockade, which would strengthen one of her strongest weapons in ratio to its own effectiveness. There was much that was amusing, too, in the contemplation of northern ships patrolling the southern coast to inforce a southern embargo. Few sailors and no ships at all had come over voluntarily to the Confederate side when the nation split in two. Now, belatedly and paradoxically, they would cross over, under orders from their own Commander in Chief.
At the outset the Confederate government, having almost no regular navy, determined to create an irregular one which would function while the other was being built. The Declaration of Paris, an agreement between the European powers five years back, had defined privateering as illegal; but the United States, remembering the success of independent Yankee vessels against the British merchant marine in the War of 1812—and not knowing, moreover, when she might be engaged in such a war again—had refused to sign the document. So now the Richmond Congress, recalling such successes, too, authorized the issue of letters of marque to the captains of whatever ships might apply. It was characteristic of the current southern opinion of northern morals that they expected many such applications to come from New England skippers attracted by a chance at easy dollars.
These were not forthcoming, but before long about twenty vessels were on the high seas, privateering in the American tradition. Lincoln declared them outright pirates and announced that the crews would be treated as such when captured, with hanging as the penalty after conviction in the courts. Davis, never the man to decline a challenge of any sort, replied that for every Confederate sailor so hanged he would hang a Union soldier of corresponding rank, chosen by lot from among the thousands of prisoners in the Richmond tobacco warehouse.
Thus it stood, threat countering threat, until presently the world was given what appeared to be a chance to see which President had the courage of his convictions. The privateer Savannah was taken in June, its crew lodged in a common jail awaiting trial for piracy. Despite the clamor throughout the North in favor of dancing the defendants at a rope end, when the trial was held the New York jury could not agree on a verdict, and thus the crisis passed. Later in the year, however, when the privateer Jeff Davis was taken, the crew brought to trial in Philadelphia, convicted of piracy and sentenced to be hanged, Lincoln showed every sign of going ahead: whereupon Davis reinforced his counterthreat by causing lots to be drawn among the Union prisoners. The short-straw men—including that grandson of Paul Revere, captured at Ball’s Bluff—were placed in condemned cells to await the action of Abraham Lincoln in reviewing the sentence of the men condemned to death in the City of Brotherly Love.
Lincoln paused and considered; and having reconsidered, he backed down. Though he thus exposed himself to charges of indecision and cowardice, declining to engage in a hanging match with Jefferson Davis, he saved the lives of Union soldiers and Confederate sailors—Americans both—and thereby saved the nation a blot on its record. North and South, however, many persons saw only that Davis had taken the measure of his opponent.
Whatever apparent moral advantage the Confederates gained from this clash of presidential wills, they soon found their bloodless victory offset by three sudden hammer blows struck by the Federal navy—two on the Atlantic coast and one in the Gulf of Mexico: Cape Hatteras and Port Royal, off North and South Carolina, and Ship Island, near New Orleans.
These objectives were the choice of a joint three-man strategy board composed of Army, Navy, and Coast Survey officers appointed to make “a thorough investigation of the coast and harbors, their access and defenses.” The fleet was far too small for the enormous job of patrolling the 189 harbor and river openings along the 3549 miles of shoreline between the Potomac and the Rio Grande, and what there was of it was badly in need of ports of refuge, especially along the stormy South Atlantic. Out of this double necessity the blockade gained a new dimension, one in which the army would have a share. Not only could harbor entrances be patrolled; the harbors themselves might be seized, thus reducing the number of points to be guarded and at the same time freeing ships for duty elsewhere. Now, as the summer of the opening year of the war merged into the drawn-out southern fall, it was the task of the strategy board, with its three-headed knowledge of “the coast and harbors, their access and defenses,” to select likely targets for the proposed amphibious operations.
The first was modest in scope but effective in execution. Off North Carolina the wide shallows of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, inclosed by a barrier of islands and reefs, afforded an ideal anchorage for raiders and blockade runners. Here if anywhere was the place at which the board should point its finger. Off that stormy cape the sea was frequently too rough for a fleet to be able to keep station. The only way to block it was to take it. At Hatteras Inlet, the break in the barrier, the Confederates had built two forts on opposite sides of the passage, Clark and Hatteras. Whoever held these forts held Pamlico Sound, and on August 26 an expedition of fourteen vessels under Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham sailed from Hampton Roads to take them. Among the ships were four transports carrying 860 men under Ben Butler, who thus was given a chance to redeem his blunders at Big Bethel.
This he did, and easily, for the army had almost nothing to do. Stringham, with superior ordinance, stood just outside the range of the rebel guns and for two days threw shells into the forts at will, suffering no hurt himself. Butler’s men, put ashore well north of the forts—300 of them, anyhow; for the surf staved in the landing-boats by the time that many got ashore—marched down the island, wet and hungry, their ammunition ruined by the surf, and arrived in time to watch their general share with Stringham the honor of receiving the surrender of Fort Hatteras, Fort Clark having run up its white flag the day before. Most of the soldiers and three of the ships were left to hold what had been won, while the rest returned to Fortress Monroe with their 615 prisoners. The navy had taken its first Confederate stronghold, and in doing so had reduced its blockade task.
The second offensive operation, down in the Gulf in mid-September, was even simpler, requiring not even the token assistance of troops. Here the lower delta of the many-mouthed Mississippi posed a problem much like Hatteras, with raiders and blockade runners entering and leaving the great port of New Orleans almost at will. Though the threat of storms was not as constant, a tropical hurricane was something a man had to see to believe, and sandbars lurked as dangerous as reefs. All in all, the strategy board perceived that here, too, the only way to block the port effectively was to seize it. The navy was by no means prepared to undertake such an assignment just yet, but the board believed it was ready to make a beginning. Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast, would provide an excellent station for patrolling the eastern delta outlets and the passes down out of Lake Pontchartrain, as well as an ideal base from which to launch the attack on New Orleans itself, if and when the opportunity came. So the board instructed the navy: Take it. And the navy did, together with its uncompleted fortifications, before the Confederates were prepared to fire a shot in its defense. Thus the Union secured its second foothold along the secession coast.
The third and final operation of the year was far more ambitious than the others, neither of which had given the fleet the large, deep-water harbor it needed in order to maintain a year-round blockade of such busy ports as Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. About one-third of the way up the palmetto-studded hundred miles of South Carolina littoral lying between the latter two cities, the strategy board found what it was seeking. Port Royal, the finest natural harbor on the southern coast, would float the navies of the world. Obviously, however, though they had no real need for it themselves, having almost no navy, the Confederates were thoroughly aware of what covetous eyes the Union navy was casting in that direction. If it was to be undertaken, the job must be done in strength, after preparation in great secrecy. Both were provided for; the board took no chances it could avoid. The naval member himself, Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, was appointed to head the expedition of 74 vessels, including transports for a land force of 12,000 men. In late October, sailing under sealed orders, this fleet put out from Hampton Roads, considerable pains having been taken to conceal its destination.
Almost at once, Du Pont was struck a double blow by fate—in the form of Confederate intelligence and the weather. He not only lost the advantages of secrecy; he came close to losing his fleet as well. On the day he put out, the Richmond government alerted its coastal defenses, giving warning that the force had sailed. Three days later, November 1, the defenders of the fleet’s objective received a specific telegram: “The enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.” On the same day, the fleet ran into a gale off Hatteras. The wind approaching hurricane strength, two of the ships went down and the crew of a third had to heave her guns into the sea to keep from foundering. By dawn of the following day, November 2, the fleet was so scattered that Du Pont could sight but one sail from the deck of his flagship, the Wabash. He continued southward, however, and in clear weather two days later dropped anchor off the bar at Port Royal. Twenty-five of his ships had rejoined by then, together with reinforcements from the Charleston squadron, and others kept bobbing up along the horizon. He spent another two days replacing the rebel-destroyed channel markers, crossing the bar—a dangerous business for the deep-draft Wabash—completing his attack plan, and finally holding a conference at which he outlined for his captains the order of battle. At last he was ready, and at 8 o’clock the following morning, November 7, the attack got under way.
He knew what his wooden ships would encounter. At the entrance to Port Royal Sound the enemy held Fort Beauregard, mounting 20 guns on Bay Point to the north, and Fort Walker, mounting 23 guns on Hilton Head to the south. Less than three miles apart, both of these forts were strongly built, their gunners alerted for a week, awaiting the opportunity Du Pont was about to offer them. Somewhere beyond them, too, was a Confederate flotilla of three tugs, mounting one gun each, and a converted river steamer under Commodore Josiah Tattnall, whom Du Pont knew to be a bold and capable officer, having messed with him in what was already known as “the old navy.” The forts were Du Pont’s main concern, however, and in attempting their reduction he would have no help from the three brigades of soldiers in the transports. Not only were these landsmen still somewhat green about the gills as a result of their experience off Hatteras, but in that storm, along with much else, they had lost nearly all their landing craft. It was to be a job for the naval force alone. In fact, Du Pont preferred it so. The most he would ask of the army was that it stand by to help pick up the pieces.
To accomplish the double reduction he had evolved a novel plan of attack, an order of battle which divided his fighting force into a main squadron of nine of the heaviest frigates and sloops, ranged in line ahead, and a flanking squadron of five gunboats. They would enter the sound in parallel columns, the lighter squadron ranged to starboard, and pass midway between the forts, receiving and returning the fire of both. At a point about two miles beyond the entrance, the main force was to round by the south and come back west, moving slowly past Fort Walker, maintaining the heaviest possible fire, then round to the north and head back east, slowing again as it passed Fort Beauregard. The flanking squadron, meanwhile, was to peel off and engage the Confederate flotilla or whatever targets of opportunity the rebels might afford, while the main force kept both forts under fire, widening the elliptical attack so as to bring its guns in closer on every turn.
And so it was. At the signal from the commander on the Wabash, leading the way across the sunlit water, the fleet steamed forward, two columns in close order. A flash and a roar shot out from Fort Walker, echoed at once by Beauregard. The ships took up the challenge and the fight was on. As they neared the turning point, Tattnall brought his four makeshift warships down the sound, and from a raking position let go several broadsides at the Wabash as soon as she came within range. The gunboats gave him their attention then; whereupon the Confederate, with fourteen Union men-of-war to his immediate front, discreetly came about and made a swift, flat-bottomed retreat up Skull Creek, three miles northwest of the fort on Hilton Head. He was out of the fight for good, bottled up by the gunboats, which took station off the creek mouth. According to a Savannah newspaper published five days later, Tattnall dipped his pennant three times in jaunty salute to his old messmate, “regretting his inability to return the highflown compliments of Flag Officer Du Pont in a more satisfactory manner.”
By then the Federal captain was busy elsewhere, with little time for compliments, highflown or otherwise. As the main column turned south, beginning its first eastward run, each ship opened with its forward pivot against Fort Walker’s northern flank, which Du Pont had learned from reconnaissance was its weakest. The cannon being lodged on the parapet—which, if it increased their range, also increased their vulnerability—several were violently dismounted, others lost their crews, and the gunners, taken thus by enfilade from a direction in which they had not expected to fight, were dismayed. A British correspondent on one of the Union ships saw tall columns of dust spring up from the fort to mark the hits the fleet was scoring, and it looked to him “as if we had suddenly raised from the dust a grove of poplars.”
Not that the rebel gunnery had been very effective in the first place. The enemy ships, moving along their elliptical course, with constant changes in speed, range, and deflection, were extremely hard to hit. What was more, the defenders had not wasted their scant powder on anything as unprofitable as target practice, and now that it came to bloody work they found that many of the shells would not fit, the powder was inferior, and the crews became exhausted within an hour of opening fire. All of which, sad as it was in Confederate eyes, was really quite beside the point. Fort Walker—to which Fort Beauregard, across the water, was merely adjunct—had been built to be defended only from dead ahead, against a force moving straight in from the sea. When this became apparent, it became apparent, too, that the fight had been lost from the moment Du Pont conceived his plan of attack. The only conditions left to be satisfied were those of honor.
Erratic or deadly, the firing continued, and as the main squadron steamed slowly past Fort Walker, delivering broadsides at point-blank range, the flanking squadron, maintaining its watch over the mouth of the creek up which Tattnall had retreated, added the weight of its guns to the pressure against the vulnerable northern flank, its shells bowling down the line of metal on the parapet. Assailed from both directions by naval crews who worked with coolness and precision—more guns were dismounted; more men fell—the defenders fired even more wildly. The main squadron completed its first pass, closing upon Fort Beauregard, then swept down and around again, coming within less than 600 yards of the fort on Hilton Head, which had but three guns left in working order by the time the ships completed their second run. The Wabash was just rounding to the south, leading the way into a third ellipse, when Du Pont received a message that Fort Walker had been abandoned. At 2.20 a naval landing party raised the Union flag above ramparts that were pocked and battered, strewn with wreckage left by men who would not sweat to keep from bleeding, and then had wound up doing both at once. Army transports now put in. By nightfall, troops had occupied the works. Across the way, Fort Beauregard hauled down its flag at sunset, and early next morning the troops crossed over and occupied it too.
The victory was complete, and by it the Federal navy gained an excellent harbor in the very heart-land of secession. Nor was that all. Within the next three days the victors moved up the rivers and inlets and occupied the colonial towns of Beaufort and Port Royal, bringing under their control some of the finest old plantations in the South and thereby affording an opportunity not to be neglected by their abolitionist brethren, who presently arrived and began conducting uplift experiments among the Negro fieldhands. The battle itself had not been without its romantic aspect, for one of the defenders had been Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton, C.S.A., whose brother, Captain Percival Drayton, U.S.N., commanded one of the attacking frigates; the South Carolina island for which they fought had been their boyhood home.
Satisfying as all this was to supporters of the Union—the loyal brother having won, Federal guns and Federal notions were now in operation within fifty airline miles of Charleston, where secession had had its birth eleven months before—there emerged from the battle another fact which had, for those who understood its implications, more weight than all the other facts combined, heart-warming and romantic though they were. Against stiffer resistance, this third hammer blow had been even more successful than the other two, and nowhere had the fleet failed to seize any objective assigned by the strategy board. Some standard theories were going to have to be revised: the belief that one gun on land was equal to four on water, for example. Steam had changed all that, removing the restrictions of wind and current, and making possible such maneuvers as Du Pont’s expanding ellipse. From now on, apparently, the board had only to select its targets, concentrate the might of the fleet, and blast them into submission. Naval power was going to be a dominant factor in this war.
Coming as it did in the wake of defeats along Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, near opposite ends of the thousand-mile-long fighting line, this triple victory hammered out by the Federal navy did much to revive the flagging martial spirit of the North. There was no corresponding depression in the South, however, the odds in all three of these naval engagements having been too one-sided to give much cause for doubting the proved superiority of Confederate arms. It had been more or less obvious all along that the enemy could concentrate and strike with superior force at almost any point along the perimeter; that had been one of the conditions accepted by Davis when he chose the strategic defensive. When the pressure elsewhere was relieved, when the advantage shifted so that the South would be doing the concentrating and striking, the world would find out whether the North would be able to hold what it had won. Yet now, since that policy involved the dispersal of force to meet attacks from all directions, as the drawn-out fall wore on and the year was rounding toward a close, Southerners began to discover the price they would have to pay, in the hard cash of lost chances, for the advantages that accrued to the defensive.
In late September, after Hatteras and Ship Island had been lost and a third such operation was probably already into the planning stage, Davis went up to Fairfax Courthouse for a conference with the victors of Manassas. While the blasted oaks on the battlefield to their rear turned red in the fine clear weather of early fall, the men who had won that battle lay idle, watching the blue-clad host to their front grow stronger every day. At this stage, Federal troops were joining at the rate of 40,000 a month—about the total effective strength of Johnston’s army. Pinkerton, with his tabulated lists compiled by operatives in Richmond, had misled his employer badly. Yet McClellan had been right in his fears that he might be brought to battle before his soldiers were ready: Beauregard was planning an offensive.
Though volunteering had fallen off to such an extent that the men arriving barely replaced those lost by the expiration of short-term enlistments and a liberal granting of furloughs, and though the army was crippled by a shortage of arms and supplies—food as well as munitions—he believed that the northern army, still in something of a state of shock from the whipping it had taken two months back, had perhaps now merely reached that stage of crystallization at which a smartly administered rap would cause it to fly apart again. In reply to the Federal threat to divide and conquer the South by a descent of the Mississippi, Beauregard wanted to make a sudden thrust across the Potomac and divide the Union, east and west, by seizing the strip of territory lying between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. When the Yankee army came out from behind its Washington intrenchments he would administer the rap that would accomplish its disintegration, then go about his business of division and conquest. The odds were long, he admitted, but they were shorter than they were likely to be at any time hereafter, especially if the Confederates remained passive and continued to allow the growing enemy host time in which to regain its confidence.
Such was his plan, and as Davis listened to it on the first day of October, closeted with the generals at their Fairfax headquarters, within twenty miles of Washington itself, Beauregard expounding and Johnston nodding approval, he could see its advantages, in spite of its abrogation of his claim that “all we ask is to be let alone.” Then came the rub. Beauregard declared that he would undertake the movement with 50,000 men, while Johnston held out for 60,000; which meant that Davis would have the problem of finding 10- to 20,000 reinforcements for the invasion.
The Federal navy, having launched its first two amphibious operations, now was preparing a third, whose objective could only be guessed at. Every general in every department along the Atlantic and the Gulf—and, what was worse, every governor of every state that touched salt water; which included all but two of the eleven—not only believed that the blow would be struck, but was convinced that it would be aimed straight at him. They were calling loudly for help, and Davis could foresee the clamor that would follow any request that they forward troops to fatten the army now lying idle in northern Virginia. And with good cause; for in practically every case the political clamor would be followed by a military disaster. Down in North Carolina, for example, the loss of Hatteras had exposed New Bern, and the loss of New Bern would mean the loss of the Weldon railroad, the only supply line between Richmond and the South Atlantic states. Without that line the Virginia army not only could not hope to mount an invasion, it could not even be maintained in its present position beyond ten days. On the Gulf the situation was almost as critical. The army being assembled and drilled at Pensacola might be considered available, but the recent seizure of Ship Island had exposed the nation’s tender underbelly to assault, and that army was all that stood in a position to blunt the point of such a stab. Wherever Davis looked, the situation was such that to strip one area for the removal of troops to another would be to exchange possible success for probable disaster.
Beauregard urged in vain that the length of the odds was an argument for, not against, the risk; that desperate men must take desperate chances, and that whatever was lost in the interim could be retaken after a victory on northern soil. Davis shook his head. No reinforcements could be sent, he said, without “a total disregard for the safety of other threatened positions.”
The Creole could only shrug, while Johnston sat resigned, not being exactly a forward, cut-and-slash sort of commander in the first place. That ended all talk of a fall offensive, either along the Virginia line or elsewhere. For this year at least, the nation was committed to the dispersed defensive, and Davis took the cars back to Richmond.
He had troubles enough to vex him there, what with the day-to-day frets of office, the long nights rendered sleepless by neuralgia, and the fire-eaters shouting angrily that he had no policy that could even hinder, let alone halt, the southward crunch of the gigantic war machine the North was building unmolested. The cabinet he had assembled with such concern for political expediency had already begun to come apart at the seams. The brilliant and unpredictable Toombs, after hesitating to recommend the firing of the opening shot at Sumter, had bridled, once the shot had been fired, at being desk-bound while other men were learning the glad companionship of service in the field. On the day of Manassas, the issue being still in doubt in Richmond, where all that was known was that the guns were booming, he could abide it no longer. He submitted his resignation, as of that day, and left his post as head of the State Department to enter the army as a Georgia brigadier. Within another two months War Secretary Leroy P. Walker had done likewise, though for quite different reasons. Instead of feeling left out or insufficiently employed, the Alabamian had been employed beyond his capabilities, and he knew it. Swamped with work, trussed up in yards of red tape, he too departed for the field, where a man had only the comparatively simple frets of being killed or mangled. They would be missed, especially Toombs, but their going gave Davis a double—or in fact, as he worked it out, a triple—opportunity.
As Attorney General, Judah P. Benjamin was largely wasting his talents, since the Justice Department no more had courts than the Postal Department, in the early months, had stamps. The War Office, which Walker had left in such a snarl, seemed the perfect field for Benjamin’s administrative abilities. Accordingly, Davis shifted him there. This still left two vacancies, and in filling them the President corrected another shortcoming. The all-important border states had come into the Confederacy in April, and all this time had been without representation in the cabinet, there having been no vacancy. Now that there were two such, Davis filled them with men of distinction from Virginia and North Carolina: Robert M. T. Hunter of the former and Thomas Bragg of the latter. The Virginian went in as head of the State Department and the North Carolinian was given Benjamin’s post as Attorney General. How Davis would get along with them remained to be seen. Like most of the old cabinet members, neither of the new ones had been intimate friends of his in private life before the war; nor were they now.
At any rate he had his family with him, established at last in what was called the White House of the Confederacy, not because it was white (it wasn’t; it was gray) but because the President’s residence had been called that under the old flag: a handsome, high-ceilinged mansion on the brow of a hill at the eastern end of Clay Street, with a garden to the rear, downhill, shaded by poplars and sycamores and the horse-chestnuts his wife loved. Though the Virginia ladies looked askance and called her “a western belle” behind their fans, Mrs Davis, already heavy with the child she had conceived in Montgomery and would bear in Richmond in December, assumed her social duties with grace and charm. She was a credit to her position and a comfort to her husband. Yet even with her there to minister to his mental and bodily ills, the long hours and the constant strain were telling on his health and on his temper, both highly frangible in the first place.
Twenty years of public life had not thickened his skin against the pricks of criticism, and the past seven months had even thinned it. At times he was like a flayed man in a sandstorm. His wife could overlook the sidelong glances of the FFVs, but to Davis any facial tic of disagreement became at once a frown of disapproval. He had lost none of the gracious manner by which he could charm an opponent into glad agreement, yet now he scorned to employ it, and turned snappishly upon any man who crossed him. Smarting under the goads of office, he fell out with whoever did not yield to him in all things, and any difference was immediately made personal.
It had been thus even in the case of the two generals he had counseled with at Fairfax. Though nothing in their words or manner had shown this at the conference itself—all three being gentlemen and patriots who, in any given situation for which they had had time to steel their tempers, could place the national good above personal bias—Davis had shared a sort of running quarrel-by-courier with both of the ranking heroes of Manassas. Beauregard with his bloodhound eyes and swarthy complexion, his hair brushed forward at the temples, Napoleonic in aspect and conception, eager for glory, Gallic and expansive, and Johnston with his prim, high-colored, wedge-shaped face, his balding head, his gray-shot sideburns and goatee, Virginia-proud, Virginia-genial when he wanted to be, cunctative as Fabius Maximus yet jaunty as a gamecock: these two had known the quick wrath and the withering scorn of the intellectual Davis in dispatches that were alternately hot or icy, but which in either case, when designed to sting, performed that function all too well. Gone was the glad comradeship they had shared on the field of Manassas, born of relief and exultation in that July twilight while the Union flood ran backward up the roads to Washington. Since then, both men had fallen from presidential favor.
Beauregard fell first. The man who had shown much modesty on his arrival at Richmond, with the laurels of Sumter still green on his brow, became a different man entirely when he took up his pen in the seclusion of his tent. After Manassas, talk had grown rife that the President had prevented any pursuit of the routed enemy: so rife, indeed, that Davis took the unusual step of asking his generals to deny the rumor officially. This Beauregard was glad to do, and promptly. But in his report on the battle, which unfortunately got to the newspapers before it reached the presidential desk, he reverted to his original scheme for combining the armies to crush the Union forces in detail—the plan which had been outlined by one of his aides at the first Confederate war council, held at the Spotswood a week before the battle—with the implication that its having been rejected was the reason why the southern army was not in the northern capital now.
Davis would not let this pass. “With much surprise, I found that the newspaper statements were sustained by the text of your report,” he wrote, and took the general to task. His last letter to the Louisianian had begun “My dear General” and ended “Very truly, your friend.” This one opened with a frigid “Sir” and closed with an ambiguous “Very respectfully, yours &c.”
The breach widened as the general’s friends took up the cudgel. At last, in early November, Beauregard himself aired the grievance in a letter to the Richmond Whig. Headed “within hearing of the enemy’s guns,” it referred to the “unfortunate controversy now going on,” and said in part: “I entreat my friends not to trouble themselves about refuting the slanders and calumnies aimed at me.… If certain minds cannot understand the difference between patriotism, the highest civic virtue, and office-seeking, the lowest civic occupation, I pity them from the bottom of my heart.” However, the reaction was quite different from what he had anticipated. In reference to the “unique” heading, for example, a rival paper asked: “Are we expected to give special credit to the general’s lucubrations by reason of a fact certainly not very unusual in military operations?” The public, too, was disenchanted; a star had lost its luster. If Davis himself had chosen the words and directed the actions, the general could not have played more neatly into his hands.
The Creole was unhappy anyhow. He felt cramped, no more than a supernumerary, now that his army was merely a corps in Johnston’s command. Practically overnight his dark hair was shot with gray: a phenomenon for which the different factions offered different explanations. Friends said that this was the result of overwork and heavy responsibility. Others attributed it to the blockade, which had cut him off from accustomed shipments of French hair dye. Whatever caused his graying, before the end of the year it was plain that he would have to go. Davis was considering sending him West, where he would find problems of such complexity that even his active mind would be kept busy and there would be ample opportunity for him to exercise his talents, both with the sword and the pen.
Trouble with Johnston had begun even sooner—all the way back in their West Point days, some said, when he and Davis were alleged to have had a fist fight over the favors of Benny Haven’s daughter. Johnston won both the fight and the girl, rumor added; which might or might not have been true. At any rate, whatever had gone before, anger flared in considerable heat soon after the last day of August, when Davis forwarded to the Senate the names of five men to be given the rank of full general, lately provided for by law. The Senate confirmed them promptly, and in the order proposed. Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper headed the list, a sixty-six-year-old New Yorker who had married South and crossed over from the old army, in which he had held the same position. Next came Albert Sidney Johnston, still on the way from California after resigning his U.S. commission, a Kentucky-born Texan whom Davis and many others considered the first soldier of the Confederacy. Third was Robert E. Lee, mobilizer and former commander of all the Virginia forces, now campaigning in the Alleghenies, charged with regaining what had been lost out there. Near the bottom of the list came Joseph E. Johnston himself, followed only by P. G. T. Beauregard, who came fifth.
When notice of these promotions reached Johnston he was outraged in his sense of equity and wounded in his pride. In the old army he had outranked them all, having been appointed Quartermaster-General, with a staff commission as a brigadier, while they were only colonels. He saw no justice in Davis’ assumption that seniority for line command must be based exclusively on line service, in which both Lee and the other Johnston had held their commissions. All he saw was that he had been passed over.
Accordingly, while his wrath still smoked, he sat down and wrote a six-page letter of protest addressed to Jefferson Davis as the author of his woes. After expressing his “surprise and mortification,” he wrote: “I now and here declare my claims, that notwithstanding these nominations by the President and their confirmation by Congress I still rightfully hold the rank of first general of the Armies of the Southern Confederacy.” The order of names on the list, he added, “seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service. I had but this, the scars of many wounds, all honorably taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father’s Revolutionary sword. It was delivered to me from his venerated hand, without a stain of dishonor. Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine”; and much else, in much the same vein of outraged virtue. He waited two days before sending it. Then, finding his anger still uncooled, and remaining convinced of the trenchancy of his arguments and the fitness of the words he had used to advance them, he forwarded the letter unrevised.
Davis read it with a wrath that quickly rose to match the sender’s. This Virginian, rattling his father’s sword between lines that spoke of his “fair fame” and his wounded front, outdid even Beauregard. In composing his reply, however, Davis employed not a foil but a cutlass. Rejecting the nimble parry and riposte of rhetoric and logic, at both of which he was a master, he delivered instead one quick slash of scorn:
Sir: I have just received and read your letter of the 12th instant. Its language is, as you say, unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.
I am, &c.
Knowing Johnston he knew the effect this letter would have. He knew that it would never be forgotten or forgiven and that it must necessarily underlie a relationship involving the fortune, if not the very being, of their new nation. In writing and sending this reply it was therefore as if he deliberately threw off-center a vital gear in a machine which had been delivered into his care and was his whole concern. Yet his reasons, his motivations, were basic. Loving his country he was willing to give it all he owned, including his life; but he would not sacrifice his prerogative or his pride, since in his mind that would have been to sacrifice not only his life but his existence. There was a difference. It was not only that he would not. He could not. Without his prerogative, he would not be President; without his pride, he would not even be Davis.
Men interpreted him as they saw him, and for the most part they considered him argumentative in the extreme, irascible, and a seeker after discord. A Richmond editor later wrote, for all to read, that Davis was “ready for any quarrel with any and everybody, at any time and all times; and the suspicion goes that rather than not have a row on hand with the enemy, he would make one with the best friend he had on earth.”
Since Davis seldom chose to explain his actions—such explanations not fitting his conception of the dignity of his office—all too often the editor’s charge seemed true. It appeared to be quite literally true in one case which came up about this time. He received from a general in the field a confidential report that a subordinate must be dismissed. This officer was an old friend of Davis’, and when he received the presidential order of dismissal he came to Richmond to plead his case before the man who had signed it. “You know me,” he said. “How could I ever hold my head up under the implied censure from you, my old friend?” Davis would give him no explanation. Choosing rather to alienate a friend than to betray a confidence, or even infer that there was a confidence he could not betray, he told him: “You have, I believe, your orders. I can suggest nothing but obedience.” And neither the friend nor the editor, nor for that matter the parlor gossips in Richmond, ever learned why this was done; nor that Davis came home that evening, suffering from the dyspepsia which was with him a symptom of nervous upset, and went to his room without eating.
In this dark autumn, while Beauregard and Johnston chafed and politicians grew bitter at having to accept disproof of their prediction that the war would be a ninety-day excursion, Davis was disappointed by another general from whom he had expected much. Robert E. Lee’s failure, however, came not because he was self-seeking or insubordinate—Lee was never either—but seemingly because he was incompetent in the field. The harshness of this judgment was emphasized by the contrast between what was done and what had been expected.
When Garnett fell in western Virginia and his army scattered before the skillful combinations of McClellan, it became necessary for Davis to send someone out there to put the pieces back together. Lee was the obvious choice. A man of considerable handsomeness and moral grandeur, hero of the Mexican War, he was Virginia’s first soldier. Though it was not widely known that he had been tendered command of the U.S. forces before his resignation to go with his state, it was a matter of general knowledge that his rapid mobilization of Virginia’s troops had made possible the victory at Manassas. One week after that battle he started west, taking with him the expectations of the President and the southern people.
Federal military successes in the region had reinforced an earlier political maneuver. Back in April, when the Richmond convention voted for secession, the western members crossed the mountains and assembled in Wheeling, where—on grounds that by voting for secession the other members had committed treason and thereby placed themselves outside the law—they drew up a new constitution, elected a new governor, and petitioned Washington for recognition as the lawful government of the state. Lincoln, of course, welcomed them, and presently their representatives were occupying the Virginia seats in Congress and laying the groundwork for the creation of the loyal state of West Virginia. Nothing was more galling to Confederate Virginians than the presence of these men in Washington, and one of the things expected of Lee was that he would abolish the rump government which had sent them there.
Strategically, too, the region was of great importance. Along its far edge ran the Ohio River, which not only was the traditional natural barrier of the new nation, but also flowed down toward the heart of Kentucky. Through its northern counties ran two vital supply lines, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. These severed, Washington would have to find a roundabout route for drawing men and supplies from the West. Still more important, with only a one-hundred-mile neck of land dividing the northward jut of its tiny panhandle from the shores of Lake Erie, it was the best location from which to launch an offensive such as the one proposed by Beauregard at Fairfax. That narrow isthmus also divided the Union, east and west; to seize it would be to split the North in two. When Lee left Richmond, all these opportunities lay before him in the western mountains, and no one went on record then as doubting that he would accomplish everything to which he put his hand.
What the public did not know was that he did not go out there to command but to advise, to coördinate the operations of four small independent “armies” whose commanders included one professional soldier, one scholarly ex-diplomat, and two high-tempered politicians. The campaign was to be conducted seventy miles from the nearest railhead, in an area whose population was largely hostile and whose principal “crop” was mountain laurel, so that supplies had to be brought up over roads made bottomless by rain that seldom slacked. “It rained thirty-two days in August,” one veteran asserted. The troops were hungry and ragged, cowed by the defeats of the past month, half of them down with measles or mumps and the other half lacking confidence in their leaders. It was here in the mountains that Lee encountered for the first time a new type of animal: the disaffected southern volunteer. “They are worse than children,” he declared, “for the latter can be forced.”
Nevertheless, with such material and under such conditions, he now tried to work with the first pair in his highly diversified quartet of brigadiers. The soldier, W. W. Loring, who had been there only a week, resented Lee’s arrival as a sign that the government did not trust him, and the diplomat, Henry R. Jackson, though willing, was inexperienced; with the result that when Lee attempted to trap the Federals on Cheat Mountain by an involved convergence of five columns from the two commands, the soldier balked, the diplomat blundered, and nothing was accomplished except to warn the Union troops of the movement, which had to be called off. Failing here, Lee looked south, where the two politicians were independently arrayed.
They were John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise, both one-time governors of Virginia, the latter having occupied that office during the John Brown raid and the former having gone on to become Secretary of War in Buchanan’s cabinet. Floyd had shown a tendency to grow flustered under pressure, and Wise had indicated what manner of soldier he was by ordering a battery commander to open fire in woods so thick that he could see no target and could therefore do no execution. “Damn the execution, sir!” Wise replied when the artillerist protested. “It’s the sound that we want.”
These shortcomings were nothing, though, compared to the relationship that Lee discovered existing between the commanders when he arrived. With an eye for past rivalries, and for possible future ones as well, the two ex-governors seemed more intent on destroying each other than they were on injuring the enemy to their front. Wise had raised an independent Legion, and when Floyd, who outranked him, came into the district, he telegraphed Richmond: “I solemnly protest that my force is not safe under his control.” Floyd, enjoying the advantages of such rank, countered by offering to swap Wife’s Legion for any three regiments of infantry, sight unseen. It was obvious that neither of these generals, intent as they were on mutual destruction—for which Floyd was perhaps the better equipped, having three newspaper editors on his staff—would be anxious, or maybe even willing, to cooperate in any venture which might bring credit to his adversary.
Yet Lee did what he could. He designed another combined operation, this time up the Kanawha Valley, and finally got the two commands in motion: whereupon, at the critical moment, with the enemy before them, the rivals took up separate positions, twelve miles apart, and, each declaring his own position superior, refused to march to join the other. Lee, whose primary reaction to the situation was embarrassment, was spared the ultimate necessity for sternness, however, when a War Department courier arrived with a dispatch instructing Wise to report immediately to Richmond. Wise pondered mutiny, but then, advised by Lee, decided against it and left, muttering imprecations.
With his problem thus reduced at least by half, Lee assembled the forces and took up a strong defensive position, planning destruction for the Federals. He hoped they would attack; if not, then he would launch an attack himself. For three days he waited. On the fourth he found the woods in front of him vacant, the enemy having pulled back out of reach, unobserved. All Lee could do, with winter closing in, was pull back, too. The three-month campaign was over, and he followed Wise to Richmond.
It was over and he had accomplished none of those things the public had expected. He had kept the advancing Federals off the Virginia Central and the Virginia & Tennessee Railroads, but this was generally ignored in the shadow of the darker fact that, with all those bright prospects before him, he had not even fought a battle. A Richmond journalist reviewed the operation thus: “The most remarkable circumstance of this campaign was, that it was conducted by a general who had never fought a battle, who had a pious horror of guerillas, and whose extreme tenderness of blood induced him to depend exclusively upon the resources of strategy to essay the achievement without the cost of life.”
Lee had already written his wife, “I am sorry … that the movements of our armies cannot keep pace with the expectations of the editors.… I know they can arrange things satisfactory to themselves on paper. I wish they could do so in the field.” And yet there was justice in the charge. Lee had been tender of bloodshed, designing complicated envelopments to avoid it—none of which had worked. Above all, he had shown himself incapable of jamming discipline down insubordinate throats. Besides, the journalist was reflecting general opinion. The public saw Lee now as a theorist, an engineer, a desk soldier, one who must fight by the book if he fought at all, and those who had watched with pride as he set out, expecting satisfaction for their hopes, now prepared looks of scorn for his return.
They did not use them to his face, however. Three months of adversity in the mountains had given him an austerity that would not permit familiarity, not even the familiarity of scorn. At fifty-four he had grown a beard; it came out gray, and people looked at him in awe. But beyond the influence of his presence, they sneered and called him Granny Lee and Evacuating Lee and wondered what use could be made of a soldier who would not fight.
Davis found a use for him as soon as he returned in early November. Having learned in private the details of the campaign—details which the public did not know, since Lee’s delicacy, even toward men whose bickering had wrecked his reputation, would not allow him to include them in a report for the record—the President sent him to the South Atlantic coast, where his engineering abilities would be useful in improving the defenses. Hatteras Inlet and Ship Island had been lost, and a third blow seemed about to land. It landed, in fact, the day Lee got there. He arrived just in time to hear the guns at Port Royal and meet the fugitives streaming rearward from that fight. The Virginian could scarcely be blamed for this, yet a South Carolina matron wrote of him in her diary next day:“Preux chevalier, booted and bridled and gallant rode he, but so far his bonnie face had only brought us ill luck.”
He believed more in work, however, than in luck. Having studied the situation, he strengthened some forts, abandoned others, and redrew the defenses, shifting them back from the sounds and rivers so that the invaders would have to fight beyond range of their gunboats. This called for digging, which Lee ordered done, and this in turn brought a storm of protest. His soldiers, especially the native South Carolinians, found the order doubly onerous. Digging wasn’t fit work for a white man, they complained, and a brave man wouldn’t hide behind earthworks in the first place. He put them at it anyhow, and as they dug they coined a new name for him: King of Spades.
Granny Lee, Evacuating Lee, the King of Spades, was one of several ranking Confederates who found their loyalty to Davis repaid in kind. Risking, sometimes losing, the affection and confidence of large segments of the people for their sakes, Davis sustained them through adversity and unpopularity, whether the public reaction seemed likely to reach an end or not. Obviously this had its drawbacks. Then and down the years, depending on the critic’s estimate of the bolstered individual, it was the quality for which he was at once most highly praised and most deeply blamed. Yet one advantage it clearly had for southern leaders, with a value greatly enhanced by the fact that it was seldom available to their opposite northern numbers: No man, knowing that Davis trusted him and knowing what that trust entailed, ever had to glance back over his shoulder, wondering whether the government—meaning Davis—would support him against the clamor of the disgruntled or sacrifice him on grounds of political expediency. And if this was clear to the generals thus sustained, it was even clearer to the politicians, who knew that Davis would do his duty as he saw it. When legislation which they knew was bad for the country came before them, they did not hesitate to pass the measure if it was popular with the folks back home, knowing that Davis would exercise his veto. (He employed it thirty-nine times in the course of the war, while his opponent used it thrice, and only in one case was it overridden.) Thus in dignified silence he shouldered the blame for men who called him obstinate and argumentative and did their worst to swell the chorus of abuse.
His tenure was no longer merely provisional. On the first Wednesday in November he and Stephens were elected, without opposition, to six-year terms of office. Inauguration ceremonies were scheduled for Washington’s birthday, which seemed a fitting date for the formal launching of the permanent government established by the Second American Revolution. That this government was permanent, in fact as well as name, Davis had no doubt. “If we husband our means and make a judicious use of our resources,” he assured the Provisional Congress at its final session, November 18, “it would be difficult to fix a limit to the period during which we could conduct a war against the adversary whom we now encounter.”
For that adversary, whose leader styled the southern revolution a “rebellion” and whose people now were submitting meekly to indignities no American had ever encountered without fight, he expressed contempt. “If instead of being a dissolution of a league, it were indeed a rebellion in which we are engaged, we might find ample vindication for the course we have adopted in the scenes which are now being enacted in the United States. Our people now look with contemptuous astonishment on those with whom they had been so recently associated. They shrink with aversion from the bare idea of renewing such a connection. When they see a President making war without the assent of Congress; when they behold judges threatened because they maintain the writ of habeas corpus so sacred to freedom; when they see justice and law trampled under the armed heel of military authority, and upright men and innocent women dragged to distant dungeons upon the mere edict of a despot; when they find all this tolerated and applauded by a people who had been in the full enjoyment of freedom but a few months ago—they believe that there must be some radical incompatibility between such a people and themselves. With such a people we may be content to live at peace, but the separation is final, and for the independence we have asserted we will accept no alternative.”
Yet even as he spoke, thus stigmatizing his opponent across the Potomac, Davis was faced with the necessity for emulating his “tyrannous” example. Two days after the first-Wednesday election an insurrection exploded in the loyalist mountain region of East Tennessee. Bridges were burned and armed men assembled to assist the expected advance of a Union army through Cumberland Gap.
Though undeveloped industrially, the area was of considerable economic value as a grain and cattle country, offsetting the one-crop cotton agronomy farther south, and of even greater strategic importance because of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad running through Knoxville and Chattanooga, westward to Memphis and the Transmississippi. The insurrection confronted Davis with a problem much like the one that had confronted Lincoln in Maryland immediately after Sumter, and Davis met it with measures even sterner. Troops were sent at once from Memphis and Pensacola. Resistance was quashed and a considerable number of Unionists arrested. Habeas corpus, “so sacred to freedom,” went by the board. When the Confederate commander in Knoxville asked what he should do with these men, Davis had the Secretary of War reply that those insurrectionists not actually known to be bridge burners were to be held as prisoners of war. As for the burners themselves, they were “to be tried summarily by drumhead court martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well,” the Secretary added, “to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges.”
Five were so hanged, and others were held, including that William G. Brownlow who earlier had said that he would fight secession on the ice in hell. Admittedly the leader of regional resistance, he was editor of the Knoxville Whig and formerly had been a Methodist circuit rider; wherefore he was called Parson. An honest, fearless, vociferous man who neither smoked nor drank nor swore, he had courted only one girl in his life “and her I married.” Though he was mysteriously absent from home on the night of the burnings, his actual complicity could not be established. He was held in arrest—for a time, at least, until his presence proved embarrassing in the light of Davis’ complaint about “upright men … dragged to distant dungeons” in the North. Again through the Secretary of War, under the theory that it was better for “the most dangerous enemy” to escape than for the honor and good faith of the Confederate government to be “impugned or even suspected,” Davis directed that the parson-editor be released to enter the Union lines. Though he was thus denied the chance to recite the speech he had memorized for delivery on the gallows, Brownlow went rejoicing. “Glory to God in the highest,” he exclaimed as he crossed over, “and on earth peace, good will toward all men, except a few hell-born and hell-bound rebels in Knoxville.”
Under his reek of fire and brimstone there was much that was amusing about Brownlow. But there was nothing laughable about what he represented. Least of all was there anything comical about the situation he and his followers had created in the mountains of Tennessee. Now it had come to this, that Americans danced at rope ends as a consequence of actions proceeding from their political convictions. The harshest irony of all was that they were hanged by the direction of Jefferson Davis, who loved liberty and justice above all things, and who as a grown man, in a time of sickness, halted a reading of the child’s story “Babes in the Woods” (it was characteristic that he had never heard it) because he would not endure the horror of the tale. The operation on his high-strung nature of such incidents as these in Tennessee caused him to remark long afterward, concerning his northern opponent’s fondness for anecdotes and frontier humor, that he could not “conceive how a man so oppressed with care as Mr Lincoln was could have any relish for such pleasantries.”
He was afflicted, however, by troubles both nearer and farther than the stern, unpleasant necessity for jailing, banishing, and hanging insurrectionists in eastern Tennessee. Fire-eaters in Richmond and the Deep South, their claim to the spoils of higher offices denied, their policy of bold aggression rejected, were everywhere disaffected. Vocal in their disaffection, they had now begun to raise a multivoiced outcry like the frantic babble of a miscued chorus. Charging that Davis had “no policy whatever,” they represented him as “standing in a corner telling his beads and relying on a miracle to save the country.” As caricature, the likeness was not too far-fetched, and the fact that the no-policy charge was true, or nearly true, did not make the barbs of criticism sting one whit the less.
His critics would have had him strip the troops from threatened points and send them marching forthwith against the North, staking everything on one assault. To Davis, this not only seemed inconsistent with his repeated claim that the South was merely defending herself against aggression, it seemed unnecessarily risky. That way the war might be quickly won, as Beauregard had pointed out; but it also might be quickly lost that way. Davis preferred to watch and wait. He believed that time was with him and he planned accordingly, not yet by any means aware that what he was waiting for would require a miracle. At this stage, in Davis’ mind at any rate, nothing seemed more likely, more inevitable, than foreign intervention; as had been shown by his first action in attempting to secure it.
Back in the Montgomery days, a month before Sumter, Barnwell Rhett, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, reported a bill to Congress providing for the dispatch of a three-man mission to secure the recognition of the Confederacy by the European powers. Rhett had certain notions as to what these men should do over there, but he could not give instructions to such emissaries; the making of treaties rested with the President, who seemed to believe that nothing more would be needed than a polite call on the various proper statesmen across the water, whereupon those dignitaries would spread their arms to welcome a new sister bringing a dowry of precious cotton into the family of nations. This belief was emphasized by the fact that the man appointed to head the mission was William L. Yancey, the fieriest fire-eater of them all. For fifteen years the southern answer to the most outspoken of northern abolitionists, the Georgia-born Alabamian extended his defense of the “peculiar institution” to include a proposed reopening of the African slave trade—with the result that his name was anathema to every liberal on earth. In selecting Yancey to represent her, it was as if the South said plainly to all Europe: “To get cotton you must swallow slavery.”
Nothing in his personality had shown that he would be armed with patience against discouragement or with coolness against rebuff, or indeed that he was in any way suited to a diplomatic post. Discouragement was not expected, however, let alone rebuff. Besides, Yancey having declined the minor cabinet job of Attorney General, the appointment solved the problem of what to do with him. Since that February evening on the gallery of the Exchange Hotel, when he presented “the man and the hour” to the crowd, no fitting use for his talents had been found. Now there was this—though some declared that he was being hustled off the scene as a possible rival before the election of a permanent President came round.
However that might have been, when he and his associates, Pierre A. Rost and A. Dudley Mann, received their instructions from the State Department, something came over Yancey that seemed to come over all fire-eaters when they were abruptly saddled with the responsibility for using more than their lungs and tongues—something akin to the sinking sensation that came over Roger Pryor, for example, when he was offered the honor of firing the first shot of the war. Returning from the conference, Yancey went to Rhett and told him of the instructions. They had agreed at the outset that the power to make commercial treaties was necessary to the success of the mission. However, the commissioners had not been given such power. All they were to do was explain the conflict in terms of the rightness of the southern cause, point out the Confederacy’s devotion to low tariffs and free trade, and make a “delicate allusion” to the probable stoppage of cotton shipments if the war continued without European intervention. Hearing this, Rhett shared his friend’s dismay. “Then,” he told Yancey, “if you will take my advice as your friend, do not accept the appointment. For if you have nothing to propose and nothing to treat about, you must necessarily fail. Demand of the President the powers essential to your mission, or stay at home.”
Whatever his qualms and misgivings, Yancey did not take his friend’s advice. Sailing on the eve of Sumter, the commissioners reached England in late April to discover that the nation they represented was in the process of being increased from seven states to eleven, doubled in size east of the Mississippi and more than doubled in wealth and population. Soon afterwards, May 3, they secured an interview with Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who had replied to their request for an audience that he would be pleased to hear them, but that “under present circumstances. I shall have but little to say.”
The interview was as one-sided as his lordship predicted. Having heard the envoys out, he replied—without committing his government in the slightest—that the Confederacy’s request for recognition would be placed before the Cabinet at an early date. Six days later there was a second, briefer meeting; and that was all. In Paris, Napoleon III was more genial and less forthright, though he did make it clear in the end that, however much he wished to intervene, France could not act without England. So Yancey and Mann, leaving Rost to watch Napoleon, returned to London to try again.
Their hopes were higher now, and with good cause. When Lincoln announced a blockade of the southern coast, Britain—in accordance with international law, since obviously no nation would blockade its own ports—issued in mid-May a proclamation of neutrality, granting the Confederacy the rights of a belligerent, and the other European powers followed suit. That was much, and when more followed, Manassas enhancing the dignity of southern arms, Yancey thought the time was ripe for recognition. Accordingly, another note was sent to Russell, requesting another interview. The reply came back: “Earl Russell presents his compliments to Mr W. L. Yancey, Mr A. Dudley Mann, and would be obliged to them if they would put in writing any communications they wish to make to him.”
This was something of a shock; yet they smothered their anger and complied, writing at length and basing their claims for recognition on recent Confederate triumphs. The reply to this was a bare acknowledgment of receipt; which in turn was another shock, for they knew that an English gentleman was never rude except on purpose. Again they swallowed their pride, however, and, Rost having recrossed the channel to lend what weight he could, continued to send letters until early December, when the Foreign Secretary added the last straw: “Lord Russell presents his compliments to Mr Yancey, Mr Rost and Mr Mann. He has had the honour to receive their letters of the 27th and 30th of November, but in the present state of affairs he must decline to enter into any official communication with them.”
That broke the camel’s back, for Yancey anyhow, whose pride had been subjected to a good deal more than it could bear. He resigned and sailed for home. Arriving he went straight to Rhett, whose advice he had not taken. “You were right, sir,” he declared. “I went on a fool’s errand.”
Davis might continue to comfort despair with hope; Yancey himself had none. “While the war which is waged to take from us the right of self-government can never attain that end,” Davis asserted at the final session of the Provisional Congress—knowing the “delicate allusion” would be heard across the Atlantic—“it remains to be seen how far it may work a revolution in the industrial system of the world, which may carry suffering to other lands as well as our own.” It did not remain to be seen as far as Yancey was concerned. He had been there; he had seen already. He put no faith in anything that might happen in those nations whose statesmen had galled his pride.
Speaking in New Orleans in the spring, soon after his return, he told the people outright what he had told Davis earlier in private: “You have no friends in Europe.… The sentiment of Europe is anti-slavery, and that portion of public opinion which forms, and is represented by, the government of Great Britain, is abolition. They will never recognize our independence until our conquering sword hangs dripping over the prostrate heads of the North.… It is an error to say, ‘Cotton is King.’ It is not. It is a great and influential factor in commerce, but not its dictator. The nations of Europe will never raise the blockade until it suits their interests.”
Thus Yancey, who had failed. How much his words were influenced by the fact that he had failed, his pride having been injured in the process, Davis could not know. At any rate, having spoken from the outset scarcely a public word that was not designed for foreign as well as domestic ears, the southern President had banked too heavily on European intervention to turn back now. The pinch of a cotton shortage not yet having been felt, the jennies and looms were running full-speed in England and France, and whether such a pinch, even if it eventually came, would “work a revolution,” as Davis remarked in his mid-November speech, “remain[ed] to be seen.”
Nor for that matter could he know how much of this initial failure had been due to ineptness. Yancey was many things, including a brilliant orator, but he was obviously no diplomat. Even before the final rebuff, which prompted his departure, Davis had moved to replace him, and the other two commissioners as well. Yancey would be recalled, his talents given a fitter scope, and Mann and Rost “disunited,” one being sent to Spain and one to Belgium, their places to be taken at London and Paris by men whose gifts and reputations were more in keeping with the weight of their assignments: James M. Mason and John Slidell, former U.S. senators from Virginia and Louisiana.
The Virginian was the more prominent of the two. Grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall (framer of the Bill of Rights) and withal an able statesman on his own, at sixty-three he had rather a ferocious aspect, with “burning” eyes and a broad, fleshy nose, a mouth drawn down at the corners, and brown, gray-shot hair bushed out around a large, pale, smooth-shaven face. His name, like Yancey’s, was anathema to abolitionists, for he was the author of the Fugitive Slave Law and also of a public letter eulogizing Preston Brooks for caning their common adversary Sumner. Though he had got both his schooling and his wife in Philadelphia, Mason was an ardent secessionist and disapproved in general of things northern. He had been to New England once, to dedicate a monument, and found it quite distasteful. Invited to return, he replied that he would never visit that shore again, “except as an ambassador.” Which was what he was now, in effect: on his way to the Court of St James’s, however, not to the northern republic.
His companion Slidell was five years older and looked it, with narrowed eyes and a knife-blade nose, his mouth twisted bitterly awry and his pink scalp shining through lank white locks that clamped the upper half of his face like a pair of parentheses. He was New York–born, the son of a candlemaker who had risen, but he had removed to New Orleans as a young man to escape the consequences of debt and a duel with a theatrical manager over the affections of an actress. Importing the methods of Tammany Hall, he prospered in Louisiana politics. Though not without attendant scandal, he won himself a fortune in sugar, a Creole bride, three terms in Congress—one in the House and two in the Senate—and an appointment as Minister to Mexico on the eve of war with that nation, which event prevented his actual service in that capacity. He was aptly named, being noted for his slyness. At the outbreak of hostilities, back in the spring, an English journalist called him “a man of iron will and strong passions, who loves the excitement of combinations and who in his dungeon, or whatever else it may be, would conspire with the mice against the cat rather than not conspire at all.” Possessing such qualities, together with the ability to converse in French, New Orleans-style, and also in Spanish, Empress Eugénie’s native tongue, Slidell seemed as particularly well suited for the atmosphere of the City of Light as Mason, with his rectitude and cavalier descent, was for London.
Davis and the nation expected much from this second attempt at winning foreign recognition and assistance. By early October the two were in Charleston with their secretaries and Slidell’s wife and daughters, awaiting a chance to run the blockade. At first they intended to take the Confederate cruiser Nashville, being outfitted there as a commerce raider. That would have been to arrive in a style which the British, as a naval people, could appreciate. Unwilling to wait, however, they booked passage instead an a small private steamer, the Gordon, and at 1 o’clock in the morning, October 12, slipped out of the harbor and crossed the bar in a driving rain, bound for Nassau. From there, having found no steamer connection with England, the Gordon sailed for St Thomas, a regular port for transatlantic packets. Running low on coal, her captain put into Cárdenas, on the north coast of Cuba, whence the commissioners made their way overland to Havana. November 7 they boarded the British mail steamer Trent, which cleared for Southampton that same day. Thus, the blockade having been run without incident, themselves securely quartered on a ship that flew the ensign of the mightiest naval power in the world, the risky leg of the journey was behind them.
So they thought until noon of the following day, when the Trent, steaming through the Bahama Passage, 240 miles out of Havana, sighted an armed sloop athwart her course at a point where the channel narrowed to fifteen miles. The Trent broke out her colors and continued on her way; whereupon the sloop ran up the union jack—and put a shot across her bow. After a second shot, which was closer, the Trent stopped engines.
“What do you mean by heaving my vessel to in this way?” the British captain shouted through a trumpet.
For answer the sloop put out two boats, which as they drew nearer were seen to be loaded with sailors, armed marines, and a naval officer who identified himself as he came aboard: Lieutenant D. MacNeill Fairfax of the screw sloop San Jacinto, Captain Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., commanding. Having information that Confederate Commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell were aboard, he demanded the passenger list. At this, Slidell came forward. “I am Mr Slidell. Do you want to see me?” Mason stepped up, too, but no introduction was necessary, he and the lieutenant having met some years ago. (For that matter, Slidell and Captain Wilkes, waiting now aboard the sloop, had been boyhood friends in the old First Ward, back in their New York days, though they had had a falling out before Slidell’s departure.) Their identities thus established, together with those of their secretaries, Lieutenant Fairfax informed the British captain, who all this time had scarcely ceased objecting, that he was seizing the four men for return to the United States and trial as traitors. When the captain continued to object—“Pirates! Villains!” some of the passengers were crying; “Throw the damned fellow overboard!”—the lieutenant indicated the San Jacinto, whose guns were bearing on the unarmed Trent. The captain yielded, still protesting; Mason and Slidell and their secretaries were taken over the side.
“Goodbye, my dear,” the Louisianian told his wife on parting. “We shall meet in Paris in sixty days.”
The two ships drew apart and continued on their separate courses, northward and northeastward toward their two countries, bearing their respective emotional cargoes of exultation and outrage: cargoes in each case large enough, and fervent enough, to be shared by all the people who, off on those different points of the compass, awaited their arrival all unknowing.
Davis in Richmond was scantly braced for such a smile of fortune. After so many disappointments, he hardly presumed even to hope for such news as this which now was coming his way across the water. Here was a ready-made, bona fide international incident, brought about not by the machinations of cloak-and-dagger agents sent out by the Confederate secret service, but by a responsible northern naval officer who had taken unto himself the interpretation of law on the high seas and who in his rashness had inforced that interpretation against the flag which admittedly ruled those seas.
The news would be no less welcome for being unexpected; Davis was badly in need of encouragement at this point. At the outset he had predicted a long war. Now he was showing the erosive effects of living with the fulfillment of his prediction. He was thinner, almost emaciated; “gaunted” was the southern word. His features were sharper, the cheeks more hollow, the blind left eye with its stone-gray pupil in contrast to the lustrous gleam of the other—a “wizard physiognomy,” indeed. The lips were compressed and the square jaw was even more firmly set to express determination, as if this quality might prove contagious to those around him. Under the wide brim of a planter’s hat, his face had lost all signs of youth. It had become austere, a symbol; so that a North Carolina soldier, seeing him thus on the street one day, walking unaccompanied as was his custom, stopped him and asked doubtfully, “Sir, mister, be’ent you Jefferson Davis?” And when Davis, employing the careful courtesy which was habitual, admitted his identity: “Sir, that is my name”—“I thought so,” the soldier said. “You look so much like a Confederate postage stamp.”
Lincoln, too, was showing the strain, but unlike Davis he found his worries concentrated mostly on one man: Major General George B. McClellan. Since saying that he could “do it all,” McClellan had found that “all” involved a great deal more than he had intended or suspected at the time. It included, for instance, the task of pacifying Ben Wade and Zachariah Chandler, members of the joint committee investigating the Ball’s Bluff fiasco: men whom the youthful general considered “unscrupulous and false,” but who, regardless of what he thought of them, were determined to have a voice in how the war was fought before they would vote the money needed to fight it.
They did not like the way it was being fought at present; or, rather, the way it was not being fought at all. Above Harpers Ferry the Confederates had cut the B & O, one of the main arteries of supply, while down the Potomac they had established batteries denying the capital access to the sea. “For God’s sake,” Wade cried, infuriated by such effrontery, “at least push back the defiant traitors!” It did no good to explain that such outposts would crumble of their own accord, once the main attack was launched, and that meanwhile, undeterred by incidentals, the proper course was to concentrate on building up the force with which to launch it. The congressmen saw only that the rebels were holding such positions unmolested. Or if McClellan’s thesis was true, as to what the rebel reaction would be, they wanted to see it demonstrated. They had had enough of delay.
A Massachusetts Adams declared in August, “We have now gone through three stages of this great political disease. The first was the cold fit, when it seemed as if nothing would start the country. The second was the hot one, when it seemed almost in the highest continual delirium. The third is the process of waking to the awful reality before it. I do not venture to predict what the next will be.”
McClellan had already ventured a prediction: “I shall … crush the rebels in one campaign.” That was still his intention. Yet now, with the war still in the waking stage, all that he was truly sure of was that he did not want this phase to end as the first two had done, at Sumter and Bull Run. In spite of which, to his dismay—with those examples of unpreparedness stark before him—he was being prodded by rash counselors to commit the selfsame errors. Adams had seen the nation struggling for its life as if in the throes of breakbone fever; the war was “this great political disease,” attacking the whole organism. But McClellan, who was a soldier, not a politician or a diplomat, could not or would not see that the contest was political as well as military, that the two had merged, that men like Wade and Chandler were as much a part of it as men like Johnston and Beauregard—or McClellan himself, for that matter. Given the time, he believed he could get over or around the enemy intrenched across the Potomac; he could “crush” them. He could never get over or around men like Wade and Chandler, let alone crush them, and he knew it. And knowing it he turned bitter. He turned peevish.
“The people think me all-powerful,” he wrote in one of the nightly letters to his wife. “Never was there a greater mistake. I am thwarted and deceived … at every turn.” At first it was the politicians: “I can’t tell you how disgusted I am becoming with these wretched politicians.” Next it was the Administration itself: “I am becoming daily more disgusted with this Administration—perfectly sick of it. If I could with honor resign I would quit the whole concern tomorrow.” “It is sickening in the extreme, and makes me feel heavy at heart, when I see the weakness and unfitness of the poor beings who control the destinies of this great country.” “I was obliged to attend a meeting of the cabinet at 8 p.m., and was bored and annoyed. There are some of the greatest geese in the cabinet I have ever seen—enough to tax the patience of Job.”
So far, the President was not included in the indictment. McClellan wrote, “I enclose a card just received from ‘A. Lincoln’; it shows too much deference to be seen outside.” Having come to know Lincoln better, he found he liked him, or at any rate thought him amusing. One day as he was writing he had callers, and when he resumed his letter he wrote, “I have just been interrupted here by the President and Secretary Seward, who had nothing very particular to say, except some stories to tell, which were, as usual, very pertinent, and some pretty good. I never in my life met anyone so full of anecdote as our friend.”
It was not all anecdote. One day a division commander came to see the general and found Lincoln with him, poring over a map of Virginia and making operational suggestions, to which McClellan listened respectfully but with obvious amusement. At last the amateur strategist left. Returning from seeing him to the door, McClellan looked back over his shoulder and smiled. “Isn’t he a rare bird?” he said.
Lincoln had been boning on the science of war, borrowing military treatises from the Library of Congress and reading them in the small hours of the night. He took a particular pleasure in discussing strategy with his young general-in-chief, who had been so good at such studies himself. McClellan saw no harm in all this. He viewed Lincoln’s efforts with that air of amused tolerance reserved by professionals for amateurs, and the visits afforded relaxation from the daily round. Besides, such studies and discussions were leading the President toward a better comprehension of the military problem: especially of the necessity for protecting the commanding general from the interference of politicians.
“I intend to be careful and do as well as possible,” McClellan said earnestly one night as they parted after such a conference. “Don’t let them hurry me, is all I ask.”
“You shall have your own way in the matter, I assure you,” Lincoln told him.
Whereupon—as if, having gotten what he wanted in the way of assurance, he could move on now to other things; or perhaps because his tolerance or his capacity for amusement was exhausted—McClellan changed his tone. Now he wrote, “I have not been at home for some three hours, but am concealed at Stanton’s to dodge all enemies in the shape of ‘browsing’ presidents, etc.”
The friend affording sanctuary was Edwin M. Stanton, the attorney who had snubbed Lincoln four years ago when the gangling Springfield lawyer came to Chicago to assist in a patents case. Irascible and sharp-tongued, a leading Democrat, Stanton was even more important now. Having served as Attorney General during Buchanan’s last four months, he had gone on to become chief legal adviser to the present Secretary of War. His first impression of “that long-armed creature” had not changed, but now at least he took the trouble to exercise his wit at his expense. Du Chaillu, for example, had not needed to go all the way to the Congo in search of the missing link; there was an excellent specimen here in Washington. “The original gorilla,” he called Lincoln, and McClellan took up the phrase in letters to his wife. They laughed together at a perspiration splotch on the back of Lincoln’s shirt, Stanton remarking that it resembled a map of Africa.
If he noticed this at all, Lincoln took it calmly. He was accustomed to being laughed at, and had even been known to encourage laughter at his own expense. Such friends as he cared about had a deep appreciation of humility, and he could afford to let the others go. Attracted, however, as so many were, by McClellan’s forthright air of youthful manliness, he did not want to lose him as a friend. Then one mid-November night he drew the rebuke humility must always draw from pride. He and Seward, accompanied by Lincoln’s young secretary John Hay, went over to McClellan’s house. When the servant told them the general was attending a wedding but would be back presently, they said they would wait. They had waited about an hour when McClellan returned. The servant told him the President and the Secretary of State were there, but he seemed bemused as he went past the door of the room where they were waiting. They waited another half hour, then once more sent the servant to inform the general that they were there. The answer came—“coolly,” Hay recorded—that McClellan had gone to bed.
On the way home, when the secretary broke out angrily against what he called the “insolence of epaulets,” Lincoln, though he was saddened by this final indication that he had lost a friend, quietly remarked that this was no time for concern over points of etiquette and personal dignity. “I will hold McClellan’s horse if he will only bring us success,” he said soon afterward. But Hay observed with satisfaction that from then on, when the President wanted to see McClellan, he summoned him to the White House.
The Young Napoleon had changed. “We shall strike them there,” he used to say, gesturing toward the eastern end of the rebel lines at Centerville when he rode out on inspection. After inching some troops forward “by way of getting elbow-room,” he gaily told his wife: “The more room I get the more I want, until by and by I suppose I shall be so insatiable as to think I cannot do with less than the whole state of Virginia.” He did not talk that way now, or write that way either. That was in the past. Bored, annoyed, disgusted, sick, thwarted and deceived at every turn, he no longer gestured aggressively toward the Centerville-Manassas lines. According to Pinkerton, 90,000 gray-clad soldiers, superbly equipped and thirsty for blood, with one Manassas victory already blazoned on their battleflags, were behind those earthworks praying for McClellan’s army to advance and be wrecked, like McDowell’s, on those same plains. All that stood between the army and catastrophe was Little Mac, resisting the unscrupulous men who would hurl it into the furnace of combat before the mold had set.
By now, though, more than the frock-coated congressmen were urging him forward against his will. While the clear bright days of autumn declined and the hard roads leading southward were about to dissolve into mud, the public was getting restless, too, wondering at the army’s inaction. The soldiers loved and trusted him as much as ever; Our George, they called him still. But to the public he seemed overcautious, like a finicky dandy hesitating to blood a bright new sword, either because he did not want to spoil its glitter, or else because he did not trust its temper. Horace Greeley, the journalistic barometer, had recovered from his fright and recommenced his Forward-to-Richmond chant. Other voices swelled the chorus, while shriller cries came through its pulse to accuse the young commander of vacillation. McClellan was reduced to finding consolation in the approval of his horse, Dan Webster: writing, “He, at least, had full confidence in his master.”
Affairs were progressing no better in the West. Politically, though the storm still raged from point to point and fugitive secessionist legislatures were assembling, Missouri and Kentucky had been secured to the Union. Militarily, however, little had been done since Wilson’s Creek and Frémont’s feverish southward march into the vacuum created by that explosion. Assuming the supreme command on the day the Pathfinder received Lincoln’s order deposing him, McClellan promptly reorganized that vast, conglomerate area into two departments.
The first, Frémont’s old Department of the West, to which was added that part of Kentucky west of the Cumberland River, was under Henry W. Halleck; while the second, the Department of the Ohio, including the rest of Kentucky and Tennessee, had Don Carlos Buell for commander. Both were responsible to McClellan, but neither was accountable to the other. Each in fact saw the other as his rival for the future command of the whole. And therein lay the seeds of much mischief. Admittedly, ambition and rivalry were the stimuli that made the military organism tick. But in this case, with McClellan racked by problems of his own in Washington, the result was that there was not only little coördination of effort between theaters, East and West; there was also little coöperation between the armies resting flank to flank on opposite banks of the Cumberland.
A major general at forty-six, three years older and one rank higher than his rival, Halleck had the advantage at the outset. Buell was generally considered one of the best officers in the service, particularly as an organizer and disciplinarian; yet Halleck was not only senior in age and grade, he was by far the more distinguished in previous accomplishments. Author of Elements of Military Art and Science, a highly respected volume issued fifteen years before, translator of Jo-mini’s Napoleon, authority on international law, on which he had published a treatise just before the war began, he was called Old Brains by his fellow officers, not altogether jokingly. In the shadow of all this, even as a result of it, Buell had one not inconsiderable advantage: Halleck had been McClellan’s rival for the post of general-in-chief—old Winfield Scott had favored him, for one—and Little Mac, perhaps somewhat influenced by this, considered Buell the superior in practical ability as a soldier in the field. That was arbitrary, though, or anyhow problematical, since the two West Pointers had been promoted equally for gallantry in the Mexican War and had had no such opportunity for distinction since.
In another direction, there was little room for doubt. Both were more impressive in the abstract than prepossessing in the flesh; but here the advantage clearly passed to the junior, if only by default. Of average height, inclined toward fat and flabbiness, Halleck had an unmilitary aspect. Balding, he wore gray mutton-chop side whiskers and looked considerably older than his years. The olive-tinted flesh of his face hung so loosely that it quivered when he moved, particularly his double chin, and he had a strangely repellent habit of crossing his arms on his lower chest to scratch his elbows when he was worried or plunged in thought. In manner he was irritable and sometimes harsh, not inclined to allow for the smaller brains of lesser men. Interviewed, he would hold his head sideways and stare fishily, directing one goggle eye toward a point somewhere beyond his interviewer. This caused one disconcerted officer to remark that conversing with Halleck was like talking to someone over your shoulder.
No one ever said this about Buell. His glance was piercing and direct: too much so, perhaps, for he was even harsher in manner than Halleck. Dark-skinned, with a scraggly, gray-shot beard, close-set eyes, and a hawk-beak nose, Buell maintained an icy reserve, engaged in no small talk, and brooked no difference of opinion from subordinates. Despite his operatic name, Don Carlos, there was nothing flamboyant in his nature. Like McClellan he was an excellent disciplinarian, robust of physique, and a hard, methodical worker round the clock; but he had scarcely a vestige of McClellan’s charm, none of his glamor, and therefore none of his popularity, either. He never expressed the least regret at this, however. Apparently he never believed that popularity could be a useful factor in turning farmboys into soldiers. Or if so, not by him; he never sought it.
Instructions given the two commanders on setting out were similar as to policy. Both were told to hold firmly onto all that had been gained in Missouri and Kentucky, meanwhile impressing on the people of the area that the army’s purpose was the restoration of the Union, not the abolition of slavery, which was not even incidentally on the agenda. In addition, Halleck was to assemble his troops “on or near the Mississippi, prepared for such ulterior operations as the public interests may demand,” while Buell massed for an advance into the loyalist mountain region of eastern Tennessee. The former plan had reference to Frémont’s dream of a lopping descent of the Father of Waters. The latter was Lincoln’s fondest project. He hoped that Buell would accomplish there what McClellan had accomplished in western Virginia under similar conditions, the people having voted five-to-one against secession back in June. Nothing vexed the President more than the fact that this Union stronghold was in southern hands. “My distress,” he wrote, “is that our friends in East Tennessee are being hanged and driven to despair, and even more, I fear, are thinking of taking rebel arms for the sake of personal protection.” Besides, he saw great strategic profit in an advance through Cumberland Gap, since taking Knoxville would cut the northernmost east-west Confederate railroad, thus coming between the secessionists and what Lincoln called their “hog and hominy.”
Buell, who had helped to frame his own instructions, saw it that way, too, on setting out. Soon after he reached Louisville, however, peering southeast across the barrens in the direction of the Gap, which he saw now as a natural fortress straddled athwart his path, he changed his mind. For him, as for McClellan—whom he addressed as “My dear Friend” in official dispatches—obstacles loomed more starkly at close range. Features that seemed innocuous on a two-dimensional map could dominate a three-dimensional landscape. Even the absence of some feature, whether natural or man-made, could prove ruinous: as for instance a railroad. From his base on the Ohio he observed that there were no railroads by which he could haul supplies to feed and equip an army moving directly upon East Tennessee. He would have to depend on a wagon train, grinding weary distances over wretched roads and vulnerable to raiders throughout its length. The more he looked the more impossible it seemed, until presently he abandoned it altogether.
He did not abandon his offensive plans, however. Buell was nothing if not thorough. Turning his mind’s eye westward along a sixty-degree arc, he perceived that Nashville, the Tennessee capital on the Cumberland, a manufacturing center and a transportation nexus, was not only closer than Knoxville, it was even a bit closer than Cumberland Gap. The way led through a land far richer in supplies, with no natural fortress at the end, and best of all there was a railroad all the way. Nashville taken, the Confederates defending East Tennessee would be outflanked; when they fell back he could march in unopposed. This might take a bit longer, but it was surer. As for the Unionists awaiting his advance into the mountains, Buell believed their constancy would “sustain them until the hour of deliverance.” Thus he wrote in mid-December, by which time five had already been “sustained” by the necks after drumhead trials for arson.
Before occupying Nashville he would have to cross the Cumberland River, but he did not consider this a drawback. He counted it a positive advantage, since it meant that he could secure the coöperation of Union gunboats on that stream. This in turn meant securing the coöperation of Halleck, and now that his mind had turned that way, Buell went on to essay grand strategy. He proposed nothing less than an all-out concerted drive by both Kentucky armies, with Nashville as the objective: Halleck to advance from the northwest in “two flotilla columns up the Tennessee and the Cumberland,” and himself from the northeast, down the railroad. The result would be to penetrate, and thereby outflank, the whole Confederate line; whereupon the Federals could occupy not only East Tennessee, his original objective, but the entire state, along with whatever parts of Kentucky remained in enemy hands. In his enthusiasm, which somewhat resembled the elation of a poet just delivered of an ode, he wrote McClellan of his plan, remarking incidentally that he feared no advance by the rebels at Bowling Green (“I should almost as soon expect to see the Army of the Potomac marching up the road”) and closing with a light-hearted request for a few high-ranking officers, “not my seniors,” to assist him in carrying out his plan: “If you have any unoccupied brigadiers … send six or eight, even though they should be no better than marked poles.”
Far from being elated, or even amused, McClellan was chagrined and upset by the proposal. He saw the soundness of this substitute plan—which, moreover, had the sort of strategic brilliance he admired—yet he hated to lose the advantages of the first. Invading eastern Tennessee, Buell’s army would not only sever one of the arteries supplying the Confederates in northern Virginia; it would also be poised on their flank, and could then be angled forward to maneuver them out of their intrenched position and assist in the taking of Richmond. For this reason, as well as the political ones, McClellan replied that he still considered “a prompt movement on eastern Tennessee imperative,” but “if there are causes which render this course impossible,” he regretfully allowed, “we must submit to the necessity.” All the same, he did not submit without frequent backward glances. By the end of November he was hoping Buell would attempt both movements, one on East Tennessee, “with say 15,000 men,” and one on Nashville “with, say, 50,000 men.” He added, by way of encouragement, “I will at once take the necessary steps to carry out your views as to the rivers.”
This meant that he would urge Halleck to undertake the advance from western Kentucky. When he did so, in a telegram sent December 5, Halleck replied from St Louis the following day: “I assure you, General, this cannot be done with safety at present. Some weeks hence I hope to have a large disposable force for other points; but now, destitute as we are of arms, organization, and discipline, it seems to me madness to remove any of our troops from this State.”
In all conscience, McClellan had to admit that Old Brains had his hands full already. Charged with restoring order to the chaos Frémont left—“a system of reckless expenditure and fraud, perhaps unheard of before in the history of the world,” his instructions warned him—he had to attend at once to the guerilla bands marauding in his rear, to Price and McCulloch, reported marching against his front, as well as to the enormous task of preparing for the descent of the Mississippi. As if all this was not enough, he was having to deal at the same time with a mentally upset brigadier, red-haired Tecumseh Sherman, who was bombarding headquarters with reports of rebel advances from all directions. “Look well to Jefferson City and the North Missouri Railroad,” Sherman would wire; “Price aims at both.”
Succeeding Anderson when the Sumter hero’s health broke, Sherman earnestly told the Secretary of War that 200,000 troops would be needed to put down the rebellion in the Mississippi Valley alone, and when this “evidence of insanity” was reinforced by other alarming symptoms reported in the papers—a brooding melancholy broken only by intermittent fits of rage and fright—he was relieved of his command. Superseded by Buell, he was sent to serve under Halleck in Missouri, where his fidgety manner and tocsin-shrill dispatches presently served to verify the suspicions which had followed him from Kentucky. He appeared thoroughly demoralized: “stampeded,” Halleck called it, but McClellan put it simpler, saying, “Sherman’s gone in the head.” In hopes that a few weeks’ rest would restore his faculties, Halleck gave an indefinite leave of absence to the distraught Ohioan, whose wife then came down and took him home.
Not all of Halleck’s personnel problems could be handled so easily. As a sort of counterbalance to the highly nervous Sherman, he had another brigadier who seemed to have no nerves at all. The trouble with U.S. Grant was that, for all Halleck knew, he might have no brains either.
There were indications of such a lack. Grant was a West Pointer and had been commended for bravery in Mexico, but since then his reputation had gone downhill. Stationed out in California, he had had to resign his captain’s commission because of an overfondness for the bottle, and in the seven following years he had been signally unsuccessful as a civilian. Commissioned a colonel of Illinois volunteers, he had won promotion to brigadier by a political fluke, his congressman claiming it for him as a due share of the spoils. Since then he had done well enough in a straightforward, soldierly way; he had not panicked under pressure, and best of all he had worked with what he had instead of calling for help in each emergency. Aware of his unsavory past, however, Halleck could never be sure when a relapse might come, exposing the basic instability of Grant’s character and leaving the army commander to take the blame for having reposed the nation’s trust in such a man.
Despite his seedy appearance (he was five feet eight inches tall and weighed 135 pounds; one eye was set a trifle lower than the other, giving his face a somewhat out-of-balance look; he walked with a round-shouldered slouch, pitching forward on his toes, and paid as scant attention to the grooming of his beard as he did to the cut and condition of his clothes) Grant had proved himself a fighter. But that could have its drawbacks when it included, as it seemed to do in this case, a large element of rashness. Halleck did not want to be embarrassed by Grant, the way Frémont had been embarrassed by the ill-fated Lyon: with whom, for that matter, in spite of his lack of surface fire, the thirty-nine-year-old Illinois brigadier had shown a disturbing degree of kinship. Wilson’s Creek had come within three weeks of Bull Run, and had been fought to the same pattern. Then on the eve of Halleck’s arrival, within three weeks of Ball’s Bluff, came Belmont. Even apart from the balanced chronology, East and West, the resemblance was much too close for comfort.
Though Bishop Polk had won the race for Columbus, Grant had been by no means willing to admit that this gave the Confederates any permanent claim to the place. Within the week, having occupied Paducah, he had written Frémont: “If it were discretionary with me, with a little addition to my present force I would take Columbus.” The Pathfinder made no reply to this, but when he took the field at last, marching against the victors of Wilson’s Creek, he had his adjutant order Grant to feint against Polk to prevent that general from reinforcing Price. In doing this Grant was to make a show of aggression along both sides of the Mississippi, keeping his troops “constantly moving back and forward … without, however, attacking the enemy.” Also in accordance with orders, on November 3—the day Frémont left Springfield, relieved of command, and Winfield Scott left Washington, retired—Grant sent a column southward, west of the river, to assist in an attempt to bag or destroy a force under M. Jeff Thompson, reported down near the Missouri boot-heel, in the St Francis River area. Two days later a dispatch informed him that Polk was definitely sending reinforcements to Price. Marching “back and forward” not having sufficed to immobilize the bishop, Grant now was ordered to make a demonstration against Columbus itself.
Accordingly, on the 6th he loaded five infantry regiments, supported by two cavalry troops and a six-gun battery, onto four transports—3114 men in all—and steamed down the river, protected by two gunboats. Nine miles below Cairo, tied up for the night against the eastern bank, he received a report that Polk had ordered a strong column to cut off and destroy the troops Grant had sent to do the same to Thompson. The message arrived at 2 o’clock in the morning, and within the hour Grant made his decision. Instead of a mere demonstration, he would launch a direct, all-out attack on Belmont, the steamboat landing opposite Columbus, where the enemy column was reported to be assembling.
At dawn the downstream approach got under way, the troops experiencing the qualms and elation of facing their first test under fire. Their emotions perhaps would have been less mixed, though probably no less violent, if they had known that none of the conditions their commander assumed existing at or near Columbus was true. Polk had no intention of reinforcing Price, nor was he preparing a column to bag the force that supposed itself to be pursuing Thompson, who for that matter had retired from the field by now. Far from being a staging area, Belmont was only an observation post, a low-lying, three-shack hamlet dominated by the guns on the tall bluff across the river and manned by one regiment of infantry—half of which was on the sick list—one battery of artillery, and a scratch collection of cavalry. Unaware that the drama in which they were taking part was in fact an Intelligence comedy of errors, Grant’s men came off their transports at 8 o’clock, three miles above Belmont, their debarkation concealed by a skirt of timber. While the gunboats continued downstream to engage the batteries on the Columbus bluff, the troops formed a line of battle and marched southward toward the landing, skirmishers out. Presently, the guns of the naval engagement booming hollow across the water to their left, they came under heavy musket fire from out in front.
By now there was more to oppose them than one half-sick infantry regiment. Polk, having learned of the attack, had reinforced the Belmont garrison with four regiments under Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, the Tennessean who had preceded him in command. Ferried across the river, they hurried northward from the landing, scorning the protection of previously constructed fortifications, and took position in the path of Grant’s advance. It was hard, stand-up fighting, the forces being about equal, five regiments on each side, each force being supported by a battery of light artillery. The Federals had the initiative, however, and also they had Grant, who was something rare in that or any war: a man who could actually learn from experience. Three months before, he had made a similar advance against an enemy position reported held by Colonel Thomas Harris and his command, and as Grant drew closer, mounting the ridge that masked the camp, “my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat.” He kept his men going, he said, because “I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do.” Then, topping the rise, he found the camp deserted, the enemy gone. “My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but I never forgot it afterwards.”
He did not forget it now. Leaving five companies near the transports as rear guard, he put the rest in line and pushed straight forward, his six guns barking busily all the while. Under such pressure, the Confederates gave ground stubbornly—until, after about two hours of fighting, the Federals roaring down upon them in the vicinity of the camp, they broke, giving way completely, and took off for the rear in headlong panic. Here, on a narrow mud-flat left by the falling river and protected by a steep low bank, they found shelter from the humming bullets. “Don’t land! Don’t land!” they called out to reinforcements arriving by boat from Columbus. “We are whipped! Go back!”
They spoke too soon. Grant’s men, having overrun the camp, had stopped to loot, and their officers, elated by the rout, “galloped about from one cluster of men to another,” according to Grant, “and at every halt delivered a short eulogy upon the Union cause and the achievements of the command.” Like the whipped men under the river bank, they thought the battle was over. This was by no means the case, as they presently discovered. Now that their own men were out of the way, the artillerists on the Columbus bluff could bring their guns to bear: particularly one big rifled Whitworth, which began to rake the captured campsite. What was more, the reinforcements arriving by boat ignored the cries, “Don’t land! Go back!” and coming up during the lull, formed a line of battle, preparing to attack. Disgusted, Grant ordered the camp set afire to discourage the looters and orators, and did what he could to reassemble his command. Meanwhile other Confederate reinforcements were pouring ashore to the north, between Belmont and the transports. When an aide rode up, exclaiming, “General, we are surrounded!”—“Well,” Grant said, “we must cut our way out as we cut our way in.”
All this time, Grant’s faulty intelligence having made the Federal plans impenetrable, Polk had refused to believe that the action across the river was anything more than a feint to distract his attention from the main effort, which he believed would come from the Kentucky side. Columbus was a prize worth bleeding for, but it made no sense, as far as he could see, for the enemy to launch a serious attack against Belmont, a place not only worthless in its own right, but obviously untenable, even if taken, under the frown of the batteries on the bluff across the river. Therefore, after sending the four regiments at the outset, he had refused to be distracted. Now, though, the attack from the east not having developed and Pillow having been flung back to the landing, Polk sent Brigadier General B. F. Cheatham with three more regiments and crossed the river himself to see how they fared. With 5000 angry, vengeful Confederates on the field, including those who had rallied after cowering under the bank, Grant’s elated but disorganized 3000 were going to find it considerably harder to “cut our way out,” no matter how bravely the words were spoken, than they had found it to “cut our way in.”
In the end, however, that was what they did, though at the cost of abandoning most of their captured material, including four guns, as well as many of the non-walking wounded and one thousand rifles, which the defenders afterwards garnered from the field. Grant had held back no reserves to throw into the battle at critical moments, but he performed more or less as a reserve himself, riding from point to point along his line to direct and animate his troops. Except for one regiment, which was cut off in the fighting and marched upstream to be picked up later, he was the last man aboard the final transport.
The skipper had already pushed off, but looking back he recognized the general on horseback and ran a plank out for him. (Polk saw him, too, though without recognition. From the nearby skirt of timber which had screened the debarkation, the bishop, seeing the horseman, said to his staff, “There is a Yankee; you may try your marksmanship on him if you wish.” But no one did.) Grant had already had one mount shot from under him today, and when he chose another he chose well. The horse—which, Grant said, “seemed to take in the situation”—put its forefeet over the lip of the bank, tucked its hind legs under its rump, and “without hesitation or urging,” slid down the incline and trotted up the gangplank.
That ended the Battle of Belmont, and though the casualties were about equal—something over 600 on each side, killed, wounded, and captured—it followed in general the pattern of all the battles fought that year, the attackers achieving initial success, the defenders giving way to early panic, until suddenly the roles were reversed and the rebels were left in control of the field, crowing over Yankee cowardice. At Belmont as at Bull Run—and especially as at Ball’s Bluff, which it so much resembled, the repulsed troops having narrowly missed annihilation at the end—there were indications of blundering and ineptness. “The victory is complete,” Grant asserted in dispatches, but two days after the battle the Chicago Tribune editorialized: “The disastrous termination of the Cairo expedition to Columbus is another severe lesson on the management of this contest with the rebels. Our troops have suffered a bad defeat.… The rebels have been elated and emboldened while our troops have been depressed, if not discouraged.” The following day, in printing the casualty lists, the editor added: “It may be said of these victims, ‘They have fallen, and to what end?’ ”
To what end, indeed. And now began the talk of Grant the butcher. This was no victory; not a single tactical advantage had been won; he just went out and came back, losing about as many as he killed. Yet certain facts were there for whoever would see them. He had moved instead of waiting for fair weather, had kept his head when things went all against him, and had brought his soldiers back to base with some real fighting experience under their belts. They were having none of the butcher talk. They had watched him alongside them where bullets flew the thickest and had cheered him riding his trick horse up the gangplank, the last man to leave the field. What was more, they knew the expedition had been designed in the first place to save the lives of their friends in the supposedly threatened column out after Thompson, and they knew now that if ever they were thought to be so trapped, Grant himself would come to get them out. Best of all, they had met the rebels in a stand-up fight which proved, for one thing, that blue-bellied Yankees were not the only ones who would panic and scatter and take off for defilade, crying, “We are whipped! Go back!”
Appointed to the western command two days after the battle, Halleck, who had been a civilian as well as a soldier, could see both points of view as to Belmont and the general who fought it. However, in spite of his qualms about Grant’s rashness and the chances for being embarrassed by it, he was mainly glad to have him. Experienced leaders were all too few in the West. “It is said, General,” he told McClellan, “that you have as many regular officers on your personal staff as I have in this whole Department.” He had, in fact, hardly an army at all, he protested, “but rather a military rabble,” and upon arriving he wired Washington: “Affairs in complete chaos. Troops unpaid; without clothing or arms. Many never properly mustered into service and some utterly demoralized. Hospitals overflowing with sick.”
Burdened as he was with such problems—far too little of what he wanted, far too much of what he didn’t—it was no wonder that he declined to aid his rival Buell by advancing southeast up the rivers, saying quite plainly: “It seems to me madness.” Nor was it any wonder that Buell, similarly laden and thus denied assistance, saw no chance of advancing in any direction, either toward Knoxville, as Lincoln and McClellan kept urging, or toward Nashville, as he himself preferred. Both generals promised results as soon as conditions permitted. Meanwhile they did what they could to improve what they had inherited from Frémont and from Sherman.
To this task they brought their skill as organizers, disciplinarians, and administrators, building a war machine for the West comparable to the one McClellan was forging in the East. Not even their worst enemies denied their considerable talents along these lines, Jefferson Davis remarking before the year’s end: “The Federal forces are not hereafter, as heretofore, to be commanded by path-finders and holiday soldiers, but by men of military education and experience in war.”
McClellan drew from this what solace he could, knowing it was much. Meanwhile, preparing for the great day if the great day ever came, he continued to drill and train his army, staging large and ever larger reviews, until at last, near Bailey’s Crossroads, November 20, he put on the largest one of all.
Seven full divisions—70,000 riflemen and cannoneers and troopers, equipped to the limit of the nation’s purchasing and manufacturing power—swung in cadenced glitter past the reviewing stand, where ladies fluttered handkerchiefs and politicians swelled their chests with pride, covering their hearts with their hats as the colors rippled by. And yet, while the dust settled, while the troops filed off to their encampments and the civilians rode in their carriages back to Washington, there was a feeling that all this panoply, grand and enjoyable as it was, did not make up for the Quaker-gun humiliation of Munson’s Hill or erase the shame of Bull Run, which still rankled. Nor, for that matter, did it reopen the Potomac or chase the rebels off the B & O. In fact, looking back on the daylong surge of armed might past the grandstand, the politicians were reinforced in their opinion that so fine an army should be used for something sterner than parading.
The soldiers did not share this let-down feeling and had no sympathy for the protests. Nor did they consider themselves inactive. Loving and trusting Little Mac, inspired by his presence when he rode his charger through their camps, they were content to leave military decisions to his superior judgment. “Marching Along,” they sang on their conditioning hikes, back and forth across the “sacred soil” of their Virginia bridgehead:
“McClellan’s our leader, he’s gallant and strong;
For God and our country we are marching along!”
Prodded by the politicians, who kept pointing out that the weather was fair and the roads still firm, Lincoln hoped that the army would move southward before winter ended all chances for an advance. McClellan apparently having no such plan in mind, the President himself tried his hand at designing a frontal and flank attack on the Confederates at Manassas. This product of midnight fret and study was submitted December 1 to the young general-in-chief, who looked it over and replied ten days later that it was hardly feasible. “They could meet us in front with equal forces nearly,” he objected.
Besides, he added as if by afterthought, “I have now my mind turned actively toward another plan of campaign that I do not think at all anticipated by the enemy nor by many of our own people.” Thus Lincoln, who apparently was included under the general heading “our own people,” received his first inkling of what came to be known as the Urbanna plan.
McClellan had never enjoyed the notion of a head-on tangle with Johnston on those plains where McDowell had gone down. Some day, given the odds, he might chance it; that was what he was building toward. But to attempt it while outnumbered, as he believed his army was, seemed to him downright folly. Then Buell’s refusal to advance against and through Knoxville, which would have placed his army on Johnston’s flank, in a position to coöperate with the Army of the Potomac, caused McClellan to abandon all intentions of a due south attack, present or future. Poring over headquarters maps he had evolved “another plan of campaign,” one moreover enlisting the assistance of the navy, flushed with its three recent victories. He would load his soldiers aboard transports, steam down the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay, then south along the coast to the mouth of the Rappahannock, and up that river a short distance to Urbanna, a landing on the southern bank, less than fifty airline miles from Richmond, his objective. Without the loss of a man, he would have cut his marching distance in half and he would be in the rear of Johnston—who then would be forced to retreat and fight on grounds of McClellan’s choosing. The more he thought about it, the better he liked it. It was not only beautifully simple. It was beautifully bloodless.
In the flush of first conception he planned to set out immediately. “I have no intention of putting the army into winter quarters,” he declared. “I mean the campaign will be short, sharp, and decisive.” But there were numerous details, including the assembling of transports for the 150,000 men he would take along, all of which had to be accomplished in great secrecy if Johnston was to be left holding the bag in northern Virginia. It was enough to overtax the energies of even so expert an organizer as McClellan. Presently he realized that it would probably be spring before he could get the campaign under way. Regretfully he wrote his wife, “I am doing all I can to get ready to move before winter sets in, but it now begins to look as if we were condemned to a winter of inactivity. If it is so,” he added, flinching from the protest he knew must follow, “the fault will not be mine: there will be that consolation for my conscience, even if the world at large never knows it.”
As if in confirmation, the rains came. The fields were turned to quagmires and the roads were axle deep in mud. At last he had a reason for not advancing which even the politicians could understand. Then, late in the month, he had an even better personal reason. He came down with a cold, which the doctors presently diagnosed as typhoid fever, and was confined to his bed for three weeks, into the new year.
His good friend Stanton, legal light of the War Department, came to his bedside, peering over his spectacles and murmuring, “They are counting on your death, and already are dividing among themselves your military goods and chattels.” But when the President called—doing so for the first time since the snub McClellan had given him six weeks back—he was denied admittance. Lincoln was profoundly troubled. Not only was the general sick, but so was his chief of staff, Brigadier General R. B. Marcy, who was also his father-in-law. Subordinates might be able to administer the Army of the Potomac, which obviously was not going into action anyhow, but Lincoln wondered what was happening elsewhere, especially in the West, now that the guiding hand was paralyzed.
On the last day of the year he telegraphed Buell and Halleck, asking if they were acting by mutual arrangement. Buell replied that there were no provisions for concerted action; Halleck replied that he knew nothing of Buell’s plans and that he was unable to coöperate in any case. “It is exceedingly discouraging. As everywhere else, nothing can be done,” Lincoln wrote on the back of Halleck’s letter, and wired for them to get in touch at once. That same day he went to the office of Quartermaster General M. C. Meigs. “General, what shall I do?” he groaned. “The people are impatient; Chase has no money, and tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”
The question was rhetorical: Lincoln already knew what to do, and even how to do it. Midnight study of strategy texts, plus native common sense and conversation with professionals, had increased his understanding of the military problem. In language that was knotty and overpunctuated, showing thereby the extent to which he had labored to evolve it, he said in a letter to Buell at the time: “I state my general idea of this war to be that we have greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match of his; and that this can be done by menacing him 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 fact that he knew what to do, and could state it thus in one hard-breathing sentence—the awful hug of the anaconda becoming more awful still as it shifted its coils to exert more pressure where the bones would crack—only rendered more exasperating the fact that “nothing [could] be done.” It was a question, Lincoln saw already, of finding the right man to do the job. Already he was looking for a general who would not only believe in his “idea of this war,” but would follow it, inexorably, to the end. Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly evident that, for all his gifts, for all his soldiers’ love of him, McClellan was not the man.
The bottom was not really out of the tub. That was only Lincoln’s manner of speaking, designed perhaps to restore some measure of confidence when he got around to comparing the overstatement with the facts. He had known melancholy all his life, and this was one of his ways of working it off—just as sometimes, to clarify in his own mind a relationship with some individual, he would write the man a letter which he never intended to mail; Lincoln was his own psychiatrist. And yet the bottom had been almost out. Riding, or else tossed upon, the seethe and roil of popular opinion during the early weeks of what became known as The Trent Affair, public men on both sides of the ocean lost their heads, and England and the United States came closer to war than they had ever come without war following. Few doubted that it would come. Even fewer, apparently, did not welcome it in the heat of indignation, since in each case national honor seemed at stake.
Mason and Slidell had left Havana while the guns of Port Royal and Belmont were booming out accompaniments for victory and repulse. Next day, November 8, while Du Pont’s sailors occupied Fort Beauregard and Grant was counting noses back at Cairo, theTrent and the San Jacinto met in the Bahama Passage, then wore apart, northward and northeastward over a glassy sea, the former having exchanged four passengers for a cargo of outrage explosive enough to blow the bottom out of any tub. In London on the 27th the captain gave the authorities the news.
Immediate and unrestrained, the reaction was in the nature of a shriek; Britannia had been touched where she was tender. “By Captain Wilkes let the Yankee breed be judged,” the Times declared, and stigmatized both him and it: “Swagger and ferocity, built on a foundation of vulgarity and cowardice, these are his characteristics, and these are the most prominent marks by which his countrymen, generally speaking, are known all over the world.” Entering a Cabinet meeting, the eighty-year-old Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, flung his hat on the table and exploded: “You may stand for this but damned if I will!”
Accordingly, while the cry for war went up all over England, an army of 8000 boarded transports bound for Canada, where fortifications were ordered erected at strategic points along the border, and Royal Navy shipyards were thrown into a bustle of preparation beyond anything since the days when the first Napoleon was mustering all Europe for invasion. Lord John Russell was put to work drafting an ultimatum for presentation to the United States. Its terms were simple: either an abject apology, including surrender of the seized Confederate emissaries, or war.
The republic across the Atlantic had never been one to bow to ultimatums, least of all from its arch-enemy England, and especially not now, with its citizens engaged in a delirium of praise for the latest hero to twist the lion’s tail. A week after taking his prisoners aboard, Captain Wilkes had put into Hampton Roads for coal, a tall, clean-shaven regular, romantic in appearance, with becoming streaks of gray in his wavy hair. From there, having informed his superiors of his action, he steamed north again, bound for Boston in accordance with instructions to deliver the rebel envoys at Fort Warren, where a congratulatory telegram awaited him from the Secretary of the Navy: “Your conduct in seizing these public enemies was marked by intelligence, ability, decision, and firmness, and has the emphatic approval of this Department.” The Army Secretary was no less enthusiastic. When the news reached the War Department, that dignitary led in the giving of three cheers by a group which included the governor of Massachusetts.
From the press, from the pulpit, from the public at large came praise for the captain’s forthright action. Congress rushed through a resolution thanking him for his “brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct in the arrest of the traitors,” and voted a gold medal struck in his honor. He was wined and dined and paraded in Boston, and toasts to his boldness were drunk throughout the nation. For the Administration to submit to an ultimatum and apologize for the captain’s action would be to disavow that action and repudiate the hero before the eyes of his adoring public. With the nation already split in half and one tremendous conflict already building toward a climax, no one could say for certain what the result would be if the people were forced to choose between their captain-hero and those who let him down.
Thus—as in 1812, with the roles reversed—the two nations were poised for a war that would surely come unless one, or both, backed down: which was plainly impossible, believing as they did the worst of each other. On one side of the water, the British assumed that the impressment had been performed under government sanction, probably in accordance with instructions. On the other, the Americans, already provoked by the granting of belligerency status to the Confederacy, saw only another instance of England’s avowing her intention to further the rebellion and assist in the dismemberment of a rival in the scramble for world trade.
As if all this was not enough to make war seem inevitable, the British conception of what had fed the roots of the late outrage was reinforced by the aggressive diplomacy—the announced intention, even—of the American Secretary of State, who was known to favor war with England as a means of reuniting his divided countrymen. He had said so repeatedly, in interviews, in correspondence, and in after-dinner talk. If the North became embroiled with a foreign power, Seward believed, the South would drop its States Rights quarrel and hasten to close ranks against invasion: whereupon, with that war over, the two sections could sit down in a glow of mutual pride at having won it, and reconcile past differences without the need or desire for further bloodshed.
In this he was most likely much mistaken, for the main goal of Confederate diplomacy was to draw England into the conflict on the southern side. And yet he was not entirely wrong—at least so far as regarded human nature. Now that the hope seemed about to be fact, the reaction below the Potomac and the Ohio was not unmixed. Exultation was sobered there by the thought of Americans, under whatever flag, submitting to an old-world ultimatum. “As I read the Northern newspapers, the blood rushes to my head,” one diarist wrote. “In the words of the fine fiction writers, my cheek is mantling with shame. Anyhow,” she went on to predict, “down they must go to Old England, knuckle on their marrow bones, to keep her on their side—or barely neutral.” Right or wrong, however, such was Seward’s theory: a foreign war would still domestic strife. And now as if by the bounty of fate, without the slightest effort on his part, Captain Wilkes’s action and England’s reaction presented him with an all-out chance to test it.
Lincoln himself had his doubts about this theory, not only in general but in particular, as it applied to the case in point. He rather agreed with the southern diarist that there would have to be some knuckling done. “I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants,” he remarked when he received word of the seizure of Mason and Slidell. Unfamiliar with diplomacy, he was feeling his way. When a learned visitor explained to him that his blockade declaration had naturally gained for the Confederacy the rights of a belligerent in all the courts of Europe, since a nation did not blockade its own ports, Lincoln replied: “Yes, that’s a fact. I see the point now, but I don’t know anything about the Law of Nations and I thought it was all right.… I’m a good enough lawyer in a western law court, I suppose, but we don’t practice the Law of Nations out there, and I supposed Seward knew all about it and I left it to him.”
He left it to Seward, but he did not let him go unsupervised. It was as if Lincoln said to him, as he had said to Herndon back in Springfield, “Billy, you’re too rampant.” Seward was called Billy, too—Billy Bowlegs, his enemies dubbed him: a bandy-legged, untidy man with a great deal of personal charm behind the bristling eyebrows, the constant cigar, and the nose of a macaw. Mrs Lincoln detested him outright. “He draws you around his little finger like a skein of thread,” she warned her husband. But when other advisers urged that he drop the New Yorker from the cabinet, Lincoln said: “Seward knows that I am his master.”
Seward knew no such thing, as yet, but he was learning. Though Lincoln liked him, enjoyed his stories, and respected his political astuteness, from Sumter on he watched him and rode herd on him, toning down his overseas dispatches, which in first draft rather demonstrated his theory that a war with Europe would solve the urgent problems here at home. It was characteristic of Seward that, having styled the coming civil war an “irrepressible conflict,” he met it, when it came, with various efforts to repress it. Sumter at least had taught him that Lincoln was more than a prairie bumpkin, for the Secretary informed his wife in early June: “Executive skill and vigor are rare qualities. The President is the best of us, but”—he felt obliged to add—“he needs constant and assiduous coöperation.” The Trent affair removed this final residue of doubt, and at the same time vindicated Lincoln’s decision to keep Seward at his post, despite the clamor of his enemies and the trouble he had made.
Now that the war he thought he wanted was his for the asking—or, indeed, for the not-asking—Seward discovered, perhaps to his profound surprise, that he did not want it at all. He said so, in fact, as soon as the news arrived from Hampton Roads. In the cabinet, while all around them were wild-eyed with praise for the bold captain, only Seward and Montgomery Blair perceived that in turning his quarter-deck into a prize court Wilkes had not only been rash, he had been wrong, and by his illegal action had exposed his country to embarrassment. As Lincoln put it, “We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain [in 1812] for insisting, by theory and practice, on the right to do precisely what Wilkes has done.” Seward agreed. “One war at a time,” Lincoln cautioned, and Seward agreed again.
However, these three alone, Lincoln and Seward and the practical-minded Blair, could not breast the popular current running full-tilt against them; they must wait. In his December 1 message to Congress, the President left the affair unmentioned. “Mr Lincoln forgot it!” someone remarked in shocked surprise at his thus ignoring the burning question of the day. The words were passed along, laughter being added to amazement: “Mr Lincoln forgot it!” And then, perceptibly—whether because of the chilling effect of the laughter or because, as in certain diseases, the fever itself had cured the fit—the excitement ebbed.
Cooler heads took over on both sides of the Atlantic. The British began to consider that Captain Wilkes might have acted without orders from his government, and responsible Americans began to see that the Confederate envoys locked up in Fort Warren—where Slidell was being given his chance to “conspire with the mice against the cat” and Mason was abiding by his oath (though in a manner not intended) never to visit that shore again “except as an ambassador”—were accomplishing more toward the fulfillment of their diplomatic mission than they would be doing if they had continued on their way to Europe.
The first official show of reason came from England. Prince Albert, closeted with the Queen in his last illness—he would be dead before the year was out—toned down Russell’s ultimatum, modifying its phraseology until the demand for an apology became, in effect, a request for an explanation; so that, instead of finding it “dictatorial or menacing,” as he had feared, Seward could pronounce it “courteous and friendly.” It was still an ultimatum, requiring an apology for the insult to the British flag, as well as the surrender of the envoys, but at least it opened the door for a reply in the form of something except a declaration of war. That was much. As for the apology—the one thing Seward could not give—verbal additions to the message indicated that a statement to the effect that Wilkes had acted without instructions would render it superfluous, since a nation could hardly be expected to apologize for something it had not done. Seward already had in mind the terms of his reply, but before it could be sent he would have to win the approval of the rest of the cabinet. In the present state of public furor, with even Lincoln feeling that surrender of the captives was “a pretty bitter pill to swallow,” nothing less than unanimous action would suffice.
For two days Seward remained shut away in his office, composing a reply to the British demand: a reply intended not only for the eyes of the Minister to whom it was addressed, but also for those of the American man-in-the-street, whose sensibilities were the ones considered most in this explanation of his government’s being willing to give up the rebel envoys: so that, though in form and style the document was brilliantly legal, showing Seward at his sparkling best—this was one State Department dispatch Lincoln did not need to doctor—it was not so much designed to stand up under analysis by the Admiralty law lords, as it was to show the writer’s countrymen that their leaders were by no means trembling at the roar of the British lion. Having complied with the basic demands of the ultimatum by 1) admitting that Wilkes had acted without orders and 2) offering to deliver the captives whenever and wherever they were wanted, Seward then wrote for his countrymen’s eyes, with reasoning that was somewhat specious and language that was at times impertinent, what amounted to an indictment of the British point of view, past and present. In other words, under cover of an apology, he gave the lion’s tail a final twist.
Down on the Virginian peninsula that summer, though by the rules of warfare he could not confiscate private property unless it was being used against him, Ben Butler had justified the receiving of slaves into his lines on grounds that their labor for the enemy made them contraband of war. “I’se contraband,” they would say, smiling proudly as they crossed the freedom line, and Butler put them to work on his fortifications. Now Seward took a page from the squint-eyed general’s book, affirming that the envoys and their secretaries were “contraband,” liable to seizure. Wilkes therefore had done right to stop the ship and then to board and search her. His error lay in his leniency; for he should have brought not only the rebel envoys, but also the Trent and all her cargo into port for judgment; in which case, Seward was sure, the ship and everything aboard her, including the four Confederates, would have become the lawful property of the United States. However—and here was where the impertinence came in—the Secretary could appreciate his lordship’s being taken aback, for in impressing passengers from a merchant vessel Wilkes had followed a British, not an American line of conduct. Seward saw the present ultimatum as an admission of past injuries inflicted by the mistress of the seas, and he congratulated Britannia on having come round to the point of view against which she had fought in 1812: “She could in no other way so effectually disavow any such injury, as we think she does, by assuming now as her own the ground upon which we then stood.” Captain Wilkes had been mainly right, but the United States wanted no advantage gained by means of an action which was even partly wrong. Seward was frank to state, however, that if his nation’s safety required it he would still detain the captives; but “the effectual check and waning proportions of the existing insurrection, as well as the comparative unimportance of the captured persons themselves, when dispassionately weighed, happily forbid me from resorting to that defense.… The four persons in question are now held in military custody at Fort Warren, in the State of Massachusetts. They will be cheerfully liberated. Your lordship will please indicate a time and place for receiving them.”
Doubtless Seward had enjoyed those two days he spent locked away in his office, verbally building a straw man, straw by straw, then verbally demolishing him, handful by handful. When he emerged, however, prepared to receive the applause of his fellow cabinet members, he received instead cold looks and hot objections. They could appreciate the brilliance of his performance, but it did not obscure the fact that they were being asked to yield—which most of them had sworn not to do. It took him, in fact, as long to win their indorsement of the document as he had spent composing it, and the latter two days were far more hectic than the former.
Christmas morning the ministers assembled. When they adjourned that afternoon, to spend what was left of the holiday with their families, there had been no agreement. What Lincoln called “a pretty bitter pill” was for the cabinet, one member said, “downright gall and wormwood.” The war was one year old that night, the anniversary of Anderson’s removal of his eighty-odd men from Moultrie to Fort Sumter. Next morning the ministers reassembled; the discussion was resumed. It went hard, being asked to go down on their marrow bones against all their oaths and boasts, with only Seward’s flimsy curtain of paradox and impertinence to hide them from the public and each other. In the end, however, as one of them wrote, “all yielded to the necessity, and unanimously concurred.”
Mason and Slidell were handed over on New Year’s Day to continue their roundabout journey, the latter being twenty days late for the appointment he had made with his wife when he told her on parting, “My dear, we shall meet in Paris in sixty days.” The public reaction to the outcome of the crisis was considerably less violent than the cabinet members had feared. Though the anti-British press continued to fulminate according to tradition, in general there was a sigh of relief at having to fight only “one war at a time.” When Captain Wilkes, still wearing his laurels, was sent about his business, to be supervised more closely in the future, the public did not even feel let down. Poker was not the national game for nothing; the people understood that their leaders had bowed, not to the British, but to expediency.
Only within one group was there despondency that the rebels had been freed. “Everybody here is satisfied with their surrender,” Lincoln heard from a friend in Indiana, “except the secession sympathizers, who are wonderfully hurt at the idea that our national honor is tarnished.”
On this diplomatic note, which opened shrill, then broke into falsetto, the first year of the conflict reached a close. Politically and militarily speaking, its laurels belonged to those who had established a nation within its span and defended that establishment successfully in battle, meeting and turning back attacks against both flanks of their thousand-mile frontier and staving off an advance against the center. McClellan’s gains in western Virginia and the Federal navy’s trident amphibious lunge did something to redress the defeats along Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, but when those checks were emphasized, east and west, by the rout at Ball’s Bluff and the repulse at Belmont, there was a distinct public impression, North and South, at home and abroad, of failure by the Unionist government to deal with the Confederate bid for independence.
One side called this bid a revolution. The other insisted that it was a rebellion. Whichever it was, it was plainly a fact, and both sides saw clearly now that the contest between northern power and southern élan was not going to be the ninety-day affair they had predicted at the outset.
Realization that this was so had grown until it was unmistakable, at which point violent objections were sounded on both sides by the extremists who had been foremost in predicting that the conflict would be short and decisive. Southerners were all bluster and would not fight if their bluff was called, the abolitionists had declared, and when one fire-eater had offered to wipe up with his handkerchief all the blood that would be shed, a less squeamish colleague had backed him up by offering to drink it. Now that blood had dripped and flowed beyond their power to drink or wipe, they waxed bitterly accusative, North and South, against those who held the reins. Chagrined that the war they had done so much to bring about had been taken out of their hands when it arrived, the two groups still insisted that their prediction had turned out false only because their aims had been betrayed. It could still be rendered valid, they affirmed, provided the war was fought the way they wanted. Each favored an all-out invasion, with fire and sword and the hangman’s noose, and each blamed its leader for an obvious lack of vigor in his thinking and in his actions.
“Jeff Davis is conceited, wrong-headed, wranglesome, obstinate—a traitor,” Edmund Rhett declared, while back in Springfield the northern President’s erstwhile law partner complained that Lincoln was attempting to “squelch out this huge rebellion by popguns filled with rose water. He ought to hang somebody and get up a name for will or decision—for character,” Herndon wrote, and added scornfully: “Let him hang some child or woman if he has not the courage to hang a man.”
Between these two extremes, while the anti-Davis and anti-Lincoln cliques were respectively consolidating their opposition and sharpening their barbs, the mass of men who would do the actual fighting, and the women who would wait for them at home, took what came with a general determination to measure up to what was expected of them. It was their good fortune, or else their misery, to belong to a generation in which every individual would be given a chance to discover and expose his worth, down to the final ounce of strength and nerve. For the most part, therefore, despite the clamor of extremists north and south of the new frontier, each side accepted its leader as a condition of the tournament, and counted itself fortunate to have the man it had and not the other. Seen from opposite banks of the Ohio and the Potomac, both seemed creatures fit for frightening children into quick obedience. On the one hand there was Davis, “ambitious as Lucifer,” with his baleful eyes and bloodless mouth, cerebral and lizard-cold, plotting malevolence into the small hours of the night. On the other there was Lincoln, “the original gorilla,” with his shambling walk and sooty face, an ignorant rail-splitter catapulted by long-shot politics into an office for which he had neither the experience nor the dignity required.
What they seemed to each other was another matter. Lincoln had recognized his adversary’s renowned capabilities from the start, but it was not until well after Sumter—if then—that Davis, like so many of the northern President’s own associates, including even his Secretary of State, began to understand that he was having to deal with an opponent not below but beyond the run of men. Their official attitude toward one another gave a certain advantage to the Southerner, since he could arraign his rival before the bar of world opinion, addressing him as a tyrant and “exposing” his duplicity; whereas Lincoln, by refusing to admit that there was any such thing as the Confederate States of America, was obliged to pretend that Davis, too, was nonexistent. However, it was a knife that cut both ways. Lincoln was not only denied the chance to answer charges, he was also relieved of the necessity for replying to a man who wasn’t there. Nor was that all. Constitutionally, the Illinois lawyer-politician was better equipped for accepting vilification than the Mississippi planter-statesman was for accepting what amounted to a cut; so that, in their personal duel, the advantages of a cloak of invisibility were canceled, at least in part, by the reaction of the man who had to wear it. Davis wore it, in fact, like an involuntary hair shirt.
Followed by the admiring glances of Richmond ladies in made-over bonnets and men in last year’s winter suits, he continued to take his early morning and late evening constitutionals, to and from the office where he spent long hours on administrative details rather than on executive decisions. With the bottom gone out of the slave market and gold already selling at a premium of fifty percent, the croakers were saying that he expended his energies thus to keep from facing the larger issues. But that was to overlook the fact that, rightly or wrongly, those issues had been settled back in the spring, when he committed himself and his nation to the defensive. Now he was pursuing a policy which a later southern-born President would call “watchful waiting”—watching for another northern offensive and waiting for European intervention. His task was to turn back the former and welcome the latter. In the light of Manassas, which set the battle pattern, and the Trent affair, which strained British-U.S. relations even further, Davis considered both of these outcomes probable, either of which would validate for all time the existing fact of his country’s independence. Waiting had already brought him much, and now that it seemed likely to bring more, he continued to watch and wait, going about his duties as he saw them.
Such duties involved an occasional social function and the daily hour which he reserved for his children. Of these there now were four, Mrs Davis having borne in mid-December the child christened William Howell for her ailing father. They were Davis’ chief relaxation, for much as he enjoyed the social amenities, particularly an intimate evening spent with a few close friends, he mostly denied himself that pleasure in these times. He would drop in during his wife’s receptions, spend an hour exercising his remarkable memory for names and faces, then dutifully, his invariable charm and courtesy masking whatever boredom he felt, take a cup of tea before retiring to his study and the paperwork that awaited him as a result of his unwillingness to delegate authority.
The lady guests might have their reservations about his wife—she was rather too “intellectual” for their taste; “pleasant, if not wholly genial,” one Richmond matron called her—but the men, coming under the sway of those attractions which had drawn her husband, seventeen years and five children ago (Samuel, the first child, died in infancy), did not feel that the breadth of her mind obscured the charm of her person. All were agreed, however, as to the attractiveness of the husband and the dignity he brought to his high office. He was showing the strain, it was true; but that only served to emphasize the wonder at how well he bore up under it, after all. Whatever their opinion as to his policy in adopting a static defensive, they all agreed that as a figurehead for the ship of state he could hardly be improved on.
Ornamentally, Lincoln served less well—though in reply to complaints about his looks his followers could repeat what had been pointed out already: “We didn’t get him for ballroom purposes.” Even here, however, he was trying. At White House receptions he stood in line and pumped the hands of callers, performing the duty, one witness observed, “like a wood-chopper, at so much a cord.” He was learning, too. Though his big hands split through several pairs of kid gloves on such evenings, now at least the gloves were white, not black as at the opera in New York ten months before. He had most of the problems Davis had, and some that Davis did not have. Office seekers still hemmed him in and placed a constant drain on his good humor. Finding him depressed one day, a friend asked in alarm, “What is the matter? Have you bad news from the army?” “No, it isn’t the army,” Lincoln said with a weary smile. “It is the post office in Brownsville, Missouri.”
Unlike his opponent, he had no fixed policy to refer to: not even the negative one of a static defensive, which, whatever its faults, at least had the virtue of offering a position from which to judge almost any combination of events. This lack gave him the flexibility which lay at the core of his greatness, but he had to purchase it dearly in midnight care and day-long fret. Without practical experience on which to base his decisions, he must improvise as he went along, like a doctor developing a cure in the midst of an epidemic. His advisers were competent men in the main, but they were fiercely divided in their counsels; so that, to all his other tasks, Lincoln had added the role of mediator, placing himself as a buffer between factions, to absorb what he could of the violence they directed at each other. What with generals who balked and politicians who champed at the bit, it was no wonder if he sometimes voiced the wish that he were out of it, back home in Illinois. Asked how he enjoyed his office, he told of a tarred and feathered man out West, who, as he was being ridden out of town on a rail, heard one among the crowd call to him, asking how he liked it, high up there on his uncomfortable perch. “If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing,” the man replied, “I’d sooner walk.”
In Richmond and in Washington, one hundred miles apart—the same distance as lay between Fairview and Hodgenville, their birthplaces in Kentucky—Davis and Lincoln toiled their long hours, kept their vigils, and sought solutions to problems that were mostly the same but seemed quite different because they saw them in reverse, from opposite directions. All men were to be weighed in this time, and especially these two. At the far ends of the north-south road connecting the two capitals they strained to see and understand each other, peering as if across a darkling plain. Soon now, that hundred miles of Virginia with its glittering rivers and dusty turnpikes, its fields of grain and rolling pastures, the peace of generations soft upon it like the softness in the voices of its people, would be obscured by the swirl and bank of cannon smoke, stitched by the fitful stabs of muzzle flashes, until at last, lurid as the floor of hell itself, it would seem to have been made for war as deliberately as a chessboard was designed for chess. Even the place-names on the map, which now were merely quaint, would take on the sound of crackling flame and distant thunder, the Biblical, Indian, Anglo-Saxon names of hamlets and creeks and crossroads, for the most part unimportant in themselves until the day when the armies came together, as often by accident as on purpose, to give the scattered names a permanence and settle what manner of life the future generations were to lead. The road ran straight, a glory road with split-rail fences like firewood ready stacked for the two armies, and many men would travel it wearing Union blue or Confederate gray. Blood had been shed along it once, and would be shed again; how many times?
Neither Lincoln nor Davis knew, but they intended to find out, and soon. The year just past had been in the nature of a prelude, whose close marked only the end of the beginning.