THE SECOND HALF of 1862 inaugurated a transformation of the war, which suddenly became much more serious, bitter, and hard-fought than that of the first year. The change had something to do with a shift in personnel. McClellan, whose career was about to peter out, not only lacked the killer instinct, a failing which unfitted him for both of the posts Lincoln had given him, chief of the Army of the Potomac and general in chief. Worse than that, McClellan actually had a philosophy of war, at least of the Civil War, which deprecated hard knocks. Like many other Northerners, he found the effects of division almost as painful as division itself. He regretted the hatreds the war had fostered and sought to fight in a way that would not intensify them—so no confiscation of enemy property, no living off the land, certainly no emancipation of the slaves. Though reemployed by Lincoln after the retreat from Richmond at the end of the Seven Days’ Battles, for want of anyone else, he had by now lost the president’s confidence and it was certain that one more failure in command would lead to his supersession for good. Lincoln was so uncertain of his reliability that, following the withdrawal to Harrison’s Landing, he divided the Union forces in northern Virginia to form two armies, leaving, however reluctantly, McClellan in charge of the Army of the Potomac, but combining the forces from West Virginia together with McDowell’s corps from the Army of the Potomac to form the Army of Virginia under John Pope. Pope, quite unlike McClellan, was extreme in his views and believed the war could be won quicker if the Southern people were made to suffer. He was not given a chance to see whether his harsher methods might have worked, for while Halleck, appointed general in chief to succeed McClellan in July 1862, was bringing back McClellan’s army from the Virginia Peninsula, Lee glimpsed the opportunity to invade the North and perhaps inflict a defeat, while the two big Union armies, those of Virginia and the Potomac, were out of touch with each other. Lee’s line of departure was the Rappahannock. Close at hand he had Jackson’s tried and tested troops. Jackson struck the first blow, inflicting a sharp reverse on Pope at Cedar Mountain in the Blue Ridge. Cedar Mountain was a significant battle because, although comparatively small in scale, it required Jackson to show his battle-winning talents rather than, as during the valley campaign, his strategic guile. Such talents were not displayed. His old valley opponent, Nathaniel Banks, commanded the Union army, which Jackson’s outnumbered, but by refusal to concede defeat and by the hard fighting of his soldiers, Banks denied Jackson a victory at Cedar Mountain and left him only the consolation of occupying the field at the battle’s end, which cost both sides about three hundred killed, though the Union missing exceeded the Confederate.
In a campaign which, if properly conducted by the Union, should have resulted in Lee’s army being caught between the two big Union forces, Lee now glimpsed an opportunity to crush Pope. In practice Pope, by skilful manoeuvre, evaded Lee’s efforts to pin him between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock and decided that he could now take Jackson at a disadvantage. His decision was based on the supposition that Jackson, who was manoeuvring to cooperate with Lee, was in retreat to the Shenandoah. He was not. Instead, by resuming his foot cavalry technique, he was marching—at a speed of thirty-six miles in fifty-four hours—to place himself in Pope’s rear. The spot he chose to occupy could not have been more dangerous to Pope. It was at Manassas Junction, where Pope had set up his supply base. The lightning march provided Jackson’s soldiers with an abundance of food and necessities, while the position threatened Pope, as Lee intended, with being cut off from his line of retreat towards Washington. Indeed, the result of Jackson’s occupation of Manassas Junction obliged Pope to fight a repetition of the first battle of the war. Second Manassas, or Second Bull Run, was a much fiercer encounter than the first, evidence of how much both sides had learned in thirteen months of fighting. Jackson, hoping to take Pope at a disadvantage, launched his men out of the woods against Pope’s when he received word from Lee that Longstreet was approaching, with strong numbers, from the valley. The disposition of forces should have ensured a crushing Confederate victory by envelopment, had it not been for the combat qualities of the Union troops. They included four midwestern regiments, one of which, the 2nd Wisconsin, had fought at First Bull Run. These regiments, forming the so-called Black Hat Brigade because they were dressed in pre-war regular army uniforms, fought with such determination that they held off all efforts by the Stonewall Brigade to break the Union line and so ensured that at the end of the day Lee’s hope of inflicting a crushing defeat had been nullified. Once again Jackson displayed his less-than-complete powers of leadership in the heat of action. The culmination of his effort was an attempt to envelop Pope’s right by a march around his flank to Chantilly, east of Manassas, which led to a small, confused battle, also known as Ox Hill. Jackson failed to envelop Pope, who kept open his line of communication with Washington. The Confederates foundered largely because there were by now overwhelming numbers of Union troops in and around the old battlefield, including most of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Their numbers were so large that Second Bull Run should have been a clear-cut Union victory. That it was not was McClellan’s fault. He had a dislike of Pope and in a fit of pettiness, which did the Union cause serious disservice, refused to go to Pope’s assistance.
Second Bull Run therefore became a Union defeat, though with closely equal and very heavy losses by both sides, 1,724 Union soldiers killed to 1,481 Confederates. In the aftermath, Lincoln relieved Pope of command and recombined his Army of Virginia with the Army of the Potomac, which he brought to Washington to assure its defence—always the president’s first consideration. The Union failure at Second Bull Run encouraged Lee to adopt a new strategy. Instead of using all his force to defend the territory of Virginia, he would alter the tempo of the war altogether and take it to the enemy by invading his territory, a strategy to which he would adhere for the next ten months of the war. Lee had thus far given no indication that he possessed any offensive impulse or the ability to bring attacking moves to a successful conclusion. Indeed, he had won an unwelcome reputation for defensiveness and dislike of risk-taking. The reason for his change of tempo was simple. The offensive raised the pressure of war from Virginia, his home state, and it made directly available the natural resources of the North to an invading army. Strategically, it altered the balance of the war, wresting the initiative from the North and threatening it with the spectre of defeat within its own territory. Such a change of strategy would also bring encouragement to the civilian South and to the Confederacy’s supporters in Europe. The goal of diplomatic recognition always floated somewhere behind the South’s war plans.
Lee crossed the Potomac northwest of Washington on September 4-6, 1862, and advanced into Maryland as far as Frederick, where Barbara Fritchie defied the invaders—in John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous poem: “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” There he unilaterally divided his army into three, sending Jackson to Harpers Ferry; Longstreet to Hagerstown, on the upper Potomac; and keeping only the formations of D. H. Hill and J. E. B. Stuart with him. A strange episode then compromised his strategy. Lee’s plans, set out in a special order, No. 191, detailing the separate movements of his army, were found by a Union soldier wrapped around three cigars in an abandoned Confederate camp. The paper was taken to McClellan’s assistant adjutant general, who knew the man who had written it and so could authenticate the handwriting. Even the ever-timorous McClellan was persuaded that he had been granted the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune. The news reached him by September 13 and persuaded him to position his army behind South Mountain, near the little town of Sharpsburg. Characteristically, McClellan delayed issuing orders to march overnight and continued to proclaim, as usual, that he was outnumbered, even though the captured orders revealed precisely the opposite. Lee, though threatened by McClellan’s deployment, rallied; informed by a breach of security at Union headquarters that Special Order No. 191 had fallen into enemy hands, he kept his nerve and positioned his 25,000 men, to the Union’s 80,000, along a tributary of the Potomac known as Antietam Creek, which would give its name to the coming battle in Northern accounts; to the South it would be known as Sharpsburg. Both names would cast a chill for years to come; indeed, they still do. For September 17, 1862, was to become not only the bloodiest day of the Civil War, but the bloodiest of any day in any of America’s previous wars and of wars to come, bloodier than June 6, 1944, during the landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, or February 19, 1945, the landing on Iwo Jima. The reason for the costliness of Antietam was the nature of the battlefield, a constricted space only two miles square between two waterlines, that of the Potomac and its tributary Antietam Creek. The interior of the tiny battlefield was further cramped by the existence of a number of killing grounds, such as the one that became known as the Cornfield, and a sunken road to be known as Bloody Lane. Into this maze both Lee and McClellan thrust their forces as they became available. Lee’s were arriving from Harpers Ferry, and the whole mass, 120,000 strong, was thereby compelled to do its worst. At the Dunker Church, a rustic prayer house, and at the Rohrbach Bridge over Antietam Creek, later to be known as Burnside’s Bridge because of that general’s repeated efforts to take it, Union troops struggled with Confederates, time and again nearly breaking Lee’s line but always failing to do so because McClellan shrank from committing all the strength he had. As the dreadful day drew out, the number of dead and wounded mounted. The eventual total was 12,400 casualties on the Union side, 10,300 on the Confederate. Particular unit losses were staggering. The 1st Texas lost 80 percent of its strength killed or wounded. Of the 250 men of the 6th Georgia, only 24 survived unhurt. Colonel David Thompson of the 9th New York recorded a peculiar phenomenon of the battle: he saw at a particular moment “the singular effect mentioned I think, in the Life of Goethe, on a similar occasion—the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.”1 Lee’s son, serving in the Army of Northern Virginia during the battle of Antietam, recalled the following incident:
As one of the Army of Northern Virginia, I occasionally saw the commander-in-chief, on the march, or passed the headquarters close enough to recognise him and members of his staff, but as a private soldier in Jackson’s corps did not have much time, during that campaign, for visiting, and until the battle of Sharpsburg I had no opportunity of speaking to him. On that occasion our battery had been severely handled, losing many men and horses. Having three guns disabled, we were ordered to withdraw, and while moving back we passed General Lee and several of his staff, grouped on a little knoll near the road. Having no definite orders where to go, our captain, seeing the commanding general, halted us and rode over to get some instructions. Some others and myself went along to see and hear. General Lee was dismounted with some of his staff around him, a courier holding his horse. Captain Poague, commanding our battery, the Rockbridge Artillery, saluted, reported our condition, and asked for instructions. The General, listening patiently looked at us—his eyes passing over me without any sign of recognition—and then ordered Captain Poague to take the most serviceable horses and men, man the uninjured gun, send the disabled part of his command back to refit, and report to the front for duty. As Poague turned to go, I went up to speak to my father. When he found out who I was, he congratulated me on being well and unhurt. I then said: “General, are you going to send us in again?” “Yes, my son,” he replied, with a smile; “you all must do what you can to help drive these people back.”2
On the night following the battle, Lee withdrew his survivors across the Potomac. It was the beginning of his retreat from Maryland. McClellan could therefore claim, and did, that he had won a victory. Lincoln was not persuaded. As McClellan waited longer and longer to follow Lee’s retreat, Lincoln grew ever more impatient with his failure and on November 7 removed him from command. That was not the end of McClellan. He was to run, unsuccessfully, against Lincoln as the Democratic candidate in the 1864 presidential election. It was, however, the end of his military career. His departure did not in any way dent his self-esteem, merely hardened his conviction that he was surrounded by dunderheads. Lincoln’s hints of impatience at his inactivity grew broader and broader. He pointed out that McClellan could slip troops between Lee and Richmond. Hints were ignored. The general argued that his army could not march without boots or food, even though, as Lincoln told him, Lee’s men did both. Lincoln eventually lost the patience he had preserved for so long. It was McClellan’s intransigence that led to his replacement by Burnside as much as his incompetence. Burnside was a fighting general and a brave man, but he lacked McClellan’s talents, which, though offset by much failure, were considerable. McClellan had also inspired the Union soldier, who believed fervently in the general’s leadership no matter what setbacks he was led into. McClellan’s departure was clearly and genuinely regretted in the ranks. No other general would find a comparable place in the army’s respect and affection until the coming of Grant from the West in 1864.
Antietam left one other profound change beyond the removal of McClellan. The battle also altered for good the moral atmosphere of the war, by providing Lincoln with the opportunity to proclaim large-scale emancipation of the South’s slave population, a measure long desired by the president himself and millions of his fellow countrymen. Lincoln had already written a draft emancipation act and had urged emancipation on the border states, though without success. Border state whites feared that emancipated blacks would misbehave; they also feared that the grant of freedom across state lines would attract masses of plantation slaves to take liberty on their soil. The fear of a northward migration of slaves seeking liberty was what also caused many high minded Northerners to oppose emancipation while supporting the war. Lincoln had had to overrule Frémont’s premature proclamation of liberation in the Western Department because of the danger that it might tip opinion in the border states. Now Antietam gave him a chance to initiate the reforms his great speeches of 1858—“this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free”—had promised but that his first years in office had left unfulfilled. In the draft emancipation proclamation which he read to the cabinet on July 22, 1862, he had implored the slave states to liberate their bondsmen against the threat that they would be freed by presidential decree in states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863. William Seward, secretary of state, had prevailed on Lincoln to postpone issuing the draft until a change in the Union’s military fortunes, at that moment at a low ebb following the debacle of the Seven Days’ Battles, should make it more propitious. On September 22, five days after Antietam, Lincoln decided the moment had come. For political if not military reasons, he decided to accept McClellan’s judgement that the battle had been a victory, if only because it had led to Lee’s withdrawal from Maryland, and so he announced that on January 1, 1863, all slaves on the territory of states still in rebellion on that date would be legally free. The Emancipation Proclamation transformed the moral atmosphere of the war. Thenceforward the war was about slavery, an issue that crystallised attitudes. Abolitionists had got their way. Northern moderates at last knew where the Union stood. Southerners could now believe that the Union opposed states’ rights as a means of abolishing slavery and thus impoverishing Southern property owners and undermining the basis of civil order inside the Confederacy.
Antietam had a further effect. Because Lincoln had decided that it was a victory, the European powers accepted it as such and their consideration of extending diplomatic recognition to the South faded. The South’s best hope of winning recognition had come during the cotton famine of 1861-62, when an embargo on sales to Europe by producers and brokers had stopped production of cloth in many mill areas in Britain and France. The embargo ultimately failed because of the adoption of alternative supply and the existence in Europe of large stocks accepted during a period of overproduction in 1859-60. Isolated disputes and excitements apart, such as the Trent affair, the danger to the North of European diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy disappeared after Antietam. British recognition of Southern belligerency in May 1863, which brought the right to conduct operations at sea but fell short of diplomatic recognition, palliated the South’s sense of injustice to some extent, without damaging Northern interests, though it did inflame tempers in the U.S. Congress.
The replacement of McClellan did not immediately improve the fortunes of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside at once compromised his new role. His plan of employment of the army was to shift it southward from the vicinity of Sharpsburg to that of Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River, from which he planned to initiate an advance on Richmond. To have any chance of success he needed to move quickly, which in turn required a surprise bridging of the Rappahannock. Bridging required pontoons, which had to be brought from depots in Washington under the control of General Halleck. Either because Burnside did not make himself clear or because Halleck failed to understand, time was wasted in securing the pontoons and in making the crossing. Lee’s army was given ample time to prepare to defeat the manoeuvre. The bridging at Fredericksburg itself was opposed, and the Union engineers emplacing the pontoons suffered heavy casualties. By December 13, nevertheless, the Army of the Potomac had crossed and was in position on the south bank, facing a line of heights occupied by the Army of Northern Virginia. Burnside’s plan was for Joseph Hooker’s and Edwin Sumner’s men to fix the Confederate defenders, while William Franklin’s made a feint at Stonewall Jackson’s position on the high ground south of the town. If successful, the advance was to be transformed into a major attack, rolling up the Southern front from left to right. The difficulty with the plan was that there was too much high ground on the south bank of the Rappahannock and that the Confederate troops controlled all of it. They also dominated, with artillery, the low ground the Union troops would have to cross to come to grips with the defenders, who were protected by natural and man-made barriers.
As soon as the Union infantry appeared, the Confederates opened rapid and accurate fire from a sunken road, fronted by a stone wall that ran along the front of the high ground, Marye’s Heights, behind Fredericksburg. The battle commenced on the morning of December 13, and, as the thick fog began to lift, the casualties, which the Confederate artillery commander had boasted would be high, started to mount rapidly. The Confederates enjoyed every advantage—a commanding position, protection from return fire—and so were able to shoot down the advancing attackers with ease and at little risk to themselves. During that short December afternoon, a bitterly cold one intensified by showers of snow, twelve Union brigades were committed and by the end of the day 12,700 men had been killed or wounded. If comparisons are to be drawn, Fredericksburg resembled in its horror almost no other battle of the Civil War but anticipated some of the worst of the First World War. There were the same appalling climatic conditions, the same lack of cover, the same difficulty and delay in collecting and evacuating the wounded. For several hours the Union attackers lay pinned to the frozen ground by enemy fire; many of those who shifted cramped limbs suffered fresh wounds as they did so. Fredericksburg was, for the Union forces, a one-sided Antietam, in which they suffered comparable casualties without any chance of fighting back.
During 1862 the character of the First World War was also anticipated in the frequency of and shortening of interval between the battles fought in the eastern theatre. Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg were all fought in the period between August 29 and December 13. All were big battles, producing heavy casualties—Antietam and Fredericksburg exceptionally heavy casualties—and consuming very large quantities of munitions and other supplies. Battles such as these could not be waged without large reserves of men and equipment, any more than could successive stages of the battles of the Somme or Verdun. And like the Somme and Verdun, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg wore armies out. By Christmas 1862, the Army of the Potomac was battered and exhausted by the strains of combat, of harsh existence in the field and on the line of march, and by appalling losses. The Army of Northern Virginia was even more so, because of the South’s comparative shortage of manpower. Lincoln, though determined to sustain pressure on the Confederacy, was alarmed when he heard that Burnside intended to turn the army and cross the Rappahannock again in the face of Lee’s force; the president rightly feared another disaster. Burnside admitted to Lincoln his full responsibility for the defeat and announced his intention publicly to confess it. Nevertheless, he still harboured the ambition to make another attempt. Two of his subordinates, General John Newton and Brigader General John Cochrane, were so concerned at his frame of mind that they went to see Lincoln. Denying that they sought Burnside’s removal, they said nonetheless that his plan should be forbidden.
This was a command crisis with which Lincoln had to deal personally, much as he preferred to let his generals make their own decisions. On January 1, 1863, he called a conference at the White House. It took a deeply unsatisfactory form. Burnside called for the resignations of Halleck and Stanton, but also declared that the army had lost confidence in him and asked to be relieved. Two days of inconclusive discussion ended in Burnside returning to the Rappahannock determined to cross, but asking Halleck’s approval, which Halleck unequivocally refused to give. Burnside crossed all the same and attempted an advance which had to be terminated because of the glutinous state of the roads. It became known as the “Mud March,” deeply disheartened the army, and prompted heavy criticism from Burnside’s subordinates. Outraged by their disloyalty, as he saw it, he threatened to dismiss several of them. He even spoke wildly of hanging Joseph Hooker, one of his corps commanders. He had no legal power to do any of these things. Word of Burnside’s discomposure swiftly reached Lincoln, who, over the course of the following days, decided that he would have to relieve him of command and replace him with Hooker, who had a fighting reputation. On January 25, the change was made, though Lincoln, who admired Burnside’s personal qualities, refused to allow him to resign his commission. Lincoln probably recognised that Burnside was on the point of breakdown. The general was deeply affected by the Fredericksburg losses, as several generals of the First World War would be by the holocaust of the trench offensives on the Western Front. This was a new development. Commanders during the warfare of the absolute monarchs, though they presided over terrible slaughter, seemed untouched by it, perhaps because of long apprenticeship and the social distance separating leaders and led. Empathy with the common soldier was a function of American democracy and the populist character of the Civil War. It was by no means a universal emotion. Lee, a man of great humanity, never came near cracking, even as the destruction of his armies approached. Grant, who directed some of the bloodiest battles of the war, accepted casualties, perhaps because he had conceived for himself a philosophy of war in which the celebration of its glories played no part. Burnside, a modest, even humble man, did not seek a reputation at the expense of his soldiers’ lives, despite his awful management of Fredericksburg. The spectacle of large-scale killing, which he had been spared before 1861 because he went late to the Mexican War, seemed to have been too much for him.
The opening of 1863 still found the Confederacy holding the initiative in the East. Though Lee was no longer on Union territory, and despite the reinforcement of the Army of the Potomac to a strength of 133,000, its highest so far, the debacle of Fredericksburg and the uncertainties aroused by the turmoil in the high command had robbed the Union of moral dominance. Lee had shown that he had the capacity to invade and to fight successfully on Union soil. His occupation of advanced positions in northern Virginia suggested that he would attempt invasion again, and many in the North rightly suspected that the Confederates might win. It was an uncertain New Year in Washington and the cities of the East.
News from Mississippi and the West brought little comfort. The hope of 1862, that the whole length of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Memphis might be opened to Union traffic, had not been fulfilled. Grant’s army was still picking ineffectively at the backdoor of Vicksburg, while in Tennessee there had been a revival of Confederate fortunes. The passion for discord that took possession of the United States in 1861 did not confine itself to the densely settled and populated lands of the old thirteen colonies. It also took hold in the new territories of westward expansion, in regions where slavery was scarcely known, demonstrating that secession was a state of mind as much as of economic interest. During the summer and fall of 1861 there were outbreaks of fighting, often intense and bloody, in Kentucky and Missouri and as far west as Arkansas. Kentucky’s population was heavily Virginian in origin, so it was not surprising that it should be tinged by loyalty to the new government in Richmond. Chronologically, the first action by the Confederate western armies was at Wilson’s Creek, in Missouri in August 1861, where Nathaniel Lyon, who had saved the state for the Union, was killed in battle by a small army commanded by Sterling Price. The next area to spring into military life was eastern Tennessee, the main object of Lincoln’s western strategy, since he hoped so earnestly to liberate the Tennessee Unionists, most numerous in the eastern half of the state, from Confederate control. The local Union commander proved unequal to the task of dislodging the Confederates and was dismissed, taking with him his subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose career would be only temporarily set back. The successor was Don Carlos Buell, who had under command George Thomas, the future Rock of Chickamauga. In January 1862, at Mill Springs in Kentucky on the Cumberland River, Thomas engaged General George Crittenden’s 4,000 men at the battle, which is also known as Logan’s Crossroads. Crittenden attempted an attack but was checked by Thomas, who then succeeded in counter-attacking and routing the Confederates, who were pursued from the field of battle. Though casualties were few, Mill Springs was a genuine Union victory. Lincoln was delighted, since the victory seemed to presage bringing assistance to his cherished Unionist enclave in east Tennessee.
The sequel to Mill Springs unwound, however, not in Tennessee but in Missouri, where following the Unionist setback at Wilson’s Creek the Confederate general Sterling Price led his army of 11,000 southward into the northwest corner of Arkansas, to take position at a place called Pea Ridge. He there came under the command of General Earl Van Dorn, later to win renown as a Confederate cavalry leader, who had brought reinforcements. His opponent was General Samuel Curtis, whose Army of the Missouri was outnumbered. Curtis began his campaign on the offensive but was forced to retreat onto the Ozark Plateau, astride the Arkansas-Missouri border. There on March 7-8, 1862, he fought a bitter and costly battle, known both as Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern, after the two places at which action was concentrated during the two days the battle lasted. The Union forces were better handled, at one point re-forming their lines through 180 degrees; their artillery made better practice, so that Pea Ridge was that rare Civil War encounter, a battle in which artillery achieved decisive effect. Van Dorn decamped eastward towards the theatre of operations that was opening on the middle Mississippi, south of Forts Henry and Donelson. In doing so, he abandoned Missouri and Arkansas to Federal forces. Curtis, a West Point graduate, appointed by Halleck to command the military district of southwest Missouri, had about 11,000 men, whom he grandiloquently titled the Army of the Southwest. In February 1862, he led the army against Price at Springfield, Missouri, along a road over the Ozark highlands, known as the Wire or Telegraph Road. His victory at Pea Ridge led to the unlocking of the whole campaign in the western theatre, setting in motion the army of Ulysses S. Grant that would lead to the battle of Shiloh. Curtis largely owed his success in this distant theatre, where the going was difficult and the surroundings rugged, to the exertions of his supply officer, Captain Philip Sheridan, a master of logistics, who managed to get food and munitions to him throughout the campaign. Sheridan would, during its course, come to the attention of Grant and through that connection begin his ascent to high command, which would culminate in his appointment as chief of Union cavalry in the Overland Campaign, the siege of Petersburg, and the surrender at Appomattox.
Union victory at Pea Ridge also precipitated operations even farther west, in New Mexico, which involved Union troops from California. Jefferson Davis was keen to carry the flag of the Confederacy to the Pacific coast. Union faintheartedness had allowed the Texas Confederates to advance into New Mexico. Canby, the Union commander, then found new resolution and defeated Sibley, his Confederate opponent and inventor of the ubiquitous Sibley tent, first at Johnson’s Ranch (also known as Apache Canyon) on March 26, 1862. Action was resumed on March 28 at La Glorieta Pass, from which Sibley retreated all the way back to his starting place at San Antonio, Texas. Union troops consisted of the 1st California Infantry and a contingent of Colorado gold miners. The contribution of the far westerners stamped an all-American character on the Civil War, though they also terminated the Confederate effort to create a Southern outpost on the Pacific coast.
On balance, however, it was the Confederates who enjoyed the greater success in the borderlands in the summer of 1862, success which prompted the supreme commander in the theatre, Braxton Bragg, to decide on mounting an invasion of Kentucky. There he played on Lincoln’s deepest fears, for not only was the president tenderly sympathetic to the fortunes of the pro-Unionists in the border states, he also harboured a keen geostrategic anxiety about the security of the Union “waist” between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. This “waist” may have been a geographic figment. It was real enough in the president’s mind, however, and he feared a Confederate drive northward through Kentucky and Ohio towards the southern shore of Lake Erie quite as much as the South feared, with better reason, a bisection of the Confederacy along the Mississippi Valley. Union success in the area of confluence of the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Ohio rivers earlier in the year appeared to have repelled the danger to the Union “waist.” In September and October, however, the Confederates drove back into the region, reaching Corinth, Mississippi, the capture of which earlier in the year had seemed to crown the Shiloh campaign.
The campaign in the West in 1862 culminated in the opening of Grant’s direct offensive against Vicksburg, frustrated though it was to be for months by appalling terrain. While Grant struggled to find a way forward, harassed by troopers of Van Dorn’s and Forrest’s cavalry, Rosecrans—who had succeeded Buell in command of the Army of the Cumberland—attempted to assist him by increasing the area of Union control within Tennessee. Rosecrans’s advance was threatened by Bragg, who at Murfreesboro—also known as Stones River—began a battle which, in terms of casualties as a percentage of numbers engaged, was to prove the costliest of the war to both sides. Fought over three days, from December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863, it began with Confederate attacks on the Union positions, from which they were successively driven back. Eventually, however, the Union lines reformed, leaving the Confederates exposed to the fire of massed Union artillery, which as Bragg’s subordinate, General John C. Breckinridge, had correctly foreseen, massacred his infantry as they attempted to mount a battle-winning charge. Both armies claimed a victory, but both withdrew, each having lost about a third of their respective strengths. Murfreesboro, or Stones River, terminated the campaign in Tennessee for the winter.
The West was an enormous theatre, dwarfing that in the East, where only a hundred miles separated the two capitals and the road and rail networks, together with the tidewater channels, facilitated communication both east-west and north-south. From Memphis to New Orleans was 400 miles along the Mississippi; from Chattanooga to Memphis nearly 300 miles overland. The cross-country communications were poor, railroads differing in gauge or petering out in dead ends. For the Union there was no long-distance rail connection between the East and the Mississippi Valley except by the roundabout route through Cincinnati to St. Louis. Nor were the rivers helpful, as they were in the Ohio country. The tributaries of the Mississippi led westward into the South’s backcountry. Its neighbours, like the Alabama and the Chattahoochee, were internal to the states they watered, not interstate axes of communication. Both the human and physical geography of the western theatre defied the effort to make organised war, condemning the armies that operated there to piecemeal campaigning or to raiding. Nor did the theatre, outside the Mississippi Valley, offer objectives the capture of which promised decisive results. To fight in the West was to act at a level little superior to that of exploration and pioneering, in a struggle to find the enemy and routes between potential battlefields.
Winfield Scott had therefore correctly identified at the very start of the war that the key to any success in the vast territory south of the Ohio River was the seizure of the Mississippi Valley, which by early 1863 had become Grant’s chief purpose. The geography of the valley, however, frustrated his efforts. His seizure of Forts Henry and Donelson and domination of the confluence of the Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee had quite fortuitously furnished him control of the Mississippi’s upper reaches. Farragut’s bold seizure of New Orleans had given the Union control of the river’s exit into the Gulf of Mexico. But complete control of the river was still lacking in early 1863 because of the South’s continuing hold on Vicksburg and, farther south along the river, Port Hudson. Vicksburg was the biggest obstacle.