AMERICA WAS NOT prepared for war, any war, let alone a great internal war. It had almost no soldiers. The Founding Fathers of the United States, in their rejection of all that was bad about the Old World, had hoped to dispense with a standing army altogether, just as the parliamentarians who restored Charles II to the throne after England’s Civil War had hoped also. Domestic rebellion—trivial in both cases but alarming while it lasted—prompted them to reconsider. As a precaution against recurrence, the English Parliament kept in being a few of the existing regiments, Cromwellian or royal; the American Congress preserved some units of Washington’s army. In 1802 it established a military academy at West Point to officer them. West Point’s graduates, trained as engineers, were also expected to supervise the construction of the new nation’s public works, building bridges, dams, and harbours, for many of which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remains responsible to this day.
Yet West Point classes were so tiny, yielding sometimes only a dozen trained officers a year to the army before 1861, and the other sources of officer recruitment were so haphazard—service in one of the nation’s foreign or internal wars—the War of 1812, the Seminole War, the Creek War—that there was no reserve of experienced, professional military leaders on which to draw when the Civil War came in 1861. Things were quite different in Europe, where “military families” flourished, sending some of their sons into particular regiments for some of their youth as a matter of course, and where the national armies inducted young men for limited periods of service as reserve officers. It is true that America possessed several families with military traditions, such as the Lees of Virginia; but they were too small and isolated to found military dynasties, as existed elsewhere in the world. As a substitute in the absence of an officer class, North and South in 1861 turned to the middle class, to lawyers, teachers, and businessmen, often those with political experience. Such men had standing in their communities. Standing in the community did not, however, necessarily translate into ability as a military leader, particularly not of military innocents. All too often the big man of a locality proved to lack the power of command, or even soldierly common sense.
The United States’ tiny army had successfully defended the republic against British invaders during the War of 1812; in 1846 it achieved a complete victory over the army of Mexico, harvesting as a consequence of the ensuing peace an enormous addition to the national territory in the southwest, which would become the states of Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California. The Mexican War brought an expansion of army strength. Afterwards it dwindled again, so that in 1861 it numbered only 16,000, deployed for the most part in fortified posts in Indian territory, west of the Mississippi, or in the great federal fortresses that guarded the nation’s coasts, from Boston harbour to the bay of San Francisco.
The military philosophy of the United States was that, if required, any large number of soldiers should be supplied by the militia, a body authorised by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In his 1829 inaugural address, President Andrew Jackson had referred to “a million of armed freemen, possessed of the means of war,” as the republic’s chief means of defence. The militia was important in American history. A military system brought from England by the early colonists, it required the able-bodied to muster for service when called upon to do so by the local authority. At the outset that meant the individual colony, and it was upon the colonies’ militias that the eighteenth-century rebellion against the Crown had been organised. In the aftermath of independence, however, the militias had withered away. In some of the states, successors to the colonies, they continued to turn out and to train; in the majority they subsided into paper organisations.
They might have disappeared altogether—as the militia did in England after the Napoleonic Wars, surviving at best as a source of recruits for the regular army—had not America become infected after 1859 by the fashion for “volunteering” that swept England in that year. An entirely unfounded fear of French invasion impelled the civilian British in 1859 to form units of “rifle volunteers,” encouraged by publicists, who included Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His poem “Form, Riflemen, Form” was a major motivation of the rifle movement. The volunteering impulse spread to the United States and took root particularly in the South, already infected by the urge to take arms against the spectre of Northern aggression. By 1861 many volunteer rifle corps, and also artillery units, had appeared in the South, adopting gallant designations—the Palmetto Guard of South Carolina, the Lexington Rifles of Kentucky (which went south with its first commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner), the North Carolina Sharpshooters, the Washington Artillery of New Orleans—and flamboyant uniforms to match the regimental titles. “Cadet gray”—worn at West Point—was the preferred Southern colour; but many Southern volunteers wore Union blue or, particularly favoured, varieties of French uniform; in 1861 Napoleon III’s army, recently victorious against the Austrians, was the leading military power in the world. The French style, short jacket and baggy trousers, was the favoured outfit of most Southern units at the start of the war.
Some Southern units went further, to adopt Zouave costume, modelled on the dress which the French army had borrowed from their tribal enemies during the conquest of Algeria after 1830. The Zouaves’ baggy red trousers and embroidered waistcoats made for a very dramatic appearance, which proved even more popular in the North than the South. Among Northern Zouave units were numbered the New York Fire Zouaves, formed from members of the New York Fire Brigade and led by Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s. A Southern equivalent was the Louisiana Zouaves, known after their commanding officer as Wheat’s Tigers. Other borrowings from contemporary European military fashion included the feathered hats of various “Garibaldi” regiments and, surprisingly, the tailcoats and towering bearskins of such units as the 40th Massachusetts, which mimicked the uniform of the City of London’s volunteer regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company.
The well-dressed among the would-be soldiers of 1860-61 were the minority. Surprisingly few volunteer units, on both sides, adopted anything resembling the uniforms of their British rifle volunteer equivalents, who turned themselves out in the tweed shooting-suits of contemporary country gentlemen, with stylish results. The overwhelming effect achieved, North and South, once the first finery was outworn, was one of drabness—dull colours, Northern blue, Southern gray, but more often the “butternut” of homespun dyes, and uniformly shapeless cut. The armies of the Civil War were the worst tailored of any great conflict, and the effect was heightened by the almost universal abandonment of shaving. Beards were both military and modern, adopted in Britain in imitation of the returning veterans of the Crimean War, who had been excused from shaving during the bitter winters outside Sebastopol in 1855-56. The British fashion for beards spread to America, where it took such hold that by 1861 scarcely any mature man remained clean-shaven. All leading generals of the war—Ambrose Burnside, Nathan Bedford Forrest, U. S. Grant, A. P. Hill, John Bell Hood, Stonewall Jackson, E. Kirby Smith, Lee, Irvin McDowell, George Meade, John Pope, William Rosecrans, William Sherman, and Jeb Stuart—cultivated a full set of whiskers; Beauregard and McClellan wore luxuriant moustaches and small “Napoleons;” Burnside invented a style of “sideburns,” or sideboards, that perpetuates his name to this day. However worn, and it was usually worn long enough to conceal both mouth and chin, facial hair gave almost all but the youngest Civil War soldiers a sombre, preacherish look, perhaps appropriate to men who were fighting for an idea.
The enthusiasm for volunteering, to supplement the legal requirement to maintain a militia, varied in intensity from state to state. On the eve of the war, only a handful of states maintained efficient militias. They included, in the North, Massachusetts, with 5,000 active militiamen, and New York, with 19,000, and in the South, Georgia, which had many volunteer and militia companies, and South Carolina, heartland of secession, with numbers of well-trained and well-equipped volunteer companies. Kentucky, a bitterly divided state, had 73 State Guard companies, of Southern sympathy, and 66 Home Guard companies sympathetic to the North. Ohio had 30 companies, Vermont 22, Wisconsin 1,993 militiamen, Maine 35 companies, all available to the Federal government. Virginia had 8 militia regiments, all ready to declare for the South, and Mississippi had 3,927 volunteers, belonging to 78 companies, all of which would go south. Many states, including several located in Northern and Southern heartland territory, were quite unorganised for war, including Alabama and North Carolina (South) and Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, and New Jersey (North). Kansas was full of armed men who had been fighting the Civil War before it began but were unorganised. Texas had its own eccentric military organisation, the Texas Rangers, largely dedicated to protecting isolated settlers.
Despite the lack of trained men, shortage of manpower was not to prove a problem to either side at the outset of the war. Such was the enthusiasm for cause—the Union or states’ rights—that regiments could be formed as quickly as weapons could be found to arm them or officers to lead, indeed without either necessity in many cases. America in 1861 was a populous country, and growing, partly thanks to immigration, partly to the fertility of its well-fed population. Size of population, and population growth, favoured the North. The census of 1860 enumerated a total population of approximately thirty million: 20,275,000 whites in the North and 5,500,000 in the South; blacks in the North added 430,000, in the South 3,654,000. Almost all Southern blacks were enslaved; so were some Northern blacks, in the District of Columbia itself and in the border states of Tennessee, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri. Blacks did not count in the military population (until 1863, when Lincoln’s Emancipation Act officially authorised their enlistment, as unofficially they had been enlisted since the previous year). The white population of military age—men under thirty, though many older men joined—was about 2,500,000 in the North, 900,000 in the South.
The barely existent administrative machinery of the Confederacy could not in 1861 have mobilised an army to challenge the Union; fortunately for the cause of secession, the necessary men came forward unbidden. Many were members of militia units, whether long-established or recent; many were spontaneous volunteers. Not until April 1862 would the Confederacy have to legislate for conscription. The pattern of enlistment was similar in the North, initial and widespread volunteering in numbers, often centred on existing militia or volunteer units; in the headstrong days of 1860-61 the distinction between the two was easily blurred. Legislation attempted to regularise the popular response, if only to provide the money needed to pay and equip the patriot enthusiasts. On March 6, 1861, the Confederate Congress authorised the creation of an army of 100,000, much of which already existed. In May it increased the army’s size to 400,000, the War Department soon having to turn away half those coming forward, for want of weapons. Confederate efforts to organise were hampered by the weakness of the central government and the persisting primacy of the states, whose governors frequently sought to retain both weapons and soldiers within state borders. The Confederacy never did form a regular army; its fighting strength was composed of states’ forces, supervised by its War Department. The system that emerged in the North was similar. The regular army was scarcely expanded and its pre-war regiments were largely left in their pre-war stations, on the western frontier; the Civil War army was a federation of volunteers, organised on a state basis and bearing state titles. Thus Ulysses S. Grant, before the war a retired U.S. regular officer, originally commissioned into the infantry from West Point, was appointed in 1861 to command the 21st Illinois, a volunteer regiment, of his home state, and returned to the regular army, as a major general, only after his victory at Vicksburg in 1863.
The Civil War system, if anything so complex and confused can be called a system, anticipated that adopted in Great Britain at the outbreak of the First World War. There the regular army was left almost intact at the outset, while expansion was organised through the Territorial Army, which descended from the volunteering movement of 1859, supplemented by a renewed volunteering impulse, which produced the “New” or “Kitchener Armies” of Pals and Chums battalions immortalised by their self-sacrifice in 1916 on the Somme, Britain’s Gettysburg. Both the American Civil War and the British Great War responses to military crisis had a common Anglo-Saxon origin, descending originally from Alfred the Great’s fyrd and the Norman posse comitatus of the English counties.
President Lincoln’s initial response to Southern rebellion after the firing on Fort Sumter was, on April 15, 1861, to call into Federal service 75,000 state militiamen for “ninety days.” His federalisation of the militia, an entirely constitutional act under a law of 1795, had the same effect on the American North in 1861 as Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s appeal for 100,000 men to serve for three years had on the British in 1914. Kitchener’s “First Hundred Thousand” were soon followed by a Second and a Third. Lincoln’s 75,000 were soon outnumbered by the offerings of the states. He had asked Indiana for six regiments; its governor promised twelve. Ohio’s governor, required to organise thirteen regiments, reported that “without seriously repressing the ardour of the people, I can hardly stop short of twenty.”1 Confronted with both a deadly military threat to the Union and an outpouring of Northern patriotic response to it, Lincoln on May 3 called for 42,000 volunteers for the army, to serve for three years, and 18,000 for the navy, at the same time authorising the enlargement of the regular force by 23,000. Congress in July not only retroactively legalised these executive decisions but actually sanctioned the enlistment of an additional million volunteers, to serve for three years. Within a year of the firing on Fort Sumter, the Union had 700,000 men under arms; the South may have had 400,000. Circumstances, however, make exact enumeration problematic. Some of the North’s original “ninety-day” men insisted on the letter of their enlistment and returned to civilian life when their time was up; so did some whole regiments. Even a number of three-year men, and regiments, took their demobilisation while the war continued, much later on.
Steadfastness in service was also undermined by the temptation to desert. In the richer North, where bounties were paid to encourage joining up, many volunteers took advantage of the opportunity to take the bounty, decamp, and join up again, often several times over. As the bounty at its largest was as much as $1,000, calculated desertion could be a profitable practice. In the South, after the first heartfelt year, desertion was more often a matter of necessity. Small farmers and landless labourers, informed by the mail of family hardship, would leave the ranks, often with a sincere intention to rejoin, in order to get in the harvest or put in a spell of breadwinning. Small slaveholders might be impelled to return home for fear of leaving their womenfolk unprotected on isolated farms where male slaves remained the only men out of uniform. Whatever the reason, and whatever the difference of motivation, North or South, desertion at any time could rob the armies of as much as a third of their strength.
In 1861, however, desertion was a problem to trouble governments in the future, not the present. At the outset the embryo armies of both sides were most concerned to provide weapons and munitions for their soldiers, to find means of clothing and feeding them, and to furnish them with officers. Equipping its army was a particularly severe problem for the South. Although the Confederacy benefited in the first months after secession by the seizure of Federal arsenals, most of the weapons acquired were old-fashioned muskets, flintlock and unrifled. Such weapons could be adapted, by reboring the barrels and altering the firing mechanism to accept the percussion cap; the chief source of armament, however, lay in Europe. It was a principal purpose of Confederate blockade-running, and of its overseas procurement programme, to buy weapons abroad. The favoured arm was the British Enfield rifle, closely similar to the Federal Springfield.
The South, by its acquisition of the machinery at Harpers Ferry, supplemented by that of existing arsenals at Richmond and Fayetteville, North Carolina, was able to begin domestic weapon manufacture in 1861. The equipment of its artillery was more difficult. Capture of cannon at Fort Sumter and the federal naval base at Norfolk yielded some equipment, but fortress cannon were too heavy and immobile to fit out large numbers of field batteries. The deficiencies were made good from the inventories of pre-war volunteer units, foreign imports, and the output of the Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond, which was to become the arsenal of the Confederacy. The South also proved adept at improvising munition production. Two of the ingredients of gunpowder, charcoal and sulphur, were readily available. The third, saltpetre, or nitre (potassium nitrate), was not. Josiah Gorgas, appointed the chief of ordnance in April 1861, set out to fill the deficiency by finding sources of supply within the Confederacy. One of his subordinates identified such a source in limestone caves in the southern Appalachian Mountains; others were found in the contents of chamber pots and on the walls of stables and cow byres, scraped for the deposits yielded by the urine of horses and cattle. Against every probability, the South never risked defeat through shortage of powder, most of which was produced at a purpose-built mill located at Augusta, Georgia.
In the summer of 1861 the North faced a problem of equipment and supply quite as severe as the South’s, with these differences: first, it possessed a manufacturing base not only vastly exceeding the South’s in size but adequate, once mobilised, to supply all the Union’s military needs; second, production could be supplemented by imports, since Northern harbours were not subject to blockade, almost the whole of the American merchant marine remained under Northern control, and, most important, Northern credit abroad remained strong; third, credit also remained strong at home, thanks to skilful financial management. The secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, pioneered the practice of selling government bonds—in effect war debt, to be repaid in better times—directly to small investors. At the same time the Treasury persuaded Congress to legalise the issue of paper money; the Confederate Treasury almost simultaneously began to issue paper dollars, with disastrous results; by the end of the war, with inflation calculated to have risen to 9,000 percent, Confederate paper dollars were worthless. The Union paper dollar held its value because the Treasury instituted a rigorous system of war taxation, which imitated that imposed in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. The American military system was a historical derivative of the British. American war taxation, consciously or not, mimicked the emergency measures introduced in Britain to finance Nelson’s fleet and Wellington’s army. It went further. Not only were luxuries and incomes taxed, so were services, business transactions, and inheritance. By 1865 the United States was the most comprehensively taxed polity in the world. The yield covered war expenditure—about three billion dollars—handsomely, and kept depreciation below 90 per cent. The war taxes, including income tax, were all rapidly discontinued after 1865.
Wartime financial policy could not, however, at the outset equip the Union armies. The necessary material had not been manufactured and so was not available for purchase. There was much else that was lacking, including the tens of thousands of horses and mules necessary to work as draught animals for artillery batteries and transport wagons; the animals existed but had not yet been brought into government service. It was the inanimate necessities which in 1861 were more necessary of procurement—not only muskets and cannon, but uniforms, belts, pouches, packs, boots, tents, saddles, harness, and the hundred and one things a properly organised army needs in order to operate: medical stores, kitchen equipment, blankets, veterinary necessities, telegraph cable, an almost endless list. Mid-nineteenth-century armies hovered on the brink of true modernisation, half belonging to the military past, when martial vigour and numbers were alone thought to count, but already entering the military future, when technology would predominate. The underdeveloped South was linked to the past, the North was being transported by the industrial revolution into the future. The South would perform prodigies of improvisation to sustain its war effort and, despite shortages of almost everything, was not ultimately defeated by want of essentials; nevertheless, the Confederacy led at best a hand-to-mouth existence. The North, by contrast, was propelled into dominance of the world’s economy by the war. An apparently open-ended boom, created by the demand for war goods and including agricultural products—wool for uniforms, leather for boots, and grain and meat for rations—as well as manufactured items would drive the United States economy to the first place in the world by 1880. Much of the expansion of output was in categories of product to be expected—track for the U.S. Military Rail Roads, armour plate for river gunboats—but much was not. As James McPherson emphasises, two of the most creative innovations stimulated by war demand were the adoption of standard sizes in men’s clothing manufacture and of the Blake-McKay machine for sewing soles to uppers in boot factories.2
After the initial crisis, the equipment of regiments receded in urgency. By 1862 most, South as well as North, had acquired a musket per man and a set of uniforms. Finding officers to supervise and lead their soldiers remained a difficulty as America possessed no officer class, as existed in the historic kingdoms in Europe. The idea of an officer class was indeed at odds with the founding ethos of the great republic, which had outlawed ranks and titles of nobility in its defining documents. The idea of election, so strong in American life from the Revolution onwards, was widely thought by the militiamen and volunteers of 1861 to apply to military as well as political affairs. Election of officers was common practice in the new regiments, but many of the chosen, though big men in civil life, proved incompetent in war. What neither militiamen nor volunteers understood was that close-formation fighting—and the Civil War was to be one of the last in which superiority in close formation determined the outcome—was a highly technical business. Officers had to know how to form their soldiers in ranks, how to manoeuvre the ranks in the face of the opposing enemy ranks, and when exactly to give the order to fire. Too soon and fire was “thrown away;” too late and the enemy might get his volley in first. The Springfield rifle took half a minute to reload. Ranks which had fired too early, and failed to damage their opponents, could be devastated by better-commanded troops while they fumbled with cartridge and ramrod.
“Big men”—local worthies, political fixers, who knew how to talk men into volunteering—usually lacked any knowledge of how to manoeuvre the regiments they had raised when the enemy was encountered. The predicament of their followers was actually worse than that of volunteers of 1914 who, armed with a magazine rifle, were capable of covering their front with a volume of fire sufficient to keep the enemy at a distance; by 1914, moreover, riflemen were taught to lie down on the battlefield, unless they were attacking. The riflemen of 1861, equipped with a single-shot weapon, were expected to stand up, shoulder to shoulder, concentrating their firepower in a carefully timed volley, since only thus could they hope to overcome their opponents.
Mastery of the tactics of close-formation fighting could only be learnt by repetition. To their credit, some of the new regiments of 1861 drilled themselves hour after hour at the outset; a few set up “schools” or “camps” of instruction, to which officers and sergeants went before recruits were inducted. Drilling, however, could not teach inexperienced troops mastery of battlefield craft. That skill required years, not weeks, of practice; or else battlefield experience, which in mid-1861 was not yet available. The only soldiers with the requisite understanding of manoeuvre and fire were the Northern regulars, who were too few to train the volunteer and militia units, and the graduates of America’s military colleges.
The annual intake at West Point was small; classes were fewer than a hundred strong, often many fewer, and the output, after four years, fewer still. In 1861 there were 239 cadets at West Point, of whom 80 came from the South; 76 resigned or were dismissed for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. The South was overrepresented among officers of the army; 313 resigned their commissions to “go with their states,” leaving 440 West Point graduates in Union service. Others rejoined one army or the other from civilian life after the outbreak, but the total of graduates of serviceable age was under 3,000, so the pool was too small to provide professional leadership on the scale required. West Pointers returning to duty from retirement were usually appointed commanding officers of volunteer or militia regiments, as was Ulysses S. Grant in Illinois. Many rose quickly to general rank, 300 in the Union army, 150 in the Confederate. The Civil War was, on the level of high command, to be a West Point war.
Numbers of trained officers in the South were amplified by the graduates of private military colleges, distinctively Southern institutions. The two best-known were the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), founded in 1839 at Lexington, and the South Carolina Military Academy, Charleston, to become celebrated as the Citadel. VMI graduates numbered 455 in 1861, but counting those who had attended without graduating there were 1,902 available altogether. Of these, 1,791 fought in the Civil War; VMI provided one-third of Virginia’s field officers (majors and colonels) in 1861. The Citadel and VMI were not, however, the only sources of privately trained officers in the South. Others included the North Carolina Military Institute at Charlotte (1859), the Arkansas Military Institute (1850), and the West Florida Seminary (1851). Alabama had three small military colleges: the Southern Military Academy at Wetumpka (1860), the La Grange College and Military Academy (1860), and the Glenville Military Academy (1858). There were three in Mississippi: the Mississippi Military Institute at Pass Christian, Brandon State Military Institute, and Jefferson College, Natchez. The date of founding of the Alabama and Mississippi military colleges is significant. They probably represented the working of war fever in the Deep South during the last days of peace; they may have been little more than military boarding schools. The University of Alabama formed a cadet corps in 1860. Universities, however, were not characteristic Southern institutions, despite the existence of such ancient foundations as the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, at Williamsburg. Rich Southern boys went to Princeton; few went to Harvard or Yale.
The United States Naval Academy, located at Annapolis, Maryland, was judged to be in too exposed a position and was transferred to the Atlantic House Hotel at Newport, Rhode Island, on May 9, 1861, to be safe from the risk of Confederate attack. The Confederacy founded its own naval academy on March 23, 1863; it had its premises at first aboard the CSS Patrick Henry in the James River, below Richmond, later ashore nearby at Fort Darling; the outline of the earthworks, still to be seen, suggests dank accommodation.
The Confederacy started to establish a navy as soon as war broke out, seizing warships of the national navy wherever they lay in Southern waters, commandeering or chartering civilian vessels and starting the construction of its own. Creating an army to defend the seceding states was, however, the more vital task. It began even before the firing on Fort Sumter, though not in any logical way. As in the North, two powers, central and state, were at work, and often in conflict, and three principles of military organisation: the regular army, the state militia, and the emergency volunteers, exactly as in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. On February 28, 1861, the Confederate Congress authorised President Jefferson Davis to accept state troops, or volunteers who had state governors’ consent, for one year’s service. This was the beginning of what Professor Peter Parish has called the “provisional” army of the Confederacy. On March 6 the Confederate Congress enacted the creation of a regular army, but its size was set at only 9,000 and little more was ever heard of it. On the same day the “provisional” army was considerably expanded, Congress authorising the president to appeal for 100,000 volunteers to serve for twelve months, and to accept the service of state militias for up to six months. On May 6 he was empowered, without waiting for the approval of the states, to take units into Confederate service for three years or the duration of the war, if less. In August, with 200,000 men under arms, he was authorised to call for another 400,000 volunteers.
The character of the “provisional” army was thenceforth fixed. Men in its higher ranks held Confederate commissions as general officers, though usually also in the militias of their states. The rank and file, and their regimental officers up to the rank of colonel, belonged to the state militia or wartime volunteer organisations, a situation almost exactly paralleled in the North. After April 16, 1862, however, when the Confederate Conscription Act was passed, all fit white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were compulsorily enlisted; the age limits were extended to seventeen and fifty in February 1864, though the older and younger were liable only for state defence. Illogically, soldiers continued to be enlisted in state regiments, with state names and numbers, though collectively they formed a single Confederate army. Yet the power of state governors persisted. Conscription was unpopular in the South, with willing patriots because it devalued their voluntary commitment to serve, with the reluctant because it brought them into the ranks willy-nilly. The very reluctant could use state connections to secure exemption, by joining state militias retained for home service. The better-off could buy substitutes, not otherwise liable for conscription, to serve for them, or claim exemption for “essential service,” such as school teaching. There was a sudden creation of new schools in the South immediately after the passage of the Conscription Act. Particularly unpopular with poor patriots was the “Twenty Negro” law, introduced in October 1862, which exempted one white male from the draft on every plantation with twenty or more slaves, to protect the women left by their menfolk’s enlistment. Approximately 4,000 to 5,000 planters or overseers attained exemptions under the law, representing only 15 percent of plantations, but the class-dividing nature of the law caused much tension and resentment among ordinary whites.
Overall it remains difficult to judge whether conscription, “the drafts,” as modern America knows it, served its purpose or not. About 900,000 Southerners enlisted, perhaps 500,000 joining as volunteers in 1861-62, a considerable number even afterwards, possibly impelled by the threat of compulsion. There is, again, an analogy with Britain in the First World War. There the volunteering impulse of 1914 brought nearly two million men into the ranks in 1914-15; as the impulse lost force, conscription had to be enacted in 1916 to keep up the army’s numbers. The British Great War state’s machinery was, however, far more efficient than the Confederacy’s or the Union’s of fifty years earlier. Exemptions were difficult to obtain, evasion or desertion almost impossible. Civil War desertion, by contrast, was frequent, widespread, and easy; inside a mobile and expanding population (though the war did depress immigration), with an open frontier to the west and, for Northerners, a neutral neighbour to the north, men could disappear without great risk.
Desertion may have been easier in the North than the South, with its smaller population, neighbours well-known to one another, and western frontier closed by wide water barriers. On the other hand, the backcountry was empty and armed defiance of authority by lawless bands of bushwhackers a temptation. Maintaining control of an army nearly a million strong, to say nothing of equipping and supplying it, put both central and state governments in the Confederacy under relentless strain, and it is evidence of how powerful a hold the cause of secession exerted over the Southern mind that a collapse was averted for as long as it was.
Lincoln’s first task, as war began to overwhelm the Union, was to expand its military forces, the tiny regular army, the state militias, and the volunteers serving as state forces. The small marine corps, though one of its regiments fought at First Bull Run, was scarcely expanded either; over half its junior officers defected to the South. The numbers of general and staff officers of the regular army were increased, though only slowly; many brigadier and major generals were at first appointed into the volunteers, to receive regular commissions, if they did so at all, only later. Major general was the highest rank granted; the exception was Ulysses S. Grant, promoted lieutenant general in March 1864, on taking up the appointment of general in chief, under a new act of Congress.
Lincoln’s first mobilisation measure of April and May 1861 was to call for 117,000 volunteers to be found by the state governors from their militias and to serve for three months, later extended to three years. The states responded immediately, directing organised regiments towards Washington, the frontier post of the North-South confrontation, and promising more to follow. On May 3 Pennsylvania, one of the most populous states, promised twenty-five regiments, Ohio, most important of the Midwest states, twenty-two. New York had 20,000 men under arms. The smaller New England states offered four regiments ready and four to follow (Massachusetts), Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island one each, Maine one ready and three nearly so, New Hampshire one mustered, two or four to follow. From the Midwest, Wisconsin reported one regiment ready, one in camp, two more at a day’s warning, Iowa two regiments drilling, Michigan six at various stages of preparation.
All these regiments were stronger on paper than in reality. They lacked training, and above all trained officers; they lacked arms and equipment; they even lacked coherent organisation. Plans of organisation were much debated in Washington at the outset, between the various officers of state Lincoln had inherited or appointed to run military offices. The ancient Winfield Scott, general in chief, was too old to undertake detailed administration; he confined himself to devising a war-winning national strategy, leaving the formation of a national army to colleagues. Simon Cameron, secretary of war, was not esteemed by Lincoln, who managed to entrust organisation of the volunteers to Salmon P. Chase, Treasury secretary. Chase was very good at solving complex problems and, though also abrasively ambitious, had thereby impressed both Lincoln and Scott. Chase enlisted two men to help him, William B. Franklin, the superintending architect of the Treasury but also a West Point graduate, and Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, the assistant adjutant general.
McDowell, later to hold high command, was an experienced staff officer of some cultivation who had travelled abroad. He knew about European military systems. The American system was English in origin, based on small, independent regiments not subject to superior organisation; the emergency of 1861 had produced a mass of willing men subject to no system at all. McDowell and Franklin therefore proposed the creation of a national army along European lines: the volunteers were to be enrolled in regiments numbered nationally, of two active battalions with a third to feed them, led by officers holding Federal commissions. The states were to be left a role, but it would be confined to providing men in proportion to their representation in Congress and to nominating officers for the president to appoint. Salmon Chase, a canny politician who had served as governor of Ohio, rejected their proposal as overbalanced in favour of the centre. Volunteers from the states, and voters at home, would expect regiments to have state titles and numbers and their officers to be appointed by state governors. He even insisted on sticking to the historic but familiar militia regimental system. As a result, though the regulation of May 1864 laid down that regiments of volunteers in Federal service should have two battalions, in practice most fielded only one, which almost always had difficulty in keeping up its numbers. Throughout the war the states found it easier to create new regiments than to make good the gaps in the ranks of existing regiments left by casualties, disease, or desertion. The weight of the old British royal master’s hand lay heavy on the great republic’s saving force: tiny regiments from the historic colonies and their later equivalents, commanded by successors of the old colonial governors, were to fight democracy’s battles. Their opponents were to be of the same sort. The military world of federal troops and state National Guards lay half a century in the future.
Such officers as had travelled or visited armies abroad—Henry Halleck, McClellan, McDowell—were familiar, however, with organisations above the regimental level, with brigades, divisions, corps, even separate armies. The larger formations were unknown in American military history; even during the Mexican War of 1846 Generals Taylor and Scott had organised nothing larger than brigades and divisions. The crisis of 1861, however, presented a new challenge. Lincoln, Scott, Chase, and McDowell recognised at the outset that to meet it separate armies, and appropriate subordinate formations, would have to be created, under generals with consonant responsibilities and subject to orthodox hierarchy. Out of the disparate ranks of state militias and U.S. volunteers, an army of Napoleonic formality would have to be formed. In the North, its outlines began to appear almost as soon as rebellion became manifest; brigadiers were named to lead brigades, major generals to command divisions. By mid-June, however, well after the first exchange of shots at Fort Sumter and between troops elsewhere in the field, the North still had only the makings of five operational armies: one at the arsenal of Harpers Ferry, abandoned but destroyed by its pre-war garrison, under the aged General Robert Patterson; one under General Benjamin Butler at the great Virginian stronghold of Fortress Monroe; General McDowell’s army at Washington; General George McClellan’s small but recently victorious force in western Virginia; and General Nathaniel Lyon’s in Missouri.
Lack of men was not the factor limiting the expansion of forces in the field. On the contrary: men abounded, as the case of New York, state and city, exemplified. In the first flush of enthusiasm, the state government announced that it would raise thirty-eight volunteer regiments, the men to serve for two years. The city simultaneously offered fourteen, provoking a dispute with Washington over whether the volunteers would serve for three years or two. The city’s military committee, which was financing recruitment and equipment from the city’s enormous wealth, but was anxious to transfer the cost to the national government, agreed to three, but then began to quarrel with the state government over whether the city’s fourteen regiments should count as part of or in addition to its thirty-eight. The dispute was eventually settled by Lincoln’s decision that they should be an addition. During the course of 1861 New York, state and city, raised 120,000 men, forming 125 regiments, battalions, or artillery batteries.
If lack of numbers was not, or rapidly ceased to be, a problem for the Union, lack of equipment, arms, and even provisions presented very serious problems indeed. The difficulty of feeding armies in the field was a historic check on war-making; only the most advanced states learnt how to buy provisions in bulk and distribute them to soldiers; war-making states too often were driven to outright requisition of supplies in the theatre of operations, a recourse which rapidly ate it out and forced retreat. The South, whose soldiers were raised on corn bread and pork belly, and which fought largely on its own soil, at the outset kept up an adequate supply of rations; as the war dragged out, it was forced to resort to the Impressment Act, which required farmers in operational areas or near railroads to sell their produce at prices fixed below that of the market. The foreseeable result was grain hoarding and the concealment of livestock. Confederate soldiers consequently often went hungry or lived on the scantiest fare, the scantier the longer the war lasted. In the North, by contrast, after an initial stage of disorganisation, supply was brought to a high level of efficiency. The mastermind was Montgomery Meigs, a graduate of both the University of Pennsylvania and West Point who, as an officer of the Corps of Engineers, erected the dome of the Capitol (under construction during the war) and built Washington’s water supply. Meigs was supremely competent and incorruptible.
Although not directly responsible for providing rations, which was the business of the Subsistence Department and its subordinate commissary officers, Meigs purchased and organised the trains of horses, mules, and waggons that brought the food to the armies. His assumption of office coincided with the beginnings of the revolution in food production in America, when the exploitation of the Great Plains as a grain-growing region and the organisation of meatpacking, of both fresh meat and preserved, at Chicago, was to make the United States the world’s leader. Meigs, as quartermaster general, working in cooperation with the Subsistence Department, was able to assure that every Union soldier received a daily supply of hardtack bread and canned or salted meat, supplemented by dried vegetables, coffee beans, pickles, and molasses. Union army rations rarely amounted to a feast; but they banished hunger altogether, making the Northern soldier the best-fed man in the history of warfare to that time.
Meigs also clothed the army, decently if unglamorously, and he moved it, by river, road, and rail. The North, with its extensive railroad network—expanded during the war—was never in danger of failing at the level of strategic communication. Meigs’s most striking achievement was to guarantee the effectiveness of the Union army’s tactical transport system, by wagon and draught animal. Both Confederacy and Union had vast reserves of horses and mules. Meigs purchased and fed horses on a huge scale. By 1863 the Union army had half as many horses as men, a proportion hitherto unknown in warfare; the proportion Meigs made standard was one horse or mule to every two to three men, one wagon for forty men, when operating in Confederate territory. “A campaigning army of 100,000 men therefore required 2,500 supply waggons and at least 35,000 animals, and consumed 600 tons of supplies each day.” Livestock wore out very quickly; overworked and badly fed, horses and mules had a life expectancy in service of only a few months.
Wagons were easily built, while the supply of draught animals, despite the attrition rate, never ran out. The most pressing shortage at the outset of the war was in small arms and artillery weapons. The Federal government manufactured arms at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry and maintained arsenals at several provincial centres. State governments also kept stocks of weapons to outfit their militias, though many were of obsolete pattern. In April 1861 there were about 600,000 small arms in the country, some 240,000 in the South, the rest in the Northern states. The Springfield armoury had an annual output of 20,000. It was soon to be increased to 200,000, but in the meantime the North had to purchase abroad, as the South did also before blockade became effective. Lacking funds, the South by August 1862 had acquired only 50,000, but the North had bought 726,000. Though the South’s manufacturing shortfalls forced it to continue purchasing in Europe, eventually to a total of 580,000 rifles, the output of Springfield and twenty private contractors supplied the North’s needs. It was a great advantage that the British Enfield rifle, the most common import, had a bore of .58 inch, and so could accept the Springfield bullet, of .57 inch. Interchangeability suited the South as well as the North, since by capture in the field and the seizure of Federal arsenals it acquired 100,000 Springfields early on, besides purchasing many Enfields. Springfield and Enfield alike used the minié ball, a conical lead bullet grooved to expand into the rifling when fired. They were accurate to 500 yards and caused dreadful wounds.
It was to be at least a year, however, before the armies standardised on the Springfield and Enfield. Well into 1862 many soldiers, particularly in the South, were still equipped with smoothbore flintlock muskets, or with muskets bored out with rifle grooves and adapted to accept the percussion cap. Whatever the model—and the North during the war accepted 226,000 Austrian, 57,000 Belgian, and 59,000 Prussian rifles—all were muzzle-loading. Some Union cavalry and sharpshooter units received breech-loading rifles but they formed a tiny minority. The mass of the soldiery continued to force bullet and powder down the barrel by ramrod and to prepare to fire by placing a percussion cap under the hammer. Experienced soldiers might achieve a rate of fire of three shots a minute.
In even shorter supply than small arms were artillery cannon. In 1861 the Union army had only 5 Napoleon 12-pounders, a number that increased to over 1,100 as the war progressed. The South acquired about 600, a remarkable achievement given its lack of foundry and engineering capacity. The Napoleon was smoothbore, with a maximum range of 2,000 yards. Union field artillery also acquired during the war 587 Parrott 10-pounders, a rifled gun accurate to 2,000 yards, 925 three-inch ordnance rifled cannon, 388 12-pounder mountain howitzers, and some 24- and 32-pounder howitzers.
Battlefield artillery on both sides, however, comprised largely 12-and 10-pounders, in surprisingly small numbers. The war was to be a rifle rather than an artillery war, but artillery, when present in quantity, did terrible execution. Yet, although deployed at the forward edge of the battlefield, field artillery was rarely captured, perhaps because it was so valuable to both North and South that extreme care was taken to protect it. Siege artillery, the weapon that began the war with the firing at Fort Sumter, was surprisingly plentiful, probably because the federal government’s First and Third System fortification-building programme had required it to found appropriate armament. It included Rodman guns of calibres between 8 and 20 inches and older 24- and 32-pounders. The Confederacy, which benefited from capturing large numbers of Federal heavy guns at Fort Sumter and the Norfolk naval base, deployed several 8-, 10-, and 15-inch Columbiads. Both sides deployed large numbers of short-range mortars.
All Civil War artillery was muzzle-loading. The heavier artillery was immobile or movable only by great and time-consuming effort. Field artillery—the Napoleon and Parrott guns—was organised into batteries of four or six guns, six horses to a gun and caisson. The essential ammunition column was also horse-drawn. Gun and caisson could manoeuvre across country at speed and, when brought into action, the crew of six or seven gunners could fire up to two rounds a minute. The rate delivered was usually slower, but because gun drill was a series of methodical steps, each performed by one man, even amateur crews could learn to cooperate quite quickly. Civil War batteries became effective sooner than rifle regiments, in which loading and firing by hundreds of individuals was more difficult to coordinate.
Engineers, signallers, and railroad troops were easily recruited by the North, which needed them more than the South, from the ranks of men engaged in building industrial America. The Corps of Engineers had been the elite of the pre-war army and consisted almost entirely of officers; wartime recruits into the rank and file were organised into labour units, sometimes called sappers, miners, pioneers, or pontoneers, according to European practice. They were occasionally required as combat engineers, to build bridges in the field, but more often worked on the construction of roads and earthwork defences. The South began by forming a corps of officer engineers, supervising a small company of sappers and miners but, as the war prolonged, created more regiments of rank-and-file engineers and pioneers. In 1862 it also formed a signal corps, whose tasks including intercepting Union signals and other intelligence work. The South did not, however, form a dedicated intelligence service, nor did the North, besides employing the Pinkerton detective agency, unsatisfactorily as it turned out. Because of the permeability of the North-South border, a great deal of intelligence circulated; neither side seemed impelled to undertake organised espionage against the other.
By 1865 the Union army, which had begun as a replica in miniature of the British army, and the Confederate army, which had not existed at all, had grown into the largest and most efficient armies in the world, divided and subdivided into elaborate operational formations and units and comprising every branch of military specialisation. Though dismissed by European military grandees as amateur and unprofessional, each, but particularly the United States Army, outmatched the French, the Prussian, and the Russian in up-to-date experience and, but for the interposing Atlantic, would have threatened any of them with defeat.