THE VAST ARMIES of 1865 lay four years in the future when the guns spoke at Fort Sumter in April 1861. The war had begun. People and politicians on both sides were eager to prosecute it. How, though, was force of arms to be applied? How was victory to be won?
Scarcely through the medium of such tiny armies as had been hurried into the field. They were too small to do disabling damage to each other. They were too small altogether to dominate the vast distances and space over which the war was to be fought. The theatre of war constituted by the United and Confederate States was the largest single landmass over which any conqueror had ever attempted to impose his will, larger than Napoleon’s Europe, larger almost than Genghis Khan’s Eurasia. In the opening month of the conflict, such armies as had been brought into being were pinpricks on the map: McDowell’s 35,000 defending Washington, confronted by Beauregard’s 20,000 at Manassas Junction, twenty-five miles to the west; the geriatric Robert Patterson’s 15,000 at Harpers Ferry, opposing Joseph E. Johnston’s 11,000 Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley; McClellan’s 20,000 in western Virginia, easily outnumbering Confederates in a region that would shortly secede from the Confederacy as the new-fledged state of West Virginia; at Fortress Monroe, the great artillery fortification guarding the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, General Ben Butler commanded 15,000 men, watched by the Confederates Magruder and Huger at Yorktown and Norfolk, the Federal naval base which had fallen to Southern attack. Smaller Confederate forces, matched in places by Union handfuls, occupied positions in the West, particularly along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers: Memphis, Island No. 10, and New Madrid. Even in the barely inhabited regions of Arkansas and New Mexico tiny bands of supporters of one side or the other were taking to arms. A war which seemed at first to concern only the old thirteen colonies and the immediate trans-Appalachian region of post-independence settlement was developing into a war for the whole of non-British North America.
It was the sheer size of the fragmented union—three thousand miles from ocean to ocean, over a thousand miles from Washington to the Gulf of Mexico—that so complicated the task of devising war plans. For the South the task appeared straightforward; simply to stand on the defensive and repel attacks wherever mounted, counting on Southern space and the absence of critically important centres of wealth and production to defeat Northern efforts to land crippling blows. President Jefferson Davis advocated such a strategy at the outset. It might well have worked, and would probably have averted Southern defeat well beyond 1865. Davis was prevented from implementing it for two reasons: one was the objection of local politicians and magnates to allowing Northern armies to penetrate their territories, even against the promise of eventual victory; the second was popular sentiment. Southerners, in reality as well as romantic belief, really did believe in their ability to defeat superior numbers of Yankees, whom they held to be an inferior breed. “The idea of waiting for blows, instead of inflicting them, is altogether unsuited to the genius of our people,” argued the Richmond Examiner in September 1861.1 Southerners wanted to invade the unseceding states and win victories on their soil, not just oppose Northern advances into the Confederacy. In retrospect the South’s strategy may be perceived as an amalgam of both strategies: opposing Union armies around the borders of the Confederacy and carrying war into the North when the chance offered. The South’s mistake was not to exploit the advantages geography conferred upon it. The South’s perimeter was very strong, penetrable only at a few widely separated points: down the Washington-Richmond corridor, up the Mississippi from New Orleans, down the Mississippi from the vicinity of Memphis. The South held the approaches to Richmond almost to the end, and opposed the descent of the Mississippi stoutly until 1863. Weakly, and fatally, however, it surrendered the mouth of the Mississippi far too easily, thus giving away one of the key entrance points to the Confederate heartland. Had the South, instead of sustaining the mass of its force in northern Virginia, conserved sufficient strength to create a mobile reserve in the lower states, ready to intervene against Union threats down or across the Mississippi, the integrity of its heartland might have been preserved for longer than it was.
In practice, Southern leaders articulated strategies more explicitly than is usually credited. Southern strategy is misunderstood or overlooked in part because it was given no underlying theme at the outset, as Union strategy was by Winfield Scott with the Anaconda Plan. Yet there was a Southern strategy, or several variants of a single strategy, particularly associated with Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnston. Davis’s strategy was essentially political, as befitted his role as president of the Confederacy. It was designed to take account of the popular choice to preserve the whole territory of the new polity, by denying access to Union invaders at every point around the South’s enormous perimeter. Its execution required the stationing of military forces at the borders and the waging of major defensive battles wherever invasion threatened. The first act of the Davis strategy was the first battle of Bull Run. Yet though a victory, the aftermath of Bull Run, and of similar battles that followed, revealed the strategy’s shortcomings. Though it solved an immediate problem, it did not deter a repetition, nor did it inflict disabling damage on the North, nor did it open up the prospect of any new strategic initiative. Indeed by 1862 it was made obvious that the North, despite Bull Run, was able to attack the South at any point it chose, a facility that would require the Confederacy to fight defensive battles in interminable sequence. Davis therefore refined his idea, proposing what would become known as the “offensive-defensive strategy.” Places and areas of secondary importance at the outer edges were not to be defended. Scattered forces were to be regrouped to operate on the South’s “interior lines,” moving by railroad to confront Northern armies as they appeared. One effect of this revised strategy was the virtual abandonment of the South’s West, in the trans-Mississippi region. Another effect, however, was to provide the South with larger striking forces that could be used to mount offensive operations as opportunity offered.
This conception of the “offensive-defensive” was embraced by Robert E. Lee once he became Davis’s chief commander and led to his effort to carry the war into the North in 1863. His object was to win a great victory or series of victories that would dishearten his opponents and the North’s urban population. Lee, though it was part of his genius that his demeanour and pronouncements disguised his inner anxieties, had decided after the defeats in the Mississippi River system in 1862 that the South was losing the war and lacked the human and material resources to reverse the trend, unless by sensational events. By 1864, after the South’s defeats on Northern soil and the loss of more territory in the Mississippi Valley and around the coasts, it was obvious that Lee’s aggressive strategy was not working either, and the commander of the South’s only other large army, Joseph E. Johnston, operating in Georgia, had adopted another variant of the “offensive-defensive,” though with the emphasis on the defensive. His scheme was to take up a strong position and wait to be attacked. If bypassed, he retreated and repeated the process. Johnston’s strategy was self-defeating, since there was a finite limit to the amount of territory the South could surrender before it was completely overcome, almost the outcome he achieved as long as his command lasted.
Little of that could be seen at the outset; in any case, the spirit of the seceding South was aggressive, not defensive. The view from the opposite direction was equally obscured. Those Northerners who had abandoned hope of conciliation, and some had wanted a fight even before Sumter fell, were baffled by the sheer strength of the South as to where to begin—Richmond, state capital of Virginia, to which the Confederacy’s capital had been transferred by vote on May 21, lay only 110 miles from Washington; but in July 1861 the Confederate outposts stood only 25 miles distant from the national capital. The waterways of northern Virginia were as much a deterrent as Confederate armed strength.
The Shenandoah Mountains form a section of the Appalachian chain, which runs diagonally southwest-northeast from Georgia to New England, at a distance varying between two hundred and one hundred miles from the Atlantic. The Appalachians had for nearly two centuries formed the dividing line between English, later British, America and the French interior, a major military frontier, never breached, only turned by the British capture of the Great Lakes region after the capture of Quebec in 1759. The Civil War revived the strategic significance of Appalachia, since the mountain barrier protected the Carolinas and Georgia from attack from the Midwest, not only because of the difficulty presented by its terrain but also because it was traversed neither by rivers nor railroads, the two principal means of movement for Civil War armies.
West of the Appalachians the military significance of the continent’s great rivers became dominant. That of the Mississippi was self-evident. It provided the Confederacy, as long as it could be held, with an avenue of rapid north-south communication from Tennessee to Louisiana and a bulwark against any attack from the west that might be mounted. Its eastern tributaries, particularly those flowing through Kentucky and Tennessee, vast in width and carrying huge volumes of water, the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, were of almost equal importance. They lent barrier protection; they both provided and denied means of communication. The area of confluence of the Mississippi, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Ohio rivers was a particularly vital sector, forming, if held by the Confederacy, an offensive salient into the Midwest; if it could be seized by the North, a major reentrant threatening an attack down the Mississippi towards Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans.
The seizure of the line of the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans would bisect the Confederacy, separating its western states of Arkansas and Texas from the rest, thus depriving the Confederacy of its largest stock of meat on the hoof and of draught animals, horses and mules. The diminution of its territory would also be a severe blow to its international prestige and domestic self-confidence.
The final ingredient of strength in the South’s strategic geography was the impermeability of its seaward frontiers. From Chesapeake Bay, in the north, along the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia, round Florida, and across the shores of Alabama and Mississippi to the mouth of the great river itself below New Orleans, there were almost no points of entry that promised success to an amphibious attack. The only routes inland by railroad ran from Norfolk, Virginia; New Bern or Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans. All were strongly defended and all lay far from centres of Northern naval power. Moreover, in many cases the railroad lines of which they were the termini soon petered out inland or did not connect to long-distance routes.
The inadequacy of the Confederacy’s railroads, while further arguing for its adoption of a defensive strategy, also complicated the North’s problems of framing an offensive plan. By 1861 the United States had become the land of the railroad par excellence; the railroad was replacing waterways as the medium which bound the country together. Of the 31,000 miles existing, however, only 9,000 ran in the South, and Southern lines followed infuriatingly unstrategic routes. The North possessed several long-distance east-west routes running parallel to the northern frontier of the Confederacy and so serving as lignes de rocade for the movement of armies between the Atlantic states and the Mississippi Valley. That from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and its branch through Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis to St. Louis, Missouri, might, as were the German railroads, have been built by general staff diktat, so strategic was its function. The North’s lignes de rocade were, moreover, served by north-south feeder lines, as that between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, which ran straight into the zone of operations. The pattern, laid out to serve expansion westward and to gather in and carry the agricultural produce of the Midwest to the cities of the Atlantic seaboard, had direct if unintended military utility.
The pattern of the South’s railroads, by contrast, had been determined by the needs of its exporters, particularly cotton exporters, and so ran outwards to the sea. There was only one trans-Confederacy line, that from Richmond to Corinth, Mississippi. Otherwise the systems were largely internal to the states and scarcely interconnected. The railroads of the Carolinas and Georgia were an almost self-contained network, laid out to carry cotton to the Atlantic coast; they had only one link with Florida’s two lines and barely any with Alabama’s. The Mississippi lines likewise had been built to bring cotton down country to Mobile and New Orleans and had but the scantiest connections with Tennessee and only two spurs, served by ferry, with Arkansas. Most defectively of all, the Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi systems connected to those of the Carolinas and the Lower South by only a single link, from near Chattanooga in Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia. Buried as it was deep inside the Confederacy, the Chattanooga-Atlanta link was secure as long as the perimeter of the South itself remained inviolate. It would prove a magnet to Northern armies as the war progressed, however, and, if cut, the break would divide the South in two. The strategic geography of the South was thus intrinsically fragile, in a way that that of the North was not. The North had a few vulnerable points, Washington itself the foremost; but no single offensive success by the South could disable it as a combatant power. The South, by contrast, and despite its enormous size and strong frontiers—the sea, the Mississippi, the mountains—had to be held together as a unit if it were not to be dismembered.
Yet in the summer of 1861 it was the South’s strength rather than its vulnerability that weighed on those Northerners seeking to devise a war plan. They could not see how to begin. Lincoln, who started by expecting, wrongly, that his generals would form his mind, tentatively suggested on April 25 that the first steps were to safeguard Fortress Monroe, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, to assure the safety of Washington, to blockade the Southern ports, and then attack Charleston, South Carolina. The strategic sketch revealed that at the outset he was thinking exclusively of a war to be fought in the east and of a victory to be gained by military means alone. His postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, soon afterwards suggested a military-political approach. Like some others in the Federal government, he suspected that the South was not solid for secession and that the Confederacy might be undone by undermining rebellion. In a letter to the governor of Massachusetts on May 11, he proposed the organisation of a Union Army of the South, with its own commander, staff, and troops, to be concentrated at Hampton Roads—the tip of the Virginia Peninsula—to “menace Newport and Richmond.” Its appearance, he argued, would provoke a popular revolt against the standard-bearers of Southern revolt and return Virginia to the Union—presumably, in his imagination, bringing the rest of the Confederacy with it. There were others in the North, including the president himself, who recognised the significance of pro-Union sentiment in the South; none of importance, however, shared Blair’s belief in the possibility of using it to collapse the Confederacy from within and his plan remained private to himself.
George McClellan, a West Pointer who had returned to Federal service after a spell as a railroad executive and who early distinguished himself in the opening skirmishes for control of the borders, proposed an alternative strategy in late April 1861. His plan, like Blair’s, took account of Southern pro-Union sentiment but in more realistic fashion. Since western Virginia was solidly loyal, he suggested transporting an army of 80,000 troops, to be raised in the Midwest, across the Ohio River and marching it up the Great Kanawha Valley to capture Richmond. Alternatively, such an army was to be transported across the Ohio at Cincinnati or Louisville to capture Nashville in Tennessee. McClellan’s plan showed geopolitical understanding. The Kanawha is a major waterway of the Ohio River complex and the backbone of the region which, by popular sentiment, seceded from the Confederacy to become the state of West Virginia, a process begun in August 1861. Nevertheless, his idea was both too complex and took too little account of loyalties in the Upper South. It is most unlikely that a march from the region of the Great Kanawha Valley by an invading army could have overcome the resistance of solidly secessionist populations, supported by field armies, in either Tennessee or Virginia proper. Successful operations inside the Confederate heartland would have to await victories on its perimeter that were not achieved until later in the war.
Lincoln’s difficulty was that he had no strong, unmuddled mind to advise him and that, while he himself was wholly unmuddled, he lacked the military experience necessary to put his ideas for winning the war into action. Lincoln arrived, indeed, at the presidency almost without a personal entourage or following. He was completely an outsider in Washington, despite having sat as a congressman for Illinois, his state of residence, from 1847 to 1849. Mid-century Illinois, though by then a settled state with a growing metropolis at Chicago, was entirely agricultural, with many farms but few towns. He had been raised on a farm, in poverty, and lacked formal education. Although he passed the bar exam and practised successfully as a lawyer, his law was almost entirely self-taught and his knowledge of public affairs was acquired as a state assemblyman (1834-42) and as a captain of militia in the Black Hawk Indian War. He possessed nevertheless strong political ideas, grounded in his belief in the importance of popular self-government and developed in the speeches he made against the talented Stephen Douglas in the contest for the Senate in 1858. Lincoln, though without a good speaking voice, had remarkable powers of oratory, and his side of the Douglas-Lincoln debates, which he largely devoted to an attack on slavery as an institution, was widely reported and won him a national reputation. In the American party system, he began as a Whig; but when that historic party split over the issue of slavery, he joined, in 1854, the new Republican Party, in which, largely thanks to his reputation as a speaker, he secured in 1860 the nomination to stand as its presidential candidate. When elected, exclusively on Northern votes, he arrived in Washington without any direct knowledge of how government was administered; of the prosecution of war he had no knowledge whatsoever. Nevertheless, common sense and his powerful mind provided him with a foundation of well-judged fundamental ideas, which, soon after First Bull Run, he summarised when he wrote to Halleck to say, “I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision (because of his interior lines); that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only 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 tostrengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”2
To turn this general idea into a practical plan of action required much thought and planning and the carrying of support in the cabinet and the higher ranks of the army. The difficulty there was that the army’s higher ranks contained few officers who had any grasp of the necessities of war, let alone experience. Winfield Scott, the general in chief, was enfeebled by age and infirmity. Among the cabinet officers, some were competent and energetic men, particularly Edwin Stanton, secretary of war from January 1862, who was extremely efficient and a great prop and support to Lincoln, though he, if anything, was hyperactive. Salmon Chase, the Treasury secretary, a public financier of exceptional ability who raised the money to fight the war without debasing the currency, was highly capable and incorruptible but running the Treasury was a full-time job, though Lincoln loaded him with many others. Blair, the postmaster general, who belonged to a leading Washington political family, was notably efficient and fulfilled many functions beyond that of supervising the Federal postal system. Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy, was excellent at his job; but naval strategy, though vitally important to the Union’s war effort, was not going to win the war on land. William Seward, secretary of state, who also acted as the cabinet’s man of reason, was the nearest thing Lincoln possessed to a chief executive. He was sensible and highly capable and had the gift of talking Lincoln out of ill-judged schemes. Yet on none of these men could the president really rely for guidance. Many of them were possessed by rivalry and several could not prevent themselves from calculating their chances in the 1864 presidential campaign. They quarrelled and intrigued and manoeuvred for political position. Lincoln had to placate and cajole to keep them sweet and effective, meanwhile having to come to his own decision about what best could be done if the Union was to be restored.
Without dependable assistance from colleagues or soldiers, Lincoln sought guidance where it could be found. At the outset he set himself to reading books on military science, in which predictably he found little help. As it happens, however, the higher direction of war and the higher calculations in politics, at which Lincoln already excelled, ran through the same channels. It was along those lines that he proceeded. He quite quickly shed his belief, then very widely held, that the war could be ended by a single great victorious battle. Instead he came to see that the Union would have to achieve victory at many widely scattered points. He had the inspiration, however, to perceive that victories, if widely scattered in space, ought to be concentrated in time, since simultaneous defeats were very disheartening to an enemy. McClellan, who anyhow shrank from the test of the battlefield, was dilatory in his methods and allowed long intervals to elapse between inflicting blows on the enemy. Grant, by contrast, believed in “winning and moving on” to further victories. From exposure to the methods of McClellan and Grant, Lincoln learnt the vital importance of choosing the right subordinates, not simply those who could draft inspiring plans but those who also deliver results. He never learnt the importance of visiting armies in the field, from which he might have discovered a great deal. He never visited the armies in the West, as even Jefferson Davis managed to do. He did learn, and perhaps knew instinctively, the importance of war oratory. He may thus have influenced another war leader, Winston Churchill, who was undoubtedly inspired by Lincoln and who achieved much of his notoriety by his mobilization of the English language and sending it into battle, as the great American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow recognised in 1940. Churchill, like Lincoln, had great difficulty in identifying and appreciating good military subordinates. He was hampered, however, by his preconceptions about war, of which Lincoln had none, and he enjoyed war, while Lincoln and, so surprisingly, Grant detested it. Churchill, a hardened warrior who had himself shed blood, declined in his powers as leader as his war progressed. Lincoln, the military innocent, grew in stature and competence until eventually he came to dominate the war as no other individual did. At the same time, he had to deal with his generals, which in practice meant, for the first three years of the war, to tell them what to do, meanwhile having to come to his own decision about what best needed to be done if the Union was to be restored. Beyond his immediate political circle, moreover, he had to manage the wider politics of the war. Local, state, and presidential elections were all held in 1862-64 and the preservation of the Republican position in the contests required Lincoln’s constant and close supervision.
McClellan’s plan was given attention but failed to win support. It was effectively quashed by the opposition of Winfield Scott, who objected to it on both political and practical grounds. He thought it likely to provoke anti-Union sentiment in Kentucky and western Virginia; he believed the likely costs prohibitive.
Scott had already proposed his own scheme for the suppression of Southern rebellion, eventually to become known, at first disparagingly, as the Anaconda Plan. Called “Anaconda” after the great constrictor snake, its informing idea was to defeat the Confederacy by asphyxiation, with as little violence as possible, revealing the remarkable depth of the old warrior’s understanding of war and of his country. Scott was not a doughface, a Northerner of Southern sympathies; he was an old-fashioned patriot, personally devoted to the new president, Lincoln, anxious to avoid a breach with the South if at all possible but, if it came about, determined to mend it by the threat or use of force if that was all that sufficed. Scott’s plan advocated organising a close and efficient naval blockade of the Confederacy’s seacoasts and major ports, so as to deny Southern exporters and importers the opportunity to pursue trade and to starve the rebellious government of the imported means of making war, should the crisis come to war. The Anaconda would also cripple the South’s internal trade because, by taking the Mississippi as the principal military theatre and by closing it at its top and bottom, Cairo and New Orleans, it would interrupt the movement of goods north-south and also their distribution east-west along the great rivers’ tributaries. He had correctly identified that the Southern heartland—Virginia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and the appendage of Florida—formed a territorial bloc that could be surrounded by Union forces, land-based, naval, and riverine, denied access to the outer world, and then subjected to penetrative attack—he suggested by a striking force operating along the Ohio River—into the Southern heartland.
An element of Scott’s Anaconda Plan would eventually provide one of the means by which the North overcame the South. The plan was never, however, formally adopted as the Union’s principal strategy, and rightly not. It was too passive and attentiste in character. Scott cherished the belief, as did many other moderate Unionists, that, if given time to reflect, sufficient Southerners would repent of secession to collapse the Confederacy from within, perhaps as early as 1862. Time would tell, very little time in practice, that the Confederate idea was a great deal more robust than Northern optimists credited and that constriction alone would not bring the South to submit; only hard blows and victory in the field would restore the United States.
Between those who hoped to bring an end to the war by giving Southerners time and those who realised that the imperative was for action there could be the making of no agreed plan. Among the activists, by contrast, there was some common ground. McClellan agreed with Scott that the Southern rivers were vital strategic avenues. Scott agreed with Lincoln that blockade would prove a vital means of weakening the South’s ability to make war. It would take time, however, to construct a cohesive and comprehensive war plan from such slender common elements. Eventually, the achievement of effective blockade, combined with offensives along the rivers into the Southern heartland, would lay the foundation for Northern victory. Its consolidation, however, would also eventually entail a railroad war, contrived to deconstruct the Southern network, and the organisation of long-distance overland campaigns inside Southern territory.
At the outset, the need was to initiate the naval blockade, beginning at the places where the North could utilise an advantage, and to choose entry points into the South’s great interconnected waterways, the Mississippi and its tributaries, the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers.
Advantage was given to the North in initiating a blockade by its undisturbed possession of several of the great fortresses built in the early years of the republic around the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. The Founding Fathers and their successors had sought to make the United States not only separate from the Old World but impregnable to it. That required the building of fortifications around America’s coasts to deny Europeans, particularly the British, whose navy commanded the ocean’s surface. The young republic could not afford the cost of a navy to match Britain’s. Forts were reckoned to be an alternative means of defence. It was probably an unwise decision financially. Forts are expensive. At the outset of the war the balance of coastal control was about equally divided between Union and Confederacy, though the latter, of course, had no foothold in Northern territory. The South held the coasts and harbours of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and the Gulf states, with strong points at Charleston, Savannah, and the mouth of the Mississippi, and enjoyed the use of the intracoastal waterway inside the Sea Islands of the Carolinas and Georgia, which provided a protected route for coastwise shipping and bases for blockade-running. The North, through its possession of Fortress Monroe, controlled Chesapeake Bay and dominated Norfolk; it also had important naval outposts off Florida and, at Fort Pickens, in the Gulf. Once the plan to impose a tight blockade became a campaign, in 1862-63, the dots on the map would be joined up and further important points seized. The geography of the coastal war was simple and the steps to be followed self-evident. Entry into the great Southern river system, by contrast, was by no means dictated by the geography, which was highly complex. The first steps would be tentative and the essential way forward identified only by trial and error.
A particular problem for Northern soldiers seeking to operate inside Southern territory was their ignorance of its terrain and the lack of accurate maps, often of any maps at all. North America, even by the mid-nineteenth century, was poorly surveyed and had not been surveyed systematically as, say, Britain and its Indian empire had been. The federal government maintained a coast survey, the navy a Hydrographic Office, and the army a Corps of Topographical Engineers to map areas of importance inside the United States. The U.S. Post Office also prepared route maps, showing post office towns and distances between them, while the Department of the Interior ran a Pacific Wagon Road Office, which recorded rail routes, as did, very accurately, the railroad companies themselves.3The results of their work, however, were piecemeal, as was that of state and county land surveyors, who delineated public and private landholdings and claims for settlement. Their maps were accurate, as far as they went. What lacked was an overarching survey, reconciling all observation and measurement inside a single system. That would have required a continent-wide triangulation, based on accurate measurement from an agreed set of intervisible points of prominence. The British had completed such a triangulation of India, the Great Survey of India, between 1800 and 1830, but it had been an enormous labour made possible only because the whole of India was settled and centrally administered. Such conditions did not apply in the United States, much of whose territory was still unexplored in 1861.
The need for comprehensive survey had been recognised as early as 1785 with the passage of the Land Ordinance, which required public land offered for private sale to be divided into square-mile lots laid out along an east-west baseline and a north-south meridian. Two factors militated against this leading to the production of accurate maps. The first was that squatters staked out claims first and awaited survey later. The second was that, while the delineation of latitude could be easily fixed by astronomical observation, that of longitude, which required triangulation, could not. As a result, comprehensive maps of the United States, of which several existed by 1861, were patchworks of survey which did not coincide.
Moreover, worthless land—swamp, mountain, upland, and areas of aridity, of which there was a great deal in the United States—did not merit survey; nor did worked-out areas of early settlement, abandoned by cultivators, of which there was already a surprising amount by 1861, notably the Wilderness of northern Virginia, scene of one of Grant’s most difficult campaigns in 1864. The inadequacy of available maps infuriated and tantalised Civil War generals. Even Confederate generals, operating inside their own territory, could express frustration at the lack of maps showing ways through. Northern generals, usually campaigning inside Confederate territory, found fault with everything. Often they had no maps at all or had to make do with outdated maps bought in bookstores which did not show heights or gradients—contouring was a concept few American mapmakers had yet adopted—or stopped at county boundaries, so failing to depict the continuation of essential roads onto the next sheet. Other faults were lack of differentiation between strong and weak bridges, deep and shallow fords, and paved and unpaved roads, in each case information essential to the movement of armies. Inexplicable variation of place-names also misled. “Cold Harbor, Virginia, was sometimes called Coal Harbor and there was also a New Cold Harbor and a ‘burned’ Cold Harbor. Burned Cold Harbor was known by the locals as Old Cold Harbor. Many roads were known by one of two names: the Market or River Road; the Williamsburg or Seven Mile Road; the Quaker or Willis Church Road. To add to the confusion, there were sometimes other nearby roads with the same or similar names that ran in completely different directions.” It would have been little consolation to Union generals, blundering about inside Confederate territory, to know that their opponents were often equally blind. Brigadier General Richard Taylor, son of former president Zachary Taylor, complained that “the Confederate commanders knew no more about the topography of the country than they did about Central Africa.” Recalling the campaign in northern Virginia, he went on, “Here was a limited district, the whole of it within a day’s march of the city of Richmond, capital of Virginia, and the Confederacy … and yet we were profoundly ignorant of the country, were without maps, sketches, or proper guides, and nearly as helpless as if we had been transferred to the banks of the Lualaba.”4
Yet the course, flow, depth, and interconnection of rivers would become, during the western campaign of 1862-63, the most essential of all information sought by Union commanders. President Jefferson, who sponsored the Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition to plot a route to the Pacific in 1804, had been keenly aware of the need to understand the riverine system of the United States. In 1809 he had speculated if “a river called Oregon interlocked with the Missouri.” He probably meant what is today called the Columbia and Snake rivers, which do not “interlock” with the Missouri, but flow into the Pacific. The Missouri, however, does “interlock” with a whole network of waterways, the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee, and their numerous tributaries, which even today dominate the human and economic geography of the entire United States, and in 1861, because of the primacy of steamboat transport and the termination of the railroads on the Mississippi’s eastern bank, provided the most important arteries of strategic movement within the American theatre of war.
The difficulties of prosecuting the war west of the Mississippi did not derive principally from lack of cartographic information but from the disproportion of space to force. In Arkansas, New Mexico, and adjacent territories neither side had troops enough to form garrisons at key points, let alone stage decisive battles. Yet both had ambitions to control the Far West. To the Union it was national territory not to be surrendered to rebel hands. To the Confederacy it was a potential addition to their new country’s extent which would bring prestige and open the promise of a way to the Pacific coast.
Supply was the crux of campaigning west of the Mississippi. The Union solved its problems, the Confederates did not, hence the Union’s ability to hold on to the distant states and the Confederacy’s failure. The whole of the campaign in the West, however, from the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson to the Chattanooga campaign of 1863, was a strategic anomaly, since the theatre of operations was so far from the main centre of power, Union and Confederate alike, that either side might have lost altogether the ability to sustain its war effort there. What the commanders on both sides had been taught at West Point should have deterred any one of them from the inclination to wage so awkward a campaign.
West Point orthodoxy was acquired from the teachings of the Swiss Napoleonic theorist Henri de Jomini. Jomini taught, among other things, the necessity of obedience to geometric rules, notably that a line of operations should lie at right angles to the base from which it was sustained. In that respect the war in northern Virginia was strictly Jominian. Both sides were squared-up to each other across the plain of the Chesapeake waterway and both concentrated their efforts at driving down it. There was, except for the recurrent effort to seize the Shenandoah Valley, no divergence from that narrow battleground. In the West, by contrast, it was difficult to define where, if at all, the base of operations lay. The axis of offensive ran, for the North, down the Mississippi, thereby determining that the South’s defensive efforts must run up and along it. Neither side, however, had a firm base, as defined by major cities or economic centres, running at right angles across the line of operations. Indeed, any attempt to delineate the geometry of the war in the West on a map would produce a cat’s cradle of deviations and crisscrossing lines and arrows. For the South, state boundaries, particularly those of Tennessee, imposed a certain symmetry. For the North, however, the whole theatre of the western war defied Jomini in any form. It lay in detachment from the main mass of Northern territory, and communication could be maintained only by following wide loops of river or rail lines. Indeed once the North’s campaign left the Mississippi Valley, as it did in 1863, and began to burrow eastward, and then northward, into the Southern heartland, all Jominian principle was lost and the picture of the campaign could be kept in focus only within a general’s mental perception, as it was so tenaciously first by Grant and then by Sherman. In a sense the North’s ability to wage the war in the West was as much a triumph of the imagination as it was of logistics.
During 1863, in particular, Grant would teach himself, by laborious trial and error, exactly which waterways in the Mississippi Valley it was profitable to follow and which were not useful for military purposes. In 1861, however, learning the secrets of distant geography was a less pressing problem than organising the armies for war. It was not only the troops that had to be trained. So had the officers, staff officers as well as regimental officers; without efficient staff officers plans could not be given operational form. Yet staff officers were in 1861 the scarcest category of military personnel. A few veterans of the Mexican War, fifteen years earlier, remained in or had rejoined the ranks; otherwise only those officers who had served in the quartermaster general’s or adjutant general’s branches knew military procedure.
The American staff system, such as it was, derived from the British. The adjutant general’s and quartermaster general’s branches concerned themselves with personnel and supply matters, respectively; what would today be called operational matters were the responsibility of commanding generals and their attached officers. In European armies there were procedures and forms regulating communication between all staff branches and downwards to formations—corps, divisions, brigades—and units, the regiments. Corps and divisions did not exist in the pre-war American army; brigades were only just coming into being. No staff college existed to teach students routines or formalities. Mexican War veterans, and regulars who had seen service on the western frontier, were familiar with the paperwork of minor campaigning. No one, except McClellan and McDowell, who had been sent to see European armies, knew how large forces conducted themselves. The war, as a result, would be fought by commanders and staff officers who were learning on the job. The advantage would lie with the natural warriors, such as the Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest, or those who learnt fastest, such as Ulysses Simpson Grant. Grant had the gift of fluent and rapid composition on paper, enabling him to write dozens of clear orders in an evening’s work in his tent, as well as the ability to visualise terrain in his mind’s eye. He also understood evolving technologies, particularly that of the telegraph, which he used with apparently effortless facility.
In July 1861 improvised armies and tentative plans would combine to usher in the war’s first effort at decisive battle, at Bull Run in northern Virginia, to be called Manassas by the Confederates, after the railway junction nearest the field. It was not the first engagement of the war. There had been skirmishes at Fairfax Court House and Vienna, just across the Potomac from Washington, in June, and between June 3 and July 13, McClellan won small but striking victories in western Virginia at Philippi, Rich Mountain, and Carrick’s Ford.
All three places lay on the western edge of the Allegheny Mountains, in territory farmed by Virginians quite different in outlook from those of the Tidewater on Chesapeake Bay. Few were rich and almost none were slave owners. They had long resented the domination of the state’s politics by the plantation aristocrats and remained strongly proUnion during the secession crisis. When in May McClellan’s troops began to arrive from Ohio they received a warm welcome, not least from two Unionist Virginia regiments. The advance guard quickly captured the town of Grafton, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, from which they advanced to Philippi on the Monongahela, lower down which lay the scene of General Edward Braddock’s disastrous defeat in the Pennsylvania wilderness on the eve of the Seven Years’ War a century earlier. Philippi was a trivial affair, in which few Confederates and no Northerners were killed, but it had the effect of prompting the leaders of the Unionist majority in western Virginia to repudiate secession and set up at Wheeling a “restored” government of Virginia on June 11. The Federal government shortly afterwards admitted two western Virginia senators and three representatives to Congress. The legalities were doubtful, since constitutionally only by vote of a state legislature could a new state be formed from the territory of an existing one, a vote seceded Virginia certainly would not pass. In August, however, the Unionist convention which had set up the “restored” government met to agree to such a formation, subject to plebiscite. On October 24, the plebiscite took place and, despite a small turnout and widespread abstentions in pro-Confederate districts, convincingly endorsed “secession from secession.” The creation of the new state of West Virginia—it might have been called Kanawha, after its principal river—was agreed to by the U.S. Senate in July and by the House of Representatives in December, and it was admitted to the Union in June 1863.
The Confederacy struggled hard to retain western Virginia within the undivided state. Immediately after the rout of Confederate forces at Philippi, Robert E. Lee, acting as Virginia’s commander in chief, sent a small army under Robert S. Garnett to occupy the passes through the Alleghenies near Philippi. McClellan, who had ample numbers of Ohio volunteers, organised a counter-offensive, with a West Point near-contemporary, William S. Rosecrans, as his chief subordinate. His plan was to take Garnett in a pincer movement at Rich Mountain, which the Northerners, outnumbering their opponents nearly three to one, were well placed to do. In an event which would be replicated frequently in his subsequent career, McClellan failed on July 11 to reinforce Rosecrans’s initial success, mistaking the sounds of victory for those of defeat. “There was,” wrote Jacob Cox later, “the same overestimate of the enemy, the same tendency to interpret unfavourably the sights and sounds in front, the same hesitancy to throw in his whole force when he knew that his subordinate was engaged.”5 Garnett was able to disengage and withdraw. Such was his disarray, however, that on July 13 McClellan’s pursuit force caught his rearguard at Carrick’s Ford on the Cheat River and defeated it. Garnett was killed in the action, the first general of either side to lose his life in the war. An indirect casualty of the western Virginia campaign was Robert E. Lee. The setback, which led to the loss of the South’s main lead deposits, brought him scorn in the newspapers and his transfer to superintend coast defence in the Carolinas.
Meanwhile, there had occurred another military episode, in the borderlands. St. Louis, Missouri, was the location of a Federal arsenal, dangerously situated in a state which contained a large secessionist minority. The arsenal’s 60,000 firearms were coveted by the Confederate volunteers who had assembled and were drilling at Camp Jackson, so called after the secessionist governor, Claiborne Jackson. The regular officer commanding the small Union force guarding the arsenal, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, managed to smuggle 21,000 muskets across the Mississippi into Illinois but then set out to disband the secessionist militia. Surrounded at Camp Jackson, they surrendered without resistance. Civilian secessionists in the city, however, rioted when Lyon marched his prisoners through the streets, shooting began, and soon there were dozens of dead and wounded. The state legislature in Jefferson City voted to prepare Missouri for war, and it seemed likely that an internal civil war would break out. To avert it, Lyon met Jackson to negotiate a settlement, but the terms Jackson demanded incensed Lyon: Jackson would keep Confederate troops out of the state in return for Lyon excluding Union troops. Lyon threatened war on his own account and on June 16 occupied Jefferson City, at which the legislature fled to the southwest corner of the state, Lyon in pursuit. This sequence of events left Missouri effectively without government. The lack was supplied by the reconvening of the convention which had earlier voted to stay within the Union during the secession crisis. It appointed state officers who assumed power. The rumps of the legislature, under Jackson, responded by declaring secession after all, on November 3, leading to the recognition of Missouri as the twelfth Confederate state by the Richmond government on November 28. But secession never became effective. The remnants of the legislature were soon driven out of the state, which continued to be represented in the U.S. Congress by its pre-war senators and congressmen, while three out of four white Missourians who fought in the Civil War did so in Union blue. The Lyon-Jackson quarrel left a bitter domestic aftermath. Missouri was worse afflicted by neighbourly strife than any other state, and guerrilla warfare persisted between partisans of one side and the other even after 1865. Among the most notorious Confederate bushwhackers were Jesse James and his brother Frank, later to become celebrated as gunfighters in the sparsely settled West.
Lyon’s Unionist victory in Missouri made him a national hero in the North, at least briefly; he was to be killed, as a brigadier general, in a final fight with the Confederate Missouri militia at Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield (one of the twenty-four places called Springfield in the United States), on August 10. McClellan’s small victories in western Virginia had also made him a national figure; they identified him in the eyes of both politicians and people as a coming man. It was on another general, however, that Northern eyes were fixed in early July 1861: Irvin McDowell, commanding the troops around Washington. Some were committed to the capital’s defence, but a sufficient surplus existed to form a field army, to be marched against the enemy. McDowell could find about 35,000 troops for an offensive, to confront 20,000 under General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard at Manassas. Beauregard came from the old French Acadian community in Louisiana, had served with distinction in the Mexican War, and in early 1861 had been superintendent of West Point, until removed because of his Southern sympathies. McDowell, an exact West Point contemporary of Beauregard, class of 1838, had also served in the Mexican War and been a West Point instructor. A large man, devoted to the table although a teetotaller, his experience had been exclusively as a staff officer. He had never commanded troops in the field and was soon to attract the reputation of a man for whom things never went right. In July 1861, however, he was as yet untested and he approached the challenge of action with confidence.
His base, at least, was secure. In the weeks since the firing on Fort Sumter a dense girdle of earthwork fortifications had been dug around Washington, on both banks of the Potomac River and on the Maryland shore of its eastern reach, enclosing Georgetown and Alexandria as well as the Federal capital; most of these earthworks stood on ground now occupied by the city’s modern suburbs, reaching as far away as Falls Church. McDowell set up his headquarters in Robert E. Lee’s pillared mansion above Arlington. The forts were garrisoned and were supplied with artillery. The surplus troops were encamped, ready to march forth to give battle with the enemy across the Potomac in northern Virginia.
McDowell submitted his plan of battle to Lincoln and the cabinet in the White House on June 29. Three days earlier the New York Tribune had published what would be remembered as one of the most influential editorials of the war, “On to Richmond.” Many in the North believed that a single heavy blow would indeed open the way to Richmond and bring the end of the war. McDowell was less sanguine. He proposed only the mounting of an attack across the little river of Bull Run, a tributary of the Occoquan twenty-five miles west of Washington, designed to force an entrance into northern Virginia.
Beauregard’s army was centred on Manassas Junction, where the Manassas Gap Railroad joined the Orange and Alexandria. To the north ran Bull Run, crossed by the Warrenton Turnpike, which led to Alexandria over the Stone Bridge but was also fordable at six points: from left to right, Sudley Springs, Poplar Ford, Farm Ford, Lewis Ford, Ball’s Ford, and Mitchell’s Ford. The ground was higher on the southern side of the run, thus giving Beauregard an advantage. He had, however, the disadvantage of fewer numbers and fewer guns.
McDowell began his advance, with 34,000 men, organised in twelve brigades, on July 16. The inexperience of his troops and the lack of organisation in his supply column slowed his advance. Not until the early morning of July 21 was the head of his column at Centreville, a clapboard village three miles short of Bull Run. Beauregard’s Confederates were drawn up, on the south bank of the run, on a front of about eight miles, from Sudley Springs to Mitchell’s Ford, where there had been a preliminary skirmish on July 18.
McDowell’s plan was to fix the centre of Beauregard’s line by staging a strong demonstration at the Stone Bridge, where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed Bull Run, while sending the bulk of his army on a long looping march across country towards the ford at Sudley Springs, with the intention of crossing the river and enveloping Beauregard’s left flank. Beauregard had now been joined by Joseph E. Johnston, bringing troops from Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley; here Johnston came under Beauregard’s command, but control remained with Johnston for the time being. Most of his strength was on his right, near Mitchell’s Ford, where there had been a preliminary skirmish on July 18, and his plan, insofar as it was arranged, was to attack McDowell’s left, at the moment, though he did not know it, when McDowell would be attacking his right. There was, therefore, a mismatch of intentions. Moreover, though Beauregard stood on the defensive, he was outnumbered. The only difference in quality between the two sides was that, on the Confederate, such regular officers as were present were divided between all the volunteer regiments; whereas, on the Union side, they were, because of Winfield Scott’s irrational prejudice against dispersing regulars, concentrated in McDowell’s four regular units, an infantry battalion, a battalion of U.S. Marines, and two artillery batteries, commanded by Captains Ricketts and Griffin.
The first major battle of the Civil War began about nine o’clock in the morning of July 21 when Beauregard’s blocking force at the Stone Bridge, a small collection of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, was fired on by troops under the command of General Daniel Tyler. General Nathan Evans, the West Pointer in command at the bridge, correctly estimated that the firing was intended to detain rather than destroy him and, prompted by a signal from one of Beauregard’s staff officers, Captain Edward Porter Alexander, who was observing the scene of action, decided to divide his force. Leaving four companies to watch the Stone Bridge, he took the rest northwards to oppose the Union advance across Sudley Springs. His two most substantial units were battalions from South Carolina and Louisiana.
Shortly after the Confederate units came into position, McDowell’s advance guard appeared. It consisted of regiments from New Hampshire and New York and two from Rhode Island, supported by his two regular batteries, Ricketts’s and Griffin’s, and was commanded by General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside had difficulty manoeuvring his inexperienced troops into a line of battle; but eventually the correct formation was achieved and the regiments, supported by the regular batteries, began to knock the Confederates about. General Evans sent an urgent request for reinforcements. A brigade brought by Joseph E. Johnston from Harpers Ferry, consisting of the 6th North Carolina, the 4th Alabama, and the 2nd Mississippi, appeared, under the command of General Bernard Bee, was hurried forward and stemmed the tide, at least for a while.
Sensing stiffening Confederate resistance, McDowell sent orders to Tyler, commanding at the Stone Bridge, to increase the pressure. Tyler judged that pressure would be better applied elsewhere and, when a brigade under General William Tecumseh Sherman appeared, directed it to Farm Ford, just above the Stone Bridge. Sherman, West Point class of 1840, was destined to become one of the Civil War’s most illustrious commanders. In token of his future eminence he now led his brigade forward across Bull Run, at a fordable point, and sent it up onto the high ground there dominating the battlefield, a slight rise crowned by a house owned by the Henry family.
The Henry House Hill was to be the focus of the battle of Bull Run’s climax. Johnston was the first to recognise its importance. Impatient at Beauregard’s fixation with enveloping McDowell’s right, in mid-afternoon he suddenly announced, “The battle is there—I am going,” and, jumping into the saddle, galloped his horse off to the scene of action. On arrival, he found that his subordinate General Thomas J. Jackson, commanding a brigade of Virginia troops which had previously served in the Shenandoah Valley, was drawn up on the summit. Jackson, West Point class of 1846, was a consummate tactician. He had so positioned his brigade that it stood on the hill’s “military crest” and thus was visible to the Federal troops only when they had breasted the “false crest.” Jackson’s five Virginia regiments were supported by Hampton’s Legion, a composite unit of South Carolina infantry and cavalry, under the higher command of General Bernard Bee. Not a man otherwise to be remembered, Bee spurred his horse forward as the Union troops appeared on the Henry House frontier, shouting to the South Carolinians, and other less resolute remnants of Beauregard’s army who temporarily found comrades on the Henry House Hill, “Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!”6
Some did, enough to drive off Sherman’s and other Federal formations and so to create a legend, that of “Stonewall Jackson.” Stonewall, as he would forever afterwards be known, insisted that the sobriquet belonged to his brigade, which, indeed, was afterwards deemed the Stonewall Brigade by the Confederate government. Fighting raged around the Henry House all afternoon. McDowell himself appeared, to ascend the upper floor of the Henry House, in which the eighty-four-year-old Mrs. Henry had been killed by a Federal artillery round just before. Shortly after McDowell’s appearance, the Federal forces, though still outnumbering their Confederate opponents, began to fall back. By late afternoon the retreat had become a full-scale rout.
There was no rational reason why McDowell’s army should have collapsed as it did. Beauregard had been reinforced during the course of the afternoon’s fighting, in part by a brigade brought by rail from the Shenandoah Valley, which had detrained directly onto the battlefield, an unprecedented event in warfare. The reinforcements had delivered counter-attacks into McDowell’s columns deploying from beyond the Bull Run. The two regular batteries had been severely shaken by the close-range musketry of a blue-clad Confederate regiment, mistaken by the gunners as belonging to their own side. Jeb Stuart had delivered an effective cavalry charge, which had driven off the New York Fire Zouaves and completely disorganised the marine battalion, unsurprisingly as its men were raw recruits.
Nevertheless, none of these episodes amounted to a decisive act; nor indeed did anyone take a decision. When the firing broke out around the Henry House, Johnston had ridden there, but on arrival he had not taken effective control. Nor had McDowell, when, rather later, he arrived at the same place. Beauregard led a counter-attack up Henry House Hill, turning back a Federal column, after which the Union retreat became general. Exactly why, no one could tell. Thousands of soldiers were in motion, milling about this way and that. As many as 12,000 Federals, it was estimated, had lost their regiments. Fewer Confederates had fallen into disarray. That was probably the reason for the Confederate success, unorganised as it was.
By late afternoon the Warrenton Turnpike, leading back towards Alexandria and Washington, was jammed with soldiers, horses, and military transport, struggling to leave the field; many of the fugitives were possessed by the belief that Stuart’s cavalry, any sort of cavalry, was at their heels. Intermingled with the soldiers were many civilians, who had come out by carriage that morning, with picnic lunches, to watch the battle, expecting a sort of pageant to unfold. They included at least ten congressmen and six United States senators. By evening they were anxious for supper, in safety. Civilian carriages found themselves wheel to wheel with artillery limbers and ammunition caissons in the press to get out of danger.
The Confederates were in scarcely better state. Many of their regiments had lost cohesion and individual soldiers were wandering about the rear of the battlefield in crowds, bereft of officers and not knowing what to do. Jefferson Davis, who had come up by train from Richmond, believed at first that he had arrived at the scene of a Southern defeat, and began trying to rally stragglers. The first man on his own side he met who believed a victory had been won was Stonewall Jackson, getting a minor wound dressed at a field hospital. “We have whipped them,” he shouted. “They ran like sheep. Give me five thousand fresh men and I will be in Washington City tomorrow!”7
Jackson, uncharacteristically ebullient, exaggerated. Beauregard’s army had not won a notable victory. It had merely avoided defeat, and by a comparatively narrow margin. It retained no capacity to pursue McDowell’s shaken forces and none at all to take Washington. The line of the Potomac and the bridges over it were as secure in the aftermath of the battle of Bull Run as they had been on its eve. The line of metropolitan defence, indeed, lay farther forward. Centreville, a grandiose place-name for a collection of clapboard shacks, was garrisoned by several intact brigades under Colonel Theodore Runyon and were soon reinforced by unbroken elements of the Bull Run army, Blenker’s brigade and Major George Sykes’s battalion of regulars. Beauregard was anxious to get past Centreville. He never would.
Bull Run had substantially damaged both armies. Although a quarter of McDowell’s army had escaped action during the day, and about a third of Beauregard’s, 460 Northerners had been killed, 1,100 wounded, and more then 1,300 taken prisoner; the Confederates had lost 400 dead and 1,500 wounded, though almost no prisoners, the real token of their success. Bull Run was not only the first major battle of the war. It was also the first episode in an entirely new way of warfare, a struggle between beliefs fought by populations quite untrained to fight. Its result, so ambiguous militarily, served to strengthen passions on both sides. In Richmond and throughout the South, the news of Manassas, as it would be called there, was taken as that of a major victory, and so as encouragement to persist. Ordinary Southerners believed that their own inferior numbers had defeated a greatly superior force, a portent for the future and of eventual victory. In the North, the news dashed hopes but also stiffened resolve. An opening setback would, patriots thought, soon be succeeded by triumph. The justice of the Union’s cause was a guarantee in itself that rebellion must be defeated.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Lincoln spent the aftermath of the battle contemplating means by which strategic ideals could be made into reality. He sketched out some bland desiderata—improving the training of troops at Fortress Monroe, strengthening the Federal occupation of Baltimore—and he outlined plans for offensive action against the South, by firmly securing the railroad at Bull Run and opening a front on the upper Mississippi. More significantly, he reemphasised the importance of strengthening the blockade; and he turned his mind towards change of command at the top. Although he had neither reproached nor quarrelled with McDowell, he had formed doubt about him—too cautious, insufficiently decisive. As a replacement his thoughts now focused on the only Union general to have as yet achieved any sort of success against the Confederate army, George McClellan, the victor of the little battles in West Virginia in early July. On July 22 he telegraphed McClellan to report to Washington.
It was no arbitrary matter that the first clash of arms in the Civil War took place on the seaward frontier of South Carolina, a spot where the armed force of a wholly secessionist state was confronted by the military power of the Union at Fort Sumter. Elsewhere, the confrontation was by no means so clear-cut nor division of opinion and people so pronounced. The battle lines were least clearly drawn in the border states, where slaves were least numerous if the state counted as a slave state, and votes for secession least concentrated and numerous. Some border states such as Kansas, Missouri’s western neighbour, were not secessionist at all, though Southern immigrants had brought slaves into the state during the troubled 1850s. Virginia, almost a northern state geographically, was secessionist by majority, but the northwestern counties were only thinly slaveholding and could not be relied upon to support the state government in a vote to remain within or leave the Union. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri were obviously divided, containing fair-sized slave populations but few large slave owners among their electorates. Maryland was thought to be Southern in sentiment but was not wholly a slave state. Tiny Delaware, though containing slaves, was too overshadowed by its Northern neighbours to risk secession.
The crux of the border state dilemma—whether to hold firm to the Union or to follow its slave-owning factions South—lay in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. Tennessee, whose eastern half was solidly proUnion, was led into secession by its governor on June 8; it nevertheless provided the Union with large numbers of volunteers and was one of the states which had named regiments in both armies. Lincoln was particularly tender towards Tennessee, and his strategy in the western theatre was to be heavily influenced by his desire to restore the state to the Union. Kentucky was perhaps the most divided of all the states, so much so that the governor, Beriah Magoffin, declared neutrality, as if the state were a sovereign entity beyond the United States (as, of course, extreme secessionists held to be the case throughout the country), and negotiated with Washington and Richmond as long as he could. In the end Richmond overplayed its hand and invaded Kentucky, which prompted the legislators to ask for the Union’s protection. It thereby remained within the Union, though a Richmond-sponsored state government maintained a precarious existence throughout the war, allowing secessionists to count the state as part of the Confederacy. Kentuckians volunteered for both armies, though in the war’s aftermath citizens of the state began to display a curious sympathy for the Southern cause, prompting the judgement that Kentucky “seceded after the war was over.”
The secessionist crisis took its worst form in Missouri, since there it broke into open warfare of a costly and vicious sort. The low-level prewar bickering in Kansas, which had resulted in so many killings between neighbours, had bled over into Missouri before 1861, leaving a legacy of local hatreds, which became entangled with pro- and anti-slavery sentiment, since Missouri was a cotton state with a sizable slave population. Kansas-style raiding and killing began again in Missouri on news of Fort Sumter. (Lincoln had appointed the fort’s commander, Robert Anderson, to command the Union militia in Kentucky after his return from Charleston.)
After Nathaniel Lyon saved the St. Louis arsenal, there was an attempt to avert civil war in Missouri, one of many being made at several points on the borders, and indeed within the South, at the time. The Union commander, the Southern-born brigadier general William S. Harney, negotiated an agreement by which General Sterling Price agreed not to use his troops in any way that would exacerbate tensions. Price, an officer of volunteers, had volunteered his services to Governor Jackson. Lyon and Congressman Francis Blair at once decided to view the Price-Harney agreement as likely to accelerate secession and not deter it, and, with presidential authorisation, Lyon quickly removed Price from command, which he assumed himself. He and Blair then met Governor Jackson and General Price in St. Louis to agree on terms for the government of the state. Lyon demanded the right of free movement for Union troops throughout Missouri. The governor refused and the conference dissolved into quarrelling. In the aftermath Jackson sent for Confederate troops from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Their arrival stimulated the clashes between pro- and anti-secessionists which had already broken out across the state. In early July, the Unionists of two counties in the north of the state had been driven from their homes; Jayhawkers, anti-slavery activists, from Kansas appeared in western Missouri to attack secessionists. Lyon now sponsored a state convention which declared the governorship and other state offices vacant and installed a firmly Unionist governor in power, and moved the state capital from Jefferson City to St. Louis.
This brought the simmering civil war in Missouri to a head. Both sides began to concentrate troops. Lyon marched out to challenge Price at Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri, in early August. What followed, though trivial as a military engagement and contributing very little to the outcome of the war as a whole, was nevertheless highly significant, since it displayed features which were to mark battles in the Civil War wherever and whenever they were fought. It was bitterly fought, leaving high casualties on both sides, and wounding many who escaped death; yet despite its cost in human life, it was militarily inconclusive, leaving the issue of whether North or South dominated the state of Missouri to be decided in the future. Wilson’s Creek was both a typical Civil War battle and the precursor of many to come.
Lyon, who commanded the concentration of Union troops, had been campaigning about Missouri, fighting skirmishes here and there when he encountered the enemy. He had now identified the main rebel body near Springfield, and determined to attack it in its encampment near Wilson’s Creek. His troops numbered 6,200, 500 of which were Home Guards with almost no training and deficient in equipment. Better trained and better armed were the rest, organised into three brigades. The first was composed of regular soldiers of the 1st Infantry and a battalion of the 2nd Missouri Infantry, and the second of regular soldiers of the 2nd U.S. Infantry and some local recruits. The third, commanded by Colonel Franz Sigel, a political appointee but one with experience of European warfare, consisted of Missouri volunteers. The little army also contained several companies of regular U.S. cavalry and several batteries of artillery, including the regular Battery F of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. When deployed for action in the first day of battle at Wilson’s Creek, August 10, 1861, Sigel counted his men to number 1,118 with six pieces of artillery.
The enemy considerably outnumbered the Union forces, numbering about 10,175 with fifteen pieces of artillery, organised as two divisions, including regiments from Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, mainly infantry but some cavalry. The whole was commanded by Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, assisted by Major General Sterling Price. The countryside was rolling hills, broken in places by ravines, with Wilson’s Creek running between high banks. There was a sprinkling of trees, which in places grew thick.
Lyon advanced his troops to within sight of the enemy encampment during the evening of August 9, while Sigel led his men on a circuitous flank march to arrive in the enemy’s rear by daylight on August 10. The weather was mild but drizzly. Lyon’s plan was to mount a pincer attack on the Confederates. He would attack against their camp from the north, Sigel from the south. Though the Confederates greatly outnumbered the Unionists, they were almost wholly untrained and very poorly equipped. Most carried only fowling pieces or old flintlock muskets, while most of the Union men had percussion rifles.
Lyon waited until the sound of firing from the south and the flash of rifle and artillery fire signalled that Sigel had opened his attack. Lyon then advanced down the west side of Wilson’s Creek, driving off a Confederate cavalry force, which retreated to a ridge that would become known as Bloody Hill. When Lyon’s men reached the crest of the ridge, however, they were taken under fire by the Pulaski artillery, located on a ridge across the creek. This intervention allowed Price to organise a firing line on Bloody Hill.
Sigel, hearing the sound of action, had meanwhile turned his artillery against the Confederate encampment and driven its occupants into panic-stricken rout. He then advanced northward to join in the battle for Bloody Hill. By 6:30 a.m. the fighting on Bloody Hill was bitter and intensifying. Nathaniel Lyon, mounted and in the heat of the action, ordered infantry under Captain Joseph Plummer to the east of Wilson’s Creek to protect the Union left flank. Plummer saw the effect the fire of the Pulaski battery was having on Plummer’s comrades and advanced to take it under fire themselves. McCulloch responded by sending two infantry regiments to reinforce the rebels in the centre of the battlefield. They engaged the enemy in a cornfield to the north of Bloody Hill. The Union troops retreated from the cornfield and retired across Wilson’s Creek, a move which allowed the Confederates to concentrate all their strength against the Union line on Bloody Hill. Sigel then suffered a calamitous setback when he mistook an advancing regiment of Louisiana troops for the Union 1st Iowa Infantry, which, as was common in this early stage of the war, was still wearing gray militia uniforms. Confused by the attack of what they took to be friendly forces, the Union party broke and ran. The Confederates now massed all their efforts against Lyon and his men on Bloody Hill. There were three Confederate attacks during the next two hours. Lyon, who displayed reckless courage throughout the battle, was slightly wounded early on and unhorsed, but remounted and continued to encourage his men, waving his hat and shouting orders. Then he was hit in the chest by a minié ball and killed. Soon after, Price, in overall Confederate command, organised his units, about 6,000 strong, into a single line a thousand yards long and advanced to engage the surviving Union troops. They were supported by artillery and came as close to the enemy as twenty feet, deluging them with continuous fire.
Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, 1861–65
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, 1861–65
General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, “The Sword of the Lord”
General George McClellan, commander of the Union armies, 1861–62
Former slaves, ca. 1862
Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, 1863
Zouave Company, 14th Pennsylvania Infantry
A Springfield percussion rifle-musket, ca. 1857
A cavalry repeating carbine, ca. 1855
Flag Officer (Admiral) David Farragut, the captor of New Orleans, 1862
Officers of the USS Monitor, posed before revolving turret
The Confederate ram Stonewall, 1865. A typical warship of the inland waterways.
Above: Improvised Union hospital, Savage’s Station, near Richmond, during the Seven Days’ Battles. Below: Basic amputation set of the type that would have been used in the field by the North.
Confederate dead in ditch at Antietam, right wing
Dead Confederate infantrymen in the Devil’s Den, aftermath of Gettysburg, July 1863. The photograph was probably posed.
The battle line by this stage was enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke, a common result of heavy musketry on Civil War battlefields, which explains why infantry continued to fire while under heavy fire themselves: they simply could not see the enemy and so were sheltered from the psychological effect of close-range musketry. The Union resisted so stoutly that despite the death of their heroic leader and the hail of musketry they pushed the Confederates back. Shaken and badly depleted in numbers, however, they were unable to consolidate their line and, as the Confederates disengaged to regroup, began to retreat to the north. They did not stop until they had reached Springfield.
By keeping possession of the ground, the Confederates could claim Wilson’s Creek as a victory. The intrepid Lyon and Sigel had, however, unhinged their position in Missouri, and the Union was able to retain possession of the state and its state government even though the Confederacy appointed a puppet regime and admitted a rump of representatives to the Confederate Congress.
The Union lost 223 killed, 721 wounded, and 291 missing, totalling 1,235, at Wilson’s Creek, out of 5,400 engaged, about 20 percent of those present. The Confederates lost 265 killed, 800 wounded, and 30 missing, a total of 1,095 out of 10,175 present, about 10 percent of those present. Compared to the bloodbaths of the east, such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Wilson’s Creek was not a costly battle. As a human experience, however, it was horrifying, and it exhibited features which were to be repeated on many battlefields throughout the Civil War, including a high proportion of casualties among senior officers. Besides Lyon, the first Union general (he had just been promoted) to be killed in the war, the Union also had two colonels wounded; the equivalent Confederate figures were one colonel killed, one mortally wounded, one brigadier general and three colonels wounded.