McClellan Takes Command

IT IS NOT ENTIRELY FANCIFUL to characterise George Brinton McClellan as the Patton of the Civil War Union army. Like Patton, he was a handsome man, soldierly in appearance and insistent on the military dignity he thought his due. Like Patton, he enjoyed the social assurance brought by superior upbringing; the McClellans were not rich as the Pattons were, but McClellans’s father was a distinguished Philadelphia physician and the family was respected in the city. The younger McClellan had been educated at a Philadelphia prep school and had been for two years at the University of Pennsylvania, a future bastion of the Ivy League, where he had excelled at the classics and foreign languages. He had, however, always wanted to be a soldier, an ambition which brought him to West Point in 1842, to join what would, before the class of 1915, become the most renowned in the academy’s history, the class of 1846. Among his classmates were George Pickett, of Pickett’s charge, Ambrose Hill, and Stonewall Jackson. None of these stood out, however, as McClellan did. Ranked by merit second in his class, he was regarded from the start by his contemporaries as the coming man. “The ablest man in the class,” a classmate judged; “we expected him to make a great record in the army, and if opportunity presented, we predicted real military fame for him.”1 His early military career bore out his promise. In the Mexican War of 1846 he was twice awarded brevet rank, promise of future promotion, and in the aftermath he was selected to travel to the “seat of war” in Europe, the Crimea, where France and Britain were fighting Russia to prevent it destroying the Turkish Ottoman Empire, to report on developments in conflict between the great military powers. The appointment was a real distinction for McClellan, since the United States armed forces were certainly not in the forefront of modernity; American citizens, moreover, as yet rarely found the opportunity to travel abroad. McClellan proved a keen observer of the Crimean fighting and delivered a report which impressed his superiors. Then the promising young officer announced a divergence from what seemed a certain if laborious career of military advancement. He resigned his commission and became chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad Company. To friends and family it should not have been an unexpected move. In the 1850s, railroads were the most dynamic sector of America’s explosively expanding economy. Railroads promised, as they shortly would, to unify physically the United States. Any young man who could offer competence in the skills necessary to make railroads work could command his own terms. McClellan was such a young man.

He was an engineer, trained in the West Point school of engineering, then the foremost centre of technical learning in the United States and one of the few of its kind in the world. Those that did exist—the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in England, the École Polytechnique in Paris—were military establishments, since technology was only just beginning to escape from its identity as a tool of war-making. Fortunately for McClellan, the West Point engineering professors, like their European counterparts—the Woolwich professor was Michael Faraday—drew the boundaries of their subject widely beyond the traditional limits of the attack and defence of fortresses. McClellan, thanks to such West Point professors as William Bartlett, who stood in the forefront of his discipline, had imbibed a full scientific and technical education, fitting him to occupy any of the executive positions in engineering that America’s mid-century industrial revolution had brought into being. By 1861 the Illinois Central was not the only railroad to which McClellan had contributed his services. He was, at the outbreak of the Civil War, a formidable contender for advancement to high command in the conflict embracing his country, a trained military engineer, an experienced combatant, and a corporate executive of proven experience. Little wonder that within weeks of the war’s outbreak McClellan should have been promoted major general of U.S. volunteers and appointed to command in West Virginia.

McClellan was one of the first West Pointers to attain general officer rank. Though by 1860 the U.S. officer corps was eight-tenths filled by West Pointers, none had yet been promoted above colonel. The old guard—the seniors of the Mexican War, the Seminole Indian Wars, even the War of 1812—still dominated the high command and were reluctant to admit the book-learning boys of the academy to equality. Only the coming of war, and the sudden need for commanders of brigades and divisions and for staff officers, unfroze the block. Few were promoted to such command as quickly as McClellan. He owed the acceleration to the fact that no other Union commander had yet achieved success in the field, though it should be noted that he was not present at any of the three battles for which he was so rapidly celebrated. William Howard Russell, the London Times correspondent who arrived fresh from the Crimea and had formed close acquaintance with experienced field commanders, dismissed McClellan in an early despatch as “a little corporal of unfought fields.”2 The gibe was unfair but stated a valuable warning to American enthusiasts for quick victories. Winfield Scott, the only American soldier with personal knowledge of how victory was achieved, was particularly concerned to quash hopes of early triumph. In a note added to his endorsement of McClellan’s first plan of action, he warned against the “great danger now pressing upon us—the impatience of our patriotic and loyal Union friends. They will urge instant and vigorous action, regardless, I fear, of consequences.”3

It was the demand for instant action, “On to Richmond,” which had led to the debacle of Bull Run. The Union defeat had reversed the moral climate of the war. Before Bull Run, it was the South which had, by its own estimation, lain under threat, though bravado prevented it from admitting so. After Bull Run it was Washington, not Richmond, that was threatened. A strategic rationalist, surveying the scene, would have thought otherwise. Despite the proximity of the Confederate line, advanced from Bull Run to Centreville and overlooking the Potomac, the South lacked the force on the ground to capitalise on the advantage it had gained. On the evening of Bull Run itself, Winfield Scott dismissed all panic rumours that the Confederates were at the gates. To a staff officer who brought in a report that Arlington, Washington’s southern suburb, had been occupied and that the Confederate vanguard would soon be in the capital itself, he burst out, “We are now testing the first fruits of a war and learning what a panic is. We must be prepared for all kinds of rumours. Why, Sir, we shall soon hear that Jefferson Davis has crossed the Long Bridge at the head of a brigade of elephants.”4 Scott, hyperbole apart, was making a valid and considered point. The Confederacy did not have the force necessary to invade the North—not yet at least—and the Union’s proper business was to set unfounded anxiety aside and search for means to carry the war to the enemy.

McClellan, bursting with the enthusiasm of the newly appointed favourite, arrived in Washington with a plan for winning the war without delay. Lack of delay was a concept very popular in the North at the outset of the rebellion. Nobody, including the president, though he harboured realistic fears, wanted to contemplate a long war. Few in the North liked the idea of serious fighting either. General Scott had convinced himself at the outset and sought to persuade others that, if subjected to the discomforting pressures of blockade and threat, the pro-Unionists in the South, whose numbers he maximised, would yield so that the Union could be restored without grievous bloodshed. McClellan, a veteran of war on two continents, was sufficiently realistic to accept that Scott’s vision of reconciliation without conflict could not be assured. He accepted that battle was a necessary means to suppressing rebellion. The plan he brought to Washington envisaged, therefore, operations on a huge scale. It was a bad plan—that is universally admitted in retrospect—too diffuse, insufficiently ruthless. Nevertheless, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, it had points of interest. The first of these was that it included a maritime dimension. The second was that it cast a very wide strategic net, revealing an appreciation of the geographic factor in war-making on the North American continent that did McClellan considerable intellectual credit. McClellan proposed a seaborne advance towards Charleston, South Carolina, and into Georgia. The amphibious operation should be combined with a drive from the Midwest, based on securing firm possession of the Ohio and upper Mississippi rivers down the Great Kanawha Valley into Virginia. The Great Kanawha River is one of the few which crosses the Appalachian chain; it rises in North Carolina and feeds the Ohio River. On it stands Charleston, capital of what today is West Virginia, and, eventually Pittsburgh, at the spot where it is joined by the Monongahela. Physically the Great Kanawha is a major waterway, but in the nineteenth century the terrain it flowed through was undeveloped, with few towns or roads and no railroads. McClellan’s choice of the Great Kanawha as an axis is difficult to understand. McClellan wished to combine the Great Kanawha offensive with another from Kansas and Nebraska down the line of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, directed at the South’s interior and eventually at Texas. Strategically none of this was to be faulted. What McClellan did not explain to Scott, or to Lincoln, was where he would establish his base of operations or, more critically, how he would stock it with troops, munitions, and supplies.

Lincoln and Scott, though at first apparently approving of McClellan’s plan, did not actually adopt it, or make available the resources that would have set it in train. This left the Anaconda Plan, which Scott had proposed in early May, to confine the Confederacy by blockading the seacoasts and controlling the Mississippi River. Economically, the Anaconda Plan was correctly conceived and practically feasible. The North, because it controlled most of the U.S. Navy’s ships and men, and almost all American shipbuilding yards, was in a position to close the South’s exits to the sea quite quickly; because river craft were largely Northern-owned, the Union was also well placed to take control of traffic on the great waterways. Once it did so, the South’s great exporting capacity, in which it took such understandable pride, would be rendered irrelevant. Four million bales of cotton, an enormous store of wealth, would lose all value if they could not be shifted from the warehouses. At the outset of the war, some in the South persuaded themselves that it was to the Confederacy’s advantage that the supply of cotton to the world market should be interrupted. The resulting slump in the manufacturing industry of the north of England and of France would, so they believed, oblige Unionist moderates to urge acceptance of secession on the Federal government and the South’s powerful foreign trading partners to recognise her independence. These beliefs were to be proved wrong. Cotton starvation did cause a slump in the European mills, but so strongly did the millworkers support the anti-slavery cause that economic distress did not translate into political protest. Mill owners, and the propertied generally, were more sympathetic to the South; there was still sufficient resentment at the rebellion of the thirteen colonies for the old-fashioned to take pleasure at seeing republicans in difficulty. Nevertheless, the power of the antislavery cause, which Britain had virtually made its own in the first half of the century, national pride in the success of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade, and simple common sense about the conduct of foreign policy proved the decisive factors. The Foreign Office, though much lobbied by Southern representatives, held out against granting recognition of Confederate independence.

Diplomatically, therefore, the Anaconda Plan, when instituted, did its work. The Mississippi campaign, to which it gave rise, by the successive capture of Cairo, Memphis, and, at the river’s mouth, New Orleans, bisected the South and isolated its western half from the Dixie heartland. Explaining the object of his scheme to Lincoln on May 3, Scott wrote that his intention was to “clear out and keep open this great line of communication … so as to envelop the insurgent states and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.”5 This observation was highly characteristic of Scott. A man who had won a war, he had no need to look for means to prove his own martial virtue. In his eyes McClellan’s plan was defective because it required great offensives to be launched into the South, which he rightly doubted would work, but which he also correctly anticipated would kill many whom he preferred should be kept alive. Alas, Scott’s plan, for all its virtues, was defective also. It was as if Adam Smith had set out to practise strategy rather than economics. An unseen hand was to achieve the outcome desired by the commander, without the intervention of any of the unkind apparatus of war. Notable in Scott’s Anaconda Plan was the omission of any mention of battle. Key points were to be captured, waterways controlled without apparently provoking any reaction from the enemy. The territory of the South was to be bisected without Confederate protest. Scott’s estimable desire to avoid bloodshed between fellow citizens would apparently be shared by the enemy. Such was certainly not the case. The South was bursting with enthusiasm for a fight, partly to get the war over and won, partly because it longed to trounce the inept and effete Yankees. Nevertheless, the Anaconda Plan did have the merit of presenting to Lincoln an alternative to McClellan’s schemes for operations in Virginia and of alerting him to the strategic importance of the Mississippi.

The West and the Midwest troubled Lincoln. As theatres of Confederate offensive operations they posed no great danger to the Northern heartland, but the risk that their divided populations might be swung into the Southern camp, with the loss of prestige and Northern morale that would follow, certainly nagged at him. He correctly believed, moreover, that the Kentucky-Missouri-Tennessee bloc offered a base from which successful invasions of Virginia and its neighbours might be launched. The first appointee to command in the West, John Frémont, Republican candidate for president in 1856, soon had to be replaced. Though famous in the United States as “the Pathfinder” because of his pre-war exploits as an explorer of western territories, and though a regular officer, he lacked both experience of and talent for war. He was also a fervent abolitionist and as commander of the Western Department made it one of his first acts, in August 1861, to free all slaves belonging to rebels in Missouri. But immediate emancipation was not Union policy, since many, including Lincoln, believed that it would alienate pro-Union sympathy in the border states. After Frémont’s removal, McClellan—who had been named general in chief in succession to Scott, whom illness and McClellan’s disregard had brought low—divided the Western Department into two, appointing Don Carlos Buell to command eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, Henry Halleck to command the rest. Buell had a high reputation in the pre-war army for efficiency. Halleck had been McClellan’s chief rival for command of the Army of the Potomac. Neither was to display great practical talent, either in the coming campaign in the West or later.

Unfortunately for both, it was at this point in December 1861 that Lincoln and McClellan began to press them into activity. McClellan was himself under pressure to institute a long-delayed advance into Virginia across the old Manassas battlefield, while Lincoln, who also wanted action by McClellan, was anxious that Buell and Halleck should coordinate their movements with a view to liberating eastern Tennessee and its anti-Confederate population. Lincoln hoped that both Knoxville and Nashville could be taken. He was downcast when Buell and Halleck alike confessed to lacking sufficient strength to undertake or cooperate in either operation. The western generals’ incapacity did not dishearten only Lincoln. McClellan had looked to Buell to make a move in Kentucky that would ease his own advance into Virginia, the operation he had been promising to Lincoln for the past several months. McClellan’s Virginia action was so long considered and consequently so much postponed that eventually doubt grew, in the cabinet and the newspapers (since the secret, never well concealed, leaked out) whether McClellan was serious in his intentions. Uncertainty meanwhile grew also within McClellan over the likely success of his offensive. This was the first manifestation of what would be revealed as his disabling defect as a commander: readiness to take counsel of his fears. It is probable that had McClellan mobilised his resources in August or September, even as late as October, he could have brushed aside the Confederates defending the route south to Richmond and achieved a respectable advance. By November, however, he had begun to invest the enemy at Manassas with force they did not possess. He had a bad chief of intelligence, the head of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and he compounded the errors of intelligence by those of his imagination. Soon he was estimating Confederate strength at over 100,000, and as he did so, he began to plead for reinforcements, disclaiming the possibility of taking action against such superior numbers.

Since McClellan never did mount a Manassas operation, it seems probable that he never would have. Yet the Virginia offensive did not merely fizzle out. Instead it was replaced by another, far more ambitious, which came into being in a strangely indirect way. In late November, when alone with the Army of the Potomac’s chief of engineers, General John Barnard, McClellan mentioned that he had an idea for capturing Richmond. He would embark the Army of the Potomac at Washington and take it down Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Rappahannock River and then march it overland to Richmond, which he calculated he could seize before the Confederates at Manassas had time to reach the capital. It was a typically McClellanesque scheme for achieving a large result without taking a large risk, such as a major battle fought at a distance from a secure Union base. The idea grew and was eventually adopted, with strange results. What was strangest, however, about the “Urbana Plan,” as it was initially called, after the place at which McClellan proposed to debark, was how he had hit upon it in the first place. Neither Scott, Lincoln, nor any other Union commander had proposed any amphibious element in operations designed to defeat the South. There was no amphibious tradition in the American way of warfare. British seapower had been little used in the deployment of the king’s armies against the rebels during the War of Independence. The United States had scarcely employed its navy in the campaign against Mexico in 1846, which had been fought exclusively on land. Wherever, then, did McClellan derive his scheme for a large-scale waterborne descent onto the approaches to the Confederate capital? Given his cautious and highly conventional military outlook it was a most improbable adventure for him to advocate.

The answer may lie in his European experience. When McClellan observed the conduct of the Crimean War, fought by Britain and France to deter Russia from destroying the Turkish empire, he saw that the main difficulty facing the Anglo-French war effort was the inaccessibility of the tsar’s empire. Though Russia could be invaded through eastern Europe, France and Britain had no bases or allies there. That forced them to look elsewhere, which meant by seeking points of entry around Russia’s coastline. Here the similarity with the Confederates, which perhaps struck McClellan, may be perceived. Russia’s enormous size equates to that of the South; indeed, the comparison is often made. But just as the South was protected by wide oceanic barriers backed by extensive mountain chains with areas of arid land and huge internal waterways, Russia was almost entirely cut off from the outside world by frozen seas. Climatically Russia was landlocked. The Anglo-French strategists puzzling as to how to get at their enemy fixed eventually on only three points at which it could be attacked. One was in the Baltic, itself very difficult of access. The second was on its Pacific coast, north of Japan, where Russia had naval bases in the Kamchatka Peninsula. The difficulty with both the Baltic and Pacific theatres as scenes of action was that their hinterlands were unsuitable for conventional ground operations and, in the case of the Pacific region, far from any possessions of value to the Russian government. Those considerations caused the allies eventually to choose the remaining point of entry, the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. As a target area, it too had disadvantages, since the Crimean Peninsula connected badly with the Russian mainland and contained only one place of value, the port city of Sebastopol. Nevertheless, it could be attacked and so, there being little other choice, was selected by the allies for their debarkment. Having established a base on the west shore of the Black Sea, they concentrated their fleets and expeditionary forces and began the invasion. Its outcome, which resulted in the British and the French becoming drawn into an unsuccessful siege of Sebastopol, ought, had the Crimea indeed been McClellan’s inspiration and had he reflected more deeply on its implications, to have warned him against initiating the Urbana Plan.

Yet the attractions of resort to an amphibious solution of his problem look obvious, given what we know of McClellan’s exposure to the Crimean expedition. McClellan felt himself blocked on the land route to Richmond, perhaps through his own overestimation of the enemy’s strength, perhaps because of the aura of defeat that hung about the Manassas region. Positively, Chesapeake Bay, which would be the axis of the Army of the Potomac’s advance, was a body of water offering copious possibilities to an imaginative commander. On a dull coastline, which America’s Atlantic shore is, being low-lying, generally unindented, and much choked with barrier islands and swamps, the Chesapeake is a fascinating complex of subordinate bays, peninsulas, and estuaries. Its proximity to the Appalachian chain, which collects the rainfall from the Atlantic, means that a very large number of rivers and lesser waterways flow across the levels of northern Virginia and Maryland to empty into the Chesapeake at dozens of outlets. Most flow parallel to one another, infuriatingly from a military point of view, since south of Washington the overland route to Richmond is crossed every twenty miles or so by a water barrier, such as the wide Potomac itself, running down from Harpers Ferry, at the head of the Shenandoah Valley, but also the Rappahannock, the Mattapony, the Chickahominy, the Appomattox, the James, and the York, many fed by smaller streams which, when confronting an army on the march, prove formidable obstacles. In combination, the feeder streams of Chesapeake Bay make it one of the most easily defensible and therefore militarily difficult regions for offensives anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere; little wonder that McClellan, inexperienced and overpromoted, isolated in Washington as general in chief, at the beck and call of a president whom he did not understand and without friends and supporters of his own, leapt at the opening presented to him by his perception—if one may guess that this was what came to him—that the inaccessibility of the Confederacy might be cracked by disregarding the obvious overland route and, instead, seeking to appear on the South’s back doorstep by amphibious means.

Whatever the origins of the Urbana Plan, it came to be accepted perhaps even more swiftly than McClellan anticipated. During his long period of inactivity in October and November, while he procrastinated with Lincoln over the restaging of the advance on Richmond through Manassas, he added to his own difficulties by falling ill of typhoid fever. Lincoln was exasperated. On January 10, 1862, several weeks after the renewed advance on Richmond should have begun, he received a despatch from General Halleck in the western theatre, re-emphasising his inability to do the president’s will in Kentucky. Lincoln seems to have been seized by despair, an understandable but not characteristic mood. He went to see Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster general, a powerful man in the Washington wartime scene. Lincoln poured out his troubles. Halleck and Buell were not winning the war in the West. There was financial trouble in Washington. The electorate was demanding victories. The Union’s principal soldier had taken to his sickbed. Meigs agreed that something had to be done since, if the Confederacy attacked out of its Manassas positions at the present moment, Washington itself might be threatened. Meigs suggested a council of war, always a dubious resort in time of danger. Lincoln nevertheless called the most senior and available soldiers—including McDowell, who had lost at Manassas—and politicians to advise him. At its first meeting the generals gave Lincoln mixed advice, though William B. Franklin recommended a waterborne advance on Richmond; he knew what was in McClellan’s mind. McDowell again pressed the Manassas case. Inevitably word of this meeting reached McClellan on his sickbed and inevitably he was outraged. With reason he felt that his political chief was going behind his back. Suddenly recovering, he appeared at the White House on the evening of January 13; the mood of the meeting was bad-tempered and the outcome inconclusive, though Lincoln did eventually declare himself satisfied that McClellan was about to undertake action.

The action promised was in the West, not Virginia, but Lincoln was so desperate for activity of any sort and still so committed to his “Young Napoleon,” as McClellan was known to the newspapers, from a supposed resemblance, that he did not demur. Action he shortly got, though in a curiously indirect way. Halleck, the eternal prevaricator, suddenly launched his subordinate Ulysses S. Grant in an advance up the Cumberland River in Tennessee towards a Confederate earthwork, Fort Henry, blocking the river. The pattern of waterways in this section of Tennessee is as complex as that west of Chesapeake Bay, with this difference: the rivers, which are tributaries of the Ohio and fed by the waters running off the western slopes of the Appalachians, particularly the Cumberland Mountains, are far wider than their Virginia equivalents and carry much larger volumes of water. Topography, moreover, exhibits the same curious effect of disposing waterways with widely separated sources into channels that run in close proximity and parallel to each other. So it is with the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers. The Cumberland rises on the Virginia border, the Tennessee in Tennessee, west of Knoxville; however, just before they flow into the Ohio, they run almost parallel for a short distance. Because the Union held the Ohio at the points where the Cumberland and Tennessee discharge into it and so were well placed to use the two tributaries as avenues of entry into the important borderlands of Kentucky and Tennessee, from which there were easy avenues of advance into Missouri and Alabama also, the Confederacy had taken the sensible precaution of fortifying the Tennessee-Cumberland river system at its confluent point. The earthwork forts of Henry and Donelson supported each other and blocked upstream movement into the Tennessee interior. The forts, moreover, were strongly garrisoned, by 21,000 men under the command of Gideon Pillow and Simon Bolivar Buckner.


Pillow and Buckner’s Union opponent, Ulysses S. Grant, had known both men previously; he had command of an equal number of men, based at Cairo, on the Mississippi just below the confluence with the Ohio. He also had the support of a gunboat fleet commanded by Andrew Foote, who was to emerge as one of the most talented officers of the U.S. Navy’s freshwater fleet. Grant, the beginning of whose meteoric career the Henry-Donelson campaign was, would become the towering military genius of the Civil War, displaying all the qualities that Lincoln hoped to find in McClellan but failed to do. The Grants were old colonial stock who when U. S. Grant was born, were settled in Point Pleasant, Ohio. Like most early settlers they had made their way by honest labour, eked out by paid public service. Ulysses’ father set up a tannery business, and the son had a modestly comfortable upbringing and decent schooling. In 1839, however, to his surprise and distaste, he was nominated for a vacancy at West Point and, through family influence, found himself appointed. He went off resentfully and never changed his attitude; he did not want to be a soldier, did not like the army, and hated war. In his wonderful autobiography he describes both the Civil War and the Mexican War of 1846 as “unholy.” Had the West Point system worked with its full vigour, Grant would have not survived to graduate. He was ill-disciplined and he did not take his academic work seriously, strangely, for he was a serious, if wilful and headstrong, young man in an age when the U.S. Military Academy was one of the few places in the Western world to offer a training in mathematics, science, and technology. Grant boasted that he never revised, a failing that could easily have resulted in his being relegated and eventually dismissed. Grant was, however, exceptionally clever. He found no difficulty with the academy’s mathematical syllabus, the core of the course, so little indeed that on graduation he applied for and was accepted for an instructor’s post. By then, however, the army had taken him over and he was on his way to the Mexican War. Despite his disapproval of the conflict, Grant did well in the war, was rewarded for his distinguished service, and ought to have been assured of a successful if slow-moving career. It was not to be. Temperament was against it. Posted to a peacetime station in California, with little to do and without the company of his beloved wife, Julia Dent, he took to drink and discord. After falling out with his commanding officer, he resigned his commission and tried his luck in civilian life, only to find himself on a continuation of the downward slope. He tried small-scale commerce; he tried farming, at a place discouragingly known as Hardscrabble, and by 1861 was reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s tannery. At the moment when terminal obscurity might have overtaken him, his fortunes were changed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Suddenly any man with military credentials could find employment, income, and, with luck, social standing and the chance to recover self-respect. At the outbreak Grant was in Galena, Illinois, and, through a chapter of accidents, found himself engaged by the state government to assist in the organisation of the state’s first volunteer regiments. Not long after he was in command of one of them, the 21st Illinois. Soon after taking command Grant was ordered to find and engage a rebel regiment at Florida, Missouri. He undertook the advance through deserted countryside, with growing trepidation until, finding the Confederate colonel Harris’s campsite abandoned, he realised that Harris “had been as much afraid of me as I of him.”

This exceedingly valuable lesson he was to retain all his military life. Boldness was in consequence to be a distinguishing mark of his generalship, sometimes too much so. As James McPherson has remarked, “Grant’s determination sometimes led him to see only that which was in his own mind, not what the enemy might be intending, with unfortunate results. Still boldness never brought Grant to disaster.”6 Soon after the Harris episode, boldness led him to attack a superior enemy force at Belmont, opposite Columbus, on the Mississippi. His force was surrounded; lightheartedly he announced that having cut their way in, they would cut their way out. He possessed another characteristic which was a function of his powerful self-confidence: a refusal to retrace his steps. “I will take no backward step” was one of his best-known sayings, usually interpreted to denote his reluctance to retreat. Grant indeed disliked retreat as a measure of war, but those words meant exactly what they said. When finding his way across country, he preferred to press forward in the hope of arriving at his destination than to begin again. He had a keen topographical sense. He collected maps and guidebooks (Wellington had a similar enthusiasm) and at the outbreak of the Mexican War proved to have a better cartographic library than the army itself. Grant’s feel for ground was to stand him in good stead during the war, fought as it often was over unmapped, overgrown, or abandoned countryside, as in the dense woodlands of Shiloh in 1862 or the Wilderness in 1864, cleared land which had gone back to secondary forest.

His situation on the Tennessee River in January 1862 was not topographically disfavoured. The countryside was open and only sparsely wooded. The outline of the defences was clear to the eye. The problem was military: how to take possession of the forts in the teeth of their powerful artillery defences and substantial garrisons? In any event, the Confederates muffed their chances. The gunners at Fort Henry, which Grant chose as his first point of attack, could not match the firepower of the Union gunboats. When Grant’s infantry, which the riverboats had landed behind the fort, appeared on February 6, the Confederate commander sent the bulk of his garrison away to Fort Donelson and surrendered. The gunboats proceeded upstream, destroying a vital railroad bridge and capturing important riverside towns. By mid-February, Grant and Foote between them had secured the line of the Tennessee as far south as Muscle Shoals, near Florence, Alabama, thus opening a direct riverine route from the North’s Ohio stronghold into the heart of the South.

Grant was left with the unsubdued and now reinforced Fort Donelson, eleven miles across the floodplain from Fort Henry, which had to be captured because it controlled the approaches to Nashville, Tennessee, state capital and one of the South’s few manufacturing centres. Grant’s declared intention to capture Donelson put the Confederates in a spot. The senior Confederate was Albert Sidney Johnston (always so known to distinguish him from Joseph E. Johnston), supreme commander in the West. His difficulty was that his force was divided between Donelson and Bowling Green, near Nashville. The Union forces were also divided, with Grant’s 21,000 near Donelson and Buell’s 50,000 near Louisville. These dispositions gave the Unionists more options than the Confederates: the options included concentric attack by Grant and Buell at Bowling Green or waterborne attacks on Columbus and Nashville. Johnston, by contrast, could not coordinate the actions of his two forces because of the loss of Fort Henry and the cutting of the Louisville-Memphis railroad. When he and his Southern generals considered the situation at Bowling Green on February 7, a newcomer, Pierre Beauregard, the victor of Manassas, self-confidently proposed attacking Grant and Buell in turn, believing both could be defeated. Johnston did not. Unfortunately, while wondering what to do, he got into a muddle; he decided to take most of his troops to Nashville but leave enough at Fort Donelson to give Grant a real fight. On February 14, however, Grant was strongly reinforced, both with troops and gunboats. He mounted an attack with the gunboats, to intimidate the garrison, while deploying his fresh troops to encircle the fort securely. The gunboats came off the worse in the artillery duel, while driving snow all night reduced many of the Northern soldiers to shivering inactivity. On February 15 the Confederates, commanded by John Floyd—a wanted man in the North, which he had served as secretary of war under the previous president and so was held to be in violation of his official oath of loyalty to the Constitution, staged their breakout for Nashville. The thrust carried the Union back a mile and seemed about to bring on a collapse when Grant, who had been absent elsewhere, suddenly appeared at the gallop and began to set matters to rights.

What saved the situation, however, was not his intervention, but a sudden collapse of will in the Confederate fortress commander, General Pillow. Disheartened by the sight of the losses his men had suffered in the early-morning fighting, Pillow decided that the survivors, who were in fact the victors, could not safely be risked in a crosscountry retreat to Nashville and ordered them to return to their trenches. It was at this point that Grant made his appreciation. Reckoning that the enemy were giving up the ground they had taken, he remarked to his staff officers that they were unlikely to resist if counter-attacked, which, under covering fire from some of the gunboats, his hastily reorganised brigades did, with success.

In the night that followed, Floyd, Pillow, and another divisional commander, the darkly handsome Simon Bolivar Buckner, debated their predicament. Floyd and Pillow had reason to fear capture. Both escaped by water before daybreak, Pillow with 1,500 soldiers. Buckner stayed to negotiate terms, but gave permission to a subordinate, Nathan Bedford Forrest, to make his best way out with his cavalry brigade. Forrest found an unguarded but negotiable stream and led his men through it. Had Grant been aware of the prize that lay within his grasp, he would have reproached himself, for Forrest, a self-made, self-taught man from nowhere, turned himself into the outstanding cavalry commander of the war on either side. It may have been the combination of his headstrong character with his total ignorance of the rules and practices of warfare which made him so effective.

Buckner, who had been at West Point with Grant and served with him in the army, now opened, as he believed, negotiations for surrender, suggesting the recognition of an armistice as a preliminary step. That was perfectly proper, according to the conventions of regular warfare. Grant, however, did not regard what he was fighting as a regular war but as an illegal rebellion, and so his enemies were not entitled to treatment under the conventions of lawful warfare. To Buckner’s civil request, therefore, he returned one of the most peremptory refusals in the records of the conduct of war. It read, “Sir, Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. I am, Sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant, U. S. Grant. Brigadier.”7

In reply, Buckner declared himself forced to accept “the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms” proposed. Later that day he surrendered 11,500 men, 40 cannon, and much equipment. He also effectively surrendered Confederate control of one of the most strategic avenues in the Confederacy. Possession of the Tennessee River, if it were used correctly by the North, would give access to southern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and the upper Mississippi, and lend support to operations down the Mississippi River itself. The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson effectively marked the end of the opening stage of the Civil War in the West. That war, unlike the conflict in the Washington-Richmond corridor, was always to have a local and slightly irregular character to it. Important though it was to both sides, it was always a distraction to the central struggle, which dominated public attention. Neither government in 1861 had set out to fight in the West; both hoped at best to avoid losing territory there and to avoid defeat, should it come to fighting. At the outset, however, shortage of troops made fighting difficult to organise, as did ignorance of the terrain. Since leading Northern generals were confined by the geography of northern Virginia, which lay on the capital’s doorstep, it is not surprising that the distant, sparsely inhabited, and largely unmapped lands bordering the Mississippi and the Gulf should have failed to focus clearly or quickly in the military minds of either side. Lack of information put regular troops at a disadvantage. The most effective fighters were locals who knew the ground at first hand and could exploit their intimacy with it. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, which needed to defend the northern rim of the Mississippi-Alabama-Georgia tier of states if it were not to collapse and also had the strongest interest in supporting pro-Southern groups in the next tier up—Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri—there were insufficient organised irregular forces to dispute the issue with the Union, as opposed to making the lives of pro-Union residents a misery, while its positioning of regular troops, understandably oriented towards defeating the Union in northern Virginia, left the states of the West in an unsatisfactory disposition. The loss of Forts Henry and Donelson made that worryingly apparent. Grant’s victory left Albert Sidney Johnston’s forces scattered as much as 175 miles apart between Murfreesboro and Memphis. Johnston had the ear of the supreme command, which recognised the danger of Southern dispersal in his area of command. During March, forces were collected and sent from the coast to Tennessee. Braxton Bragg’s 10,000 men were moved at speed from Mobile, on Alabama’s seacoast, to Corinth, east of Memphis, but close to the upper reaches of the Tennessee River, which Grant was currently using to concentrate a large force near a riverside stopping point known as Pittsburg Landing, near a Sunday meeting place called Shiloh Church.

Why there should have been a major battle at Pittsburg Landing is difficult to explain. Grant wanted a fight, to follow up his success at Forts Henry and Donelson; so did Halleck, his immediate superior, whose longer-term objective was the railroad town of Corinth nearby. Union control of the local strategic communications, the Tennessee River itself and the railroad reaching Corinth from the north, suggest that both Grant and Halleck envisaged transforming the Memphis-Corinth area into a major base for offensive operations both eastward towards Chattanooga and southward down the Mississippi. In late March and early April, Halleck concerned himself principally with reinforcing the area, chiefly by bringing Buell’s large force down from Nashville. He meanwhile urged Grant not to engage with the Confederates until he was strong enough to be certain of success. Grant, however, was spoiling for a fight. He would have been encouraged to know that the enemy was equally keen. On April 5, General A. S. Johnston gave orders for an attack on April 6, the preliminary objective to be the Union encampment which had grown up in the last few days around Pittsburg Landing.

The target was tempting. The Northern divisions, commanded by John McClernand, Lew Wallace (the future author of Ben-Hur), Stephen Hurlbut, Benjamin M. Prentiss, and William T. Sherman, had pitched camp on the low ground between the Tennessee River and its small tributary, Owl Creek. The encampment, however, was not entrenched or otherwise defended and was ripe to be taken by surprise. The environment of the battlefield, as the area was to become, favoured surprise. The ground was covered by scrubby woodland and broken forest and cut up by small streams and rivulets. This terrain readily disguised the Confederate approach when it began at about six o’clock in the morning. Many Northerners were still asleep in their tents or huts when the Confederates attacked from the surrounding thickets, and some were bayoneted in their blankets. The initial onset might have ended the battle, had Johnston not mismanaged the Confederate deployment and Grant not appeared on the scene at a critical moment. Johnston’s intention had been to attack in columns, retaining a reserve to reinforce success. Instead he attacked in lines, which soon became intermixed and disorientated. Without a reserve to reenergise the advance, the Confederate battle formation lost direction and cohesion and succumbed to confusion, imposed by the oppressive woodland. The worst confusion and heaviest fighting occurred on the edge of the encampment along a feature which became known to the Union as the Sunken Road and to the Confederates as the Hornet’s Nest. The Confederates made the mistake of attacking it repeatedly, at ever-growing cost. Eventually, late in the afternoon, the Union commander accepted defeat and surrendered his survivors, 2,500 in all, to the Confederates, who surrounded his position on three sides.

The battle so far had taken the form of a “soldier’s battle,” its shape formed by the reactions of the soldiers as they stumbled across each other in the prevailing woodland, rather than by their commanders seeking to impose order and purpose on their stumbling movements. Yet commanders were involved. Johnston, who had ridden about the battlefield trying to organise a flanking movement that would drive the Union troops away from the Tennessee River towards Owl Creek, got so involved in the fighting that he suffered a bullet wound that severed an artery in his leg and caused him to bleed to death. Sherman, who had discounted the possibility of a Confederate attack, was also wounded twice, but slightly; though he lost three horses, he kept his composure, and by riding constantly about his line, giving encouragement and bringing reinforcements, he preserved its integrity.

On April 5, whilst convalescing after a fall from his horse had rendered him unable to walk without crutches, Grant had written to Halleck: “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place.” He was, however, eight miles distant when the sound of battle reached him early the next day. He immediately returned to Pittsburg Landing by riverboat, finding the shore crowded with early fugitives of the battle. In open country they would have fled to the rear, but in the dense Tennessee woodland rear and front were almost indistinguishable, the river providing the only point of reference. Grant began to round up the runaways. Fortunately for him Confederates were also running away in thousands from what had developed in three hours into the fiercest battle yet seen in the Civil War, indeed one of the fiercest to be fought until the coming of mass warfare on the Western Front fifty years later. The conditions were not dissimilar. Large numbers of soldiers were involved: six Confederate divisions, five Union, about 30,000 men on each side. The shape and character of the battlefield—dense woods, confined by a large water barrier and crossed by other, smaller waterways which constricted movement—had the effect of throwing men together into sudden and unexpected confrontations, from which escape seemed possible only by the use of firepower. At its most intense the battle pitted about 60,000 men against one another in a space only eight miles square, conditions that imposed a terrible logic of “kill or be killed” on those present. It would be similar conditions that caused the appalling level of casualties at Antietam, still the costliest single-day battle in American history.

By the end of the day Beauregard, now in command on the Confederate side, was urged by his subordinates to mount a final attack which, they believed, would finish Union resistance. Beauregard demurred; he sensed that his men were near the end of their energy. Grant, on the other side, had come to the same conclusion. Some of his subordinates urged retreat, given the level of losses the Union had suffered. Grant refused. Reinforcements were arriving, including Lew Wallace’s division, which had taken a wrong turning on its march to the battle and lost its way, and the vanguard of Buell’s 50,000 from Nashville. Asked to agree that April 6 had been a defeat, Grant made a noncommittal reply, then articulated, “Whip ‘em tomorrow.”

April 7 would indeed go better for the Northerners—if such terms can be applied to any battle as horrible as Shiloh. Early that morning Buell’s Army of the Ohio, as his command was officially designated, together with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, resumed the fight. For several hours the Northerners had things their own way and recovered ground lost the day before. Then the Confederates rediscovered their spirit and began to resist. For both sides, however, the battle had lost momentum. The Southerners could not regain ground lost, while both sides were sickened by the spectacle of suffering that lay all around them, as the trench warriors of 1916 would be. Rain was falling in torrents; the casualties of the previous day, uncollected and unprotected during a bitter night, lay on sodden ground, calling out for help, which the army could not supply. Many of those left to lie were already dead, their wounds a warning to soldiers of both sides of what persistence in this dreadful combat would entail. By early afternoon the front line of battle had returned to that which marked the Union position before the Confederate attack had opened. It was suggested to Beauregard that he should consider quitting the field. He agreed and ordered a retreat. The Union troops were too exhausted to pursue the Southerners towards Corinth. Beauregard’s men left behind a ghastly spectacle and an objective tragedy. Out of 100,000 men engaged, more than 24,000 had been killed or wounded. Many of the wounded had died during the bitter night of April 6-7, of shock and exposure to chilling rain. So fiercely had the battle raged that little attempt had been made to bring them help. Their pitiful condition was an awful reminder of what was worst about the big Napoleonic battles (there had been 40,000 wounded left on the field of Waterloo) and an anticipation of the medical disasters of the First World War (casualties on the first day of the Somme were so numerous that, even if they could be brought to help, the British medical service was forced to sort the less hopeful cases from the more, and simply leave them to die in some sort of comfort). Shiloh was in many respects an unexpected battle—in time and place but particularly in character. It was a terrible demonstration of what a determined man with a rifled firearm could do to his enemy. Veterans of 1846, accustomed to the low velocities of the musket’s spherical ball, were quite unprepared for those of the conical minié bullet. In the absence of facilities for blood transfusion or trauma surgery, it was a lucky victim of a minié strike who was not killed outright or left with a permanently disabling wound. Shiloh was the first battle of the war that exhibited these effects on a large scale. As a result, it profoundly influenced the outlook of those who took part and survived. Grant, a military realist of markedly delicate moral sensitivity, concluded in the aftermath that all hope of a swift termination of hostilities by a single victory was chimerical. No exchange of fire could be so unequal as to leave one side the unchallengeable victor, the other cowed and quiescent. Shiloh showed to Grant, and to other soldiers as intelligent as he, that they were engaged in a war of attrition, in which casualties would be equally distributed and the decision would be won by the army best able to bear the agony.

It was in a way appropriate that this important lesson was taught in a landscape so characteristically American as that presented at Shiloh. Forest and water were far more representative of the war’s mid-century environment than the cleared and settled land of northern Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. There would be more Shiloh than Manassas in the encounters that lay ahead, and Grant’s exposure to forest fighting was an essential introduction to his years of high command, now opening before him. The end of the battle reopened old complaints against Grant—that he was a drunk at worst and at best inefficient.

Lincoln paid no attention. In the aftermath, he uttered one of his most memorable apothegms of the war, in answer to a critic of Grant, with the words “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”

Grant had done more than fight. Though still relatively junior and not involved in Washington’s plans for the conduct of the war, he had inadvertently helped to shape its future course. No one on either side seems to have appreciated that the water lines in the Mississippi Valley formed an avenue of military advance into the Deep South, culminating eventually at New Orleans, exactly contrary to the way that those of northern Tennessee, counting the upper Mississippi and the Ohio rivers as a single military obstacle centred on St. Louis and Louisville together, contributed an almost impenetrable barrier to invasion of Indiana and Illinois from the South. It did not take Grant long to twig. The South had made the mistake in February of evacuating the river town of Columbus, where ill health prevailed. It had already equally foolishly abandoned the strategic Island No. 10, below Columbus. Watermen and boatbuilders came forward to assist the South’s river defences, and on June 6 they steamed out to confront a similar fleet of Union rams and gunboats, which had arrived to challenge them for control. This encounter quickly developed into the most bitter inland waterway battle yet fought in the war. Ramming proved to be a particularly effective technique in the confined riverine waters and several Confederate vessels were sunk or disabled by collision. Six Confederate warships were put out of action; only one survived. By the time the encounter was over, Memphis, the fifth largest city in the Confederacy, had given up resistance and the Union river fleet was ready to press southward towards Vicksburg, the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi. It was the last because, in April 1862, the senior Union sailor, Flag Officer (equivalent to Admiral) David Farragut, had completed his triumphant reduction of the defences of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

New Orleans was important for a number of reasons. It was the South’s largest city. It had also in the days of peace been one of its principal gateways to the outside world and the highways of world trade. Its loss would prove a severe blow to Southern prestige, besides opening a direct route from the Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi Valley.


On April 19, 1861, President Lincoln had issued the Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports:

Whereas an insurrection against the Government of the United States has broken out in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and the laws of the United States for the collection of the revenue cannot be effectually executed therein conformably to that provision of the Constitution which requires duties to be uniform throughout the United States: And whereas a combination of persons engaged in such insurrection, have threatened to grant pretended letters of marque to authorize the bearers thereof to commit assaults on the lives, vessels, and property of good citizens of the country lawfully engaged in commerce on the high seas, and in waters of the United States: And whereas an Executive Proclamation has been already issued, requiring the persons engaged in these disorderly proceedings to desist therefrom, calling out a militia force for the purpose of repressing the same, and convening Congress in extraordinary session, to deliberate and determine thereon: Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, with a view to the same purposes before mentioned, and to the protection of the public peace, and the lives and property of quiet and orderly citizens pursuing their lawful occupations, until Congress shall have assembled and deliberated on the said unlawful proceedings, or until the same shall have ceased, have further deemed it advisable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the States aforesaid, in pursuance of the laws of the United States, and of the law of Nations, in such case provided. For this purpose a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid. If, therefore, with a view to violate such blockade, a vessel shall approach, or shall attempt to leave either of the said ports, she will be duly warned by the Commander of one of the blockading vessels, who will endorse on her register the fact and date of such warning, and if the same vessel shall again attempt to enter or leave the blockaded port, she will be captured and sent to the nearest convenient port, for such proceedings against her and her cargo as prize, as may be deemed advisable. And I hereby proclaim and declare that if any person, under the pretended authority of the said States, or under any other pretense, shall molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person will be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy. In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this nineteenth day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-fifth.8

The triumph in the Mississippi Valley was the indirect outcome of a distant and much larger campaign down the Confederacy’s Atlantic coast and the first of what was perhaps Lincoln’s earliest and most important effort to make grand strategy. In his memorandum for a plan of campaign of October 1, 1861, he had recommended that the navy should seize Port Royal, off the coast of South Carolina. It was to be one element in his scheme for a general blockade, a programme which he raised more and more often in the first year of the war. It was obvious enough as a plan. The South’s was an exporting economy and the South an importing society. It lacked the means to manufacture many of its necessities, particularly the necessities of war, and without the freedom to export it lacked the means to pay for what it bought. The South, moreover, was particularly susceptible to blockade. Though its coastline was nearly 5,000 miles long, it had few major ports or easily penetrable river estuaries. Moreover, on the Atlantic side its shoreline was cut off from the ocean by long chains of low-lying banks and islands which, if taken into Union hands, would become barriers of the blockade, besides providing sheltered anchorages for a blockading fleet. Lincoln was more interested in the value to be derived from blockade than were his generals, who thought exclusively in Napoleonic terms of defeating the South by winning great land battles. The U.S. Navy was, of course, interested in blockade, but unlike the Royal Navy, it was not the senior service and had comparatively little influence over the making of strategy. Nevertheless, it had influence enough to persuade Lincoln and the secretary of war to allow it to finance and organise an expeditionary force in November 1861 to seize the most important of the anchorages behind the protective banks at Port Royal.

The Southern defenders, shortly to be put under the command of Robert E. Lee, thought Port Royal safe because its entrance was strongly fortified. The Union naval commander, Flag Officer Samuel du Pont, was not deterred. He may have been aware of the British success in overcoming fortifications in the Baltic during the Crimean War; the overwhelming of the great fortress of Bomarsund was a case in point. At any rate his bombarding ships quickly suppressed the fire of the Port Royal forts, causing the flight of the defenders and of the Confederate population of the nearby Sea Islands, the richest centre of production of high-quality cotton in the South. The Port Royal anchorage quickly established itself as an anti-blockade centre, from which several successful expeditions were soon launched against the North Carolina ports in the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. During 1862 the Northern naval offensive moved south along the Atlantic coast, taking one place after another: Roanoke Island, Cape Hatteras, New Bern, Elizabeth City, Fort Macon, and then, below Port Royal, Fort Pulaski—one of the massive forts of the Third System, protecting Savannah, Brunswick, Fernandina, and Jacksonville—and, on March 11, 1862, St. Augustine, the oldest inhabited place in North America. The offensive also reached round the corner into the Gulf, to take, before mid-summer 1862, Apalachicola, Pensacola, Biloxi, and the strongpoints on the approach to New Orleans: Fort St. Philip, Fort Jackson, Head of Passes, and Pass Christian. General Burnside was much involved in the maritime offensive in North Carolina; the seaward defences of New Orleans were the target of David Farragut during his 1862 offensive.

Of all these seizures of coastal strongholds, Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of the Savannah River, was the most remarkable. The fortress, built from 1829 onwards, was one of the monsters of the Third System, specially reinforced in the rear with giant timber baulks to help absorb the shock of shot striking the outer face of its immensely thick walls. This enormously expensive method of construction proved no use at all against the North’s newly developed rifled artillery. In two days, ten batteries set up on an adjoining island—they were named for such leading Union generals as Grant, Sherman, Burnside, Halleck, and McClellan—and firing at ranges of up to 3,000 yards, broke the carapace open, while shells from heavy mortars devastated the interior. Local Confederate forces lacked both the artillery to counter-bombard and landing craft to launch troops against the Union gunners. The operation was a perfect demonstration of the North’s amphibious freedom of action which, by this offensive, completed its acquisition of a chain of coastal footholds and protected anchorages running from Fortress Monroe, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, to Mobile, in the estuary of the Alabama River. At the outset of the amphibious campaign, the United States Navy had retained only two Southern bases from which to conduct a blockade, Fortress Monroe and the offshore island of Key West. By its end, it was the South which was left with only two Atlantic ports, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, the pivots of Cornwallis’s campaign before Yorktown eighty years earlier. The situation was a terrible setback for the Southern cause, all the more so because it had come about almost inadvertently. Keen though Lincoln was on the concept of blockade, he had had no idea that it could be realized as completely and cheaply as it was. For its part, the South had given away its coastal security, making almost no effort to protect its most valuable harbours and points of seaward entry from its enemy.

The South’s one serious attempt to achieve maritime superiority failed through bad luck. Both navies, Union and Confederate, were aware in 1861 that the ships they possessed belonged to the past and that if either could build or acquire examples of the new ships that were taking to the seas in Europe, it would triumph. The French and the British had each built such a ship, La Gloire and HMS Warrior, which were steam-propelled ironclads. Disraeli said of Warrior, seeing her in the naval anchorage at Portsmouth in 1861 among the old wooden walls of the Channel Fleet, that she looked like a “snake among the rabbits.” The only ships the U.S. Navy possessed in 1861 were rabbits. The Confederate Navy had no ships at all, except those trapped in Southern ports when war broke out; they were rabbits also. Both sides knew that they would have to acquire some snakes rapidly if they were to keep the sea. The South just won the race. Their hope of achieving naval supremacy was invested in a U.S. Navy steam frigate,Merrimack, which had been scuttled on secession but raised and repaired. To transform her, the Confederate Navy Department commandeered the output of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond so as to cover her in iron plate, enough to protect her 172 feet, but that, of course, robbed her of freeboard. She lay so low in the water that she resembled a raft. On her first outing, March 8, 1862, the raft, whose pre-war engines generated too little power to move her at any speed, came out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, which the Union had lost to the South, to attack the Union’s fleet of wooden warships in Hampton Roads just across the water. Union shot bounced off the Merrimack‘s carapace, damaging its fixtures and fittings. The Merrimack’s rifled guns did terrible damage in return. Two large wooden warships were sunk outright, either by gunfire or ramming, and the survivors fled into shallow water for safety, where the Merrimack could not follow. The enormous weight of Merrimack’s plating caused her to draw twice her pre-conversion draught.

Next day should have spelt the end for the survivors of March 8. By the strangest of coincidences, however, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which had been racing to design and build an ironclad, had got one launched and on its way south the day before. TheMonitorreally was a raft, with a revolving turret mounting 11-inch guns perched on top. Highly unseaworthy, it just survived the Atlantic seas between Sandy Hook and Norfolk to arrive on March 9 and take station next to one of the survivors of the previous day’s massacre. The Merrimack‘s crew mistook the Monitor for a dockyard repair vessel. Only when it opened fire did battle commence, and then very haphazardly, since neither vessel, try as it might with ram and cannon, could land a disabling blow. After two hours of ineffectual circling and lunging, the crews called it a day and withdrew.

Naval experts all over the world recognised, however, the significance of March 9, 1862. The building of wooden warships stopped almost immediately, to be replaced by ironclads, though of better design than the ungainly Monitor and Merrimack. Neither long survived their revolutionary encounter. Monitor foundered in the open sea while being taken south to strengthen the blockade; Merrimack had to be abandoned when Norfolk fell to McClellan’s troops later in 1862. Merrimack’s failure was a decisive event. It deflated for good the South’s hopes of defeating blockade by technical means. Its few subsequent essays in ironclad building were inland craft. It never again attempted to challenge the Union navy for command of the sea, and by failing to do so, it conceded the power of Northern blockade. The South built and bought abroad numbers of swift blockade-runners; they were better adapted, however, to making fortunes for their owners than to denting the barrier the North erected around the South’s coasts. Blockade reduced the South’s export trade by two-thirds. It was not only that the North’s active blockade was as effective as it was, but also that by 1863 one blockade-runner in three was taken by the Union cordon. Even if a blockade-runner slipped through, it had, after 1863, few ports into which it could make its way. In 1864 the only port cities which had not been taken by the Union were Wilmington, North Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina. As a result the blockade-running trade was transferred to offshore, foreign ports, Nassau in the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Havana, from which goods had to be transshipped, which did not ease the problem of delivery. Goods got through, with as many as nine out of ten ships successfully running the blockade in 1861, and still one out of two in 1865. Nevertheless, blockade crippled the South’s ability to earn foreign exchange and so slowed its consumption of foreign goods, not luxuries alone but also necessities, including munitions and firearms. Shortage, of course, stimulated a substitution economy in the South, but of a limited sort since it lacked essential natural resources and the industrial means to process them, while its neighbour, Mexico, was too underdeveloped and too poor to organise a market. Blockade was a killer to Confederate ambitions. It was only because the South was a backward region, whose population was accustomed to life at the margin, that it was able to survive privation as long as it did.

It still needed, of course, to distribute essentials within its landmass, but essentials meant little more than corn and pork, which its agricultural districts produced in abundance. The movement of such produce was usually short-range. Most Southerners ate what they or their close neighbours grew. Still, there was also a need for strategic transport, to move war material and troops. Such movement was provided by railroads and rivers, particularly in the Mississippi Valley. Following Grant’s success in interrupting rail communication across the Tennessee River, and so separating Memphis from Chattanooga, the South’s need to keep open movement down the Mississippi River became urgent. Were the line of the Mississippi, so much of which had fallen under Union control following the capture of New Orleans Island No. 10, and nearby Fort Pillow, to pass out of Confederate hands altogether, the Confederacy would be cut in two and the agricultural riches of Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas, repository of much of the South’s livestock, lost to the Southern war effort altogether. It was therefore essential to hold the surviving Confederate strongpoints along the river’s course.

Essentially that meant Vicksburg, a gracious city where one of the river’s many wide undulations follows a bluff two hundred feet above its surface. It was a formidable defensive position, presenting the fire of more than two hundred guns to any Union river gunboat that attempted to run past. Farragut, who had subdued New Orleans and its defending forts with a force of nearly thirty warships, and believed he could do it again at Vicksburg, came upriver twice, on the way taking the city of Natchez, a place of summer retreat for local planters, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital. The inland fleet that had captured Memphis came downstream to meet him. What had been easy in the delta now proved in June 1862 to be very difficult in the broad central reaches. When called upon to surrender, the military governor of Vicksburg returned Farragut a defiant refusal. More menacingly, the forces set to protect Vicksburg, under the command of Earl Van Dorn, who had led at the hard-fought battle of Pea Ridge on the Arkansas-Missouri border in March 1862, proved intractable. Pea Ridge was one of the many bitter but almost unknown battles of the war, causing heavy casualties on both sides but remembered by few but the shocked survivors. Whatever their past experience, Van Dorn’s veterans proved too stout a party for Farragut’s crews. Farragut brought infantry up from New Orleans but Van Dorn outnumbered them. The Union had got itself into a classic pickle on the river. To take Vicksburg it needed to bring to the scene a large ground force to attack it from the landward side. The only means, however, of deploying such a force was by water, which the Union river fleet was unable to achieve because of the Confederate batteries on the bluff above the great bend. For much of 1862-63 Grant puzzled over how to solve the problem. In a thoroughly American way, he sought solutions in engineering, trying to get behind Vicksburg by digging channels across the neck of loops, at Lake Providence, Pass Yazoo, and Milliken’s Bend. A great deal of earth was shifted to no profit.

Part of Grant’s trouble at getting forward in the Mississippi Valley lay in the theatre’s distance from Washington, which denied it the close attention of the high command. The West was the second front in a two-front war, in which the first front of northern Virginia willynilly monopolised attention. That is not to say that Grant lacked for troops or resources. He did not. The pro-Union western states raised large numbers of troops, who were available to serve in their home areas, and Washington did not stint money or supplies. The revolutionary river rams and gunboats, built by the shipbuilders Eads and Ellet, were financed uncomplainingly from central funds. It was not material that lacked but vision. Lincoln knew what he wanted in the western theatre: the frustration of any further inroads by the Confederacy into the divided populations of the border states and the outright consolidation within the Union of their pro-Northern populations, particularly in eastern Tennessee. What he could not formulate was an overarching strategy to bring his wishes about. Had he been able to visit the theatre himself, he might have been able to impose his will; but he could not leave Washington. The men on the ground did not seem able to formulate the necessary plan. Grant, if promoted to supreme command, no doubt would have been able to do so, but he as yet lacked the reputation to dominate. The men Lincoln had been obliged to entrust with authority, Frémont, Halleck, and Buell, were lesser beings. None would defer to Grant, understandably since he was their junior, but none could rise above the day-to-day difficulties of operating in the tangled and confused geography of the Mississippi and its associated waterways and design a clear-cut campaign-winning strategy. They were not wholly deserving of blame. Militarily, the theatre is one of the most complex in which large armies have ever fought, not because geography blocks the correct way forward—indeed rather the opposite, since the great rivers all lead straight south—but because meanders, swamps, and undulations made cross-country communication between separate armies difficult, and usually achievable only by recourse to water transport. As so often in the war, difficulties were compounded by the shortage or absence of maps. Lincoln and his cabinet officers in Washington can have been able to form but the vaguest picture of what the Union armies were attempting during the manoeuvres around Vicksburg in 1862-63.

The campaign of 1862 in the East, in which Lincoln took all too close and well-informed an interest, unrolled over completely different terrain. Northern Virginia was cleared farmland, which had been under cultivation since the seventeenth century. It was as well mapped as any area of the United States was at the time and as well provided with roads, and though few of these roads were all-weather, soldiers could not complain about it as a campaigning theatre. With this caveat: whereas in the Mississippi Valley the waterways all led towards objectives of importance—Cairo, Corinth, Vicksburg—the rivers in northern Virginia, running off the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachian chain into Chesapeake Bay, ran directly athwart the North’s desired line of advance towards Richmond, though also across the South’s towards Washington. These short rivers were nature’s obstacles to movement but also lines of defence; indeed, First Bull Run had been fought where it was because Bull Run provided the Confederates defending Richmond with an obvious line on which to stand and formed the front line between the two armies for most of the winter of 1861-62. The Chesapeake rivers presented armies marching southward across country with the necessity for frequent bridging and probably also with the likelihood of having to force a crossing in the teeth of opposition.

Opposed river crossings are greatly disliked by soldiers. No wonder that in November McClellan had conceived the idea of bypassing the short Virginia rivers by crossing their point of outfall, Chesapeake Bay, as a means to arrive peremptorily by ship on Richmond’s back doorstep. There were practical and political objections to the scheme. Practically it required the assembly of a large quantity of shipping. Politically, it alarmed Lincoln because it took the Washington defence force far away without any guarantee that it would be returned quickly if the Confederates resumed their offensive against the capital. The practical difficulty proved quite easy of solution. Politically, it was to take nearly seven months for the Urbana Plan to become “the Peninsula Campaign” with troops actually on the ground, months largely wasted in debate and doubt. Urbana had to be abandoned as an objective because in early March the Confederates shifted their point of concentration behind the Rappahannock, onto ground on which McClellan had planned to stage his departure for Richmond. He therefore advanced to the abandoned Manassas position, which the Washington press detected had not been occupied by as large an army as McClellan alleged. The observation fuelled a suspicion, which was to grow, that McClellan exaggerated his difficulties. His obsession with being outnumbered really began to possess him, however, after he eventually landed the Army of the Potomac at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, between the York and James rivers, under the guard of Fortress Monroe, at the beginning of April. The road to Richmond lay open and undefended, except by a force of about 11,000 Confederates under General John Magruder, which occupied the old earthworks dug by the British to defend Yorktown during the War of Independence, eighty years earlier. Magruder could have been brushed aside. Instead McClellan laid formal siege and began to pester Lincoln for reinforcements. His besetting obsession now jarred with Lincoln’s, which was the security of the capital.

Both men were troubled by attempting to alter the balance of forces in the northern Virginia theatre. Beside McClellan’s large concentration in the peninsula, part of his army, McDowell’s corps, had been held back by Lincoln to guard Washington. The other sizable Union forces within striking distance were the army of Nathaniel Banks in the Shenandoah Valley and that of Frémont beyond it in the west Virginia mountains. The Shenandoah Valley, like the Chesapeake, was a strategic corridor of the greatest importance, an easy avenue of advance up the Appalachian chain leading into the plains above Washington and near Baltimore. Control of the Shenandoah conferred great strategic advantage. In early 1862 it was on paper controlled by the Union, because of Banks’s occupation of its northern end near Harpers Ferry. Also in the valley, however, was a small Confederate army, 15,000 strong, commanded by a former professor of the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas Jackson, known since First Bull Run as Stonewall.Jackson was a member of the West Point class of 1846 and so a classmate of McClellan’s. Like most West Pointers of his generation, he also knew many other leading figures in the two Civil War armies. What distinguished Jackson was his deeply religious temperament, his very difficult character, and the fact that he was a military genius, the only truly original soldier, besides Grant, to emerge from the conflict. Jackson’s genius was of a sort, however, that was not transferable to others. His short, famous epigram of his operational method, “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy,” though incontestable, required his gifts of command to be put into practice. Thus, although he rightly remains one of the most admired soldiers who ever fought, very few—perhaps only Erwin Rommel—have been able to replicate his technique, which works best with a small army in an environment suitable for rapid movement and unexpected manoeuvre.

The Shenandoah Valley is exactly such an environment. Its eastern edge is formed by the Blue Ridge Mountains, its western by the Shenandoah Mountains, behind which lies the great mass of the Appalachian chain. It is thus an isolated and self-contained pocket, its geography further complicated by its internal highlands and waterways. Dividing the Shenandoah Valley runs the central ridge of Massanutten Mountain, flanked on each side by the two forks of the Shenandoah River. The mountains are cut by numerous gaps, which provide quick ways through; the rivers in 1862 were frequently crossed by wooden bridges that burnt easily. There was one good all-weather road, the Valley Turnpike, while three railroads threw spurs into the valley which connected with bigger systems.

Had Lincoln had an inkling of how creatively Jackson would use the complex Shenandoah geography, he would have had serious cause to worry, if not about the safety of Washington, then certainly about Jackson’s ability to play upon McClellan’s anxieties.

At the outset, McClellan was too busily engaged in the peninsula and Lincoln too concerned with the general’s conduct of his expedition for either to feel serious concern about the events in the valley. Jackson quickly obliged them to pay attention. His strategy had a clear purpose: to prevent the Union forces in and near the valley from concentrating against him, while appearing to threaten to transfer his army rapidly to Richmond so as to reinforce Joseph E. Johnston opposite McClellan. Jackson began the campaign at the head of the valley, where he had spent the winter. His opponent was Nathaniel Banks, who slightly outnumbered him. Jackson accordingly withdrew to Strasburg, north of of Massanutten Mountain. In the weeks to come he sought, by manoeuvre and rapid marching, to maintain contact with Banks but to avoid a battle he might lose, while feinting westward to keep Frémont at a distance, yet at the same time maintaining the deception that he could withdraw swiftly to reinforce Johnston opposite McClellan outside Richmond. Jackson achieved all his objects, though not without fighting. He chose, or was forced, to fight at Front Royal and Winchester in late May and Cross Keys and Port Republic in early June. In between these engagements his columns covered great distances at high speed on foot up and down the valley, keeping ahead of Banks or enticing him forward. The valley army was severely tried by the demands Jackson made of it. Often short of food and suitable clothing, in bitter weather and without footwear, many of the soldiers regularly marched dozens of miles a day barefoot. Those who survived acquired a toughness that made them formidable opponents in battle. They were proud to call themselves “foot cavalry.” The valley army’s final march of seventy miles in three days brought Jackson to Front Royal, where he won an untidy little victory over Banks, whose retreat he followed towards Harpers Ferry. These actions so alarmed Lincoln that he ordered both Frémont and McDowell to leave their current positions in the Alleghenies and outside Washington, respectively, and to march to Banks’s assistance. The orders were given on May 24 and unwittingly contributed to the success of Jackson’s campaign of diversion and distraction in the valley, since they negated any effort to reinforce McClellan outside Richmond. All objects of the valley campaign had now been achieved. Jackson, however, knew what he was about and drew his campaign of march and counter-march to a brilliantly successful conclusion. One of his few setbacks was the loss of his cavalry leader, Turner Ashby, a buccaneer in the mould of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was killed in action at Port Republic on June 6.

Moving partly by rail and partly on foot, the valley army arrived at Richmond in time to take part in the final battles opposing McClellan’s effort to capture the Confederate capital, and also to escape from the ponderous trap Lincoln had set to capture Jackson by coordinating the movements of Frémont, Banks, and McDowell. Jackson’s arrival outside Richmond coincided with an important change of Confederate command. During the battle of Seven Pines, one of the defensive battles fought outside Richmond during McClellan’s offensive, Johnston was wounded by shell splinters and had to be replaced as chief of the Army of Northern Virginia by Robert E. Lee, who had thitherto been acting as Jefferson Davis’s chief of staff. Lee had unfairly acquired a poor reputation during the early fighting in the West. Yet he had been the outstanding cadet of his year at West Point and distinguished himself in the Mexican War. He came from one of the oldest and most distinguished families of Virginia, and his decision to “go with his state” in 1861 was reckoned a serious blow in the North, where he had been offered command of the Union army. He was to prove a master of war and now, assuming control in the midst of McClellan’s efforts to break into Richmond, he began at once to demonstrate his powers.

McClellan had started his offensive against Richmond on April 7 by laying siege to Magruder’s defences outside Yorktown, seventy miles to the southwest. A siege was quite unnecessary. McClellan had enough troops under his command to walk over the position, but his neurosis about being outnumbered was intensifying and he was to take nearly a month, and the deployment of a great deal of artillery, before he could force Magruder to leave. Then he followed the Confederate retreat achingly slowly, finally catching up outside Williamsburg, the first English town in Virginia and the original state capital. The battle which followed was a Union success, but not complete enough to prevent the Confederate army’s withdrawal into Richmond, which was now heavily garrisoned and disappearing behind a sturdy line of earthworks. As McClellan edged forward in its aftermath, Johnston decided to inflict a spoiling attack on McClellan’s advance guard, which had got on the wrong side of the Chickahominy River. McClellan had allowed this mistake to happen because the Confederates had succeeded in blocking the most obvious approach to Richmond from the southeast by barricading the James River with tangled trees and ship hulks. However, McClellan was spared the consequence of the mishap because James Longstreet, Johnston’s subordinate, also mishandled the spoiling attack. At Seven Pines, as the battle became known, he succeeded in committing his troops piecemeal instead of concentrated, and so in getting himself defeated in detail.

McClellan, though now convinced that he was outnumbered 200,000 to his own 105,000 (the real Confederate strength was 90,000) and that Jackson was about to arrive from the valley (when he was still heavily engaged within it), uncharacteristically decided to persist in the offensive. What followed became known as the Seven Days’ Battles, a series of engagements fought around the perimeter of Richmond, the Union troops pivoting on the right, the Confederates wheeling backwards on their left, until the outskirts of the city were left behind and McClellan found himself once again out in open country, Richmond to his north and the estuary of the James River at his back. The battlefields, which lie very close together, are known as Oak Grove (June 25); Mechanicsville (June 26); Gaines’s Mill (June 27); Savage’s Station—White Oak Swamp (June 28-29); Glendale (also known as White Oak Swamp or Frayser’s Farm, June 30); and Malvern Hill (July 1).

All today are beautifully preserved by the National Park Service, and few give any sense of having been places of bloodshed. With one exception: the fighting at Mechanicsville drifted away from the original scene of encounter and came to focus at Beaver Dam Creek, where the Chickahominy flows invisibly through an open space in the surrounding trees. The creek bottom is fordable at this point, but the place is waterlogged and overgrown with sedge and weed. It was completely unsuitable for a military action. Yet Northerners and Southerners fought across it with a will on June 26, 1862, the Southerners attacking the Northerners, who had hastily constructed timber stockades on their side of the creek. They had also brought up artillery to fire from the higher east bank. A Confederate gunner thought the Union position “absolutely impregnable to front attack.” By any rational judgement he was right. Even today Beaver Dam Creek retains a sinister atmosphere. In 1862, when the surrounding trees were thick with riflemen determined to defend their positions, it must have been a terrifying place. It is the closest of the Seven Days’ battlefields to the city, which perhaps lent a particular force to the Confederates’ determination to drive the Union troops away. In the process 1,475 Southerners were killed or wounded. The 1st North Carolina lost its colonel, lieutenant colonel, major, and six captains. The 44th Georgia lost 335 men, 65 percent of its strength. Mechanicsville should have counted as a Northern victory, had McClellan been willing to profit from it. As was becoming increasingly usual, he was not. When Stonewall Jackson had appeared at Mechanicsville but, uncharacteristically, declined to act, McClellan decided that the battle had been a reverse, that Jackson posed a grave danger, and he ordered the local corps commander, Fitz-John Porter, to fall back to the Gaines’s Mill position.

When the Confederates began their attack, on the morning of June 27, 1862, at Gaines’s Mill, they found Porter’s corps emplaced on top of a steep plateau with forested slopes. It numbered about 27,000, but was stronger in artillery, with about a hundred guns to the South’s fifty. Tactically, however, the Confederates were in the stronger position, fielding six divisions to the Union’s two. The only advantage the Union enjoyed was the higher ground.

Fitz-John Porter felt that his corps was vulnerable to a Confederate offensive, and begged McClellan for reinforcements; ironically, it was McClellan who was always begging reinforcements from Washington. He also asked for axes, to fell timber to barricade his front. The axes proved useless, but with others borrowed from the artillery he managed to cover part of his front with rails, stuffed with knapsacks. During the afternoon, Porter’s men were able to to repel a succession of attacks mounted by the troops of Longstreet, A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill, and Stonewall Jackson. As his defence succeeded, Porter considered shifting forces to his right to take the enemy in flank, but recognition that he was too heavily outnumbered to move from his defended position dissuaded him.

As the afternoon drew on, Confederate attacks on Porter’s left grew in intensity and panicked the horses of the artillery deployed there. Twenty-two guns were lost in the confusion. After nightfall Porter was asked to McClellan’s headquarters, where he was ordered to retreat across the Chickahominy River, which ran along his rear, and then to retreat to the James River, on which McClellan had decided to concentrate his army. In the concluding stages of the battle, Porter was much concerned for the safety of some volunteer aides-de-camp, the comte de Paris and the duc de Chartres, members of the French royal family who had offered themselves to his staff. As the comte de Paris was pretender to the French throne, it was put to Porter than he should order them to safety. This wholly irrelevant distraction troubled him when he should have been giving his full attention to fighting the battle.

During the retreat from Gaines’s Mill, Jackson left his corps to make a reconnaissance of the Union lines. He did so without asking permission of his superior or explaining his intentions to his subordinates. The man he left in charge while he was away was not a soldier, but a professor from a theological seminary, the Reverend R. L. Dabney. Such was the respect in which Jackson was held that none of his subordinates questioned the theologian’s authority. Another incident of the retreat was the “charge” of a Union commissary who, driving his wagon loaded with such delicacies as canned pineapple, ran into a Confederate column on the road and, hoping to save his stock-in-trade, drove into the Confederate ranks. After causing some disruption he and his delicacies were captured, to the ordinary Confederate soldiers’ delight.

Prisoners were taken in the concluding stages of the Gaines’s Mill battle. Among those captured by the Confederates were some of D. H. Hill’s West Point contemporaries. One was General John Reynolds, who on being brought before his captor put his face in his hands. They had been messmates in the old army and for six months had shared a tent. Reynolds said, “Hill, we ought not to be enemies.” He had gone to sleep during a pause in the battle and been captured when found separated from his troops. Hill assured him that there was no hard feeling and that his downfall was just the fortune of war, notoriously fickle. Reynolds, who had then been exchanged, was killed at Gettysburg.

The retreat from Gaines’s Mill brought the fighting on June 29 to Savage’s Station, where a large hospital had been set up by the Union. The struggle at Savage’s Station was altogether less severe than at Gaines’s Mill, since the point of it was not offensive, to attack Richmond, but to secure a line of retreat to Malvern Hill, on which McClellan had fixed as a point of departure and disengagement from the theatre of the Seven Days’ Battles. Most of the fighting was between artillery batteries. It led on to the battle of Glendale’s or Frayser’s Farm, again a Union thrust to get away from Richmond down to the James River at Malvern Hill. Glendale was counted a Union success because the Confederates were repulsed at all points, the army’s artillery and supply train was evacuated safely to Malvern Hill, and the infantry were enabled to concentrate at Malvern Hill, fresh for the battle of July 1.

The Union had positioned thirty-six guns, of six batteries, together with a Connecticut siege battery, on the high ground, able to fire over the heads of their own infantry at the attacking enemy lines. During the fighting of June 30, the Union artillery caused heavy loss and destruction among the Confederate batteries deployed opposite. It was not until late afternoon of July 1 that the Confederates began to press infantry attacks against the Union line, where the Northern infantry lay interspersed between the gun positions. The Confederates suffered very heavily and were everywhere driven back. As darkness fell, the Union began its withdrawal to the banks of the James River at Harrison’s Landing. Union losses in the seven days totalled 15,855, those of the Army of Northern Virginia 20,204.

Lincoln despatched Halleck, newly appointed as general in chief, to see McClellan, view his army, and advise on its next moves. In conversation in Washington, Lincoln stated that he was certain McClellan would not fight again during the campaign. He said that if he was able to send McClellan 100,000 men, he would be in ecstasy and would announce that he was about to capture Richmond. The next day, however, he would report that the Confederates numbered 400,000 and that he could not advance unless he was sent yet more men. Halleck arrived at Harrison’s Landing, where an entrenched camp had been dug, and asked McClellan his intentions. McClellan insisted that he would advance on Richmond, along the line of the James River, taking Petersburg on the way. Halleck asked him to consult his officers, which he did. They voted to advance on Richmond if reinforced by 20,000. McClellan also continued to estimate the size of the opposed armies as 90,000 to 200,000, making his plans for the attack nonsense. On Halleck’s return to Washington, moreover, he telegraphed to Lincoln to say that on reflection, he would need not 20,000 but 40,000 more troops. No such numbers were available, and Lincoln therefore instructed Halleck to order McClellan to withdraw. Ships were sent, and in the last days of August the Army of the Potomac was embarked and taken back to Washington.

So ended the best chance the Union was to enjoy throughout the conflict of ending the war quickly. Lee had conducted the Seven Days’ Battles with great skill. McClellan had muffed every chance. His position at Mechanicsville-Beaver Dam Creek was unfavourable. He might, however, have gained an advantage at any of the intermediate engagements, of which only Glendale-Frayser’s Farm and Gaines’s Mill were really hard-fought. At Malvern Hill he enjoyed every advantage, a strong and dominating position, superiority of artillery strength, and enough infantry numbers. Malvern Hill was a Union victory, but McClellan did not squeeze its results to yield an outcome which could have been transformed into a turning point on a subsequent day. The whole campaign confirms his critics’ view that McClellan was psychologically deterred from pushing action to the point of result. Fearing failure, he did not try to win.

Both political leaderships, North and South, reposed high hope in the power of superior generalship to achieve their ends. George McClellan expressed his philosophy of Civil War-making most fully, if not persuasively, in a letter written to President Lincoln on July 7, 1862, actually after the Seven Days’ Battles, which it might be thought to have called into question the belief that the Confederacy was not wholly committed to dividing the Union. The war, he wrote, “should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian Civilisations.

It should not be a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any State, in any event. It should not be, at all, a War upon population, but against armed forces and political organisations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organisation of states, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.”9 Needless to say, almost every one of the principles advanced by McClellan were to be broken, including his stricture against the “territorial organisation of states,” which was violated by the separation of western Virginia from Virginia proper, not only practically undesirable in McClellan’s judgement but also constitutionally dubious. Northern moderation was not reciprocated by the South, where there was a thirst for victory from the outset; but the South believed itself to be the aggrieved party, subjected to attack by an overweening North.

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