Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Civil War (1) 1861-3

For this huge topic I am indebted primarily to the Ken Burns TV documentary on the Civil War and to the following books.
Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, 2nd edn. (Penguin, 1999) 
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (Touchstone, New York, 1995)
Amanda Forman, A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided (Penguin, 2010)
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History, 6th end. vol 1(W. Norton, 2004)

Robert E. Lee
Confederate general

What was the war about?

Although the draft had to be introduced later, men from both sides initially flocked to volunteer. What were they fighting for? From the start Lincoln argued that it was a war for the union and against a rebellion.  In August 1862 he was to say: 
‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union. It is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that’. 
Jefferson Davis also implicitly denied that the war was about slavery. He asserted that it was a war to protect the right of a state to secede and to defend itself against a tyrannous majority. Yet ‘states rights’ had only evolved as a doctrine because of slavery. Without slavery it is unlikely that Virginia, the state that had done so much to create the Union, would have seceded. Would the war have been fought if slavery had not existed?

Lincoln's war

However, Lincoln continued to define the war according to his terms. He called the conflict a rebellion rather than a civil war. He refused to identify the enemy as the Confederate States of America. The prosecution of the war was primarily a function of the Chief Executive, who exercised powers normally belonging to the legislature. He suspended habeas corpus as an executive decision.

The balance of advantage

In retrospect it is clear that the North had most of the advantages.  It had an industrialised economy, good transport links, and a population of 22 million against the South’s 9 million (that included 3. 5 million slaves).  Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was always able to borrow the money he needed to pay for the war. The Confederacy, on the other hand, produced just seven per cent of the nation’s manufacture.  Its leaders relied on cotton and hoped for British support, but though British relations with the North were often difficult the British government never recognised the Confederacy. Moreover the North had a better transport infrastructure – more wagons, horses and ships and a superior railroad system.

This does not necessarily mean that the North’s victory was inevitable. The South had the advantage of a captive labour force and it was fighting a defensive campaign on familiar territory. It did not have to conquer the North – merely to keep the South free from invasion.  And at the start of the war it had better generals notably Robert E. Lee and 'Stonewall' Jackson. Lincoln predicted that 
'Man for man the soldier from the south will be a match for the soldier from the North and vice versa.' (Quoted David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 295)

But some revisionist work on Lee is suggesting that he was greatly over-rated as a general. See here.

The early months

Partisans on both sides hoped for a quick war that would involve the capture of Washington or Richmond. One of the few people to envisage a long war was the Unionist General Winfield Scott, veteran of the war with Mexico. He proposed the 'Anaconda Plan' of blockading the Confederate coast and then pushing southward along the great water routes. 

This was the strategy that was eventually to defeat the Confederacy, but in the early days of the war the United States navy was still small and the North’s immediate aim was to take Richmond. 

First Bull Run

The first battle of the Civil War was Bull Run (First Manassas)
fought on 21 July at Manassas Junction some twenty-five miles west of Washington. General Irvin McDowell’s inexperienced army of some 37,000 troops was put to flight by P. G. T. Beauregard’s almost equally inexperienced Confederate Army in what was called 'the great skedaddle'. 

The 'Great Skedaddle'
Unionist troops flee from Bull Run
The hero of the day was General Thomas (‘Stonewall’) Jackson. Bull Run was a devastating blow for the Union army.   It put an end to easy optimism and showed the North that there would be no quick victory.

Following Bull Run, Lincoln fell back on the long-term ‘Anaconda’ strategy. The Army of the Potomac (as it was called after 15 August) had to defend Washington; the navy would blockade the southern coast; the final plan was to divide the Confederacy by invading the South along the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers.  The Confederate strategy was to stalemate the Union forces so that the British and French might join their cause or perhaps public sentiment would force a negotiated settlement.

The Trent Affair

In December 1861 Anglo-American affairs reached a new lowIn October two Confederate envoys, James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana escaped the blockade to Cuba. There they boarded a British mail packet, the Trent, but without orders from Washington, the Trent was stopped by the USS San Jacinto under Captain Charles Wilkes. The vessel was searched and the Confederate agents were taken and imprisoned in Fort Warren in Boston Harbour.  This was a violation of international law; identical British actions had led to the War of 1812.

The San Jacinto (right)
stopping the Trent
Public Domain

When Britain protested, Seward issued a belligerent response and it looked as if the two countries would go to war. When Britain protested, Seward issued a belligerent response and it looked for a while as if the two countries would go to war. Eight thousand British troops were prepared to protect Canada. But on 27 December the Americans reluctantly climbed down; they had acted illegally and could not afford another war.

The Battle of the Ironclads

On 8-9 March 1862 the most important naval battle of the Civil War was fought off the Hampton Roads, Virginia, between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly Merrimack). It was the first battle between ironclad ships and it made the whole world’s wooden ships obsolete. The Virginia was forced to creep back to harbour and the Union success meant that the Confederacy was never able to break the Union blockade.

Css Virginia, previously Merrimack


In February the 1862 Union general Ulysses Simpson Grant, had taken his forces up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers and captured Forts Henry and Donelson, the strategic keys to Tennessee, after which he was promoted to Major General.  But on 6 April he and General William Tecumseh Sherman were caught in a surprise attack at Shiloh by a force of 44,000 Confederates under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston. The Confederates would have won if Johnston had not been killed and the Union army bolstered by reinforcements. Casualties on both sides totalled over 20,000. It was the costliest battle in which the Americans had ever engaged though worse was to follow. 

Shiloh demonstrated what was to become a commonplace in the war – the fact that winning armies were unable to follow up their victories. In this case the victorious Union army was too battered to pursue the fleeing Confederates.  On 24 April the Union took New Orleans but after that nothing went right for the North for a long time.

The battle brought a temporary halt to Grant’s career. He would have been dismissed but for Lincoln’s support: ‘I can’t spare that man; he fights’.

The Seven Days’ Battles

From August 1861 General George B. McClellan had been the head of the Army of the Potomac. In November he replaced General Winfield Scott as the head of the US Army.

By the spring of 1862 the Army was well-armed and well-clothed and ready to campaign.  In March McClellan invaded Virginia via Chesapeake Bay in an attempt to seize Richmond. He took his army within sixty miles of the city, closer than any Federal general was to manage for the next three years, but he was defeated by his slowness and indecision.  

On 1 June Davis had put the brilliant Virginian Robert E. Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, a development that changed the course of the war.  From 25 June to 1 July both sides fought the Seven Days Battles outside Richmond.

Lee drove the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond and though he was unable to follow up his victory, Virginia was secure and the North had been humbled. Lincoln and his Secretary for War, Edwin M. Stanton, hastily put together another army under General John Pope, but it was soundly beaten by Lee at Second Manassas or Second Battle of Bull Run on 30 August 1862.


The Union failure to take Richmond emboldened the Confederate generals. In September the Army of Northern Virginia, about 55,000 men strong, led by the brilliant partnership of Lee and  Jackson, advanced through Maryland on its way to Washington.  On 17 September they were stopped at Antietam Creek (Sharpsburg) in Maryland by McClellan’s 75,000 men in the bloodiest day of the war so far.  The Union lost 2,108 dead and counted more than 10,000 wounded or missing. Lee’s losses were fewer but they represented a quarter of his entire army.  He retreated into Virginia. After his failed advance, there was no chance that foreign powers would recognise the Confederacy.

McClellan had halted the Confederate advance but failed to follow up his victory. On 7 November Lincoln dismissed him in a curt note.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln had begun the war promising to maintain slavery in the South, a position endorsed by Congress. His caution was intensified by the need to keep the slave-owning border states in the war. But the war changed the issue, and as fugitive slaves began to turn up in the Union army camps, Lincoln decided that the time had come for complete emancipation. This would enable him to make effective use of the fugitive blacks, it would give the war a new moral authority, win over the abolitionists, who were very critical of his leadership, and decisively prevent any foreign recognition of the Confederacy.

In September 1862, following Lee's failure at Antietam, he issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the areas captured by northern troops (but excluding the four slave states that fought for the Union). It was signed and issued on 1 January 1863. Emancipation was now a war aim. The Proclamation contained the warning that 
‘all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward forever free’.

Blacks in the War

For all its limitations, the Proclamation changed the nature of the war, making emancipation an explicit war aim. Free blacks were now able to enter the Union army. By mid-1863 black units, such as the 54th Massachusetts, were making a significant contribution to the war. Blacks were paid less than whites and were rarely promoted, but by the end of the war almost 180,000 were serving in the Union Army. They made a substantial contribution to the Unionist victory.
Men from the 54th Massachusetts

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