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8-08-2015, 23:27

Building Armies

THE CREATION of the armies that fought the Civil War was both a monumental and an absolutely unprecedented task. Even at the time of the French Revolution, when the Terror had decreed the levee en masse and attempted to mobilize the entire country, it had not achieved the degree of articulation of the Civil War era. The entire pre-war army, a mere 16,000 men, would have been about half of either force at Bull Run, and Bull Run represented but a fraction of the armies then at the disposal of the two opposing sides. If 1861 demonstrated that neither had as yet learned how to handle such masses, that is hardly a matter of surprise: no one had any experience of this magnitude before, and it was naturally going to take time to find or develop men who could do it. Indeed, much of the history of the Civil War can be explained in these terms—of a search for men who were intelligent enough, and experienced enough, and who had the right mental attitude, to wage the first modern war. The officer ranks of each side therefore become a key to what happened. Who were the officers? Where did they come from? What kind of knowledge and experience did they possess? Answering these questions may help in some degree to explain the war. Perhaps the first point that comes to mind in any review of the officer corps is the dominance of West Point over the war. The United States Military Academy, founded in 1802, essentially turned out engineers. There was what might appear to the uninformed an odd pecking order: graduates chose their branch of service in order of their class standing, and habitually the top of the class went to the engineers, then the artillery, and finally the cavalry and infantry at the bottom. After the War of 1812, the curriculum was developed to the extent that a smattering of tactics, strategy, and military history was added to the basic engineering core, and professors such as Dennis Hart Mahan developed the military art and tried to adapt it to North American conditions. For most of the pre-war generation, West Point graduated about fifty to sixty young officers a year, which meant there were about 1 ,200 graduates in the generation before the war. Given, however, that there were only 1,100 officers in the United States Army, that some small number of them were not West Pointers, and that a great many of them had been around two or more generations, this meant there was a surplus of graduates. Thus a great many had left the army between graduation and the Civil War. For a variety of reasons, civilian life offered more or different attractions, and many men, knowing their educations were valuable, resigned their commissions. On the Northern side, for example, McClellan had become a railroad executive, Sherman was the president of a southern college, and Grant had failed at a variety of commercial positions. For the South, Polk left immediately after finishing West Point and became an Episcopal bishop; Daniel Harvey Hill was superintendent of the North Carolina Military Institute and had been a professor of mathematics; and Thomas J. Jackson, class of 1846, was the Professor of Moral Philosophy and Artillery Tactics at Virginia Military Institute. Since the Confederate States Army was all to do from nothing, men such as these, as well as those who resigned directly from the U.S. Army, such as Albert Sidney Johnston and Ambrose Powell Hill, moved with little friction into command positions. The most important influence on them was probably how close they were, or how well known, to Jefferson Davis. A West Pointer himself, and a former secretary of war, Davis knew the military scene intimately, probably too much so, and his predilection for certain officers was a major factor in the South's command structure. The situation in the North was a little more complicated. Those serving officers who had stayed with the old flag continued to hold their rank and perform their functions, but Lincoln and his government, and his whole military establishment, were far less dependent upon the "regulars" than might have been expected. The regular army, though enlarged for the war, remained somewhat exclusive, and Winfield Scott in the closing days of his tenure ofcommand was determined not to have the real soldiers diffused throughout some amorphous mass of part-time civilians. Most of the Union army therefore consisted of what were officially called "United States Volunteers," and commissions in these forces were heavily influenced by the separate states, which were responsible for raising the regiments to fill their quotas for the federal government. Thus General Patterson, who failed in western Virginia, was a Pennsylvania general. Grant was a colonel of Illinois infantry, and his commission as a brigadier general was of United States Volunteers. Only after Vicksburg was he transformed from a volunteer into a regular-army officer again. And such brilliant soldiers as Francis Barlow, a lawyer who enlisted as a private in the 12th New York and finished as a major general of United States Volunteers, never did get a regular commission. Neither did William Bartlett, a Harvard junior who enlisted the day Fort Sumter was fired upon, and rose to be a brevet major general, losing a leg and being four times wounded in the process. Giving rank as a volunteer officer was one way to avoid clogging the regular system, and perhaps the most famous example of that was George Armstrong Custer, a brigadier general of volunteers while still officially a first lieutenant in the regular army. At the end of the war he reverted from major general of volunteers to lieutenant colonel in the regulars. Men such as Barlow and Bartlett were examples of what worked well with the system. There were other examples of what worked poorly. State governors, or even the harassed federal government, often granted commissions on the basis of political patronage or for other unmilitary reasons. The notorious Benjamin F. Butler, for example, was a Massachusetts militia general and was the first brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers appointed by President Lincoln. Another Massachusetts politician, Nathaniel P. Banks, offered his services as a general, and Lincoln could not refuse him—he was too important politically. Daniel Sickles got his commission because he was a leading War Democrat from New York. Only the war itself would sort out these men, the good and the bad, the talented and the stupid. The two difficulties with that were, first, that the war killed good and bad indiscriminately, and second, once on the ladder of command, an officer was free to rise to his own level of incompetence, and while he did so was entitled to the consideration of his rank. Both sides were thus stuck throughout the war with the potentially disastrous results of unwise early appointments to high command, a Polk in the South, a Butler in the North. This, it may be concluded, is a common problem with armies undergoing a vast enlargement at the start of a war. France in 1792, and Britain in 1914, for example, experienced the same sort of difficulty. In Brussels in 1815, the Duke of Wellington was asked if he could defeat Napoleon; Wellington pointed to a British soldier gawking at the sights, and replied, "It all depends upon that article there." Officers might be the brains of an army, but the blood and bone and muscle was provided by the ordinary soldiers. What were they like, these young men of 1861 who were stubborn enough, or brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, to stand up and be shot at for an idea? In the entire course of the war there were nearly three million of them, North and South, very close to one person in every ten of the entire population of the United States before the war. Mostly they were young; the average age of enlisted men in the war would be in the very early twenties; as a rough rule one might say the men were in their early twenties, the company-grade officers in their late twenties and early thirties, the field-grade officers in their late thirties and early forties, and the brigade and higher officers in their late forties and early fifties. There were of course exceptions in either direction. Edwin "Bull" Sumner commanded a corps in the Army of the Potomac, and was in his sixties; both of his sons also became generals; and Galusha Pennypacker of Pennsylvania was a captain at seventeen and a major general at twenty-one. John Sanders of Alabama was a brigadier general at twenty-four, and did not live to be twentyfive; David Twiggs, the oldest officer of the old army to go South, was seventy-one when the war began, but he was too old for active service. But the enlisted men, especially before conscription was brought in, were usually young. In both armies they were recruited territorially; that is to say, they joined companies made up from their own towns and villages, and then were put into units by counties and states. A great many of them, in the beginning, came straight from local militia units already in existence. There were positive and negative aspects to this; on the one side, the young soldier felt better away from home if he was surrounded by friends going through the same experience as he was. There was an enormous comfort in that, and a great boost to the spirit. In times of peril, soldiers often encouraged each other by saying they must make the folks at home proud of them. But the cost could be terrible; a bad battle might well destroy the youth of an entire town all at once, and often did; companies or whole regiments could be virtually wiped out in a single charge, and with them the hopes and future of a little town in Vermont or Mississippi. The initial calls for volunteers were quickly oversubscribed, and these men who enlisted in late 1861 or early 1862 were the backbone of both armies for most of the war. The expiry of the enlistments of these three-year men in the North brought a manpower crisis in late 1864; retrospectively, the government should have enlisted them for three years or the duration, whichever was longer, rather than three years or the duration, whichever was shorter. In the first enthusiasm of the war, men would still have gone; later they were more wary. As it was, the federal government was besieged by state governors begging that their quotas of regiments be increased. The regimental system, in universal use among armies of the day, proved to be a drawback in the way it was administered, especially in the North. Officially a regiment should consist of from eight hundred to a thousand men, and most of them did, to start out. Southern regiments were a little smaller, and soon were a great deal smaller. On both sides, the commissioning of officers was a perquisite of the states, and every time a state raised a new regiment, it could commission a new batch of officers. Existing regiments, mustered into federal service, were less susceptible to this political interference. The tendency, therefore, was to let the older regiments wear down until they virtually disappeared, and to raise wholly new ones in their places. The system was not quite as bad as it sounds, for once an officer had proved himself, he could usually get reappointed to a new regiment in his state. But it still did admit of playing political favors, and it was very hard on the soldiers in the ranks. Month after month they would watch their unit—their home — waste away, until there were not enough of them left to do anything. It also meant that new soldiers had to learn everything from scratch, without the inestimable advantage of being filtered in, a few at a time, to a veteran unit where they could become seasoned. As it was, older, worn-down regiments scoffed at the big new ones who had yet to see action, and the new ones made all the mistakes that new soldiers have always made and that the veterans might have helped them avoid had the two groups been put together. One peculiarity that is worth noting is the prevalence, more particularly on the Northern than on the Southern side, of foreign-born troops. In mid-century the United States was in the midst of a great tide of immigration, so much so that the situation had spawned the Know-Nothing Party, basically a nativist party; in the 1850s Massachusetts had even passed a law denying immigrants the vote as a reaction against the Irish immigrants coming in. But these immigrants, however badly they were sometimes treated in the land of opportunity, were willing to fight, and numbers of Northern regiments were almost completely made up of such men. Some two hundred thousand German immigrants fought in the Civil War; many of them were veterans of the 1848 revolutions, and the little wars they had spawned, and there were regiments and whole divisions in which the language of command was German. President Lincoln had commissioned Alexander Schimmelfennig less because of his knowledge than because of his name; the name, Lincoln wryly remarked, ought to be worth thousands of German recruits. Unfortunately the Germans tended not to do well, either in their commanders or in their battles, and they were regarded, probably unfairly, as inferior soldiers by the rest of the army. Both sides had large Irish contingents, and the Army of the Potomac contained an Irish Brigade, commanded by General Thomas Meagher, a former revolutionary transported to Tasmania by the British government. It was made up mostly of New York regiments, with some additions from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The German regiments, by contrast, tended to come from the northwestern states out around the Great Lakes. Other nationalities were represented in smaller numbers on both sides. Some of the Louisiana Zouave regiments, for example, were almost exclusively French. One significant group that was initially totally unrepresented was American blacks. In spite of the fact that this war would eventually prove to be very much about slavery—whatever the war's origin was thought or said to be—few people in 1861 or 1862 thought that black men ought to fight in it. Initial attempts on the part of free blacks to enlist were usually rebuffed, and protestations by the few black leaders that their people should participate were met either with indifference or embarrassment by the government. For a surprisingly long time, white Americans insisted that this was a white man's war—though the Confederacy was willing to ally with Indian tribes out in Arkansas and Missouri. Eventually, of course, any blood would do, even for the Confederacy, but that stage was a long time being reached. The army tended, as armies do, to cook all these disparate ingredi- ents down into a homogeneous whole. As units were mustered into state and then federal service, they went through a training process designed to transform them from civilians and individuals into soldiers. The recruits trained in camps in their home states, and when they had been uniformed and taught how to march and shoot, their unit was inspected and then formally mustered into United States service. Then, usually by train or boat, they went off to active service. Though writers of books tend naturally to dwell on battles, surprisingly little of the soldier's life is spent in them. Most of it goes in filling in the time, drilling, doing fatigues, moving here or there, and waiting for something to happen. In both armies, through the winter of 1861-62, there was a great deal of waiting. The new commander of the Army of the Potomac, General McClellan, was a great believer in drill and reviews, and his army settled into its camps around Alexandria, doing its successful best to ignore the Rebels. Meanwhile, the army drilled. The tactical systems of the day were highly complex, and soldiers had to learn all the successive moves: forming up, guiding by the center, guiding by the right, facing to the front, or the rear, or the left or right flank, moving by companies, by columns of companies, by columns of division, firing by volley, firing independently, and on and on and on. One sympathizes with the officer, leading his regiment in an attack, who came up against a bog, and eventually shouted out in frustration, "Boys, git acrost that swamp and form up on t'other side now!" Slowly, the army was whipped into shape. McClellan was a great one for grand reviews. The soldiers would form up, regiment after regiment, vastly impressed with themselves; the bands would play jaunty airs, and then up would sweep the little general, surrounded by gorgeous staff officers, and escorted by Rush's Pennsylvania Lancers, with their lance pennants flapping bravely in the breeze. It was a long way from the smoke and terror of Bull Run, but under these conditions, it was fun to be a soldier. To greater or lesser degree, other armies in other venues were doing the same thing, and all along the border between the United States and the Confederate States of America, boys practiced their close-order drill, did their camp duties, wrote letters home, and waited for something to happen. The armies themselves were the several points of the spears, but an army does not just happen, and it certainly does not live independently. On both sides, governments made vast efforts to sustain and supply the forces they were creating. This was naturally easier for the North than for the South. The North not only had more manufacturing capacity of its own, but it had the established credit and the existing organization needed for the process. It had mills and factories that could readily be converted to war production, and the brick beehives of Lowell and Lawrence were soon turning out thousands of pairs of blue trousers and dark blue fatigue jackets, and the armory in Springfield geared up to increase tenfold its production of rifles. Not only that, the federal government was in a position to buy abroad and pay hard cash for what it got. The soldiers found themselves armed with weapons from every arsenal in Europe, from first-class Enfield weapons bought in England, to cranky old Suhl muskets bought from Austria, hastily converted from flintlock to cap-and-ball firing mechanisms. The South went through the same process, but it started from a smaller industrial base, and as a revolutionary government, had a harder time raising money and paying for what it bought abroad, though as always, plenty of European dealers were eager to speculate and make money from other people's troubles. War is such a lavish consumer that it always makes a great market. On balance, the Confederacy did very well for most of the war; with what it manufactured at home, captured from the Union, and bought abroad, it managed to sustain the war effort far longer than might originally have been anticipated. Still, it was in the North that the sinews of modern war were first fully created, and much of that was due to Edwin M. Stanton, one of the least-liked and greatest men in this or any war. A successful lawyer, Stanton had been attorney general under President Buchanan; he returned to private life after Lincoln's election, but remained a power in Washington, and was associated with the anti-Lincoln faction—as who was not?—until January of 1862. He and McClellan were friends, and both thought Lincoln was not up to his job, a fact on which they often commiserated. The two were together when a message arrived from the White House appointing Stanton secretary of war in place of Simon Cameron, and the story is that when McClellan asked Stanton what he was going to do, Stanton replied, "Do? I am going to make Abraham Lincoln president of the United States!" Stanton always thought a little too much of himself, and it soon became apparent that it was Lincoln who was master, and Stanton was his man, and the best secretary of war in the United States, and possibly in all of history. He was a meddler, but he got things done, whether it was jailing crooked con- tractors or prosecuting newspaper editors who revealed military information to the Confederacy. Above all, he supplied armies; he presided over a War Department that produced endless quantities of guns, clothing, food, wagons, paper, ammunition, and the thousand things an army needs. A good administrator and a bad hater, next to Lincoln himself he was almost indispensable to the Union, and the two came to have a very close, if often stormy, relationship. The Union was lucky to have him. The Confederacy did not have his equal. President Davis went through five secretaries of war, a couple of whom were very bright indeed. One, Judah P. Benjamin, may have been the most intelligent man on the whole continent, and he would have been a more than competent secretary had Davis let him alone. But Davis the onetime warrior and former federal secretary of war could not stay out of his own War Department, and Benjamin lasted only six months before becoming the Confederacy's new secretary of state; he was replaced by George W. Randolph, another highly competent administrator. Randolph brought in conscription and tried to get Davis to focus on the western theater, and he lasted only eight months, again driven off by Davis's interference. After that Davis settled on James A. Seddon, a Virginian of very poor health who let Davis make all the major decisions, and who thus held on to his post almost until the end of the war. Both governments were constantly faced with internal opposition on the running of the war. In the South there were several sources of this, and some authorities have argued that the particularism of the separate states, and their resistance to control by the central government, was what ultimately cost the South the war. Since resistance to central authority was the whole raison of the Confederacy, this thesis has a certain plausibility to it. Other writers have argued equally convincingly, however, that this was a relatively unimportant factor, and that actually the Confederate central government functioned pretty well, and got along at least as well as could be expected with its component state counterparts. But there were other factors or factions at work. The Confederate politicians from the border states, in effect politicians in exile, always exerted a disproportionate influence, and like exiles everywhere, always promised a great deal more than they could ever actually deliver. There was also a "western bloc," trying unsuccessfully to distract Davis from Virginia and make him aware of both potential and danger across the mountains. And finally, there were those politicians in Richmond who were motivated simply by their intense dislike for Jefferson Davis, and opposed him just because he was the man he was. In his way Davis was a great man, and with a little more luck or better timing, he might have been the father of his country, but he was also an easy man to dislike, and there was no lack of men who fought him simply for that reason alone. Lincoln too had his enemies, of course, and Washington had as many factions, or more of them, as did Richmond. Especially in these early days of the war, men were still learning how to handle themselves, and there were plenty of men who thought they knew far better than the president what ought to be done. In Congress there was the whole spectrum of opinion, from those who were still against the war, or any form of coercion at all, to those Radical Republicans, the far left of Lincoln's own party, who wanted war to the knife, and considered Lincoln far too squeamish to fight as they wanted to fight. They soon set up a Committee on the Conduct of the War, and any general who was considered soft on their main issue had to operate with one eye over his shoulder. What happened to General Charles P. Stone was a case in point. In October of 1861 Stone was commanding a division on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Ordered to help dislodge some Confederates on the other side, he pushed a brigade across the river to Ball's Bluff, where it got trapped with no supports and no line of retreat. In the shambles that followed, the brigade suffered nine hundred casualties out of 1,700 men. Stone was called before the congressional committee, meeting in secret, and ended up being arrested and thrown in a military prison, where he languished for more than six months, though no charges were ever preferred against him. The Radicals had their own charge: "unsound on the question of slavery." That was not an indictable offense, but if they had their way it would be, and any general who failed to realize that had better watch out. Stone was merely a scapegoat, of course; from the Radical point of view, the real target was McClellan, and as the winter went on, as the army took shape, as the country watched and waited and the newspapers demanded action, the Young Napoleon became more and more the focus of attention. What was he going to do, and when was he going to do it? Everyone wanted to know, even Lincoln. The president indeed was incredibly patient with his new general, a patience which McClellan returned with ill-disguised contempt. Lincoln tried to find out what McClellan proposed to do; McClellan would not tell him. Lincoln tried to suggest something he might do; McClellan dismissed this as mere amateurism. Lincoln proposed he might move; McClellan was not ready. Lincoln pointed out that it was expensive to keep a huge army doing nothing; McClellan pooh-poohed all this civilian nonsense. When McClellan snubbed the president, Lincoln mildly replied, "I will hold General McClellan's horse for him if only he will do something." Eventually of course even Lincoln lost his patience: "If General McClellan does not propose to use the army, perhaps President Lincoln might borrow it for a while." Finally, of course, even McClellan knew he had to act. When Lincoln told him a straightforward advance south on Richmond seemed the most sensible move, McClellan loftily set aside such a silly idea. How simple, how childish, how civilian the president was! Advancing south overland would simply lead to another Bull Run. McClellan came up instead with a far more intriguing idea. He would do a flanking move by water, and be in Richmond before the Rebels knew what he was up to. Meanwhile, while McClellan entertained politicians and made fun of his leader, while the Army of the Potomac stretched and stirred in its encampments, while spring rolled across the land, other armies in other theaters started to move. The grass greened, the trees blossomed, the blood ran high. Both sides now had armies at least half-prepared; it was time for real war now.

 

 

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