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8-08-2015, 23:26

Opening Operations

THE VOLUNTEERS flocked in. North or South, there was no lack of men willing to fight. President Davis had called for 100,000 men, and had already armed and equipped a third of them before the Union stirred itself. Lincoln's call for 75,000 was spurned by the secessionist states, but brought a fierce growl of response throughout the North. Almost every state could have doubled its quota of regiments, and there was a sudden run on military books, as men of ambition tried to transform themselves overnight into officer material. The first call, for three-month men, brought in 91,000. In May Lincoln issued another call, for three years' service this time, and by the first of July, there were 310,000 troops in federal service. On the 4th of July, giving a traditional holiday speech to Congress, Lincoln asked for 400,000; the legislators responded by voting 500,000. Part of the response stemmed from the fact that there was already a very active militia movement in the country, so it was full of young men playing at soldier anyway. These were quickly embodied in state service, and showed up wearing a variety of bizarre uniforms, including anachronistic Revolution-period coats or exotic North African baggy trousers. Many units clung to their bright uniforms even after they discovered what good targets they made. But there was more to the rush to war than mere playing. Americans on either side were firm in their convictions, Southerners that they had been wronged by the growth of government and were justified in withdrawing from the compact, and Unionists that the compact, and the experiment it represented, were a noble enterprise that must not be allowed to fail. Men on both sides appealed to the sacrifices of their grandfathers; both claimed to represent the legitimate heritage of the Revolution. The war could in this sense be seen as honoring a debt to the heroic past. The people of the Civil War generation often expressed their sentiments in exalted language which may sound a little artificial to a later generation, but the feelings so expressed were obviously sincere to them—they were willing to risk dying for them. Thoughtful men of course deplored the fact that a family disagreement had come to blows—but since it had, better to fight and have done with it. As they have done repeatedly since, men regarded the war as a necessary purging, a blood sacrifice that would make society, either one, whole and pure. The war would thus become a rite of passage to maturity, for both individuals and the nation as a group. So the armies gathered. In Washington and Richmond harassed officials rushed frantically about, trying to buy equipment, trying to match men and material, trying to fend off office-seekers, trying to separate the charlatan from the patriot. In the space of three months the United States forces increased 2,700 percent; at the same time the Confederacy created an army even while creating a government to manage it. On both sides it was a mobilization unmatched in scope and rapidity before or since. What that translated to in the field was exponential confusion. The state units sent to the front all had different drill, different words of command, different forms of doing things. Most of them elected their officers; some of the officers were competent, some were fools. Some units arrived well equipped and reasonably well disciplined; some arrived as little more than mobs. The regular-army officers and the volunteer officers, some of whom were retired or resigned West Point graduates, tried desperately to make sense out of the whole matter. Gradually it transpired that there was a Federal army around Washington, largely encamped on the Alexandria side of the Potomac. And there was a Confederate army somewhere south of it down in northern Virginia. Faced with the fact that his first three-month volunteers would soon be ready to go home, President Lincoln decided that they ought to do something before they left, and that what they ought to do was go beat up that Confederate army. If that sounds somewhat amateurish, that indeed is just what it was, but Lincoln was not a free agent. On the one hand, he had his soldiers despairing that the volunteers could ever be taught to march in step and keep their ranks dressed; on the other, he had every newspaper editor in the country shrieking at him and lambasting the government for its spineless inaction. For if there were no lack ofmen willing to fight, there were even more men ready to inspire them to do it. For belligerence, bellicosity, and bombast, it would be hard to beat the popular press of the Civil War era; they knew all, they told all, they were never wrong, and they made fortunes pointing out other people's shortcomings. So the Southern editors cried, "On to Washington!" and the Northern editors clamored, "On to Richmond!" and it was necessary to do something to still the noise. Lincoln's troubles began at the top. The commander of the United States Army was Winfield Scott, a great soldier whose experience went all the way back to the war of 1 8 1 2 . It was Scott who suggested that Lincoln blockade the South, it was he who told the president how many men he would need to fight the war. But Scott was in his mid-seventies, unwell and unable to sit a horse. Lincoln needed a field commander. He first offered the position to Robert E. Lee, he who had commanded the troops against John Brown, but Lee decided to go with his home state of Virginia. Lincoln's second choice was Irvin McDowell. There were reasons for this, but none ofthem was particularly germane. McDowell had been in the Adjutant General's office; he was well-known in Republican circles in Washington, and he was the protege of Salmon P. Chase. He had never in his entire career commanded troops in the field. His chief claim was that he was probably as good as anyone else; his chief drawback was that every other officer around knew he was no better than anyone else. Still, McDowell knew the rudiments of what ought to be done, and he drew up an operation order that looked fairly sensible. The situation was this: A Confederate force of uncertain strength was centered around Manassas Junction in Virginia, about thirty miles southwest of Washington. It was commanded by the hero of Fort Sumter, General Beauregard. Then across the Blue Ridge in western Virginia, around Winchester, there was another Confederate force, commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. This latter was to be held by Union troops under the command of Robert Patterson, a Pennsylvania state general. McDowell could thus advance straight against Beauregard, and since he should substantially outnumber him, he ought to beat him. On July 16 the great advance on Richmond began. McDowell's army struck its tents on the heights ofAlexandria, and marched off to glorious war, the colors flapping in the breeze, the bands playing, and the troops in high spirits. Two days later and twenty miles down the road, hungry, tired, blisters breaking on their feet, the road behind them littered with all the junk they had thought they might need, the mob staggered into Centerville and collapsed. The officers spent the night of July 17-18 cursing, while the men wandered around, trying to find their regiments in the dark, lost, lonely, and thoroughly sick of soldiering. That same day, Johnston got a telegram from Richmond, telling him McDowell had advanced, and directing him to march to aid Beauregard if he could do so. It happened that he could indeed do so, for Patterson, not understanding what he was supposed to do, had taken counsel of his own fears and retreated northward. He could hardly be blamed; in the War of 1812, after all, which was where he had learned his soldiering, they had not had all this nonsense with telegrams. Johnston put his men on the road, heading southeast toward Manassas. Meanwhile Beauregard, who in fact had about 20,000 troops, spread them along ten miles of a little creek called Bull Run and waited to see what might happen. On the morning of the 18th, McDowell sent forward one of his five divisions, under Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, as a sort of reconnaissance in force, but told him not to get into trouble. A little too enthusiastic, Tyler got into a fight at two of the fords over Bull Run, and had his troops mauled by the well-positioned Confederates. This skirmish spread sufficient confusion among both the Union ranks and their commanders that for the next three days the army did nothing much at all, cooked rations, sorted out lost soldiers, and brought up a few units from the rear. In that interval the Confederates did much better. Most importantly, a large part of Johnston's command arrived; surprise!—he had not marched his men the full fifty miles from Winchester to Manassas; he had put them on trains of the Manassas Gap Railroad. With his troops plus a few others, the Confederates now had about 32,000 men in hand, and even more expected hourly. With their troops on the field and as organized as they were going to get, both commanders developed their battle plans, and both decided to do the same thing. Each proposed to turn the other's right, roll up a flank, and destroy the enemy. McDowell was the more energetic of the two, and he got his people moving first, though his columns stumbled into each other and spent several hours of the early morning shoving and sorting themselves out. Nonetheless, they were still ahead of the Confederates, and Beauregard was rudely startled from his leisurely breakfast at the Wilbur McLean house when a cannonball crashed into the kitchen. The experience of this battle, incidentally, so unnerved Mr. McLean that he decided to move his family, and he settled in Appomattox, southwest of Richmond, for the remaindet of the war. Beauregard still persevered in his intention to attack, and began issuing orders to put his right wing in motion. In fact, his staff got their written instructions so confused that one brigade crossed Bull Run and advanced out in the open, one prepared to attack, and one did nothing at all. By mid-morning, with the right-flank Confederates milling around, Beauregard finally realized that his left was under heavy pressure—the Federals having at last got themselves shaken out—and that he was in fact faced with a crisis. Up at that end of the battlefield, Brigadier General Nathan G. "Shanks" Evans had refused his flank, and was now fighting desperately along Young's Branch, a little brook perpendicular to Bull Run, trying to hold back the Federal pressure. He was supported by Bee's and Bartow's brigades, but the opposition kept building up, and finally lapped around his open left flank. The Rebels went back up and over Henry House Hill, steadily at first and then at a run, and by late morning, the battle was beginning to fall apart for them. Unfortunately for McDowell, all this was more the result of good luck than of good management, for the battle was hardly being managed at all. Once a commander had set things in motion, he was dependent on what his subordinates told him or what his staff could find out. McDowell marshaled his forces around the Henry House Hill, but the Confederates, even though badly outnumbered, did better. Troops under Thomas J. Jackson arrived, more were on the way, and the Confederates, pushed off the hill, came back again. Union artillery pounded them for a few moments, but were then decimated by an attack of the 33rd Virginia; the Virginians had blue uniforms, and the gunners had held their fire just too long. By mid-afternoon the fight had stabilized around the Henry House Hill. McDowell had several brigades in line now, a bit mixed up but still full of fight. The Confederates too had steadied their line, mostly due to Jackson's efficient eye for a position: "Look at Jackson's brigade; it stands like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!" As the Federals came forward a last time, newly arrived Confederates of Edmund Kirby Smith's brigade came crashing in on their right flank, and the attack fell apart. The Federals frayed out and went back, slowly at first, then, as they crossed Bull Run, as fast as they could. The flight did not stop until it got all the way back to Alexandria. McDowell tried in vain to halt the army at Centerville, but whenever a unit would try to rally, someone would sound an alarm, and off they would go again. Many units collapsed; many more, footsore and disgusted, marched hour after hour, grumbling and cursing. The way was a shambles, full of abandoned wagons, civilian carriages overturned and left by owners who had come out from Washington to see the fun, drunks, fools, whores, all the garbage a beaten and retreating army leaves behind it. The Confederates, almost as exhausted and at least as confused by their victory as the Yankees were by their defeat, could not develop an effective pursuit. Beauregard ordered it, but the two brigadiers he sent out fell to quarreling over who was in command, and after wandering around a while picking up trash, the Rebels gave it up. The First Battle of Bull Run, or First Battle of Manassas, as the Confederates called it, was the first major battle of the war. Given that, both sides had done rather well; either one could have won it. The men had fought certainly as well as could have been expected. The North sustained just under three thousand casualties, and the South just under two. A few of the field commanders had done pretty well. On the Confederate side, Jackson, otherwise a bit of an eccentric, had handled his troops very nicely, and there had been some good cavalry work done by a dashing young fellow named J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart. The Union too had a few good brigade leaders, including Fitz John Porter and William Sherman, and what would become a Federal hallmark, good artillery. Higher command was a little shakier, naturally so. In their entire history, Americans had never fought on this scale before. Each of the armies alone was as big as both sides in any previous American battle, and it takes a great deal of practice to be able to move 30,000 men around the countryside in a coherent way. McDowell had divided his army into five divisions, but had not managed to control them very well. Several thousand Federal troops spent the day marching vaguely here and there, and listening to the sound of distant gunfire. On the Confederate side, the matter was even more confused; Johnston ranked Beauregard, but generously set himself to organizing the arriving troops, while letting Beauregard fight his own battle on his own ground. Beauregard was lucky to have the help, which allowed him to redeem faulty dispositions and an erroneous concept of the battle. He was even luckier in that he won. McDowell had no such saving grace. Obviously, both sides still had a great deal to learn, but the Confederates seemed to have a little less to learn than the Federals. While Confederate newspapers exulted that the war was all but over, it actually began. Polk and Grant maneuvered out along the Mississippi, and played games with Kentucky neutrality, and Lyon held Missouri for the Union. Strange things happened in western Virginia, too. The area where Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia all met — the area that would become the state of West Virginia—was one of the vortices of the war. Activity swirled all around it, but little could actually be accomplished there, except the losing of reputations, or perhaps the making of them. George Brinton McClellan had resigned a promising but slow career in the Army to become chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1857. In 1861 he was living in Cincinnati and was president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. The governor of Ohio, William Dennison, commissioned him as a state major general and gave him command of Ohio's volunteers. McClellan threw himself into the job of organizing and training the raw troops with a fierce energy. Handsome, full of activity, dynamic, McClellan impressed everyone he talked to, so much so that Lincoln was induced to give him a major general's commission in the regular army, a far more desirable plum than a commission in state or even federal volunteer forces, and appointed him commander of the Department of the Ohio. This put McClellan right up there next to Winfield Scott, which was almost where McClellan thought he deserved to be. In June McClellan, commanding 20,000 troops, invaded western Virginia. There was a little bit of confused fighting, but the Confederates, with a mere 5,000 men in the area, all parceled out a regiment here, and two or three regiments there, were not able to offer a great deal of resistance, and McClellan soon secured the area. Though the fighting was pretty small in scale, and McClellan himself did not actually do any of it, his reports made his campaign sound like a backwoods version of Napoleon's famous Italian campaign. The newspapers were soon calling "Little Mac" the "Little Napoleon," and he began striding around with his hand tucked inside his tunic front and dictating to several secretaries at once. Small though the victories were, they were still victories, and the North badly needed some of those. So when Lincoln looked around for a general to supersede the unfortunate McDowell, his eye lit upon McClellan. To a generation that still read Sir Walter Scott, it was "young Lochinvar is come out of the west" all over again. McClellan arrived in Washington five days after Bull Run, ready to save the Union. There were yet other areas where the war was gaining momentum as the summer of 1861 went on. When Lincoln had first discussed an overall strategy for the war with Winfield Scott, the old general had suggested a far different idea from the ' 'On to Richmond! ' ' fever. He thought that by blockading the South's ports, and sending a force down the Mississippi, one might isolate the area and allow time for people to come to their senses. Gradually he refined the concept; economic pressure might squeeze the Confederacy to death. He called it a boa constrictor idea; when the newspapers got wind of it, they thought for some reason that the anaconda was a more appealing snake, or at least that the term tripped better off the tongue, so the plan became "Scott's Anaconda." Lincoln had to be very careful in this. There were two particular problems. Any activity at sea to impede trade meant possible collision with Great Britain, and the British approved of a blockade only if they themselves were imposing it. Britain was already envious of a dynamic young America, and the British political classes seemed far more favorably disposed to the Confederacy, and to the Southern point of view, than was at all desirable. Lincoln must therefore constantly look over his shoulder, for fear he might see on the horizon a British fleet coming to the rescue of the Secessionists. The legal aspect of this was even more tortuous. Theoretically, the imposition of a blockade was an act of war, and Lincoln was doing his best to assert that this was not a war between two sovereign states, but rather the suppression of an illegitimate rebellion by a legitimate government. If he proclaimed a blockade, he would in effect be acknowledging the existence of the Confederacy. He got around this by a bit of sophistry that would have delighted the British had they thought of it themselves. He did not proclaim a blockade; instead, he announced his intention to proclaim a blockade at some indeterminate point in the future. Meanwhile, the federal government would take all the necessary preliminary steps, including patrolling Southern ports and interdicting access to them, so that when the blockade should actually be proclaimed, it would be an effective one, and not just a paper one. Having solved the legal problem, the government then set about solving the reality of it. At first the task appeared insurmountable. The Confederate coastline was more than 3,500 miles long, and there were about 180 possible sites for loading or offloading cargo, from major ports such as Charleston and New Orleans to little swamps and bayous. Not only was the job enormous, but there was almost nothing with which to accomplish it. The pre-war navy was a motley collection of steam frigates, sailing sloops of war, and slowly rotting smaller craft. Of its official count of ninety ships, a full eleven were lost at Norfolk, and a mere twentythree remained for the Union to employ, and several of them were on foreign stations. However, Gideon Welles and his indefatigable assistant secretary Gustavus Fox set to work. Money was no problem now, and contracts were let and designs approved—for double-ended paddle steamers, for small gunboats, for big steam frigates, and for a curious "ironclad battery" designed by a cantankerous Swedish engineer named John Ericsson. Meanwhile, Navy agents along the East Coast and the Ohio and Mississippi bought everything that would float, and a few things that would not. Tugboats, lumber schooners, riverboats suddenly found themselves hoisting a commission pennant, mounting a few guns, and going off to war. Southerners might laugh, and the British might snort, but in August Admiral Silas Stringham and General Benjamin F. Butler occupied Hatteras Inlet and gained a base for blockading the Carolina coast, and later in the fall Commodore Samuel Du Pont occupied Port Royal Sound in South Carolina. By the end of the year the Atlantic and Gulf squadrons were getting organized, and in 1861, one out of nine ships that attempted to enter or clear a Southern port was intercepted. So the squeeze began. The danger of foreign intervention, as perceived by Lincoln and his government, was indeed a real one. Britain and France almost immediately recognized the belligerency of the Confederacy, a move that was considered by both North and South to be halfway to full recognition. Full recognition would, or could, have meant credit, loans, and possibly even military alliances for the Confederacy, and any one or all of those might be the margin ofvictory. When the newly appointed United States minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, complained to his hosts of their move, they replied that there was little less than that that they could do; after all, the Confederacy was certainly and self-obviously in existence as a belligerent, and to deny that would be ridiculous. Fortunately, Adams was the very epitome of the Bostonian at its best, and he was quite at home with the British aristocracy, where form and character counted for a great deal; he could talk to Lord Russell and Lord Palmerston very much on their own terms. That was a very good thing, for Adams and the government he represented were soon faced with a major crisis, one that had the potential to change the course of the war. The Confederacy of course sought to effect European intervention on its behalf, and in an attempt to do so, Jefferson Davis sent commissioners to Britain and France. If they succeeded in gaining recognition, they would become ambassadors. The two, James M. Mason and John Slidell, with their families and staffs, got to Havana on a blockade runner. There they transferred to a British vessel, the RMS — for "Royal Mail Steamer" — Trent, and headed for England in style. As their mission had been well advertised, they were intercepted in the Bahama Channel by the USS San Jacinto, Captain Charles Wilkes commanding. Wilkes was a vigorous officer; he had no orders to act as he did, but he fired a shot across the Trent's bow. The British captain pointed indignantly to his Royal Mail pennant and kept on. Wilkes fired another shot, whereupon the Englishman hove to. The American then sent a boat across, boarded the packet, and demanded the surrender of Mason and Slidell; over outraged sputtering, the two Confederates were escorted to the San Jacinto. In the United States the story was greeted with delight, and Wilkes became an instant hero; this was exactly what Britain had done back at the turn of the century, and Americans had bitterly resented it; finally the biter was bitten. But in Britain the event was greeted by a national cry of anger: How dare anyone but a Briton violate the sanctity of the ocean! There was a shout for war: Ally with the Confederacy, and show these impudent Yankees once and for all whose ocean it is. The government decided to reinforce the British garrisons in their Canadian colonies. Lincoln's government was seriously embarrassed by all this. To cave in to Britain risked political disaster at home; to stand firm risked war. Secretary Seward squared the circle; he sent the British government a stiff note, thanking them for recognizing the principle the Americans had defended in 1812 and acknowledging their wrongdoing at that time. That being said, he added that Wilkes had acted without orders, and he released Messrs. Mason and Slidell and sent them on their way. To further sweeten the pill, and perhaps to remind Britain that her empire was not entirely invulnerable, he offered the use of an American port, ice-free in winter, for the passage of their Canadian reinforcements. Both the American public and the British government were able to read what they wanted to see in Seward's response, and thus the Union staved off, for the moment at least, outside intervention. Mason and Slidell, in the aftermath, turned out to be a poor catch. As a U.S. senator, Mason had authored the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He did not endear himself to London society, which found it much preferred Adams after all. Slidell, also a former senator, was a rather slippery character, which meant he fit in well in Napoleon Ill's Paris, but Napoleon III was as inconstant as the wind, and Slidell never accomplished a great deal, no matter how much at home he felt. So fall slid into winter, and by now the battle lines were clearly drawn. Choices had been made, and men and women would have to live, or die, by them. Neither side had yet demonstrated the ability to wage effective large-scale war. Except for Bull Run and possibly Wilson's Creek out in Missouri, there had hardly been any real battles at all. That was all still to come. But the preliminary work had been done. The Confederacy had made a remarkable start, stamping not only armies but indeed a government out of the very ground. Scholars are prone to dwell on the shortcomings of President Davis and his cabinet and officials; they should rather marvel that a national government as effective as this one was had been produced in so short a time, especially by a society whose whole reason for existence had been the denial ofan overriding national principle. The Union might for the purposes ofargument deny the legitimacy of the Confederacy, but it could hardly deny the fact of it. There it was, in arms and patently capable ofasserting both its existence and its independence. Yet the Union government had done remarkably well also. After a slow start, which still leaves doubt as to Lincoln's recognition of the task ahead of him, the federal government was gathering momentum for the struggle it could now see lay before it. A half million men were under arms, the Navy was growing by leaps and bounds, and if the central government could just manage to coordinate all its wealth and power, and apply it effectively, it should be irresistible. The great chief of the German general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, characterized the war as "a conflict of armed mobs chasing each other around the bush." So far he was pretty well correct. That, however, was about to change.