Authors: Steven Woodworth
ALL QUIET ALONG THE POTOMAC
SETTLING DOWN FOR A REAL WAR
he dramatic Confederate victory at Bull Run shocked the nation. Southern whites felt more certain than ever of the superiority of their martial prowess, and for once northerners were almost tempted to believe they were right. “We are utterly and disgracefully routed, beaten, whipped by secessionists,” wrote New York businessman George Templeton Strong in his diary. The casualties of the battle were about 1,800 Confederates killed and wounded and about 1,600 Federals, plus another 1,300 or so Federals captured in the final disastrous rout. Each side had suffered almost twice as many killed and wounded as United States forces had sustained in the bloodiest battles of the Mexican War and the War of 1812. Far greater than the loss of life and limb, however, was the impact on the spirits of the warring sections of the country. Confederate morale had never been higher, while Unionists were almost in despair.
Recent wars in Europe had tended to be short, decided by a single great battle. Many Americans assumed that their own conflict would be much the same. Especially Confederates reveled in the thought that their independence had been won on the field of Manassas. Some northerners were inclined to agree with that. The never quite stable Horace Greeley, who had so vociferously urged an early advance against Richmond, now wrote Lincoln an anguished letter imploring him not to shrink from the difficult necessity of abandoning the war, accepting defeat, and granting Confederate independence. Fortunately for posterity, Lincoln was not yet ready to give up. Neither, as it turned out, were the people of the North. With the approval of Congress, Lincoln had already expanded the regular army and called for another forty-two thousand volunteers, not for the obviously inadequate ninety-day term but for three years. Now in the wake of Bull Run he issued a call for three hundred thousand three-year volunteers, and the country responded enthusiastically as recruits flocked to the colors once again in more than adequate numbers. Most of the ninety-day regiments promptly reenlisted for the three-year term, determined to see the rebellion suppressed and the Union saved.
The North’s determined response to the defeat and obvious willingness to make much greater efforts was a sobering development for Confederates. Within weeks of Bull Run, the luster began to wear off of their great victory as it became apparent that the battle had not come close to winning the war at a single stroke. With that, recriminations began within the Confederate public and high command as to whose fault it was that the victory had turned out to be barren. Confident that such a feat could have been easily done, newspaper editors wanted to know why Confederate forces had failed to pursue the beaten Yankees into Washington. Beauregard wrote and published, contrary to regulations, a report of the battle implying that he had had an excellent plan that, if implemented by Davis before the battle, would have won the war by now. In fact, Beauregard’s plan had been all moonshine and nonsense, completely impractical, and Davis had been right to turn it down. In the face of Beauregard’s postbattle grandstanding, the president did his best to keep his well-known temper and wrote his general a mild rebuke.
Curiously, though the war had grown out of a dispute over the future of the institution of slavery, the two sides in the conflict were not equally eager to admit the fact that they were fighting over slavery and the status of African Americans. Confederate leaders made no secret of the fact that they were fighting for slavery and white supremacy. In a March 21, 1861, speech in Savannah, Georgia, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens proclaimed, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [to that of the equality of the races]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
By contrast, Union leaders during the first half of the war were not nearly so forthright about what kind of war this was and why they were fighting it. This was never more true than in the immediate aftermath of Bull Run, when a traumatized U.S. Congress feared that support for the war might collapse in the wake of the humiliating defeat. In a July 22, 1861, proclamation, authored by Kentucky Representative John J. Crittenden, Congress announced “that this war is not waged upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union.”
In a very narrowly technical sense, this was correct. Although the southern states had seceded because they did not accept the incoming administration’s position on slavery, the U.S. government was presently waging war simply to suppress the rebellion and restore obedience to the law without regard to the cause for which the rebellion had been launched and the law defied. It was not fighting directly for the cause of freeing the slaves—yet. Nevertheless, even at this early stage of the conflict, the most cursory observer of American politics could easily predict the likely results of Union victory. Lincoln had previously expressed his and his party’s goal as placing slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.” A rebellion that tried and failed to break up the Union for the sake of slavery would only tend to bring that extinction closer than it would otherwise have been. Notwithstanding Congress’s bland denials, even in these early days it was clear to all concerned, especially to the slaves themselves, that a Union victory would shorten the days of slavery.
Northern leaders had political reasons for their desire to emphasize the cause of saving the Union and enforcing the law and to play down the issues of slavery and race. White southerners were virtually unanimous in their support for slavery and white supremacy, but a significant minority of them opposed secession, especially in places like western Virginia, East Tennessee, and other parts of the upland and Appalachian South. On the other hand, although support for the war to preserve the Union was far from unanimous in the North, it did command a fairly sizable majority of support across the region. By contrast, the cause of abolishing slavery would scarcely command a majority, even in the North, much less in border slave states like Crittenden’s own Kentucky. Emphasizing that they were waging a war solely for the restoration of the Union and not for the abolition of slavery was a way that northern leaders could unite their own section of the country and divide the South, at least to some degree.
MCCLELLAN RISES IN THE EAST; FIGHTING BEGINS IN THE WEST
In the immediate aftermath of Bull Run, however, Lincoln and those around him in Washington had little leisure to think about the meaning of the war, how it should be presented to the public, or even of the great mobilization about to begin across the North. The president’s immediate concern was keeping the Rebels out of Washington. Lincoln could not know, on the day after the battle, that the Confederate army was too disorganized to follow up its victory, but he could not ignore the disorganized and demoralized state of the main Union army in Virginia, with thousands of its soldiers scattered throughout the capital city, many of them in bars drinking themselves into oblivion while appalling their fellow patrons with exaggerated tales of disaster. The public had lost confidence in McDowell. More important, the army had lost confidence in McDowell and in itself. Lincoln needed a general who could restore the army’s confidence in itself and win its confidence for himself, a general who had won victories and who was not too far away from Washington since Lincoln needed him right away. The obvious choice was George McClellan, fresh from his victories in western Virginia. On July 22 a telegram from the secretary of war summoned the thirty-four-year-old major general to Washington without delay.
McClellan the conquering hero officially assumed command of the troops around Washington on July 27 and immediately went to work to restore order and discipline. Provost guards swept the stragglers out of the Washington bars and off the streets. Back in their camps, the men, including regiment after regiment of new troops arriving in the Washington area in response to the president’s latest call, learned what it was to be soldiers, observing military discipline, maintaining military bearing, and drilling for hours on end. Uniforms and equipment became somewhat more standardized, though the army would continue to contain a number of Zouave regiments.
Shortages of U.S. manufactured weapons testified to the Union’s early unreadiness for waging war and forced the federal government to procure arms from European manufacturers. This meant that different regiments carried a variety of weapons, from the standard U.S. Harpers Ferry or Springfield rifle-muskets to the highly similar British Enfield. Meanwhile, badly inferior Belgian or Austrian rifles or obsolete but still lethal U.S. Model 1820 smooth-bore muskets also found their way into the Union ranks. Although muskets and rifles of varying calibers posed a logistical nightmare, the Union made do with its odd assortment of weaponry until gradual standardization of military armaments occurred as the conflict progressed. To his credit, McClellan transformed the collection of troops around Washington, some of them demoralized and all of them green, into something that looked and felt like an army. He called it the Army of the Potomac, and its men soon came to feel an exuberant faith in themselves and their commander.
So far, McClellan had been all that Lincoln, the cabinet, or Congress could have hoped, and the youthful warlord’s reputation seemed to be expanding more rapidly than a bursting shell. Newspapers christened him “the young Napoleon.” Lincoln was deferential. Cabinet members and congressional leaders fawned on the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, suggesting that he was the only man who could save the country. Washington was safe, and the army was growing in size and proficiency. Its commander was dapper in his tailored uniform and so deep chested that he looked short at his slightly above average five feet, seven inches, cutting a splendid figure on horseback and looking the very image of the Currier & Ives war that people imagined they were about to fight. Civilians visiting the army’s camps gazed admiringly on the general, and his adoring troops cheered him to the echo.
While McClellan continued to make his preparations in the East, serious fighting broke out in the West, which during the Civil War referred to the part of the country west of the Appalachian Mountains. Because both sides were still respecting Kentucky’s bizarre claim to neutrality, the four-hundred-mile stretch from the mountains to the Mississippi was, for the present, out of bounds. That left Missouri, where Nathaniel Lyon had occupied Jefferson City on June 15 and then pursued Sterling Price and his army of secessionist Missourians toward the southwestern corner of the state, winning skirmishes at Booneville on June 17 and Carthage on July 5. By July 13 he had reached Springfield.
Meanwhile, about seventy-five miles to the southwest, in the extreme corner of Missouri, Price had been joined by Brigadier General Ben McCulloch along with a force of Confederate troops who had moved up from Arkansas. Price and McCulloch found it difficult to work together. Both were proud veterans of the Mexican War. Price maintained that as a major general of Missouri forces, he should command. McCulloch contended that his Confederate brigadier general’s commission took precedence. With Lyon closing in, they agreed to set aside their differences for the moment. Together their combined forces turned, advanced toward Lyon, and encamped August 6 near Wilson’s Creek, ten miles from the town.
Outnumbered more than two to one, the always aggressive Lyon decided to attack. On the night of August 9 he led his army of about 5,400 Kansans, Iowans, and German American Missourians, as well as a few U.S. Army regulars, out of Springfield. Lyon’s second in command was Colonel Franz Sigel. A graduate of the Karlsruhe Military Academy and sometime lieutenant in the army of the German state of Baden, Sigel had led revolutionary forces in the German uprisings of 1848. When they failed, he, like many another German, had come to America. He was a great favorite of his fellow German eémigreés. Sigel pressed on Lyon a plan to allow him, Sigel, to take an independent column of 1,200 men and try to surprise the Rebels with a flank attack.
Lyon’s column struck the Rebels first at 5:00 a.m., August 10, surprising Price’s Missourians and driving them back. Later in the morning Sigel attacked and also scored initial success, but McCulloch counterattacked and routed Sigel’s column, driving it from the battlefield. The Rebels were then free to turn their united strength against Lyon’s woefully outnumbered troops. The Federals held on doggedly along a ridge that became known as Bloody Hill. Lyon suffered two wounds but continued to encourage his men until a third bullet killed him instantly. Major Samuel D. Sturgis (West Point, 1846) took over command of the Union army and shortly thereafter ordered it to retreat. The Confederates and their Missouri allies were in no shape to pursue. Losses from the battle were about equal—1,317 Union to 1,230 among Price’s and McCulloch’s men.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, McCulloch and Price fell out again. The former took his Confederates back to Arkansas, while the latter led his Missourians on a foray 150 miles north to the valley of the Missouri River, where on September 20 he defeated a small Federal force at the Battle of Lexington. Governor Jackson and the pro-Confederate legislature that had fled with him to Arkansas declared Missouri a Confederate state and incorporated Price’s force into the Confederate army. Nevertheless, most Missourians stood by the Union and supported a Union-loyal state government set up by the state convention that had rejected secession that spring. As more Federal troops entered the state, Price found himself compelled to fall back and join McCulloch. By the end of October, his army and Jackson’s secessionist Missouri government were back in Arkansas.