"Every why hath a wherefore." - Comedy of Errors, Act 2, Scene 2

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Civil War for Beginners (part one)

(See over here for some background on how I came to write this.)

1. Did the Civil War start over slavery?

Directly, no; indirectly, yes. The South, of course, always said it was about States' Rights, but the main reason the South cared so much about States' Rights was slavery. Most immediately, they didn't want to be prevented from expanding slavery into new states and territories - and in the long term, of course, there was all of that anti-slavery sentiment that they knew very well existed in the North. With the election of a President from the new anti-slavery Republican Party, they felt it couldn't be ignored any longer.

2. Secession
I always have trouble with what state seceded exactly when, but South Carolina definitely went first, in December 1860 (i.e., right after Lincoln won the election). The rest of the "cotton states" - Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, whose economies were most dependent on cotton, and on the slaves to pick it - followed pretty quickly. The rest sort of trickled along. Virginia and North Carolina didn't secede until after the fall of Fort Sumter (see below), and there were several slave states - Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware - that never seceded at all.

Related to this: it's worth pointing out that when you're tempted to think of the South as a united front of pro-slavery bad guys (sort of like proto-Nazis), don't - not exactly, anyway. The leaders of the Confederacy were united on the question of slavery, and that was about all. They disagreed on just about everything else, and since they deliberately set up a much less centralized government than the one they were trying to secede from, there was nobody with the power to enforce much of anything. This worked very much to their disadvantage, in the end.

3. Fort Sumter
Everybody knew there was going to be a war, but neither side wanted to be the one to start it. There was something of a game of Chicken that went on in the spring of 1861 to see who would fire the first shot, centering on the Union-held fort in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln got the upper hand by sending a fleet to resupply Fort Sumter in early April; forces under Confederate General Pierre Gustav Toutaint Beauregard (I love that name) bombarded the fort rather than have this happen. Sumter, lightly held and extremely short on food, surrendered.

4. Manassas
The two capitals, Washington and Richmond, faced each other across a couple of hundred miles of Virginia farmland. Many of the most famous parts of the Civil War involve the struggle back and forth across this (increasingly barren) area. After initially occupying Alexandria, right across the Potomac from Washington, the Confederates had pulled back to a line along Bull Run Creek, near Manassas Junction, about halfway between the two capitals. In July, Lincoln ordered his ranking general in the field, Irvin McDowell, to attack, over McDowell's objections. ("You are all green alike," Lincoln told him when McDowell protested that his troops were too inexperienced - meaning that the Southern troops were just as green as the Northern ones.)

Knowing that the Northern troops were coming, General Beauregard, now in charge in Virginia, decided to attack first. The result was near-simultaneous attacks by both sides on different parts of the field. The battle swung back and forth, with the Union seemingly winning most of the day, but late in the afternoon things finally swung the other way, thanks in part to a stubborn stand by the troops of Confederate Brigadier T.J. Jackson (soon to be known as "Stonewall") and to the arrival of reinforcements by train from western Virginia. The Union retreat was orderly to begin with, but soon became something of a stampede back to Washington.

5. "All quiet along the Potomac"
This phrase, popularized in a song at the time, dates back to the long lull after the battle of Manassas. It was originally meant to be reassuring - things were orderly, Washington was safe - but soon it became more of a joke, as things remained all too quiet along the Potomac. The new Union commander, George McClellan, did a wonderful job of whipping the demoralized army into shape, but eventually came under fire for refusing to do anything at all with the new and improved army he had created. Believing himself to be outnumbered, he kept insisting that he needed more time for training, more men, more supplies. Finally, under great pressure, he came up with a plan to outflank the Confederates by ferrying the whole army down the Virginia coast, landing behind the Confederate entrenchments and forcing them to turn to protect Richmond. A large part of McClellan's troops were accordingly landed at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James rivers, in March and April 1862. However, Union losses in the Shenandoah Valley, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry" - meaning fast-moving infantry* - threatened Washington and caused Lincoln to hold off sending all of the planned troops to the peninsula.

*If you're not used to pre-20th-century battles, bear in mind that cavalry here normally means horse-mounted troops. With the exception of a few cases where divisions were moved by boat or train, infantry largely had to get places on their own two feet.

6. Shiloh
Not everything was happening in Northern Virginia, by any means. In Tennessee, General U.S. Grant had won fame over the winter for capturing two Confederate forts, in one case along with an entire army. Grant had now moved further up the Tennessee River and had his army camped near a chapel called Shiloh, in southern Tennessee. General Beauregard (yes, him again) and General Albert Sidney Johnston, in charge of troops in nearby Corinth, Mississippi, decided to attack. Union General Don Carlos Buell's troops were expected to be joining Grant soon, and Beauregard wanted to get there before Buell did. Grant had not bothered to have his army put up much in the way of fortifications or entrenchments (digging trenches was not much in favor in the early part of the war, anyway), and the first units that Beauregard's attack encountered - belonging mostly to Grant's friend and subordinate W.T. Sherman - were taken completely by surprise. Much of Grant's army was driven back against the river (a large number of them literally cowering under the bluff) and only a day-long stand by one brigade along a sunken road - by troops who were all eventually killed or captured - saved the army from a complete rout. However, that night Buell's troops began to arrive, and the next day, Grant's and Buell's united armies were able to push the rebels back again. Among the huge number of casualties of the two-day battle was Confederate General Johnston, who bled to death on the field relatively early on the first day, after a bullet severed the artery in his knee.

7. The Seven Days
Back in Virginia, McClellan, howling all the way that he was outnumbered, had pushed his army within hearing distance of the Richmond churchbells. Meanwhile, the South had had a change in command. Confederate General Joseph Johnston, who had been put in charge of the Confederate army in Virginia when Beauregard was sent to Mississippi, had been badly wounded in a battle at Seven Pines in late May, and he was replaced by Robert E. Lee. Lee was a Mexican War hero and former Commandant of West Point, but he had not really shone in battle up to this point. He had gained the trust of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, though, and Davis took a chance and put Lee in charge. Lee persuaded Stonewall Jackson - he was Jackson's superior, but he seemed to rely more on persuasion than direct orders where his generals were concerned - to bring his Shenandoah Valley army by train to Richmond for a combined attack on McClellan. There was a series of battles collectively known as the Seven Days, starting at Mechanicsville, near Richmond, and ending in a horrible, bloody repulse at Malvern Hill, near the James River. Most of these battles were stalemates, at best, or outright Union victories, but somehow when it was over, McClellan's army was camped on the James, miles away from Richmond. McClellan tried to spin this as a "change of base" (meaning his base of supply) but naturally this didn't go over well in Washington.

(More to come, hopefully.)


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