1862: Near Victory for the Confederacy
1862: Near Victory for the Confederacy
The second year of the Civil War started quietly, as the North concentrated on training and organizing its inexperienced troops and the South elected to conserve its strength for the coming spring. Once the winter of 1861–62 was over, though, the divided nation erupted in violence from Virginia to the banks of the Mississippi River.
At first, it appeared that the war was turning the Union's way. Northern troops tallied a number of significant victories in the western states during the spring of 1862, including the captures of Nashville and New Orleans. But within a few months, the war's momentum changed dramatically. In fact, Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) brought the rebels to the brink of total victory. Only a desperate Union stand at Antietam in Maryland saved the North from losing all hope of regaining the secessionist states.
The calm before the storm
Both the Federal and the Confederate armies used the winter of 1861–62 to organize, outfit, and train their troops. The North was particularly in need of this break. Its confidence had been shaken by the disastrous defeat at Bull Run, and it now realized that the superior size of its army would not mean anything unless its troops were adequately organized and trained.
General George McClellan (1826–1885) proved to be an excellent leader in this regard. Supremely self-confident and a superb administrator, he instituted training drills and upgraded all aspects of operation of the Army of the Potomac, from supply distribution systems to camp layout. As general-in-chief over all Union forces, McClellan also worked to improve communications between himself and those Federal armies that he did not personally command, such as the Union forces operating in the western states of Kentucky and Tennessee. (During the Civil War, references to battles and other events in "the West" generally referred to the region of America lying between the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Mississippi River on the west.) Mc-Clellan's tireless work during the fall of 1861 and the winter of 1861–62 had a dramatic impact on the Army of the Potomac. Troop discipline and ability improved greatly, and many Union soldiers became deeply devoted to their young commander.
The South, meanwhile, spent the winter of 1861–62 preparing their defenses for the Union offensive that they knew was coming. Confederate leaders worked hard to find food, clothing, and weapons for their soldiers. They also spread out additional regiments wherever they thought that the South was most vulnerable (open to attack).
Grant leads Union victories in the West
The first major battles of 1862 took place in the West, where Union troops led by Major General Henry W. Halleck (1815–1872) and Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell (1819–1898) faced Confederate forces commanded by General Albert S. Johnston (1803–1862). In February 1862, both sides concentrated their attention on western Kentucky. There, two major rivers offered access deep into Confederate territory. These rivers—the Cumberland and the Tennessee—were protected by two Confederate forts, but Halleck was determined to seize control of the waterways. As Buell engaged some of Johnston's Confederate troops in central Kentucky, Halleck ordered one of his commanders, a little-known soldier named Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), to launch an assault on the two rebel forts.
Leading fifteen thousand infantrymen and a fleet of ironclad gunboats under the direction of Commodore A. H. Foote (1806–1863), Grant quickly overwhelmed Fort Henry, the Confederate fortress that guarded the Tennessee River. After capturing Fort Henry on February 6, Grant turned his attention to Fort Donelson, the rebel stronghold that stood watch over the Cumberland River. Grant launched his initial assault on February 12, but conquering Fort Donelson proved to be a difficult task. Protected by a garrison (armed force) of fifteen thousand soldiers equipped with cannons, the Confederate fort put up a hardy fight. By February 16, though, it was clear that the fort was doomed to fall, and Grant demanded an "unconditional and immediate surrender." The beaten Confederate garrison complied, surrendering control of the fort to the Federal troops.
Grant's exploits at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson made him a hero in the North, and he was quickly promoted to the position of major general. The conquest of the two forts also gave the Union control over two major Southern rivers. Halleck wasted little time in taking advantage of this situation. His Union forces immediately made their way down the Cumberland, and on February 24 they captured Nashville, the Confederate state capital of Tennessee.
The Battle of Shiloh
Grant's dramatic victories and the capture of Nashville stunned the South. Halleck continued to press his advantage, instructing Grant to pursue Johnston's battered rebel troops. Johnston was forced to retreat all the way to the northern Mississippi town of Corinth. Once he arrived there, however, he combined his army with Confederate troops under the command of Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893). The addition of Beauregard's men gave Johnston a total of approximately forty-four thousand rebel soldiers under his command. Grant, meanwhile, stopped his advance about twenty miles north of Corinth, near a small country church called Shiloh in Tennessee.
Grant's army of forty-five thousand troops stopped at Shiloh to wait for an additional twenty-five thousand soldiers that Buell was bringing from Nashville. When he had all seventy thousand Union soldiers at his disposal, Grant intended to crush Johnston's army once and for all. But as Grant waited for his reinforcements to arrive, he made a serious strategic error. Confident that Johnston's exhausted army would not dare to attack him, Grant never bothered to prepare for such a possibility.
Johnston, meanwhile, decided that the only way he might beat Grant was if he launched a surprise attack before Buell arrived with his additional Union troops. On April 3, Johnston's Confederate troops marched out of Corinth in the direction of Grant's camp. Three days later, on the morning of April 6, a wave of gray-clad Confederate troops charged out of the woods surrounding Shiloh just as Grant's soldiers were settling down to enjoy their morning coffee. The surprise attack delivered brutal punishment to the unprepared Yankee troops, who fell by the hundreds. But Grant rallied his men. In the furious battle that followed, Johnston was killed. When Beauregard learned of Johnston's death, he immediately assumed command of the Southern troops.
Both armies withdrew from the field of battle at nightfall to rest for the next day. During the night, though, Grant received much-needed assistance in the way of troops from Buell's army. Grant ordered a full-scale Union attack the following morning, and the bloody battle resumed. Beauregard's Confederate troops fought valiantly. But as the day wore on, Grant's advantage in firepower and troop size became increasingly clear. Beauregard finally called for a retreat in order to avoid defeat, and the battered remains of the rebel force limped back to Corinth. Grant made little effort to pursue his foe, for his troops were similarly bruised and exhausted.
When news of the Battle of Shiloh reached the rest of the country, all visions of the war as a glorious and glamorous conflict were shattered. Approximately thirteen thousand Federal soldiers had been killed or wounded in the battle, while the South had lost another ten thousand men. This horrendous toll cast the war in a grim new light and made everyone wonder just how bad the war might yet become.
Preparation for the attack on New Orleans
The military situation in the West became even more desperate for the South in mid-April, as Federal forces targeted the city of New Orleans for conquest. Located in southern Louisiana near where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was a very important Confederate city. It was the largest city in the South, and its port was used by many Confederate ships looking to obtain supplies from Europe.
By the spring of 1862, the Union had used its navy to take control of many Southern ports along the Atlantic coast. As the South's ability to use these ports was reduced, New Orleans' strategic importance became even greater. Northern military leaders knew that if they could capture the city, the Confederacy's ability to trade with Europe for badly needed weapons and supplies would be limited to occasional "blockade runners"—ships that tried to sneak past the Union blockade.
After studying New Orleans' defenses, Union naval leaders decided to appoint Admiral David G. Farragut (1801–1870) as commander of the attack. A veteran of the U.S. Navy who had sailed the open seas since he was nine years old, Farragut was a tough and crafty officer. He knew that taking New Orleans would be difficult. It was guarded by a flotilla (small fleet) of ships and two big Confederate fortresses, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. But Farragut received command of a giant fleet of warships that included nineteen schooners armed with mortar cannons.
Farragut devises a bold plan
Farragut's fleet sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and reached New Orleans' defenses in mid-April. The Union commander promptly ordered a heavy bombardment of the two Confederate forts. The Union fleet and the Confederate forts fired shells back and forth at one another for the next several days in an attempt to pound the other into submission. After a week or so, Farragut decided that his mortar attack was not working. He then devised a daring plan to sail past the forts under cover of darkness and proceed on to New Orleans.
Farragut launched his plan early in the morning of April 24, even though many of his officers advised him not to try it. As his fleet moved up the river, it was met by a tremendous hail of shellfire from the forts. The Confederate flotilla attacked as well, firing its cannons and sending flaming rafts down the river to smash into Farragut's ships. Farragut's warships dodged most of the rafts, however, and launched a furious counterattack on the Confederate defenses. At its most intense, the battle lit up the Mississippi sky in what historian James M. McPherson called "the greatest fireworks display in American history."
Farragut's bold strategy succeeded. His fleet destroyed the smaller Confederate flotilla and pushed past the forts, losing only four ships in the process. He sailed on to New Orleans, which was taken without a fight. Fifteen thousand Union troops under the command of Benjamin Butler (1818–1893) immediately took complete control of the city. The soldiers of Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson, meanwhile, realized that the Union conquest of New Orleans meant that the North controlled the entire lower Mississippi River. With no means of obtaining food and other supplies, both forts quickly surrendered.
Farragut's victory shocked and depressed Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) and other Confederate leaders. They knew that the capture of New Orleans—coupled with a series of Union victories in Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee in the weeks immediately following the Battle of Shiloh—placed the North in a commanding position in the West.
The Confederacy passes the Conscription Act
Events in the eastern United States unfolded more slowly. In Richmond, President Davis spent the first months of 1862 battling with the Confederate Congress over the best way to increase the size of the Confederate Army. At the outset of the war, the South had enlisted its troops for one-year terms. This meant that by the spring of 1862, when the South needed additional troops, many of its existing soldiers would soon be ready to leave the military. Davis and some Confederate lawmakers wanted to pass a conscription act to address this looming problem. This act would require Southern white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five to enlist in the Confederate military for three-year terms.
This proposal angered many other Southerners, though. Some people objected to it because it allowed rich whites to hire substitutes to serve in their place. They also protested a later rule that allowed white men who owned twenty or more slaves to take an exemption from the military draft (not be forced to join). These provisions made many people think that poor folks would end up shouldering most of the burden for the war. Other Southerners, meanwhile, criticized the proposed law because it made it seem as if Davis was building a powerful national government that did not pay enough attention to the rights of individual Southern states. Since the South had long insisted that it had seceded from the United States over the issue of states' rights, this argument carried weight with many Southern lawmakers and citizens.
Supporters of the Conscription Act dismissed these complaints. Davis pointed out that the Confederate Constitution gave the national government significant powers "to provide for the common defence" of their new nation. His allies declared that failure to pass the Conscription Act would doom the Confederacy. "Cease this child's play," warned Texas senator Louis Wigfall (1816–1874). "The enemy are in some portions of almost every state in the Confederacy. . . . We need a large army. How [else] are you going to get it?" Faced with this grim reality, the Confederate Congress passed the bill. Davis signed the act into law on April 16, thus instituting the first military draft in American history. Boosted by the act, the total number of men in the Confederate Army increased from 325,000 at the beginning of 1862 to 450,000 at the end of the year.
Lincoln grows impatient with McClellan
In Washington, meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) waded through political difficulties of his own during the early months of 1862. In December 1861, U.S. senators nervous about Union defeats at First Bull Run and Ball's Bluff (located a mere thirty miles from the U.S. capital) had established a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in order to review military strategies and leadership. By the spring of 1862, Lincoln could tell that this Republican-dominated committee posed a threat to his leadership. Its members continually tried to interfere with his control of the military and his efforts to set administration policy in a number of areas. Lincoln never allowed this committee to seize control of the Union war effort, but handling its membership challenged the president's powers of diplomacy and persuasion over the next few years.
Lincoln's relationship with his top general turned sour during the first months of 1862 as well. General McClellan insisted that he was eager to move against the South, but he kept his Army of the Potomac in Washington. One reason for McClellan's inaction was an attack of typhoid fever that sent him to bed for a few weeks in December 1861. Another reason was his tendency to overestimate the strength of his opponents. He routinely misjudged the numbers of Confederate troops to an amazing degree, in part because his military intelligence department often misinterpreted the information it received on enemy movements.
The existence of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War also may have slowed McClellan. By the spring of 1862, the committee had become a severe critic of a number of the Union's military leaders. McClellan knew that he would take a lot of abuse if his offensive was unsuccessful. As a result, he continued to train his troops and explore various strategies, ignoring the growing number of radical Republicans who said that McClellan might actually be a Confederate sympathizer.
As time passed, however, President Lincoln became more impatient with McClellan's inactivity. In January 1862, the two men clashed on a number of occasions. By January 27, Lincoln had become so fed up that he released General War Order No. 1, which called for a Union offensive into Virginia by February 22. But the Army of the Potomac still remained in Washington. On March 11, Lincoln punished McClellan for his inaction by stripping him of his title as general-in-chief over all Union forces.
McClellan begins his advance on Richmond
McClellan retained his command over the Army of the Potomac, however, and in mid-March he finally moved forward. Instead of moving from Washington, D.C., through northern Virginia, however, McClellan intended to transport his army down the Chesapeake Bay via boat to the eastern tip of a Virginia peninsula situated between the York and James rivers. From there, he planned to advance up the peninsula to the Confederate capital of Richmond, sixty-five miles to the northwest.
The Union's desire to capture Richmond reflected the belief—held by both the North and the South—that Virginia was the most strategically important region in the entire conflict. After all, the Confederate capital of Richmond was located within its borders. In addition, the state sat next to Washington, the Federal capital. Each side knew that it would be almost impossible for it to win the war if its capital was captured by the other side. At the same time, both the North and the South recognized that they might be able to win the war quickly if they could somehow take control of the other side's capital. Given these factors, both sides deployed (spread out according to a plan) a large number of their troops in Virginia. Citizens across the divided nation followed developments in the region with great interest.
McClellan's plan was designed to capture Richmond and deal the Confederacy a crushing blow. Nonetheless, Lincoln and his advisors worried that the general's strategy would leave Washington vulnerable to an attack from Confederate forces in northern Virginia. Lincoln gave his approval only after making sure that forty thousand soldiers of the Army of the Potomac would remain behind to protect the capital. This reorganization of troops left Mc-Clellan with approximately ninety-five thousand men, far fewer than he had wanted to take with him.
McClellan successfully transported his troops to the coastline of the Virginia peninsula in late March. Once McClellan began his advance up the peninsula, however, his plan quickly unraveled. Confederate Major General John B. Magruder (1810–1871) fooled McClellan into believing that a major rebel force was entrenched at Yorktown, a short distance up the peninsula. The Union force could have overwhelmed Magruder with one big push, but McClellan proceeded cautiously. Magruder's actions kept the Union Army stalled for a month. McClellan's hesitation gave Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891) plenty of time to prepare his Army of Northern Virginia for the defense of Richmond.
Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah campaign
The Confederate defense of Richmond was aided in great measure by the exploits of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863), one of the Confederate heroes at the First Battle of Bull Run. In mid-March 1862, Jackson entered western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley with an army of about eight thousand men. Over the next three months, he roamed across the region in a dazzling campaign that thoroughly baffled his Federal Army counterparts. On several occasions, Jackson's Confederate troops won big victories over Union armies of much greater size. At other times, he and his troops seemed to melt into the valleys and woodlands of the Shenandoah region, repeatedly eluding (escaping from) Union armies in the area.
Even before mid-May, when Jackson's army received eight thousand reinforcements, the Lincoln administration had grown fearful that he might attempt an attack on Washington. This perceived threat was what convinced Lincoln to station forty thousand of Mc-Clellan's troops at the U.S. capital, rather than allow them to take part in McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. Lincoln also ordered additional Union troops into the Shenandoah Valley to neutralize Jackson. But Jackson moved his outnumbered troops masterfully. He continued to dodge Federal attempts to corner his army, often inflicting punishment on Union forces in the process.
Jackson and his army remained in the Shenandoah Valley until mid-June. The legendary general then slipped away to aid in Johnston's defense of Richmond. He left behind approximately sixty thousand frustrated Union troops who—were it not for Jackson's campaign of deception—might have been part of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.
Lee stops McClellan's advance
McClellan finally pushed past Yorktown in early May. From there he resumed his march on Richmond, but his army continued to move slowly. In fact, Lincoln became so impatient with McClellan's progress that on May 25 he issued an order directing him to either launch his attack or return to Washington.
On May 31, the long-awaited clash between the two gathering armies finally erupted at Fair Oaks, only six miles from the outskirts of Richmond. The two-day battle ended in a virtual draw, but it also resulted in a change in Confederate military leadership. Joseph Johnston suffered a serious wound during the battle, so Jefferson Davis replaced him with Robert E. Lee.
Lee immediately proved that he was up to the job. On June 25, he led a force of seventy thousand rebel troops (including Stonewall Jackson's army) against McClellan's units. Over the following week, the two sides engaged in a series of fierce battles across the Virginia peninsula. These clashes, which came to be known as the Seven Days Battles, stopped McClellan in his tracks. Confederate losses were grave—twenty thousand rebel soldiers were killed or wounded in the Seven Days Battles—but North and South alike viewed the final result as a loss for the Union. Led by Lee, the Confederacy had successfully protected Richmond from a major Union offensive. In the days following the Seven Days Battles, the entire South erupted in praise for Lee, the newest hero of the Confederacy. "He has established his reputation forever," gushed the Richmond Whig, "and has entitled himself to the lasting gratitude of his country."
Lincoln makes changes in the Union military leadership
McClellan's shaky performance during the Peninsula Campaign convinced many Union leaders—including President Lincoln—that the cocky young general behaved far too cautiously to be an effective field commander. Lincoln thus became determined to change the leadership of the Union Army. On June 26, President Lincoln named John Pope (1822–1892) to command a new army—the Federal Army of Virginia—created out of the various armies that had been chasing Stonewall Jackson around the Shenandoah Valley. Pope had been involved in a number of the Union's successes along the Mississippi earlier in the year, and the Lincoln administration hoped that he could help the North turn things around in the East.
Three weeks after sending Pope to northern Virginia to assume command of his new army, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) made another major change. They appointed Henry W. Halleck as the Union Army's general-in-chief. This position had remained vacant since Lincoln had stripped Mc-Clellan of the title in March.
Halleck arrived in Washington at what he described as "a time of great peril" for the Union. After all, both Pope and McClellan were miles away from the capital and far apart from one another. Alarmed by what he saw as a vulnerable Union capital city, Halleck promptly ordered Mc-Clellan to return to Washington with his troops.
Once McClellan returned to the capital, Halleck intended to combine his army with the Union troops commanded by Pope. Lincoln's new general-in-chief knew that if these two armies were put together, the resulting military force would be much larger than General Lee's rebel Army of Northern Virginia. Halleck could then march after Lee and use the Union's superior firepower to smash the Confederate Army.
Unfortunately for Halleck and the Union cause, Lee acted before Pope and McClellan could bring their armies together. As McClellan gathered his troops for the long boat ride back to Washington, Lee sent a Confederate force under the command of Stonewall Jackson to test Pope's position, about fifty miles southwest of the U.S. capital. On August 9, Jackson whipped a detachment of Pope's army at Cedar Mountain. Lee then decided to bring the rest of his troops forward.
The Second Battle of Bull Run
After absorbing the beating at Cedar Mountain, Pope regrouped and prepared for the arrival of Lee's Confederate forces. But instead of meeting Pope's Union troops head-on, Lee devised a daring strategy in which he divided his army in two. Half of the rebel force stayed in position under the immediate command of Lee's trusted lieutenant, Major General James Longstreet (1821–1904). The other half of the Confederate Army, led by Stonewall Jackson, swooped around Pope's western flank.
Pope was very distracted by the presence of Longstreet's regiments. He did not realize that Jackson's twenty-four thousand–man force had glided by him until Jackson seized control of a Union supply base at Manassas Junction, site of the First Battle of Bull Run. Upon arriving at Manassas, Jackson's hungry and tired men immediately devoured large quantities of the Union provisions, which included everything from turkey and beef to lobster salad and wine.
News of Jackson's successful maneuver shocked and confused Pope, who nonetheless roused his army. Urged on by Pope, the Union troops set out for Manassas in hopes of defeating Jackson before Lee could send reinforcements. On August 29, Pope found Jackson's army, and the Union general launched an immediate attack. The advance failed, though, partly because Pope had come to the mistaken belief that Stonewall's troops were already in retreat, when in reality they had assumed strong defensive positions. Another reason for the failure of the Union attack was the poor performance of a number of Pope's lieutenants in the heat of battle. Finally, Northern military leaders in Washington were slow to send additional troops to help Pope, even though Mc-Clellan's army had returned from the Virginia peninsula by this time. Mc-Clellan himself argued that his troops should remain in defense of the capital and that Pope should be left "to get out of his scrape by himself."
As the battle at Manassas continued during the afternoon of August 30, Pope became convinced that Jackson's outnumbered army was on the verge of collapse. He ordered his troops forward, unaware that Lee's forces had arrived the night before and taken up positions along the Union flank. As the Union Army launched its attack, a sudden eruption of Confederate artillery fire ripped into it, destroying the offensive.
The Union charge quickly turned into a retreat. Confederate troops gave chase, and by the end of the day Pope's army was in tatters. As the dust settled on Manassas Junction, it was clear that the Confederacy had won another major battle on its soil. This clash, called the Second Battle of Bull Run, resulted in more than sixteen thousand Union casualties. It also created more uncertainty about the North's military leadership. Lee's army suffered damage as well—more than ninety-one hundred men were killed or wounded in the battle. But in the aftermath of Second Bull Run, the South stood poised to invade the North.
Confederate victories in the West
News of Lee's triumph at the Second Battle of Bull Run sent a ripple of fear through the Lincoln administration, especially since victory suddenly seemed in doubt in the West as well. Only a few months earlier—in the spring of 1862—the Union had seemed ready to completely smash the rebels in the West. Federal forces had seized control of almost fifty thousand square miles of Confederate territory in the region, including such prized Southern cities as Nashville, New Orleans, and Memphis. Even the mighty Mississippi River had fallen into the hands of the North.
During the summer of 1862, however, the Union Army discovered how difficult it was to maintain control over such a large expanse of unfriendly territory. Confederate cavalry parties repeatedly raided Federal outposts and supply trains, and bridges and railroads utilized by the North were sabotaged (destroyed) on a regular basis. By August, these rebel activities had loosened the Union's hold on the West, paving the way for Confederate Army moves into Tennessee and Kentucky.
As Northerners digested the news of the Confederacy's sudden flurry of triumphs, a grim mood descended over the Union. All across the North, people realized that the South suddenly stood on the brink of victory. This possibility stunned everyone, and criticism of Lincoln and his generals became harsh through much of the North. Dispirited Union soldiers, most of whom had served with great bravery, felt as if the sacrifices made by them and their comrades were being wasted by mediocre Union generals. Northern communities, meanwhile, were already mourning the deaths of friends, neighbors, and family members. Many people wondered if their sacrifices to "preserve the Union" would be in vain.
Lee advances into the North
In early September, Lee's army marched across the Potomac River and into Maryland. Lee made this advance into the North for several reasons. First, he knew that the Northern army was demoralized (weakened in spirit) and unprepared to offer immediate resistance. Moreover, he knew that the farmlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania held plenty of food and supplies that could be used by his hungry troops. He also thought that a successful campaign in the North might convince neutral European powers like Great Britain and France to finally acknowledge Confederate independence. But most of all, Lee believed that if the Confederate Army proved that it was capable of seizing control of regions of the North, Lincoln might be forced to negotiate a truce that would recognize the Confederacy.
President Lincoln, meanwhile, reluctantly turned command of the Union's battered and dispirited eastern troops over to General McClellan. Lincoln admitted that the decision "greatly distressed" him, because he viewed the general as a selfish and arrogant man with limited abilities as a battlefield leader. But the president recognized that McClellan's continued popularity with Union troops might enable him to improve their badly damaged morale. Lincoln hoped that the general's abilities as an organizer might improve the army's discipline and performance.
Antietam—the bloodiest day in American military history
A few days after Lee crossed into Maryland, McClellan left Washington with seventy-five thousand troops of the Army of the Potomac (which now included troops from Pope's disbanded Army of Virginia). McClellan traveled east in search of Lee, who had divided his fifty-two thousand–man army in order to attack the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), located just south of Maryland near the Potomac River. Led by Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate detachment captured the armory on September 15, seizing a huge number of weapons (13,000 rifles and 73 pieces of artillery) and 12,500 prisoners in the process. After grabbing everything that they could carry from Harpers Ferry, Jackson's troops moved back into Maryland in order to rejoin the rest of Lee's army at Sharpsburg, on Antietam Creek.
McClellan, meanwhile, continued to advance his Northern troops forward. He proceeded cautiously until September 13, when he received an incredible stroke of good luck. On that day, a Union soldier found a copy of Lee's military plans wrapped around three cigars lost by a careless Confederate officer. After reviewing Lee's orders, an excited McClellan increased the speed of his advance in order to catch the Confederates before Lee could reunite his scattered forces.
McClellan's discovery of Lee's secret plans spurred him to close in on the Confederate Army more quickly, but many historians believe that the Union general was still too slow to act. By September 16, most of McClellan's forces had reached the vicinity of Antietam Creek. But he held off on launching a major attack until the next day, in part because he seriously overestimated the size of the Confederate Army stationed there. McClellan's decision to wait saved Lee from a complete disaster, for Stonewall Jackson's detachment did not return to Lee's camp until the evening of the sixteenth.
On the morning of September 17, the two armies finally converged in a vicious day-long battle that killed or wounded more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers. This one-day casualty toll marked the single bloodiest day in Civil War history. Throughout the morning and afternoon, Union regiments roared forward through a hail of rebel gunfire in brave attempts to break through the Confederate defenses. The Federal troops destroyed many Southern regiments, but Lee's men refused to give way. This desperate courage impressed even the Union soldiers who attacked them. "It is beyond all wonder," said one Union veteran of Antietam, "how such men as the rebel troops can fight on as they do; that filthy, sick, hungry, and miserable, they should prove such heroes in fight, is past explanation."
When darkness finally fell on the battlefield, both armies withdrew in exhaustion, leaving behind thousands of dead and wounded soldiers. The next morning Lee held his position, as if daring McClellan to resume the fight. But McClellan stayed put, and on the evening of September 18, Lee gathered the remains of his army together and slipped back into Virginia.
The Battle of Antietam (called the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South) thus ended in a strangely inconclusive way, with neither side able to claim a clearcut victory. But while the battle itself had ended in a bloody draw, the clash marked a major turning point in the Civil War. Lee's invasion of the North had ended in failure, and his Army of Northern Virginia had sustained terrible damage. Moreover, the Battle of Antietam provided the people of the North with badly needed reassurance that the war might yet go their way. Finally, it gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue his famous Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
A few days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a document that changed the very nature of the Civil War. This preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, stated that unless the seceded Confederate states voluntarily returned to the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves within those states would be free. The historic declaration also called for the inclusion of blacks into the U.S. armed services.
Lincoln's desire to issue such a proclamation had been growing for some time. He believed that Northern support for the war would increase if its people came to believe that it was fighting not only to preserve the Union, but also on behalf of basic American principles of freedom and liberty for all men and women. In addition, he recognized that slaves remained a vital labor source for the South, and that any loss of slaves would hurt its ability to continue its rebellion. As Lincoln later stated, "The moment came when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live!"
By the summer of 1862, Lincoln was ready to issue his Proclamation. But Secretary of State William Seward (1801–1872) convinced him to wait. Seward pointed out that if the president issued the decree at a time when the war was going badly for the North, many people would dismiss it as a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. He encouraged Lincoln to wait until his army registered a big victory before making his declaration.
The Union's ability to hold its own at Antietam gave Lincoln the opening he needed. His announcement triggered a storm of reaction all across the divided nation. In the North, most free blacks and abolitionists reacted with delight. Black leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895), for instance, wrote that "we shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree." Many Northern newspapers praised Lincoln. But not everyone in the North embraced the Emancipation Proclamation. Some abolitionists complained that Lincoln's proclamation did not include slaves living in the Union slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky. Northerners opposed to the war—many of them members of the Democratic political party—also spoke out against Lincoln's stand, which they worried might extend the war.
In Richmond and other cities of the Confederacy, most people ridiculed Lincoln's Proclamation. They pointed out that the Union had no power to enforce the Proclamation in the Confederacy. Many Southerners viewed the announcement as an obvious attempt to trigger a slave rebellion in the South. In the days following Lincoln's announcement, countless Southern newspapers and lawmakers expressed renewed determination to resist the North.
As time passed, however, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation turned out to be an invaluable weapon in the Union arsenal. It dramatically broadened Northern civilian support for the war effort, and gave Union soldiers another noble cause for which to fight. It also helped convince Europe not to interfere in the war. As Bruce Catton wrote in The Civil War, the simplicity and, yet, dramatic impact of the Emancipation Proclamation "changed the whole character of the war and, more than any other single thing, doomed the Confederacy to defeat."
Lincoln fires McClellan
The autumn of 1862 brought about yet another change in the Union's military leadership. McClellan's failure to pursue Lee's retreating army at Antietam had infuriated Lincoln and many of his advisors. McClellan insisted that he had performed wonderfully. "Those on whose judgment I rely," he once stated, "tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art." But the Lincoln administration believed that Lee's army could have been completely destroyed if McClellan had contested the Confederate retreat into Virginia.
Nonetheless, Lincoln did not remove McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac until early November, after the general repeatedly ignored Lincoln's orders to launch another offensive into Virginia. Lincoln replaced McClellan with General Ambrose E. Burnside (1824–1881), who promptly devised a plan to march on Richmond.
The Battle of Fredericksburg
Burnside's advance on Richmond was halted at Fredericksburg, a Virginia town located near the Rappahannock River. As Burnside reached the outskirts of the city, he encountered seventy-five thousand Confederate troops under the direction of Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet. Burnside had a huge army of 120,000 men under his command, and he decided to launch a series of frontal assaults against the rebel positions.
As Burnside's December 13 attack on the Confederate's defensive positions unfolded, Union casualties mounted at a frightening pace. Lee's troops were well fortified and determined to protect their positions, but Burnside and his lieutenants continued to order their men forward into a hail of gunfire. "[Union soldiers] fought until late in the afternoon under murderous fire, gaining little more than feet or yards," wrote Herman Hattaway in Shades of Blue and Gray. "It was a futile, wild, fantastic, direct slam against a well-entrenched enemy, and it failed miserably." As one Union officer later recalled, "the whole plain [at Fredericksburg] was covered with men, prostrate and dropping. . . . I had never before seen fighting like that—nothing approaching it in terrible uproar and destruction."
On December 14, Burnside called off the attack. A day later, he finally withdrew his forces from Fredericksburg and returned to Washington, where he reported to a disappointed Lincoln. The Battle of Fredericksburg had been a humiliating defeat for the Union. Burnside's Army of the Potomac suffered more than 12,500 casualties in the clash, while the rebel army had lost only 5,300 men to death or injury. But Lincoln wanted to give Burnside another chance, so he left him in command.
Words to Know
Abolitionists people who worked to end slavery
Blockade the act of surrounding a harbor with ships in order to prevent other vessels from entering or exiting the harbor; the word blockade is also sometimes used when ships or other military forces surround and isolate a city, region, or country
Civil War conflict that took place from 1861 to 1865 between the Northern states (Union) and the Southern seceded states (Confederacy); also known in the South as the War between the States and in the North as the War of the Rebellion
Confederacy eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861
Conscription forced enrollment of able-bodied men into a nation's armed forces; also known as a draft
Emancipation the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression
Enlistment the act of joining a country's armed forces
Federal national or central government; also refers to the North or Union, as opposed to the South or Confederacy
Offensive an attack or aggressive action
Rebel Confederate; often used as a name for a Confederate soldier
Regiment a military unit of organized troops; regiments usually consisted of one thousand men and were divided into ten companies of one hundred men each
Union Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War
People to Know
Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893) Confederate general who captured Fort Sumter in April 1861; also served at First Bull Run and Shiloh
Ambrose E. Burnside (1824–1881) Union general who commanded the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg; also fought at First Bull Run, Antietam, and in Ulysses S. Grant's Wilderness campaign
Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) president of the Confederate States of America, 1861–65
David G. Farragut (1801–1870) Union admiral who led naval victories at New Orleans and Mobile Bay
Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) Union general who commanded all Federal troops, 1864–65; led Union armies at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Petersburg; eighteenth president of the United States, 1869–77
Henry W. Halleck (1815–1872) general-in-chief of Union armies, July 1862–March 1864; Abraham Lincoln's chief of staff, March 1864–April 1865
Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863) Confederate lieutenant general who fought at First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville; led 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign
Albert S. Johnston (1803–1862) Confederate general of the Army of Mississippi
Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891) Confederate general of the Army of Tennessee who fought at First Bull Run and Atlanta
Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) Confederate general of the Army of Northern Virginia; fought at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville; defended Richmond from Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac, 1864 to April 1865
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) sixteenth president of the United States, 1861–65
George McClellan (1826–1885) Union general who commanded the Army of the Potomac, August 1861 to November 1862; fought in the Seven Days campaign and at Antietam; Democratic candidate for presidency, 1864
John Pope (1822–1892) Union general of the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of Virginia, 1862; fought at Bull Run
The Monitor and the Virginia
The most famous naval battle of the Civil War took place in March 1862, when the U.S.S. Monitor fought the C.S.S. Virginia to a draw. The Virginia was the pride of the Confederate Navy. The vessel had formerly been a Union ship known as the Merrimac, but the South had captured it and made major changes in its design. The Confederate Navy added sheets of iron armor to its sides and added iron to its bow (front) so that it could punch big holes in the Union's wooden ships.
On March 8, 1862, the Virginia went into battle for the first time. The Confederate government wanted to break the Union's naval blockade surrounding the harbor at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Confederate officials hoped that the Virginia could wreck the blockade—a gathering of warships designed to prevent other vessels from entering or leaving a harbor—by destroying the Union ships in the area. At first, it looked like the rebel plan might work. The Virginia sank one Union warship by ramming it, then crippled another one with cannon fire. At the same time, the Union ships were unable to do any damage to the Virginia because their shells just bounced off the vessel's iron armor. To happy Confederate sailors, it seemed as if the Virginia might be able to whip the whole Union Navy.
News of the Virginia's performance deeply alarmed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and other members of the Lincoln administration. Luckily for the Union, however, its navy had recently built a ship that could challenge the Virginia. By the evening of March 8, a Union ship called the Monitor was steaming toward Hampton Roads to fight the Virginia. The Monitor was equipped with iron armor, too, and its top featured two big guns that could revolve in any direction.
The two ships joined in combat on the morning of March 9. The vessels hammered away at each other for two solid hours, using big guns and ramming maneuvers in a desperate battle for survival. Neither ship could sink the other, though, and the two vessels finally turned away from each other in exhaustion.
Over the next few months, the two ironclads remained in the same area, but never fought each other again. The Virginia took up a position outside of the James River in Virginia, where it helped protect other rebel ships from Union attacks. In May 1862, however, Union forces captured the ship's home harbor in Norfolk, Virginia. The crew of the Virginia then blew up the ship rather than allow it to be seized by the North. The Monitor, meanwhile, sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina on New Year's Eve, 1862.
Neither ship had a long life. But their clash in March 1862 convinced naval experts around the world that the era of the wooden warship was over. It also persuaded the North to use its vast factories and shipyards in the production of additional ironclad ships. As these vessels were put into service, the Union was able to further strengthen its control of the seas.
"The Angel of Marye's Heights"
One of the true heroes of the Battle of Fredericksburg was Sergeant Richard R. Kirkland of the Second South Carolina Volunteers. On December 13, Union general Ambrose Burnside made repeated attempts to break through the Confederate defenses with frontal assaults. This foolish strategy failed, and with each withdrawal of Federal troops, they had to leave wounded comrades behind.
Burnside finally called a halt to the attacks, and quiet fell over the battlefield. After the fighting stopped, Confederate soldiers defending Marye's Heights and other rebel positions could hear the moans and cries of wounded Union soldiers out on the field. The suffering of the wounded Yankees became too much for Kirkland to bear. The young Confederate decided that he had to try and help the wounded soldiers.
Kirkland ran over to his commander and asked for permission to leave the safety of the Confederate line and carry canteens of water to the suffering Union soldiers. The commander granted Kirkland's request, even though everyone thought that Union troops would shoot him as soon as he left the protection of the wall at Marye's Heights.
Kirkland knew that he might be shot and killed, but he did not let fear prevent him from carrying out his mission of mercy. He jumped over the wall with an armful of canteens and ran out to the fallen wounded soldiers. Kirkland expected a rifle shot to ring out at any time, ending his life. But the amazed Union soldiers in the distance held their fire and stared as he comforted numerous Yankee soldiers. Both armies watched quietly as he went from soldier to soldier, the only moving form on a battlefield covered with dead and wounded men. Kirkland spent an hour and a half providing water and reassuring words to enemy soldiers before returning to the Confederate line.
Kirkland's heroism at Fredericksburg made a deep impression on both armies. They called him "the Angel of Marye's Heights" and "The Hero-Sergeant of Fredericksburg." After the battle, Kirkland continued to serve as a member of the Second South Carolina Volunteers. But he only lived for another ten months before being killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.