Strange Flag over Sumter (1859-1862). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Strange Flag over Sumter (1859-1862). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

Lincoln’s rise.

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

The fall of Fort Sumter and the early battles.

Union military failures.

Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation.

 Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Hardin (now Larue) County, Kentucky. In 1816, the family moved to Indiana and, finally, to Illinois in 1830. Largely self-taught, Lincoln tried various occupations and served as a militiaman in the Black Hawk War (1832). Although he had little appetite for military life, Lincoln took “much satisfaction” in having been elected captain of his militia company. That position opened new horizons for the young backwoodsman. Lincoln ran for the Illinois state legislature, losing his first bid but subsequently gaining election to four consecutive terms (1832-41). After setting up a successful law practice in Springfield, the state capital, he served a term (1847-49) in the U.S. House of Representatives but then returned to his law practice.

At this point, by his own admission, Lincoln “was losing interest in politics.” Then came the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Its doctrine of popular sovereignty potentially opened new territories to slavery, and Lincoln saw the provisions of the act as immoral. Although he believed that the Constitution protected slavery in states where it already existed, he also thought that the Founding Fathers had put slavery on the way to extinction by legislating against its spread to new territories. Lincoln ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1855, then, the following year, left the Whig party to join the newly formed Republicans.

In 1858, Lincoln ran for the Senate against the Illinois incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln accepted his party’s nomination (June 16, 1858) with a powerful speech suggesting that Douglas, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and Democratic presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan had actually conspired to nationalize slavery. Declaring that compromise was doomed to fail and that the nation would become either all slave or all free, he paraphrased the Bible: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” For the fate of the country, it was as if he spoke prophecy.

John Brown’s Body. Lincoln, a highly principled moderate on the issue of slavery, soon found himself transformed from an obscure Illinois politician to the standard bearer of his party. He challenged Douglas to a series of debates that captured the attention of the national press. Although Lincoln failed to win a seat in the Senate, he emerged as an eloquent, morally upright, yet thoroughly balanced embodiment of prevailing sentiment in the North. Radical Southerners warned that the election of any Republican, even Lincoln, would mean civil war.

While Lincoln and other politicians chose the stump and the rostrum as forums suited to decide the fate of the nation, others took more radical action. John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, but he grew to undistinguished adulthood in Ohio, drifting from job to job, always dogged by bad luck and bad business decisions. By the 1850s, however, Brown’s life began to take direction, as he became profoundly involved in the slavery question.

Brown and his five sons settled in “Bleeding Kansas,” where they became embroiled in the violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces for control of the territorial government. Brown assumed command of the local Free-Soil militia, and after pro-slavery forces sacked the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Brown, four of his sons, and two other followers retaliated by hacking to death, with sabers, five unarmed settlers along the Pottawatomie River during the night of May 24, 1856.

Although he was not apprehended, Brown claimed full responsibility for the act and became increasingly obsessed with the idea of emancipating the slaves by inciting a massive slave revolt. The charismatic Brown persuaded a group of Northern abolitionists to back his scheme financially. He chose Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), as his target, planning to capture the federal small-arms arsenal there. Then Brown planned to establish a base of operations in the mountains, from which he would direct the slave rebellion as well as offer refuge to fugitives. On October 16, 1859, with 21 men, Brown seized the town and broke into the arsenal. Local militia responded, and within a day, federal troops under the command of Robert E. Lee arrived, attacked, and killed 10 of Brown’s band. The wounded Brown was taken prisoner.

Yet the battle was hardly over. Arrested and tried for treason, Brown conducted himself with impressive dignity and courage. It was, in fact, his finest hour, and he succeeded in arousing Northern sympathy, eliciting statements of support from the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Brown’s execution by hanging, on December 2, 1859, elevated him to the status of martyr. To many, the raid on Harpers Ferry seemed a harbinger of the great contest to come.

Bleak Transition. The brand-new Republican Party, with Lincoln as its presidential candidate, united remnants of the essentially defunct Free-Soil Party and the Liberty party, as well as the old Whigs and other anti-slavery moderates and radicals. Stephen A. Douglas, who had ,defeated Lincoln in the race for the Senate, sought the Democratic nomination in 1860. But having denounced the pro-slavery constitution adopted by Kansas, Douglas had alienated the pro-Democratic South. Although Douglas was finally nominated, he was the candidate of a splintered party; a breakaway Southern Democratic party emerged, with outgoing vice president John C. Breckinridge as its candidate. Yet another splinter group, the Constitutional Union party, fielded a candidate, further dividing the party and propelling Lincoln to victory with 180 electoral votes against 123 for his combined opponents.

News of the victory of a “black Republican” (as radical Southerners called Lincoln) pushed the South to secession. First to leave the Union was South Carolina, on December 20, 1860; Mississippi followed on January 9, 186 1, Florida on January 10, Alabama on January 11, Georgia on January 19, Louisiana on January 26, and Texas on February 1. Four days later, delegates from these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they wrote a constitution for the Confederate States of America and named Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis provisional president. As the Union crumbled about him, lame duck President James Buchanan temporized, unwilling to take action.

Prior to his inauguration, President-elect Lincoln discovered that Jefferson Davis was not spoiling for war but offered to negotiate peaceful relations with the United States. And Senator John J. Crittenden (1787-1863) of Kentucky proposed, as a last-ditch alternative to bloodshed, the Crittenden Compromise—constitutional amendments to protect slavery while absolutely limiting its spread. Lincoln, determined to avoid committing himself to any stance before actually taking office, nevertheless let others attribute positions to him. The fact was that Lincoln’s prime objective was to preserve the Union, and he was actually willing to consider protecting slavery where it existed, even by constitutional amendment. Lincoln also thought the Fugitive Slave Act should be enforced. Yet, by remaining silent during the period between his election and inauguration, lie conveyed the impression that he fully shared the radical Republican opposition to compromise.

April 12, 1861, 4:30 A.M. With Lincoln in office and all hope of compromise extinguished, the Confederate president and Confederate Congress authorized an army and navy and set about taking control of federal civil and military installations in the South. Fort Sumter, which guarded Charleston harbor, was especially important. If the Confederacy could not control the key international port on the coast of South Carolina, it could not effectively claim sovereignty. Throughout March 1861, the Confederate government attempted to negotiate the peaceful evacuation of the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, but Lincoln remained adamant that the United States would not give up the fort. Yet, not wanting to provoke the Southerners, Lincoln delayed sending reinforcements.

Faced with South Carolina “fire-eaters” (ardent secessionists) who threatened to seize the fort on their own, Jefferson Davis decided that he had to take action. He assigned the mission of capturing the fort to Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who laid siege to the fort, hoping to starve out post commandant Major Robert Anderson and his men. In the meantime, Lincoln and the rest of the federal government seemed to be sleepwalking. With great deliberation and delay, a ship was loaded with reinforcements and supply. But it was too late now. just before he was prepared to open fire, Beauregard offered Anderson, his former West Point instructor, generous surrender terms: “All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down.” Anderson refused, and the first shot of the Civil War was fired at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1. 861. Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865), a 67-year-old “fire-eater,” claimed credit for having pulled the lanyard on that initial volley-although the truth is that Captain George S. James fired a signal gun first. The ensuing bombardment lasted 34 hours before Anderson surrendered. Incredibly, this first engagement of the war resulted in no casualties. It would be the last bloodless battle of the war.

From Bull Run to Antietam. During the spring of 1861, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the seven original Confederate States. Yet even that number put the odds at 11 versus 23 Northern states. The North had a far more extensive industrial base than the South and more than twice as many miles of railroad. As far as the production of foodstuffs was concerned, Northern agriculture was also better organized. Although the North was just recovering from an economic depression, the entire South could scrape together no more than $27 million in specie (gold and silver). The North not only commanded far more wealth, but it also had diplomatic relations with foreign powers and, therefore, could secure extensive credit.

Yet the South did have more of the army’s best officers, who, at the outbreak of hostilities, had resigned their commissions in the U.S. Army and joined the army of the Confederate States. Confederate leaders knew that their only chance was to score swift military victories that would sap the North’s will to fight.

The first major engagement of the war, after the fall of Fort Sumter, proved just how effective the Confederate officers and men were. When it began, the battle the South would call First Manassas and the North would call First Bull Run was a picnic. On July 21, 1861, Washington’s fashionable folk rode out to nearby Centreville, Virginia, in carriages filled with baskets of food and bottles of wine. Through spy glasses, they viewed the action three miles distant. The Union troops seemed similarly carefree; as they marched to battle, they frequently broke ranks to pick blackberries. Remarkably lax, too, was military security. Newspapers published the Union army’s plan of action, and what information the papers didn’t supply, rebel sympathizers, such as the seductive Rose O’Neal Greenhow, volunteered to spy for the cause. Thus General Beauregard was prepared for the. Union advance and had erected defenses near a railroad crossing called Manassas Junction. There, across Bull Run Creek, his 20,000 rebels (later augmented by reinforcements) faced the 37,000 Yankees under the command of the thoroughly mediocre General Irvin McDowell.

The battle began well for the North, as McDowell managed to push the rebels out of their positions. But then the Southern forces rallied when they beheld a Virginia brigade led by General Thomas J. Jackson. Like a “stone wall” the brigade held its ground, and thereafter, Thomas Jackson was best known by the name his soldiers gave him: Stonewall. The entire Confederate force now rallied and, ultimately, broke through the Union lines. Suddenly, panicked Northern troops retreated all the way to Washington. The First Battle of Bull. Run stunned the capital—which trembled in anticipation of a Confederate invasion that never came—and it stunned Union loyalists all across the nation. The picnickers ran for their lives, It would be a long, hard war.

Seven Days. Justifiably dismayed by McDowell’s performance at Bull Run, President Lincoln called General George B. McClellan to command the main Union force. Jefferson Davis combined Beauregard’s troops with those of General Joseph E. Johnston, who was given senior command of the Confederate forces in Virginia. Now the major action centered in Virginia as McClellan set about building a large army with which to invade Richmond, which became the Confederate capital in May 1861.

Despite the triumph at First Bull Run, the outlook seemed grim for the Confederates. Richmond could not withstand a massive assault. Yet McClellan, a popular commander who succeeded in transforming the Union army from an undisciplined rabble into a cohesive body of credible soldiers, suffered from a Hamlet-like tendency to ponder and delay. Eventually exasperated, Lincoln would peg him with homely accuracy: McClellan has a “bad case of the slows,” the president pronounced.

McClellan repeatedly delayed his assault on Richmond, finally losing the initiative, so that lie had to settle into an arduous campaign on the Virginia peninsula. In that campaign’s principal series of battles, called the Seven Days (June 26-July 2, 1862), more men were killed or wounded than in all the Civil War battles fought elsewhere during the first half of 1.862, including another encounter that became a byword for slaughter, Shiloh (April 6-7,1862). Shiloh pitted General Ulysses S. Grant’s 42,000-man Union against a 40,000-man Confederate force under General Albert S. Johnston. Grant lost 13,000 men, and the Confederates lost more than 10,000 in a battle that resulted in strategic stalemate on the war’s western front.

Back in Virginia, the Seven Days saw the placement of Robert E. Lee at the head of the South’s major army, which he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee led his forces in a brilliant offensive against the always-cautious McClellan, launching daring attacks at Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Savage’s Station, Frayser’s Farm, and Malvern Hill. In fact, Lee lost twice as many men as his adversary, but he won a profound psychological victory. McClellan backed down the peninsula all the way to the James River.

Back to Bull Run. Appalled and heartbroken by McClellan’s repeated failure to seize the initiative, Lincoln desperately cast about for a general to replace him. On July 11, Lincoln appointed Henry W. Halleck. It was not a good choice. Halleck dispatched a regrouped army into Virginia under John Pope, but Lee met him with more than half the Army of Northern Virginia. At Cedar Mountain on August 9, “Stonewall” Jackson drove Pope back toward Manassas junction, then Lee sent the “Stonewall Brigade” to flank Pope and outmarch him to Manassas. After destroying the Union supply depot, Jackson took a position near the old Bull Rijn battlefield. Pope lumbered into position to attack Jackson on August 29, just as Lee sent a wing of his army, under James Longstreet, against Pope’s left on August 30.

The action was devastating. Pope reeled back across the Potomac. At this point, the “invading” Union army had been effectively swept out of Virginia, and the Confederates went on the offensive. For the North, it was the low point of the war.

Perryville and Antietam

Lee was a keen student of Napoleon Bonaparte’s strategy and tactics, the key to which was the principle of always acting from boldness. Thus Lee boldly conceived a double offensive: in the West, an invasion of Kentucky; in the East, an invasion of Maryland. Neither of these so-called “border states” had seceded, yet both were slave states, and capturing them would significantly expand the Confederacy. Moreover, if Louisville, Kentucky, fell to the Confederates, Indiana and Ohio would be open to invasion, and control of the Great Lakes might pass to the rebels. For the Union, the war could be lost.

But things didn’t happen this way. Confederate general Braxton Bragg delayed, lost the initiative, and was defeated at Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8, 1862. In Maryland, Lee’s invasion went well—until a copy of his orders detailing troop placement fell into the hands of George McClellan (restored to command of the Army of the Potomac after Halleck’s disastrous performance at Second Bull Run). The Union general was able to mass 70,000 troops in front of Lee at Sharpsburg, Maryland, along Antietam Creek. On September 17, in the bloodiest day of fighting up to that time, McClellan drove Lee back to Virginia. Indeed, only the belated, last-minute arrival of a division under A.P. Hill saved Lee’s forces from total annihilation.

Emancipation Proclaimed—More or Less. Antietam was not the turning point of the war, but it was nevertheless a momentous battle. It provided the platform from which Abraham Lincoln issued the so-called “preliminary” Emancipation Proclamation.

The fact is that Lincoln was no enthusiastic advocate of emancipation. To be sure, he personally hated slavery, but as president, he was sworn to uphold the Constitution, which clearly protected slavery in the slave states. More immediately, Lincoln feared that universally declaring the slaves free would propel the four slaveholding border states into the Confederate fold. For many Northerners, the moral basis of the Civil War was the issue of emancipation. But Lincoln moved cautiously.

In August 1861, Lincoln prevailed on Congress to declare slaves in the rebellious states “contraband” property. As such, slaves could be seized by the federal government, which could then refuse to return them. In March 1862, Congress passed a law forbidding army officers from returning fugitive slaves. In July 1862, Congress passed legislation freeing slaves confiscated from owners “engaged in rebellion.” In addition, a militia act authorized the president to use freed slaves in the army. With these acts, Lincoln’s government edged closer to emancipation.

Secretary of State William H. Seward warned that a proclamation of emancipation would ring hollow down the depressingly long corridor of Union defeats. It was not until Antietam, a Union victory—albeit a costly one—that Lincoln felt confident in issuing the preliminary proclamation on September 23, 1862. This document did not free the slaves, but rather, warned slave owners living in states “still in rebellion on January 1, 1863” that their slaves would be declared “forever free.” When that deadline came and passed, Lincoln issued the “final” Emancipation Proclamation-which set free only those slaves in areas of the Confederacy that were not under the control of the Union army (areas under Union control were no longer, technically, in rebellion); slaves in the border states were not liberated.

Timid, even disappointing as the Emancipation Proclamation may seem from our perspective, it served to galvanize the North by explicitly and officially elevating the war to a higher moral plane: slavery was now the central issue of the great Civil War.

The Least You Need to Know

The Confederacy attempted to negotiate independence from the Union before commencing hostilities by firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

 Plagued by cautious or inept commanders, the Union Army performed poorly in the first months of the war.

 The Emancipation Proclamation was a fairly timid document, which reflected Lincoln’s first priority: to preserve the Union, not necessarily to free the slaves.

Stats. The popular vote was much closer than the electoral vote was much closer than the electoral vote. Lincoln received only 1,866,452 votes against 2,815,617 votes for his combined opponents.

Stats. The population of the of the South in 1861 was about 9 million people, including 3 million slaves (who were not military assets). The North had 22 million people.

Real Life. Rose O’Neal Greenhow was born in Port Tobacco, Maryland, in 1817, and moved to Washington, D.C., where, from early womanhood, she cast a powerful spell on men. She married a State Department official, through whom she met a circle of highly influential Washingtonians, including James Buchanan. Widowed in 1854, Greenhow became particularly intimate with the bachelor president. Although this relationship was probably platonic, Greenhow had many others that were anything but. Among her “gentleman callers” was a host of military and government officials, perhaps including a U.S. Senator.

Greenhow was a highly intelligent woman who had nursed John C. Calhoun through his final illness when he was a resident at her aunt’s fashionable Capitol Hill boardinghouse. She imbibed Calhoun’s states’ rights theories and became a passionate partisan of the South. When the Civil War broke out, Greenhow was recruited by Confederate spy master Thomas Jordan to obtain Union military secrets. Using her many charms, she procured information that proved highly valuable to the Confederacy at First Bull Run.

Arrested on August 23, 1861, by Alan J. Pinkerton, the man who virtually invented the profession of private detective, Greenhow was later paroled to the South, and on August 5, 1863, sailed to Europe on a mission to revive French and British support for the Confederate cause. There she met Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, and she published a best-selling memoir.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow drowned in 1864 when the blockade-runner on which she was returning from abroad ran aground off Wilmington, North Carolina.

Real Life. No military figure in American history is more universally admired than Robert E. Lee, who not only served the Confederate cause as a brilliant commander but, in defeat, became an enduring example of courage and dignity.

Lee was born on January 19, 1807, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a fine cavalry officer during the American Revolution. Appointed to West Point in 1825, Robert E. Lee graduated at the top of his class in 1829 and, two years later, married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first marriage. Lee served as an engineering officer under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War (1846-48) and, from 1852-1855, was superintendent of West Point. In 1859, Lee led the force that suppressed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Robert E. Lee was anything but a Southern “fire-eater.” He deplored the extrimism—on both sides—that led to the Civil War. But Lee felt intense loyalty to Virginia, and when war came, he declined an offer to command the Union army, resigned his commission, and offered his services to Virginia.

Lee repeatedly took the offensive against the North-and repeatedly attained victory against superior forces, achieving his greatest triumph at extremes (May 1863). But as the South ran short of men and money, the tide turned in favor of the North. Falling back into Virginia, Lee continued to wage war brilliantly. Finally trapped at Appomattox Court House, he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, in what is considered the symbolic end of the Civil War.

After the war, Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He died on October 12, 1870, a universally admired figure.

Stats. Although Antietam was a Union victory, McClellan lost more troops than Lee: 12,000 troops versus 10,000.


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