Fighting the Civil War
The History Cat Classroom
If the Civil War were a football game the South would have held home-field advantage with a staff of first-rate coaches; while the North would be forced to play on the offensive the entire game with the leadership quality of the 2010 Detroit Lions. Fortunately, the North had both numerical superiority and technology on its side. For the duration of the war, the outnumbered rebels would only be able to field 5 players to the North’s full 11-man team.
As President, Jefferson Davis was like the Tim Tebow of the Confederacy: the perfect candidate on paper who turns out to be a total disappointment. As a West Point graduate, military veteran, former secretary of War, and a U.S. Senator-- Davis had everything that the CSA could hope for in a leader But, with the charisma of wet blanket, he prefered to stay hidden away in Richmond where he tried to inspire his people with pep talks of self-sacrifice and dying for the cause. He was also a control freak, needing to manage every aspect of the war himself rather than trusting in the talent of his generals, alienating experienced men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson by refusing to listen to their advice. Even worse, Davis was also known for playing favorites by keeping his friends in positions of power no matter how incompetent they turned out to be. But even despite his many flaw, his biggest leadership disaster might have been that he insanely insisted on spreading his limited troops along the entire Confederate front to defend every inch of southern soil when all the South had to do was stay in the game long enough to wear the enemy down or wait for a miracle happened. Neither of which happened.
Fighting the War: The General Game Plan
We won’t bore you with a long and boring list of battles and dates (sorry, history nerds) but basically, the Civil War was fought almost entirely on southern soil in two theaters of war. The objective of the Eastern Theater was to defend Richmond, one of only a few southern cities with significant industrial capacity.To win, the North would have to invade using a two-prong attack from the east to capture Richmond and from the west to take control of the Mississippi River. Outnumbered two-to-one, the Confederacy would be forced to fight a defensive war to push back against the Union invasion. The good news for the Confederates was that the Union would have to conquer a territory larger than all of Western Europe. The bad news is that defending that much territory would be extremely difficult. And so, the smartest option for the South might have been to fight a guerrilla war where small numbers of troops could pick off a large invading army and then melt back into the woods and swamps. But that type of fighting was seen as unmanly and so the southern leadership decided that it was much braver to be blown to glorious bits on the battlefield.
My Anaconda Don’t Want None
Unless You’ve Got Plans, Son
On paper, the North held most of the winning cards. With its large industrial cities interconnected by a web of railroad and telegraph lines and with most of the factories and banks under its control, the Union had the ability to churn out war materials faster than their enemy. But putting this into action would require invading and conquering the South. A difficult thing to do with an army of undisciplined farmers. But on the bright side, an army of undisciplined farmers is all that the South had too.
But the really bad news for the North was that most of its most competent military leaders had switched teams once the fighting began. The Union army was left under the command of a 74-year-old general troubled by gout and too fat to ride a horse. But, despite his physical setbacks, Winfield Scott still had his brilliant military mind. Scott drew up an invasion strategy that newspapers mockingly referred to as ‘The Anaconda Plan’. Like its namesake, the Union would use a naval blockade to slowly strangle the Confederacy’s fragile cotton economy into submission without having to resort to a large-scale land invasion-- an invasion that Scott had accurately predicted would turn into a long and bloody war.
But Scott’s naval blockade had one tiny problem; the U.S only had four military grade ships at its disposal and if you’re planning on blockading more 3,500 miles of enemy coastline it doesn’t take an Einstein to see that those numbers don’t add up. The Union set out on the task of building a navy like a man possessed. The Civil War was indeed a good time to be a shipbuilder. The Union navy would add 80 steamers and 60 sailing ships by the end of 1861. By the war ended in 1865 the U.S. Navy weighed in at a whopping 671 ships...the largest in the world at the time.
In the end, the blockade was a huge success for the Union. With few factories, the Confederacy was entirely dependent on exporting cotton to purchase its war materiel primarily from Great Britain and France. And even though no blockade is ever airtight, blockade running was a high-risk business and those crazy enough to engage in it expected huge rewards. Prices skyrocketed thanks to simple economics and good ol’ fashioned greed. The materials that the Confederacy so desperately needed were also the ones that were too difficult or impractical to transport in a tiny blockade runner. Cargoes of cannon and iron slowed ships down making them vulnerable to capture and importing food wasn’t nearly as profitable as perfumes and silk. As odd as it may seem, even in the midst of mass hunger the wealthy were still buying fancy dresses discouraging blockade runners from importing the very goods that the Confederates needed to keep its armies clothed and fed. By 1862, southerners were already feeling the squeeze and mobs largely made up of angry, starving housewives began rioting on the streets demanding food and price stability.
Fighting the War: The Eastern Theater
As we’ve mentioned after the Union’s humiliating defeat at First Bull Run George McClellan was given command of the Union army operations in Virginia. Lincoln’s main objective is to capture Richmond--preferably as quickly as possible, however quick wasn't McClellan's style. When Lincoln asked when he planned to invade Virginia he made excuses about bad weather or personal illness.
McClellan always believed that no matter how big his own army, the enemy was bigger. He refused to listen to intelligence that contradicted his own beliefs. Like when his own air balloonists told him that they could count the number of enemy soldiers, McClellan refused to believe it. McClellan's grand strategy was to build up a force so large that it would overwhelm the enemy defenses--capture Richmond and end the war. But that sort of campaign takes a very long time to put together. Time that the Union didn’t have.
McClellan's unwillingness to take risks with the lives of his men might have made him very popular with the troops. But it was also his biggest weakness. His fellow commanding officers gave him the nickname of the ‘Virginia Creeper’. By April 1862, Lincoln got so fed up with McClellan’s stalling that he actually asked McClellan if he could ‘borrow the army’ so it could do some real fighting.
One his finest moments (sarcasm) was during the Peninsular Campaign (March-July 1862). The Army of the Potomac met up with the forces of Confederate Major General John MacGruder, who used a play straight out of a Bugs Bunny playbook. Knowing that he was outnumbered by more than 10 to 1, MacGruder had his artillery fire at everything that moved, as the men marched back and forth in McClellan’s line of view to make his army look bigger than it actually was. Believing that he was dealing with a much larger enemy force, McClellan chose a month-long siege of Yorktown rather than a direct assault, buying Richmond enough time to build up their defenses.
As well as being cautious, McClellan was confrontational and arrogant. He believed that his military plans were superior to anyone else's and he wasn't afraid to let his superiors know it. He frustrated his commanding officer, Winfield Scott, by keeping his military plans secret. He was constantly paranoid that he was the only one who was capable of keeping Union troop movements from falling into the hands of enemy spies. When the President of the United States requested to meet with him to go over war plans, McClellan kept Lincoln waiting for a half hour and then told him to go away because he was going to bed. Talk about moxie! McClellan openly criticized Lincoln calling him "nothing more than a well-meaning baboon." After all that Lincoln still refused to fire the guy! Lincoln recognized that McClellan had a sharp military mind and inspired the loyalty of his men. Lincoln wasn't looking to start an open rift within his army during a time like this. But it would take the Battle of Antietam to finally get McClellan canned.
Fighting the War: The Western Theater
The Union objective in the west was to take control of the Mississippi River effectively cutting the Confederacy in half. To accomplish this Union forces first had secure the border slave states of Missouri and Kentucky and then march south to destroy a string of rebel forts that kept the state of Tennessee under Confederate control. Meanwhile, Union forces would attack New Orleans and move up the river from the South. Both of these goals were 90% complete by the end of 1862.
In yet another example that history has a sense of humor, the West (and probably the entire war itself) was won thanks to the bulldog tenacity of a general who had begun his career at the bottom of his class at the West Point Military Academy, was written off as an incompetent drunk by his superiors and had the sad reputation of failing at everything he ever tried. Ulysses S. Grant’s own father openly called the guy a loser. Only by pulling strings with friends in power, was he able to secure himself a position as a minor general in a part of the war that nobody thought would be all that important to the final outcome.
In contrast to most of the overly cautious Union generals, Grant, with his honey badger temperament, drove the Confederates out of Paducah, Kentucky opening up the main objective of capturing the Tennessee strongholds of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry that ended with the capture of both forts, 14,000 Confederate POW’s, and left the city of Nashville completely undefended.
By 1862, it was clear that the war was going badly for the South (at least in the west). Grant was capturing fort after fort in Tennessee while Benjamin “The Beast” Butler was conquering the vital port of New Orleans. By December, the Union army was in control of almost all of Tennessee and was speeding towards the city of Vicksburg, MS--last major stronghold guarding the Mississippi River. After a two month siege and bombardment, the city surrendered on July 4, 1863, leaving Grant to move his army to Chattanooga. The Union blockade was strangling the South preventing new war materials from being brought into the Confederacy. After two years of war, the bodies had begun to pile up. And even though both sides suffered the same number of casualties, the South had only half the number of men that the Union army had, so every rebel who died was like losing two.
King Cotton Overthrown… The Battle of Antietam
The Confederates had an ace up their sleeve: King Cotton. The southern states were the largest producers of cotton in the world. Cotton that fed the textiles mills of the English and French industrial machines. The South believed that once the Yankee blockade caused the cotton supply to dry up, these European giants would eagerly jump into the ring on the side of the Confederacy. But, what the South didn’t count on was unpredictable European weather patterns. The winter and summer of 1861 were unusually wet for Europe, causing food crops to rot in the field. Britain, which is a normal year imported 40% of its corn and wheat from the United States, was now even more dependent on Yankee goods. Recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation would have been as good as declaring war on the United States, which meant goodbye Union grain, hello massive famine. So Britain and France just stood back and watched those crazy Americans kill each other.
But the Confederacy was desperate to bring Britain into the war and so it burned over a million bales of its own cotton. Why would they do something so utterly insane? Economics, my dear Watson. Jefferson Davis was trying to create a cotton shortage which he was convinced would collapse the British economy and force them to side with the South once all those unemployed workers started rioting. The only problem with this wildly stupid plan was that before the war, the southern states had sold so much cotton to Britain that they had a three-year surplus. Backfire!
The only hope that the Confederacy had of gaining European support was a decisive victory...preferably on Union soil, to show its would-be allies that a Southern victory was still possible. One of the most brilliant military leaders of the war was a guy named Robert E. Lee, known for making attacks on the enemy that seemed reckless and straight up crazy to those who took a more cautious approach. But Lee seemed to be able to pull it off and no matter how many times the Union had invaded Virginia it had been driven back. This time Lee planned to take the offensive. His plan was simple, outmaneuver the Army of the Potomac--which was in charge of defending Washington-- and capture the Union capital by going through Maryland. Had the plan worked Britain was already talking about negotiating a peace treaty that probably would have won The Confederacy its independence. Instead, the two armies clashed in a cornfield in one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. The Battle of Antietam ended in a stalemate with one-third of Lee’s men captured, dead, or wounded. Lee bounced back and managed to retreat safely back to Virginia but the hopes of the Confederacy getting foreign intervention to end the war were as good as dead.
Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia dragged themselves back from Antietam tired, hungry, and defeated. However, Lee was down but not out. He planned again to invade the North. There was still a small hope that Britain would get involved in the war but even more importantly many northerners were beginning to grumble about the high toll the war was taking. Both sides had to raise taxes to pay for the war and shortages were everywhere, not to mention tens of thousands of dead soldiers.
The Emancipation Proclamation
January 1, 1863
“ …all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free..”
With these words, President Lincoln made one of the toughest calls of his career. Up until this point, hardly anyone (Union or Confederate) mentioned slavery in connection with the Civil War. To the rebels, they were acting as the founding fathers had and were breaking away from an oppressive government. Confederate leaders talked about state’s rights and economic freedom but they didn’t say much about the enslavement of nearly two million Americans of African descent.
The North didn’t say much about the topic either. Of course, you had your radical abolitionists talking about ending slavery, burning plantations, and giving blacks equal rights, but most white Americans thought these folks were too extreme for their taste. Lincoln was- up to this point- careful not to mention the “S” word. Why? Because most northerners believed they were fighting to defend the Constitution and restore the Union, not to give their lives freeing slaves. It is doubtful that many whites would have rushed to volunteer to fight a war about an issue that really didn’t concern them. Lincoln knew that if he turned the Civil War into a war about slavery then the loyal Border States would have surely seceded back in 1861 leaving Washington D.C. completely surrounded by hostile forces.
The Emancipation Proclamation made sure that the South would never get British or French support. Both of these countries were firmly against slavery. How could they help a nation win a war to keep its slaves? After Antietam Lee’s army had withdrawn back to Virginia and Britain recalled its diplomats who had been on their way to discuss official recognition of the Confederacy. With a single piece of paper, Lincoln changed everything. Things were going badly for the South and Lincoln needed to make sure it stayed that way. One way to accomplish this was to turn the Civil War into a moral crusade. Now, the United States was not fighting just to keep some rebels from gaining their independence, but it was fighting a war to end the evil institution of human slavery.
Lincoln’s Proclamation has been criticized for being a document that was big on talk and short on teeth. It is true that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free anybody. The slaves that were freed by the document only applied to the Confederate States that didn’t recognize the laws of the United States. The Border States were exempt from having to free anybody. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. So what did the Emancipation achieve? A lot, actually. Lincoln set out to completely destroy the Old South to be “replaced by new propositions and ideas”. After the Proclamation, slaves and free blacks living in the Confederacy stepped up their efforts to sabotage the Rebel war effort. Whenever slaves got word that the Union army was nearby, they would slow down their work or openly defy their masters. Thousands fled to the safety of Union camps. The Proclamation also opened the door for blacks to serve in the Union army. This would be the first important step in recognizing that persons of color should be given the same benefits of citizenship that whites enjoyed.
The Battle of Gettysburg
July 1-3 1863
With the Southern cause collapsing, Lee tried for one last hail mary pass to win a battle on northern soil. Confederate Brigade commander Henry Heth wrote these words about why he went into Gettysburg despite Lee's orders to stay out: "On the morning of June 30 I ordered Brigadier General [Johnston] Pettigrew to take his brigade to Gettysburg, search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and return the same day...There was a warehouse full of boots and shoes in the town." MYTH BUSTED: there was no shoe factory in Gettysburg at that time.
Antietam might have been the bloodiest day of the war, but Gettysburg was by far the bloodiest battle. The casualties were about even- 23,000 on both sides- but the Confederacy lost a greater fraction of their army. It was a loss from which they would never recover.
As Lee marched north into Pennsylvania he was confident that his army could beat any forces that the Union could throw at him. In fact, he was too confident. When Lee entered Pennsylvania in late June 1863 he was flying blind so to speak. His cavalry, the eyes, and ears of any 19th-century army, was nowhere to be found; so Lee sent ahead a small regiment to scout out the area.
The Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t supposed to happen (but what battle actually goes as planned?). Lee orders his entire army to attack what he thought would be 300 Union troops at Gettysburg. Lee thought he had the advantage because the Army of the Potomac was still in Washington D.C. On July 1st the two armies (each about 90,000 strong) outside of Gettysburg and the rest is history. General Meade, quite by accident set up his troops on one of the best possible defensible spots – a stretch of high ground with steep sides called Cemetery Ridge.
Some 92,000 men in blue locked horns with 76,000 gray coats in a series of battles over three hot summer days from July 1-3, 1863. The battle went back and forth as each side tried to push the other from key defensive positions like Devil’s Den (one of the most haunted battlefields in America) and Big And Little Round Top, to Cemetery Ridge. On July 3, both armies were utterly exhausted and their lines were stretched thin. The battlefield was littered with the bodies of thousands of dead and dying. Lee realized that he was close to losing the battle and his best shot at tipping the scales for the Confederacy. In one of his characteristically bold moves, Lee ordered General George Pickett to make one final effort to dislodge Meade from Cemetery Ridge.
What resulted was the famous Pickett’s Charge, but it was more of a suicide mission. To capture the ridge and push Meade back would require running full force for 1.5 miles through an open field while being fired on by cannon and rifle fire. It was an impossible mission and Lee’s top general’s like James Longstreet tried to convince Lee to abandon the plan. But Lee, once he made his mind up there was no talking him out of it. For two hours the Rebels bombarded the Yankee position with cannon fire to help pave the way for Pickett and his men- but they aimed too high. When Pickett went charging across the field at 3 p.m. his men were mowed down like grass.
Sherman’s March to the Sea
August- December 1864
The war was finally going well for the Union. The south was on the verge of collapse: most of its people were starving, plantations across the Deep South had stopped growing cotton and switched to growing food instead. Tennessee was back under Union control and Grant’s capture of Vicksburg gave the north full control of the Mississippi River, cutting Texas and Arkansas from the rest of the Confederacy. But still, those stubborn rebels refused to give in. General William T. Sherman was about to launch a reign of utter ruin against the very heart of the South.
In May 1864, Sherman started off his “March to the Sea” from his base in Chattanooga onto his main target of Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta was the supply hub of Confederacy where major rail lines met and carried goods across the south and on to Richmond. In addition to railroads, Atlanta had several factories that were all dedicated to producing ammunition and war supplies. Sherman’s intention was to bring an end to the south’s ability to keep the war going.
Standing in Sherman’s way were the Confederate forces of General Johnston (later replaced with General Hood) whose mission was to prevent Sherman from reaching Atlanta. Sherman preferred to use speed to his advantage. Sherman’s plan was not to completely conquer and occupy, but destroy the south’s ability to wage war. So he used speed to his advantage, attacking and dodging the enemy but all the while marching towards Atlanta. Along the way Sherman ordered his men to destroy the plantations, crops, and farm animals, free the slaves and create total economic chaos.
Anything that couldn’t be carried off by the Union was to be burned. This war strategy is called “scorched earth” and nobody did it quite like Sherman. When Sherman and his 100,000 men reached the outskirts of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, and began digging in for a long siege. Union shells began blasting Atlanta and would continue until the end of August. By that time the citizens of Atlanta were starving and forced to eat grass, roots, cats, dogs, and horses. The siege of Atlanta was one of the big inspirations for the book Gone with the Wind (Poor Scarlet). Hood criticized Sherman for his attack on a civilian city (6 civilians had been killed in the shelling) but Sherman responded that the citizens were traitors and had it coming.
Towards the last days of the siege, Sherman hatched another sneaky plan. He left a few thousand soldiers to continue the siege while he took the main army to the railroad depot of Jonesboro and then to Macon. General Hood thought Sherman had given up and was retreating and gave chase. By the time Hood realized his mistake Jonesboro, Macon, and Atlanta were now in Union hands. The fall of Atlanta pretty much ensured Lincoln’s reelection.
In November, Sherman ordered to be burned anything in the city that could be used for the war. Sherman continued on to Savannah- one of the last southern ports still in Confederate hands. Along the way, he left a swath of charred plantations, upturned railroads, and smoldering towns. Wherever Sherman’s army marched throngs of blacks (both free and slave) lined the roads to greet him. Thousands packed up their belongings and fell in behind Sherman’s men. On December 13, Sherman arrived at Savannah and after 15 minutes the poorly defended Fort McAllister surrendered. Sherman’s March to the Sea was complete but he wasn’t finished yet. He turned north into South Carolina and then to North Carolina, capturing the capital of Raleigh on April 16, 1865.
The Surrender of Lee
On March 8, 1864, Lincoln finally found a General who could finally lead the Union to a clear and final victory in the east. His choice to lead the Army of the Potomac was a short, scruffy man who walked around in a wrinkled uniform and rarely bothered to shave. To top it off he drank too much and graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point. Ulysses S. Grant... When Lincoln’s advisers tried to talk him out of appointing Grant to the top command post in the Union army by saying that he drank too much, Lincoln replied that maybe he should supply all of the Union Generals with the same brand of whiskey that Grant drank. There was no denying it that Grant got results. He had spent the past three years building up a reputation in the west as a general who went after victory at any cost. This sort of thinking was exactly why he had earned the nickname “The Butcher”. After going through 6 generals in half as many years Grant was exactly the kind of general that Lincoln wanted.
Grant ordered his now subordinate officer, George Meade, to pursue Lee wherever he went. Grant knew that he had the advantage. His own army outnumbered Lee’s 2 to 1. Throughout the summer of 1864, Grant chased Lee through Virginia like a dog on a fox hunt. Out of all of the Confederate states, Virginia suffered the most. The final years of the Civil War also saw some of the most vicious fighting. When Lee attacked Grant at the battle of the Wilderness he inflicted 17,000 Union casualties.
Previous Union commanders would have retreated back to Washington after such a blow, but not Grant. He pressed on after Lee. He wrote back to Washington saying, “whatever happens, there will be no turning back”. Soldiers began pinning death notes to their shirts to send one last letter home in the event they were killed in battle. At Cold Harbor Grant lost another 7,000 men. Grant’s army was unable to defeat Lee outright, but he was wearing him down, but at a high cost to both sides.
By the end of June, Grant’s army had lost a whopping 50,000 men. Yet Grant pressed on. Lee, by comparison, had lost 30,000 men. But this didn’t stop Grant’s critics who called for him to be replaced. They claimed he had gone insane. Lincoln ignored these criticisms. When all's said and done Grant (1 in 10) lost fewer men than Lee (1 in 5). The truth was that Lee’s army was bleeding faster than Grant’s and Grant had an advantage that Lee did not- the Colored Regiments.
While Sherman was marching his troops south to Atlanta Grant was moving to capture the vital railroad depot of Petersburg, just south of Richmond. After a failed attempt to capture the city by an all-out assault Grant dug trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 and began a siege to starve the city into submission. The city finally surrendered on May 25, 1865. Richmond- the Confederate Capital fell on April 3. Lee retreated west to North Carolina hoping to meet up with other regiments there and retake the Capital.
However, Grant cornered him on April 9 at a spot called Appomattox Court House. After a short skirmish Lee agreed to an unconditional surrender after being promised generous terms by Grant. The war was over, Confederate soldiers would be allowed to keep their horses but had to turn over their weapons. At 4 o’clock the two generals shook hands, bowed to one another and left the room. The war that had left 630,000 Americans dead was over. The Union had been preserved. Now the biggest task lay ahead for Lincoln and Congress: How to bring the former rebel states back into the fold?
Why the South Lost
It might be tempting to say that the Confederacy lost its fight for independence because it was pummeled by the sheer might of the Union army. After all, you either win or you lose right? And, if this were a fight between John Cena and some 90-pound fifth grader this logic might hold up. But winning a war, especially a defensive one like the Confederates were fighting, involves a lot more than simply being tougher than your enemy. The South lost the war (as much as the North won it) due a combination of bad luck, poor planning, and a general inability to get their act together to repel an invading army.
"The North had an enormous industrial advantage as well. At the beginning of the war, the Confederacy had only one-ninth the industrial capacity of the Union. But that statistic was misleading. In 1860, the North manufactured 97 percent of the country's firearms, 96 percent of its railroad locomotives, 94 percent of its cloth, 93 percent of its pig iron, and over 90 percent of its boots and shoes. The North had twice the density of railroads per square mile. There was not even one rifleworks in the entire South.
The South was at a severe disadvantage when it came to manufacturing, but the Confederacy managed to keep its guns firing by creating ammunition from melted-down bells from churches and town squares.
All of the principal ingredients of GUNPOWDER were imported. Since the North controlled the navy, the seas were in the hands of the Union. A blockade could suffocate the South. Still, the Confederacy was not without resources and willpower."
Confederate Blockade Runner
Fighting the War in the East
Fighting the War in the West
Interactive Map of Antietam
The battle of Antietam is the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing
Confederate Brigade commander Henry Heth wrote these words about why he went into Gettysburg despite Lee's orders to stay out:
"On the morning of June 30 I ordered Brigadier General [Johnston] Pettigrew to take his brigade to Gettysburg, search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and return the same day...There was a warehouse full of boots and shoes in the town."
MYTH BUSTED: there was no shoe factory in Gettysburg at that time.
“We are not only fighting armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience.”