|The Civil War
1861 - 1865
|Begun||April 12, 1861|
|Ended||April 9, 1865|
|United States of America|
|Secretary of War||Simon Cameron, Edwin M. Stanton|
|Secretary of the Navy||Gideon Welles|
|Secretary of State||William Seward|
|Confederate States of America|
|Secretary of War||Leroy Pope Walker, Judah P. Benjamin, George W. Randolph, James Seddon, John C. Breckinridge|
|Secretary of the Navy||Stephan Mallory|
|Secretary of State||Robert Toombs, Robert M.T. Hunter, Judah P. Benjamin|
The first year of the American Civil War began with green troops on both sides expecting easy victories and a quick end of the war; many young men enlisted with romantic dreams of glory. 1862 had barely begun when those dreams would be forever shattered by the carnage of a fierce battle at a site in Tennessee whose name meant "peace", and would barely end after the single bloodiest day in American history.
The recalcitrant general
By the time winter fell in 1861, Major General George B. McClellan had taken a demoralized force around Washington and transformed it into the superbly trained and equipped Army of the Potomac, numbering some 100,000 men. But by the first week of January 1862, it was becoming clearer that for all of McClellan's acts of creating a superior army, there was little, if any, immediate intent to use the army for what it was created to do. At a cabinet meeting with several of McClellan's division commanders present (McClellan was ill with possible typhus for much of January), Lincoln hinted that "if General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it, provided I could see how it could be made to do something." In the west, Generals Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky, and Henry Halleck in Missouri also didn't make too many moves; although it was winter, Lincoln still expected them to make some sort of advance against the enemy. "Delay is ruining us," he said to them by wire, "and it is indispensable for me to have something definite." (TL 5, pp. 62-68)
While McClellan was laid up ill, Secretary of War Simon Cameron was on his way out: he had presided over a department involved in corruption and favoritism at the top, and soldiers getting bad uniforms, bad guns, and bad meat at the bottom. Added to that was the fact McClellan, for all intents and purposes, was unwilling to bring the fight to the enemy. Stepping into Cameron's place was a bombastic bundle of energy, Edwin McMasters Stanton, who would have Brigadier General Charles Stone arrested on his first day at work for the debacle at Ball's Bluff, and before January was out he made it clear that the corruption was over with, and McClellan would use the chain of command like any common soldier; the back door henceforth was closed. "The champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be stopped," he roared. "I will force this man McClellan to fight." (TL 5, pp. 70-71)
The arrest of Stone only made McClellan more cautious, instead of Stanton's hope that it would spur the general into action. His lack of fighting spirit would cause Lincoln to remark "McClellan is a great engineer, but he has a special talent for a stationary engine" (TL 8, pg 23).
On May 8, 1861, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephan Mallory submitted his plans for building ironclads to the Committee on Naval Affairs, stating it would be costly, but the advantages of the Union Navy being overwhelmed by the sheer power implied in ironclads would be worth the price. By the end of the month the plans were approved, and the first ship selected for refitting was the salvaged hulk of USS Merrimac, scuttled the previous month when the Union abandoned Norfolk. She was placed in dry dock, and over the next several months the hull was razed to the gun deck, the engine overhauled, and heavy-timber casemate was built over the hull and and a dozens guns, then roofed over with sheet iron four inches thick. As a final weapon, a cast iron ram weighing 1,500 pounds was fitted to the bow (TL 3, pp. 48-49). The Confederacy would christen her CSS Virginia.
At about the same time the Merrimac was being overhauled, a naval committee was convened in Washington in August 1861, with Union Navy Secretary Gideon Welles presiding, and the discussion was also about ironclads. Of seventeen submitted plans, two were accepted, but without much enthusiasm for either: a large, sea-going broadside frigate named New Ironsides, and a smaller gunboat named Galena, designed by Cornelius Bushnell of New Haven, Connecticut (TL 3, pg. 51).
That same night Bushnell had taken his plans for Galena to a friend named John Ericsson, a Swedish inventor and engineer, who told him the plans were sound. Ericsson then went to a cupboard and pulled a model of his own and showed it to Bushnell, a strange-looking flat vessel with a single, two-gun turret. Convinced of this vessel's superiority, Bushnell took Ericsson before the board, who bickered back and forth until President Lincoln looked it over. "All I have to say'" he said' "is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking: 'It strikes me there's something in it!'" After a detailed explanation of his ship's qualities (and after some deception on Bushnell's part after the plans were initially rejected), Ericsson's plans were approved; in just over one hundred days, Ericsson's Monitor would be launched (TL 3, pp. 51-52).
The Battle of Hampton Roads began on March 8, when the former USS Merrimac steamed out of Norfolk as the ironclad CSS Virginia and made her heading straight for the Union warships on blockade duty. Virginia's first victim was the 24-gun sloop USS Cumberland, at anchor off Newport News, which she easily dispatched by ramming an immense hole in her side, while Cumberland's own guns fired shots that glanced off her iron skin. As water awashed over Cumberland's gun deck, Virginia turned about and headed for the nearby USS Congress, which was compelled to surrender within minutes after an escape attempt ended with Congress heeled over on a sandbar, her 50 guns useless. While Virginia's commander, Captain Franklin Buchanan, sent boats out to receive the ship's surrender, soldiers on shore opened fire, wounding Buchanan in the thigh; he would subsequently order red-hot shell fired into the Congress, setting her ablaze. After abandoning an attempt at sinking USS Minnesota, which had also run aground, Virginia retired for the night in Norfolk, intending to finish the work in the morning.
When morning arrived, Virginia steamed into the channel for the Minnesota, when lookouts on the ironclad peered through their glasses and saw the strange sight of a bizarre-looking ship steaming out from behind the big frigate. The Union ironclad USS Monitor had arrived during the night, and during the next four hours both ironclads battered each other to a stalemate, neither side gaining an advantage over the other, and both would retire from the contest, never to fight each other again. Virginia would be destroyed in May to prevent her from falling into Union hands when Norfolk was taken back, and Monitor would sink in a gale off Cape Hatteras in December. But the battle itself would have far-reaching effects world-wide, for it demonstrated that the day of the wooden warship was over.
The Peninsula Campaign
Following the neutralization of the threat the Virginia had caused, McClellan disembarked supplies and 100,000 troops at Fort Monroe on April 4 and began his march up the peninsula, with the aim of capturing the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Facing him are about 17,000 men under General Joseph E. Johnston, who continues to shift his forces for delaying tactics in Richmond’s defense. McClellan continues to move north, having an engagement at the Warwick River before occupying Yorktown and Falmouth by April 18, and helped in repulsing Confederates by a river flotilla which included USS Monitor (Bowman, pg. 93).
But he is slow in going. Part of the delay at Yorktown was McClellan’s wanting of a count of the enemy in the field; after hearing of an “endless march” of Confederates, he decided they must outnumber his own. “The Warwick River grows worse the more you look at it,” he wired Lincoln. “It seams clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands, probably not less than 100,000 men, and possibly more.” He didn’t know that the “endless march” was staged by Confederate Major General John B. Magruder, who had just a few hundred men march in a circle, with a small view for the Federals convinced the men numbered in the thousands. McClellan’s delays only made Lincoln more impatient. “It is indispensable that you strike a blow,” he wired back to his general (TL 5, pp. 99-102). In the end, it was Johnston who withdrew from Yorktown, knowing he couldn’t compete with McClellan’s superior force, but also knowing McClellan’s way of fighting. “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack” he would say later (TL 5, pg. 107). McClellan would also be stymied by Confederate defenses at Centerville; on finally getting the nerve to figure out why such well-armed fortifications appeared not to have troops, he discovered that they were armed with “Quaker guns” – painted logs (TL 5, pg. 85).
By the first week of May there are serious clashes between Confederates and Federals. Some 1,500 men are lost in battles between Yorktown and Williamsburg; by the 15th, Johnston’s troops have moved back across the Chickahominy River as the Union forces move closer to Richmond, with more fighting breaking out at Drewry’s Bluff on the banks of the James; a naval force with the ironclads Monitor and Galena lends support, but is forced back from effective Confederate fire at Fort Darling (Bowman, pg. 98).
Jackson's Valley Campaign
In the meantime, troops that McClellan expected to take the war to the enemy in the Shenandoah Valley have problems of their own. An effort to take the valley (and with it the South’s breadbasket) by Union forces results in five battles from March to June 1862, covering more than 650 miles: Kernstown (March 23); Front Royal (May 23); Winchester (May 25); Cross Keys (June 8); and Port Republic (June 9). These brilliant actions, led by General Stonewall Jackson, pinned down the much larger Union forces, preventing them from coordinating with McClellan (Jackson’s campaign may have saved Richmond from capture), and posed a continual threat to Washington. Jackson and his First Division, the legendary “Foot Cavalry”, were catapulted to fame.
Fair Oaks / Seven Pines
The Union army had by May straddled both sides of the Chickahominy, and over 105,000 men were poised to threaten Richmond. Two corps were on the southern side of the river, and Johnston took advantage of their isolation from the other three by attacking them on May 31. According to the Confederate plan, Generals Magruder and A.P. Hill were to lead their divisions against the forces on the north side of the river to prevent them from reinforcing the remainder, which would be attacked by the main body led by Longstreet, who would converge on the enemy from three sides.
But the Union army had advance warning of the attack, courtesy of Professor Thaddeus Lowe and his Balloon Corps . By deploying observation balloons at Gaines Farm and Mechanicsville But McClellan disbelieved Lowes' reports that Confederates were massing against his III Corps under Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman's position, and thought the Confederate movements were a feint. Lowe sent an urgent message advising McClellan to send reinforcements to Heintzelman.
In beginning his attack, Longstreet went on the wrong road and moved south when he should have gone east; this caused a delay in the advance of his columns, preventing his getting into position until after 1 pm. By then, Major General D.H. Hill's forces had begun their attack alone against IV Corps under Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes, who withstood the attack until Hill was reinforced by Longstreet, and Keyes was driven back. Before IV Corps could be routed, Major General Edwin V. Sumner arrived with II Corps and stabilized the position. Both sides would fight fiercely with heavy casualties, but each made little headway against the other. It would resume the next day with the same results, and both sides would withdraw, each claiming victory. During the engagement General Johnston was seriously wounded, and he had to pass command over to Major General G.W. Smith. But the Federal advance on Richmond was halted.
The Seven Days
The three weeks following Seven Pines saw a reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia and an improvement of their defensive lines, under the watchful eye of its new commander, General Robert E. Lee. Lee also awaited reinforcements from the Shenandoah Valley, as Stonewall Jackson had finished his campaign there and was moving south.
Not waiting for Lee to take the offensive again was McClellan, who had increased his cavalry patrols in anticipation of Jackson's arrival, and had moved his siege guns near Old Tavern, a small town to the north of where he planned his actual attack at Oak Grove.
The Seven Days battles began with the Battle of Oak Grove on June 25, when McClellan advanced his lines with the objective of bringing Richmond within range of his siege guns. III Corps attacked across the headwaters of White Oak Swamp, but were beaten back by Major General Benjamin Huger's Confederates. Three miles to the rear, McClellan had telegraphed to call off the attack, but when he had arrived on the front lines he ordered another attack over the same ground. Union troops gained only 600 yards by sunset, at a cost of more than a thousand casualties for both sides.
The second battle took place on June 26. Having a plan involving an attack by Jackson's corps, Lee's plan went bad when Jackson didn't show up on time; A.P. Hill threw his division, reinforced by one of D.H. Hill's brigades, into a series of assaults against the Union V Corps led by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, who was behind Beaver Dam Creek; all of Hill's assaults were driven back with heavy casualties. Jackson's divisions, having traversed many miles from the Shenandoah valley by foot and train, were four hours late and too exhausted to join in the battle; they would merely pitch camp for the night. However, Jackson's presence would force Porter to fall back by the next morning to Boatswain Creek, nearby Gaines' Mill.
On June 27, Lee renewed his assault on Porter's corps, who had strengthened his defensive line throughout the night, and held fast through the afternoon, inflicting heavy casualties on the Confederates. At sunset, Lee mounted a coordinated assault that broke through Porter's defenses, resulting in defeat and withdrawal of the Federals toward the Chicahominy River. McClellan was forced to abandon his attempts at taking Richmond, and has thus begun his retreat toward the James.
Garnett's and Golding's Farms
While Gaines' Mill raged north of the Chickahominy, Magruder led a reconnaissance that developed into a minor attack against the Union line at Garnett's Farm south of the river. The Confederates attacked again on the morning of June 28 at Golding's Farm, but were easily repulsed.
As the main body of the Union Army of the Potomac began its withdrawal toward the James River, Magruder pursued along the railroad and the Williamsburg Road and struck Sumner's II Corps (in the rear) with three brigades near Savage's Station on June 29, while Jackson's divisions had been stalled north of the Chickahominy. Union forces continued their withdrawal across White Oak Swamp, abandoning supplies and a field hospital with more than 2,500 wounded soldiers.
White Oak Swamp and Glendale
On June 30, a newly-placed rearguard (IV Corps) under Major General William B. Franklin stopped Jackson's divisions at the White Oak Bridge, resulting in an exchange of artillery, while a larger battle raged two miles away at Glendale. Because of Franklin's resistance, Jackson was prevented from joining the assault on the Union Army.
The Confederate divisions of Longstreet, Huger, and A.P. Hill converged on the retreating Union Army near Glendale. Longstreet's and Hill's attacks penetrated Union defenses near Willis Church, routing Brigadier General George A. McCall's division. Union Brigadier Generals Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny would counter attack, sealing the break in the lines and saving their line of retreat. Confederate Major General Theophilus H. Holmes would make a half-hearted, and weak, attempt to turn the Union left flank at Turkey Bridge, but Federal gunboats on the James would drive him back.
The final battle of the Seven Days was fought on July 1, as Lee launched a series of assaults on Malvern Hill, where the Federals had fallen back during the night and strengthened their defenses considerably. This time, Lee was forced to withdraw, as the Confederates sustained more than 5,300 casualties without gaining any ground. Despite his victory, McClellan continued his retreat to Harrison's Landing on the James, where all of his forces would be taken across under the protection of his gunboats. His Peninsular Campaign was over.
Second Battle of Bull Run
At about the same time, the scattered Federal forces in Northern Virginia were organized into the Army of Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope, who arrived with a reputation freshly won in the war's western theater. Gambling that McClellan would cause no further trouble around Richmond, Lee sent Stonewall Jackson's corps northward to deal with Pope, clashing indecisively at Cedar Mountain on August 9. Meanwhile, learning that the Army of the Potomac was withdrawing by water to join Pope, Lee marched with Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps to bolster Jackson. Pope successfully foiled Lee's attempts to gain a tactical advantage on the Rapidan by withdrawing his army to the north bank of the Rappahannock River. Lee knew that if he was to defeat Pope he would have to strike before McClellan's army arrived in Northern Virginia. On August 25 Lee boldly started Jackson's wing on a march of over 50 miles, around the Union right flank to strike at Pope's rear. Two days later, Jackson's veterans seized Pope's supply depot at Manassas Junction.
Stung by the attack on his supply base, Pope abandoned the line of the Rappahannock and headed toward Manassas to fight Jackson. At the same time, Lee was moving northward with Longstreet's corps to reunite his army. On the afternoon of August 28, to prevent the Federal commander's efforts to concentrate at Centreville and to bring Pope to battle, Jackson order his troops to attack a Union column as it marched past on the Warrenton Turnpike. This savage fight at Brawner's Farm lasted until dark.
Convinced that Jackson was isolated, Pope ordered his columns to converge on Groveton. He was sure that he could destroy Jackson before Lee and Longstreet could intervene.
On the 29th Pope's army found Jackson's men posted along an unfinished railroad grade, north of the turnpike. All afternoon, in a series of uncoordinated attacks, Pope hurled his men against the Confederate position. In several places the Yankees momentarily breached Jackson's line, but each time were forced back.
During the afternoon, Longstreet's troops arrived on the battlefield and, unknown to Pope, deployed on Jackson's right, overlapping the exposed Union left. Lee urged Longstreet to attack, but "Old Pete" demurred. "The time was just not right," he said.
Just before noon on August 30 Pope ordered his army forward in pursuit of an enemy he thought was retreating. The pursuit however, was short-lived. Pope found that Lee had gone nowhere. Amazingly, Pope ordered yet another attack against Jackson's line. Fitz-John Porter's corps, along with part of McDowell's, struck Starke's division at the unfinished railroad's "Deep Cut." The southerners held firm, and Porter's column was hurled back in a bloody repulse. Seeing the Union lines in disarray, Longstreet pushed his massive columns forward and staggered the Union left. Pope's army was faced with annihilation; only a heroic stand by northern troops, first on Chinn Ridge and then once again on Henry Hill, bought time for Pope's hardpressed Union forces. Finally under cover of darkness the defeated Union army withdrew across the Bull Run toward the defenses of Washington. Lee's bold and brilliant Second Manassas campaign opened the way for the south's first invasion fo the north, and a bid for foreign intervention. 9,420 of Lee's men were killed or wounded, while Pope lost 14,449.
Sitting on the Tennessee River was Fort Henry, some twelve miles from the Cumberland River and Fort Donelson, and a linchpin in the defensive line held by Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. Both forts guarded rich agricultural land and mineral deposits, as well as guarding the passage to the city of Nashville, Tennessee. Hoping to regain control of the rivers there as well as driving a wedge in the Confederate lines, Union General Henry Halleck sent Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Andrew Foote on an endeavour to capture both forts. Seven woodclad gunboats gave support to a force of some 15,000 men as they journeyed along the Tennessee to Fort Henry, where they faced a Confederate force of 2,500 massed in a weak defensive line. The Union victory was largely the result of the gunboat bombardment; Grant's force had arrived too late to take part in the action. Casualties were small; the Union lost 11 killed and 31 wounded, while Southern losses stood at 5 killed, 11 wounded, and 78 taken prisoner. Tilghman ended up surrendering to the gunboats; his remaining men retreated to Fort Donelson, and prepared improving the defenses there.
Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote's Union gunboat fleet arrived from Fort Henry on February 14, consisting of the ironclads St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Corondolet, and the timber-clad gunboats Conestoga and Tyler, and began exchanging what they called "iron valentines" with the Southern batteries. During this one and one-half hour duel Foote was wounded, and the Confederates inflicted such extensive damage upon the gunboats (the hills the batteries were on provided the Confederates with the opportunity to hit the gunboats' angled sides more directly) that they were forced to retreat, eliciting cheers from Johnny Reb.
Rejoicing as well, albeit soberly, were the Confederate generals at Fort Donelson: John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, Simon B. Buckner and Bushrod Johnson. They were aware that Grant was receiving reinforcements daily and had extended his right flank almost to Lick Creek to complete his encirclement of the Southerners. If Confederate forces in the area did not move fast, they would face a siege and be starved into submission. Accordingly, they massed their troops against the Union right, hoping to clear a route to Nashville and safety. The battle on February 15 raged all morning, the Union Army grudgingly retreating step by step. Just as it seemed the way was clear, the Southern troops were ordered to return to their entrenchments—a result of confusion and indecision among the Confederate commanders. Grant immediately launched a vigorous counterattack, retaking most of the lost ground and gaining new positions as well.
Floyd then turned to his executive officer, Pillow, and turned over command of Fort Donelson to him. Pillow, in turn, turned over command to Buckner and slipped away to Nashville with about 2,000 men. In disgust, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest declared he wasn't about to surrender his command, and thereupon took his cavalry across swollen Lick Creek. That morning, February 16, Buckner, perhaps recalling his generosity towards Grant when the latter was in dire financial need, asked Grant for terms of surrender:
- SIR:—In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station, I propose to the Commanding Officer of the Federal forces the appointment of Commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and fort under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.
- I am, sir, very respectfully,
- Your ob’t se’v’t,
- S. B. BUCKNER,
- Brig. Gen. C. S. A.
What he received in reply was certainly not what he expected:
- Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
- I am Sir: very respectfully
- Your obt. sevt.
- U.S. Grant
- Brig. Gen. 
Buckner surrendered soon after, his complaint of Grant's "ungenerous and unchivalrous terms" notwithstanding. Included in the surrender was close to 15,000 men and 48 guns, and the provisions and ammunition to maintain both. Buckner spent several months north as a prisoner of war until exchanged in August; Grant even repayed the loan Buckner gave him years before.
After the fall of Fort Donelson, the South was forced to give up southern Kentucky and much of Middle and West Tennessee. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, and railroads in the area, became vital Federal supply lines. Nashville was soon to be developed into a huge supply depot for the Union army in the west. The heartland of the Confederacy was opened, and the Union got a new hero in U.S. Grant, whose name was changed in newspapers to "Unconditional Surrender Grant"; the same papers would also state that Grant had coolly directed the battle with a cigar clamped clamped between his teeth, which caused admirers of the general to send him so many cigars that he gave up his pipe.
Forced to abandon Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, General Albert Sidney Johnston, supreme Confederate commander in the West, moved to protect his rail communications by concentrating his scattered forces around the small town of Corinth in northeast Mississippi—strategic crossroads of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio.
In March, Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding U.S. forces in the West, advanced the armies under Grant and Don Carlos Buell southward to sever the Southern railroads. Grant ascended the Tennessee River by steamboat, disembarking his Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles northeast of Corinth. There he established a base of operations on a plateau west of the river, with his forward camps posted two miles inland around a log church called the Shiloh Meeting House. Halleck had specifically instructed Grant not to engage the Confederates until he had been reinforced by Buell's Army of the Ohio, then marching overland from Nashville. Once combined, the two armies would advance on Corinth and permanently break western Confederate railroad communications.
General Johnston, aware of Federal designs on Corinth, planned to smash Grant's army at Pittsburg Landing before Buell arrived. He placed his troops in motion on April 3, but heavy rain and difficulties encountered by marching large columns of men, artillery, and heavy wagons over muddy roads, delayed the attack. By nightfall, April 5, his Army of the Mississippi, nearly 44,000 men present for duty, was finally deployed for battle four miles southwest of Pittsburg Landing.
At daybreak, Sunday, April 6, the Confederates stormed out of the woods and assailed the forward Federal camps around Shiloh Church. Grant and his nearly 40,000 men present for duty were equally surprised by the onslaught. The Federals soon rallied, however, and bitter fighting consumed Shiloh Hill. Throughout the morning, Confederate brigades slowly gained ground, forcing Grant's troops to give way, grudgingly, to fight a succession of defensive stands at Shiloh Church, the Peach Orchard, Water Oaks Pond, and within an impenetrable oak thicket battle survivors named the Hornets' Nest.
Despite having achieved surprise, Johnston's troops soon became as disorganized as the Federals. The Southern attack lost coordination as corps, divisions, and brigades became entangled. Then, at mid-afternoon, as he supervised an assault on the Union left, Johnston was struck in the right leg by a stray bullet; he directed operations over the next half-hour before his weakness made him realize that the bullet severed an artery. Johnston's death from blood loss left General P.G.T. Beauregard in command of the Confederate army. Grant's battered divisions retired to a strong position extending west from Pittsburg Landing where massed artillery and rugged ravines protected their front and flanks. Fighting ended at nightfall, and Grant was left alone in his tent, emotionally drained.
Beauregard, unaware Buell had arrived with reinforcements during the night, planned to finish off Grant the next day. At dawn, April 7, however, it was Grant who attacked. Throughout the day, the combined Union armies, numbering over 54,500 men, hammered Beauregard's depleted ranks, now mustering barely 34,000 troops. Despite mounting desperate counterattacks, the exhausted Confederates could not stem the increasingly stronger Federal tide. Forced back to Shiloh Church, Beauregard skillfully withdrew his outnumbered command and returned to Corinth. The battered Federals did not press the pursuit, and the battle of Shiloh was over. It had cost both sides a combined total of 23,746 men killed, wounded, or missing—more casualties than America had suffered in all previous wars—and ultimate control of Corinth’s railroad junction remained in doubt.
Shiloh was a Hebrew word that ironically meant "peace." Said one veteran later, "No soldier who took part in the two day’s engagement at Shiloh ever spoiled for a fight again. We wanted a square, stand-up fight [and] got all we wanted of it."
Halleck, recognizing Corinth’s military value, considered its capture more important than the destruction of Confederate armies. Reinforced by another army under Major General John Pope, he cautiously advanced southward from Tennessee and, by late May, entrenched his three armies within cannon range of Confederate fortifications defending the strategic crossroads. Despite being reinforced by Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Trans-Mississippi Army, Beauregard withdrew south to Tupelo, abandoning the most viable line of east-west rail communications in the western Confederacy.
Federal efforts to recover the Mississippi Valley stalled in the late summer of 1862, and Confederate leaders launched counteroffensives in every theater. Armies led by Major Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky, while troops under Van Dorn boldly attacked the heavily fortified Union garrison at Corinth, linchpin of Federal control in northern Mississippi. In one of the more bitterly contested battles of the war, Van Dorn was decisively repulsed, following two days of carnage (October 3-4) that claimed nearly 7,000 more Confederate and Union casualties.
Although overshadowed by the failure of Robert E. Lee's Confederate invasion in Maryland, Van Dorn's defeat, coupled with Bragg's retreat from Kentucky after the battle of Perryville (October 8), caused discouragement in Richmond and relief in Washington. More significantly, Van Dorn's defeat at Corinth—the last Confederate offensive in Mississippi—seriously weakened the only mobile Southern army defending the Mississippi Valley. This permitted Ulysses S. Grant to launch a relentless nine-month campaign to secure the final nail for control of the Mississippi River: Vicksburg.
Halleck knew that the Missouri State Guard was a symbol of open defiance to Federal authority in Missouri and that its continued presence in the state might still encourage secession. On December 25, 1861, he placed Brigadier General Samuel Ryan Curtis in command of all the Union forces in the state, with orders were to destroy the Missouri State Guard at its winter quarters in Springfield or to drive it from the state.
Curtis' Army of the Southwest began its campaign on February 10, 1862. The army marched quickly over the rough, frozen roads, and caught the Missouri State Guard, and its commander, Major General Sterling Price, by surprise. Price abandoned Springfield on February 13, and retreated south into Arkansas. The two armies fought a series of skirmishes along the way and on February 17, one week after beginning its campaign, Curtis triumphantly telegraphed Halleck, "The flag of our Union again floats in Arkansas." As the Federals crossed the border into Arkansas, a brass band played "Yankee Doodle" and "The Arkansas Traveler".
Aware of Union movements was Van Dorn, who had been appointed overall commander of the Trans-Mississippi District to quell a simmering conflict between competing generals Price and Benjamin McCulloch of Texas. Van Dorn's Army of the West totaled approximately 16,000 men, including 800 Cherokee Indian troops, as well as contingents from the Missouri State Guard, Confederate cavalry, and infantry and artillery from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri. Van Dorn intended to destroy Curtis and reopen the gateway into Missouri.
On March 4, 1862, Van Dorn, not wishing to engage Curtis directly, split his army into two divisions under Price and McCulloch and ordered them to march north along the Bentonville Detour; his intention was to flank Curtis and cut off his lines of communication. To make speed, Van Dorn left his supply trains behind, and in the midst of a freezing storm, the Confederates succeeded in making a forced, three-day march, falling into position hungry and tired.
McCulloch arrived late, causing Van Dorn to split his army in two: McColloch would circle Pea Ridge to the west, then turn east to meet Price at Elkhorn Tavern, which would be taken by Van Dorn and Price.
McCulloch's troops swung to the west around Pea Ridge as planned, but they met Federal troops the village of Leetown, and a fierce fight took place. McCulloch and a cavalry commander named Colonel James McIntosh were killed in action soon after the clash began, and McIntosh's commander Colonel Louis Hébert was captured. The Confederate command structure was thus shattered, rendering an organized, effective attack useless.
Encountering Federals at Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn ordered an attack, and succeeded in driving back the Federals by nightfall, as well as securing the Telegraph and Huntsville Roads and cutting Curtis's lines of communication. Van Dorn would discover McColloch's fate from the survivors who made their way to the tavern.
Curtis meanwhile had massed his artillery during the night, and on the morning of March 8 launched a counterattack. The massed artillery, combined with cavalry and infantry attacks, weakened the Confederate lines, and by noon Van Dorn, already low on ammunition, realized his critical mistake: he had left his supply trains, with ammunition, miles away. With no hope of re-supplying his men, Van Dorn, although he had outnumbered Curtis almost two-to-one, withdrew from the battle.
The Mississippi had to be opened, Lincoln realized as early as the beginning of the war, and opening it was a central part of Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan". Rear Admiral David D. Porter suggested a plan calling for a flotilla of warships steam up the Mississippi, bypass any forts there, and take New Orleans, while an Army unit would bring up the rear, occupying the forts and the town.
Major General Benjamin F. Butler was a Democrat from Massachusetts who was once a powerful member in Congress who quickly won over the Republicans with a request for a commission as the war began. He was chosen to lead the Army side of the New Orleans operation, in part because as soon as he received his commission he was a thorn in the side of Lincoln, McClellan, and many others. "All would be relieved were this restless officer sent to Ship Island or the far southwest'" said Gideon Welles dryly, "where his energy, activity and impulsive force might be employed in desultory aquatic and shore duty in concert with the Navy"
Command of the New Orleans operation fell to the Navy, and Rear Admiral Porter suggested fellow sailor David Glasgow Farragut, a vigorous, 60-year old captain with a penchant for doing handstands to celebrate his birthday. When the war opened, he had packed his bags and took his Southern wife north from Norfolk to Hastings-On-Hudson, near New York City. But desk jobs were his lot, due to the Southern connections, and even now it was not known exactly where his loyalties lay.
Porter met Farrgut in Brooklyn, and the two chatted amiably about family and life, before the topic changed to the war. Porter then mentioned several fellow officers who "went South".
"Those damned fellows will catch it yet!" Farragut remarked with mixed disgust and anger. Encouraged, Porter then asked directly, "Would you accept a command such as no officer in our navy ever held to go and fight those fellows?"
Farragut then realized that Porter's visit was serious. "I cannot fight against Norfolk!" he said. Then Porter announced that Farragut was not the man for the job, "For Norfolk will be the very place attacked first, and that den of traitors must be wiped out." Farragut accepted anyway, setting aside sentiment for loyalty. "I will take that command," he shouted at Porter, "only don't you triffle with me!" On December 21, he was in Washington, learning to his delight that his orders were to take New Orleans instead. But first his flotilla had to get past Forts Jackson and St. Phillip on the Mississppi, which were guarded by a Confederate fleet of eleven ships, of which three were ironclads: Manassas, Louisiana, and the unfinished Mississippi.
Farragut based his operations from Ship Island, Mississippi, and on April 8, he assembled 24 of his vessels and Porter's 19 mortar schooners near the Head of the Passes. Starting on the 16th and continuing for seven days, the mortar schooners bombarded Fort Jackson but failed to silence its guns. Some of Farragut’s gunboats opened a way through the obstruction on the night of the 22nd. Early on the morning of the 24th, Farragut sent his ships north to pass the forts and head for New Orleans. Although the Rebels attempted to stop the Union ships in various ways, including the unsuccessful ramming of Farragut's flagship Brooklyn by the little ironclad Manassas, most of the force successfully passed the forts and continued on to New Orleans where Farragut accepted the city’s surrender. With the passage of the forts, nothing could stop the Union forces: the fall of New Orleans was inevitable and anti-climatic. Cut off and surrounded, the garrisons of the two forts surrendered on the 28th.
Farragut anchored his ship in front of New Orleans at noon, April 25; an armed emissary would walk through a mob to demand the city's surrender. When Butler's soldiers arrived a short time later, one of the first acts they did was to go to Jefferson Square, and on the pedestal of Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans in the War of 1812, they carved a Jacksonian slogan which went out of style in the South: "The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved".
Butler would gain infamy of sorts with his occupation of the city. He was called "Spoons" for his habit of pilfering silver from well-to-do families; once, he had seized $800,000 that was held by the Dutch consul. But his most egregious act was to issue "General Order No. 28" on May 15, 1862, in which the women, if they continued to insult his troops, would be treated as "woman of the town plying her avocation", which meant they would be jailed as prostitutes. (TL 9, pp 58-73)
On Thursday morning, September 4, 1862, the dirty, ragged Army of Northern Virginia, marching to the strains of "Maryland, my Maryland", splashed across the shallow fords of the Potomac River just north of Leesburg to trod on Union soil. Upon his arrival in Frederick, Lee drew up a Proclamation to the People of Maryland , inviting them to side with the Southern movement. For the next several days Lee's troops, upon strict orders not to pillage, bought food and all the shoes and clothing they could find at the stores in town. The early fall also marked the key harvest months in the South, and by bringing his army north, Lee knew that the Federals would mirror his movements and take up defensive positions in front of Washington and Baltimore, and allow Southern farmers to gather in their own harvest unmolested by Union troops.
Lee also hoped that by his moving into Maryland the undecided border state would join the Southern cause. Possibly he could influence the upcoming Congressional Elections and cause more Democrats--who favored peace--to be able to outvote the Republican majority in the House and demand an end to the war, thus bringing in a larger objective: foreign recognition of the Confederacy, with the inevitable aid from Britain and France. A victory on a Northern battlefield might cause the people of the North to question President Lincoln's leadership and force him to sue for peace.
By midmorning on September 6, General "Stonewall" Jackson's advance force of 5,000 men marched down Market Street in Frederick and made camp on the north side of town. The remainder of Lee's 40,000-man army soon followed.
Lee drew up a new set of plans. He would divide his forces into four sections, sending Jackson with six divisions of 22,000 men to eliminate the 12,000-strong Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry to the southwest. The remaining three divisions of Lee's forces--18,000 men under Longstreet--would move northwest over the Catoctin and South Mountain ranges to Boonsboro and Hagerstown, a distance of 25 miles.
Upon securing Harpers Ferry Jackson would rejoin Lee and Longstreet at Hagerstown. Then Lee would move his combined Confederate forces northeast along the rail line to Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania and a key rail center for the Union, and use the mountains to protect his right flank. Early on Wednesday morning, September 10, Lee's forces began leaving Frederick to carry out their assignments.
But Lee expected Major General George McClellan, back in command of the Army of the Potomac after the disaster at 2nd Bull Run, to reorganize his army in weeks; McClellan did it in days. Lee also didn't expect that the garrison at Harpers Ferry would have orders to stand and fight; and third, he didn't expect that three cigars would be found on an empty Confederate campsite by a Union private, all neatly held together by his orders for battle .
When Lee learned that McClellan's army was moving westward from Frederick, he realized the peril in which his divided forces found themselves. Quickly he sent troops to block the three main passes over South Mountain, providing sufficient time to concentrate the majority of his forces in a defensive position around Sharpsburg, six miles to the southwest of Boonsboro. At the same time McClellan, with 85,000 men, gathered on the east bank of the Antietam Creek. When Jackson's troops reached Sharpsburg on September 16th, Harpers Ferry having surrendered the day before, Lee consolidated his position along the low ridge that runs north and south of the town--stretching from the Potomac River on his left to Antietam Creek on his right. "We will make our stand on these hills," Lee told his officers.
All the pieces fell into place.
The Bloodiest Day
The battle opened at a damp, murky dawn on the 17th when Union artillery on the bluffs beyond Antietam Creek began a murderous fire on Jackson's lines near the Dunker Church. As the Federals marched toward Miller's Cornfield north of town, the Confederates rose up in the cornfield and fired on the advancing lines. McClellan responded by withdrawing his infantry and training cannon on the corn. "In the time I am writing," Major General Joseph Hooker reported, "every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before." Hooker's troops advanced again, driving the Confederates before them, and Jackson reported that his men were "exposed for near an hour to a terrific storm of shell, canister, and musketry." About 7 a.m. Jackson was reinforced and succeeded in driving the Federals back.
An hour later Union troops under Major General Joseph Mansfield counterattacked and regained some of the lost ground. Less than 200 yards apart, the opposing lines fired lead into each other for a half hour. "They stood and shot each other, until the lines melted away like wax," reported a New York soldier, Isaac Hall. Fighting continued back and forth over the 20-acre cornfield, with the field changing hands 15 times, according to some accounts.
Then, in an effort to turn the Confederate left flank, Gen. John Sedgwick's division of Gen. Edwin V. Sumner's corps advanced into the West Woods. There Confederate troops arriving from other parts of the field struck Sedgwick's flank, killing or wounding nearly half of his division--about 2,255 men--within a quarter hour of point-blank fire. At the end of three hours more than 10,000 of them lay dead or wounded, covered in shattered cornstalks.
Meanwhile, Major General William H. French's division of Sumner's Union corps moved up to support Sedgwick but veered south into the center of the Confederate line, under Brigadier General D. H. Hill. The Confederates were posted along a ridge in an old sunken road separating the Roulette and Piper farms. The 800-yard-long road had been worn down over the years by heavy wagons taking grain to the nearby mill, making an ideal defensive trench for the Rebels, and at dawn some five brigades of Hill's troops were guarding it. Soon three brigades had been pulled out to support Jackson in the East Woods, but they were beaten back by Union Brigadier General George Greene's attack on that position. By 9:30 a.m. the Confederates were stacking fence rails on the north side of the road to provide additional protection from the Union forces, advancing in paradelike precision across the field.
Firing from behind these improvised breastworks and sheltered in the Sunken Road, the Rebels seemed unassailable. They repelled four different Union charges against the position. "For three hours and thirty minutes," one Union officer wrote, "the battle raged incessantly, without either party giving way." From 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., bitter fighting raged along this deeply cut lane (afterward known as Bloody Lane) as French, supported by Major General Israel B. Richardson's division, also of Sumner's corps, sought to drive the Southerners back. By 1 p.m. both sides of Bloody Lane bore 5,600 killed and wounded men.
Finally, seeing a weak spot in the Confederate line, the 61st and 64th New York regiments penetrated the crest of the hill at the eastern end and began firing volley after volley full length down the sunken line. Then, misinterpreting an order, a Confederate officer pulled his regiment out of the road. The remaining defenders rapidly scrambled out of the lane, over the fence, and fled through the cornfields to the south, some not stopping until they had reached the outskirts of Sharpsburg itself. More than 300 Rebels threw down their arms and surrendered on the spot.
"Lee's army was ruined," one of Lee's officers wrote later. "And the end of the Confederacy was in sight." About 200 Rebel infantry attempted a weak counterattack, while Lee rushed 20 cannon to the Piper farm. An attack through this hole would have crushed the Confederate center, and the remaining divisions could be destroyed piecemeal. But McClellan decided against a counterattack with his fresh reserves.
Southeast of Sharpsburg, Union Major General Ambrose Burnside's corps of 12,000 men had been trying to cross a 12-foot-wide bridge over Antietam Creek since 9:30 a.m. About 450 Georgian sharpshooters took up positions behind trees and boulders on a steep wooded bluff some 100 feet high and overlooking the Lower Bridge. Greatly outnumbered, the Confederates drove back several Union advances toward the bridge. Finally, at 1 p.m. the Federals crossed the 125-foot-long bridge (now known as Burnside Bridge) and, after a 2-hour delay to rest and replenish ammunition, continued their advance toward Sharpsburg.
By late afternoon about 8,000 Union troops had driven the Confederates back almost to Sharpsburg, threatening to cut off the line of retreat for Lee's army. By 3:30 p.m. many Rebels jammed the streets of Sharpsburg in retreat. The battle seemed lost to the Southern army. Then at 3:40 p.m. Major General A. P. Hill's division, left behind by Jackson at Harpers Ferry to salvage the captured Federal property, arrived on the field after a march of 17 miles in eight hours. Immediately Hill's 3,000 troops entered the fight, attacking the Federals' unprotected left flank. Burnside's troops were driven back to the heights near the bridge they had taken earlier. The attack across the Burnside Bridge and Hill's counterattack in the fields south of Antietam resulted in 3,470 casualties--with twice as many Union casualties (2,350) as Confederate (1,120).
Longstreet later wrote, "We were so badly crushed that at the close of the day ten thousand fresh troops could have come in and taken Lee's army and everything in it." But again McClellan held the 20,000 men of V Corps and VI Corps in reserve--and lost a second opportunity to defeat the entire Confederate army. By 5:30 p.m., the Battle of Antietam was over.
The next day Federal and Confederate leaders struck up an informal truce, so they could begin gathering up the wounded, the dying, and the dead. During the evening of the 18th Lee began withdrawing his army across the Potomac River.
Federal losses were 12,410, Confederate losses 10,700, a loss of one in four men. More casualties were claimed in just one day at Antietam then they were in all of the previous American wars combined.
McClellan, Lincoln reflected, had Lee in his palm and let him get away. He could have cut him off at the Potomac, and forced him to surrender; instead, he learned from the court-marshal of an officer that the game was that "neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery." 
Lincoln was going to break up that game, and he made his way to McClellan's headquarters to count 88,000 men fit for duty, even after the staggering losses of the weeks before. On a ridge with a friend, Ozias Hatch, he asked him what he saw below. "The Army of the Potomac," was Hatch's reply. Lincoln sighed. "So it is called, but that is a mistake; it is only McClellan's bodyguard."
When McClellan was given orders to advance his army, and didn't, Lincoln removed him from command for the last time, November 5, 1862, and appointed Burnside in his place. When given the news, Burnside was said to have protested his own unfitness for commanding such a large force, all 120,000 men in camps near Warrenton, Virginia. But despite his misgivings, Burnside proposed abandoning McClellan's southwesterly advance in favor of a 40-mile dash across country to Fredericksburg. Such a maneuver would position the Federal army on the direct road to Richmond, the Confederate capital, as well as ensure a secure supply line to Washington. Lincoln approved Burnside's initiative but advised him to march quickly, which he did, covering the ground in two days; by November 17 the lead units arrived opposite Fredericksburg on Stafford Heights.
Burnside's swift march placed Lee at a perilous disadvantage. After the Maryland Campaign, Lee had boldly divided his 78,000 men, leaving Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley while sending Longstreet to face the Federals at Culpeper. Lee had not anticipated Burnside's shift to Fredericksburg and now neither of his wings was in position to defend the old city. But the Federals could not move South, however, without first crossing the Rappahannock River, flowing across his path to Richmond. Because the civilian bridges had been destroyed earlier in the war, Burnside directed that pontoon equipment meet him at Stafford Heights. Miscommunication, inefficient bureaucracy, and poor weather delayed the arrival of the pontoons. Longstreet's corps was already in place in the hills behind Fredericksburg on the 19th. Jackson would arrive the following week. The pontoons had arrived on the 25th.
The Confederate army thus guarded a long stretch of the Rappahannock, unsure of where the Federals might attempt a crossing. Burnside harbored the same uncertainties. After agonizing deliberation, he finally decided to build bridges at three places - two opposite the city and the other one a mile downstream. The Union commander knew that Jackson's corps could not assist Longstreet in resisting a river passage near town. Thus, Burnside's superior numbers would encounter only half of Lee's legions. Once across the river, the Federals would strike Longstreet's overmatched defenders, outflank Jackson, and send the whole Confederate army reeling toward Richmond. On December 11 Union engineers crept to the riverbank and began laying their pontoons. Skilled workmen from two New York regiments completed a pair of bridges at the lower crossing and pushed the upstream spans more than halfway to the fight bank; then the sharp crack of musketry erupted from the river-front houses and yards of Fredericksburg. The shots came from a brigade of Mississippians under William Barksdale. Their job was to delay any Federal attempt to negotiate the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. "Nine distinct and desperate attempts were made to complete the bridge[s]," reported a Confederate officer, "but every one was attended by such heavy loss that the efforts were abandoned.."
An artillery barrage by Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt against the Confederate sharpshooters brought the bridge engineers some respite, but when it ended some two hours later and the engineers went back to work, so the the Confederates. More pontoniers fell into the water.
Burnside now authorized volunteers to ferry themselves across the river in the clumsy pontoon boats. Men from Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York scrambled aboard the scows, frantically pulling at oar's to navigate the hazardous 400 feet to the Confederates' side. Once on shore, the Federals charged Barksdale's marksmen who, despite orders to fall back, fiercely contested each block in a rare example of during the Civil War. After dusk the brave Mississippians finally withdrew to their main line, the bridge builders completed their work, and the Army of the Potomac entered Fredericksburg. By morning on the 12th, Burnside began sending reinforcements into the city but made no effort to organize an attack. Instead, the Northerners squandered the day looting and vandalizing homes and shops. A Connecticut chaplain would write:
- "I saw men break down the doors to rooms of fine houses, enter, shatter the looking glasses with the blow of the ax, [and] knock the vases and lamps off the mantelpiece with a careless swing ... A cavalry man sat down at a fine rosewood Piano ... drove his saber through the polished keys, then knocked off the top [and] tore out the strings ..."
When Jackson's men arrived from downstream, Longstreet sidled his corps to the north, defending roughly five miles of Lee's front. He mounted guns at Strong points such as Taylor's Hill, Marye's Heights, Howison Hill, and Telegraph Hill, the Confederate command post. "Old Pete's" five divisions of infantry supported his artillery at the base of the slopes.
Below Marye's Heights a Georgia brigade under Brigadier General Thomas R. R. Cobb poised along a 600-yard portion of the Telegraph Road, the main thoroughfare to Richmond, and looking rather sunken and trench-like from years of wagons traffic. Jackson's end of the line possessed less inherent strength. His command post at Prospect Hill rose only 65 feet above the surrounding plain. Jackson compensated for the weak terrain by stacking his four divisions one behind the other to a depth of nearly a mile. Any Union offensive against Lee's seven-mile line would traverse a virtually naked expanse in the teeth of a deadly artillery crossfire before reaching the Confederate infantry.
Burnside issued his attack orders early on the morning of December 13. They called for an assault against Jackson's corps by Major General William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division to be followed by an advance against Marye's Heights by Major General Edwin V. Sumner's Right Grand Division. Burnside used tentative, ambiguous language in his directives, reflecting either a lack of confidence in his plan or a misunderstanding of his opponent's posture, or perhaps both.
Burnside had reinforced Franklin's sector on the morning of battle to a strength of some 60,000 men. Franklin, a brilliant engineer but cautious combatant, placed the most literal and conservative interpretation on Burnside's ill-phrased instructions. He designated Major General George G. Meade's division -- just 4,500 troops -- to spearhead his attack.
Meade's men, Pennsylvanians all, moved out in the misty half-light about 8:30 a.m. and headed straight for Jackson's line, not quite one mile distant. Suddenly, artillery fire exploded to the left and rear of Meade's lines. Major John Pelham had valiantly moved two small guns into position along the Richmond Stage Road perpendicular to Meade's axis of march. The 24 year-old Alabamian ignored orders from Major General J.E.B. Stuart to disengage and continued to disrupt the Federal formations for almost an hour. General Lee, watching the action from Prospect Hill, remarked, "it is glorious to see such courage in one so young." When Pelham exhausted his ammunition and retired, Meade resumed his approach, Jackson patiently allowed the Federals to close to within 500 yards of the wooded elevation where a 14-gun battalion lay hidden in the trees. As the Pennsylvanians drew near to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad north of Hamilton's Crossing, Jackson unleashed his masked artillery. Confederate shells ripped gaping holes in Meade's ranks and the beleaguered Unionists sought protection behind wrinkles of ground in the open fields.
Union guns responded to Jackson's cannoneers. A full throated artillery duel raged for an hour, killing so many draft animals that the Southerners called their position "Dead Horse Hill." When one Union shot spectacularly exploded a Confederate ammunition wagon, the crouching Federal infantry let loose a spontaneous Yankee cheer. Meade, seizing the moment, ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. Meade's soldiers focused on a triangular point of woods that jutted toward them across the railroad as the point of reference for their assault. When they reached these trees they learned, to their delight, that no Southerners defended them. In fact, Jackson had allowed a 600-yard gap to exist along his front and Meade's troops accidentally discovered it.
The Unionists pushed through the boggy forest and hit a brigade of South Carolinians, who at first mistook the attackers for retreating Confederates. Their commander, Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg, paid for this error with a fatal bullet through his spine. Meade's men rolled forward and gained the crest of the heights deep within Jackson's defenses.
Jackson, who had learned of the crisis in his front from an officer in Gregg's brigade, calmly directed his vast reserves to move forward and restore the line, and drove Meade out of the forest, across the railroad, and through the fields to the Richmond Stage Road. Union artillery eventually arrested the Confederate momentum. Except for a minor probe by a New Jersey brigade in the late afternoon and an aborted Confederate offensive at dusk, the fighting on the south end of the field was over.
Burnside waited anxiously at his headquarters on Stafford Heights for news of Franklin's offensive. According to the Union plan, the advance through Fredericksburg toward Marye's Heights would not commence until the Left Grand Division began rolling up Jackson's corps. By late morning, however, the despairing Federal commander discarded his already-suspect strategy and ordered Sumner's grand division to move to the attack.
In several ways, Marye's Heights offered the Federals their most promising target. Not only did this sector of Lee's defenses lie closest to the shelter of Fredericksburg, but the ground rose less steeply here than on the surrounding hills. Nevertheless, Union soldiers had to leave the city, descend into a valley bisected by a water-filled canal ditch, and ascend an open slope of 400 yards to reach the base of the heights. Artillery atop Marye's Heights and nearby elevations would thoroughly blanket the Federal approach. "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it," boasted a Confederate cannoneer.
The sunken road
Sumner's first assault began at noon and set the pattern for a ghastly series of attacks that continued, one after another, until dark. As soon as the Northerners marched out of Fredericksburg, Longstreet's artillery wreaked havoc on the crisp blue formations. The Unionists then encountered a deadly bottleneck at the canal ditch which was spanned by partially-destroyed bridges at only three places. Once across this obstacle, the attackers established shallow battle lines under cover of a slight bluff that shielded them from Rebel eyes.
Orders then rang out for the final advance. The landscape beyond the canal ditch contained a few buildings and fences, but from the military perspective it provided virtually no protection. Dozens of Southern cannon immediately reopened on the easy targets and when the Federals traversed about half the remaining distance, as sheet of flame spewed forth from the Sunken Road. This rifle fire decimated the Northerners. Survivors found refuge behind a small swale in the ground or retreated back to the canal ditch valley.
Quickly a new Federal brigade burst toward Marye's Heights and the "terrible stone wall," then another, and another, until three entire divisions had hurled themselves at the Confederate bastion. In one hour, the Army of the Potomac lost nearly 3,000 men; but the madness continued.
Although General Cobb suffered a mortal wound early in the action, the Southern line remained firm. Kershaw's Brigade joined North Carolinians in reinforcing Cobb's men in the Sunken Road. The Confederates stood four ranks deep, maintaining a ceaseless musketry while the gray artillerists fired over their heads.
More Union units tested the impossible. "We came forward as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet, our faces and bodies being only half-turned to the storm, our shoulders shrugged," remembered one Federal. "Everybody from the smallest drummer boy on up seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity," recalled another. But each blue wave crested short of the goal. Not a single Union soldier laid his hand on the stone wall.
Lee, from his lofty perch on Telegraph Hill, watched Longstreet's almost casual destruction of Burnside's divisions as Jackson's counterattack repulsed Meade. Turning toward Longstreet, Lee confessed, "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."
Burnside ordered Major General Joseph Hooker's Center Grand Division to join the attack in the afternoon, and late in the day, troops from the Fifth Corps moved forward. Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys led his division through the human debris of the previous assaults. Some of Humphreys' soldiers shook off well-meaning hands that clutched at them to prevent their advance. Part of one brigade sustained its momentum until it drew within 25 yards of the stone wall. There, it too melted away.
The final Union effort began after sunset. Colonel Rush C. Hawkins' brigade, the fifteenth such Federal unit to charge the Sunken Road that day, enjoyed no more success than its predecessors. Darkness shrouded the battlefield and at last the guns fell silent.
The hideous cries of the wounded, "weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear," echoed through the night. Burnside wrote orders to renew the assaults on December 14, wishing to lead them personally, but his subordinates dissuaded him from this suicidal scheme. On the evening of December 15-16, Burnside skillfully withdrew his army to Stafford Heights, dismantling his bridges behind him in what was probably his only masterfully-carried out operation of the battle. The Fredericksburg Campaign had ended.
Andrew Curtin, the Governor of Pennsylvania, visited the White House after a trip to see for himself what was wrought at Fredericksburg. "It was not a battle, it was a butchery," he said to the president. The governor noted Lincoln's condition, heart-broken as he was over the loss, and bordering at times on near insanity.
By Christmas Bragg was back in middle Tennessee, battered but still anxious to recoup his losses at Perryville by recapturing Nashville. Buell, having been dilatory in pursuing Bragg, had been replaced in command of the Army of the Ohio (now restyled the Army of the Cumberland) by Major General William S. Rosecrans. In spite of urgent and even threatening letters from the War Department, the new commander would not move against Bragg until he had collected abundant supplies at Nashville. Then he would be independent of the railroad line from Nashville to Louisville, a line of communications continually cut by Confederate cavalry.
On December 26 Rosecrans finally marched south from Nashville. Poorly screened by Union cavalry, his three columns in turn knew little about Confederate concentrations near Murfreesboro, thirty miles southeast of the Tennessee capital. Here, Bragg had taken a strong position astride Stones River on the direct route to Chattanooga and proposed to fight it out. Rosecrans moved into line opposite Bragg on the evening of December 30. Both army commanders proceeded to develop identical battle plans, each designed to envelop the opponent’s right flank. Bragg’s objective was to drive Rosecrans off his communications line with Nashville and pin him against the river. Rosecrans’ plan had the same objective in reverse, that of pinning the Confederates against the stream. Victory would probably belong to the commander who struck first and hard.
Insufficient Federal security, as well as Rosecrans’ failure to ensure that the pivotal units in his attack plan were also properly posted to thwart Confederate counterattacks, resulted in Confederate seizure of the initiative as the battle of Stones River opened on December 31. At dawn Major General William J. Hardee’s corps with large cavalry support began the drive on the Federal right. Undeceived by their opponent’s device of extra campfires to feign a longer battle line, Confederate attacking columns simply pushed farther around the Union flank and promptly rolled the defenders back. Applying the principles of mass and surprise to achieve rapid success, Bragg’s battle plan forced Rosecrans to modify his own. The Union leader pulled back his left flank division, which had jumped off to attack Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate units north of Stones River. While Sheridan’s division, as at Perryville, provided stubborn resistance to General Polk’s corps in the center, Hardee’s units continued their drive and by noon saw the Union battle line bent back against the Nashville Pike. Meanwhile, the Confederate cavalry had wrought havoc among Rosecrans’ rear area elements. The attacking columns of Polk and Hardee became badly intermingled, their men began to tire, and by afternoon repeated Confederate assaults against the constricted Union line along the Nashville Pike had bogged down.
That night Rosecrans held a council of war. Some of the subordinate commanders wanted to retreat. Rosecrans and two of his corps commanders, Major General Thomas L. Crittenden and Major General George H. Thomas, vetoed the scheme. Brigades were then returned to their proper divisions, stragglers rounded up, and various other adjustments made in the Federal position. New Year’s Day, 1863, dawned quietly, and little action occurred that day.
The sunrise of January 2 revealed Rosecrans still in position. Bragg directed Breckinridge to attack the Union left wing, once more thrown across Stones River on the north. But massed Union artillery shattered the assaults, and counterattacking Federals drove Breckinridge’s men back to their line of departure. The armies remained stationary on January 3, but Bragg finally withdrew from the battlefield that evening, permitting victory to slip from his grasp. Tactically a draw, the Battle of Stones River so badly mangled the Army of the Cumberland that it would be immobilized for six months. Yet, more than most other battles of the war, Stones River was a conflict between the wills of the opposing army leaders. Rosecrans, supported by Thomas and others, would not admit himself beaten and in the end won a victory of sorts.
The year 1862, which began with impressive Union victories in the west, ended in bitter frustration in the east. Ten full-scale and costly battles had been fought, but no decisive victory had yet been scored by the forces of the Union. The Federals had broken the great Confederate counteroffensives in the fall, only to see their hopes fade with the advent of winter. Apparently the Union war machine had lost its earlier momentum and only decisive victories could regain the initiative.
Articles in the series
- Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 3 (The Blockade), Time Inc, New York (1983)
- Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 4 (The Road to Shiloh), Time Inc, New York (1983)
- Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 5 (Forward to Richmond), Time Inc, New York (1983)
- Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 8 (Lee Takes Command), Time Inc, New York (1984)
- Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 9 (The Coastal War), Time Inc, New York (1984)
- Bowman, John S. (editor), The Civil War Almanac World Almanac Publications, New York (1985)
The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
- Library of Congress Civil War map collection
- The Civil War Homepage
- The PBS/Ken Burns documentary
- The History Place
- Civil War at a Glance; US Interior Department
- Shotgun's home of the American Civil War
- US Civil War Center, from Louisiana State University
- Civil War Treasures, from New York Historical Society
Battle of Hampton Roads
- The Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virgina (USS Monitor Center page)
- Ironclads and Blockade Runners of the Civil War
- From The Great Republic, Volume III
- USS Merrimack / CSS Virginia
- USS Monitor
- USS Congress
- USS Cumberland
- USS Minnesota