American Civil War: 1861

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American Civil War: 1861
Date Begun April 12, 1861
Date Ended April 9, 1865
Casualties Total: 1,032,200
Killed: 203,000
Died from other: 417,000
Wounded: 412,200
United States (Union)
34 star flag.png
President Abraham Lincoln
Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin
Secretary of State William Seward
Secretary of War Simon Cameron
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
Confederate States (Confederacy)
President Jefferson Davis
Vice-President Alexander Stephens
Secretary of State Robert A. Toombs
Robert M.T. Hunter
Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker
Judah P. Benjamin
Secretary of the Navy Stephan R. Mallory
Military Leaders
Union Confederate

After the surrender of Fort Sumter, both sides had the expectation that an easy victory was on the way, and the war would be over; certainly the following weeks indicated a relatively-bloodless conflict.

For the social, political, economic and diplomatic history see American Civil War homefront

Patriotic fever

The division of the country in 1861.

On April 15, 1861, the day after Fort Sumter fell, President Lincoln declared that the seven seceded Southern states had opposed and obstructed the laws of the Union because they had "constituted combinations too powerful to be supressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." He then called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months "in order to suppress said combinations and cause the laws to be duly executed."[1] Young men enlisted in droves; in some cases there were so many recruits that cities where they were camped faced logistical nightmares. Whatever was needed was in short supply; uniforms were either non-existent or a conglomerate of the various state militias and military academies. Food was limited, and many recruits were lucky to get two squares a day, while in Philadelphia, soldiers had to beg from civilians. But ardor and enthusiasm for the coming contest never dampened. A Massachusetts volunteer spoke for everyone when he was asked how many was headed to Washington: "We're all a-comin'!".[2]

The response to arms was equally enthusiastic in the South, as they vented anger at abolitionists, financiers, and the Federal government as having taken advantage of them for decades. All across the South recruiting offices were stormed as young men were ready to repel the threatened Yankee invasion. "So impatient did I become for starting," wrote one Southern recruit, "that I felt like ten thousand pins were pricking me in every part of my body." Southern courthouses were full of new regiments, each man in turn voting for their officers. From these would come the Barbour County Yankee Hunters, the Cherokee Lincoln Killers, the Georgia Clinch Rifles.[3]

Waiting in response to Lincoln's call up was an anxious question: what of the remaining slave states? The answer would come within days:

  • Virginia seceded April 17.
  • Arkansas seceded May 6.
  • Tennessee seceded May 7.
  • North Carolina seceded May 20.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy, the state was rewarded with a shift of the capitol from Montgomery to Richmond. On April 20 the Confederacy was presented with the bonus of a major naval installation, with drydocks, near Norfolk, which the Federals tried to burn without much success (one of the ships partially destroyed was USS Merrimac, which would make history the following year). That same day, after turning down an offer of high Union command from General Scott, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the Army.[4] The rolls of men forming regiments on both sides have been marked by fervor coupled with romantic innocence; what they did not have was the experience needed on a battlefield. The overwhelming majority had no military training, and the most experienced men on their rosters were cadets from military schools and officers from state militias. The practice of democracy pervaded their ranks; they would vote for their own officers who in turn would lead them to their deaths due to their own lack of training, which would be demonstrated on the banks of a Virginia creek named Bull Run[5]

The Border States

The border states in the Union were the northernmost slave-holding states still considered part of the South: Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky. Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland after anti-Union rioting in Baltimore and numerous cases of bridge-burning, which was tolerated and even encouraged by many in the state legislature who were pro-Southern. Militia units were rushed toward Washington and Baltimore, and before they could react Lincoln was in firm control of Maryland, and had arrested the entire Maryland statehouse.

In Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson called out the state militia to take the state for the Confederacy and overturn a legislature who voted to remain in the Union; General Nathaniel Lyon then attacked and drove Jackson's militia, plus the governor himself, to the southwestern corner of the state. In the resulting vacuum the legislature reconvened and took power as a pro-Union provisional government.

Kentucky declared neutrality; despite this, the Confederates seized the city of Columbus in September 1861. Instead of the hoped-for switch of sides, opinion was turned against the Confederacy, and the state declared loyalty to the Union, despite a brief, alternate government set up by Confederate sympathizers and recognized by the Confederacy.

Of the delegates from the 48 western counties of Virginia present at the secession convention in Richmond, only nine voted to secede. Within days these delegates would hold a series of conventions of their own in the city of Wheeling, where by June 19 they had passed an act calling for the reorganization of the Virginia government, and had elected Francis H. Pierpont as governor. The "Reorganized State of Virginia", as it was called, drafted a new constitution for the state and sent representatives to the Union Congress. Soon, the Wheeling government would call for a vote as to whether or not western Virginia should be admitted to the Union as a separate state; this was resolved by 1863, when West Virginia became the 35th state in the Union.

Between July 10–13, Union troops under Brigadier General George B. McClellan succeed in driving Confederate forces out of western Virginia, crushing a force under Colonel John Pegram at Rich Mountain, and a larger force at Carrickford. The Federals now control vital railroad and communications links, and now have a base from which to launch incursions into Virginia itself.[6]

The Blockade

Along with the Lincoln's call for more troops was a request for plans to deal with the rebellion in the Southern states. One such plan was laid on the desk of the president by Lieutenant General Winfield Scott; it called for a naval blockade of the entire Southern coastline from the Chesapeake Bay to the Rio Grande, plus control of the Mississippi River. Once done, the South would be divided piece-meal as the various armies in the field fanned out and conquered key portions. The snake-like pattern of the blockade led the press to derisively call it the "Anaconda Plan".

The status of the United States Navy in 1861 contributed to the derision. Years of bureaucratic ineptitude and red tape left the Navy in poor condition. The fleet consisted of 90 warships; of these, 48 ships were out of commission, and the rest, or in reality the ones able to make steam or sail, were showing the flag in foreign seas. Manning them were about 9,000 officers and men, which were trained in the art of defending a harbor or ship-to-ship fights at sea, but not for the war that was coming. In the middle of April, 1861, Lincoln had just three commissioned warships at his disposal. And added to his woes were the names of 237 Naval officers who resigned their commissions and "headed south"[7]

Southerners were not surprised nor disheartened by their own navy, meager as it were. The few vessels the Confederacy had were revenue cutters seized from Federal port authorities during the secession. Further, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephan Mallory was a progressive in matters of naval design; he had once been chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, and had told the Southern cabinet that he professed interest in fast surface raiders to go after the Union Navy on the high seas, as well as proposing a very ugly craft that would change naval history:

I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire Navy.

For the officers who left the Union navy, Mallory created a face-saving permanent rank for officers relegated to an in-active Regular Navy, and placed junior officers of fighting age in a Provisional Navy where promotions would be earned based on meritorious service.[8]

On April 17, President Davis sent letters to shipowners, inviting them to apply for and accept letters of marque and reprisal; in short, to become privateers. What it meant was civilian ships would act as Navy vessels on the high seas with authorization to attack, capture, or destroy enemy shipping, and to sell captured contraband for their own profit. Lincoln responded that any privateer caught in possession of a Union merchant vessel would be tried for piracy and hanged upon conviction.[9]

The Eads gunboats

City-class gunboat USS Carondelet, built by James B. Eads in 1861.

The key to winning the war was control of the Mississippi River, and this fact was not lost on federal planners. A fleet of river warships was needed, and these vessels not only had to be powerful and withstand Confederate fire, but had to be able to navigate the river's shallow waters, something a normal Naval vessel could not do. The man who won the contract to build them was a veteran riverman named James B. Eads, whose engineers went to work almost immediately, altering and improving the paddle-wheel steamers Eads already owned. What came out of his yards were the City-class gunboats, shallow-draft vessels with an iron-plated casemate housing up to a dozen or more guns. Although slow and cumbersome, they were thoroughly intimidating; one seaman commented that they were "of the mud-turtle school of architecture, with just a dash of pollywog treatment by way of relief. But, they struck terror into every guilty soul as they floated down the river."[10]

The Eastern Theater

The First Battle of Bull Run, as done for BGEN McDowell's report.
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Brigadier General, CSA.
The remains of Judith Henry's house in Manassas, Virginia.

On the 24th of May, Union troops quietly cross the Potomac into Alexandria, giving Washington a needed buffer from attack. The first casualties involving combat occur when Captain Elmer Ellsworth of the New York 11th Regiment is shot after pulling down a Confederate flag from a hotel roof; the hotel keeper and the man who shot him, James Jackson, is then killed by a Union soldier. Both sides claim their first martyrs, and newspapers on both sides give full play to the story.[11]

Further south, on July 18 a small party of Union soldiers encamped at Centreville are sent to Blackburn's Ford, Virginia, to examine the area; what they saw instead were Confederates under the command of Major General James Longstreet. A skirmish took place in which the Union lost 19 men killed and 38 wounded, while Longstreet has 15 dead and 38 wounded, but succeeded in pushing the Union soldiers back. Both sides commit to building up their troops; 3,900 are added to the Confederates at Manassas, while Major General Irvin McDowell is situated with over 1,300 at Sudley Field near a creek named Bull Run, near Manassas. Both side know that a major battle is imminent, and place troops accordingly.[12]

First Battle of Bull Run / First Manassas

On July 21, McDowell does a surprise move against rebels placed at the Stone Bridge across Bull Run Creek, but by 5:00 a.m. the Confederates have already known of the advance; Confederate Brigadier General N.G. Evans meets McDowell's troops at Sudley Field and hold them there until noon, until forced to fall back to Henry House Hill where Evans and other Confederate regiments make a strong stand. One of them, Brigadier General Bernard Bee, in order to stop many of his own men from fleeing in the face of enemy fire, pointed to a former instructor of the Virginia Military Institute in command of the First Virginia Regiment who would not duck for cover at all, and bellowed "Look yonder. There is General Jackson standing like a stone wall!". Bee lost his life, but his men held firm, and Thomas Jonathan Jackson received his famous nickname.[13]

McDowell's forces tried to advance on Henry Hill House, but the Confederates were re-enforced with troops led by Generals P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston, and held on, ultimately driving the Federals away in defeat. An errant shell hitting an ammunition wagon turned the retreat into a rout as soldiers mixed with fleeing civilians who had come to observe a battle as though it were a picnic (the retreat would be known as "the Great Skedaddle" by the news media). The victory is observed by President Davis, and it is a costly one: 387 dead and 1,582 wounded versus 460 killed and 1,124 wounded for the Union, which also listed 1,312 as missing.[14]

Alarmed at the loss, the U.S. Congress passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution on July 25, stating that the war was being fought, not to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. Despite his battle report [1], McDowell's forces were so badly beaten that he was replaced by Major General George B. McClellan on July 27.

One of the Union brigade commanders at Bull Run was Colonel William T. Sherman, who had just returned to active duty in May. In October 1861 he was made a brigadier general in the command of the Department of Kentucky, and was asked by the Secretary of War as to how many men he needed. "Sixty thousand to drive the enemy from Kentucky," he said, "and 200,000 to finish the war in this section." Sherman was very aware of what kind of war was coming, yet he was called insane and relieved of his command; he would spend the rest of the year in the care of his wife, while he contemplated suicide. [2]

The Western Theater

Captain Nathaniel Lyon seized the arsenal at St. Louis, Missouri; to counter it Governor Jackson called up the state militia to retake it. Lyon perceived this maneuver as an attempt to seize it back. On May 10, 1861, Lyon attacked the militia and paraded the captured soldiers through the streets of St. Louis, causing a riot. 28 civilians were killed and 100 were injured when Lyon opened fire on the rioters as they attacked Lyon’s men.[15]

The next day the Missouri legislature authorized the creation and muster of the Missouri State Guard, with a militia officer, Sterling Price, in command. To quiet an explosive situation regarding Missouri’s neutrality, the Federal commander of the Department of the West, Brigadier General William Harney, signed the Price-Harney Truce, guaranteeing neutrality. However, Lyon complained to President Lincoln, who overruled the truce, and relieved Harney of command, replacing him with Lyon, newly promoted to brigadier general. On June 11, Governor Jackson was escorted through the front lines after an order from Lincoln, and demanded of by Lyon, for more troops from the state proved fruitless. Lyon then began his pursuit of Jackson and Price, resulting in the battles of Boonville and Carthage; Jackson would set up a state government-in-exile recognized by the Confederacy (Bowman, pp. 55–56).

Battle of Wilson's Creek

Missourians inside the state would appeal to the Confederacy for help in dealing with Lyon, resulting in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri, in the early morning of August 10. Catching the Missourians completely by surprise, the Union force overran the Confederate camps and took the crest of a nearby ridge since known as “Bloody Hill”; the Union advance was slowed when the Pulaski Arkansas Battery fired its artillery, giving Price needed time to organize his infantry on the hill’s south side.[16]

The flank attack by Union Colonel Franz Sigel was initially successful in that it routed the Missouri cavalry, but fell through when a counterattack by a force under the command of Brigadier Benjamin McCulloch met Sigel at the Sharp farm; a major mistake being Union soldiers had mistaken McCulloch’s men for reinforcements due to the similar nature of their uniforms at the time (uniforms had not yet been standardized), and did not recognize them as the enemy until they were on top of them. The counterattack devastated the flank, and Sigel’s men fled the field.[17]

At 9:30 a.m. Lyon was shot in the heart on Bloody Hill while rallying his men. The Union troops, now under the command of Major Samuel Sturgis, withdrew by 11:00 a.m., as both supplies and morale were low. Lyon was the first general officer killed in battle during the Civil War.[18]

The Trans-Mississippi Theater

General Henry Hopkins Sibley is placed in command of all Confederate forces in the New Mexico territory on July 8, and he hopes to drive the Union from New Mexico and Arizona. On the 25th Captain John Baylor and some 250 men clash with Union troops at Fort Filmore, forcing the fort to be abandoned. Baylor then makes a decree that all the New Mexico and Arizona territories south of the 34th parallel belong to the Confederacy, despite the objections of the pro-Unionist population.[19]

Other developments

On April 27, Lincoln suspends the writ of habeas corpus for the area between Philadelphia, Washinton, D.C., and Baltimore; this was to quell troop transport problem that was a part of the turmoil in Baltimore. This was also a larger issue as a result of the war, as thousands of people actively supporting the Confederacy in word or deed were arrested and held without trial, some for the duration of the war.[20]

McClellan was summoned to Washington in July, 1861, to command and improve the defenses around the city; what he found was a demoralized, ill-trained army that needed to be whipped into shape. He removed malcontents, grumblers, complainers and mutineers; he enforced a daily regimen of drills and training; and in one case publicly removed the colors from a regiment, dealing a heavy blow to their pride, and stating they would get it back when they learned to behave like soldiers. McClellen spent the remainder of the year building and equipping the Washington force, but also going behind the back of his superior, General Scott, and going straight to the Secretary of War. His intrigues, in addition to Scott's health as well, resulted in Scott abruptly resigning from the Army by October, with McClellan getting the prestigious post of General-in-Chief of all the Federal armies[21]

Battle of Ball’s Bluff / Leesburg

On October 21 Federal troops under Brigadier Charles Stone advance toward Leesburg on orders from Washington; assisting him is Colonel Edward D. Baker, a former senator from Oregon and friend of President Lincoln, who is ferrying troops across the Potomac. Confederate forces under General Nathan G. Evans succeed in pushing the Federals back in retreat towards Ball Bluff; in the confusion panic sets in, and the Confederate fire combined with the steep, hilly terrain cause severe losses on the Union side: 49 killed, 158 wounded, and more than 700 missing and presumed drowned as they jumped into the river to escape the Confederates; in contrast Confederate casualties are relatively light. Evans is proclaimed a hero in the South, while Stone was vilified as incompetent and a traitor. Baker, killed during the battle, is turned into a martyr. And McClellan, whose orders had been carried out by the force at Ball's Bluff, gets little criticism.[22]

The Trent Affair

John Slidell and James Mason, commissioners appointed to France and Britain respectively, are sent to Europe in order to purchase armaments, and to gain the recognition of both countries to the Confederacy. Their journey has a stop in Havana, Cuba, where they board the British mail packet Trent. Shadowing the vessel is USS San Jacinto under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, and he overtakes the Trent in international waters within the Old Bahama Channel, orders the ship to heave-to, and arrests Slidell and Mason. Both men are taken back to Fort Monroe, while the Trent is allowed to make her way to England with the Confederate's families still on board.[23]

Just as wild celebrations went on in the North hailing Captain Wilkes as a hero, the affair was greeted with outrage in the South. President Davis declared it violated the rights of embassy "held sacred even among barbarians." More outrage, and the potential threat of war, came from Great Britain. Senator Charles Sumner hinted to Lincoln that Slidall and Mason might prove to be "white elephants", which was proven true when the first news of Britain's reaction came in; Prime Minister Lord Palmerston wouldn't stand for it, the Royal Navy was put on alert, and 10,000 troops were sent to Canada. For the South, there was the hope that if Britain did indeed go to war, formal recognition of the Confederacy was certain.[24]

During the Trent Affair, the transatlantic cable was broken, leaving vessels to carry messages that took 14 days on average to cross the ocean between Europe and America; this also gave both side time to reflect. Neither side really wanted to be at war with each other. The United States was occupied with a rebellion, and Britain faced an unstable Europe. As a face-saving gesture, Prince Albert drafted a letter which stated America could save face by quietly disclaiming Captain Wilkes' actions on the grounds that it was not authorized, and releasing the commissioners, which is done by New Year's Day, 1862. Lincoln breathed a sigh of relief. "One war at a time," he said.[25]

Articles in the series


  • Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 2 (Fort Sumter to Bull Run), Time Inc, New York (1983)
  • 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)
  • Bowman, John S. (editor), The Civil War Almanac World Almanac Publications, New York (1985)


The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion


West Virginia secession

Bull Run


  1. Time Life v 2, p. 13
  2. Time Life v 2, pg. 33
  3. Time Life v 2, p. 143
  4. Time Life v 2, p. 17
  5. Time Life v 2, p. 96
  6. Bowman, p. 59
  7. Time Life v 3, p. 10
  8. Time Life v 3, pp. 10-20
  9. Time Life v 3, pp. 11-14
  10. Time Life v 4, p. 69
  11. Bowman, p. 55
  12. Bowman, p. 59
  13. Bowman, p. 60
  14. Bowman, p. 60
  15. Bowman, p. 54
  16. Bowman, p. 62
  17. Bowman, p. 62
  18. Bowman, p. 62
  19. Bowman, p. 60-1
  20. Bowman, p. 53
  21. Time-Life vol 5 5, pp. 8-17
  22. Bowman, p. 69
  23. Bowman, p. 72
  24. Time Life vol 3. pg. 117
  25. Time Life vol 3. pg. 118-9