From Soil to Shore: Military War on the Ground and in the Water

From Soil to Shore: Military War on the Ground and in the Water

In his inaugural address, Lincoln declared secession “legally void.” While he did not intend to invade Southern states, he would use force to maintain possession of federal property within seceded states. Union forces, led by U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, held Charleston, South Carolina’s Ft. Sumter in April 1861. The fort was in need of supplies, and Lincoln intended to resupply it.

South Carolina called for U.S. soldiers to evacuate the fort. Major Anderson refused. “The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen…you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal,” cautioned Georgia senator Robert Toombs to Jefferson Davis prior to an attack on Fort Sumter.

After decades of sectional tension, official hostilities erupted on April 12, 1861, when Confederate Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard fired on the fort (Figure 4). Anderson surrendered on April 13th and the Union troops evacuated. In response to the Confederate attack, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. The American Civil War had begun.

The assault on Fort Sumter, and subsequent call for troops, provoked the Upper South into alliance with the Confederacy. In total, eleven states joined the new nation. Unionists refused to accept this new southern nation and responded with a vigorous military campaign to reduce its armies, property, and economy.

Shortly after Lincoln’s call for troops, the Union adopted General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan and established a naval blockade around the Confederate states (Figure 5). This strategy intended to strangle the Confederacy by cutting off access to coastal ports and inland waterways. Like an anaconda snake, they planned to surround and squeeze the Confederacy.

With geographic, social, political, and economic connections to both the North and the South, the Border States—Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky — were critical to the outcome of the war. Lincoln and his military advisors realized that the loss of the Border States could mean a significant decrease in Union resources. Consequently, Lincoln hoped to foster loyalty among their citizens, so that Union forces could minimize their occupation in the regions. In spite of terrible guerrilla warfare in Missouri and Kentucky, the four Border States remained loyal to the Union throughout the war.

Also that spring, Confederate strategists, like their Federal counterparts, prepared for what they believed would be a short war. This belief crumbled on July 21, 1861. Three months after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Union and Confederate forces met at the Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia, officially opening the war’s Eastern Theater. While not particularly deadly, the Confederate victory proved that the Civil War would be long and costly. Furthermore, in response to the embarrassing Union rout, Lincoln removed Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell of command and promoted Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to commander of the newly formed Army of the Potomac. For nearly a year after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Eastern Theater remained relatively silent. Skirmishes only resulted in a bloody stalemate. Unlike the First Battle of Bull Run, ensuing campaigns resulted in major casualties.

Union military leaders sought to expand the war into the West in hopes of crushing the rebellion. In February 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson along the Tennessee River marked the opening of the Western Theater. Fighting in the West greatly differed from that in the East. At the First Battle of Bull Run, for example, two large armies fought for control of the nations’ capitals; while in the West, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of the rivers, since the Mississippi River and its tributaries were a key tenet of the Union’s Anaconda Plan. One of the deadliest of these clashes occurred along the Tennessee River at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. This battle, lasting only two days, was the costliest single battle in American history up to that time. The Union victory shocked both the Union and the Confederacy with approximately 23,000 casualties, a number that exceeded casualties from all of the United States’ previous wars combined.

In the fall of that year, casualty numbers would again shock the nation as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland (a border state loyal to the Union) on September 3, 1862. Emboldened by their success in the previous spring and summer, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis planned to win a decisive victory in Union territory and end the war. On September 17, 1862, McClellan and Lee’s forces collided at the Battle of Antietam near the town of Sharpsburg (Figure 6). This battle was the first major battle of the Civil War to occur on Union soil and it remains the bloodiest single day in American history with over 20,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in just twelve hours.

Despite the Confederate withdrawal and the high death toll, the Battle of Antietam was not a decisive Union victory. It did, however, result in two significant events. First, McClellan’s failure to crush Lee resulted in his removal. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Second, and more importantly, the Confederate withdrawal gave Lincoln the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in the ten states in rebellion. Framing it as a war measure, Lincoln and his Cabinet hoped that stripping the Confederacy of their labor force would not only debilitate the Southern economy, but also weaken Confederate morale. Nevertheless, Confederates continued fighting; and Union and Confederate forces clashed again at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory that resulted in staggering Union casualties.

Following their success at Fredericksburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued its offensive strategy in the East. One of the war’s major battles occurred near the village of Chancellorsville, Virginia between April 30 and May 6, 1863. While the Battle of Chancellorsville (Figure 7) was an outstanding Confederate victory against Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (who replaced Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac after his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg), it also resulted in heavy casualties and the mortal wounding of Major General “Stonewall” Jackson.

Photograph of Major-General Joseph Hooker and his staff taken shortly after the battle at Chancellorsville.
Figure 7 — Photograph taken shortly after the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 — Major-General Joseph Hooker and staff by Eaton, Edward Bailey Brady, Mathew B., Gardner, Alexander, Miller, Francis Trevelyan, Martyrs on altar of civilization, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

In spite of Jackson’s death, Lee continued his offensive against Federal forces and invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. During the three-day battle (July 1-3) at Gettysburg, heavy casualties crippled both sides (Figure 8). Yet, the devastating July 3 infantry assault on the Union center, also known as Pickett’s Charge, caused Lee to retreat from Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Campaign was Lee’s final northern incursion and the Battle of Gettysburg remains as the bloodiest battle of the war, and in American history, with 51,000 casualties (Figure 9).

Concurrently in the West, Union forces continued their movement along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, capturing New Orleans on May 1, 1862. With New Orleans occupied and with help from the U. S. Navy, Grant launched his campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi in the winter of 1862. His Vicksburg Campaign, which lasted until July 4, 1863, ended with the city’s surrender and split the Confederacy in two.

The Union and Confederate navies helped or hindered army movements around the many marine environments of the southern United States. And each navy employed the latest technology to outmatch the other. The Confederate Navy, led by Stephen Russell Mallory, had the unenviable task of constructing a fleet from scratch and trying to fend off a vastly better equipped Union Navy. Led by Gideon Welles of Connecticut, the Union Navy successfully implemented General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan.

The Union blockade initially struggled to contain the Confederate blockade runners, especially at ports like Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina. The blockade was not particularly effective until halfway through the war. Major Confederate ports and financial trade centers, including those on the Mississippi River like New Orleans, had come under Union control by mid-1863.

Grant’s successes at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Tennessee (November 1863) and Meade’s cautious pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg prompted Lincoln to promote Grant to general-in-chief of the Union Army in early 1864. This change in command not only allowed for Grant’s second-in-command, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to launch his infamous March to the Sea, in which his men devastated Georgia and the Carolinas, but it also resulted in some of the bloodiest battles of the Eastern Theater. These battles, such as the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Cold Harbor (Figure 10), and the siege of Petersburg (Figure 11), as part of Grant’s Overland Campaign would earn Grant his nickname “The Butcher.”

African Americans collecting bones of the soldiers killed in the battle at Cold Harbor, Va.
Figure 10 — Collecting bones after the Battle of Cold Harbor by John Reekie, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain
Group of soldiers standing around 'The Dictator,' a large mortar at Petersburg
Figure 11 — “The Dictator” mortar at Petersburg by David Knox, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Incredibly deadly for both sides, these Union campaigns in both the West and the East, destroyed Confederate infrastructure and demonstrated the efficacy of the Union’s strategy of attrition and hard war. As a result of Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” a devastating hard war campaign through Georgia (Figure 12) and the Carolinas, and Grant’s dogged pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 (Figures 13 and 14). The remaining Confederate forces surrendered that summer. (3)

Photo montage of General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee
Figure 13 — Grant and Lee. A derivative of this original work and this original work , Grant Lee by Hal Jesperse, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Confederate Nationalism and Union War Aims

Elite southerners began conceiving of the South as distinct from the rest of the United States long before secession. Elite antebellum southerners feared that abolitionism would threaten slavery, leading southern politicians to advance the position of states’ rights. They argued that the ultimate power rested in the states rather than in the federal government. Cultural theories followed politics, as southern intellectuals developed the myth of the cavalier, which claimed that elite southerners, unlike northerners, descended from aristocratic Englishmen, and thus northerners and southerners were distinct and separate peoples. Although most antebellum southerners’ loyalty was still to the U.S., as early as 1850, radical secessionists known as fire-eaters called for a separate southern nation. The majority of southerners remained loyal to the Union until the fall of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln, representing the new antislavery Republican Party, was elected president.

New Confederates quickly shed their American identity and adopted a new southern nationalism. Confederate nationalism was based on several ideals. Foremost among these was slavery. As Confederate Vice President Andrew Stephens stated in his “Cornerstone Speech,” the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition.”

The election of Lincoln in 1860 demonstrated that the South’s was politically overwhelmed. Slavery was omnipresent in the pre-war South, and it served as the most common frame of reference for unequal power. To a Southern man, there was no fate more terrifying than the thought of being reduced to the level of a slave. Religion likewise shaped Confederate nationalism and identity, as southerners believed that the Confederacy was fulfilling God’s will. The Confederacy even veered from the American constitution by explicitly invoking Christianity in their founding document.

It is a common misconception that Civil War soldiers enlisted and fought for largely personal reasons such as camaraderie rather than for more abstract notions such as honor, patriotism, or their rights. However, to Americans during the mid-nineteenth century, these were not abstract concepts. This was an age of romanticism in literature and philosophy, and ideas like honor and duty held great sway. The men who fought in the Union and Confederate placed as much value on fighting and possibly dying for the cause as they did on unit cohesion and comradeship.

The heritage of the American Revolution provided an additional source of southern nationalism. Confederates claimed that northerners had betrayed the original intent of the Founding Fathers. The Confederacy was thus supposedly the true heir of the American Revolution, a belief that was made visibly apparent by the inclusion of an image of George Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

On March 4, 1861, when newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office, he directly addressed the southern portion of his splintering constituency:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

In the process of preserving the Union, friendship and diplomacy gave way to war. Like Lincoln, most northerners in the late-1850s and 1860s viewed the Union — that is, the constitutional compact between the states to form a federal government — as permanent. As such, the vast majority of men that answered President Lincoln’s call for troops did so with the fervent belief that they were taking up arms to save the Union. By saving the Union, these northern soldiers also viewed themselves as direct descendants of the Founding Fathers and protectors of their Revolutionary legacy.

For Union soldiers, the need to preserve the Union was paramount. The Revolution had purchased something truly unique with dear blood; a representative democracy. They feared that if a minority could dissolve part of the country whenever they lost a fair and open election, then this great experiment would collapse. By splitting over the 1860 election, the fear was a precedent would be established, and soon there would be another split, and another, until nothing remained of the United States but a series of small, warring factions. So many social commentators in Europe would be proven right and the Founders would have been proven wrong; a democratic people could not govern themselves. Additionally, Union soldiers viewed themselves as guardians of law and order. A rebellion and attempted secession against a properly elected government was treason.

Not all southerners participated in Confederate nationalism. Unionist southerners, most common in the upcountry, retained their loyalty to the Union, joining the Union army and working to defeat the Confederacy. Although sacrifice could enhance devotion to the Confederacy for some southerners, the suffering of war, combined with unpopular measures such as the draft, also weakened morale. Black southerners, most of whom were slaves, overwhelmingly supported the Union, often running away from plantations to follow the Union army. The weakening of southern nationalism, along with southern support for the Union, ultimately aided the eventual Union victory.

Cut off from their southern brethren, the northern branches of the Democratic Party divided. War Democrats largely stood behind President Lincoln and their support was necessary for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. “Peace Democrats”—also known as “Copperheads”—clashed frequently with both War Democrats and Republicans. Copperheads were sympathetic to the Confederacy; they exploited public anti-war sentiment (often the result of a lost battle or mounting casualties) and tried to push President Lincoln to negotiate an immediate peace, regardless of political leverage or bargaining power. Had the Copperheads succeeded in bringing about immediate peace, the Union would have been forced to recognize the Confederacy as a separate and legitimate government while the institution of slavery would have remained intact. With a Union victory in sight following General William T. Sherman’s successful Atlanta Campaign in 1864, Copperhead support largely evaporated. (3)