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Reader's Companion to Military History

American Civil War


The Civil War marked the history of the United States more indelibly than any conflict that preceded or followed it. In fact, not until the end of the Vietnam War did the combined total casualties in all U.S. wars equal the Civil War's totals. The root cause of the conflict lay in the South's economy, which depended on a system that utilized the labor of Black slaves to grow certain crops, particularly cotton and tobacco. As the United States expanded in the nineteenth century, the contrast between the economic systems of the North and South exacerbated tensions. The election of Abraham Lincoln, leader of the Republican Party (which possessed strong abolitionist sentiments), brought the quarrel to a head in late 1860. The states of the Deep South immediately seceded; Lincoln's call for volunteers after the South Carolina militia shelled the federal garrison of Fort Sumter in early April 1861 caused Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas to join the rebellion.

A superficial comparison of the opposing sides seemed to favor the North. The former possessed a population of twenty-six million, far exceeding the South's nine million; moreover, nearly three million of the South's population were slaves—unavailable for military service and representing a serious threat of insurrection. The North also possessed nearly all the industrial resources in the United States, most of the nation's financial resources, and most of its railroads.

But the South, which remained on the defensive for much of the conflict, enjoyed some substantial advantages. Its vast geographical expanse played a major role in its lengthy resistance. Taken together, Mississippi and Alabama by themselves are slightly larger than the entire area of the former West German state. The distance from central Georgia to northern Virginia is approximately the same distance as that from East Prussia to Moscow, and the distance from central Texas to Richmond exceeds the distance from the Franco-German border to Moscow, a distance that Napoleon traveled in 1812. The fact that substantial portions of the South were primeval wilderness exacerbated the problems of distance. To supply the North's military operations in the West, railroads had to transport the industrial production of the East fifteen hundred miles to Cairo, Illinois, where its operations down the Mississippi and into Tennessee only began.

At the start, neither side had any sense of the magnitude of the tasks on which they were embarking. The tiny army of the United States was a constabulary force that barely provided enough soldiers to intimidate the Indians. The United States had waged a war against Mexico (see Mexican War), but that conflict had provided only a glimmering of the problems of mobilization and conducting war over long distances. Following secession, most Southern officers resigned their commissions and returned to their states to join the Confederate militia. In the North, however, the federal army maintained control over most of its officers, leaving the volunteer regiments for the most part in the hands of amateurs. This situation gave Southern forces an advantage, particularly in the East, during the war's first year.

But what remains inexplicable is the considerable contrast between the eastern and western theaters in terms of the performance of the opposing forces. Unfortunately, the disparity in the military effectiveness of the armies has to a great extent eluded historians. All too often, histories of the war have depicted Southern troops as an idealized country folk, trained and prepared for war by their youth on farms, whereas Northern troops, living in dank factory slums, were incapable of fighting. In fact, 85 percent of the North's population lived on farms; and if Northern armies had a difficult time against Confederate forces in the eastern theater, their comrades in the West dominated their Southern opponents throughout the war. The performance of Northern and Southern armies had less to do with the makeup of the armies—they were all drawn from similar backgrounds—than with the particular styles of leadership and battle effectiveness that resulted from idiosyncratic factors, such as the ability of senior leaders including Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, and Braxton Bragg to impose their personalities on the character of the armies they led.

At the start of the war, General Winfield Scott proposed the "Anaconda Plan" to defeat the South by imposing a blockade, opening up the Mississippi River (thus splitting the South in two), and capturing the Confederacy's capital, Richmond. Although these lines of approach played an important role in the eventual Union victory, they provided no means to strike at the will of the Southern population, nor did they threaten the South's heartland. Nevertheless, the North came off much better in 1861, the first year of the war, because it maintained control over the border states. In Maryland and Missouri, Lincoln and his supporters disregarded the most basic constitutional protections, including habeas corpus, in order to crush Southern sympathizers; in Kentucky, Northern political skill and Southern mistakes preserved the state for the Union. On the battlefield, matters were less successful for the North: Union politicians and the president pushed General Erwin McDowell to advance on Confederate forces in Virginia before his troops were ready. The result was the closely fought Battle of Bull Run. But at the end of the day, Union forces fell apart, the first of many defeats in the East.

The first crucial move of the war came in early 1862, when troops under command of Grant captured Forts Donelson and Henry. Grant was a West Pointer with an impressive record in the Mexican War who had fallen on hard times, partially because of a drinking problem. But the call-up of volunteer regiments gave him his opportunity; appointed to command an Illinois volunteer regiment, Grant's extraordinary clarity of mind and unruffled leadership moved him rapidly up the chain of command in the West. By seizing these forts, Grant's forces gained control of the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers near their confluence with the Mississippi. Now Union gunboats could project naval power all the way up the Tennessee to Muscle Shoals in Alabama, thus cutting the only east-west railroad in the South and allowing the Union to reach deep into central Tennessee, the heartland of the Confederacy.

By early April, Grant's army, still learning the rudiments of military service, came under a murderous Southern counterattack at Shiloh, Tennessee. Caught by surprise, Grant's forces came close to defeat, but the Confederates proved as badly trained. Reinforced over the night, Union forces were able to drive the Confederates off the field. But the casualty bill for the two-day battle was terrible. Grant himself claimed in his memoirs that the ferocity of Shiloh convinced him that only a war of "complete conquest" would settle the conflict. But the advantages that Grant had gained at Donelson, Henry, and Shiloh were frittered away by the senior leadership in the West, who possessed neither drive nor strategic wisdom. Nevertheless, the North had already established the basis for future campaigns to open up the Mississippi and drive through Tennessee into Georgia.

In the East, General McClellan regrouped and retrained what became known as the Army of the Potomac. After a long delay, he finally moved against Richmond in April 1862; but after arriving close enough to see its church spires, he found himself under a series of savage attacks organized by General Lee, the new commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Union troops gave as good as they got, but McClellan lost what little nerve he possessed, and the Peninsular campaign collapsed. That stinging defeat was followed by the defeat of Union forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run at the end of August.

Lee next determined to invade Maryland. McClellan, now defending, possessed every advantage, including a copy of Lee's strategic planning; nevertheless, he botched the battle. At Antietam the Army of the Potomac launched three massive assaults, each of which almost succeeded: but Lee's forces held, and when the day was over the casualties were higher than on any other day in U.S. military history. At least the draw allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. Not many weeks after the battle, Lincoln replaced McClellan with Ambrose Burnside. It proved to be a disastrous choice. Burnside threw his troops against Lee's entrenched army at Fredericksburg that December, and another slaughter resulted.

The year 1863 did not bring much better results in the East. Another new general, "Fighting Joe" Hooker, launched the Army of the Potomac into the Wilderness in northern Virginia and caught Lee by surprise. But the Confederates recovered quickly: Lee held greatly superior Union forces at bay, while "Stonewall" Jackson outflanked Hooker at Chancellorsville. The resulting attack nearly shattered the Army of the Potomac, broke Hooker, and gave Lee his greatest victory. But Lee's ablest lieutenant, Jackson, was mortally wounded. Lee then invaded the North in pursuit of a "decisive" victory to end the war. The outcome was a three-day battle at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg on July 1-3, which finally brought the Army of the Potomac a success—an achievement due more to the spirit of its soldiers than the intelligence of its leaders.

Union forces in the West in 1863 were more successful. In May, Grant moved south of Vicksburg and then launched one of the most brilliant campaigns of the war, driving Confederate forces back into the city. On July 4, the day after Gettysburg ended, he received the surrender of the city and its army, a victory that split the South in two and opened up the Mississippi. Unfortunately, General Henry Halleck, chief of staff in Washington, D.C., then dispersed Grant's forces. Meanwhile, a second great western army rolled through central and western Tennessee toward Georgia; but at the Battle of Chickamauga, Union mistakes combined with Confederate reinforcements from the East to result in a major defeat.

Lincoln immediately responded by giving Grant command of the western theater. Major reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac, twenty-five thousand men and all their equipment, moved twelve hundred miles west in less than two weeks. Grant quickly struck to relieve Chattanooga and in late November at Lookout Mountain gained a victory that scattered Confederate forces and secured Union control of Tennessee. Lincoln quite rightly rewarded him with the command of all Union forces.

Grant's strategy for 1864 involved a concentric advance by Union armies into the South; several of the moves failed because of the incompetence of political generals, but Grant understood their importance for maintaining support back home. The Army of the Potomac came under Grant's overall direction, while General William T. Sherman led the western armies. Beginning in May the Army of the Potomac launched a series of costly assaults on Lee's forces; casualties on both sides were horrific. Nevertheless, by summer's end Grant had pinned Lee to Richmond and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia's offensive capabilities.

The war's decisive campaign came in the West. Sherman drove Confederate forces back on Atlanta; frustrated by retreat, Richmond placed the aggressive John Bell Hood in command. Hood launched a series of attacks around Atlanta that wrecked his army. At this point Sherman made one of the crucial decisions of the war. With Grant's permission, he left a portion of his forces to cover middle Tennessee. With the rest he cut loose from his supply lines and struck across a defenseless Georgia. By now Union strategy had reached its final, pitiless conclusion: an outright war on the South's population. Sherman's troops carried out a wholesale wrecking of the South's infrastructure as they advanced toward Savannah. Similarly, in August Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to turn Virginia's Shenandoah Valley into "a barren waste... so that crows flying over for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them." In the end, the combination of Union victories on the battlefield with the destruction of the South's economic and political infrastructure finally led to the collapse of Southern morale.

The Civil War was the first modern war—one in which military power, resting on popular support and the mass products of industrialization, approached the boundaries of "total war." Neither the strategic vision nor the military capabilities to project military power over continental distances existed at the beginning. As the war continued, its conduct became steadily more savage; by 1865 Union armies had destroyed much of the South, leaving a collection of "Chimneyvilles," in the derisive words of Sherman's soldiers. It would take the South over one hundred years to rejoin the Union fully, and a part of the war's legacy would be the vicious racism that marks much of the history of the United States. But in the end Lincoln and military leaders like Grant and Sherman had maintained the Union; in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of earth" had survived.

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative History (1958-1974); James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988).

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