The Eastern Theater
The Eastern Theater included the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and the coastal fortifications and seaports of North Carolina. (Operations in the interior of the Carolinas in 1865 are considered part of the Western Theater.)
The Eastern Theater included the campaigns that are generally most famous in the history of the war, if not for their strategic significance, but for their proximity to the large population centers, the major newspapers, and the capital cities of the opposing parties. The imaginations of both Northerners and Southerners were captured by the epic struggles between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac, under a series of less successful commanders. The bloodiest battle of the war (Gettysburg) and the bloodiest single day of the war (Antietam) were both fought in this theater. The capitals of Washington, D.C., and Richmond were both attacked or besieged. It has been argued that the Western Theater was more strategically important in defeating the Confederacy, but it is inconceivable that the civilian populations of both sides could have considered the war to be at an end without the resolution of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.
The Lower Seaboard Theater of the American Civil War encompassed major military and naval operations that occurred near the coastal areas of the Southeastern United States (in South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) as well as southern part of the Mississippi River (Port Hudson and south).
At 4:30 a.m. on the 12th of April, 1861, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard directed his Confederate gunners to open fire on Fort Sumter, at that hour only a dark shape out in Charleston harbor. Thirty-four hours later a white flag over the fort ended the bombardment. The only casualty was a Confederate horse. It was a bloodless opening to the bloodiest war in American history.
No one could have predicted the magnitude of the explosion that rocked America following that opening shot. Until then America had been, as Bruce Catton wrote, "small enough to carry in the mind and in the heart, and a young man's fatherland was what he could see from his bedroom window." Yet most of what America was before the Civil War went into sparking that explosion, and most of what the nation became resulted from it. Entirely unimaginable before it began, the war was the most defining and shaping event in American history—so much so that it is now impossible to imagine what we would have been like without it.
Shortly after Appomattox, Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn journalist and sometime poet who worked in the appalling Union hospitals, warned posterity of what he had seen. "Future years," he wrote, "will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best they should not. The real war," Whitman insisted, "will never get in the books."
And yet Whitman's words retain their force. The "real war" stays there, outside all the books, beckoning to us. Why did Americans kill each other? How did it happen? Who were these people who fought and killed, marched and sang, wrote home, skedaddled, deserted, died, nursed and lamented, persevered and were defeated? What was it like to be in that war? What did it do to America and Americans? What happened to the movement that freed blacks from slavery? Why have succeeding generations obscured the war with bloodless, gallant myth, blurring the causes of the war and its great ennobling outcome—the freeing of four million black people and their descendants from bondage? What did it mean that the Union won? What does it mean to be a Union? Why are we still so drawn to this tale of suffering, catastrophe, valor, and death?
Some events so pervasively condition the life of a culture that they retain the power to fascinate permanently. They become the focus of myth and the anchor of meaning for a whole society. The Civil War was such an event. Indeed, as Robert Penn Warren once wrote, "the Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense.
The America that went to war in 1861 was perhaps the most literate nation on earth. Soldiers at the front and civilians at home left an astonishingly rich and moving record of what they saw and felt. From the voluminous writings of those witnesses, and with the help of a truly extraordinary team of scholars and consultants, we gleaned a stockpile of quotations to accompany our stockpile of images: descriptions, reflections, opinions, cries of outrage, cynicism, sorrow, laughter, and triumph.
By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough. Two great armies were converging on his farm, and what would be the first major battle of the Civil War —Bull Run, or Manassas as the Confederates called it—would soon rage across the aging Virginian's farm, a Union shell going so far as to tear through his summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family away from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond—out of harm's way, he prayed—to a dusty little crossroads town called Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant, and Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."
The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida coast. More than 3 million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men, two percent of the population, died in it.
American homes became headquarters. American churches and schoolhouses sheltered the dying, and huge foraging armies swept across American farms, burned American towns. Americans slaughtered one another wholesale, right here in America, in their own cornfields and peach orchards, along familiar roads and by waters with old American names.
In two days at Shiloh, on the banks of the Tennessee River, more American men fell than in all previous American wars combined. At Cold Harbor, some 7,000 Americans fell in twenty minutes. Men who had never strayed twenty miles from their own front doors now found themselves soldiers in great armies fighting epic battles hundreds of miles from home. They knew they were making history, and it was the greatest adventure of their lives.
The Civil War has been given many names: the War Between the States, the War Against Northern Aggression, the Second American Revolution, the Lost Cause, the War of the Rebellion, the Brothers' War, the Late Unpleasantness. Walt Whitman called it the War of Attempted Secession. Confederate General Joseph Johnston called it the War Against the States. By whatever name, it was unquestionably the most important event in the life of the nation. It saw the end of slavery and the downfall of a southern planter aristocracy. It was the watershed of a new political and economic order, and the beginning of big industry, big business, big government. It was the first modern war and, for Americans, the costliest, yielding the most American casualties and the greatest domestic suffering, spiritually and physically. It was the most horrible, necessary, intimate, acrimonious, mean-spirited, and heroic conflict the nation has known.
Inevitably, we grasp the war through such hyperbole. In so doing, we tend to blur the fact that real people lived through it and were changed by the event. One hundred eighty-five thousand black Americans fought to free their people. Fishermen and storekeepers from Deer Isle, Maine, served bravely and died miserably in strange places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Fredericksburg, Virginia. There was scarcely a family in the South that did not lose a son or brother or father.
As with any civil strife, the war was marked by excruciating ironies. Robert E. Lee became a legend in the Confederate army only after turning down an offer to command the entire Union force. Four of Lincoln's own brothers-in-law fought on the Confederate side, and one was killed. The little town of Winchester, Virginia, changed hands seventy-two times during the war, and the state of Missouri sent thirty-nine regiments to fight in the siege of Vicksburg: seventeen to the Confederacy and twenty-two to the Union.
Few people have expressed the meaning of these ironies, anomalies, and divisions better than Robert Penn Warren: A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the persons of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood. In a civil war—especially one such as this when the nation shares deep and significant convictions and is not a mere handbasket of factions huddled arbitrarily together by historical happen-so—all the self-divisions of conflicts within individuals become a series of mirrors in which the plight of the country is reflected, and the self-division of the country a great mirror in which the individual may see imaged his own deep conflicts, not only the conflicts of political loyalties, but those more profoundly personal.
Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers—if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive of how that was possible. What began as a bitter dispute over Union and States' Rights, ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America. At Gettysburg in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said perhaps more than he knew. The war was about a "new birth of freedom."
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