UNITED STATES HISTORY
The War for Southern Independence
*When the War began, neither side was truly prepared. The US
Army’s main force consisted of about 35,000 troops in Washington,
D.C., most of whom were new recruits and poorly trained.
Although Winfield Scott was in overall command of the army, his
Anaconda Plan was unpopular with overly optimistic politicians and
newspaper editors who mistakenly believed the War could be won in
*The newly-promoted Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, a Mexican
War veteran and a friend of Treasury Secretary Chase, was placed
in command of the troops in Washington despite having never led
troops in combat. He was then ordered towards Richmond,
first testing their strength by attacking the railroad junction at
a town called Manassas Junction along the Bull Run Creek (so that
the battle is known as Bull Run in the North and Manassas in the
South; like many Civil War battles this one has two
names--typically Southerners named battles after the nearest town
while Northerners named them after nearby rivers, although there
are cases where it is reversed).
*Manassas was defended by about 24,000 troops under PGT
Beauregard, hero of Fort Sumter. McDowell was new to command
and his troops were undisciplined, so they took their time getting
to Manassas. It was also no secret that there was going to
be a battle, or even where the battle was to take place.
Congressmen, Senators, judges, and other Washington dignitaries
took their wives, their children, their servants, and a picnic
lunch down to Virginia to see the show.
*Aware of the impending attack, Beauregard was able to prepare to
an extent (although his troops were mostly inexperienced
militiamen), and, more important, another Confederate force of
about 11,000 under the command of Joseph Johnston was able to move
by rail from the Shenandoah Valley directly to the scene of the
battle, reinforcing Beauregard as the fighting went on. The
two forces met on 21 July, 1861.
*The battle was a mess in many ways. Neither side was, for
the most part, well-trained. Uniforms were not yet
standardised, so some Confederates wore blue and some Yankees wore
grey, and some men on both sides wore other colours
completely. There were cases of soldiers approaching and
overrunning their enemies because they were not recognised, and of
men being shot by their own side for the same reason. The
confusion of the Stars and Strips with the Stars and Bars led to
the creation of the Confederate Battle Flag.
*Initially outnumbered, the Confederates seemed to be
losing. However, they sent reinforcements into battle
directly off the trains as they arrived. At one point, as
the Confederates were withdrawing, General Barnard Elliot Bee of
Texas saw one brigade of Virginia troops, led by General Thomas
Jackson, standing against the tide. He said ‘There stands
Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the
Virginians!’ The Confederates stopped retreating and began
to fight back. Jackson was known as 'Stonewall' ever
*Facing stiff resistance and a new load of troops off the trains,
the Federal troops turned and ran back to Washington, D.C.
Had the Confederate army been better organised, they might have
pursued them and ended the war right there, but they were not
really any better prepared than their foes.
*The North had about 2,900 casualties and the South about
2,000. The Federal Army was also so demoralised that no
major battles were be fought for the rest of the year. They
did not invade the South, and the South did not need to invade the
*This battle demonstrated to the North that they were in for a
long and bloody war, but also gave the South a false sense of
*The first battle of the Civil War, like so many to come, was in
large part so bloody because most Americans were now using rifles
firing so-called Minie Balls (actually an early type of bullet
designed to fit a rifle), which had a useful range easily up to
500 yards, and could travel much farther. Rifles were also
more reliable, because they used percussion caps rather than flint
and steel. However, the generals had all learnt to fight
like Napoleon, and used line tactics much like those used in the
Revolutionary War, planning to fire a few volleys and then charge
with the bayonet. This led to many deaths that might have
been avoided, or at least been somewhat more purposeful, if the
tactics had more closely suited the weapons available. About
90% of the casualties in the Civil War were inflicted by rifles
while less than 1% were actually inflicted with bayonets.
*On the seas, the Confederacy revolutionised naval warfare.
Taking an old wooden steamship called the Merrimack, the
Confederates bolted iron plates to her hull to create
armour. They subsequently renamed her CSS Virginia.
She was not an especially well-built or sea-worthy vessel, but she
terrified the North. It was feared that the Virginia would
sail up the Potomac and bombard Washington. This ship was
called an ironclad, and she made all existing wooden navies
*The North hired an engineer named John Ericsson and sank money
into his project and in one hundred days built a better ironclad,
one designed to be an ironclad, and not merely a converted
steamboat. This was called USS Monitor.
*In March, 1862, the Confederacy sent the Virginia out to
attack the Union Navy. On the 8th, she sank two ships, ran
another aground, and terrified the Navy while losing no men and
taking no serious damage.
*The next day, the Monitor arrived, and after a long
battle chased the Virginia away, although without
significant damage to either ship. Later, when the Union
captured Norfolk, the Confederates burned the Virginia to
keep her from being captured, but both sides (and other navies of
the world) continued to build ironclads.
*Later, the Confederacy revolutionised naval warfare again with
the launch of the H. L. Hunley, one of the world’s first
submarines. Launched in 1863, Hunley sank on both
her practise missions, killing some or all of her crew each time,
before being sent into combat on 17 February, 1864 against USS Housatonic,
a US Navy sloop participating in the blockade of Charleston.
Hunley rammed Housatonic with a torpedo on a long
spar, blowing a hole in Housatonic and sinking her—the
first ship sunk by a submarine. However, Hunley also
sank and was not found again until 1995.
*McDowell was removed from command after his loss at Manassas and
was replaced by George McClellan. McClellan was a graduate
of West Point (second in the Class of 1846), had served with
Winfield Scott in Mexico. He would prove to be an able
administrator but a poor commander. He was also an able
politician, and used his influence to pressure Winfield Scott into
retirement in November, and soon afterwards became Commanding
General of the United States Army.
*McClellan saw himself as a young Napoleon and thought himself the
only man who could save the nation from the man he called 'the
original baboon' who served as commander-in-chief and his
incompetent cabinet. His men called him ‘Little Mac.’
*McClellan named the main army in the eastern theatre the Army of
the Potomac, and proceeded to train, supply, and equip it into a
magnificent fighting force. However, Little Mac faced an
enemy even greater than his army: his imagination.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, McClellan would always
be convinced that the Confederate Army was possessed of a vast
numerical superiority to his own.
*As 1861 passed into 1862 with no significant Federal action in
the East, Lincoln grew impatient with McClellan, and told him that
if McClellan did not plan to use the Army of the Potomac any time
soon, he would like to borrow it.
*Even after Lincoln ordered McClellan to attack, he was afraid to
go at it directly by marching from Washington to Richmond.
He tried to get around the main Confederate Army in Northern
Virginia by sailing down to Yorktown, on 17 March, 1862.
*McClellan actually did get around the main Confederate army, but
he did not believe in his own success. He planned to move up
the peninsula between the York and James Rivers and seize the
Confederate capital at Richmond, in what has come to be called the
Peninsular Campaign, but his army of 100,000 was outnumbered by
15,000 Confederates and McClellan’s own imagination.
*McClellan was actually faced by a small Confederate Army of about
15,000, commanded by John Magruder, who built fake cannon out of
logs called Quaker guns. He held McClellan off long enough
for Joseph Johnston to move his army to the peninsula.
Together, they kept McClellan around Yorktown for all of April and
the first four days of May.
*During the battles on the peninsula, McClellan won many of his
battles or at least fought them to a draw. However, the
battles were numerous and very bloody. Furthermore,
relatively early in the campaign, at the battle the Confederates
called Fair Oaks and the Yankees called Seven Pines on 31 May-1
June, 1862, General Joseph Johnston was wounded and relieved of
command. Johnston later said this was the best thing that
ever happened to the Confederacy, because he was replaced by
Robert E. Lee.
*Lee renamed his army the Army of Northern Virginia, and began to
*Lee pushed McClellan hard, and attacked him many times and in
many places, primarily in a series of very bloody battles, lasting
from 26 June to 2 July, called the Seven Days.
*Although McClellan won most of the battles in the Seven Days
(making it one of the few Eastern campaigns with significantly
higher Confederate casualties than Union losses--20,141
Confederate casualties compared to 15,849 Union casualties), the
constant pressure on McClellan, combined with his incorrect
certainty that the Confederates outnumbered him, forced him to
retreat, abandon the peninsula, and return to Washington.
*Lincoln was understandably vexed with McClellan, and many of his
advisors wanted McClellan removed, but Lincoln still thought he
might be useful. McClellan also still had many political
allies and was popular with his troops.
*However, Lincoln did take a portion of McClellan’s army and
placed this force of about 75,000 troops under the command of John
Pope, who had won some victories in the West.
*Aware of the Federal forces’ movements, Lee sent Stonewall
Jackson against Pope, and they met near Manassas on 28 August,
1862. Lee joined him the next day, and on the 30th, Pope’s
force of 75,000 was defeated in Second Manassas or Second Bull Run
by a Confederate force totalling about 55,000.
*Pope was sent back out west where he fought the Indians until
1886, and Lincoln gave command of Pope’s men back to McClellan.
*With the Union retreat from the Peninsula and John Pope’s defeat
at Manassas, the North seemed to be in bad shape in the Summer of
1862. Furthermore, the blockade, although already enjoying
some success, had recently had a very close scrape with
destruction in its battles with CSS Virginia.
*However, Virginia had been repulsed by the Monitor, and in the
West, Admiral David Farragut of Knoxville and commander of the US
Navy’s Gulf Blockading Squadron captured New Orleans on 1 May,
1862 after a week-long siege.
*In New Orleans, and elsewhere, the Union forces began freeing
slaves, saying they were contraband, or war materiel that it was
necessary to seize from the Confederates to hurt their war
efforts. Although usually obliged to work for the Army,
often in unpleasant jobs, most slaves preferred this to slavery.
*This created an awkward position for Lincoln. Although he
did not like slavery, he did not feel that the Constitution let
him abolish it, and he did not want to offend the Border States
that had remained more or less loyal, and that still held
slaves. He had said that if he could save the Union by
freeing all of the slaves, he would do it; if he could do it by
freeing some, he would do it; if he could save the Union without
freeing any slaves, he would do it. However, many
Northerners, especially in the Republican Party, certainly wanted
to free the slaves, and they, and Lincoln, considered justifying
the move on the grounds of hurting the Confederate war effort.
*Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared
free all slaves in areas presently in rebellion (but not in
Union-controlled Confederate areas or in loyal states). His
cabinet advised him not to make it public, however, until the US
had won a sufficient victory that it did not just seem like a
last-ditch act of desperation or an attempt to raise a slave
*The South also needed a grand gesture. The plan to get
European aid by stopping cotton shipments had not worked.
Southern leaders felt that the South needed to win a major victory
outside the South, so Lee invaded Maryland.
*Maryland was a Border State, and many of its people were thought
to be loyal to the South. It was hoped that Marylanders
would help the Army of Northern Virginia, and the army marched in
with bands playing the pro-Confederate song ‘Maryland, my
Maryland.’ It was also hoped that the Confederates could
beat the Army of the Potomac and possibly even capture, or at
least threaten, Washington, D.C. itself.
*One Confederate officer made a fatal mistake. Some junior
officer dropped a piece of paper that he had wrapped around three
cigars. That paper was a copy of Special Order No.
191: Lee’s battle plan and general orders for his
army. It was found later by a sergeant in the Army of the
Potomac, and brought to McClellan. It told him everything he
needed to know about Lee’s army and his plans, but because it said
that Lee had fewer men than he imagined (in fact, McClellan
outnumbered Lee about 87,000 to 40,000) he was reluctant to
believe it or to act.
*When he finally moved, McClellan was able to catch Lee at a town
called Sharpsburg, along the Antietam River. On 17
September, 1862, they fought across the river, with the Union
trying desperately all day to cross it and hold the field.
*It was a terribly bloody battle, and remains the bloodiest single
day in American military history, with over 26,000 men killed or
*Had McClellan moved his reserves into battle instead of holding
them back to defend against additional Confederate forces who
existed only in his imagination, he might have won. Instead,
the battle was technically a draw, but Lee’s forces were so badly
hurt that he withdrew back to Virginia, so that strategically the
invasion of Maryland was a failure. However, had McClellan
moved quickly in response, he could have completely defeated Lee
rather than letting him escape to fight for almost three more
*Lincoln removed McClellan from command permanently, replacing him
with Ambrose Burnside who had led troops at Antietam, but he still
called this a Union victory, and issued the Emancipation
Proclamation, which would take effect on 1 January, 1863.
*Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed slaves in
rebellious areas, largely in the hope that they would revolt, few
did. Many slaves did run away to freedom, often to join the
Union Army, which began accepting African-American volunteers in
1863. About 180,000 Coloured troops ultimately served during
the way, often bravely despite poor treatment by much of the US
Army (including unequal pay) and by the Confederacy if they were
captured (especially at Fort Pillow, where almost all the
surrendering Black troops were massacred in 1864 by men under
Nathan Bedford Forrest).
*The Proclamation was more effective as a symbol than a law, but
it was a powerful symbol indeed. After this, European
governments could not easily side with the Confederacy, whereas
Britain and France had been on the verge of recognising the
Confederate States when the invasion of Maryland began.
*Burnside knew that McClellan had been too cautious. He,
too, was cautious by nature, but felt that he must invade
Virginia. He built a bridge of pontoon boats across the
Rappahannock River just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia.
This took a long time, and gave Lee time to position his forces
(78,000 men) just beyond the town, on a low ridge called Marye’s
Heights, and in places they even were able to shelter behind a
stone wall. A Confederate artilleryman, said that ‘a chicken
could not live on that field when we open fire on it.’
*While trying to cross the river on 11-12 December, 1862, Burnside
shelled Fredericksburg. Once the Union's 115,000 men got
into the city, they looted it, and were shelled in turn by the
Confederates. Not much remained of the town by the end of
*When Burnside finally got across the river, he ordered a charge
against the Confederate position on 13 December, which was beaten
back by the rifles and cannon of the Confederacy. Not to be
outdone, he ordered wave after wave, sending a total of fourteen
charges against the wall, all of which were defeated before they
ever reached it. Watching the splendour of the Union valour
(and their concomitant slaughter under his withering fire) Lee
commented ‘It is well war is so terrible; we should grow too fond
*Some units lost half their men or more, and many living men were
trapped on the field overnight, afraid to move lest they be seen
and shot. Some used the coats of their dead comrades as
blankets, and others piled up dead men as walls against
Confederate bullets. That night the northern lights were
visible in the night sky, a rare occurrence so far south, and the
aurora borealis was taken as a sign of God’s favour for the South.
*On the 14th, Burnside considered leading his old IX Corps in one
last attack on the wall, but was dissuaded by his officers.
*Fredericksburg was a great Confederate victory. The Union
suffered over 13,000 casualties, compared to about 4,200 for the
Confederacy. Burnside retreated across the river on 15
December, 1862, and was replaced soon afterwards by Joseph Hooker,
who had also led forces at Antietam. ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker
almost immediately moved against Lee.
*Leaving a third of his army at Fredericksburg as a diversion,
Hooker crossed the Rappahannock well upstream of Fredericksburg
and began to move through Virginia with over 97,000 troops.
Lee and Jackson chose to meet him at a place called
Chancellorsville, although in truth it was simply a house with a
few outbuildings owned by the Chancellor family.
*Already vastly outnumbered, Lee split his army, leaving some to
defend Fredericksburg and taking the rest (about 57,000) to
Chancellorsville. There, on 2 May, 1863, he sent over half
of those with him to march all the way around the Union Army under
the leadership of Stonewall Jackson, while Lee himself attacked
Hooker on the other side. Distracted by Lee, Hooker’s men
were taken completely by surprise by Jackson’s men when they
appeared out of the dense woods. Hooker was stunned, and
made few command decisions, leaving his army in confusion.
The battle lasted until halted by darkness.
*Hoping to scout out the enemy defences, Stonewall Jackson and
some of his staff rode out into the night. When they
returned, a North Carolina unit in their own corps did not
recognise them and fired upon them. Jackson was wounded
three times, and had to have his arm amputated. Lee said ‘he
has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.’ Jackson’s
arm was buried on the battlefield.
*Jackson was sent home, and died of pneumonia a week later, on 10
*Hooker remained off balance, and in further fighting, was forced
to retreat on 3 May, 1863, moving back across the Rappahannock
River. He was soon replaced by General George Meade.
*Although saddened and concerned by the loss of Jackson, Lee was
very confident after the glorious victories at Fredericksburg and
Chancellorsville. He decided one again to invade
Pennsylvania, threaten Washington, D.C., and force Lincoln to
negotiate a peace.
*JEB Stuart commanded Lee's cavalry. He was brilliant and he
was talented, but he was also young and vain and eager to see his
name in the newspapers. Although he had been a very
effective scout for Lee in the past, when Lee invaded Pennsylvania
in June, 1863, Stuart let him down.
*As Lee moved into Pennsylvania, Stuart got too far away from him
on a self-glorifying scouting mission, so that Lee did not have
good information about his enemy's location.
*The Confederate Army collided with the Union Army accidentally at
Gettysburg on 1 July, 1863, where they fought perhaps the most
important battle of the war and certainly the largest battle ever
fought in North America.
*Over the three days of the battle, the US Army fielded 83,000 men
and the Confederate Army had 75,000, although on both sides units
arrived a few at a time, and had either side had better
information on the other's disposition, they might have been able
to pick them off one regiment or division at a time.
*Lee had ordered that his men avoid battle if at all possible
until the time was right for a major engagement, but now he was
stuck. He ordered Richard Ewell to take the high ground if
practicable, but Ewell, new to command and lacking nerve after
losing a leg at Second Manassas, did not do so. Stonewall
Jackson might well have, and might have thus won the battle.
*On 2 July, Lee planned a two-pronged attack. Ewell would
make a diversionary attack at the north end of the long Union
line, and Longstreet would attack at the south end. Neither
attacked when he was supposed to. Longstreet had held the
wall at Marye’s Heights, and did not think it was wise to attack
the Union position on Little Round Top. He also saw some
semaphore signals on the hill and assumed the US Army was watching
him. He began a series of counter-marches, moving his army
back and forth to confuse the enemy. In fact, this just wore
his own men out, and gave the Union time to move more men to
Little Round Top.
*Eventually, Longstreet attacked, but he was not co-ordinated with
Ewell, who should have attacked already, but had not, in fact,
done so yet. Longstreet's men met Daniel Sickles’s III Corps
in Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard, and defeated them.
Sickles had his leg shot off by a cannon, so he donated it to the
Army Medical Museum and visited it every year on the
*After this, Longstreet’s men made it to the top of Little Round
Top, where the far end of the line was held by the 20th Maine
under Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. After running out
of ammunition, Chamberlain made a desperate but successful bayonet
charge down the hill against the Confederates, driving them
*On 3 July, Lee told Longstreet to attack the centre of the Union
line on Cemetery Ridge. It took him a long time to get
ready. Eventually he marshalled 12,000 men, including a
division led by George Pickett. Although Pickett’s men
accounted for only about 5,000 of the 12,000 men involved in the
attack, his was the lead unit and he was most successful in
talking about himself after the War, so this became known as
Pickett’s Charge. It was preceded by a tremendous artillery
barrage, the loudest sound ever heard on the continent, audible
over 100 miles away in Philadelphia.
*The Confederate marched across the open field, under heavy fire
from Union artillery. As they approached the Union line,
they were cut down by rifle fire from Yankee troops protected by a
long stone wall. Only a very few units actually made it to
the top, and that spot is sometimes called the high-water mark of
the Confederacy. Most Confederate units were badly depleted
and all were forced to retreat. 60% of the attacking force
was killed or wounded.
*With Stonewall Jackson gone, the Southern generals remaining were
too cautious, and Lee also made a terrible error in ordering
Pickett’s Charge, and a battle the South might have won or simply
avoided became instead the last great Southern effort—the mystical
moment when the war could have been won. Instead, it was
*Lee told his troops it was all his fault, and tried to apologise,
but no-one would allow him to do so. Nonetheless, after the
terrible casualties of Pickett’s Charge, the Army of Northern
Virginia began, on the 4th of July, a retreat to Virginia trailed
by a 17-mile long wagon train loaded with supplies and wounded
men. They never left Virginia again.
*The total estimated US casualties were 23,000 with an estimated
28,000 Confederate casualties, or 51,000 American casualties in
all. This was the largest battle ever fought in North
*The end of the battle was not the end of the story. With
thousands of dead soldiers left behind, the army and the residents
of Gettysburg began to bury the corpses, and in November, Abraham
Lincoln came to Gettysburg to address the attendees of the
dedication of the new national cemetery. As he dedicated the
cemetery, he also told his audience to dedicate themselves to the
cause for which the brave men, living and dead, had struggled
there: that government of the people, by the people, for the
people might not perish from the earth.
This page last updated 24 September, 2018.