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13. Terrible Swift Sword: The Period of Confederate Ascendency, 1861-1862

13. Terrible Swift Sword: The Period of Confederate Ascendency, 1861-1862


Professor David Blight:
This week you’re reading Hospital Sketches,
the short and in some ways extraordinary little novel,
written by Louisa May Alcott, based upon her–Louisa May
Alcott of Little Women fame, if you happen to have
grown up on that book, daughter of Bronson Alcott,
a famous and extremely eccentric New England reformer
and utopian–but she went to war,
as a young nurse–couldn’t stay away–and she kept her sketches
about her experiences of a young woman confronting the horror of
Civil War hospitals. This is a photograph of–it is
not Louisa May Alcott, I don’t think–of one of those
young nurses sitting in a Civil War hospital in 1863,
probably writing a letter; they spent a lot of their time
writing letters for sick or dying or wounded soldiers.
I think what you can find in Alcott’s novel,
among other things–it’s almost like a descriptive documentary
novel; it’s almost like she summed up
her diary–is the human encounter, particularly a
woman’s, a young woman’s encounter with
what war does to the human body, the human psyche,
to human beings. Now, good Lord,
it is eighteen years ago, Ken Burns produced–can it
really be?–a series on Public Television called The Civil
War, as every opening of it says,
brought to you by General Motors.
Nine episodes and eleven hours, garnered the largest Public
Television audience ever. The estimate was that the first
time through about thirty million Americans watched it,
and then it’s been rerun many, many times.
I went to Germany to teach for a year in 1992 and ’93,
and when I arrived in the Fall of 1992,
on German National Television they were running the Ken Burns
film series, all eleven hours of it,
dubbed into German. And it was weird,
because there was one male voice and one female voice for
all the voices. And of course one of the
tricks, or one of the techniques, one of the quite
brilliant techniques of Burns’ film was the many different
voices he used–Garrison Keillor for Walt Whitman,
Sam Waterson for Abraham Lincoln, et cetera–voices that
you, in many ways–or Americans in many ways–were comfortable
with in their living rooms. They knew Sam Waterson;
they didn’t know him as well as they know him now from Law
& Order; but they knew Garrison
Keillor’s voice, and when Garrison Keillor came
on every night, it was Walt Whitman.
At any rate, I was astonished at the
reaction in Germany. There were articles in the
paper, editorials and so on and so on.
I had one German student come up to me one day,
after watching an episode of it and listening to one of my
lectures, and he said,
“Why were there so many sunsets and moon rises in that
documentary film?” I said, “Well…”–he
caught me off guard. I said, “Well it’s a good
question.” Probably because Burns is a
sentimental filmmaker, and there’s a great deal of
sentiment in the structure, and in the music and in the
mode of that film series. And I defy you to watch one or
two hours and not be humming be the “Ashokan Farewell” in the
shower the next morning. It is a haunting violin.
It wasn’t, as some people say, written for that film series,
it’s much older. At any rate,
it is assigned in the course, at least major parts of it.
You can access it–I’m actually going to assign you episodes two
through nine; that’s eight out of the nine.
If you skip one or two only the gods will know,
I’m sure, but they will know. It is all available on the
Internet, at Yale, through the Film Archive.
How many of you have done this before for courses?
Fabulous, you’ve done this. All right, I checked this
morning, the URL–if you can read this;
I don’t know if you can read this, can you read this?
Yes, in the front. In the back?
No. How about now?
Whoa! yale.edu/clabs–c-labs,
I don’t know what that–something–that stands
for. That’s for Macs.
They tell me that this is better on PCs,
easier on PCs than Macs, and you might have to download
a patch to do it on a Mac. True, false?
Don’t know? Anybody done it recently,
in a course? Help?
You all raised your hands, you’ve done this before.
Don’t remember? That’s also easy.
Okay, good. Over the next five–including
Spring Break week–you’re in Jamaica, Spring Break week,
you can access Ken Burns’ film, you can be humming the “Ashokan
Farewell” in the shower with somebody in Jamaica.
[Laughter] That’s terrible,
the best laugh I’ve had in this course was–[Laughter]
You’re just like everybody else.
At any rate, that’s the URL,
ladies and gentleman, and then you–you need to use
your net ID to access it. If you have any problem with
this let us know immediately and we will help you.
It is assigned, and we’re going to discuss it.
I love a final exam question–don’t always use
it–that actually draws upon it as a source;
just thought I’d say that. Okay, there also is in the
syllabus this week, of course, a very vague
reading–you’re reading Hospital Sketches,
which is short, but then it says selective
choices or selections from about fifty pages of documents in the
Gienapp book and about forty pages of dispatches and
documents and letters by Lincoln in the Lincoln reader.
We’re going to pin that down for you at our lunch today and
you’ll be fired an email before this afternoon,
perhaps–and then maybe individualized by your teaching
assistant as to which of those documents you might especially
want to concentrate on. But in those two sections of
Gienapp and Johnson, if you haven’t looked yet–and
you should–you get, day by day in some cases,
you get Lincoln’s orders and dispatches to his generals,
his attempt to become the War President, including that first
document in that section where Lincoln lays–right after the
disaster at Bull Run–he lays out nine or ten very direct
orders, all beginning with the word
“let”: let there be this, let there be that,
let there by this, let there by that.
And you also find in these documents, especially in the
Gienapp Reader, some of those incredibly
megalomaniac letters by George B.
McClellan. If ever there was a more vain
character in American military history, and political
history–well there’ve been a lot of vain characters in
American political history, God knows–but if ever anybody
left more egregiously vain, utterly self-serving letters
and dispatches about his own sense of self-glory,
it is McClellan, who by all rights probably
should’ve been court-martialed, but wasn’t;
that’s another story we’ll come back to. “Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord. He has loosed the fateful
lightning with his terrible swift sword.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are
stored.” It’s possibly the most famous
poetry in American music. It’s also apocalyptic;
some would say purple in its blood.
Julia Ward Howe wrote the famous “Battle Hymn of the
Republic” in early 1862 while overlooking an encampment,
a huge encampment of the Union Army near Washington.
And she stayed until sunset and saw the fires,
which she called “the watch fires.”
And she wrote the great apocalyptic paean of the Civil
War. We will come back to this
question, especially next week, when we deal with the story,
the problem of emancipation. At the beginning of this war,
as we’ll see in a moment, most people expected something
short, might even just be a lot of
fun, a summer outing, an adventure,
a chance to whip some Yankees, maybe shoot a Rebel or two.
But if it became very long at all–and that’s the point–if it
became very long at all, its aims, its goals,
its strategies, its purposes would have to
change. That’s why the thinking people
of 1861 feared a long war. Lincoln most definitely and
most prominently; he feared what,
as he said in his–well, he said it in the Second
Inaugural; he said it also earlier in his
annual message at the end of 1861–he feared a long,
quote, “remorseless revolutionary struggle.”
Because a long, remorseless,
revolutionary struggle would have very different fundamental
results. In that Second Inaugural,
again one of those famous passages from that speech,
Lincoln said all had hoped–that was at the end of
it–“All hoped,” he said, for, quote, “a result less
fundamental and astounding.” But because this war will not
be short, it will become all out and total, depending on whose
interpretation and argument you accept,
in terms of what is modern total war–and we’ll come back
to that question. The results would become
fundamental, and transformative. Now we always steal titles from
Julia Ward Howe, just like we do from Lincoln. That’s actually a photograph of
Bull Run Creek. I know it could be a creek
anywhere, I know, but trust me,
that’s Bull Run Creek. There were 523 West Point
graduates who fought in the Mexican War, and that war,
back in 1846 to ’48 had become a kind of, if you like,
military primer for so many of them,
and the vast majority of those would end up in the Civil War,
on both sides–Ulysses Grant, Class of ’43;
William Tecumseh Sherman, Class of ’40;
Winfield Scott Hancock, Class of ’44;
George Thomas, Class of ’40; George S. Meade, Class of ’35;
Joseph Hooker, Class of ’30; John Sedgwick, Class of ’37;
Joseph E. Johnston; most notably Robert E.
Lee, Class of 1829, first in his class,
later commandant at West Point. They’d all learned a kind of
warrior culture, if you like.
They all take a very deep and abiding oath.
It was a very difficult thing to do for West Point graduates
on the southern side, to abandon that oath and go
with their states. But of course many,
many, many of them did. As Oliver Otis Howard–a West
Point graduate, later Union Corps Commander,
lost his arm in the Petersburg Campaign and later first
leader–head of the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War and
for whom Howard University is named–said,
quote, “Probably no other place existed where men grappled more
sensitively with the troublesome problems of secession.”
No kidding. Now the numbers of this–there
was a kind of a stampede of West Point cadets back to the South,
at least to a certain degree. An Ohio cadet named Tully McRae
wrote to his sweetheart–this is April 1861: “This has been an
eventful week in the history of West Point.
There has been such a stampede of cadets as was never known
before. Thirty-two resigned and were
relieved from duty on Monday, April 22, and since then enough
to increase the number to more than forty.
There are now few cadets from any southern state left here.”
In all, seventy-four southern cadets resigned and were
dismissed for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the
United States; but twenty-one southern cadets,
from slave states, remained and would eventually
fight for the Union. This was a far higher
proportion of loyalist than southern students at Harvard,
Yale or Columbia. At Princeton not one southern
student remained at the college–it’s an old southern
tradition at Princeton, make no mistake.
There are many extraordinary witnesses to these breakups at
West Point. Here’s just one of them.
The cadet, George Armstrong Custer, Class of 1861–that
Custer–recalled walking sentinel duty in June of ’61 and
seeing fifteen defecting southern cadets marching toward
a steamboat landing on the Hudson.
I quote him: “Too far off to exchange verbal
‘adieu,’ even if military discipline had permitted it,
they caught sight of me as step by step I reluctantly paid the
penalty of offended regulations”–that’s why he’s
doing this guard duty–“and raised their hats in token
farewell, to which, first casting my eyes
about to see that no watchful superior was in view,
I responded by bringing my musket to a present.” Custer would later be proud of
how many southerners he had killed.
Now, the next whole section of this course I want to suggest
some questions that we want to hope that we leave you with
answers for; and you can write these down
and hold me to it, if you want.
We can disagree about those answers, but that’s what
history’s ultimately for. (1) Why did the North win this
war? (2) Why did the South lose it?
(3) What did making war, and experiencing it,
mean to common soldiers, to officers,
to their families, to the women left at home and
the women who went to the front? (4) How did the war unleash or
reinforce or reshape nineteenth century values and attitudes?
When Americans of the 1860s confronted war on this scale,
eighty percent of all white males in the American South
between the age of sixteen and forty-five will be in the
army–eighty percent. In the northern states,
fifty percent–a much higher population–of all white males
between eighteen and forty-five will be in the Army or the Navy.
Can you imagine if we had fifty percent of the American–let’s
just count the white males–in the United States today under
arms, through a draft? A whole lot of you wouldn’t be
here. (5) What did the war itself
mean on both sides? Its cause, its purpose,
that developing sense of the reason people fight.
What was it about? (6) What were the war’s
results, what were its consequences?
Do wars have meanings that we are obliged to discern?
Yes. (7) Why were the slaves freed?
How did emancipation come, when it came,
the way it came? (8) Was the American Civil War
a second American Revolution–yes,
no, maybe in between? Is it the wrong term,
is there a better one? (9) What is the place of this
pivotal, transformative event in America’s national memory?
And (10)–God I hope we can answer some of these–was the
Civil War a just war? Okay, when the war came–back
to that little picture of Bull Run in a moment–but when the
war came, of course, Americans had to now
decide how to fight a war. They had never mobilized
for–like they’re going to mobilize in this war;
although at the beginning no one really had any clue of the
scale of the mobilization in industry and resources and
transportation and in human power that the war would bring.
Let’s examine just for a moment this question of Union
advantages and Southern advantages,
strengths and weaknesses on both sides, at the outset of the
war, and even through it. It has a great deal to do with
ultimately explaining Union victory and Confederate defeat,
although it is not by itself an explanation;
the North didn’t just win the war because it had more
industrial capacity, or as Ken Burns has Shelby
Foote say at one point–the star of his film–has Shelby Foote
say at one point in the film, “The North fought that war with
one hand behind its back.” Bullshit Shelby,
they really did not fight that war with one hand behind their
back. [Laughter]
But it helps make a nice explanation, or the beginnings
of a nice explanation for southern defeat.
There were many Union advantages.
Let me just tick off several. First in finances,
the North had–most of this in New York City and a couple of
other cities–had four times the bank deposits as the southern
states, even though most of the
southern states had their bank deposits in northern banks.
In manufacturing, there were 110,000
manufacturing establishments in the northern states with 1.2
million industrial workers in 1860.
The North had four times–oh I already said that,
the bank deposits, forgive me.
The North–excuse me–there were as many factories in the
North as there were industrial workers in the South;
in the neighborhood of 100,000 or so small manufacturing
industrial workers of one kind and another in southern towns
and cites; the northern states had that
many manufacturing establishments.
Eighty percent of all industrial capacity in the
United States were in the free states.
One Connecticut county, New Haven County–this town,
and its county–produced firearms valued at ten times the
entire southern capacity to produce firearms in 1860.
Now the South’s going to improve that greatly through the
Tredegar Iron Works, in Richmond in particular,
and other places. But New Haven,
Connecticut produced ten times the firearms as the entire South
put together in 1860. Those shells of some of those
old factories in this town, that are no longer factories,
were gun factories, and man did they get rich
during the Civil War. In transportation,
eighty percent of all railroad miles in the United States,
the former United States, were in the northern states.
Of the 470 locomotives made in the United States by 1860,
only nineteen of them had been made in the South.
The North had the vast, vast majority of skilled
mechanics who worked on railroads.
The North tended to have uniform gauges to their
railroads, three or four feet wide to the track.
In the South they had this ridiculous problem,
frankly, and they will not solve it very quickly,
that the South built its railroads haphazardly,
state by state by state by state,
at all kinds of different gauges, three and a half feet
here, four feet there, four and a half feet there.
You’d go into one town with a railroad gauge that’s one width
but it goes out the other side of town with a gauge that’s
another width. You had to switch locomotives
and switch trains, as ridiculous as that sounds.
They found out in a hurry what a misery that would cause.
Another northern advantage was simply in manpower–just look at
the population numbers. The population of the North was
approximately twenty-two and a half million people in 1860.
The population of the South was slightly over nine million white
people and about four and a half million black people;
about 4.2 million of whom were slaves;
the other 250 to 300,000 who were free blacks. The northern states produced
ninety-four of all cloth in the United States in 1860,
ninety-three percent of all pig iron, and on and on and on;
boats, ships, it’s all eighty,
ninety, ninety-five percent in favor of the North.
William Tecumseh Sherman was sitting in New Orleans,
where he was stationed when secession occurred,
and the war broke out in April 1861, and according to his
testimony he said to his friend, who had actually been a West
Point buddy of his, he warned him and he said,
quote, “No nation of agriculturalists ever made war
on a nation of mechanics and survived.”
Yes, it’s very prescient, but I don’t want you to think
that Confederate success or victory was somehow determined
at the outset, because of all these economic,
financial, industrial advantages.
The North had certain political advantages.
It did not have to create a government;
it already had one, it had a functioning
government. Now eleven of those states are
no longer going to be represented, they’re going to be
gone, but there’s a functioning U.S.
Federal Government. The South has to create that
government overnight and it has to create it out of a political
culture rooted in states’ rights and localism.
And furthermore–and I think this is a very important
point–the North had a functioning political party
system. There were still functioning
Democrats in the North, very strong in certain pockets
of the North. They will be a genuine
opposition party to Lincoln’s Republicans during the war.
They will make a comeback in the Congress in 1862;
they got clobbered in 1860. The South doesn’t have a party
system; the South has a one-party
system–they appointed Jefferson Davis.
The South will not hold a general election for its
presidency and vice-presidency during this war.
Why is that important? Well, when you have a
functioning political party system you have a way of
organizing power and organizing patronage and organizing
loyalty. We’ll see this soon, Thursday.
One of Jefferson Davis’s greatest problems and biggest
crises throughout the war is trying to get the southern
states to go along with various Confederate federal policies,
and in the end he will fail at much of that.
Now, the South was not without advantages.
Look at the map. You could argue that the South
had a great advantage of geography, if they used it well.
The South is a huge expansive territory, huge;
thousands of–what is it, almost a 2,000 mile coastline,
1,500 mile coastline I believe, if you add up Florida all the
way up to Virginia. And when Lincoln announced the
call for 75,000 volunteers in April of ’61,
he also announced a naval blockade of the entire South.
Now this will forever be a tricky legal story and an
interesting constitutional problem.
Lincoln says the southern states could not
constitutionally secede from the Union;
they were not therefore a legitimate belligerent.
He was not in any way recognizing them as a legitimate
government, but, oh, by the way,
he was going to put a total naval blockade on them
nevertheless. Now, foreign countries,
especially Great Britain, will look at this and say,
“well you may not–secession you may not think is
constitutional in your country and you may not call the
confederacy a belligerent, but you sure as hell are
treating them like one.” At any rate,
a blockade around that entire coastline will never be easy.
And we know that it was very porous in the first year,
even into the second year of the war, through 1862 very
porous. But the naval blockade
eventually was relatively successful, by 1864 and into
early 1865. But it’s a huge expansive
territory. The South had rivers it could
use, and it will use them effectively;
of course so will the North, once they invade the South.
Geography was an advantage to the southern cause,
as many military historians have argued ever since,
if and when they stayed on the defensive.
When they chose to invade the North, as Lee will twice,
two fateful invasions, the one resulting at Antietam
in September of ’62 and the other at Gettysburg in July of
’63, he was giving up that advantage
of the defensive position, forcing the larger armies of
the North to come to them and attack on southern ground,
on southern soil. This has always been a
debate–had the South remained utterly defensive in this war,
could the North have stood it, held out long enough?
Thirdly, you could argue that the South has an advantage in
its cause or its purpose. And perhaps at first maybe they
did, or even later, after a terrible degree of war
weariness had set in. The argument is simply that the
South didn’t have to win the war, they didn’t have to conquer
the North, they simply had to fight long
enough as an insurgent. They were the insurgent,
the Confederacy was an insurgency, let’s use that term,
that’s exactly what they were. If they could hold out long
enough and force the North into a degree of war weariness,
into some kind of economic trauma, they might just sue for
peace. After all, the goal of the
Confederacy was national independence.
Some have said their cause was clearer, less abstract;
defense of the homeland, defense of hearth,
is in some ways less abstract than defense of the Union or the
Constitution or the social order.
How many of you want your sons to die for the social order?
Well maybe you do, not for me to say.
If they had stayed on the defensive–and they know this;
this is one of those testy questions about Robert E.
Lee’s legacy. They had an advantage here now
of this new, relatively new invention–thousands upon
thousands upon thousands of which were made in this
town–and that was the rifled musket.
Until the late 1840s and into the 1850s almost all firearms,
all muskets were smoothbore. The shell or the bullet or the
minie ball that came out of them, came out of a just a
barrel that was flat on the inside and it would only go 100
to 200 yards; 200 yards maximum.
But with the creation of the rifled musket–and eventually
rifled cannon–a rifled musket could hit something as far as
800 years away; it didn’t mean you could see
what you were shooting at, but it was extremely deadly at
2 to 300 yards now, in a war that’s still going to
be fought with these hideous old Napoleonic tactics of lining up
men by the thousands, arm to arm, elbow to elbow,
and simply moving across fields.
The defensive position with the rifled musket was a huge
advantage, if used. Many have said over and over
that the South had superior generalship in the first
especially two years of the war, and I don’t think there’s much
question that they did. And then of course some have
argued that the South simply had the yeoman soldier–better
soldiers, better men, so-called.
Now they thought they did, and let me give you a couple of
illustrations of that. They thought they did,
in their rhetoric and in their war fever of 1861. One young Confederate officer
wrote home from the summer of 1861.
He said, “Just throw three or four shells among those
blue-bellied Yankees and they’ll scatter like sheep.”
So was the theory. “It was not the improved arm
but the improved man,” wrote Governor Henry Wise of Virginia,
“which would win the day.” He’s writing this in 1861.
“Let brave men advance with flint locks and old-fashioned
bayonets on the popinjays of Northern cities and he would
answer for it with his life. The Yankees,” he says,
“will break and run.” The Yankees won’t fight,
or so was the theory. Now, I don’t know,
at times I suppose there was an advantage.
There was a certain warrior culture in the South.
There were perhaps more hunters per capita in the South than
maybe in the North; but don’t make much of that one.
The South had awesome problems though to fight this war as
well, and let me tick them off quickly.
They’ll have a tremendous problem of supply,
as the war gets bigger. Johnny Reb will never be very
well clad, never very well fed. Always reliant on captured
blankets and captured boots and captured food,
and even captured medical supplies at times.
In the South they will truly, in a biblical sense,
have to make ploughshares into swords.
They actually accomplished amazing things in the creation
of weapons, of ordinance, of gun powder,
of shells, by the thousands, almost overnight.
They will also buy a lot from Great Britain,
from the French to some extent, and much of that will get in
through the blockade in the first two years.
They had a huge disadvantage of not having a Navy.
They had to somehow create a Navy–and we’ll come back to
this later when we look at the role of Europe in this.
They will go to Britain and try to buy ships,
and they will–ironclads, rams,
and, ultimately, battleships,
that will prey upon and destroy hundreds of Union ships. And then you might say that
they had a real political disadvantage–I guess I’ve
already mentioned it–in that they were born of a states’
rights impulse, and overnight now they have to
try to centralize a government, to fight a highly centralized,
coordinated war over a vast thousand mile front.
And Georgians are supposed to cooperate with Virginians who
are supposed to cooperate with Tennesseans who are supposed to
cooperate with Arkansans. And it didn’t always work.
And last but not least, would slavery be an advantage
or a disadvantage in the South’s war efforts?
To some degree it was an advantage, and thousands upon
thousands of American slaves will be put to work for the
Confederate military, for the Confederate industry.
If you visited a Confederate army from 1861 on,
if it was above 1000 men, you would see plenty of black
guys, and some black women. If you were on a southern train
by 1863, you’d see plenty of black workers on that train,
most of them slaves. If you were in a field hospital
in Georgia by ’63 and ’64, during Sherman’s March,
if you were in a Confederate hospital you’d see plenty of
black nurses; about forty percent of all the
nurses in Confederate hospitals, from ’63 on,
in Georgia were slave women. They were impressed into
Confederate service by the thousands.
So there’s an advantage in that. But I think as we’ll see next
week, slavery ultimately was the Achilles heel of the Confederate
war effort, because once the Union
leadership–and that’s going to happen, it’s going to take a
year into the war, but that’s going to happen by
1862, and certainly ’63–will come to see that the only way
they can truly win the war is by destroying slavery.
And once the Union war effort becomes an effort to destroy the
social structure of the South, including its labor system,
and an effort to destroy slavery, it becomes an all-out
and total war of conquest. Now, quickly,
to the extent there was an opening grand strategy,
soon to be abandoned, it was this.
Winfield Scott, the “Old Rough and Ready,” as
he was known, the old General of the Mexican
War–he’s very ancient by now, he’s eighty-years-old,
he’s big and he’s fat and he’s immobile–but he was the General
of the Army and he came up with what he called the “Anaconda
Plan.” The Anaconda Plan was basically
to envelop the South, surround it by a naval
blockade, use gunboats to penetrate the
rivers down the Ohio, the Mississippi,
the Missouri if necessary, from the west,
and up those rivers of Virginia and down the coast of the
Carolinas, and, in effect,
suffocate the South from outside, over time.
It might take a year, it might even take two years.
The idea here was to surround the South and to force them
ultimately to not just see the error of their ways but to see
that they had no chance to win. This was a plan now that would
not invade the South with major armies and seek major
battlefield victories, it was almost a kind of an
economic plan to win a war. It would take time,
patience and an ever-growing Navy.
But the American people wouldn’t have it.
The northern people wouldn’t have it.
They wanted an army forming around Washington,
D.C. in April, May,
and June, 1861, to move, to act.
Horace Greeley, the most important editor of
the most important newspaper in the United States,
the New York Herald-Tribune,
in New York, published that famous headline,
“On To Richmond”–or “Forward to Richmond,” it said.
Attack that Confederate army, stop the insurgency,
whip them once, end the rebellion,
punish its leaders and get this thing over before the end of
summer. Now, the problem here is not
unlike–think about it–the problem in the American
Revolution. If the British could’ve ended
that American insurgency in the American Revolution quickly,
in the first year or two, instead of letting these
American armies under George Washington and others keep
retreating away from them, and not engaging in any real
pitched battles, and continuing to give up their
cities, and retreat inland and inland
and inland, the Americans would not have won their revolution. As long as the Confederate
armies could exist, the Confederacy could exist,
if indeed we interpret it as a revolutionary insurgency;
and, ultimately, that is virtually how they will
interpret themselves. And, hence, we can see that if
this war lasts very long, if it lasted frankly beyond one
year, it had all the potential of
becoming a war of conquest, all out and total,
requiring the destruction of the southern infrastructure and
southern society. Now, both sides in this
war–and I’ll get around to Bull Run and the way the war broke
out in the west in a moment–both sides in this war
will engage in conscription, they will create the draft for
the first time in American history.
The Confederates were first to do it.
The first Conscription Act in American history is passed in
April of 1862 by the Confederate Government.
It said that all able-bodied men eighteen to thirty-five,
later raised to forty-five, would be conscripted into three
years of service. They allowed the hiring of a
substitute, which led to the charge of elitism,
which was accurate. There were brokers and all
kinds of dishonest substitutes. One man is alleged to have sold
himself twenty times for the bounty that he got paid to get
out. There were exemptions in the
Confederate conscription–public servants, ministers,
teachers, editors, nurses, factory and railroad
workers, miners, and telegraph operators.
Among the Confederate troops out at the front they called
these people “bomb-proof” positions.
And then, worst of all, in the Confederate Conscription
Law in 1863, they passed what was known as the Twenty Negro
Law: if you owned twenty or more slaves you were exempt from
service. The reason for that was the
deep fear setting in, in 1862 across the South,
that if all these white men–eighty percent of white
males in the South will be in the Army–and if all these white
men left the plantations it would be black men left on the
plantations running the place. Any man who had twenty or more
slaves was exempt, if he chose to be.
This will cause tremendous resentment in the Confederate
armies and ultimately become one of the causes of desertion.
The Union Conscription Law came later, it didn’t come until
early ’63. It drafted every able-bodied
man twenty years of age to forty-five years of age.
It had–its exemptions were more limited.
You could escape if you could find a substitute and pay $300;
hence the charge, not inaccurate,
that in the North, this “people’s war,” as Lincoln
called it, this war to save democracy,
became a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.
Generous bounties were paid if you enlisted,
and in the end only about six percent of all the Union forces
in the Civil War were draftees. The social pressure in some
communities, since regiments were formed locally,
was tremendous, especially in the first two
years. Approximately twenty percent of
all Confederates were draftees and only six percent of Union
troops. Now, I only have a few minutes
left, and I’m sorry for that, but I wanted to lay out our
aims and goals here. But let me leave you with how
this first battle of the war actually came;
and we’ll pick it up there Thursday;
it makes as much sense Thursday. Along that creek–you can see
the picture here, an extraordinary photograph,
actually taken in 1862, of four children,
two of them wearing what are probably Union kepis–hats–and
seven Union cavalrymen across the creek,
as though they’re at attention for the photographer.
It’s a remarkable picture of, it seems to me,
the influence of war on the young.
But it was along that creek on the 21^(st) of July,
1861, a Sunday afternoon, that the first collision of
amateur armies occurred, and the first major battle of
the Civil War came about. Lincoln, under the pressure of
public opinion, forced his commander,
Irvin McDowell, to move this army,
that was not very well trained, it wasn’t prepared to
fight–they hadn’t even been taught how to retreat,
which they’re about to demonstrate.
McDowell complained to Lincoln, he said, “These people can’t
fight, we haven’t learned this, we haven’t learned that,
we’re not ready, don’t make us move.”
And Lincoln said, “I have no choice,
you must move.” And he wrote to McDowell and he
said, quote, “You are green, it is true, but they are green.
You are all green alike.” Well, thanks a lot,
McDowell probably said, and off he marched about twenty
miles south and west of Washington to collide with this
Confederate army that had been forming now for three months in
northern Virginia, threatening the U.S. capital.
It was a summer outing. A couple of hundred civilians
in carriages, many of them congressmen and
their wives and families, got in carriages,
packed picnic lunches, went down to watch the battle.
They sat on hillsides to watch this spectacle;
you stay far enough away you wouldn’t see any blood.
Oh, there’s going to be some casualties but that’s–there’s
supposed to be. They took picnics.
Two U.S. congressmen wound up captured
and spent the next year in a Richmond prison.
It was a crazy battle. It lasted only three hours,
and both commanding generals, Beauregard on the Confederate
side and McDowell on the Union side,
had the same plan, a fake to the right and a move
to the left. This was old-fashioned stuff.
Now, if they both had managed to pull it off and their men had
known what they were doing, they’d have simply moved each
other around and the Confederate army could’ve walked up into
Washington. But nothing came off as planned.
At first the Union forces took several hundred yards of the
field; it looked like,
in these field glasses people were using, that this was going
to be a Union victory. First clash,
a Union victory, send the Confederate Army
retreating back into Virginia and end the rebellion.
But then as fast as that happened it turned around,
and a counter-attack came. It was led by a general named
Thomas Jackson, who gets his name at Bull Run,
Stonewall Jackson–more on him later.
And suddenly these Union soldiers–knew nothing of
retreat–they threw down rifles, they ran through creeks and
found the first road they could. So they broke ranks,
and they retreated, many of them running the rest
of that afternoon and through into the evening,
back to Washington, D.C.
in utter defeat and retreat. It was so bad that the wagons
and the caissons of the artillery started running over
men. Albion Tourgee,
later to become the most important novelist and writer of
the Reconstruction era, was badly wounded;
he had his shoulder smashed and broken by the wheel of a caisson
in the retreat from Bull Run, and would have to leave the war
for year; he’ll return to it,
but he’d never be able to use one of his shoulders very
effectively. Bull Run–First Bull Run–was a
complete Confederate victory, a Union defeat.
The Union Army retreated into the national capital,
a shock to the country. The casualties were this:
460 killed on the Union side, over 1100 wounded,
and 1300 men missing for the next month;
a total of almost 2900 casualties.
On the Confederate side, 387 killed, 1500 wounded,
and only thirteen missing; about 1900 total casualties.
In the wake of Bull Run, Lincoln brings George B.
McClellan, this vainglorious but handsome as hell,
smart, West Point graduate of thirty-four years-old,
to the White House. He’d had a couple of small
little victories out in Western Virginia where there’d been a
couple of clashes with southern troops,
and he brought this gold-sash-wearing young officer
to the White House and gave him command of this army that they
then named The Army of the Potomac.
And the army was being increased daily now with
hundreds and hundreds and thousands of troops from the
North. And McClellan put them into
camp, Camp Brightwood, among others–huge
camps–outside of Washington, and he’ll start training them,
for months and months and months.
And the Civil War got longer and longer and longer.
And McClellan’s not going to move that army for another ten
months, nine months, until the late Spring of 1862.
Meanwhile, the war is going to break out in the West too,
and we’ll return to that Thursday.


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