Fighting the War

Everyone expected a short war. Indeed, Lincoln's first call for volunteers required just a ninety‐day enlistment. After the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861), the hope for a quick victory faded, and the Union implemented the Anaconda Plan. Named for the South American constrictor, it was intended to slowly crush the South with a naval blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and an invasion along the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers to slice the Confederacy in half. The defense of Washington, D.C., and pressure on the Confederate capital at Richmond were also part of the northern strategy. Jefferson Davis's defensive strategy took advantage of fighting on familiar territory and keeping his army close to the bases of supply. The South was prepared to go on the offensive and move into the North through Maryland and Pennsylvania, however, if opportunities presented themselves.

The war in the East. The first major engagement of the war was a disaster for the North. At the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, thirty thousand Union troops were routed by a smaller Confederate force as politicians and their families from Washington picnicked on the hills above the battlefield. The defeat prompted Lincoln to put General George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan spent the next nine months transforming his men into welltrained and disciplined soldiers but then seemed reluctant to let them fight. The army suffered another defeat when it finally did go into the field during the Peninsula Campaign (March–July 1862), an attempt to take Richmond by sea. In September, the South went on the offensive. The Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee moved into Maryland and met the Union troops at the Battle of Antietam. The bloodiest confrontation of the war ended inconclusively but for the fact that Lee's retreat allowed McClellan to claim victory. Antietam was significant because the outcome finally gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which probably ended any chance the South had of getting Great Britain and France to intervene. Also significant was Lincoln's dismissal of McClellan following his failure to pursue Lee's retreating army; the commander in chief and the general became bitter political rivals.

Lincoln first replaced McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside's doubts about his own ability to lead a large army proved correct, and he lost a major battle against Lee and Lieutenant General “Stonewall” Jackson at Fredericksburg in December 1862. The president then turned to General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Despite Hooker's overwhelming numerical superiority on the battlefield—about one hundred thirty thousand Union troops against sixty thousand southern troops under Lee and Jackson—he was unable to prevent a major Confederate victory at Chancellorsville (May 1863).

The war in the West. The Union army had greater success in the West. After driving Confederate forces out of Kentucky, Ulysses S. Grant moved into Tennessee, where he narrowly averted defeat at Shiloh (April 1862), and then proceeded to the Mississippi River, where he captured Memphis (June 1862). Grant's troops moved downriver to lay siege to the important river town of Vicksburg, which held out until July 1863. The navy, under Admiral David Farragut, played an important role in the western campaign, taking New Orleans and then Baton Rouge in May 1862. During the siege of Vicksburg, however, fighting in the West became a stalemate.

Farragut's successes on the Mississippi River were not the only significant naval engagements of the war. The Confederates salvaged the Merrimack, a scuttled Union warship in the Norfolk navy yard, reinforced it with iron sheathing, and renamed it the Virginia. The ironclad Virginia sailed the short distance to Hampton Roads, where it sank several wooden‐sided Union ships on blockade duty. The North hastily built its own ironclad, the Monitor, an odd vessel that one observer said resembled a “cheese box on a raft.” The Monitor and the Virginia clashed on March 9, 1862. Cannon balls bounced off their iron sides, and neither ship could sink the other. The lesson was clear: future navies would turn to steam‐powered, ironclad battleships.

The war and diplomacy. The South recognized early that support from other countries could well be decisive in determining the outcome of the war. In Great Britain, public opinion was divided. Merchants and mill owners backed the Confederacy because it was the major supplier of cotton for British textiles mills, but there was also widespread opposition to slavery and the slave trade. Early in the war, relations between the United States and Great Britain soured over the Trent Affair. The British steamer Trent was stopped by the U.S. navy, and two Confederate diplomats en route to England to seek recognition for the South were taken off. When the British demanded their release on grounds of diplomatic immunity, Lincoln ordered them set free. The British as well as the French built ships for the South, the most notoriously destructive of which was the English‐built Alabama, but U.S. threats of war forced both countries to back off. Although the foreign‐built ships were helpful to the Confederacy, they did not alter the outcome of the war.

France took advantage of the Civil War to pursue its own agenda in the Western Hemisphere. Using alleged unpaid debts as a pretext for intervention, French troops invaded Mexico in 1863 and installed Maximilian of Austria as the “Emperor of Mexico.” The United States could do nothing about this blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine during the war, but it came to the aid of Mexico's legitimate president, Benito Juárez, by moving fifty thousand troops to the border in 1866. France withdrew its forces, and Maximilian ended up in front of a Mexican firing squad.

The war and manpower. Although the majority of soldiers on both sides during the Civil War were volunteers, the Confederacy and Union did resort to the draft as the fighting expanded. Conscription of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty‐five (the range was later extended to include men aged seventeen to fifty) for a three‐year period became law in the South in April 1862. Planters with twenty or more slaves and men employed in what were considered to be essential civilian jobs were exempt. Military service could also be avoided by finding a substitute or simply paying five hundred dollars to the government. The draft in the North was instituted about a year later (March 1863) for men between the ages of twenty and forty‐five, and it too included provisions for substitution and payment (three hundred dollars). In July 1863 in New York City, mobs made up largely of Irish immigrants rioted against the Union conscription law and took out their anger on African Americans, whom they blamed for the war. The exemptions and the ability of the wealthy to buy their way out of service caused dissension as troops began to see the conflict as “a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.” The percentage of draftees in the Confederate troops was considerably higher than the percentage in the Union army.