Thus at the opening of the war substantial advantages had been gained by the North. They were not, however, of a sufficiently brilliant character fully to satisfy the expectations of the excited people. A great battle must be won. Government, unwisely yielding to the pressure, ordered their imperfectly disciplined troops to advance and attack the rebels in their position at Manassas Junction.
General Beauregard lay at Manassas with a rebel force variously estimated at from thirty thousand to forty thousand men. In front of his position ran the little stream of Bull Run, in a narrow, wooded valley – the ground rising on both sides into “bluffs,” crowned with frequent patches of dense wood. General M’Dowell moved to attack him, with an army about equal in strength. July 21, 1861 A.D. It was early Sunday morning when the army set out from its quarters at Centreville. The march was not over ten miles, but the day was hot, and the men not yet inured to hardship. It was ten o’clock when the battle fairly opened. From the heights on the northern bank of the stream the Federal artillery played upon the enemy. The Southern line stretched well nigh ten miles, and M’Dowell hoped, by striking with an overwhelming force at a point on the enemy’s right, to roll back his entire line in confusion. Heavy masses of infantry forded the stream and began the attack. The Southerners fought bravely and skilfully, but at the point of attack they were inferior in number, and they were driven back. The battle spread away far among the woods, and soon every copse held its group of slain and wounded men. By three o’clock the Federals reckoned the battle as good as won, for the enemy, though still fighting, was falling back. But at that hour railway trains ran close up to the field of battle with fifteen thousand Southerners fresh and eager for the fray. This new force was hurried into action. The wearied Federals could not endure the vehemence of the attack; they broke, and fled down the hill-side. With inexperienced troops a measured and orderly retreat is impossible; defeat is quickly followed by panic. The men who had fought so bravely all the day now hurried in wild confusion from the field. The road was choked with a tangled mass of baggage-waggons, artillery, soldiers and civilians frenzied by fear, and cavalry riding wildly through the quaking mob. But the Southerners attempted no pursuit, and the panic passed away. Scarcely an attempt, however, was made to stop the flight. Order was not restored till the worn-out men made their way back to Washington.
This was the first great battle of the war, and its results were of prodigious importance. By the sanguine men of the South it was hailed as decisive of their final success. President Davis counted upon the immediate recognition of the Confederacy by the Great Powers of Europe as now certain. The newspapers accepted it as a settled truth that “one Southerner was equal to five Yankees.” Intrigues began for the succession to the presidential chair – six years hence.
The defeat at Manassas taught the people of the North that the task they had undertaken was a heavier task than they supposed, but it did not shake their steady purpose to perform it. On the day after the battle – while the routed army was swarming into Washington – Congress voted five hundred million dollars, and called for half a million of volunteers. A few days later, Congress unanimously resolved that the suppression of the rebellion was a sacred duty, from the performance of which no disaster should discourage; to which they pledged the employment of every resource, national and individual. “Having chosen our course,” said Mr. Lincoln, “without guile, and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.” The spirit of the North rose as the greatness of the enterprise became apparent. No thought was there of any other issue from the national agony than the overthrow of the national foe. The youth of the country crowded into the ranks. The patriotic impulse possessed rich and poor alike, and the sons of wealthy men shouldered a musket side by side with the penniless children of toil. Once, by some accident, the money which should have paid a New England regiment failed to arrive in time. A private in the regiment gave his cheque for a hundred thousand dollars, and the men were paid. The Christian churches yielded an earnest support to the war. In some western churches the men enlisted almost without exception. Occasionally their ministers accompanied them. Sabbath-school teachers and members of young men’s Christian associations were remarkable for the eagerness with which they obeyed the call of their country. It was no longer a short war and an easy victory which the North anticipated. The gigantic character of the struggle was at length recognized; and the North, chastened, but undismayed, made preparations for a contest on the issue of which her existence depended.
General M’Dowell had led the Northern army to a defeat which naturally shook public confidence in his ability to command. A new general was indispensable. When the war broke out, a young man – George B. M’Clellan by name – was resident in Cincinnati, peacefully occupied with the management of a railroad. He was trained at West Point, and had a high reputation for soldiership. Several years before, Mr. Cobden was told by Jefferson Davis that M’Clellan was one of the best generals the country possessed. He was skilful to construct and organize, but his power to direct successfully the movements of great armies engaged in actual warfare was still unproved.
General M’Clellan was appointed to the command of the army a few days after the defeat at Bull Run, and sanguine hopes were entertained that he was about to give the people victory over their enemies. He addressed himself at once to his task. From every State in the North men hastened to his standard. He disciplined them and perfected their equipment for the field. In October he was at the head of two hundred thousand men – the largest army ever yet seen on the American continent.
The rebel Government, which at first chose for its home the city of Montgomery in Alabama, moved to Richmond so soon as Virginia gave in her reluctant adherence to the secession cause. Richmond, the gay capital of the Old Dominion, sits queen-like upon a lofty plateau, with deep valleys flanking her on east and west, and the James river rushing past far below upon the south – not many miles from the point where the “dissolute” fathers of the colony had established themselves two centuries and a half ago. To Washington the distance is only one hundred and thirty miles. The warring Governments were within a few hours’ journey of each other.
The supreme command of the rebel forces was committed to General Robert E. Lee – one of the greatest of modern soldiers. He was a calm, thoughtful, unpretending man, whose goodness gained for him universal love. He was opposed to secession, but believing, like the rest, that he owed allegiance wholly to his own State, he seceded with Virginia. It was his difficult task to contend nearly always with forces stronger than his own, and to eke out by his own skill and genius the scanty resources of the Confederacy. His consummate ability maintained the war long after all hope of success was gone; and when at length he laid down his arms, even the country against which he had fought was proud of her erring but noble son.
Thomas Jackson – better known as “Stonewall Jackson” – was the most famous of Lee’s generals. In him we have a strange evidence of the influence which slavery exerts upon the best of men. He was of truly heroic mould – brave, generous, devout. His military perception was unerring; his decision swift as lightning. He rose early in the morning to read the Scriptures and pray. He gave a tenth part of his income for religious uses; he taught a Sunday class of negro children; he delivered lectures on the authenticity of Scripture; when he dropped a letter into the post-office, he prayed for a blessing on the person to whom it was addressed. As his soldiers marched past his erect, unmoving figure, to meet the enemy, they saw his lips move, and knew that their leader was praying for them to Him who “covereth the head in the day of battle.” And yet this good man caused his negroes – male and female – to be flogged when he judged that severity needful. And yet he recommended that the South should “take no prisoners” – in other words, that enemies who had ceased to resist should be massacred. To the end of his life he remained of opinion that the rejection of this policy was a mistake. So fatally do the noblest minds become tainted by the associations of slave society.
During the autumn and early winter of 1861 the weather was unusually fine, and the roads were consequently in excellent condition for the march of an army. The rebel forces were scattered about Virginia – some of them within sight of Washington. Around Richmond it was understood there were few troops. It seemed easy for M’Clellan, with his magnificent army, to trample down any slight resistance which could be offered, and march into the rebel capital. For many weeks the people and the Government waited patiently. They had been too hasty before; they would not again urge their general prematurely into battle. But the months of autumn passed, and no blow was struck. Winter was upon them, and still “all was quiet on the Potomac.” M’Clellan, in a series of brilliant reviews, presented his splendid army to the admiration of his countrymen; but he was not yet ready to fight. The country bore the delay for six months. Then it could be endured no longer, and in January Mr. Lincoln issued a peremptory order that a movement against the enemy should be made. M’Clellan now formed a plan of operations, and by the end of March was ready to begin his work.
South-eastward from Richmond the James and the York rivers fall into Chesapeake bay at a distance from each other of some twenty miles. The course of the rivers is nearly parallel, and the region between them is known as the Peninsula. M’Clellan conveyed his army down the Potomac, landed at Fortress Monroe, and prepared to march upon Richmond by way of the Peninsula.
Before him lay the little town of Yorktown – where, eighty years before, the War of Independence was closed by the surrender of the English army. Yorktown was held by eleven thousand rebels. M’Clellan had over one hundred thousand well-disciplined men eager for battle. But he deemed it injudicious to assault the place, and preferred to operate in the way of a formal siege. The rebels waited till he was ready to open his batteries – and then quietly marched away.
M’Clellan moved slowly up the Peninsula. In six weeks he was within a few miles of Richmond, and in front of the forces which the rebels had been actively collecting for the defence of their capital. These forces were now so strong that M’Clellan deemed himself outnumbered, and sought the protection of his gunboats on the James river. The emboldened rebels dashed at his retreating ranks. His march to the James river occupied seven days, and on every day there was a battle. Nearly always the Federals had the advantage in the fight. Always after the fight they resumed their retreat. Once they drove back the enemy, inflicting upon him a crushing defeat. Their hopes rose with success, and they demanded to be led back to Richmond. M’Clellan shunned the great enterprise which opened before him, and never rested from his march till he lay in safety, sheltered by the gunboats on the James river. He had lost fifteen thousand men; but the rebels had suffered even more. It was said that the retreat was skilfully conducted, but the American people were in no humour to appreciate the merits of a chief who was great only in flight. Their disappointment was intense. The Southern leaders devoutly announced “undying gratitude to God” for their great success, and looked forward with increasing confidence to their final triumph over an enemy whose assaults it seemed so easy to repulse.
Nor was this the only success which crowned the rebel arms. The most remarkable battle of the war was fought while M’Clellan was preparing for his advance; and it ended in a rebel victory.
At the very beginning of the war the Confederates bethought them of an iron-clad ship of war. They took hold of an old frigate which the Federals had sunk in the James river. They sheathed her in iron plates; they roofed her with iron rails. At her prow, beneath the water-line, they fitted an iron-clad projection, which might be driven into the side of an adversary. They armed her with ten guns of large size.
The mechanical resources of the Confederacy were defective, and this novel structure was eight months in preparation. 1862 A.D. One morning in March she steamed slowly down the James river, attended by five small vessels of the ordinary sort. A powerful Northern fleet lay guarding the mouth of the river. The Virginia– as the iron-clad had been named – came straight towards the hostile ships. She fired no shot; no man showed himself upon her deck. The Federals assailed her with well-aimed discharges; but the shot bounded harmless from her sides. She steered for the Cumberland, into whose timbers she struck her armed prow. A huge cleft opened in the Cumberland’s side, and the gallant ship went down with a hundred men of her crew on board. The Virginia next attacked the Federal ship Congress. At a distance of two hundred yards she opened her guns upon this ill-fated vessel. The Congress was aground, and could offer no effective resistance. After sustaining heavy loss, she was forced to surrender. Night approached, and the Virginia drew off, intending to resume her work on the morrow.
Early next morning – a bright Sunday morning – she steamed out, and made for the Minnesota– a Federal ship which had been grounded to get beyond her reach. The Minnesota was still aground, and helpless. Beside her, however, as the men on board the Virginia observed, lay a mysterious structure, resembling nothing they had ever seen before. Her deck was scarcely visible above the water, and it supported nothing but an iron turret nine feet high. This was the Monitor, designed by Captain Ericsson; – the first of the class of iron-clad turret-ships. By a singular chance she had arrived thus opportunely. The two iron-clads measured their strength in combat, but their shot produced no impression, and after two hours of heavy but ineffective firing, they separated, and the Virginia retired up the James river.
This fight opened a new era in naval warfare. The Washington Government hastened to build turret-ships. All European Governments, perceiving the worthlessness of ships of the old type, proceeded to reconstruct their navies according to the light which the action of the Virginia and the Monitor afforded them.
The efforts of the North to crush the rebel forces in Virginia had signally failed. But military operations were not confined to Virginia: in this war the battle-field was the continent. Many hundreds of miles from the scene of M’Clellan’s unsuccessful efforts, the banner of the Union was advancing into the revolted territory. The North sought to occupy the Border States, and to repossess the line of the Mississippi, thus severing Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the other members of the secession enterprise, and perfecting the blockade which was now effectively maintained on the Atlantic coast. There were troops enough for these vast operations. By the 1st of December 1861, six hundred and forty thousand men had enrolled themselves for the war. The North, thoroughly aroused now, had armed and drilled these enormous hosts. Her foundries worked night and day, moulding cannon and mortars. Her own resources could not produce with sufficient rapidity the gunboats which she needed to assert her supremacy on the western waters, but she obtained help from the building-yards of Europe. All that wealth and energy could do was done. While the Confederates were supinely trusting to the difficulties of the country and the personal prowess of their soldiers, the North massed forces which nothing on the continent could long resist. In the south and west results were achieved not unworthy of these vast preparations.
1861 A.D. During the autumn a strong fleet was sent southward to the Carolina coast. Overcoming with ease the slight resistance which the rebel forts were able to offer, the expedition possessed itself of Port Royal, and thus commanded a large tract of rebel territory. It was a cotton-growing district, worked wholly by slaves. The owners fled, but the slaves remained. The first experiment was made here to prove whether the negro would labour when the lash did not compel, and the results were most encouraging. The negroes worked cheerfully and patiently, and many of them became rich from the easy gains of labour on that rich soil.
In the west the war was pushed vigorously and with success. To General Grant – a strong, tenacious, silent man, destined ere long to be Commander-in-Chief and President – was assigned the work of driving the rebels out of Kentucky and Tennessee. His gunboats ran up the great rivers of these States and took effective part in the battles which were fought. The rebels were forced southward, till in the spring of 1862 the frontier line of rebel territory no longer enclosed Kentucky. Even Tennessee was held with a loosened and uncertain grasp.
March 1862 A.D. In Arkansas, beyond the Mississippi, was fought the Battle of Pea Ridge, which stretched over three days, and in which the rebels received a sharp defeat. Henceforth the rebels had no footing in Missouri or in Arkansas.
New Orleans fell in April. Admiral Farragut with a powerful fleet forced his way past the forts and gunboats which composed the insufficient defence of the city. There was no army to resist him. He landed a small party of marines, who pulled down the Secession flag and restored that of the Union. The people looked on silently, while the city passed thus easily away for ever from Confederate rule.
There was gloom in the rebel capital as the tidings of these disasters came in. But the spirit of the people was unbroken, and the Government was encouraged to adopt measures equal to the emergency. A law was enacted which placed at the disposal of the Government every man between eighteen and thirty-five years of age. Enlistment for short terms was discontinued. Henceforth the business of Southern men must be war, and every man must hold himself at his country’s call. This law yielded for a time an adequate supply of soldiers, and ushered in those splendid successes which cherished the delusive hope that the Slave-power was to establish itself as one of the Great Powers of the world.
The slave question, out of which the rebellion sprang, presented for some time grave difficulties to the Northern Government. As the Northern armies forced their way southwards, escaped slaves flocked to them. These slaves were loyal subjects; their owners were rebels in arms against the Government. Could the Government recognize the right of the rebel to own the loyal man? Again: the labour of the slaves contributed to the support of the rebellion. Was it not a clear necessity of war that Government should deprive the rebellion of this support by freeing all the slaves whom its authority could reach? But, on the other hand, some of the Slave States remained loyal. Over their slaves Government had no power, and much care was needed that no measure should be adopted of which they could justly complain.
The President had been all his life a steady foe to slavery, but he never forgot that, whatever his own feelings might be, he was strictly bound by law. His duty as President was, not to destroy slavery, but to save the Union. When the time came to overthrow this accursed system, he would do it with gladdened heart. Meanwhile he said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do it.”
From the very beginning of the war escaped slaves crowded within the Federal lines. They were willing to perform any labour, or to fight in a cause which they all knew to be their own. But the North was not yet freed from her habitual tenderness for Southern institutions. The negroes could not yet be armed. Nay, it was permitted to the owners of escaped slaves to enter the Northern lines and forcibly to carry back their property. May 26, 1861 A.D. General M’Clellan pledged himself not only to avoid interference with slaves, but to crush with an iron hand any attempt at insurrection on their part. Aug. 31. General Fremont, commanding in Missouri, issued an order which gave liberty to the slaves of persons who were fighting against the Union. The President, not yet deeming that measure indispensable, disallowed it. A little later it was proposed to arm the blacks, but to that also the President objected. He would do nothing prematurely which might offend the loyal Slave States, and so hinder the restoration of the Union.