Five Essays on the American Civil War

JDB Communications, LLC, is proud to announce another essay collection by John D. Beatty.  Five Essays on the American Civil War is a foray into the complexities of Civil War scholarship as much as it is into the conflict itself.

The American Civil War (even the way it is written: always capital “C,” capital “W”) sits isolated in a pristine crystal dome of American history, separate from all other events.  There are certain ways to write about it that make it acceptable to Civil War scholars and their audiences, and these rules must be observed else the offending material will be relegated to the isle of broken essays.  My own foray into Civil War book writing, The Devil’s Own Day, has been met with institutional silence, in part, I believe, because it challenges the doctrines of AS Johnston’s unrealized genius that ended in his death at Shiloh, and because it directly refutes the generally accepted narratives about Buell saving Grant at that savage battle in the Tennessee pine barrens.

The distinct and contrarian position in these essays is unacceptable to “mainstream” Civil War scholarship: Civil War battlefield presentation isn’t what it’s cracked up to be as “Of Parks and Excuses” explains; the Southern Confederacy, always a “Forlorn Hope,” could not have gotten what she wanted by military means; Grant’s military legacy is much deeper and longer lasting than Lee’s, as “Bigger than History” and “Grant, the Army and the World” explain.

These essays were written over the course of perhaps ten years, a period of my academic harrying of long-suffering professors, Civil War Round Table members, and other unfortunates who tolerated my distinctly odd view of the 1861-65 conflict.

Enjoy these essays because they should challenge what you may think of the American Civil War, its place in world history, and how it is indeed tied to the rest of the world.

Five Essays on the American Civil War and other works by John D. Beatty are available on Amazon.

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The Turning Point

For generations, schools have taught that the turning point of the American Civil War was the battle of Gettysburg, that titanic clash in southeastern Pennsylvania where the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee fought for three days to decide the fate of a continent.

Sounds romantic, don’t it?  Too bad it just isn’t true.

Turning points are handy for teaching history because they give a certain sense of being somewhere in what may otherwise be a dreary time line.  Unfortunately, outside of a teaching environment or some dramatic exposition, they don’t make a lot of sense because there just aren’t that many of them that are that distinct.

By the 19th century, war had become a very complex matter, where events on the battlefield were often eclipsed by events in the halls of government, the trading floors or in the hearts and minds of the populace (yes, it did matter, ‘60s cynicism aside).

In the case of the Civil War, what happened in Pennsylvania in the first three days in July of 1863 was indeed a large battle, but it was pretty irrelevant to the war as a whole.  For two years the two principle armies of the Union and the Confederacy had been glaring at each other between Washington and Richmond, fighting occasionally, maneuvering up to Maryland and down into the Wilderness, but mostly just glaring and camping.  In the 90 miles of space between the two capitals there was a marked dearth of real activity for months at a time.

However, in the West (which was anywhere west of the Appalachians) a typical army (there were four principal hosts and several others in the theater) covered 90 miles every quarter and fought at least one major battle every third month.  One reason for this was that there was so much more war to fight out there, with more critical objectives and three times the space.  One fact that most people don’t appreciate is that it is a greater distance between Chicago and New Orleans than it is between Berlin and Moscow.

While most of the population and a large percentage of the manufacturing and dairy production were in the east, most of the grain, cotton, lumber, niter, salt, mules and horses, not to mention specie, were not.  Armies by the 19th century traveled not just on guns and butter, but on wood and iron, on fodder and wheat that had to be paid for with gold and silver, not IOUs as they are today.  And, in the west was the great Mississippi River, which made nearly all the other rivers on the continent pale in comparison not only for sheer size, but for its value as a transportation axis.

The fighting for control of the Mississippi River was far more crucial for the success and failure of the war than was who controlled the capitals.  The free flow from the grain silos, lumber yards and steel mills of the Midwest to the markets of Europe and Latin America was crucial to the success or failure of both causes.  Further, the flow of gold and silver from California, which the South could never affect and seemingly never seriously tried, ensured that, baring disaster, the North could buy an army if it needed to.

The blockade of the Southern coasts, dreary and relatively uneventful as it was, had global importance few nations appreciated at the time.  After the Declaration of Paris in 1858, the ability for a nation to control its own ports determined who could recognize them as a political entity, and thus whether or not they were a country at all.  As long as the South couldn’t permanently open their ports,  their legitimacy as a country was doomed by international law.  The South would have had to have open-water warships capable of consistent operation in all weathers to break the Union blockade, something they never came close to having.

On top of all this, there was the slavery issue.  Chattel slavery had largely vanished from the major powers of Europe, where all the money and manufactured goods were, and when Russia freed the serfs in 1862 all the Great Powers were, theoretically, free societies.  As the Confederacy insisted that their “peculiar institution” was critical to their existence, so too would most of Europe insist that slavery was an abomination that was anathema to the rising trade union movement, let alone the waves of liberal social reforms that were transforming the industrialized world.

You could make convincing arguments for Champion’s Hill that slammed the door on Vicksburg and was the penultimate battle for control of the Mississippi as being the turning point of the Civil War .  You could also, given the nature of war in the Industrial Age, argue that Fort Sumter was the turning point for, as soon as the South started the war, they started to lose, because they never had a chance for a military, diplomatic, or economic victory.

So, if you’re looking for a single event that changed the destiny of the Civil War,  Gettysburg surely isn’t it.  I’m not quite sure that there was one.

13 November: An Admiral and a General and a Civil War

On this day in 1809 and 1814, important leaders in the American Civil War were born in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.  One would be known more for the artillery he made possible, the other for more ignominious things.

On 13 November 1809, John A. Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia to a Swedish merchant and diplomat.  From a very early age he dreamed of a life at sea, and when his father died in 1824 he was free to pursue his goal of joining the US Navy.  In 1826, at age 17 he joined as a midshipman.  At the time this was not unusual, as youngsters had been going to sea at much earlier ages since time immemorial.  He must have shown some knack for mathematics for he was assigned to the coast survey department in 1834.

For centuries ordnance design and its ancillary equipment had been a matter of experimentation, disaster and repeat.  In 1844, an explosion on USS Princeton of the new 12-inch bore banded wrought iron gun dubbed “Peacemaker” said to have been the largest naval gun in the world at the time, only proved that axiom.  The explosion killed six people, including the Secretaries of the Navy and of State.  Congress was aghast, and demanded new quality controls and inspection protocols.  By 1847, Dahlgren was in the Washington Navy Yard organizing the Navy’s first Ordnance Department.  It was there that Dahlgren found his niche, designing a boat howitzer, a percussion lock, and finally the process that manufactured the highly successful smooth bore naval gun that bore his name.  The method of water-cooling the mold while the metal was cast was highly controversial at the time, but it produced weapons of prodigious power: power enough for the Royal Navy to question whether or not they could defeat warships armed with them.  During the Civil War the Dahlgren was the standard broadside gun in the US Navy.  In 1862 he was promoted to rear admiral and sent to command a blockading squadron.  He continued his service in the Navy until his death in 1870.

On 14 November 1814, Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts to an entirely English-ancestry family.  He graduated from West Point in 1837, branched to the artillery.  He fought Seminoles in Florida, was in staff jobs in Mexico (where he nonetheless won three brevets), but left the Army in 1853 and settled in California.  After the war broke out he finally wrangled a commission a brigadier general of volunteers after the first Bull Run battle, commanding a brigade then a division while training troops around Washington, DC at the Army of the Potomac was building.

In 1862 Hooker was promoted to major general and the command of a corps, then a “grand division” after Antietam, where he was wounded.  After McClellan was sacked and Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker’s troops bore the brunt of the bloodletting at Fredricksburg and Hooker was vocal about the tragic and pointless sacrifices made there.  When Burnside told President Lincoln that he wanted to fire several of his generals, including Hooker, Lincoln fired Burnside instead and appointed Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac.  While he was an able administrator who restored the confidence of the troops he lost his nerve at Chancellorsville and nearly had his army destroyed.  Lincoln, desperate to find a general who could fight, fired Hooker three days before the army met Robert E Lee at Gettysburg.

But the Union was still short of reliable generals so Hooker was sent with two corps to meet Grant at Chattanooga, where he performed admirably until a personal dispute got him sent out of the theater after the fall of Atlanta.  Rumors of his wild living, heavy drinking and lax discipline leading to the proliferation of the ladies of negotiable virtue that came to be called “hookers” because of him are unfounded: he was not known to drink heavily, and the term “hooker” was common during the Revolution.  He left the Army in 1868 and died in 1879.

Two Civil War notables sharing a birthday.  Not unusual, but worth noting.

5 November: Hanson Hired, McClellan Fired, Heroes Sunk At Sea

Early November is a heady time, as the leaves are mostly gone, the American elections are over, and the northern hemisphere prepares for a long winter.  In 1781, 1862 and 1940, these events had very little to do with the year, or the weather, or the elections.

In 1781, the American Congress. still under the Articles of Confederation, elected John Hanson of Maryland as President of the United States Assembled, or President of the Continental Congress, or President of the Congress of the Confederacy, or President of Congress on 5 November.  This has confused people ever since, because “everyone knows” that George Washington of Virginia was the first President of the United States.  Not to be contrarian, but that’s…true and not true.  Hanson was elected by the Congress to a one year term under the Articles of Confederation; Washington was elected by Congress operating under the Constitution for a four-year term.  Hanson’s job was mostly ceremonial: Washington’s was as the head of the newly-create executive branch of the government.  Finally, and perhaps irrelevantly, the colonies had declared independence but had not yet won it (Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown less than a month before),  Peace talks, which would signal diplomatic recognition, were months away from even beginning when Hanson (presumably) took the oath.

On 5 November 1862, the day after the mid-term elections put Congress firmly in Republican control, President Abraham Lincoln relieved George B. McClellan of the command of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a generally unpopular move, but after McClellan’s disappointing performance as a commander, and despite his excellent service as an organizer and logician, Lincoln felt he had little choice.  Lincoln had removed “Little Mac” from the post of General in Chief the previous March so that he could concentrate on his brain child, the Peninsula campaign.  This led not to a march on Richmond but a scramble to save Washington and McClellan’s army.  McClellan was so enraged by Lincoln’s action that he went gunning for Lincoln’s job two years later, and lost badly.  Most of his beloved soldiers didn’t even vote for him.

But far away from the mid-Atlantic states, on 5 November 1940 and act of heroism indescribably removed from McClellan’s conduct took place.  On that date seven hundred-odd miles south south west of Reykjavik, HMS Jervis Bay, an Armed Merchant Cruiser (in other words, an ocean liner with a few guns) took on the German “pocket battleship” (a large cruiser with eleven inch guns) Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay was the only escort protecting a 37 ship Halifax-to-Britain convoy.  The captain of Jervis Bay, Edward Fegen, ordered the convoy to scatter at about 12:50 in the afternoon and charged at Scheer with 6-inch guns blazing.  In a “battle” that probably lasted no more than two hours much of the convoy managed to escape behind smoke candles and darkness while their brave escort was shot to pieces.  While Scheer managed to get five of the merchantmen the rest made it to port.  Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross on 22 November 1940…posthumously, having gone down with his ship (by one account he was already dead by the time his ship was abandoned).

4 November: Futile Victories at the Wabash and Johnsonville

In 1791 and 1864, victories as decisive as they could be did little to change the course of their conflicts, and at the Wabash one might argue that the Native American success merely brought forth their downfall that much quicker.

In the wilds of Indiana a two thousand man American army sought to remove the Miami tribe so that the area could be colonized by land-hungry Europeans and Americans who were taking advantage of the Treaty of Paris provisions that ceded control of the Ohio River country to the United States.  But the Western Confederacy of American Indians who lived there were not consulted about any of this, were not signatory to the Treaty of Paris that ended the American War of Independence, and were not inclined to move anywhere.  They had already defeated a 400-man force under Josiah Harmar a year before near modern Churubusco, Indiana.

But Arthur St Clair was determined to have his way, and under increasing pressure from Washington and from would-be settlers and their investors, St Clair moved into the area fully expecting to be successful, but on the morning of 4 November the unruly, largely militia force had been reduced to about a thousand, and these remnants were attacked at their breakfast by a thousand Miami and Potawatomi under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket.  While the militia broke and the regulars volleyed, the Indian numbers were simply too great: the artillery battalion was reduced by sniping and forced to spike and the regulars were flanked.  In three hours on 4 November 1791, a quarter of the US Army was wiped out.  St Clair and less than thirty men made it out alive.  Some two hundred civilians–including wives and children–were also massacred.

Seventy years later, while William Sherman was getting ready to make Georgia howl, Nathan B Forrest led his cavalry raiders into the Tennessee River country to disrupt Union supply lines supporting George H Thomas’ pursuit of John B Hood’s invasion of the north.  Attacking the Union supply base at Johnsonville, Tennessee on 4 November 1864, Forrest destroyed gunboats, transports, artillery and supplies valued at anywhere between two and six million dollars–in a time when good wages were considered two dollars a week.  It also had a chilling effect–or so it was thought–on Sherman’s plan to march to Savannah.

But in the end, neither success meant much.  The outrage over St Clair’s disaster triggered a Congressional investigation, but did not slow the flow of immigration.  The British, who sought to create a Native American buffer state between them and the Americans in the area, eventually realized that such a buffer would be difficult to maintain, even if created, as the Western Confederacy was only an alliance of tribes in the loosest sense.  While the Indians whooped over their triumph, the Americans authorized the enlargement of their army, and would eventually destroy the Western Confederacy at Fallen Timbers in modern Ohio,

As for Forrest and the southern Confederacy, Johnsonville was disruptive and concerning, but not dismaying and delayed Thomas not a hour because he had depots in Atlanta and Chattanooga, as well as a somewhat twisted route from east Tennessee.  Sherman had already decided to cut loose of his supply lines for his chevauchee into Georgia’s interior, so anything Forrest did was not relevant to him or his plans.

As Bernard L Montgomery once said, “you can lose every battle but the last one.”

The Battle They Fought to End the War

They had come a long way, these young men. many of whom were still young.  In the fifth April of the war they felt both tired and energized: weary of a long winter of raids and bombardments, sharpshooters and endless mud, but energized because spring was coming, and the armies around Richmond were moving again.

In February Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last deep-water port with rail links, had been occupied by Union troops.  At Five Forks on 1 April 1865, a part of Army of Northern Virginia under George Pickett was trying to protect the Southside Railroad junction from the concerted attacks of Philip Sheridan.  Overwhelmed and badly placed, the Confederates were forced to run.  Using the Richmond and Danville line, Jefferson Davis and his government ran south while Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia south and west, under close attack from the Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade.

With Meade behind him, William T. Sherman’s army group was somewhere to his south where Joseph P Johnston was trying to get away from Sherman and join Lee, and Federal cavalrymen were closing off the major roads.  After nine days of moving and fighting, and after his last ration train was captured, Lee saw little choice but to give up the fight.

So the patrician Lee and the plebeian Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded all the Union armies, met on 9 April 1865 to work something out.  They sat in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, a sugar broker whose house at Manassas Junction was the center of the first major battle of the war.  Now, at Appomattox Court house, it would see the end of the largest theater of what had become a global war. Photographs of the time show Lee resplendent in an immaculate, new, custom-made uniform, and Grant in a mud-spattered private’s coat with lieutenant general’s shoulder straps.  There was a little small talk: Grant recalled their only other meeting in Mexico, which Lee could not remember.

The talked about horses, weapons, rations, terms.  Grant wanted the return of what property the Federal government owned before the war, but realized that it would be impossible to separate it from the rest, so did not press the issue much.  Lee said his officers owned their animals and their sidearms, and Grant decided he would not confiscate them.  Much as he had at Vicksburg, Grant knew this 28,000 man Confederate army was spent, and with nearly a hundred thousand men in arms under his command in the area, could afford to be generous.  After Ely Parker wrote out the final terms, Lee signed the surrender.

Then the real battle commenced, and continues to this day. The “battle of the books” has been the most consistently acrimonious and contentious action of the American Civil War, and this scholar contends that while it is far from over it needs to end sooner than later.

There are two major battlefields of this fight: the cause and The Cause.  The first centers around the reasons for the fighting to begin with, where tariffs, slavery, secession, state’s rights, firing on the flag, and other issues are the most often discussed.  The second is by far the noisiest.  It has more to do with the end of the war and how the entire conflict has been perceived, remembered and recorded.  To many scholars this is embodied in Lost Cause Mythology, or LCM, a position that holds that the Confederacy was always going to be the loser, but was the nobler of the two factions fighting the war–hence the Lost Cause.  For others, LCM is part and parcel a product of Union/Yankee imagination.  But for a few, including this one, both factions are cooperating in the management of Civil War Inc., the robust and thriving enterprise where a reasonable and compromising explanation for the conflict is out of the question simply because there’s so much advantage (in the form of profit and reputation) in keeping the contending factions going.

Unlike other civil conflicts, the American Civil War holds a global audience.  One can search far and wide to find a thousand reenactors of all other civil conflicts in history in the United States, but nearly every nation on the globe has at least one group of dedicated souls who dress up in wool serge to replay Gettysburg.  American Civil War books outsell all other American history titles worldwide in every language.  Civil war scholars, nearly all Americans, are always welcomed to speak at conferences and seminars on 19th century topics.

But the battle that they fight, unlike the battle that their subjects fought, will never end.  And, in the interest of scholarship and sanity, it needs to.

From Opposite Ends of the Country, Decisive Signs

Early March 1862 was an exiting and crucial time for America.  Nearly everywhere, signs that the Confederate rebellion would be short-lived were becoming clearer.

In the wilds of northwestern Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West crawled back towards Little Rock having been struck the day before by a reorganized force under Samuel Curtis that broke his fragile command into pieces.  The Missouri State Guard held together, but the Arkansas troops and the Indians melted into nothing.  From the 16,000 that he started with, Van Dorn had perhaps 6,000 left under his command.  Missouri had been threatened by Van Dorn since late summer 1861, but now he would be lucky to hold onto northern Arkansas.

Curtis wasn’t a military genius, he was just another Federal officer doing his job with the resources at hand.  Van Dorn wasn’t a dummy, but he was doing the same as Curtis.  Trouble was Van Dorn’s resources were a great deal thinner.  The Confederacy would be able to mount no further threats to Missouri.  In two weeks, Van Dorn would be ordered to sent what men he could get together to Albert S. Johnson, who was mounting an invasion of Tennessee, that would start with an attack on the Federal encampment at Pittsburg Landing.

It was the same just west of the Hampton Roads, half a continent away.  On 8 March 1862 the casement ironclad ram Virginia attacked the US Navy blockade at the mouth of the James River, destroying USS Congress (one of the first warships the US Navy built) and USS Cumberland (a Raritan class post-1812 build) and grounding USS Minnesota (a fairly new 3,300 ton screw frigate) and USS Roanoke (a Merrimack-class screw frigate, the same as the hull of Virginia).  On the outside of it Virginia and her unarmored consorts (armed tow steamer Raleigh, gunboat Beaufort, armed steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown and armed tug Teaser) had won a decisive victory.

But like all the Confederacy’s victories, she lacked the capacity to follow up on them, or hold onto their glittering promise.  While victorious, Virginia’s smokestack had been riddled, her boats entirely shot away, many of her iron plates rattled off their foundations, and her hardwood and pine frame cracked amidships   Just as the sun went down, USS Monitor , the first turreted steam warship and under the command of John L Worden, reached Hampton Roads and took station near Minnesota to protect the steamer from further attacks. Virginia and the James River Squadron had returned to Norfolk for coal and ammunition so missed the little craft’s entrance.  Monitor had just completed a harrowing passage from New York, having been launched just days before.  Worden and his crew, therefore, were the US Navy’ ironclad experts

Buchanan had been wounded during the battle and so relinquished command to Catesby ap Roger Jones. who was the captain of Virginia.  Next morning, 9 March, Virginia set out to finish off Minnesota but ran into Monitor, described as a “cheese-box on a raft.”  Commencing at about noon, Virginia and Monitor hammered away at each other for four hours at ranges of 100 yards an less (in an age where typical sea fights were conducted at about 200-400 yards) while Federal tugs tried to get Minnesota unstuck from the bar.  Though both vessels were hurt, neither was damaged so much as to have to withdraw.  Virginia had her entire structure shifted by one particularly vicious hit, and the damage from the day before had not been put entirely to rights.  Monitor lost her pilot house.  After some four hours, Monitor withdrew to the shallows to replenish her shot lockers, and Virginia took the opportunity to declare victory and return to dock, having expended so much ammunition and coal that she was exposing her hull below her armored skirt.

The battle was over and Minnesota saved, but that was hardly the end.  Within a year the James River squadron would all be sunk or captured; Monitor would sink in a storm.  But fear of Virginia would shift George McClellan’s logistical plans for his upcoming Peninsula campaign from the James River to the Fox, a smaller stream on the eastern side of the Peninsula, requiring an overland march to Richmond rather than a Navy-covered stroll up the James.  The resulting Yorktown siege and the Seven Days’ Battles would save Richmond, but at the cost of another three years of war.

But ultimately, Virginia’s “victory” was hollow.  While European observers were unimpressed by the duel, the Royal Navy was impressed by the 98 day construction time for Monitor, and were well aware that the Union could build three such ships at a time if desired, with proven Dahlgren guns that neither the Confederates nor Great Britain could match.  The Confederacy, in contrast, used nearly all her manufacturing capacity to build Virginia on a burned hulk, and were thus unable to build a single finished ironclad for the defense of New Orleans, already under threat.  The Confederacy could win many battles, but it was clear from 1862 onward that she could not win the war.