American Civil War: 1861

In the three months that followed the election of Abraham Lincoln, seven states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Representatives from these seven states quickly established a new political organization, the Confederate States of America. On 8th February the Confederate States of America adopted a constitution and within ten days had elected Jefferson Davis as its president and Alexander Stephens, as vice-president. Montgomery, Alabama, became its capital and the Stars and Bars was adopted as its flag. Davis was also authorized to raise 100,000 troops.

At his inaugural address, President Lincoln attempted to avoid conflict by announcing that he had no intention "to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." He added: "The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors."

President Jefferson Davis took the view that after a state seceded, federal forts became the property of the state. On 12th April, 1861, General Pierre T. Beauregard demanded that Major Robert Anderson surrender Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Anderson replied that he would be willing to leave the fort in two days when his supplies were exhausted. Beauregard rejected this offer and ordered his Confederate troops to open fire. After 34 hours of bombardment the fort was severely damaged and Anderson was forced to surrender.

On hearing the news, Abraham Lincoln called a special session of Congress and proclaimed a blockade of Gulf of Mexico ports. This strategy was based on the Anaconda Plan developed by General Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the Union Army. It involved the army occupying the line of the Mississippi and blockading Confederate ports. Scott believed if this was done successfully the South would negotiate a peace deal. However, at the start of the war, the US Navy had only a small number of ships and was in no position to guard all 3,000 miles of Southern coast.

On 15th April, 1861, President Lincoln called on the governors of the Northern states to provide 75,000 militia to serve for three months in order to put down the insurrection. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee, all refused to send troops and joined the Confederacy. Kentucky and Missouri were also unwilling to supply men for the Union Army but decided not to take sides in the conflict.

Some states responded well to Lincoln's call for volunteers. The governor of Pennsylvania offered 25 regiments, whereas Ohio provided 22. Most men were encouraged to enlist by bounties offered by state governments. This money attracted the poor and the unemployed. Many African Americans also attempted to join the army. However, the War Department quickly announced that it had "no intention to call into service of the Government any coloured soldiers." Instead, black volunteers were given jobs as camp attendants, waiters and cooks.

Major General Irvin McDowell was given command of the Union Army and in July, 1861, Lincoln sent him to take Richmond, the new base the Confederate government. On 21st July McDowell engaged the Confederate Army at Bull Run. The Confederate troops led by Joseph E. Johnston, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, James Jeb Stuart, Jubal Early, E. Kirby Smith, Braxton Bragg and Pierre T. Beauregard, easily defeated the inexperienced Union Army. The South had won the first great battle of the war and the Northern casualties totaled 1,492 with another 1,216 missing.

After this defeat at Bull Run, Abraham Lincoln decided to appoint George McClellan as leader of the the Army of the Potomac. McClellan, who was only 34 years old, insisted that his army should undertake any new offensives until his new troops were fully trained.

On 30th August, 1861, Major General John C. Fremont, commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Abraham Lincoln was furious when he heard the news as he feared that this action would force slave-owners in border states to help the Confederates. Lincoln asked Fremont to modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South. When Fremont refused, he was sacked and replaced by General Henry Halleck. This upset the Radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to turn the conflict into a war against slavery.

In the autumn of 1861 the main action took place in Kentucky. On 4th September General Leonidas Polk and a large Confederate Army moved into the state and began occupying high ground overlooking the Ohio River. Ulysses S. Grant and his Union Army, had been assembling at Cairo, Illinois. He now moved his troops into Kentucky and quickly gained control of the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers as they flowed into the Ohio. President Jefferson Davis, aware that Union forces now controlled the main waterway into the heartland of the Confederacy, sent in General Joseph E. Johnston with reinforcements.

In November, 1861, Lincoln decided to appoint George McClellan as commander in chief of the Union Army. He developed a strategy to defeat the Confederate Army that included an army of 273,000 men. His plan was to invade Virginia from the sea and to seize Richmond and the other major cities in the South. McClellan believed that to keep resistance to a minimum, it should be made clear that the Union forces would not interfere with slavery and would help put down any slave insurrections.

Primary Sources

(1) Abraham Lincoln, inaugural speech (4th March, 1861)

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

I consider the Union is unbroken. I shall take care that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all States. There need be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.

The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.

(2) William Seward, memorandum to Abraham Lincoln (1st April, 1861)

My system is built upon the idea as a ruling one, namely, that we must change the question before the public from one upon slavery, or about slavery, for a question upon union or disunion. In other words, from what would be regarded as a party question to one of patriotism or union.

The occupation or evacuation of Fort Sumter, although not in fact a slavery or a party question, is so regarded. Witness the temper manifested by the Republicans in the free states, and even by the Union men in the South.

I would therefore terminate it as a safe means for changing the issue. I deem it fortunate that the last administration created the necessity. For the rest, I would simultaneously defend and reinforce all the ports in the Gulf and have the Navy recalled from foreign stations to be prepared for a blockade. Put the island of Key West under martial law.

(3) Mary Livermore wrote about her feelings when it became clear that the North was at war with the South in her book My Story of the War (1887).

15th April, 1861: Drowning the exaltations of the triumphant South, louder than their boom of cannon, heard above their clang of bells and blare of trumpets, there rang out the voice of Abraham Lincoln calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months. This proclamation was like the first peal of a surcharged thunder-cloud, clearing the murky air. The South received it as a declaration of war; the North as a confession that civil war had begun; and the whole North arose as one man.

17th April, 1861: The 6th Massachusetts, a full regiment one thousand strong, started from Boston by rail. An immense concourse of people gathered in the neighborhood of the Boston and Albany railroad station to witness their departure. The great crowd was evidently under the influence of deep feeling, but it was repressed, and the demonstrations were not noisy. Tears ran down not only the cheeks of women, but those of men; but there was no faltering.

(4) Oliver Howard remembers going home for the first time after deciding to join the Union Army in May, 1861.

Before entering my front gate, I raised my eyes and saw the picture of my little family framed in by the window. Home, family, comfort, beauty, joy, love were crowded into an instant of thought and feeling, as I sprang through the door and quickly ascended the stairway.

My wife was patriotic, strong for the integrity of the Union, full of the heroic spirit, so when the crisis came, though so sudden and hard to bear, she said not one adverse word. I saw her watch me as I descended the slope toward the ferry landing, looked back, and waved my hat as I disappeared behind the ledge and trees.

(5) Mary Boykin Chesnut, Richmond, Virginia, diary entry (27th June, 1861)

In Mrs. Davis' drawing room last night, the president took a seat by me on the sofa where I sat. He talked for nearly an hour. He laughed at our faith in our own powers. We are like the British. We think every Southerner equal to three Yankees at least. We will have to be equivalent to a dozen now. He said only fools doubted the courage of the Yankees or their willingness to fight what they saw fit. And now that we have stung their pride, we have roused them till they will fight like devils.

(6) Oliver Howard described taking his regiment, Third Maine Volunteers, on the way to Washington in June, 1861.

At railroad stations in Maine, on the approach and departure of our trains, there was abundant cheering and words of encouragement. However, here and there were discordant cries. Few, indeed, were the villages where no voice of opposition was raised. But, later in the war, in the free States after the wounding and the death of fathers, brothers, and sons, our sensitive, afflicted home people would not tolerate what they called traitorous talk.

(7) Edward Baker, speech in Congress on Abraham Lincoln's decision to mobilize for war (10th July, 1861)

I propose to ratify whatever needs ratification. I propose to render my clear and distinct approval not only of the measure but of the motive which promoted it. I propose to lend the whole power of the country, arms, men, money, and place them in his hands with authority almost unlimited, until the conclusion of this struggle. I want sudden, bold, forward, determined war; and I do not think anybody can conduct war of that kind as well as a dictator.

(8) On the outbreak of the war Carl Schurz asked Abraham Lincoln for permission to form a regiment in New York.

I promptly received the desired authority for raising the regiment, and departed for the City of New York. I found the people of New York in the full blaze of the patriotic emotions excited by the firing upon Fort Sumner and the President's call for volunteers. There were recruiting stations in all parts of the town. The formation of regiments proceeded rapidly. Wealthy merchants were vying with each other in lavish contributions of money for the fitting out of troops, and numberless women of all classes of society were busy stitching garments or bandages for the soldiers, or embroidering standards.

In New York, I found that many of the German cavalrymen I had counted upon had already enlisted in the infantry regiments then forming. But there were enough of them left to enable me to organize several companies in a very short time, and I should certainly have completed my regiment in season for the summer campaign, had I not been cut short in my work by another call from the government. I received a letter from the Secretary of State informing me that circumstances had rendered my departure for my place at Madrid eminently desirable, and that he wished me to report myself to him at Washington as soon as possible.

(9) The conservative New York Herald published an article about the Radical Republications during the early part of the American Civil War (23rd July, 1861)

Who are they? They belong to that fanatical abolitionist clique who are labouring to divert this war from its legitimate objective into an exterminating crusade against Southern slavery.

(10) John Singleton Mosby, letter to his wife after the battle of Bull Run (22nd June, 1861)

There was a great battle yesterday. The Yankees are overwhelmingly routed. Thousands of them killed. I was in the fight. We at one time stood for two hours under a perfect storm of shot and shell - it was a miracle that none of our company was killed. We took all of their cannon from them; among the batteries captured was Sherman's - battle lasted about 7 hours - about 90,000 Yankees, 45,000 of our men. The cavalry pursued them till dark - followed 6 or 7 miles. General Scott commanded them. I just snatch this moment to write - am out doors in a rain - will write you all particulars when I get a chance. We start just as soon as we can get our breakfast to follow them to Alexandria. We made a forced march to get here to the battle - travelled about 65 miles without stopping. My love to all of you. In haste.

(11) Henry Villard reported the battle of Bull Run in July, 1861, for the New York Tribune.

When the Unionists resumed their advance, the rebels successfully resisted their rather desultory attacks at different points. With every unsuccessful onward attempt there was a rapid melting away of the assailants. Fewer and fewer officers and men could be rallied for another advance. Towards four o'clock, the rebels felt strong enough to take the offensive. A brigade with a battery under Earle managed to strike the Federal right on the flank and rear and throw it into utter confusion, which spread rapidly along the whole front. Now came the disastrous end. Without any formal orders to retreat, what was left of the several organizations yielded to a general impulse to abandon the field. Officers and men became controlled by the one thought of getting as far as possible from the enemy.

(12) In his autobiography Oliver Howard described fighting at Bull Run on 21st July, 1861.

I saw Burnside's men, who had come back from the field with their muskets gleaming in the sunshine. They had some appearance of formation and were resting on their arms. I noticed other troops more scattered; ambulances in long columns leaving the field with the wounded. There were men with broken arms; faces with bandages stained with blood; bodies pierced; many were walking or limping to the rear; meanwhile shells were shrieking and breaking in the heated air. I was sorry, indeed, that those left of my men had to pass that ordeal.

When forming, I so stationed myself, mounted, that the men, marching in twos, should pass me. I closely observed them. They were pale and thoughtful. Many looked up into my face and smiled. As soon as it was ready the first line swept up the slope, through a sprinkling of trees, out into an open space on high ground. An enemy's battery toward our front and some musketry shots with no enemy plainly in sight caused the first annoyance. Soon another battery off to our right coming into position increased the danger. And, worse than the batteries, showers of musket balls from the wood, two hundred yards away.

Many officers labored to keep their men together, but I saw could effect nothing under fire. At last I ordered all to fall back to the valley and reform behind the thicket. Before many minutes, however, it was evident that a panic had seized all the troops within sight. Some experienced veteran officers, like Heintzelman, entreated and commanded their subordinates, by turns, to rally their men; but nothing could stop the drift and eddies of the masses that were faster and faster flowing toward the rear.

Captain Heath, of the Third Maine, who, promoted subsequently to lieutenant colonel and fell in the battle of Gaines Mills, walked for some time by my horse and shed tears as he talked to me: "My men will not stay together, Colonel, they will not obey me," he said. Other brave officers pleaded and threatened. Surgeons staying back pointed to their wounded and cried: "for God's sake, stop; don't leave us!" Nothing could at that time reach and influence the fleeing crowds except panicky cries like: "The enemy is upon us! We shall be taken!" These cries gave increase to confusion and speed to flight.

Heintzelman, with his wounded arm in a sling, rode up and down and made a last effort to restore order. He sharply reprimanded every officer he encountered. He swore at me. From time to time I renewed my attempts. My brother, C. H. Howard, if he saw me relax for a moment, sang out: "Oh, do try again!" Part of the Fourteenth New York from Brooklyn rallied north of Bull Run and were moving on in fine shape. "See them," said my brother; "let us try to form like that!" So we were trying, gathering a few, but in vain. Then I stopped all efforts, but sent out this message and kept repeating it to every Maine and Vermont man within reach: "To the old camp at Centreville. Rally at the Centreville camp."

(13) General Pierre T. Beauregard, report on the battle of Bull Run (July, 1861)

The conduct of General Jackson also requires mention as eminently that of an able, fearless soldier and sagacious commander, one fit to lead his efficient brigade. His prompt, timely arrival before the plateau of the Henry House, and his judicious disposition of his troops, contributed much to the success of the day. Although painfully wounded in the hand, he remained on the field to the end of the battle, rendering valuable assistance.

(14) General Joseph E. Johnston, report on the battle of Bull Run (July, 1861)

Our victory was as complete as one gained by infantry and artillery alone can be. An adequate force of cavalry would have made it decisive. It is due under Almighty God, to the skill and resolution of General Beauregard, the admirable conduct of Generals Bee, Kirby Smith and Jackson and of the Colonel Evans, Cocke, Early and Elzey, and the courage, and unyielding firmness of our patriotic volunteers.

(15) Walt Whitman was living in Washington when the Union Army returned after the battle of Bull Run in July, 1861.

The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22nd July. The day drizzling all through with rain. The Saturday and Sunday of the battle had been parched and hot to an extreme - the dust, the grime, and smoke, in layers, sweated in, their clothes all saturated with the clay-powder filling the air - stirred up everywhere on the dry roads and trodden fields by the regiments, swarming wagons, artillery. All the men with this coating of sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge - a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck. Occasionally, a rare regiment, in perfect order, with its officers (some gaps, dead, the true braves) marching in silence, with lowering faces, stern, weary to sinking, all black and dirty, but every man with his musket, and stepping alive; but these are the exceptions.

(16) Benjamin F. Butler, report published on 30th July, 1861.

In the village of Hampton there were a large number of Negroes, composed in a great measure of women and children of the men who had fled thither within my lines for protection, who had escaped from marauding parties of rebels who had been gathering up able-bodied blacks to aid them in constructing their batteries on the James and York rivers. I have employed the men in Hampton in throwing up entrenchments, and they were working zealously and efficiently at that duty, saving our soldiers from the labor under the gleam of the midday sun.

I have seen it stated that an order had been issued by General McDowell, in his department, substantially forbidding all fugitive slaves from coming within his lines or being harbored there. Is that order to be enforced in all military departments? If so, who are to be considered fugitive slaves? Is a slave to be considered fugitive whose master runs away and leaves him? Is it forbidden to the troops to aid or harbor within the lines the Negro children who are found therein, or is the soldier, when his march has destroyed their means of subsistence, to allow them to starve because he has driven off the Rebel masters?

In a loyal state, I would put down a service insurrection. In a state of rebellion. I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms, and take all the property which constituted the wealth of that state and furnished the means by which the war is prosecuted, besides being the cause of the war; and if, in so doing, it should be objected that human beings were bought to the free enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, such objection might not require much consideration.

(17) Zachariah Chandler, letter to Henry W. Lord (27th October, 1861)

Lincoln means well but has no force of character. He is surrounded by Old Fogy Army officers more than half of whom are downright traitors and the other one half sympathize with the South. One month ago I began to doubt whether this accursed rebellion could be put down with a Revolution in the present Administration.

(18) Henry Villard met General William T. Sherman in 1861. In his memoirs, Villard recalled how Sherman was extremely worried at that time about the possibility that the Union Army would be defeated.

Sherman openly confessed, after he had been assigned to the command of the department, that he had not wished it and was afraid of his new responsibilities. With the vivid imagination inherent to genius, he clearly saw how formidable were the difficulties of the part he was expected to play in the suppression of the Rebellion. They simply appalled him. He found himself in command of raw troops, not exceeding twenty thousand in number. He believed that they should be multiplied many times. He feared the rebel forces in the State largely outnumbered his own, and he could not rid himself of the apprehension, that, if he should be attacked, he would have no chance of success.

It was not really want of confidence in himself that brought him to this state of mind, but, as it seemed to me, his intense patriotism and despair of the preservation of the Union in view of the fanatical, blood-thirsty hostility to it throughout the South. This dread took hold of him, he literally brooded over it day and night. It made him lapse into long, silent moods even outside his headquarters. He lived at Galt House, occupying rooms on the ground floor. He paced by the hour up and down the corridor leading to them, smoking and obviously absorbed in oppressive thoughts. He did this to such an extent that it was generally noticed and remarked upon by the guests and employees of the hotel. His strange ways led to gossip, and it was soon whispered about that he was suffering from mental depression.

(19) Robet Dabney, who served under Thomas Stonewall Jackson, wrote about him in his book Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant-General Thomas Jackson (1866)

A part of the men of the 27th Regiment, in the Stonewall Brigade, who had volunteered for twelve months, now found their year just expired. Assuming that the application of the last conscription act was a breach of faith to them, they demanded their discharge, and laying down their arms refused to serve another day. Their Colonel, Grigsby, referred the case to General Jackson for instructions. On hearing it detailed, he exclaimed, his eye flashing, and his brow rigid with a portentous sternness, "What is this bit mutiny? Why does Colonel Grigsby refer to me to know what to do with a mutiny? He should shoot them where they stand." He then turned to his adjutant, and dictated an order to the Colonel to parade his regiment instantly, with loaded muskets, to draw up the insubordinate companies in front of them, disarmed, and offer them the alternative of returning to duty, or being fusiladed on the spot. The order was obeyed, and the mutineers, when confronted with instant death, promptly reconsidered their resolution.

(20) In her book, My Story of the War, Mary Livermore described the work of Mary Ann Bickerdyke on the hospital boat.

After the battle of Donelson, Mother Bickerdyke went from Cairo in the first hospital boat, and assisted in the removal of the wounded to Cairo, St. Louis and Louisville, and in nursing those too badly wounded to be moved. On the way to the battlefield, she systematized matters perfectly. The beds were ready for the occupants, tea, coffee, soup and gruel, milk punch, and ice water were prepared in large quantities, under her supervision, and sometimes her own hand.

When the wounded were brought on board, mangled almost out of human shape; the frozen ground from which they had been cut adhering to them; chilled with the intense cold in which some had lain for twenty-four hours; faint with loss of blood, physical agony, and lack of nourishment; racked with a terrible five-mile ride over frozen roads, in ambulances, in common Tennessee farm wagons, without springs; burning with fever; raving in delirium, or in the faintness of death, Mother Bickerdyke's boat was in readiness for them.

(21) After the war a surgeon working with Mary Ann Bickerdyke wrote about her achievements working on the Union Army hospital ship.

I never saw anybody like her. There was really nothing for us surgeons to do but dress wounds and administer medicines. She drew out clean shirts or drawers from some corner, whenever they were needed. Nourishment was ready for every man as soon as he was brought on board. Everyone was sponged from blood and frozen mire of the battlefield, as far as his condition allowed. His blood-stiffened, and sometimes horribly filthy uniform, was exchanged for soft and clean hospital garments. Incessant cries of "Mother! Mother! Mother!" rang through the boat, in every note of beseeching and anguish. And to every man she turned with a heavenly tenderness, as if he were indeed her son.