While 1861 same several attempts to settle the war without shedding an ocean of blood, 1862 would see the gradual descent of the war into a bitter conflict on both sides. In order to understand this period we’ll look at the war from various perspectives. This post will cover the Eastern Theater.
After the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as the losing Union side named it, both sides began a gradual feeling-out process that was the antithesis of the later total war waged by both sides. The reality of First Manassas convinced both sides that their armies were no more than armed mobs. Both armies were deficient in training, leadership and even uniforms.
Both sides had uniforms that in some cases caused confusion on the battlefield. There were Confederate units with blue uniforms and Union units with a sort of blue/gray uniform. Some of the uniforms were garish and impractical like the Zouave uniforms worn by units on both sides. Even the early Confederate battle flags caused confusion because of their similarity to Old Glory.
Both armies in the Eastern Theater spent the fall and winter reorganizing, training and equipping their troops. In the Western Theater there were tentative probes down the Mississippi River and into Kentucky which had tried to remain neutral.
Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his first major foray from his base at Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. The Battle of Belmont would see a limited clash of arms on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River with limited aims and a small loss of life.
In the Eastern Theater there were several engagements at the edges of the conflict but Maj. Gen. George McClellan refused to be pushed into major combat before he felt that his massive Army of the Potomac was ready to advance. By the end of 1861, McClellan had fortified Washington into one of the most defended cities in the world with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 artillerymen.
The Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s chosen weapon of “shock and awe” had grown to over 190,000 men, the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent. It was was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times. But McClellan wanted more. He envisioned an army of 273,000 with 600 guns to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”
McClellan continually overestimated the numbers of enemy troops that were facing him in the Washington area. On August 8, believing that the Confederates had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.
By August 19, he estimated 150,000 enemy to his front. McClellan’s future campaigns would be strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own.
The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and caused great condemnation by his government. Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears has called McClellan’s actions “essentially sound” if he had been as outnumbered as he believed, but McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.
Eventually after much debate and arguments between McClellan and the Lincoln government, the Army of the Potomac was transported to the tip of the Peninsula where they began a slow advance northwest to their ultimate goal of Richmond. From the siege of Yorktown to Malvern Hill, McClellan and first, Joseph E. Johnston and then Robert E. Lee slugged it out over a four-month period. Eventually, the Confederates deflected the huge Union army from its goal.
While McClellan was left idle at Harrison’s Landing, Lee turned and thrashed Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. He then turned north and headed into Maryland where Lee and McClellan met in the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Antietam. After a bloodletting that caused almost 23,000 casualties, McClellan was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.
With the departure of McClellan the war in the Eastern Theater began a slide to total war. Burnside’s first major battle was at Frederickburg on the Rappahannock River. The Union artillery preparation for the crossing of the river would destroy a large part of the town.
Union cavalry units were sent into the Virginia countryside to seize food and fodder thus denying it to the Confederates. This would establish a pattern for both armies to prey upon the civilian populations. The Confederate cavalry would do the same in Maryland and later Pennsylvania.