Women Union Nurses

This entry is part 12 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

A battlefield nurseAt the start of the Civil War all nurses and hospital attendants were men. Women generally were considered too frail to cope with the rigors of administering to the sick. Throughout the entire country there were only 150 hospitals and no formal nursing schools existed. Nurses learned by doing, apprenticed to doctors, in order to learn their craft.

No one anticipated the vast number of casualties or the continued fighting. Most observers believed that the war would be over after several months. But the war went on and the state of battlefield medicine and the condition of military hospitals was appalling. Military and societal protocol banned women from field hospitals, so most nursing duties continued to be assigned to men.

But the increasing number of casualties and the overburdening of hospital facilities forced the military authorities to allow women to act as nurses. There simply was no one else available to do the work. Over the course of the war approximately 2,000 women served as nurses for both the Union and Confederate Armies.

Religious orders responded to this new opportunity for service by sending their own trained nurses to staff field hospitals near the front. Within a few months of the war’s onset, some 600 women were serving as nurses in 12 hospitals. In all, eight Catholic orders sent nuns to serve in the war.

Before the war Dorothea Dix was an activist for the indigent insane in home state of Massachusetts. At the start of the war she traveled to Washington with a group of female nurses. There aim was  to lobby the military authorities on behalf of women serving as nurses on the battlefield.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron quickly named her to superintend the women nurses assigned to the U.S. Army. Cameron’s nominating citation read in part: ‘She will give at all times all necessary aid in organizing military hospitals for the care of all sick and wounded soldiers, aiding the chief surgeons by supplying nurses and substantial means for the comfort and relief of the suffering.’ Despite such responsibilities, however, neither she nor her nurses were granted military appointments.

At first Dix required nursing applicants to be at least 30 years of age–old by the standards of the time–and ‘plain looking,’ wearing brown or black clothing with no ornaments, bows, curls, jewelry or hoops. She steadfastly denied admission to nuns or other representatives of religious sisterhoods. Despite these stringent requirements, women all across the country laid aside their cherished jewels and laces to pass Dix’s austere muster.

As the war grew in intensity and casualties mounted Dix was required to relax her standards and after the First Battle of Bull Run she allowed anyone who was willing to work to do so. Her nurses were paid 40 cents a day plus rations, housing and transportation, while male nurses received $20.50 a month plus superior benefits.

Perhaps the best-known Civil War nurse was Clara Barton. She collected food, medical supplies and clothing for the Union Army after the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. By 1864 Barton was named the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. Until then she had worked outside of the military system.

Among her more harrowing experiences was an incident in which a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and killed a man to whom she was tending. She is widely known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” Barton went on to found the American Red Cross.

Dix insisted that the wounded from both armies be cared for in an even-handed manner. This may not have endeared her to Radical Republicans, assured her memory in the South. Her nurses provided what was often the only care available in the field to Confederate wounded.

Georgeanna Woolsey, a Dix nurse, said, “The surgeon in charge of our camp…looked after all their wounds, which were often in a most shocking state, particularly among the rebels. Every evening and morning they were dressed.”

Another Dix nurse, Julia Susan Wheelock, said, “Many of these were Rebels. I could not pass them by neglected. Though enemies, they were nevertheless helpless, suffering human beings.”

When Confederate forces retreated from Gettysburg, they left behind 5,000 wounded soldiers who were then treated by Dix’s nurses. Cornelia Hancock wrote about what she saw—“There are no words in the English language to express the suffering I witnessed today….” Hancock had been initially turned down by Dix due to her youth (23) and attractive appearance.

As the war dragged on, other women augmented the work of Dix’s corps and the volunteer nuns. Soldiers’ wives, residents of battlefront areas and representatives of newly formed organizations such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission all helped care for sick and wounded soldiers.

There were many nurses who today are unsung and virtually unknown. One such woman was Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a Galesburg, Illinois widow and mother who took it upon herself to become a volunteer at the military camp in Cairo, Illinois. Before the war, she had received training in botanic and homeopathic medicine and had been engaged in private-duty nursing.

She was a believer in the healing power of clean conditions for men who were clean of body and well fed. She had a special concern for enlisted men and stopped at nothing to get supplies that would bring comfort to her ‘boys.’ She begged food from any viable source, raided government supplies–often without permission–and commandeered boxes of delicacies sent from home to healthy soldiers.

The experience of Louisa May Alcott, the famous writer, may be indicative of the service that many women volunteers performed. Alcott served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863.

Her letters home – revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863) – brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. Alcott spoke out about the mismanagement of hospitals and the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered.

The women nurses of the American Civil War performed an invaluable service to the soldiers during the war. But beyond their tangible service they helped to make nursing a legitimate profession after the war and beyond.




Civil War Tactics: Infantry

This entry is part 4 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Civil War TacticsThe American Civil War began with the assumption by both sides that after just a few battles the war would end with either the Confederacy collapsing or achieving their independence. No one could have envisioned a war that lasted four years and took more than 620,000 lives.

At the start of the war both armies were manned for the most part by untrained militia. Early battles were simply clashes between armed mobs. It was by pure luck that the Confederates actually won the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run. Neither side was capable of overwhelming the other side.

After the initial phase of the war, the Union government appointed Major General George B. McClellan as commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. After the consolidation of a number of Union military units, McClellan became the commander of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union Army in the Eastern Theater.

McClellan may have been timid on the battlefield but he was a genius when it came to logistics and training. He oversaw the training and equipping of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s army grew from 50,000 men in July 1861 to 168,000 by November and was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times.

He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. Unfortunately, he was afraid to send his precious force into battle against the Confederates.

The tactics of early Civil War armies included maneuvering infantry units by brigades in wide battle lines. Both sides attempted to overwhelm their opponents with massed musket fire in the open field with little use of fortifications and emplacements. The most common deployment was a long “line of battle,” 2 ranks deep. More massed was the “column,” varying from 1 to 10 or more companies wide and from 8 to 20 or more ranks deep. Less compact than column or line was “open-order” deployment: a strung-out, irregular single line.

Early Civil War commanders rarely understood the effect of rifled musket fire on offensive infantry assaults. After devastating casualties at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, both sides began to adapt to the new effects of firepower against infantry. Both the artillery and the cavalry were quicker to adapt their tactics to devastating firepower of new weaponry.

As the troops and their commanders became more experienced fortifications came into greater use by both sides. Most troops would quickly build light fortifications each night as a defensive measure. The Confederate defensive emplacements at Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Corinth, Mississippi were much more permanent and prevented quick assaults against these important Southern cities.

Sieges and the assault of fortified positions are probably the most complex and demanding of military operations. The foremost authority on these matters in the civil war was considered to be the French engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, who designed many European fortification systems, and organized many successful sieges of the seventeenth century. The Confederate earthworks of Port Hudson, and their use of artillery lunettes show his influence, and corresponding attacks on such systems would have benefited from his theories.

At both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Union forces initially attempted to rush the defensive fortifications. All of their attempts failed miserably with serious casualties. At both locations the Union attackers settled into methodical sieges.

The Siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 18, 1863 until July 4th when Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered his entire garrison of 29,495 men after 3,202 had been killed or wounded. In addition to his surrendered men, Pemberton turned over to Grant 172 cannons and 50,000 rifles. The loss of Vicksburg was a massive blow for the Confederacy.

The Siege of Port Hudson was similar to Vicksburg’s siege. It lasted from May 22 to July 9, 1863. After a number of unsuccessful and costly frontal assaults the Union attackers settled into a siege that lasted from June 15th to July 9th when the Confederate garrison of 6,500 surrendered after a loss of 1,000 killed or wounded. The Union attackers lost 5,000 killed or wounded plus an additional 5,000 men who died of disease. The surrender gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, severing communications and trade between the eastern and western states of the Confederacy.

Corinth, Mississippi, an important rail junction in northern Mississippi, was the scene of two battles. The first engagement was called the Siege of Corinth and lasted from April 29 to May 30, 1862 but the Confederates under Lt. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard withdrew before Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck’s massive 120,000 strong army could engage his 65,000-man force. Made cautious by the staggering losses at Shiloh, Halleck embarked on a tedious campaign of offensive entrenchment, fortifying after each advance, sometimes only advancing a mile or two each day.

The second engagement at Corinth took place on October 3–4, 1862. Confederate forces under Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, numbering about 22,000, attacked Union forces emplaced in rifle pits dug by the Confederate Army in the Spring. The Union forces, numbering about 23,000, were commanded Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans.

The Union forces were able to repulse a number of frontal assaults against their fixed defenses. Rosecrans’s army lost 2,520 (355 killed, 1,841 wounded, and 324 missing) at Corinth; Van Dorn’s losses were 4,233 (473 killed, 1,997 wounded, and 1,763 captured or missing).





Training the Civil War Soldier

This entry is part 3 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Training during the Civil WarThe antebellum United States Army numbered no more than 16,000 officers and men. The army was organised into ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted rifles. These regiments were mostly posted in small forts of company-sized detachments, the majority posted West of the Mississippi River.

With secession many of the officers and men resigned to return to their home states where they joined the Confederate States Army or state militias. As trained soldiers they became the core of the Confederate Army.

On April 15, 1861, after the surrender of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers militia to serve for three months. However, there were restrictions on the number of men and the length of time they could serve that the President of the United States, as opposed to a State Governor, could summon. Lincoln by calling for 75,000 men to serve for three months was at the constitutionally-mandated limit.

Until Congress returned to session, that was the most that he was allowed to call for. On July 22, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men. Between April 1861 and April 1865, at least two and a half million men served in the Union Army, of whom the majority were volunteers.

On the southern side of the fight, the Confederate government formed their army in much the same way. Initially, most of the officers were former officers in the United States Army.

The Confederate Congress provided for a Confederate Army patterned after the United States Army. It was to consist of a large provisional force to exist only in time of war and a small permanent regular army. The provisional, volunteer army was established by an act of the Confederate Congress passed February 28, 1861, one week before the act which established the permanent regular army organization, passed March 6, 1861.

Although the two forces were to exist concurrently, very little was done to organize the Confederate regular army and in fact it only existed on paper. Supplementing the Confederate States Army were the various state militias of the Confederate States.

Because of the destruction of records in Richmond in 1865 and the comparatively poor record-keeping of the time, there can be no definitive number that represents the strength of the Confederate States Army. Estimates range from 500,000 to 2,000,000 men who were involved at any time during the war. Reports from the War Department began at the end of 1861 (326,768 men), 1862 (449,439), 1863 (464,646), 1864 (400,787), and “last reports” (358,692). Estimates of enlistments throughout the war were 1,227,890 to 1,406,180.

Soldiers in both armies were organized according to their military specialty. The combat arms included infantry, cavalry and artillery. Different types of training were carried out for the different specialties.

Infantry soldiers drilled as squads and in company formations, each man getting accustomed to orders and formations such as marching in column and in a “company front”, how to face properly, dress the line, and interact with his fellow soldiers. After an hour of drill on that level, the company moved onto regimental level drills and parades.

The soldier practiced guard mount and other procedures such as the Manual of Arms, which infantrymen learned for the rifle-musket. Veterans of the war often remarked how they could recite the steps of loading and priming for many years after the war, thanks to the continual drill.

By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, the rifle musket made up the majority of infantry weapons in both the Union and Confederate armies though it took much longer for the tactics to change. Even with the advance of the rifle musket, the weapons were still muzzle loaders and officers believed that the old-fashioned drill formations were still useful to insure a massing of continuous firepower. The result of this slow change was a much higher than anticipated rate of casualties on the battlefield.

Cavalrymen drilled with their sabers, both on foot and horseback. As the war progressed the use of cavalry changed. At the start of the war most cavalry was used for reconnaissance and skirmishing with the other side’s forward elements. In the case of the need to retreat, cavalry was used as the rear-guard.

Later in the war, cavalry tactics changed dramatically with large-scale cavalry engagements taking place at Brandy Station, Gettysburg and Yellow Tavern. Cavalry was also used for long range raids behind enemy lines. J.E.B. Stuart was a skilled practitioner of this tactic but he was soon joined by Union commanders like John Buford, George Stoneman and Benjamin Grierson.

With these new tactics, new training methods were needed. Cavalry depended less on the saber and more on the repeating revolvers and rifles. Cavalry in the latter part of the war acted more like mounted riflemen with their horses bringing them to the battlefield and swiftly taking them away. Both sides prized horsemanship and marksmanship.

Each detachment had to learn to act and move as a team in order to maintain an acceptable rate of fire. An artillery detachment was one gun and its crew. The Chief of the piece was a sergeant, in charge of the gun; there was a corporal in charge of the caisson, and another who was the gunner that aimed the piece. The “spare men” of the Battery were those who were unassigned, and took care of the horses and equipment.

Those who were assigned to the “numbered positions” had a bit of status within the Battery, at least in terms of their own pride. The cannoneers were: #1, who swabbed the bore and rammed the load; #2, inserted the charge and projectile into the muzzle; #3, tended the vent; #4 primed and fired the piece at the command of the sergeant; #5, carried the round to #2; #6 had charge of the limber; and #7 carried the round to #5.



The Descent Into Total War

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of the Shenandoah ValleyTotal War is an oft-used phrase in modern warfare. The textbook description of Total War is war in which a belligerent engages in the complete mobilization of fully available resources and population.

However, Total War in the American Civil War did not begin with a formal directive from the Lincoln administration. It was a gradual descent from a war conducted by rank amateurs to one in which increasingly veteran soldiers foraged throughout the countryside at will with the passive approval of their commanders.

The average Union soldier never accepted the policy of conciliation with the Confederacy. They looked upon them as the reason why they had left their homes and families to defend the Union. For northern soldiers the concept of the Union and its defense was paramount. They did not volunteer to free the slaves but to preserve the Union. Gary Gallagher in The Union War is very clear about this and backs his theory up with numerous quotations from contemporary sources.

Gallagher insists, abolition always “took a back seat” to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war.

They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant “the saving of popular government for the world.”

They also saw the need to punish the South for their secession in a Biblical sense. One Ohio soldier wrote, “I believe, generally, there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood and the sin of rebellion is no exception. True here as very often, the blood of the innocent must mingle their blood with the guilty.”

Nearly every military order that touched on soldier’s conduct toward civilian populations emphasized that Southern property was to be respected. Soldiers were told that bad behavior would embitter the local populations and prevent reconciliation.

But tell that to cold, wet soldiers who have just marched 20 miles whose supply system was inadequate or downright broken. The supply systems of both armies were not capable of maintaining the ever-increasing sizes of both armies. Until the latter stages of the war the Union supply chain was unable to adequately feed their troops. As the Union armies picked the South clean, Confederate troops in all theaters suffered with shortages in all areas of supply.

Initially, Union troops offered to pay for food with greenbacks but in many cases most Southerners refused to accept payment. Union soldiers were always in need of firewood and rail fences and farm structures were always in danger to foragers. Anecdotes from throughout the war tell stories where deserted hamlets were quite literally taken apart for soldier’s needs.

Soldiers who felt that their normal rations were inadequate simply decided on their own to forage for food. Despite the official policy of issuing vouchers, local inhabitants constantly complained to higher authorities.

In some areas, local farmers engaged in a blatant form of price gouging. They raised the prices of all of their commodities to extremely high levels. In Unionist western Maryland farmers raised the price of watermelons from two cents to twenty-five cents. Other commodities also saw a precipitous rise in prices.

Civilians in the contested areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia often found that they were at the mercy of both armies. As the tide of battle ebbed and flowed across the countryside, soldiers from both armies foraged for food, livestock and wood.

Especially contested was the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, an area that was contested throughout the war. By 1864, the agricultural economy of the Valley was wrecked with barns burned, livestock taken and fields stripped of food sources. More importantly, farmers were drafted into the Confederate Army which further reduced the production from this vital area. Here is the link to a series that gives an overview of the destruction of the Shenandoah Valley.

Gradually, soldiers on both sides used foraging as a means of supplementing their diets. They regularly seized food stuffs, livestock and other supplies without compensation. Officers in some cases deliberately ignored orders and allowed their men to forage freely. Some Union commanders were well known for allowing their men to pillage at will.

Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker and Maj. Gen. David Hunter were two such commanders who used wholesale pillaging as a weapon against the secessionists. In Western Virginia, Col. Robert McCook‘s brigade was well-known for their pillaging the homes of secessionists. As early as October 1861, the brigade was already burning houses and public buildings along its line of march.

The success of the policy of conciliation was dependent on two variables: the willingness of Union soldiers to leave civilians alone and the willingness of civilians to leave soldiers alone. Almost from the outset, soldiers found that neither condition was possible.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley is still remembered today as “The Burning”.


Lincoln’s Democrat Generals

George B. McClellan in 1861Some historians have put forward a theory that the Union generals of the early war were lenient in prosecuting the war due to their political leanings. Abraham Lincoln in an effort to garner support for the war appointed a significant number of Democrats as major generals of volunteers at the start of the war.

The most important reason for appointing political generals was to appease important blocs of voters. President Abraham Lincoln used such appointments as a way to get the support of moderate Democrats for the war and for his administration (“War Democrats“). The first three volunteer generals Lincoln appointed, (John Adams DixNathaniel Prentice Banks and Benjamin F. Butler) were all Democrats, and therefore these three officers were the most senior major generals in the Union Army. Republicans were also appointed including Richard James Oglesby of Illinois.

John Adams Dix was a New York politician who had served in the Senate and as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan for less than two months in 1861. He is best known for the telegram that he sent to all Treasury agents in New Orleans. “If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” Although the telegram was intercepted by Confederates, and was never delivered, the text found its way to the press, and Dix became one of the first heroes of the North during the Civil War.

Dix was the most senior major general of volunteers in the Union Army because his was the first appointment. He served in a variety of commands in the Eastern Theater. He is best known for the Dix-Hill Cartel for the exchange of prisoners of war.

Nathaniel Prentice Banks was a Massachusetts politician who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives as both a Member and then as Speaker. He left the House and ran for the governorship which he won. He was the second major general of volunteers to be appointed by Lincoln. During his career, Banks held commands in Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley and the Department of the Gulf.

He had the bad fortune to have to face Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley during his memorable Valley Campaign of 1862. Jackson bested Banks at Winchester and later at Cedar Mountain.In the South, Banks commanded at the Siege of Port Hudson and on the Red River Campaign.

Benjamin Butler was the third ranking major general of volunteers appointed by Lincoln. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could have freedom, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to declare runaway Virginia slaves “contraband of war”; refusing to return them to their masters.

Then we have the most famous of the Democrat Union generals, George B. McClellan. After the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, McClellan was ordered from his post in western Virginia to take command of the Washington defenses. Based on two somewhat minor victories he was feted by the New York Herald as “…the Napoleon of the Present War.”

On May 14th, McClellan at 34 had been promoted to major general in the Regular Army, outranking everyone but Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. Carl Sandburg wrote, “McClellan was the man of the hour, pointed to by events, and chosen by an overwhelming weight of public and private opinion.” He was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington.

On August 20th after consolidating a number of Union formations he immediately formed the Army of the Potomac, with himself as its first commander. McClellan considered himself the savior of his country. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I seem to have become the power of the land.”

McClellan immediately went about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac as a superb fighting force. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. From July to November, the army grew from 50,000 to 168,000 men, a stupendous number for the 19th century.

McClellan was a superb logistics officer who understood the use of rail and steamboat transportation in war. However, he never seemed willing to throw his army into the fires of war. Some would say that he loved it too much to risk it in combat. Others whispered that McClellan was among the Union commanders who wished for conciliation with the South on the conditions that prevailed at the start of the war.

McClellan delivered a memorandum to Lincoln on August 2nd which was read to the Cabinet the following day. In it the general seemed to follow Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. He felt that it was necessary “to display such an overwhelming strength, as will convince all our antagonists…of the utter impossibility of resistance.”

McClellan detailed his military grand strategy calling for attacks down the Mississippi, into Missouri, through East Tennessee into Kentucky and into West Texas. Other Union forces would maintain their hold on western Virginia and Fort Monroe. He also alluded to a substantial amphibious forces for attacks along the Southern coastline.

All of this was to be in support of a massive offensive against the Confederate capital of Richmond which would be followed by a thrust deep into the Deep South. McClellan called for a massive army of 273,000 troops with 600 pieces of artillery. This force would have been 20 times the size of the army that captured Mexico City in 1847.

McClellan had two objectives with his strategy. First, he hoped to detach the bulk of the Southern people from their presumably weak loyalty to the “political leaders of the rebels.” His second objective was to convince the “governing aristocratic class” that resistance was futile. In order to be successful with the first objective there could be no more Union defeats. At the same time he felt that a lenient policy of prosecuting the war was necessary in order not to alienate the Southern population.

Part of this lenient policy required the Union Army “to crush the rebels in one campaign” according to a letter that he wrote to his wife on the same day as he wrote the memorandum to Lincoln. He ordered his troops to rigorously respect private property, including slaves, and crush any attempt at a slave insurrection. These were the same orders that he gave his troops in Western Virginia.

However, McClellan could not be moved. Throughout the late and into the fall the Army of the Potomac continued to train while McClellan engaged in a bureaucratic struggle with Winfield Scott. Eventually Scott became so worn out with the struggle that he resigned as General-in-Chief. McClellan was appointed in his place and when he did he pressed his conciliatory views on each of the Union Army’s major commanders.


Toward A Real Civil War: Spring and Summer 1861

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Ohio VolunteersThe antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men. Of these about one-quarter of the officer corps resigned to join the Confederate Army. At the onset of the war both armies were no better than armed mobs, untrained, undisciplined and unblooded. Both sides were simply groping toward civil war without a firm plan.

The U.S. Army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canada–United States border and on the Atlantic coast.

President Abraham Lincoln initially issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months to put down the “insurrection”. Some have said that the Union government was overly optimistic but in reality that was the limits of Lincoln’s legal authority. Until Congress reconvened he could only ask for that many volunteers.

While the army was forming, the Lincoln administration went about seeking ways to heal the breach between the North and the South. Many Northerners retained the belief that a settlement with the Southerners could be achieved without too much bloodshed. Those who supported General Scott believed as he did that quick, bloody action would push the Southern Unionists into supporting the secessionists. There was a significant group who was of the opposite opinion that quick action could ignite the Southern Unionists into action on the side of the Union.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was on the side of those who pushed for quick, decisive. He wrote Lincoln that in his opinion the officer corps was making a fatal flaw by overestimating the strength of the secessionist spirit in the South. Blair predicted that if the North didn’t move rapidly then the South would only be subjugated by complete conquest.

As the spring moved into early summer and no offensive action was undertaken Lincoln began to have doubts in Scott’s policy of deliberation. The South had achieved a number of minor victories: the capture of the shipyard, the seizure of Harper’s Ferry and the minor but humiliating defeat at Big Bethel, Virginia.

Both the New York Tribune and the Chicago Tribune called for the Union army to drive on Richmond with the slogan, “Forward to Richmond.” General Irvin McDowellHowever, the majority of the nation’s newspapers continued to support General Scott’s plan of deliberately fencing the Confederates in. Scott hoped that by amassing huge armies in the east and west, he would discourage the Confederate troops. He was hoping that loyal citizens would rise up and prevent any further attacks, like Fort Sumter.

At the cabinet meeting on June 29th, Lincoln gave the Army command marching orders. He insisted that they advance as far as Manassas within two or three weeks. Scott resisted but eventually agreed to the order. By July 8th, Lincoln issued order for General Irvin McDowell, the field commander, to launch his offensive. McDowell launched his forces on July 16th.

McDowell had been a supply officer from 1848 until 1861. He was pushed for a field command by his mentor, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Although McDowell knew that his troops were inexperienced and unready, and protested that he was a supply officer, not a field commander, pressure from the Washington politicians forced him to launch a premature offensive against Confederate forces in Northern Virginia.

In order not to antagonize the Southern civilians, McDowell gave instructed his men to conduct themselves ” with as much forbearance and propriety as if they were at their own homes.”    

McDowell’s army met their Confederate counterparts near Manassas Junction on July 21st where an all-day battle ensued. His strategy during the First Battle of Bull Run was imaginative but ambitiously complex, and his troops were not experienced enough to carry it out effectively, resulting in an embarrassing rout. The Union defeat ended any hopes of a Confederate collapse and peaceful reconciliation. President Lincoln summoned Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan to take command of the Union Army in the East.                                                                                                                                         


General Winfield Scott

General Winfield ScottToday, we remember the names of many of the generals who led the Union and Confederate armies. The names of Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Joseph E. Johnston are but a few of these illustrious leaders. Yet, the name of  General Winfield Scott who set the stage for the ultimate Union victory is often overlooked.

Winfield Scott was the United States Army’s Commanding General at the start of the war. He established many of the early objectives for the Union army. It was his idea to completely blockade the Southern ports, thereby denying the South of the benefit from the cotton production. He established the plan to split the Confederacy down the Mississippi River and deny them the use of the river. It also split them from the valuable sources of supply in Trans-Mississippi America.

Who was this general? Winfield Scott was a Virginian by birth, being born on June 13, 1786  at the family plantation in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, near Petersburg. He briefly attended College of William and Mary, studied law in the office of a private attorney, and served as a Virginia militia cavalry corporal near Petersburg in 1807. The following year Scott was commissioned a captain in the light artillery.

Scott’s early career in the army was tumultuous. Scott openly criticized the then Commanding General of the Army, James Wilkinson. Scott was court-martialed for insubordination in 1810 and had his commission suspended for one year. Afterwards, he served in New Orleans on staff of General Wade Hampton from 1811 to 1812.

The War of 1812 against the British made Winfield Scott into one of the most well-known soldiers in America. In June 1812, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served primarily on the Niagara front. In October, 1812, he led an American landing party across the Niagara River at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Most New York militia members refused to cross into Canada in support of the invasion, and the British compelled New York militia commander Brigadier General William Wadsworth and Scott, the Regular Army commander, to surrender.

After Scott was exchanged, he was promoted to colonel in March 1813. Scott planned and led the capture of Fort George, Ontario, Canada, beside the Niagara River. The operation used landings across the Niagara and on the Lake Ontario coast and forced the British to abandon Fort George. Colonel Scott suffered wounds at this battle which is considered among the best planned and executed operations of the United States Army during the War of 1812.

Scott was promoted to the rank of brigadier general on March 19, 1814. He was only 27 years old at the time and one of the youngest generals in American Infantry attacking at Lundy's Lanethe history of the United States Army.

Scott commanded the 1st Brigade, proving largely instrumental in decisive American successes at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5, 1814. He played an instrumental role in the bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane on July 25th, but suffered serious wounds. For his valor at Lundy’s Lane, Scott received a brevet (i.e. an honorary promotion) to major general to date from July 25, 1814. However, the severity of his wounds prevented his return to active duty for the remainder of the war.

Over the course of the next 45 years, Winfield Scott led American troops in the Seminole Wars, the Creek War and the Mexican War. In 1841, Scott became Commanding General of the United States Army, a position which he held until November 1861.

At the start of the American Civil War, Winfield Scott was 74 years old and suffering numerous health problems, including gout and dropsy. He was also extremely overweight (he weighed over 300 pounds) and unable to mount a horse or review troops. Although he was born and raised in Virginia, Scott remained loyal to the nation that he had served for most of his life and refused to resign his commission upon his home state’s secession.

Despite his infirmities, Winfield Scott continue to have a keen strategic mind. He drew up a complicated plan to defeat the Confederacy by blockading Southern ports and then sending an army down the Mississippi Valley to outflank the Confederacy.

His Anaconda Plan was derided in the press. However, in its broad outlines, it was the strategy the Union actually used, particularly in the Western Theater and in the somewhat successful naval blockade of Confederate ports. Though the blockade did prevent most sea-going vessels from leaving or arriving to points along the Confederate coast line, a fair number of blockade-runners made their way through. They typically carried cargoes of basic supplies, arms, and mail.

However, Lincoln gave in to public pressure for a victory within 90 days and rejected the Anaconda Plan, but the eventual strategy used by the The Anaconda PlanUnion in 1864–65 was largely based on Scott’s original plan.

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the Union field commander, was anxious for Scott to be pushed aside. Political pressure from McClellan’s supporters in Congress led to Scott’s resignation on November 1, 1861. McClellan then succeeded him as general-in-chief. Although officially retired, Scott was still occasionally consulted by Lincoln for strategic advice during the war.

Winfield Scott died at West Point, New York on May 29, 1866 and is buried in West Point Cemetery, having served his country in war and peace for over 53 years.


Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General

General Montgomery C. MeigsIn war, one of the most important departments in the army is the Quartermaster Corps. Without an efficient Quartermaster Corps, no army would be able to execute its mission. The American Civil War was no exception. The Union Army was able to execute its mission to final victory due to the work of its Quartermaster General, Montgomery Cunningham Meigs.

General Meigs was born in Augusta, Georgia on May 3, 1816. He was the son of Dr. Charles Meigs and Mary Montgomery Meigs. His father was a nationally known obstetrician and professor of obstetrics at Jefferson Medical College. His grandfather, Josiah Meigs, graduated from Yale University  and later was president of the University of Georgia.

The younger Meigs grew up in Philadelphia where his father had a thriving practice. Young Montgomery received schooling at the Franklin Institute (a preparatory school for the University of Pennsylvania). Meigs learned French, German, and Latin, and studied art, literature, and poetry. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania when he was only 15 years old. A hard worker, he was one of the top students at the university.

Montgomery wished to serve in the army an at the rather young age of 16 he enrolled in West Point. Excelling in French and mathematics, he graduated in 1836 fifth in his class. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery but most of his service was in the Corps of Engineers. As an army engineer he assisted in the building of forts and navigational projects from Detroit to Washington. At one point, he served under his future adversary Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee.

At the onset of the civil war, Meigs was given the command of the 11th U.S. Infantry on May 14, 1861. The very next day he was promoted from colonel to brigadier general and given the command of the Quartermaster Corps. He succeeded Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston who had resigned to take command of the Confederate army in Virginia.

A staunch Unionist despite his Southern birth, Meigs detested the Confederacy. He quickly established a reputation as an efficient, hard-driving commander. He was honest to a fault. He was among the first to recognize the importance of logistical preparations in military planning. He was responsible for the transportation system that was able to move troops over long distances in the shortest possible time.

Congressman James G. Blaine of Maine remarked about Meigs’ work:

“Montgomery C. Meigs, one of the ablest graduates of the Military Academy, was kept from the command of troops by the inestimably important services he performed as Quartermaster General. Perhaps in the military history of the world there never was so large an amount of money disbursed upon the order of a single man … The aggregate sum could not have been less during the war than fifteen hundred million dollars, accurately vouched and accounted for to the last cent.”

Secretary of State William Seward was equally as fulsome with his praise, “…without the services of this eminent soldier the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled.”

Meigs’ services during the Civil War included command of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s base of supplies at Fredericksburg and Belle Plain, Virginia (1864); command of a division of War Department employees in the defense of Washington at the time of Jubal A. Early’s raid (July 11 to 14, 1864); personally supervising the refitting and supplying of Major General William T. Sherman’s army at Savannah (January 5 to 29, 1865), Goldsboro, and Raleigh, North Carolina and reopening Sherman’s lines of supply (March to April 1865). He was brevetted to major general on July 5, 1864.

Meigs’ most lasting achievement was the establishment of Arlington National Cemetary as the primary burying ground of Union dead. At the start of the war, the Federal government had seized the estate of Mary Custis Lee, Arlington House. As the home of their chief adversary, the army was concerned that its position overlooking Washington would present a clear danger to the Capital and the White House. Much of official Washington would have been within range of emplaced artillery.

On July 16, 1862, Congress passed a bill that established military cemeteries and gave the Quartermaster General direct responsibility for them. By the middle of 1863, the two cemeteries in use in Washington were filled and a new cemetery needed to be found. After the Battle of the Wilderness, the Union army became hard-pressed for places to bury the thousands of dead soldiers.

Meigs ordered his staff to find a suitable new site. They suggested the Arlington estate of Mary Custis Lee. It was high and free from floods (which might unearth graves), it had a view of the District of Columbia, and it was aesthetically pleasing. It was also the home of the leader of the armed forces of the Confederate States of America, and denying Robert E. Lee use of his home after the war was a valuable political consideration.

Meigs’ only son, 1st Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, was killed at Swift Run Gap in Virginia in October 1864 while leading a three-man patrol. To his dying day, Meigs believed despite evidence to the contrary that he was murdered after his capture.

On the night President Lincoln was assassinated, Meigs rushed to the Petersen House across from Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln lay dying. He stood at the front door and decided who was to be admitted to the deathwatch. When Lincoln died at 7:22 A.M. on April 15, Meigs moved into the parlor to sit with the president’s body. During Lincoln’s funeral procession in the city five days later, Meigs rode at the head of two battalions of quartermaster corps soldiers.

After the war, Meigs continued as the Quartermaster General of the Army until his retirement in 1882. During that time Montgomery Meigs left an indelible mark in the Capital region. Besides his continual improvements at Arlington National Cemetery, Meigs supervised the building of many official Washington buildings, including the the new War Department building (constructed between 1866 and 1867), the National Museum (constructed in 1876), the extension of the Washington Aqueduct (constructed in 1876), and for a hall of records (constructed in 1878).

Along with fellow Quartermaster Brigadier General Roeliff Brinkerhoff, Meigs edited a volume entitled, The Volunteer Quartermaster, a treatise which was considered the standard guide for the officers and employees of the quartermaster’s department up until the World War I.

After his retirement, Meigs became of the Pension Office Building, now home to the National Building Museum. He was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and one of the earliest members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Montgomery Meigs died at his home in Washington on January 2, 1892. He had served his country in war and peace for 50 years, dating from the time that he took the oath of allegiance on the Plain at West Point. Without his service, the Union army might not have been as successful as it was in the prosecution of the war. Some said the war could not have been won without him. He was buried among his fellow soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery


Across the Rappahannock River and Into the Wilderness

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

The Wilderness of VirginiaIn order to fully understand the Battle of Chancellorsville, one must understand the terrain that the armies encountered. The Wilderness of Virginia was then and still is today an area of dense woods along the Rappahannock River.

The Wilderness was crisscrossed with narrow roads and hidden pathways that were used by local iron furnaces for bringing in wood to make charcoal and transporting out the product of their furnaces.

Hooker’s plan called for his forces to move swiftly through the dense forest and engage the Confederates on open ground to the east. The dense undergrowth would nullify his advantage in manpower and artillery.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps had set out from their camps around Falmouth on April 13, 1863. Brig. Gen. John Buford’s Reserve Brigade headed west in order to cross the river and circle south around the Confederates.

However, heavy rains had turned the roads into quagmires and it was not until April 29th that the entire brigade was was able to completely cross at Kelly’s Ford.

Meanwhile, other elements of Stoneman’s force were able engage Confederate cavalry units at Beverly Ford. Displaying a great deal of caution, Stoneman delayed crossing the river and by the next day it had risen 7 feet, making a crossing impassable.

From that point on, Stoneman’s force devolved into a mere raiding unit and the entire point of his advance, dislocating the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, lost its objective.

On April 27th, the first three infantry corps began to cross the Rappahannock under the Artist's Depiction of the Chancellor Houseoverall command of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum. Making their way south on the narrow country roads they concentrated around the small hamlet of Chancellorsville, which was little more than a single large, brick mansion at the junction of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road.

The mansion was the home of the Frances Chancellor family. The family had owned the property until 1854 when they sold it to Samuel Pettus who had sold it to Dr. Samuel L. Guy. When Dr. Guy experienced financial difficulties, Pettus repossessed the house and rented it to the Frances Chancellor family.

Shortly before the battle, Pettus sold the property to George Guest who continued to rent it to the Chancellors. They used it as an inn and a number of prominent Confederate officers had stayed at the establishment, including Generals J.E.B. Stuart, William Mahone, Richard Anderson and Carnot Posey.

The inn was now to a visitor in a different color uniform. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker arrived late on the afternoon of April 30th and made the inn his primary headquarters.

The two II Corps divisions crossed at U.S. Ford on April 30 without opposition. By dawn on April 29, pontoon bridges spanned the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg and Sedgwick’s force began to cross.

Pleased with the success of the operation so far, and realizing that the Confederates were not vigorously opposing the river crossings, Hooker ordered Sickles to begin the movement of the III Corps from Falmouth the night of April 30–May 1. By May 1, Hooker had approximately 70,000 men concentrated in and around Chancellorsville.

General Robert E. Lee in his Fredericksburg headquarters had no intelligence about the direction of the Union advance. His first thought was that Slocum’s goal was the important rail junction at Gordonsville. But J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry was able to scout around the enemy’s flanks as Stoneman’s force moved further south and east.

One of the generally accepted principles of tactical warfare is the concentration of force. However, at this juncture General Lee violated that principle and divided his force. By not not reacting as Hooker had anticipated, Lee began to foil Hooker’s plan.

Lee anticipated that Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s crossing blow Fredericksburg was merely a demonstration to freeze Jackson in position. With that in mind, Lee planned to concentrate 80% of his force against the Union Army at Chancellorsville.

He left behind a brigade under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale on heavily fortified Marye’s Heights behind Fredericksburg and one division under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, on Prospect Hill south of the town. These roughly 11,000 men and 56 guns would attempt to resist any advance by Sedgwick’s 40,000.

He ordered Stonewall Jackson to march west and link up with Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division, which had pulled back from the river crossings they were guarding and began digging earthworks on a north-south line between the Zoan and Tabernacle churches.

McLaws’s division was ordered from Fredericksburg to join Anderson. This would amass 40,000 men to confront Hooker’s movement east from Chancellorsville. Fortunately for the Confederates, heavy fog along the Rappahannock masked some of these westward movements and Sedgwick chose to wait until he could determine the enemy’s intentions.


Asa Henry Dikeman

Asa H. Dyckman, circa 1880'sThe American Civil War was different for every soldier. Some soldiers were in the hell of mortal combat at places like Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. Others like Asa Henry Dikeman spent a brief period in uniform as a 100-days man.

Union volunteers originally enlisted for 90 days at the start of the war. Some historians claim that both sides thought that the war would be over in a short time. Of course, each side thought that they would emerge as the victor. The truth was more prosaic. Until a new law was passed by Congress, that was the longest period that volunteers could enlist for service. By July 1861, men were asked to enlist for one-year which was later extended to three years.

Not all soldiers were asked to enlist for long periods. The Union Army recruited a number of regiments for 100-day enlistments. The 47th New York State Militia was a one such regiment. They were mustered into service on May 27, 1862 and mustered out on September 1, 1862. They served for one month out of New York State, June 23rd to July 23rd. The balance of their enlistment was spent in New York.

The eight companies of the 47th left the state and proceeded to Fort McHenry, where they were mustered into Federal service. They were employed as train and bridge guards in order to prevent sabotage of the railroad lines through Maryland. After their 100 days were completed, they were mustered out on September 1st in Brooklyn. During their enlistment, they were commanded by Col. J. V. Meserole.

The same unit was called up again in June 1863 and were sent to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign. After the Confederate defeat and retreat across the Potomac, they were part of the 3rd Brigade of the Washington defenses until the crisis was over. They were again mustered out of service by July 23, 1863.

Asa Henry Dikeman was a carpenter in Brooklyn, New York, according to the 1860 census. He was born on October 28, 1829 in the same borough of Brooklyn. At the time of the census, Asa was 30 years old with a carpentry business with one employee who lived with his family. He had been married to Anna Pearsall on September 20, 1857 when Anna was four months over 17 and he was a month shy of his 28th birthday. By the time Asa enlisted in the army he was already the father of two children: William and Jeanette.

Asa Dikeman served his country briefly during the Civil War, as did many other men. He was always proud of his service to preserve the Union. You see, Asa Dikeman was one of two second great grandfathers that I had who served the Union. The other Michael Patrick Murphy was from my father’s side of the family. You can read his story here.