Toward A Real Civil War: Spring and Summer 1861

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

Series Navigation<< Union Efforts at Conciliation: 1861General Winfield Scott’s Plan to End the Rebellion >>

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