HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 14 - Never Call Retreat: Military and Political Turning Points in 1863
Chapter 1. The Mood of the Civil War and McClellan’s Army [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: The person whose writing drew me into the Civil War — and I confess — was Bruce Catton. Have any of you ever read any of Bruce Catton? Ah. It’s a dwindling number in the twenty-first century. But when I was growing up Bruce Catton was the great narrative, popular historian — or popular narrative historian — of the Civil War. He wrote some seven books or so, from the late 1950s through the 1960s into the ’70s. He wrote them around the time of the Civil War centennial. He was not an academic historian, he was a journalist and a former war correspondent in the Second World War, and the man had a beautiful sense of narrative. This is Catton from his book Terrible Swift Sword, which is 1862, the year of 1862 of the Civil War. He’s trying to capture the situation, the strategic situation, the emotional, sentimental situation, the mood of already war-weary America, a little more than a year into this thing; which is where we’re going to go, and a little bit further, in a moment. He’s talking, though, essentially, about the most important argument I think we can make about that first year, year and a half, into the second year of the war. Both sides wanted a limited war. Remember that. On the Confederate side they just wanted to fight long enough to make the North or the Federal Government acknowledge their independence. The longer the thing went on, the more dangerous it was, of course, for the Confederacy. They were out-manned, out-numbered, they had lesser resources, et cetera. On the northern side, it was the stated policy of the Lincoln Administration to keep this a limited war; and a great deal more on this next week when we deal with the emancipation story. The whole idea again, for Lincoln, was to keep this from becoming, as he put it, a remorseless revolutionary struggle. That is exactly what it had become by the summer of 1862.
And here is Catton’s description; I can’t do it any better: “There was nobility in the idea that there ought to be a peace without victory. By August of 1862, America’s tragedy was that it was caught between the madness of going on with the war and the human impossibility of stopping it. Secession had been a direct result of the outcome of the Election of 1860. To restore the status quo would be to assume that either the North or the South had had a great change of heart, that the North would not again go Republican, or that the South would quietly acquiesce if it did. Neither Mr. Lincoln nor Mr. Davis was going to assume anything of the kind. Each man was fighting for a dreadful simplicity. Neither one could describe a solution acceptable to him, without describing something wholly unacceptable to the other. Neither man could accept anything less than complete victory without admitting complete defeat. Both sides had heard the trumpet that could never call retreat. The peacemakers could not be heard until the terrible swift sword had been sheathed. But the scabbard had been thrown away and now the Confederacy was carrying the war into the enemy’s country.” Well, “never call retreat” is of course a very warlike language, but this was an awful and horrible war.
Now Lincoln, of course — and you’ve read now some documents on this, and if you’ve started to watch the Ken Burns film series, which by the way is now up on the Classes Server, it is up on the Classes Server; well no it’s up on CDigix but, as Sam Schaffer just informed me, if you go to the Classes Server there is a message — what’s it called — under Information? — and under Announcements, it tells you exactly again how to use the URL. Have any of you already tapped in? Okay. Make sure you watch episodes two and three, through the one entitled “Forever Free,” maybe by this weekend, certainly by the beginning of next week. At any rate, in that film series you’ll see that Burns chose to make George B. McClellan a kind of comic relief — his vanity, his arrogance, his insubordination, his almost incredible, if complex, hatred of Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Stanton and all the leadership of the Federal Government that he was commanding the Army for.
Lincoln wanted a strategy in the wake of Bull Run, the disaster at Bull Run that summer, in July. He puts McClellan in charge of the Army of the Potomac, as I said the other day. McClellan takes them into huge encampments all around Washington, DC, and began in August, September, October, and through the fall, to drill this Army, train it. And they came to love him; that is, all these green, young soldier boys from all over the North, and they were arriving now in whole new regiments, week after week after week, all formed in local communities across the North. The vast, vast, vast majority of them had never shouldered any kind of musket in their lives except possibly in a local militia, and only a tiny percentage of them had ever been in a militia. They actually grew to kind of love McClellan at first because he held great parades, great parades. He made them march like hell and train like hell and learn how to march sideways and forward and backward and retreat and do all that stuff. But man, when he held a parade it was cool.
They also hadn’t seen any war yet. He didn’t move the army. Lincoln wanted him to move it that fall, go back into Virginia, go find that Confederate Army again, find it on the right ground somewhere, attack it, end the war. Not going to happen. This young, 35-year-old general was a very cautious soul. “Who would’ve thought that I would be called up to save my country?” said McClellan. And we have those amazing letters he kept writing to his wife, over and over and over. “I am called to save my country. These buffoons in Washington don’t know what they’re doing. Stanton is an idiot.” And at one point he called Lincoln “a baboon.” That actually got into the public. He was also — make no mistake, and it’s very important, especially when we get into ‘62 — he was a pro-slavery Democrat. He was the farthest thing you could imagine in the Union Army from an abolitionist. McClellan wanted nothing to do with the remorseless revolutionary struggle. He did not want to move huge armies into Virginia or into the South, into densely populated slave areas, because he did not want to destroy slavery. He saw that as a revolution no army could somehow control. He even wrote that fall to a democratic congressman and said, “You must help me” — quote — “help me dodge the nigger”; which was the way he put it. By January, Lincoln was impatient, to say the least. McClellan caught typhoid fever and was really quite sick for most of a month and refused to even answer Lincoln’s messages, at times. This President of the United States, the Commander-in-Chief, is sending him messages, couriers, and for days McClellan wouldn’t even answer him. And then there’s the famous message that Lincoln sends in February, I believe, of ‘62; sends a message to McClellan and says, “General, if you’re not going to use your army, might I borrow it?”
Chapter 2. Early Union Successes and Ulysses S. Grant’s Entry into the War [00:09:46]
Let’s move out West, as the war is going to break out all over the West, whether anybody wanted it to or not, whether anybody planned it or not. I’ll get the outline back up there in case you didn’t — sorry — get to see it. I don’t know if you can see all this in the back row but I hope you can see enough to understand that what we have here is the region of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and over into Missouri, Arkansas and so on. The war broke out in the West and is essentially a river war, a river war for the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers in Tennessee. Now you only need to look at a map with one eye open to understand how important Tennessee would be in this war. If Kentucky has still not seceded from the Union, and officially will not, and if Kentucky remains any kind of buffer for the Union, Tennessee is where the war is going to be fought, in the West, certainly at first — and it surely was.
Now, at first the war in the West was essentially fought with gunboats, little ironclad gunboats, and armies on the land. But the first major conflicts in the West were to try to hold, on the side of the Confederacy, and to take, on the northern side, two forts, one called Fort Donelson and one called Fort Henry; one on the Cumberland, one on the Tennessee River. These rivers were terribly important for transportation now, especially military transportation. They flowed down to Nashville, one of them. The other flowed southward and then into Northern Georgia. These rivers would be invasion corridors, if you like, invasion paths for the Northern armies. They were extremely important for supply and transportation, for the South. And hence these relatively small forts that guarded these two rivers suddenly became the focal point by February 1862. The Union forces that would attack Fort Henry first, and then Ford Donelson, were commanded by a young, only in his early forties, General who had been promoted rapidly from Colonel, named Ulysses S. Grant.
Now Grant, as many of you may know — well, Grant has had a huge revival in scholarship in the last, oh, two decades. He was for a long time all but forgotten in American history, partly because his presidency was so awful — and we’ll deal with that later on in the course — or in some ways so awful. He got miserably depressed and took to drinking — that part’s true — when he was stationed way out in California in the late-1850s. He was a bit of a drunk in those years and he resigned from the army. He’d been a veteran of the Mexican War, decorated, but he quit the army, bored, depressed, and he went back to Illinois, his home — well born in Ohio but he went back to Illinois — and he was working, as the story goes, it’s not a legend, in his brother’s leather shop in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War broke out. And because he was a West Point graduate and the only one around, they named him Colonel, and he led the regiment that was formed from that area of northwest Illinois, and off to war went Ulysses Grant.
Ulysses Grant is a classic example — and I want to give you an illustration of this — a classic example of an American, or an American male, for whom most of the rest of life, business, profession — except for horseback riding, and he was a hell of a horseman — almost everything else in his life had been a failure or near failure or simply boring. He’d grown up on farms but he hated farming. He’s a classic example of how sometimes war, tragically or unfortunately, can make a person. Were it not for the American Civil War you’d have never heard of Ulysses S. Grant. This is Bill McFeely’s description; William McFeely who has written the finest biography of Grant I think still ever done, although there’ve been many since. And he’s describing Grant’s situation in Galena and how bored he was and depressed he was and so on. And then McFeely writes: “War, the ordinary man’s escape from the ordinary. It was a way out of a leather store, and for some men it is much more than that, it is the fulfillment that the world will yield in no other manner. For these men, war appears as a refutation of evil, whether it be the evil of Hitler’s threat to Marc Bloch’s France or the slaveholders’ threat to Thoreau’s America, or less exalted but no less real, the evil of personal hollowness. War, for a man like Ulysses Grant, was the only situation in which he could truly connect to his country and countrymen and be at one with them and himself. Grant did not like the vainglory of victory or the drama of high strategy or the blood of battle, and he did not think that all wars were worth fighting, yet some essential part of his being was brought into play only in war. He never celebrated this fact, but neither did he deny it. He knew it was true. Only in war, and possibly at the end of his life in writing about the war, in what would be the greatest memoir of this war, did he find the completeness of experience that when engaged in it so intensely moved him.”
Well, Grant was a soldier and, not unlike Robert E. Lee, he did enjoy the spirit of battle; I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And he moved on these forts, first Fort Henry, February 6, with about 15,000 men on land and a bunch of slow, cumbersome gunboats. Fort Henry was not well defended and basically just surrendered. A week later on the other river, the Cumberland, Fort Donelson was shelled into submission by artillery. This was the second week of February 1862, and Grant famously demanded an unconditional surrender from General Simon Bolivar Buckner, who had been Grant’s roommate at West Point. There’s a wonderful exchange of their dispatches that you can read if you want to look it up, easy to find. Grant writes to Buckner and says, “Hello friend, you will surrender all of your forces and all of your guns or I will move on you immediately.” And Buckner writes back and says, “Well now, well now Ulysses, can we talk?” Grant writes back and says, “No.” [laughter] And of course the press will pick this up; U.S. Grant will become “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The significance of Forts Donelson and Henry were not only symbolic, because the Northern press picked this up, waiting for war — God, months and months and months had gone by since Bull Run. There’d been various engagements. The armies were growing all over the country. Men were going off to war and writing letters home to their mothers, sweethearts and families. Here was some real war and some Union victory and a hero.
Most importantly, strategically though, the city of Nashville, capital of Tennessee, had to be abandoned by the Confederates; they could no longer defend it, and they did abandon it. It was partly a strategic retreat and partly out of the reality they didn’t have enough people to defend it. And a Confederate Army beginning to grow now — and this is into the spring of 1862 — as thousands more southern boys and men would leave those farms, in hundreds of regiments from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas in particular. They will come to join the Army of Albert Sidney Johnston who led the small Confederate Army out of Nashville, down southwestward into Southwest Tennessee, just across the border to the town of Corinth, Mississippi. And it was around Corinth, Mississippi, in the northeast tip corner of the State of Mississippi that a huge Confederate army was assembled.
Chapter 3. The Battle of Shiloh [00:20:07]
Now, Grant was now put in command of all Union forces, all over Tennessee. Grant, though, had no idea, really, what the Confederates were going to do, and what happened at the Battle of Shiloh was not only the first major horrible, bloody battle of the war, and it would shock the country, but it was a total surprise to the Union forces. Put simply, here’s what happened. Albert Sidney Johnston had about 40,000 troops at Corinth, Mississippi, and Grant had at his disposal about 60,000 troops. These are still not the size of the armies that will begin to unfold in the East in Virginia. But Grant had his army split in two, and widely apart. About one-third of it was under the command of a general named Don Carlos Buell, and he was in central Tennessee, Grant’s forces were sort of more western Tennessee, and both were slowly trying to move down toward southwestern Tennessee and maybe even into Mississippi to find this Confederate Army, in March and early April of ‘62.
What happened was that Albert Sidney Johnston attempted a surprise attack, and it was one of the most successful surprise attacks by these large unwieldy armies that ever happened in this war. He marched his men twenty miles, most of it in darkness, with all kinds of clothing and burlap used as muffling on the wheels of caissons and wagons; even men were told to put muffling on their boots. And they marched through night in the dark, April 5 to 6, 1862, north from Corinth, across the border into Tennessee, and they attacked a remnant, a sizeable remnant, of Grant’s forces that had just reached a place called Pittsburg Landing, or Shiloh Church as it’s known — it’s a tiny little village. And what happened on the first day at Shiloh was the bloodiest day of the war until that point in time.
Grant’s troops were literally caught with their pants down. They had no pickets out, they had no idea where the Confederate Army really was, nor especially that they were that close. There are many famous descriptions of this in soldiers’ letters and diaries, and afterward by Ambrose Bierce especially, of how this sneak attack had caught them literally around their tents in the morning making coffee, some of them without their pants on. The first day at Shiloh was a complete Confederate victory. It drove the Union forces right back to the river, the Tennessee River, and by the time Grant and one of his other generals, William Tecumseh Sherman, arrived that night they found remnants of this completely defeated Union force hiding on the banks of the Tennessee River, many of them having lost their regiments, lost their command, lost their officers, didn’t know where they were. Through the dark of night April 6 to 7, it was especially Sherman and other officers — as Don Carlos Buell’s 20,000 men arrived at Shiloh in the middle of that night — Sherman and other officers, literally at times, whipped Union soldiers into order, tried to help men find their units. And when dawn came the next day they counter-attacked across the same fields in savage hand-to-hand combat that all of these soldiers had never experienced and never seen. And by the end of it they completely reversed the first day’s action. The Battle of Shiloh took place in an area about a mile to a mile and a half in diameter, and by the end of the second day, as Grant famously put it in one of the very few moments in his two-volume memoir where he ever kind of really broke down and described the carnage, he said, “I could’ve walked across that field as far as the eye could see and never touched the ground by walking on the bodies.” For the two armies in forty-eight hours there were 23,841 casualties; 23,841 casualties.
Now, Shiloh strategically was a Union success in the simple fact that the Confederate Army had to retreat back into Mississippi, and did not succeed in re-entering Tennessee and opening up a new front in Tennessee, or taking control of the Tennessee River in that region. But it was truly a shock to the country when these casualty lists came back and were published in newspapers, and when the adjutants of regiments — which was the job of an adjutant in a regiment was to record the casualties and send them home. And it was, of course, that site where Grant remembered realizing for the first time — and I had that quote up here the other day and you can read it in Gienapp — where he said, “It was at that moment I realized that this war could never — that the Union could never be preserved without” what he called “complete conquest of the South.” That’s what Bruce Catton meant about how the scabbard was being thrown away. It was now a war where no one would ever call retreat.
Chapter 4. McClellan’s Abortive 1862 Naval Campaign and “Stonewall” Jackson [00:26:29]
Now, back east, back to the melodrama between McClellan and Lincoln. No, that’s not the one I want, excuse me. I think you can see enough of this, I hope. Now McClellan throughout that winter kept training, training, and training the Army of the Potomac. And he did train them in to what many military historians still say was one of the most efficient and certainly the best supplied armies the world had ever seen. He would have almost 100,000 troops — he’d have 90,000 in the field — 100,000 troops under his command. And he came up with a plan that Lincoln hated; Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, didn’t like it; officers around him didn’t particularly like it. But it was McClellan’s idea. McClellan did not want to invade Virginia from the north. He thought it would be a better idea to sail the entire Army of the Potomac down the Potomac River out into Chesapeake Bay and land on the peninsula between the York and the James Rivers in Virginia, and invade Virginia, toward Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Take the enemy’s capital, was his aim here — a strategy eventually that Ulysses S. Grant is going to tear to shreds, and quickly realize, as he was realizing out in the West, that the Confederacy was its armies — not its capital, not a city here, a town there.
The idea was to land this huge flotilla of an army on the coast and march it sixty, seventy miles inland and attack Richmond from the east. Now, part of the theory here was that the Confederacy had been fortifying the north side of Richmond but maybe not the east side. Now, it’s no surprise folks, if you float 90,000 people down the river and land them on the coast that you might be coming from the east. Lo and behold. But this is where — I don’t want to make McClellan into just comic relief like Burns does; I think he overdoes it — but here it is important to understand that generals did have impact on this war. It was not that McClellan had a personal distaste for battle necessarily; those charges that he was somehow a coward and all that, I don’t think that holds up at all. But he did not like huge general engagements, he did not want to sacrifice any more men than he had to. And remember, he doesn’t want the war to become remorseless.
He put the town of Yorktown, on the coast — the same Yorktown where Cornwallis had surrendered to George Washington in the American Revolution — he put Yorktown under siege when he landed, for an entire month, from April 5 to May 4, because McClellan was convinced that he was confronted with far more men than he really was. At one point McClellan actually wrote a dispatch to Secretary of War Stanton claiming that he was facing on the peninsula at least 200,000 Confederates. There weren’t 200,000 Confederates under arms anywhere in the South, in 1862. But McClellan was always overestimating his enemy. He hired the Pinkerton detectives. He hired this guy named Lowe with his balloons; this was the first use of balloons in warfare. They’d float these things up in the air and they’d go and they’d float over the enemy and they’d try to count the forces and they’d hope the wind was right to float them back and land them. They were pretty cumbersome, awful; and one time the thing floated and it crashed in the other side of the Confederate troops. He was getting his intelligence from all these new modern ways, and every time he got intelligence it’s apparent that McClellan would just start doing some multiplication. Oh, and there’s so many stories about this; I’ll spare you. He didn’t need to put Yorktown under siege for a month, he could’ve taken it in 48 hours. The Confederates had built a lot of fortifications, huge fortifications, but they didn’t have very many men behind it. And where one officer might see one Confederate in a field-glass, McClellan would see five or 10.
Given this caution, given this slowness, the Confederate command in Richmond sent the young General Stonewall Jackson with about 20,000 men over to the Shenandoah Valley, here. While McClellan had landed this massive army on the peninsula and it was slowly beginning to move, they send Stonewall Jackson with an army of about 20,000 men to the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson conducted one of the most famous military campaigns in history — and they still teach this in minute detail at West Point. Actually he only had about 17,000 men. The purpose of this was to throw fear into northern Virginia, fear into the capital at Washington, and to keep about 30,000 Union troops in Northern Virginia, that McClellan had left behind. The idea here was that McClellan would move from the east, 30,000, roughly, Union troops would move from the north, and they would crush Richmond from two sides, and the war would be over by July. The Confederates saw this and they said, all right. Jackson spent the period April 29 to June 5, five weeks roughly, marching all up and down the Shenandoah Valley, driving his men to utter exhaustion, twenty and twenty-five miles a day. He fought five major battles, marched 400 miles in those five weeks, fought lots of kind of contact, rearguard actions, eluded three different Union armies or parts of Union armies at various times, threw fear into Washington, kept the 30,000 Union troops all occupied in Northern Virginia and Western Virginia, and then escaped, back down the valley and back to Richmond, by the time McClellan attacked. It was an extraordinary campaign. It made Stonewall Jackson’s fame.
Chapter 5. The Battle of Seven Days and Robert E. Lee’s Move North [00:33:34]
Now, the first major contact finally between the Union forces and Confederate forces on the peninsula came at a place called Seven Pines or Fair Oaks. It’s a place about some six, seven miles east of Richmond. It would be the first major bloody affair for this Army of the Potomac. And I want to describe it for you by simply reading excerpts from a few letters, of a Union soldier, leading up to the moment of his first major battle. And I want to do this in part because we need to understand — and we’ll come back to this question a bit later — that what a common soldier out there in the field understands about what is happening is, of course, almost always a blur; it’s the fog of war that he sees. I had the opportunity about, oh God, fifteen years ago now, to edit a collection of Civil War letters that were lopped in my lap by a young soldier from Massachusetts named Charles Brewster. Charlie Brewster was a store clerk in Northampton, Massachusetts when the Civil War broke out in April of ‘61. He was 27-years-old, he felt like a total failure in life. He was not yet married. He had nothing going on. And he enlisted as fast as he could in the 10th Massachusetts, and he spent that whole fall and winter of ‘61/’62 in camp. And I will mention Charlie again next week, because Charlie was no abolitionist, trust me, but he comes to realize through this experience that the war has to destroy slavery. It’s an interesting model of the average Yankee. But he wrote incredible letters, always to his mother or his sister. He writes this on May — Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines occurred on May 31 of 1862. He knows a big battle’s coming. They don’t know exactly where or when. It is raining like hell. He’s sleeping in the mud on what he calls a rubber blanket. He gets diarrhea that nearly is killing him, and he will almost die of diarrhea twice in this war. But he keeps writing to his mother. And one morning the rain has stopped and he tells her what a beautiful morning it is. “Mother, I wish you could see what a splendid morning this is. The trees are in full foliage and the birds are singing in the trees and the water ripples and sparks at my feet, with the sun shining gloriously over all. And if it were not for the regiment I see before me, each with his deadly end-field rifle on his shoulder, I could hardly imagine that there was a war anywhere in the land.”
Now, day by day — he writes every day to his mother, long letters. Some of these letters handwritten were fifteen to twenty page letters, and he wrote about 240 of them, in the course of the war. May 22, in a clover field, he says: “Dear Mother, it is just sunset, a most beautiful day, though it has been dreadful hot. I was relieved this morning from my guard duty, at General Keyes’ headquarters, and joined the regiment and immediately took up my line of march with them. We came on about two miles, or perhaps not quite as far as that, and bivouacked in this field. It’s the best place we have had since we left Warwick. Our small brigade is in the advance and we go out on picket frequently. We do not know anything of what is going on in the world outside of our camp. How I wish I could see a late paper. We’ve got a rumor that there’s been a battle out in Corinth, Mississippi, and that Beauregard and 23,000 men are prisoners, but I presume there is no truth in it. Our artillery had a skirmish last night, in a swamp in the front. We’re expecting a great battle Mom, but I reckon that Little Mac will make his dispositions for it and the chivalry” — which means the South — “will take a distant view of his preparations and then skedaddle, as usual. If they don’t they will get a terrible licking, though it is reported that they are concentrating everything there and have got 140,000 troops. A contraband” — meaning an escaped slave — “that came in yesterday says that they are talking terrible fierce about burning Richmond, fighting over the ashes. But I think that’s all bosh.”
Thursday morning, May 23: “On picket,” he says. “Dear Mother, Captain and myself slept under the same blanket last night and on the ground in front of the muskets, and it was harder than Pharaoh’s heart. But it promotes early rising, for it’s now 7 a.m. and I’ve been up for three hours.”
“In an oat field, Saturday, May 24. I had the best view of the army in motion there that I ever had as they came down a long slope of low hills to the creek and then up the other side, and as we arrived at the top of the latter slope I turned and took a look back and could see the long line, looking like an enormous snake winding back for two and three miles, and bristling with bayonets, and at a short distance the Stars and Stripes and the flags of different states and the guidons, presenting a scene that occurs but once in a great while. It is raining like great guns again and the order has come to pack up and move on.”
“Oh dear Mother,” — this is the next day — “A large mail has come and everybody has got something but me. I cannot write any more under such circumstances. So goodbye, my love to all. [Laughter] And if you can, any of you, spare time, please write me a letter. [Laughter] Love, Charlie.”
Wednesday, May 28th. “Dear Mother, Today the sun shines brightly and it is brazen hot. But at half past two this company has got to go out and dig in the trenches for two hours. One thing is very certain, if they do not take Richmond soon they will kill the whole army by this ceaseless exposure and toil.”
May 31st, the day of the Battle of Seven Pines. “Mother, and now in relation to the coming battle, if anything should happen and I should get killed, you will be entitled to my pay. There is three months due me, but if I should not get paid off before anything should happen, my pay will be in two places; that is from the March” — meaning the month — “there will be fifty dollars per month in the State Treasury of Massachusetts, which I have allotted there subject to my own order. The rest of my pay is drawn from the U.S. Paymaster, as usual.” Imagine being his mother.
And then it’s this letter after the battle. “June 2, 1862, six miles from Richmond. Dear Mother, I presume this letter will find you most anxious, expecting a letter from me. I’m sitting in the hot sun and can write you but a few lines. Oh Mother, I cannot begin to give you any idea of the terrific storm of bullets, shot and shell, that poured over us as we lay behind those pits. We could not get into them for they were full of brine of water, but we lay right behind them in the mud. After half an hour of this the firing ceased and we were ordered forward behind some fallen woods.” And then he goes on to describe how they were attacked from the rear and how he heard the bullets flying by him constantly, and how he considers it a miracle that he is alive. And then at the very end of this letter: “I cannot succeed in giving you any idea of battle. But I know this much, that I had no possible hope of coming out alive. And I thought it all over, how terribly you would feel, and all that. But I came out without a scratch. I look back upon it and I cannot think how it can be. It does not seem as though any man that had been there could come out unhurt.” Then he begins to describe his friends and buddies who were killed, by name, how they were killed, where they were shot. And he ends, “There are so many incidents crowding my head Mother, that I cannot write clearly at all. And even when I sleep, the minute I get into a doze, I hear the whistling of the shells and the shouts and the groans. And to sum it up in two words, it is horrible.”
Charlie will survive the war. He nearly died of dysentery twice. He had two horses shot out from under him. He was deeply proud of his commission as a Second Lieutenant and as an adjutant of his regiment. His regiment was devastated. There were so few men left by July of 1864, they were disbanded. He went home to Massachusetts. He couldn’t imagine being a civilian. He hated civilians. He re-enlisted to be a recruiter of black soldiers. This racist young man from western Massachusetts, who will freely use the word “nigger,” was employed from August of 1864 through the end of the war recruiting black men in Norfolk, Virginia, and his principle job was sitting in an office writing love letters for illiterate black women, to their husbands at the front, whom he thanks for teaching him the art of love-letter writing.
Well, the battle of the peninsula ended up in what’s called the Seven Days. The Battle of the Seven Days were the battles fought all around Richmond, from June 25th through July 1st, seven consecutive days; places called Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Savage Station, Frazier’s Farm, Malvern Hill. They’re all little crossroads — they’re not even really villages anymore — that are just east of Richmond. It was sustained, day-to-day fighting. Both sides suffered horrible casualties. The result was essentially the fact that McClellan did not succeed in taking Richmond; in fact, on the contrary, McClellan’s forces were forced down south of Richmond to the edge of the James River to a place called Malvern Hill where McClellan put his wounded, damaged army into camp for too long. The Battle of the Seven Days saved Richmond, it saved the Confederacy. It also brought Robert E. Lee into the command of all Confederate forces in the eastern theater of the war, because Joseph E. Johnston, who had been in command of the Confederate forces, was wounded on the first day of the Seven Days, and Jefferson Davis put Lee in command. And it was in some ways Lee’s aggressiveness in the Seven Days that actually won that affair.
And now Lee made the first fateful decision of the war, for him. After many consultations with Jefferson Davis and his other commanders, he made the decision to invade the North. And this was fateful, to say the least, and it will bring us to the first major turning point of the Civil War. I’ve just run the clock out, I fear. Oh damn. I have two minutes. Let me leave you here. The idea Lee had, and it’s not that complicated, is that the war was now devastating Virginia. Richmond was all but under siege. The theory here was take the war to the North, take the war out of Virginia, take the war to northern soil, hopefully get into Maryland. And he believed there were thousands of Maryland men who would come to the Confederate standard, if they saw the Confederate Army. Threaten the capital, Washington, DC; threaten Philadelphia and Pennsylvania; threaten the North, take the war to their soil, to their farms, to their homes. And strategically — and this is where Jefferson Davis agreed with him, although he was very leery about this — a strike into the North that could win a major victory on northern soil and threaten the Union capital, possibly even enforce an evacuation of the Federal capital, might bring the most important thing the Confederacy needed — and they were on the verge of it — and that was British intervention, British recognition and intervention on the side of the Confederacy. I’ll discuss that possible intervention more as a piece of how emancipation becomes the result of this Antietam campaign next week.
Chapter 6. Conclusion [00:49:14]
But let me leave you here. Lee decides in the face of a kind of quiescent McClellan to leave only a small force in Richmond, and move north into Virginia and invade the north. McClellan’s army, having suffered 20,000 casualties in the Seven Days, is not going to move, and he’s not going to move until he absolutely has to. It is the first great daring move of the war. It will fail, but it nearly succeeded. And the reason Antietam is the first major turning point of this war is not just because of the decisive battle they fought on the Maryland side of the Potomac, but because it will be the occasion to allow Abraham Lincoln to do what he’d been planning to do through much of that summer, and Congress had been prodding him to do, which was to announce to the world that this was a war to free the slaves. See you next week.
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