Adjusting Expectations

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Adjusting Expectations


Forward to Richmond. After the fall of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on 13 April 1861, the Confederate government transferred its capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia. Located a hundred miles from Washington, D.C., Richmond now became the focal point of the war. Northern newspapers advocated a quick strike against the Southern capital city and printed inflammatory slogans like Forward to Richmond at the top of each daily edition. Union recruits stationed in Washington embraced the war hysteria and also clamored for a battle. Many joined the Union army under ninety-day enlistments which would soon expire, and they feared going home without heroic tales of battlefield glory.

The First Battle of Bull Run. Moved by pressures from Northern civilians and President Abraham Lincoln, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott ordered Gen. Irvin McDowell and thirty-five thousand troops to advance toward Richmond. Many civilians anticipated that the ensuing battle would be the wars only one, and as a result they followed McDowells army. On 21 July 1861 McDowell, who did not believe his raw recruits were ready for battle, confronted twenty thousand screaming Confederates (the famous rebel yell was first heard here) under the command of the hero of Fort Sumter, P. G. T. Beauregard. The armies clashed twenty-five miles southwest of Washington at a creek named Bull Run, near the important rail junction of Manassas, Virginia. The Northern soldiers appeared to be close to victory when a Virginia brigade under the command of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson unexpectedly arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by train. Jackson and his men reinforced the Confederate line and, standing like a stone wall, repulsed multiple Federal frontal assaults. The Southerners then counterattacked and forced the frightened Union troops to drop their rifles and retreat wildly to Washington. Although casualties on both sides were light compared to later Civil War battles, the Battle of Bull Run made a strong impression on both home fronts. On the one hand, Southerners quickly grew overconfident of their fighting ability and proclaimed that one Rebel soldier was equal to ten Northern bluecoats. On the other hand, Northerners took the Confederate threat more seriously than before and quickly woke up to the fact that most civil wars are not won or lost in the first ninety days.

First Confiscation Act. Southerners basked in the first major victory of the war and many felt that the disheartened Northerners would quit after one defeat. Instead of giving up, however, young white males in the North flooded recruiting stations. Congress promptly authorized a new army to include up to a million volunteers signed to three-year enlistments. In addition, the Republicans in Congress sought to weaken Southern labor reserves by issuing the First Confiscation Act on 6 August 1861. Confederate commanders used slaves instead of white soldiers to perform rear-echelon details, saving every available white soldier for battle. The policy of confiscation allowed Union commanders to seize slaves within reach of Northern forces, but did not specifically emancipate them.

McClellan Takes Command. More important to the Union cause at this time, President Lincoln replaced Irvin McDowell with Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the

Norths first military hero. Prior to this new assignment, Union forces under Little Mac had swept Confederate troops from the pro-Union western counties of Virginia, an area later admitted to the Union as West Virginia. Lincoln called on McClellan to organize his new troops into the Army of the Potomac. A perfectionist by nature, McClellan molded the new army into a strong, fully equipped, and well-disciplined fighting force. However, McClellans penchant for moving at a slow, careful pace drew criticism from Northern observers and politicians as he continually missed good opportunities to strike vulnerable Confederate forces.

Missouri. If Southerners were convinced that Northerners would soon sue for peace, the war in Missouri reaffirmed this conviction. Union general John C. Fremont, former explorer of the Rocky Mountains and the first Republican presidential candidate, confronted an unwinnable situation in Missouri. Guerrilla warfare weakened his control over the area and impeded reinforcements from resupplying Union forces on the states southern border. On 10 August 1861 ten thousand Southern troops met six thousand Northern soldiers at Wilsons Creek and quickly overpowered their positions, exposing southern and western Missouri to Confederate control. Fremont would lose nearly half of Missouri unless he acted quickly, and in desperation he turned to drastic measures. On 30 August he issued an order which placed Missouri under martial law, promised field executions for captured guerrillas, and freed slaves owned by Confederate sympathizers. Lincoln immediately countermanded the order. Although he was willing to hurt the Confederate war machine by removing part of its labor pool, the president was not willing to change the conflict into an abolitionist crusade. In addition, Lincoln feared that Union slaveholding states such as Kentucky and Maryland would secede following Fremonts revolutionary edict. To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game, Lincoln prophesied; with Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor . . . Maryland.


By late 1862 Civil War soldiers recognized each other by the color of their uniforms: blue for Federals and gray for Confederates. At the beginning of the war, however, uniforms varied significantly in both armies. Both Union and Confederate governments did not enter contract negotiations with American and/or European textile manufacturers until after Fort Sumter fell in April 1861. As a result many state militiamen wore flashy regalia reserved for ceremonial parades that turned early Civil War battlefields into multicolored affairs. The Emerald Greens of Mobile, Alabama, a unit composed of Irish immigrants, marched to Richmond dressed in dark green outfits. The Yellow Jackets of East Tennessee arrived in yellow uniforms while the Granville Rifles of North Carolina wore black and flaming red flannel shirts. The most gaudy and most creative uniforms were worn by Zouave regiments. Organized in both Southern and Northern states, these regiments patterned their combat ensemble after the French infantry stationed in Algiers, Africa. The Zouave uniform included red, baggy trousers banded at the ankles by white gaiters; a blue sash for a belt; a short, tight jacket trimmed with lace; a blue shirt cut low; and a short, brown fez.

Ironically at the beginning of the war gray was more popular in Northern militia units while some Southern regiments wore blue, which caused confusion and tragedy in early battles. At First Bull Run, Virginia, the gray-clad Second Wisconsin Infantry were shot at by their confused Northern comrades. Likewise, in a later engagement, several Indiana soldiers wearing gray were killed by friendly fire after an Ohio regiment mistook them for the enemy. On the Southern side, blue-clad Louisiana infantrymen were shot at by friendly troops shortly after they arrived at Shiloh, Tennessee. In some cases, however, wearing enemy colors proved to be an advantage. At Wilsons Creek, Missouri, Union soldiers did not fire upon advancing Louisiana and Arkansas forces dressed in blue. This allowed the Confederates to easily outflank the unsuspecting Federals and force them to retreat. By the summer of 1862, with the exception of a few units, the deviations in uniforms had disappeared and both sides had adopted their respective colors.

Sources: Larry M. Logue, To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996);

Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, revised edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978);

Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reh: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, revised edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

Balls Bluff. While things heated up in the West, the war slowed to a standstill in the East. McClellan continued to drill methodically and organize the Army of the Potomac while waiting for the right moment to attack. To quiet critics McClellan pointed to exaggerated estimates of the size of his Confederate opponent to justify his failure to advance. By October 1861 he began to draw the ire of congressional Republicans who suspected that McClellan, a Democrat, was unwilling to attack the Confederates aggressively. On 21 October these suspicions were heightened when a Rebel brigade ambushed a Union reconnaissance force at Balls Bluff, Virginia. The Rebels captured more than seven hundred Yankees and killed more than two hundred, including the missions commander, Col. Edward Baker, a Republican senator from Oregon and one of Lincolns close friends. Despite this tragic news and McClellans public distaste for Republican policies, Lincoln elevated him to general-in-chief in November after Winfield Scott stepped down.

Investigation. Unfortunately for McClellan and his subordinates, congressional Republicans were not so forgiving. In December they created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate the actions of Union field officers, especially at Bull Run and Balls Bluff. Their first target was Gen. Charles P. Stone, the divisional commander of Colonel Bakers doomed reconnaissance force. Like McClellan, Stone was a Democrat and opposed emancipation. During the war he returned slaves to their owners and reportedly was in contact with Confederate friends before the Balls Bluff expedition. The congressmen used Stone as a scapegoat for early Union setbacks and sent him to jail. By the end of the year Federal military authorities started to make changes in how they conducted the war, but these early losses did not yet force Lincoln to rethink Union war strategy altogether.


On 19 April 1861 Union President Abraham Lincoln declared a naval blockade on all Confederate ports. Lincoln hoped to block British imports, particularly weapons and ammunition, from reaching the Confederate nation. To break the blockade, the Confederate navy built ironclad rams, ships protected by iron armor and designed to puncture large holes into old-fashioned wooden ships. Although the rams were modeled after the French and British prototypes, the Confederate government became the worlds first belligerent to use them in naval warfare. The ten-gun C.S.S. Virginia moved against the Union blockade on 8 March 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia. (The ship was actually the converted U.S.S. Merrimacy a federal steamer captured by the Confederates after they seized the federal naval base at Norfolk, Virginia in April 1861). The Virginia quickly sank one Union ship by charging into it with its iron ram and another with cannon fire. The Virginia seemed unstoppable as cannon balls fired from the wooden ships bounced harmlessly off its iron plates. Attempting to escape, the remaining Union frigates ran aground and helplessly awaited for the Virginia to sink them the next day.

The carnage might have been worse except for the timely arrival of the U.S.S. Monitor, a Union ironclad. Docked at Hampton Roads, the Monitor sailed into action and saved the day. Smaller than the Virginia, the Federal iron ship was armed with two eleven-inch guns mounted in a revolving turret. Since its deck was flush with the water, the Monitor offered a small target which could easily maneuver into close firing range. On 9 March the Virginia and the Monitor fought to a draw in historys first conflict between ironclads. Afterwards, the Virginia staggered home and Confederate ironclads never again threatened the Union blockade. Conversely, the smaller size and better maneuverability of its ironclad compelled the North to build fifty-eight Monitor-class ships, effectively ending the era of wooden warships.

Source: Allan Nevins, Tòe War for the Onion, volume 2 (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1960), 50-56.


Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincolns Army (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951);

James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992);

Brooks D. Simpson, Americas Civil War (Wheeling, 111.: Harlan Davidson, 1996).