Friday, September 26, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: Sept. 21-27, 1862


After nearly a year of blogging, more than 200 posts, and over 100,000 words (more words than in the original book, Blood, Tears, and Glory), your correspondent is taking leave to work on other matters. If you are interested in the story of the American Civil War, told from a new point of view and through very human stories of love, death, courage and cowardice, genius and stupidity—all the qualities that make us human in a time of great stress—please consider buying the book. It’s available at Amazon or directly from the publisher:

Thank you for keeping up with my blog, and please, please feel free to send me, directly at , any comments, complaints, suggestions, or insights into the Civil War, especially from a Midwestern point of view. After all—as the book points out—the outcome of the war was decided in the Western Theater, not the Eastern, and Midwesterners, especially Ohioans, played the biggest role. That story has been neglected for too long, and I hope others will join me in demanding prominence for the Western Theater in observances of the war’s 150th anniversary, 2011-2015.

Thank you for your attention.

Jim Bissland

Friday, September 19, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: Sept. 14-20, 1862


Encouraged by his victory at Second Bull Run, about 30 miles from Washington, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee slides by the nation’s capital and heads north, scaring the daylights out of loyal citizens in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and points north.

This is part of Lee’s “offensive-defensive” strategy, an effort with at least four (1) objectives: knock a very large hole in Northern morale, (2 regain Maryland for the Confederacy, (3) persuade England and France to recognize the Confederacy, and (4) scoop up some fodder and supplies from the lush Northern countryside. Oh, and it would be nice to wipe out McClellan’s Army of the Potomac if that fastidious and slow-moving Union commander offers an opening.

So Lee moves west of Maryland’s South Mountain, McClellan east.

Averaging 1,300 feet in height, South Mountain is a 50-mile-long ridge dividing eastern Maryland from its western panhandle. On Sunday Sept. 14, fighting breaks out at numerous passes over the mountain as Lee’s Confederates attempt to hold back McClellan’s Union forces, who are trying to get at Lee west of the mountain.

The Confederates fail to stop the Union soldiers, whose superior numbers blast their way through the passes. But the delay has allowed Lee and Jackson to arrange their forces on the high ground near, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

On Monday, Sept. 15, Stonewall Jackson captures Harpers Ferry,Virginia (now West Virginia) taking 12,000 Union soldiers prisoner following a less-than-spirited defense. For that weak-hearted defense, soldiers blame Dixon S. Miles, the Union commander,. Dixon just happens to be killed shortly before the surrender…possibly by “friendly fire” from Union artillery manned by frustrated soldiers.

By Wednesday, Sept. 17, Lee, joined by Stonewall Jackson, has stationed his Confederates on the high ground west of Antietam creek, near Sharpsburg. Having moved too slowly to get there first, McClellan now must fight his way uphill. But he has about 87,000 men to Lee’s 45,000.

Once again, McClellan botches things. Instead of throwing everything he has at Lee, he attacks piecemeal, the attacks moving southward in the course of the day. The first, against Jackson, is finally stalled, and the second, at mid-day against the Confederate center, runs into a buzz saw featuring diehard Confederates hunkered down in “The Sunken Road,” soon to be known as “Bloody Lane.” Bodies pile up in heaps.

The third attac, in the afternoon, finally carries a stone bridge (still standing and now known as “Burnside Bridge”) and flows into Sharpsburg. But then Confederate Gen. A. P. Hill’s forces arrive, dressed in Union uniforms captured at Harpers Ferry. The Union attack stalls.

Thursday, Sept. 18 passes relatively quietly, neither side moving. Having taken heavy losses and realizing he is badly outnumbered, Lee removes his troops during the night of Sept. 18-19. Union soldiers awake Friday morning to find the enemy gone. Because Lee retreated, leaving the field to McClellan, this is considered a union victory.

But Antietam will be remembered for two things: it was the bloodiest single day in the Civil War, taking (from both sides) over 3,600 lives and wounding over 17,000 men. A total of about 1,800 men, from both sides, were missing or captured.

If McClellan had moved faster and used more of his men, he might have exacted a crushing defeat, instead of a “hollow victory.” But a win is a win, and on Saturday, Sept. 20, President Lincoln is emboldened to draft the Emancipation Proclamation, intending to issue it on Monday, to take effect next January.

Elsewhere, on Saturday, Sept. 20, Ohio’s Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans defeats Confederate Gen. Sterling “Pap” Price at Iuka, Mississippi. However, Rosecrans’ superior, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, blames Rosecrans for not pursuing Price with enough vigor and destroying him. Grant will never forgive or forget this failure.

So, as autumn arrives, Confederate attempts to retake the initiative from the Union, have failed, both in the eastern and western theaters. Northern civilians breathe easier, Europe declines to recognize the Confederacy, and freedom looms for many of the South's slaves.

Friday, September 12, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: Sept. 7-13, 1862


The Second Battle of Bull Run has ended badly for Union forces, the losing commander, Maj. Gen. John Pope, has been dispatched to fight the Indians far, far away, and—to the surprise of everyone, including himself—the recalcitrant Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan not only retains command of the Army of the Potomac, but is given Pope’s former command, the Army of Virginia. By order of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s advisers, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the loudest, have urged the President to ditch Little Mac for dragging his feet when he should have been rushing to Pope’s aid at Bull Run. But Lincoln needs the reluctant warrior’s talents at organizing, training, and inspiring troops—and so, this President, not afraid to make an unpopular decision—re-anoints McClellan to the sound of teeth gnashing throughout the capital.

As the week wears on, McClellan works on integrating the Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac while trying to figure out what’s Lee's intentions are. Washington shivers at the possibility it might be in Lee’s sights, but the nation’s capital is heavily defended and the Confederates choose to slide by, moving into Maryland instead.

Everyone wonders: what is Lee going to do? Savage Maryland and claim it for the Confederacy? Invade Pennsylvania and capture the state capital at Harrisburg? Move on to Philadelphia or even New York? Fear racks loyal citizens in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and even some New Yorkers wonder if they should start packing their bags.

On Tuesday, September 9, Lee reveals his intentions to his commanders. He orders his forces into positions around Maryland and tells Stonewall Jackson to march on Harpers Ferry. The plan for his “Maryland campaign” is laid out in his “Special Order #191.” The order will achieve far more circulation than Lee could ever imagine

McClellan continues shadowing Lee and wondering what his next move will be. Edges of the Union and Confederate armies brush each other and crackling firefights and skirmishes break out across Maryland and nearby Virginia.

Far to the west, Cincinnati—the Union’s biggest city west of the Appalachians—is suffering its own terrors. Confederate Gens. Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith have moved through Tennessee and are intending to drive north through Kentucky, reclaim the state for the Confederacy and perhaps cross the Ohio River and capture Cincinnati and Covington, just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. In Fact, Smith sends a force under Gen. Henry Heth to seize Covington and Cincinnati

But Union Gen. Lew Wallace (later to be famous as the author of Ben Hur) is sent to prepare the city’s defenses. Citizens rally, aided by Cincinnati’s African Americans, who are organized into a “Black Brigade” to throw up fortifications in Cincinnati and nearby Covington. The “Black Brigade” is the first organized use of black men for defense of the Union.

Because most of Ohio’s soldiers are engaged elsewhere, Gov. David Tod calls for civilian volunteers to rush to Cincinnati’s defense. Nearly 16,000 farmers, clerks, and school teachers from throughout Ohio, wearing their civilian clothes and lugging weapons ranging from horse pistols to squirrel guns, show up and take up positions into the trenches. They will become famed as the "Squirrel Hunters." When not on duty, they are housed in churches, meeting halls, and warehouses and are fed in the city’s Fifth Street Markethouse. Light skirmishing breaks out near Covington.

On Saturday, September 13, however, word reaches Cincinnati that Heth’s main force of Confederates has changed direction and the city is no longer threatened. Then something amazing happens. Spontaneously and without a leader, the city’s thousands of defenders, scattered across miles of entrenchments and mostly out of sight of each other, burst into simultaneous, triumphant song. A mighty chorus of “John Brown’s Body” rises from thousands of throats and floats above the hills and across the river. Then the Squirrel Hunters disappear into the city’s taverns to wet down those throats before heading for home.

On the same day but far to the east, Union soldiers lounging about Confederate Gen. D. H. Hill’s former campground in Maryland find a copy of Lee’s “Special Order No. 191.” It had slipped from the possession of a careless Confederate who can only be described in Twenty-first Century terms as a klutz. Learning his opponent’s plans, McClellan chortles that he has “Bobby Lee” where he wants him—but he doesn’t rush to take advantage of his valuable knowledge. In the meantime, word filters back to Lee of lost order and McClellan’s brief advantage evaporates.

With two massive armies only miles apart in Maryland, what will happen next? And is Ohio truly safe?

Friday, September 5, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 1872


For soldiers in the Civil War, the worst part of a battle may not be the anxious moments just before it or the frantic moments during it. At least, adrenaline is pumping in a fight., and while there can be terrifying moments, much of the battle passes in a rush of energy, most of the men focused on their tasks. (After the war. John Calvin Hartzell, a lieutenant in the 105 Ohio, will call this “the exultation or ecstasy of battle,” explaining that, “in such a state of mind danger and death have no terrors.”)

It i the hours and days just after a battle that can be the worst. For the losers, there is crushing shame spiked with fear of capture as they attempt to flee. But for the winners occupying the battlefield, the triumph is dampened by the cost of victory. The field is littered with the wreckage of men and equipment. Scattered among the smashed cannon and discarded rifles and knapsacks are hundreds of bodies, some motionless, some moaning, waiting for aid that—in some cases—may never come. Because Civil War battles are fought most frequently during warm weather, the wounded men beg for water as they lie unsheltered, exposed to a broiling sun.

Surviving soldiers roam the battlefield, looking for comrades, scavenging for supplies. (Hartzell took a pair of new socks from the corpse of a Confederate.) As the days go by, some of the wounded men—left behind by their own army--remain on the field while others die. Worms infest open wounds of living men and terrible odors arise from decaying corpses. The best that many of these corpses will receive is a hasty burial in a trench or shallow grave near where they fell, the men’s identities disappearing beneath the earth, their families left to wonder why their letters have stopped coming.

So it is after the battle of Second Manassas (also known as II Bull Run). The battle had peaked on Saturday, August 31 as Col. Nathaniel McLean’s “Ohio Brigade” made a goal-line stand on Henry House Hill. At heavy cost, McLean’s men hold back Lee’s Confederates just long enough for most of Union Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia to escape the field and head for the safety of the nation’s capital, 30 miles away.

By Sunday, Pope has his tattered army gathered around Centreville, on the Washington side of Bull Run Creek, the soldiers panicky, officers angry at poor leadership by the generals. Soon, the generals themselves will be going public, blaming each other, a circular firing squad with Pope squarely in the middle.

Two fresh corps from the lead-footed Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan finally have arrived to reinforce Pope, but it is too late to strike back at Lee and save the day. Lee has come up short as well. Still on the opposite side of Bull Run, he is unable to cut off Pope’s fighting retreat and so Lee cannot finish the battle by destroying his enemy. By and large, Pope’s army, though severely mauled, is able to escape to the shelter of Washington’s defenses.

But not Pope. As much as Pope blames others—especially McClelland and Fitz-John Porter—it is clear to Lincoln and General-in-chief Halleck that responsibility for the defeat rests most of all on the loud-mouthed Illinoisan. By the end of the week, Pope will lose his command and be assigned to fight Indians far from the war’s main stages.

Pope’s departure is not a surprise, but what happens to McClellan is. Despite urging from Secretary of War Stanton and others, Lincoln refuses to dismiss Little Mac. Instead, McClellan not only keeps command of the Army of the Potomac but is given the task of folding into it Pope’s old command, the Army of Virginia.

Lincoln's advisers gnash their teeth, but the President knows what he is doing. McClellan tends to fade under the pressure of battle, but he is a superb organizer, trainer—and inspirer—of men. Right now, that is what is needed most of all. Lincoln needs McClellan's special gifts to restore the Union’s main army in the East to fighting form.

McClellan himself is surprised by Lincoln's decision. Since returning from the Virginia Peninsula, he has been bracing himself for removal from command. But after meeting with President Lincoln in the White House on Tuesday, September 2, he rides jauntily into the camp of Brig. Jacob D. Cox, an Ohioan who commands the Kanawha Brigade, and calls out, “Well, General, I am in command again!”