Military history

Chapter Two


1. Men Who Could Be Led

IN THE state capitol at Columbus, Ohio, senators were talking their way through a desultory session when one of their number came hurrying in from the lobby. There was some note of urgency in his manner, and the debate died down. Catching the eye of the presiding officer, he called out: “Mr. President, the telegraph announces that the secessionists are bombarding Fort Sumter!” There was a stunned silence in the chamber for a moment. Then, far up in the gallery, a woman sprang to her feet and screamed ecstatically: “Glory to God!”1

The woman was a devout abolitionist, convinced that nothing mattered but to set the Negro free and that only war could do it, and most people in the North did not see it that way. Yet her terrible cry, ringing out without premeditation, somehow spoke for men and women all across the land, and they surged out into bannered streets to cheer and laugh and exult. There had been all of these years of doubt, of argument, of bewilderment and half-stifled anger; the moment of disaster brought wild rejoicing, as if an unendurable emotional tension had at last been broken.

For Abraham Lincoln, to be sure, the news from Fort Sumter brought no release.

He had said that his policy was to have no policy; that he did not control events but was controlled by them; that his task was heavier than the one Washington had carried; and now he had to act firmly and swiftly in a contingency not provided for by the founding fathers. What he could do, he did without delay. On April 15 he announced that “combinations too powerful to be suppressed” by any U.S. marshal or posse comitatus had taken possession of various southern states, and he called on the states to send seventy-five thousand militia into Federal service for three months to restore order. He summoned Congress to meet in special session on July 4. He announced a blockade of southern ports, from South Carolina to Texas. (Something of a mistake, this announcement, for the navy could not for months begin to make the blockade fully effective, and the announcement automatically gave the Confederacy a belligerent’s status and almost seemed to admit that it was in fact a separate nation.) Not least important was Lincoln’s act in promptly going into consultation with Stephen A. Douglas, idol of the northern democracy. From Douglas there came a firm pledge of support for any warlike acts needed to restore the Union. Douglas was worn out, less than two months away from death, but he went across the Midwest rallying men to the cause; and as he spoke, in a voice whose dimming vitality still carried magic, he laid at rest the danger that the war might seem to be purely a party matter, to be opposed by northern Democrats as a matter of straight politics.2

Having done the things immediately required of him, President Lincoln could only wait for the country to respond.

It responded with a wild enthusiasm that was almost beyond belief. The quick outpouring of emotion surprised even the people who were at the center of it.

In Washington, sober Senator John Sherman wrote that the actual arrival of war “brings a feeling of relief: the suspense is over.” A Bostonian considered the crowds, the ringing church bells, and the awakened drums and trumpets and noted that “the heather is on fire,” while a newspaper correspondent telegraphed that the war spirit in the West exceeded anything the most hopeful Republicans had expected. A New York woman looked at the cheering crowds and felt the wild excitement, and wrote that “it seems as if we never were alive till now.” An Ohio politician, looking back long afterward, remembered the outburst of jubilant feeling that swept across the North as “a thrilling and almost supernatural thing.”3

Supernatural it may perhaps have been; for when men looked about them, in the strangely revealing light of the exploding shell, they saw something that was to carry them through four years of war. It is hard to say just what it was, for nobody bothered to be very explicit about it and time has dimmed it anyway, but apparently what they saw — briefly but clearly, after so many years in which nothing was clear — was the fact that they did have a country and that their common possession of it was the most precious thing in the world. For a time this lifted them up, so that they went off to war joyously, as if the moment of crisis had lifted a burden instead of imposing one; and what was seen was long remembered, the memory of it a rod and a staff to lean upon when the path led down through the valley of shadows.

There was in all of this a bright innocence, and a losing of innocence, and nothing quite like it ever happened again, or ever can happen. Except for a few veterans of the war with Mexico, no one knew what organized war could be like, and even the middle-aged who had fought in Mexico had nothing in their experience by which to foretell the sweep and terror of the war that was beginning now. The land was used to peace, and in the ordinary way its experience with military matters was confined to the militia muster — awkward men parading with heavy-footed informality in the public square, jugs circulating up and down the rear rank, fires lit for the barbecue feast, small boys clustering around, half derisive and half admiring — and if war came the soldier was a minuteman who went to a bloodless field where it was always the other fellow who would get hit.

Just before Fort Sumter the Michigan legislature had been debating an act permitting the governor to raise two new regiments of militia. Secession had come and war was near, and it seemed wise to prepare for it; yet the legislators somehow could not quite take the project seriously, and their humor rose because the bill contained a provision for “field officers” — technically, regimental officers above the rank of captain. Amendments were solemnly introduced to change the title to “corn-field officers,” the sense of urgency evaporated in a chain of rude jokes, and in the end the legislature adjourned without voting any money to make the act effective. A week after Fort Sumter the state was enlisting volunteers as fast as the men could be sworn in, and the money needed for equipment, which the legislature had gaily refused to appropriate, was raised by popular subscription — eighty-one thousand dollars of it in a few days in the little city of Detroit alone.4

As in Michigan, so in all other states. The thing had suddenly become serious, and yet everyone was gay about it. The call for troops looked like a summons to high adventure, a prodigious lark to be held under government auspices and at government expense. To thousands and thousands of young men it seemed the chance of a lifetime. War was all music and flags and cheering crowds, the bands were playing “Yankee Doodle” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and “Dixie” — not yet a southern war song, “Dixie”; it piped many a Yankee regiment off to war — and the man who enlisted felt that he was lucky beyond all natural expectation. So the recruiting stations were crowded, and all that mattered was to be young and to share in the vibration of a common enthusiasm.

In New York City the tattered flag that had been flown over Fort Sumter was displayed to a vast crowd, and Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, old-time friend of Abraham Lincoln, was on a rostrum to demand that the national flag be hoisted again “over every rebellious fort of every Confederate state.” The Union, he cried, must conquer a peace and dictate its own terms, and whether it cost seven thousand lives or seven hundred thousand was no matter — “We have them!” He looked out over the crowd, tossed his head in the practiced orator’s gesture, and shouted: “My mission here today is to kindle the heart of New York for war — short, sudden, bold, determined, forward war!”5

(Senator Baker would presently become a soldier himself. The bullet that would kill him had already been molded; on the brow of a wooded bluff above the Potomac the place where he would fall had been appointed; he had, as he made this speech, about four more months to live.)

In Iowa twenty times as many men as could be taken came forward to volunteer. Because this frontier state had few railroads, men came in by farm wagon or on foot, some of them taking ten days for the trip, and those who were turned away raised a great clamor, so that the state authorities had to beg the War Department to increase the quota — the rejected volunteers would not go home, but stayed around the enlistment centers and demanded admittance. Men who were accepted went to camps where contractors fed them on fresh beef and soft bread. So primitive was their frontier background that many of these lads from the back lots promptly became sick from eating food too rich for them; at home their diet was mostly salt pork and corn bread.6

Everywhere there were more men than the army was prepared to take. Many companies were raised locally, to be assembled into regiments later, and often enough the companies were far above legal size when they went to camp. In such cases the roster would be pruned and some men would be sent home; and an Illinois veteran recalled that this led to “a great deal of very wicked swearing,” with some of the men who had been dropped threatening to shoot the colonel. In Indiana many companies that had been ordered to stay at home went off to camp regardless, making such an uproar that the state authorities had to admit them in sheer self-defense; and in Boston men climbed in through the windows of Faneuil Hall to join companies that were using the building as a drillroom. The country’s overcharged patriotism led to odd aberrations here and there. A newspaper correspondent reported that Illinois businessmen were raising money to support the families of volunteers, insisting that “none shall fight the battles of their country at their expense”; a number of railroads in Indiana announced that they would carry all soldiers free, and Company H of the 11th Massachusetts marched up in a body to take a pledge of total abstinence for the duration of the war, officers and men, explaining that “their business is to fight, not drink.”7

The training these volunteers got, once they reached camp, was often very sketchy. Company and regimental officers at that stage of the war were elected, and in most cases they knew no more about military matters than the recruits they were supposed to instruct. It was not uncommon to see a captain on the parade ground consulting a book as he drilled his company, and after the war a survivor from those early days wrote that he and his fellows “had some fun that the boys missed who went out after things were in good shape and the officers had learned the tactics.” Boys who had been on a first-name basis with their officers all of their lives could see no point whatever in military formalities. In a New York regiment one recruit who thought the drill had gone on long enough on a warm spring day called out to his captain: “Say, Tom, let’s quit this darn foolin’ and go over to the sutler’s.” A Massachusetts veteran remembered that his company bore the name of “The Savages” and wore dark green uniforms, and said that “our drill, as I remember it, was running around the old Town Hall in West Newbury, yelling like devils and firing at an imaginary foe.” Men in a Wisconsin company were quartered for weeks in a small-town hotel, from which they were in the habit of emerging at midnight, whooping and laughing, to hold a “night-shirt drill” in the town’s main street.8

At times the whole business seemed like an extended picnic. An Ohio soldier looked back, long after the war, at “those happy, golden days of camp life” and said the only worry was the fear that the war would end before the regiment had a chance to prove itself under fire. (It was a needless worry, he recalled dryly; by war’s end more than a third of the regiment’s total enrollment had become casualties, and 150 more had died of disease.) An Irish boy remembered “the shrill notes of the fifes and the martial beat and roll of the drums, as they played in unison at early daylight,” as the sweetest music he ever heard, and an Illinois soldier wrote to the folks back home: “I never enjoyed anything in the world as I do this life.” The drill, he said, was very light, and the regiment was leading “an awful lazy life”; and he concluded rhapsodically that it was wonderful to be where “a fellow can lay around loose with sleeves up, collar open, (or shirt off, if it suits him better), hair unkempt, face unwashed, and everything un-everything. It beats clerking ever so much!”9

It did beat clerking. Boys in a Wisconsin regiment, whose roster was not yet full, used to ride about the county in wagons, seeking recruits, with drummer and fifer to play them along, the cavalcade riding into towns with all hands yelling: “Fourth of July every day in the year!” There would be a war meeting in town hall or village grove, with speeches and music, and afterward a barbecue. Girls would urge their swains to enlist. These Wisconsin soldiers remembered one meeting at which a girl cried out to her escort in a voice all could hear: “John, if you don’t enlist I’ll never let you kiss me again as long as I live! Now you mind, sir, I mean what I say!”10

Every regiment was formally given a flag sooner or later, usually by a committee of ladies, with the mayor and leading citizens looking on and with some orator present to make suitable remarks. The flag was generally handed to the colonel by some pretty girl, and it was fairly standard procedure for the entire regiment to take a solemn oath that they would not return “until our flag could wave in triumph over all our land.” It was a sentimental age, much given to dramatic tableaux. Men in a New York regiment recalled that when they finally boarded the cars to start off for Washington their train passed a species of rocky knoll not long after leaving the depot; and on the knoll, togged out in Revolutionary War regimentals, there posed a white-haired man waving a flag, while two small girls dressed in white knelt on each side of him, their arms stretched out and their eyes raised as if in prayer.

Some regiments took on especial characteristics. The New York 7th was a dandy outfit, private soldiers wearing tailor-made gray uniforms as trim as so many West Pointers, with hired cooks to prepare the meals. The 33rd Illinois, organized largely through the efforts of Charles E. Hovey, principal of the State Normal University, who became its colonel, had many college students and teachers in its ranks and was known, inevitably, as the “Brains regiment.” All sorts of tales were circulated about it; privates discharged from its rolls for mental incapacity, it was said, promptly won officers’ commissions in less brilliant regiments. The 8th Wisconsin was famous as the “Eagle regiment,” because its Company C came to camp with a live eagle as mascot. A T-shaped perch was devised, and the bird — known as “Old Abe” — was carried between regimental and national flags wherever the regiment went. Old Abe was even taken into battle later on; liked artillery fire and would flap his wings and scream loudly, but grew depressed and nervous under musketry fire. The eagle survived the war and was taken back to Wisconsin and became an essential feature of innumerable post-war veterans’ reunions.11

Military drill, where it was taken seriously, was a nuisance to be endured. An Illinois soldier spoke of “that most exasperating and yet most useful institution of the early army, the German drill sergeant,” and in a labored attempt to transcribe high-Dutch brogue he quoted the sergeant as forever crying: “Eyes vront! Toes oudt! Leetle finger mit de seam de bantaloons! Vy shtand like a — haystack? You neffer make a soldier.” In a Wisconsin regiment a recruit wrote to his parents that his drillmaster “is a proud bugger in his brand new suit of blue,” and confessed that army life “is harder work than farming.” Yet the ardor that took the men to camp sometimes made even the drill seem pleasant, and when a spanking new Ohio regiment was given muskets and introduced to the manual of arms one soldier noted that “the boys take to it as natural as a three-months calf to a pail of warm milk.” Nor was military routine always repellent. Most recruits were fascinated by the lights-out ritual. At nine o’clock in the evening the regimental band would play “tattoo,” after which the roll would be called. Half an hour later came “taps,” which meant that everyone must be in bed with lights out; and “taps,” according to old-army procedure, was given by a drummer, not by a bugler. In the silent, darkening camp a lone drummer would stand at the head of the regimental street and tap out the single drumbeats that gave the business its name. A certain rhythm was always followed, and the men fitted words to it: “Go to bed Tom! Go to bed Tom! Go to bed, go to bed, go to bedTom!12

Needed equipment often was lacking. An Illinois regiment could get no more muskets than were needed to arm the camp sentries, and for quite a time — until the first enthusiasm wore off, anyway — the men eagerly competed for the right to take a musket and stand guard; a state of mind which they recalled with amused wonder a year later. In Iowa, recruits were told to bring no change of clothing to camp as Uncle Sam would provide everything. One regiment had to wait for more than a month before Uncle Sam provided as much as a spare undershirt, and a generation later the regimental historian was remembering that month with wry distaste. In Ohio the first recruits to reach Camp Dennison found that the camp consisted entirely of a huge pile of raw lumber and a very muddy cornfield; before anyone could get shelter the men had to build their own barracks.13

The first volunteers were enlisted for ninety days only and were technically state militia called temporarily into Federal service. Long before most of them were ready to leave training camp — on May 3, actually, little more than a fortnight after Fort Sumter — President Lincoln issued a call for three-year volunteers. These regiments were raised and organized by the states and, when complete, were mustered into Federal service, after which they were entirely out of state control; and as the men enlisted under this call reached camp, things began to look a little more businesslike, with less of the flavor of an old-time holiday militia muster.

Yet matters never did reach what a modern soldier would consider proper military tautness. Some of the new volunteer regiments had colonels and lesser officers from the regular service, and in these a fair degree of impersonal discipline and formality was sometimes attained, but for the most part — especially among the western regiments — discipline was and remained fantastically loose. Boys from the small town and the cornfield simply could not make themselves look on their officers with awe, and a lieutenant or a colonel — or, for that matter, even a general — could exercise very little control just by virtue of his shoulder straps; he had to have solid qualities of leadership within himself or he did precious little leading.

For it never entered the heads of most of these volunteers that a free American citizen surrendered any appreciable part of his freedom just by joining the army. An Indiana soldier put it quite bluntly: “We had enlisted to put down the rebellion and had no patience with the red-tape tom-foolery of the regular service. Furthermore, our boys recognized no superiors except in the line of legitimate duty. Shoulder straps waived, a private was ready at the drop of a hat to thrash his commander; a feat that occurred more than once.” In Missouri, men of a volunteer regiment which was camped next to a regular army regiment looked on in horror when one of the regulars was “bucked and gagged” for some infraction of discipline. When one of the regular officers (“a dudish young fellow”) came out and ordered the volunteers to go away and stop making a scene over it, they threatened to untie his prisoner and set him free. One of the volunteers remembered: “We told the officer that they might do that to regulars, but that they could not do that sort of thing to free American citizens.” An Illinois soldier, recalling the slack discipline that always prevailed in his regiment, frankly justified it:

“While all the men who enlisted pledged themselves to obey all the commands of their superior officers, and of course ought to have kept their word, yet it was hardly wise on the part of the officers in volunteer service to absolutely demand attendance upon such service, and later on it was abandoned.”14

This free-and-easy quality the Civil War soldier never lost. It remained with him to the end, and although it was less marked in the eastern regiments, generally, than in those from the West, and varied a good deal from regiment to regiment in each section, it was always, and predominantly, the great distinguishing characteristic of the volunteer armies. For better or for worse, the armies of the Civil War had that devil-may-care, loose-jointed tone to them. They could be led — by the right man, anyway — but they could not often be driven. Their members straggled freely, foraged and looted as the mood seized them, sometimes deserted in droves — and, in the end, carried the load that had been given them, which was not a light one.

 … They had, at the very top, a commander-in-chief who understood their point of view perfectly because he had had firsthand experience of it: Abraham Lincoln. (Jefferson Davis was West Point, and a self-made patrician to boot, and he never quite understood the enlisted Confederate, who was very much like his northern counterpart, if not a good deal more so.) Lincoln had been captain of a volunteer company in the Black Hawk War: a hard set of men, who cried out “Go to hell!” in response to the first order Lincoln ever gave them. They got badly out of hand — or, to be more accurate, they never got into hand — and Lincoln was ordered by a court-martial to carry a wooden sword for two days because he had been unable to keep his company from robbing the regimental whiskey cache and getting drunk. To keep his men from murdering an Indian peddler who wandered into camp, Captain Lincoln once had to take off his coat and offer to thrash each soldier personally. Later, when he was in Congress, Lincoln made a speech ridiculing his own military experience and his pretensions to command.15

Yet the experience may have been one of the most valuable of his life. In the Civil War, Lincoln called into service rather more than a million and a half young men, the bulk of whom were his Black Hawk War company all over again. From first to last, he knew them — knew what they could do, how much they could stand, knew how they could be persuaded to surpass themselves on occasion.

2. In Time of Revolution

Abraham Lincoln was not all brooding melancholy and patient understanding. There was a hard core in him, and plenty of toughness. He could recognize a revolutionary situation when he saw one, and he could act fast and ruthlessly to meet it.

Long-range, his problem was to take the formless, instinctive uprising of the northern people and develop from it a firm resolve that would outlast the tempest and make the Union secure. First of all, however, he had to keep the war from being lost before it had well begun. For there was a considerable danger that the Confederacy might make its independence good before the first militia regiments had got fairly settled in their makeshift training camps.

To begin with, the call for troops to suppress those “combinations too powerful to resist” had driven Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee into secession. Shortly after Fort Sumter those states joined the Confederacy, and from his White House window the President could look across the Potomac and see a landscape which — rolling to the south in hazy blue waves under the warm spring sunlight — was now, by the will of the people who lived in it, part of a foreign country.

What Virginia had done the border states might possibly do, and if they did the game was probably lost beyond recall.

Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were slave states of divided sentiment, many people strong for secession, many more equally strong for the Union. With the western part of Virginia — where, it was beginning to appear, most people were unhappy over the state’s act of secession — these states lay in a long wide ribbon, reaching from tidewater to the Nebraska country. This ribbon might swing either way. If it swung south, then the Confederacy’s frontier lay along the Ohio River and the Mason and Dixon line, southern Indiana and Illinois could probably be pinched off, Washington itself would be wholly surrounded by hostile territory, and the Unionists’ task would be hopeless. On the other hand, if this area stayed with the Union, the way was open for a thrust straight into the heart of the Confederacy. The whole war might well be determined by what happened in the border states, and there the only certainty was that whatever happened was going to happen rather quickly.

Things came to a head first in Maryland. On April 19, less than a week after the surrender of Fort Sumter, the first of the new militia regiments to go to Washington, 6th Massachusetts, gay in its new uniforms, marched cross-town through Baltimore to change trains and got into a street fight with a mob of furiously secessionist civilians. Brickbats and paving stones were thrown, pistols were fired, soldiers fired their muskets; militiamen and civilians were killed, and southern sympathizers in and near the city came storming out in wild anger, destroying bridges so that no more of the despised Yankee regiments could profane their city. Temporarily the capital’s connections with the North were broken.

The Lincoln government wasted no time. The appeal of the Unionist-minded governor of Maryland, Thomas H. Hicks, that no more troops be sent through Baltimore, was complied with — it had to be, for a while, since the bridges were gone — but a heavy hand came down hard on the Maryland secessionists. A shifty, cross-eyed Massachusetts lawyer-politician named Benjamin Butler appeared in major general’s uniform with troops at his command, and after he had restored northern communications with Washington by way of Annapolis, he moved up and occupied Federal Hill, overlooking downtown Baltimore. The city’s mayor and nineteen members of the state legislature (which had just denounced the unholy war upon the South) were thrown into jail, along with a good many indignant citizens. When Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus to set one of these free, President Lincoln blandly ignored it. Eastern Maryland, where secessionist sentiment ran the strongest, was firmly held by Federal troops — and, all in all, by mid-May or a bit later the government had things pretty well in hand. The Supreme Court had indeed been flouted, the Constitution had been stretched, perhaps even broken (depending on one’s point of view), scores of people were being held in prison without due process of law, and an ardent son of Maryland was writing a flaming war poem, apostrophizing his state with the cry: “The despot’s heel is on thy shore!” No matter. Maryland was not going to go out of the Union, and what Maryland might have done if all of the legal niceties had been observed made no difference at all.1

The new administration, in other words, was not afraid to act. Yet it knew how to walk softly and speak in a soothing voice, as well, and while it was inflicting Ben Butler and unfeeling Yankee militia on eastern Maryland it was being most scrupulously considerate and correct just a little farther west.

As far as western Virginia was concerned, to be sure, the administration had very little to worry about. The people beyond the mountains owned few slaves and had no great admiration for the tidewater aristocracy, and Virginia had hardly seceded from the Union when they began casting about for means to secede from Virginia. For the moment, Washington needed to do nothing about them except indicate approval and stand by to lend a helping hand when necessary. But in Kentucky things were very different.

Kentucky needed very delicate handling. Its governor, Beriah Magoffin, had flatly refused to send troops to Washington for “the wicked purpose” of subduing the South and was known as a secessionist. The legislature, however, was Unionist, or largely so, and when the Confederates invited Governor Magoffin to send them some troops he had to decline, on the ground that it was beyond his power to do so. Then he issued a proclamation announcing that Kentucky would be wholly neutral in this war, and both factions within the state sat back to wait each other out, to jockey for position, and in general to see what would happen next.

It seemed fairly clear that most Kentuckians favored the Union. But it was equally clear that this was no time to jiggle Kentucky’s elbow, since any abrupt coercive move might turn everything upside down. For the time being both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were happy enough to let Kentucky be neutral if that was what Kentucky wanted.

What Kentucky would finally do, in fact, would probably depend a great deal on what Missouri did; and although the situation in Missouri was almost fantastically complicated, with a great many factors at issue, Missouri’s decision — as this fateful month of April drew toward its close — was going to be affected very powerfully by a sandy-whiskered, wiry, blue-eyed little captain of regular infantry named Nathaniel Lyon.

Born in Connecticut, Lyon was forty-two; an intense, pugnacious character who from childhood had wanted only to be a soldier. Graduating from West Point in 1841, he had taken into the army a strong detestation for higher mathematics — the calculus, he insisted, “lies outside the bounds of reason” and had doubtless been invented by someone of disordered imagination — and an orthodox faith in the Democratic party. This latter stayed with him through the Mexican War, in which he was wounded and got a brevet captaincy for bravery in action, and led him to vote for Franklin Pierce in the presidential election of 1852. The faith withered and died, however, in the mid-fifties, when he was assigned to duty at Fort Riley, Kansas, and saw the Border Ruffians in action. He became an ardent Free-Soiler, wrote pro-Lincoln pieces for a Kansas paper in 1860, and by the beginning of 1861 he was declaring that he would rather have war than see “the great rights and hopes of the human race expire before the arrogance of the secessionists.” He was also hoping that he might be transferred from the frontier to some spot where he could enjoy “the legitimate and appropriate service of contributing to stay the idiotic, fratricidal hands now at work to destroy our government.”2

He was transferred to St. Louis, which, as it developed, was just the place where his dream could come true. In St. Louis he met Francis P. Blair, Jr., the one man in the state who could give him the leverage with which he could act to the best effect.

Blair was one of the Blairs of Maryland, son and namesake of Andrew Jackson’s trusted adviser of the long ago, brother of Montgomery Blair, who sat in Lincoln’s cabinet; a powerful man of strong opinions, almost unlimited political influence in Washington, and a passion equal to Lyon’s own. He had been a principal organizer of the Republican party in Missouri; working closely with the anti-slavery, pro-Unionist German population in St. Louis, he had set up a little committee of public safety which, although entirely unofficial, was nevertheless relied on by Lincoln as a potential action arm in case matters came to a showdown. He and Lyon — who, technically, was on the scene merely to command a company of regulars in the U. S. Arsenal — quickly discovered that they could work together. They shared many traits, among them a conviction that what was going on in the country was in fact a revolution, and an instinctive feeling that a time of revolution was no time for crippling legalisms.

The legalisms would not bother them very much. Governor of Missouri was Claiborne Jackson, strongly secessionist, who tried to get a state convention to take the state out of the Union, saw the convention controlled by a Unionist majority, and was quietly waiting for a more favorable turn of events. Like Blair, he kept his eyes on the arsenal. It contained sixty thousand muskets, a million and a half ball cartridges, a number of cannon, and some machinery for the manufacture of arms. If the secessionists could seize it they could equip a whole army and control the entire state. To prevent such a seizure there was nothing much but Blair’s iron determination and the presence of energetic little Captain Lyon.

Pulling wires that led to Washington, Blair moved to make the arsenal safe. Lyon’s superior officer there seemed to feel that if the state government should call on him to surrender the arsenal he could do nothing except comply, so Blair had him transferred to other parts, and defense of the arsenal was entrusted to Lyon. Top Federal commander at St. Louis was Brigadier General W. S. Harney, a hard-boiled old Indian-fighting regular who was thoroughly loyal to the Union but who could not make himself believe that Governor Jackson actually meant any harm. Blair sent more messages to Washington, and late in April — after Fort Sumter had been surrendered, after Governor Jackson flatly refused to raise troops for war against the Confederacy — Harney was suddenly called to Washington. (En route the old soldier managed to get himself captured by Confederates when his train stopped at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where a thriving government arsenal had just been taken over by Virginia troops. The experience prolonged Harney’s absence from St. Louis and may have given him a new insight into the things that could happen to government property in a time of crisis.)3

In his absence command of everything in and around St. Louis devolved on Lyon, who then got as extraordinary a set of instructions from the War Department as any mere infantry captain ever received. To maintain order and defend national property he was empowered at his discretion to enroll up to ten thousand citizens of St. Louis and vicinity in the military service. (These could be none other than Blair’s Germans, who had been zealously drilling, often with Captain Lyon’s aid, in Turnverein halls all winter.) In addition, Lyon was told that if he, Blair, and Blair’s committee of public safety thought it necessary he could proclaim martial law.

Decidedly, this was stretching military regulations past what would ordinarily be considered the breaking point. Old Lorenzo Thomas, lanky and crotchety adjutant general of the army, was seen coming out of a White House conference on the matter looking very grave and shaking his head dolefully. “It’s bad, very bad,” he said. “We’re giving that young man Lyon a great deal too much power in Missouri.” General Winfield Scott, older and more decayed than Thomas but much more able to see to the heart of things, took it in stride. Across the bottom of Lyon’s instructions he scribbled: “It is revolutionary times, and therefore I do not object to the irregularity of this.”4

Not long thereafter things began to happen.

Governor Jackson called out some seven hundred troops of the state militia and put them into camp on the edge of St. Louis — for routine instruction, said the militia commander; to seize the government arsenal and take Missouri out of the Union, said Blair and Lyon. Lyon began swearing the Germans into U.S. service. It was hard to do this regularly, since in the ordinary course of things a state government formally offered troops to the Federal government; offered them, and looked after their clothing, pay, and equipment. None of this could happen in the case of the Germans, but they were sworn in anyway, larger irregularities having already been swallowed. Then Lyon reflected that Harney would sooner or later be getting back from Washington and decided that it was time to take steps.

His first step was to have a look at the state militia camp. He was an unlikely character for the part of female impersonator, but it seems that he tried it: dressed up in black bombazine dress, sunbonnet, and heavy veils (the better to hide his bristling whiskers), he rode through the camp in a rustic buggy, a basket of eggs in his lap, like any farm woman who had come in to bring some extra rations to a soldier son. Hidden beneath the eggs in the basket were half a dozen loaded revolvers, just in case. Lyon saw what there was to see, including company streets named after Jefferson Davis, Beauregard, and other Confederate heroes, and then he hurried back to the arsenal, where he called Blair and the committee of public safety into meeting. Shedding sunbonnet and bombazine and regaining the dignity of a proper army officer, Lyon announced that on his tour of the camp he had seen, through the veils and over the eggs, Missouri militiamen with weapons in their hands — weapons which, as he detected, had recently been taken by Louisiana insurgents from a government arsenal at Baton Rouge and which therefore rightly belonged to the Federal government. It was necessary, said Lyon, to occupy the camp, hold the militiamen as prisoners of war, and recover all of this government property forthwith.

This touched off an argument. Two members of the committee insisted that things ought to be done legally; if Captain Lyon wanted the munitions which were held by the militia and could show that these did in fact belong to the Federal government, let him go to court and get a writ of replevin.… But Blair and the others rode them down. The government had lost a number of arsenals in the last few weeks by clinging to legalities while men with guns in their hands went out and took what they wanted. The same thing could happen in St. Louis; if it did, the Union cause was as good as done for — and, as Lyon remarked, whatever was done had better be done quickly because Harney would be back any day now and he was unlikely to do anything at all, since he believed that a state governor had every right to camp his militia in his own state when and where he chose.5

Winfield Scott had said it; the times were revolutionary, and there was no sense in quibbling over irregularities. So on the morning of May 10, Captain Lyon marched out with several thousand troops — a few companies of regulars, plus various regiments of the recently enrolled German guards — surrounded the militia camp, and demanded its surrender.

Things went smoothly enough at first. General D. M. Frost was the militia commander. He made formal protest and statement of innocence, then gave in to superior force. Lyon marched two companies of regulars into camp, disarmed the seven hundred militiamen, seized a number of cannon, twelve hundred muskets, twenty-five kegs of powder, and odds and ends of military equipment — some of it, he noted darkly, bearing the stamp of the Baton Rouge arsenal — and then he prepared to take the prisoners down to the arsenal where they could be paroled. What might have been done with bailiffs and a writ had been done by the soldiery and, it appeared, had been done peacefully and in good order.

The trouble began when Lyon himself was knocked down by the kicking and plunging of an unruly horse. He was not badly hurt but he was stunned and out of action for a few minutes. He had nobody in particular for staff officers, and until he was himself again the proceedings came to a halt. This was unfortunate, because a crowd began to gather: a passionately secessionist crowd, which waved sticks, threw stones, and called down curses on the heads of the German home guards. (One of these regiments called itself “Die Schwarze Garde,” which the sidewalk demonstrators translated freely as “Damned Dutch blackguards.”) By the time Lyon finally had things moving — prisoners marching in column, with files of troops on both sides and armed detachments moving ahead and in the rear — he was at the storm center of a revolving mob which was likely to break out in open violence at any moment.

Some chance spark touched it off, as usually happens in such cases. A drunk tried to force his way through the military cordon, damning the Dutch, and was bounced back with unnecessary verve. Various people had been waving pistols for some time, and one of these pistols was fired, a soldier fired in reply, and presently there was a regular riot, with shots and screams and curses and the scuffling of heavy feet on the cobblestones, smoke billowing up past the house tops — and, in the end, with twenty-eight people lying dead and many more badly hurt.6

The militia had been disarmed, the lost government property had been reclaimed, the threat to the security of the arsenal had been lifted — and authentic civil war had gone raging through the streets of St. Louis, just as it had raged through the streets of Baltimore a few weeks earlier. There was a portent in it, a significance easy to overlook: in this war between the sections the first serious battles, producing bloodshed and corpses, were battles between soldiers and civilians, on city streets, at opposite ends of the long belt of border states. Regular troop action could come later; it all began with men in uniform fighting men not in uniform.

Harney got back to St. Louis in a couple of days and tried to pick up the pieces. He ordered the German troops out of the city, proposed to Frank Blair that they be disbanded — apparently not realizing that in this highly irregular war they had already been sworn into Federal service — and then he tried to work out a truce with the state authorities.

Commander of Missouri troops now was General Sterling Price, former governor of the state, a Virginia-born Mexican War veteran, a stout, serious-minded man of vast personal popularity. He was raising state troops, apparently for eventual use against United States troops; he was also conferring with the general commanding the United States troops, and out of this curious conference there came presently something along the lines of a cease-fire agreement. Both state and national forces would try to keep order and prevent bloodshed, the defense of the rights and property of all Missourians would be the concern of both sides, and any evilly disposed persons who tried to make trouble would be squelched; on this uneasy agreement perhaps the peace could be kept in Missouri.

But to men like fiery Nathaniel Lyon the keeping of the peace was the last thing that mattered. This truce (as Lyon saw it) had been arranged with men who favored secession — favored it, and would strike for it the moment they saw a good chance; the only possible thing to do with such people was to smite them hard and at once, and to treat with them at all was to come mortally close to recognizing the right of secession. Lyon fumed and wrote that “the Government seems unwilling to resist those who would cut its throat, for fear of exasperating them.” Blair wrote some more letters to Washington, and two documents soon after this came west — one, a brigadier general’s commission for Captain Lyon, the other a White House writ to Frank Blair giving him the power to remove General Harney if he saw fit.7

Blair saw fit, and by the end of May, Harney had been transferred away from Missouri forever, with Lyon formally taking his place. Lyon and Blair at once called a meeting with Governor Jackson and General Price to review this business of a truce. The two Missouri officials offered to disband their troops and keep all Confederate armies out of the state if, in return, the Federals would disband their home guards — the Dutch blackguards, so offensive to southern sympathies — and if the Federals would promise not to occupy any part of Missouri that Federal troops did not already hold. In effect, they were offering at least a temporary neutrality as far as Missouri was concerned.

Lyon turned this down contemptuously. The Federal government, he announced, would move its troops where it pleased, asking permission of nobody, and it would retain in its service any and all home-guard levies it wished to keep, blackguard Dutch or otherwise; and he personally would see every man, woman, and child in Missouri six feet under the ground before he would admit that this or any other state could impose any conditions at all upon the Federal government. He had, further, one final word for Governor Jackson and General Price: they had a war on their hands and it was beginning in earnest as of that moment.8

Within two days Lyon was marching on Jefferson City, the state capital, with several thousand troops. Governor Jackson, who had gone back to the capital immediately after the St. Louis conference ended, fled as Lyon approached and tried to set up shop in Boonville, fifty miles to the northwest. Lyon drove on after him, attacked and scattered Jackson’s hastily assembled militia, and sent Jackson off to the west and south, a governor with nothing that he could govern. General Price, who had gone west to Lexington to recruit an army, fled south when Jackson went — and by mid-June the Federals were ahead of the game in Missouri. They had played it irregularly, as General Scott admitted, but they had not been bound by legalisms. In Frank Blair and Nathaniel Lyon the Lincoln government had two men who were not afraid to act like revolutionists once a revolution had begun.

3. The Important First Trick

The war had hardly started, yet the most momentous single decision had already been made. As far as the Federal government was concerned, it was going to be a war to the finish.

There had been street fighting in the cities, governors and legislators had been driven in flight or put under arrest, earnest home guards were tramping clumsily into state capitols, and what it all meant was that secession had been accepted as revolution. There could be no compromise with it; it would be fought whenever necessary with revolutionary weapons, which in effect meant with any instrument that came to hand. The South could win its independence only by destroying the government of the United States.

The stakes, in other words, had become immeasurable, and most of the ordinary rules had been suspended. If the war could be ended within a few months, none of this would matter very much; but if it should go on and on — if there should be no quick and easy ending to it — anything at all could happen. The country had gone to war gaily, it was all abubble North and South with flags and oratory and bands and training camps where life beat clerking all hollow; but ahead there was unutterable grimness, not simply because a great many people were going to die but because, before the war had properly begun, it had been determined that no price for victory would be too high.

It was the Lincoln administration that had made this decision, but the country at large accepted it, instinctively and without stopping to reason about it. Of all the misunderstandings that had produced the war, no single one had more tragic consequences than this — that the men of the South had completely failed to realize how deeply the concept of nationality had taken root in the North. The great wagon trains had gone rolling west, a wilderness had been opened, new towns and farms had sprung up, limitless hopes and great sacrifices had been invested in the development of a rich new land, and out of it all had come a conviction that the national destiny involved unity. Whatever the North might do to win the war — and it would do just about anything it could lay its hand to — would be done with the conviction that this attempt at secession was morally wrong, a blind attempt to destroy something precious, a wanton laying of hands on the Ark of the Covenant. The Southerners were not merely enemies; they were traitors, to be treated as such.

And the new levies continued to come in, gay and full of high spirits, brandishing their weapons as if they were playthings for holiday use. A Connecticut regiment came cruising up the Potomac by side-wheeler steamboat, the men lining the rails to cheer every schooner, sloop, or barge that displayed the United States flag. If they met one flying no flag, the men would level their muskets and order: “Show your colors! Show your colors!” When the flag was hoisted — as it always was, with all those fidgety fingers under the trigger guards — the men would give three cheers, and laugh, and peer ahead for the next chance to enforce a display of patriotism. Girls met troop trains in upstate New York, offering kisses in exchange for brass buttons, and some regiments went off to war all unbuttoned and buttonless. Young infantry captains knelt on Boston Common and wept with emotion as little girls presented company flags; a Pennsylvania father presented his officer son with a new sword and enjoined him not to return until the weapon was “stained to the hilt,” and one of Lyon’s volunteers in Missouri looked about him and declared that campaigning was “war in poetry and song and set to music.”1

It was not quite unanimous. A young esthete graduating from Yale delivered a “commencement poem” whose sole allusion to the war was the scornful line: “What is the grandeur of serving a state, whose tail is stinging its head to death like a scorpion?” After graduation, the question presumably being unanswered, he took ship for California, not to return until the unpleasantness had died down. A Wisconsin boy found with dismay that his regiment was sent to western Minnesota to fight the Indians and not to the Deep South to fight Rebels, recalled that in his home state he had always been good friends with Indians, and wrote to his parents: “I can’t help thinking of the wrong-doing of the government toward the Indians … It must be I ain’t a good soldier.”2

For the most part, though, things went with a whoop and a holler, and if there was much lost motion in the way the new regiments were recruited, equipped, and drilled — western boys used to firearms came almost to mutiny when harassed supply sergeants outfitted them with clumsy Belgian muskets in place of the rifles they demanded3 — the government was moving with remarkable effectiveness to make the long fringe of the border states secure.

In Maryland there was Ben Butler, his troops camped on Federal Hill overlooking Baltimore Harbor, himself camped at Annapolis, opening a new road to Washington; Ben Butler, who had worked energetically for southern rights in the Democratic convention of 1860, all out for the Union now, grinning sardonically with eyes that did not mesh, revolving monstrous ambitions in his mind as he followed a new political tack; Ben Butler, with his lawyer’s mind and his flair for administrative detail and his whole-souled lack of scruple, contriving to make capital for himself out of this war that cut him loose from his old moorings, a one-time friend of the South who was presently to become the most hated man in the entire Confederate legend.

In Washington itself there had been uneasy moments in the days just after Fort Sumter’s surrender, when the cutting of railroad and telegraph lines through Baltimore left the capital temporarily isolated. There were hardly any soldiers in the city, and it was easy to imagine armed Virginians coming across the Potomac and bringing the war to a quick end by seizing capital, President, and government entire. That period quickly passed, and now Washington was full of troops — state militia, for the most part, called in for ninety-day service, poorly trained and almost totally unorganized, but impressive nevertheless with their bright uniforms, their cocky airs, and the numbers of them. Detachments of these before long were sent across the Potomac to occupy the high ground on the southern shore, and Federal soldiers pitched their tents on an estate known as Arlington, lately the home of Robert E. Lee.

While Arlington was occupied, other troops were sent a few miles downstream to seize Alexandria. The outfit chosen for this job was the 11th New York, a flamboyant and slightly riotous organization wearing the baggy pants, short jackets, and turbans of the Zouaves: the Fire Zouaves, as they were called, since most of the members had been recruited from various New York fire companies.

Colonel of the Fire Zouaves was young Elmer Ellsworth, who had made something of a profession of being an amateur soldier; his Chicago Zouave drill team had given exhibitions all over the North in the year or so just before the war. Ellsworth was dashing, eager to win fame and glory, was perhaps a little headline-happy, and apparently he was destined to have a spectacular role in this war. As he led his men into Alexandria, Ellsworth spied a southern flag on a stump of a flagpole on the roof of a hotel. Full of dramatic ardor — a correspondent for the New York Tribune was along — Ellsworth drew his sword and dashed into the building to cut the flag down … and died ingloriously when the hotel proprietor, a mere civilian but a staunch secessionist, met him on the stairway, thrust the muzzle of a shotgun against his belly, and pulled the trigger. The hotel man was promptly bayoneted, Ellsworth’s body was brought back to Washington to lie in state in the White House, and the North mourned a lost hero.4

Meanwhile the army authorities were trying desperately to make an army out of the assortment of militia units in Washington. The job fell to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, a tall, plump, serious-minded regular who had studied in France, owned a good Mexican War record, and had served on Scott’s staff. He had a very hard assignment. He had to organize his regiments into brigades and divisions, had to find some way to instruct them in brigade and division tactics — very intricate, calling for innumerable hours on the drill field; he lacked anything resembling an adequate staff, and the War Department’s inefficiency was raising serious problems of supply and equipment. Worse yet, people were beginning to demand that he move out at once and capture Richmond, first defeating a Confederate army that was in camp near Manassas, some two dozen miles from Washington. The fact that this army was in no better shape than his own was cold comfort: before he had his carefree militia regiments organized and drilled enough to make any sort of cross-country march possible (let alone a formal battle) the terms of service of a great many of them would begin to expire. The United States Army has not had very many generals as unlucky, all things considered, as Irvin McDowell.

In Ohio there was a very different man — short, stocky, handsome young George B. McClellan, West Pointer, Mexican War veteran, official observer for the War Department in the Crimea when the British and French fought the Russians; an ambitious, brilliant man who had left the army to become a railroad president and who now held a major general’s commission. He commanded everything along the Ohio line, he was revolving elaborate plans for a down-the-Mississippi invasion of the South, and he was moving now to slice western Virginia off from the Old Dominion and create a new state between the Alleghenies and the Ohio River.

McClellan was worth a second look. If his fellow West Pointers had balloted on a “most likely to succeed” classmate, they would almost certainly have elected him. He had brains, connections, a winning personality, the quality known as brilliance. Putting together the new Ohio regiments, he was showing a definite knack for organization and administration; leading them across the river and into western Virginia—as he was doing this June — he was also showing powerful qualities of leadership, with a marked ability to make his troops believe in themselves and in him. His campaign was going well, and it was one of the Union’s most important moves this summer.

Leading twenty-seven regiments, mostly from Ohio and Indiana, McClellan struck at a Confederate force that had come west with the dual intent of holding this part of Virginia for the Confederacy and of cutting the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line, which connected Washington with the West. He had chosen his troops wisely — ninety-day regiments they were, for the most part, selected so that they might do a little service before their time expired while the three-year volunteers got a little more seasoning — and if these men were imperfectly drilled, the Southerners they were going up against were in no better case and in addition were substantially fewer in numbers.

Campaigning in the picturesque mountain country struck the ninety-day soldiers as exciting, even though the men did make disparaging remarks about the region as “a land of secession, rattlesnakes, rough mountains and bad whiskey,” and when they were finally led up to the Rebel outposts around Rich Mountain they still had their enthusiasm. Actual fighting, to be sure, turned out to be a little different from what they had imagined it would be. One Ohioan whose regiment had to attack a log blockhouse wrote indignantly that the Southerners were “cowardly dogs” who fired through loopholes in the log walls instead of coming out in the open and fighting like men. To their surprise, the men looked at the prisoners they took and discovered that Virginia boys looked exactly like Ohio boys; and they concluded that if all Southerners were like these “we have no mean enemy to contend with.”5

In the end McClellan’s troops swept the Confederates off the mountain range and out of the valley that lay beyond it, driving them all the way back to the main ridge of the Alleghenies; and if their victory was not especially spectacular — except in McClellan’s prose: his message of congratulations to his soldiers sounded like something Napoleon might have said after an especially good campaign — its effects were permanent. There would be a spatter of skirmishes, advances, retreats, and sullen little mountain battles in this area for months to come, but the Confederates had lost western Virginia for good. Creation of the new state of West Virginia would follow in due course.

Kentucky was a strange no man’s land as spring drew on into summer. Governor Magoffin was as ardently pro-Confederate as ever and his legislature, along with a good majority of the voters, was equally hot for the Union. Officially, the state was neutral. Everybody was watching everybody else, and neither the Washington nor the Richmond government was willing to make the first move.

Kentucky had a state guard commanded by General Simon Bolivar Buckner, a former regular army officer who, back in the mid-fifties, had in New York run into an old classmate just back from the West Coast, broke and in disgrace, and had lent him money to get back to his home in Ohio — an obscure ex-captain of infantry named Ulysses S. Grant. In Washington it was hoped that Buckner would eventually go with the Union, but Union men in Kentucky were sure he would turn up on the side of the Confederates; to hamper him, the legislature refused to vote any money for the arming and equipping of his state guard. As a counterweight, in Louisville and elsewhere, semi-official home guards of a strong pro-Union cast were organized.

These home-guard companies presently found themselves assembling at a central rendezvous, Camp Dick Robinson, between Lexington and Danville, where they came under the command of a breezy three-hundred-pound giant named William Nelson. Nelson had been a lieutenant in the navy. Resigning when the war broke out, he stopped off in Washington long enough to wangle a brigadier general’s commission and the authority to draw on the Federal government for ten thousand stand of arms; then he hurried to his home state of Kentucky to see what could be done about organizing Union troops. He was bluff, blustering, profane, a driver and a martinet, and the home guards were not enthusiastic about him. They were wild young men, these home guards, with even less taste for discipline and drill than most recruits of that innocent day; their ideas of military life, a veteran recalled afterward, had been drawn exclusively from “the glowing accounts of the fertile pens of historians and the more exciting works of fiction,” and Nelson was bearing down hard on them.6

Recruiting for both armies was going on openly. Confederate recruits were assembled in camp just over the Tennessee line, and Unionists — aside from Nelson’s amorphous home-guard outfits — were put in camp just north of the Ohio River, in Indiana; it was not uncommon for rival groups of recruits, heading for their respective training camps, to pass one another on the streets of Louisville. Once a passenger train pulled out of a town in the central part of the state with a carful of Union recruits and at the next station picked up a carload of Rebels; company officers met on the platform and arranged a truce for the duration of the ride. Symptomatic was the case of Senator John J. Crittenden, who had struggled hard, and in vain, during the winter to work out a compromise that would avert war. Of his two sons, one was to become a general in the Confederate Army, the other a Union general.7

From President Lincoln the situation got very careful handling. If he did not formally recognize the state’s neutrality, as Confederate President Jefferson Davis did, he was careful not to disturb it. When southern-minded Kentuckians protested that Nelson’s presence at Camp Robinson was a violation of neutrality, Lincoln blandly replied that no coercion was implied or intended; the home guards there were Kentuckians, not Federal troops, and they were entirely under the control of the state legislature. Meanwhile he made a brigadier general out of Robert Anderson, the sorely-tried regular who had commanded in Fort Sumter, and stationed him in Indiana with a command which — on paper, and rather on an if-and-when basis — embraced the state of Kentucky.

It was a queer summer in Kentucky. And yet, although nothing much seemed to be happening, the Confederates were playing a losing game. Whether they realized it or not, they had to have Kentucky. While it stayed neutral the rest of the border was being nailed down for the Union, and if western Virginia and Missouri were firmly held by the national government, Kentucky would eventually be held also, even though southern leaders would ultimately go through the motions of voting the state into the Confederacy. From Kentucky the road to the Deep South would be wide open.8

By the middle of July, in fact, the Lincoln administration had taken the all-important first trick. It had the border states — not firmly, as yet, by any means, and either military reverses or political clumsiness (both of which would be encountered) might easily lose them — but the first big danger had been passed. The time for serious fighting was approaching, and when it came the North would be operating with a solid advantage.

4. The Rising Shadows

Nearly four years later, when he was just five weeks away from the casket with the bronze handles, the echoing capitol dome above, the blue-coated soldiers standing with sober and disciplined unease in the flickering purple twilight, Abraham Lincoln tried to sum it up.

“Neither party,” he said, “expected for the war the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained.… Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”1

The easy triumph did not look very far away in the early summer of 1861. There was going to be a short war, and it would be romantic and glorious — crowned, of course, with victory. In the Confederacy people held to the belief that one Southerner could whip five Yankees; in the North it was supposed that secession would collapse once a blue battle line came over the hills with the sunlight glinting on polished musket barrels; and no one, as Lincoln remarked, could see that what was going to happen would be fundamental and astounding, a tearing up and a breaking down, a consuming tragedy so costly that generations would pass before people could begin to say whether what it had bought was worth the price.

The price … Well, what do you pay for an American Civil War? What is the cost of development from national adolescence to manhood; for the idea that the oneness of all people must run unbroken all through the national fabric; for a notion of citizenship that draws no line of color, birth, or where your grandfather’s people came from? The coins are various: a boy dying of typhoid in a cold tent, trampled grass growing up around the legs of his cot, a careless steward offering salt pork and hardtack for a final meal; another boy falling in a swamp with a slug of hot lead in his lungs; a home disrupted, with the goods that were to keep a family through the winter trampled on by grinning hoodlums; a woman on a farm in Indiana, or Mississippi, learning that the child who used to run barefooted across the meadows in spring has gone under the turf in some place whose name she never heard before … These are some of the coins, bloodshed and suffering and a deep sorrow in the breast, spent prodigally by folk who had not wanted to buy anything at all but who had just hoped to get along the best they could, winning a little happiness out of life if their luck was in: the total of these coins high beyond counting, the payment exacted from people who had made no bargain, the thing bought a mystic intangible dim in the great shadows.

But the payment had hardly begun in July of 1861, and what lay ahead looked easy, looked like something that would soon be over.

It was time, northern patriots believed, to whip the South and end matters. Specifically, it was time for General McDowell to take his army down to Manassas Plain, crush the rebellion, and march triumphantly on to Richmond. A clamor of press and oratory informed him that he would have to get moving. One battle, and then it would all be over.

General McDowell knew better. The processes of nineteenth-century warfare were as intricate as the weapons themselves were simple. A regiment of infantry consisted of ten companies. With much training, these ten could be taught the ballet-dance movements by which the regiment could maneuver as a unit rather than as a loose aggregation of semi-independent commands. The men could be taught the cumbersome business of loading and firing their muskets (it went by the numbers, with “tear cartridge!” as the first order, the whole line grounding musket butts and swinging the limber metal ramrods together), and there were involved proceedings by which the regiment could change its shape and its direction, maneuvers called for by orders such as “Change front forward on the first company!” “Advance firing!” and “Forward, by the right of companies!” All of this business could be learned, and many of the bright new soldiers had gone quite a way with their schooling.

But that was only the beginning. McDowell had some thirty-five thousand men in his army, and when they went down to Manassas to crush rebellion they would not be going as companies or as regiments. They would march and fight by brigade and division, all of the involvements of battalion drill multiplied by ten, and they had learned almost none of the business by which this would be done. They could perhaps just manage the chore of marching across a smooth drill ground and shaking their marching column out into a line of battle; they could not begin to comprehend that the actual doing of it, finally, would involve a shambling column a mile long, proceeding down a winding dirt road bordered by brambles, swampy patches, and dense second growth, this column suddenly required to fan out into a double rank stretching all across the meadow-and-woodlot complex of the nearest farm … with smoke in the air, everybody excited, menacing racket beating on the eardrums and drowning out the words of command, invisible enemies firing missiles that would whine horribly just overhead, some elements in every regiment missing the signals entirely, every man absorbed in his own attempt to master panic. They could not picture this yet and they could not do it, but it was what they would have to do the moment they were committed to battle.

Worse yet would be the matter of changing position on the battlefield. The means by which a fighting line could transform itself into a marching column without losing its cohesiveness, so that it could move from one field to another, follow an invisible diagonal to support a hard-pressed line of guns, or simply get itself in an orderly manner out of a spot that had become too hot to stay in — of all of this the men understood almost nothing because there had been no time to teach them and hardly any men who knew how to do the teaching. These soldiers might be shoved into battle if the authorities insisted, but what would happen after that would be totally unpredictable.

All of this McDowell knew, but the impassioned patriots who from a safe distance were providing the pressure for the great march on Richmond neither knew nor cared about any of it. They wanted action; action was ordered, and on the afternoon of July 16 McDowell hauled his regiments out of camp, got them strung out on the road, and headed for Manassas. Two days later he had his men more or less concentrated at Centreville, twenty miles from Washington, half a dozen miles from the place where the Confederates were waiting.2

There were not as many Confederates as there were Federals, but they occupied good ground behind a wandering little river named Bull Run, and — despite the strange notion of their commanding officer, the ambitious General Beauregard who had pounded Fort Sumter into surrender and who fancied now that he would cross the river and smite the Yankees in the flank — their function was to stay put and await attack: a much easier job for pea-green soldiers than to try to take the offensive. McDowell sent forward skirmishing and scouting details, who did their work clumsily enough but who at least gave him a fair idea where the enemy was, and he concluded correctly that a head-on assault on the Confederate lines would be a very bad gamble; better to feign a frontal attack and send half of the army around to come in on the Confederate left.

So ordered; and on July 21 two divisions of McDowell’s army — twenty infantry regiments, plus a handful of cavalry and some artillery — were sent marching upstream, to cross Bull Run a couple of miles beyond the end of the Rebel line and move down in battle array. The move was made — hours late, for the thing was managed poorly, and the soldiers simply had not had enough training to make an ordinary cross-country march without lopping all over the county — and by the middle of the morning the flanking division came in on a Confederate battle line on the hills behind Bull Run and the big fight was on.

There is an unreal quality to most accounts of this battle because they tend to describe it in terms of later battles which were fought after generals and soldiers had learned their trade, and it was not like those battles at all. Nothing went the way it had been planned, except for that first clumsy lunge around the Confederate left. After that, for Northerners and Southerners alike, it was simply a matter of pushing raw troops up to the firing line and hoping for the best.

The men stood up to it better than anyone had a right to expect. A good many of them lost heart and hid in the woods on the way up to the firing line, and a good many more ran away at the first shock, but that happened in every battle all through the war, even with veteran regiments; the amazing thing about Bull Run is that so many of these untested holiday soldiers dug in their heels and fought with great courage. They knew so little about their business that men in the front rank were on occasion shot by their own comrades farther in the rear. An officer who tried to shift a regiment from one place to another ran the risk of seeing it fall completely apart, and since most of the generals were as inexpert as the privates the matter of moving up supporting troops was bungled. In the end, about half of McDowell’s army failed to get into action at all. But although a great deal was said afterward about the disgraceful rout at Bull Run, the simple fact is that for most of the day the soldiers stood up manfully under a great deal of pounding.

What really turned McDowell’s battle into a defeat was something that had happened in the Shenandoah Valley a few days earlier.

The Confederates had some ten thousand soldiers in the valley. With them was General Joseph E. Johnston, an able tactician, who held overall command for the Confederates along the Virginia frontier. Johnston and his men were sixty miles from Manassas, but they had a direct railroad connection with the place and it had been clear from the start that, when McDowell moved down toward Bull Run, Johnston would quickly bring his men down to Beauregard’s aid unless somebody stopped him.

The man who was supposed to stop him was General Robert Patterson, Federal commander at the northern end of the valley, who had fifteen thousand men in and around Charles Town, not far from Harpers Ferry. The general idea was that he would keep pressing Johnston so that no Confederates could be sent from the valley to Bull Run.

Unfortunately, however, Patterson was semi-moribund, in a military sense. Old and fragile and bewildered — he had fought in the War of 1812, long before most of the Bull Run soldiers had been born — he proved quite unable to keep in touch with Johnston, and that officer had very little trouble in slipping away from him and bringing most of his men down to the battlefield. As the final elements of the valley army detrained at Manassas, their most direct route to the battlefield brought them into action right where they were needed most — on the right flank of McDowell’s attacking force — and as the afternoon wore along, McDowell’s assault was first stopped and then driven back.

Realizing that his big effort had failed, McDowell ordered a retreat Then the trouble began. His raw troops had fought well enough, but to make an orderly withdrawal under fire from a losing field was too much for them — not so much because they were demoralized as because they just had not had enough practice in the involved maneuvers that were necessary. Brigades and regiments dissolved, and what had been a stout line of battle turned into a disorganized crowd of individuals, lost and discouraged, walking back toward the rear — not exactly running away, but irretrievably out from under anybody’s control.3

There was little actual panic at first. But as the men got out of the battle zone the confusion multiplied. Not far to the rear — well back on the “safe” side of Bull Run — a fantastic sort of picnic had been going on, with a big crowd of Washington civilians enjoying basket lunches in the fields and getting the thrill of battle from a convenient distance. As the retreat began, these piled into their carriages and started for Washington at their best speed. A few miles down the road there was a bridge over a little stream named Cub Run, and this bridge collapsed. The carriage drivers grew frantic; and all of a sudden there was a frenzied traffic jam, with army wagons, caissons, guns, and ambulances jouncing up into the melee, straggling soldiers all around, everybody swearing, mass desperation rising higher every minute. A few casual Confederate shells exploded not far away, and chaos became complete. Now there was just a mob scene, miles long and a hundred yards wide, and there was no way to restore order until everybody had got back to Washington — which everybody undertook to do just as rapidly as possible.

So there developed a national belief that the troops at Bull Run had disgracefully fled in terror from a field they might have won. It was underlined by a singular development. On July 20, the day before the big fight, while all of the skirmishing was going on, two militia regiments pointed out that their ninety-day periods of service had expired, asserted their rights, and marched off to Washington — going to the rear, as McDowell indignantly commented, to the sound of the enemy’s cannon. The story of what they did got mixed up with the story of the rout itself, and the legend became fixed: untrained troops had either refused to fight at all or had fled in panic once the fighting started, and the whole battle had been a blistering national disgrace.4

A disgrace, in sober truth, and a painful licking to boot; out of which the people of the North drew shame, indignation, and the beginning of wisdom. It was not going to be a short war after all, and there would be no quick and easy triumph won by jaunty militia boys looking for something that would beat clerking. Beyond the battle smoke and the red casualty list with its twenty-five hundred names there was rising the indecipherable shadow of something fundamental and astounding, and now the shadow began to touch people. Bull Run was both a lesson and a portent.

If that was not enough, there was another battle in Missouri that carried its own shadows.

Nathaniel Lyon had driven Missouri’s fugitive Governor Claiborne Jackson off into the southwestern part of the state; a governor fatally handicapped in his attempt to take Missouri out of the Union and into the Confederacy by the fact that he had been chased away from all of the machinery of state government (except for the great seal of the state, which an underling thoughtfully brought along). He had called for fifty thousand Missourians to rise and expel the Yankee disturbers, and although he was not getting fifty thousand, he was getting quite a few; enough so that by the first of August Lyon found that the armed Rebels in his immediate vicinity greatly outnumbered his own forces.

Lyon had got all the way to Springfield by this time. His base of supplies was at the town of Rolla, at the end of the railroad that came over from St. Louis, and Rolla was 120 miles away from Springfield, over some very bad roads. It was clear that Lyon would have to retreat, but he hoped that he could strike a quick blow first, before his enemies had concentrated all of their troops.

Like all armies at this date, Lyon’s was a mixed one. It contained two small battalions of regular infantry and a few companies of regular cavalry, three batteries of regular artillery, three of the semi-irregular Missouri regiments recruited from among the Germans in and around St. Louis, and two volunteer regiments from Kansas and one from Iowa. Altogether it amounted to fifty-eight hundred men. Except for the regulars, with their hard discipline and precision drill, these men were no better trained than the men who had fought at Bull Run.5

They were at least learning how to manage a cross-country march, for they had done a power of walking since Lyon started chasing Governor Jackson, and if they were not getting much time on the drill field they were learning soldiering on the hoof. Lyon had them breaking camp and hitting the road well before sunrise, and the volunteers were not sure that they liked this. Army life had several aspects they had not counted on. The army mule, for instance, had a way of beginning to bray at midnight, and he was likely to keep it up for hours — a habit that (as a diarist asserted) was finally broken by a Mexican War veteran, who said that mules would not bray in the night season if weights were tied to their tails: a trick that was tried and actually seemed to work. The volunteers were awed by the regulars; they detested what they saw of regular army discipline (whose punishments they considered too revolting and brutal for free-born Americans), but they greatly admired the way the regulars looked and marched, and they strove to be like them. In Lyon’s army there was a ninety-day outfit, the 1st Iowa, whose time was due to expire early in August. The Iowans said that they did not want to go home without getting into one good fight, and they offered to stick around for an extra week or so in the hope that maybe there would be one.6

There would be. On August 10, Lyon took his army down to Wilson’s Creek, an unpretentious little stream that meandered cross-country ten miles from Springfield, where twelve thousand Confederates under General Sterling Price and a former Texas Ranger captain named Ben McCulloch were waiting. Lyon had a distinguished subordinate, a former German brigadier named Franz Sigel, who had defied the Prussians in the revolution of 1848, had led troops against them, and had fled for his life to America when the revolution was suppressed. Sigel was told to take his men in a big sweep around the Federal left and get in rear of the Confederate line of battle. When Sigel’s guns were heard the rest of Lyon’s men would make a frontal attack.

It could have worked, but it did not, quite. Sigel got his men where he was supposed to get them, but unhappily it turned out that although he was a devoted and a high-minded man he was almost totally incapable of handling troops in the field. His men opened fire, got Confederate fire in return, and then somehow went all to pieces, tumbling back across dreary woods and stumpy meadows in complete rout, leaving the rest of the army to fight its way out of the battle which their firing had commenced. The rest of the army did its best, but its best was not quite good enough, and the day ended in disaster.

Before the battle began Lyon went through the camps, talking to the men like an undersized red-whiskered father: “Men, we are going to have a fight. We will march out in a short time. Don’t shoot until you get orders. Fire low — don’t aim higher than their knees. Wait until they get close. Don’t get scared — it’s no part of a soldier’s duty to get scared.” Then he swung them out into line of battle and sent them into action.7

The Confederates were banked up four ranks deep, and the firing started with the rival lines no more than fifty yards apart — murderously close range, for the clumsy muzzle-loaders that constituted the infantry weapon in those days were deadly at anything under two hundred and fifty yards. The Iowa boys, who had hoped they could have one good fight before they were paid off, got their wish. They stood next to a battery of regular artillery, six guns commanded by an uncommonly hard-boiled West Pointer, Captain James Totten, who went into action with a canteen of brandy at his hip. Even in the excitement of their first battle the Iowans marveled at the profane fury with which Captain Totten stormed at his lieutenants and his gunners — “Forward that caisson, God damn you, sir!… Swing that piece into line, God damn you, sir!” — as his guns slammed canister and case shot into an advancing Rebel line and blew it apart.

The Rebels withdrew briefly, the smoke lifted from the field, and the volunteers found themselves facing an empty pasture with a snake-rail fence on the far side. A lone Confederate was perched on this fence, defiantly swinging a Confederate flag, and when the Iowans prepared to shoot him their officers went along the line ordering them not to: he was too brave, something about his valiant posture made it indecent to take pot shots at him. Captain Totten’s regulars felt otherwise; an Irish gunnery sergeant swung a piece around, got the Rebel in his sights, pulled the lanyard, and blew the man all to fragments — and with an angry yell the Confederate line surged forward in a new assault. The Kansans came in to help repel this attack, smoke settled close to the ground, everything was a wild clangor of beaten metal and shouting men, and a remarkable number of the northern volunteers got shot. For untaught soldiers it was rough, and men fought blindly, not knowing what they were doing; an officer came on one man who was loading his musket feverishly, firing straight up into the air, reloading and firing again, an automaton acting entirely by blind instinct.8

Lyon came along the line, bleeding from two wounds, his shaggy whiskers clotted with blood. He was profoundly depressed: a third of his men were down, Sigel’s attack had gone completely astray, no help was in sight, all the Rebels in Missouri seemed to be coming in on him. When Totten offered him a pull at the brandy he waved him aside, and to an aide he muttered: “Major, I fear the day is lost.” The aide said something hopeful, and Lyon galloped off to bring up a few companies he had been holding in reserve. He got them up to the front, and some of the untried young hotheads shouted that if he would lead them they would charge with their bayonets and chase the Rebels all the way to Arkansas. Lyon was the man for that. He swung his hat, wreaths of smoke floating about him, blood on his hair and blood on his uniform, and he wheeled to lead them — and then a stray bullet whacked into his heart and killed him. The charge died before it got started, and it developed that there was no surviving Union officer above the rank of major.9

The principal major turned out to be one Samuel D. Sturgis. He looked things over, concluded that the little army had about fought itself out, and took it away in retreat with the regulars to bring up the rear. Eventually the army arrived at the railhead at Rolla. There the 1st Iowa found a consignment of new uniforms, together with orders to head back home and get paid off. The boys took a bath in the nearest pond, threw away their filthy old uniforms, put on the new, and set off for Iowa, glad they had been in that one battle. At Burlington twenty thousand people were waiting to welcome them home, and they paraded down the streets singing a little tune called “The Happy Land of Canaan.”10

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