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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

A Concise History of The Civil War


by William Marvel


GEORGE BRINTON MCCLELLAN, 1826-1885. A top West Point graduate and a promising staff officer before the war, McClellan had spent a few years as a railroad executive before winning prominence in an early campaign in western Virginia. This led President Lincoln to appoint him commander of the army that had been defeated at First Bull Run, and later he put McClellan in charge of all Union forces.

McClellan moved his army slowly up the York River peninsula toward Richmond after much prodding from the government, but he was sent reeling back to the James River in a week of almost continuous fighting. Afterward he stopped the Confederate invasion of Maryland, but failed to demolish the much smaller Southern army at the battle of Antietam.

A brilliant administrator, he instilled in the Army of the Potomac an esprit de corps that survived his battlefield defeats. McClellan proved insufficiently bold before the enemy, moving slowly and failing to strike aggressively when the occasion called for it, For that Lincoln removed him after the battle of Antietam. McClellan also harbored political objectives hostile to those of the Lincoln administration, and in the 1864 election he stood unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for president.

GEORGE GORDON MEADE, 1815-1872. Born in Cadiz, Spain, where his father was a diplomat, Meade entered West Point at the age of sixteen and graduated in 1835. A year later he resigned to become an engineer, but he was reappointed in 1842 and served in the Mexican War. He remained in the army as an engineer until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he was given his first field command as a brigadier general of volunteer infantry. Wounded during the Seven Days in 1862, he led a division at Antietam and rose to corps command after Fredericksburg.

Two days before the battle of Gettysburg Meade was assigned to command the Army of the Potomac, which he led ably enough through that battle, but he was criticized for his failure to capture the entire Confederate army. He continued in command until the end of the war, but from the spring of 1864 he was reduced to little more than a figurehead because the general-in-chief, Grant, traveled with that army. A gruff, disagreeable man with a violent temper, Meade argued with nearly all his chief subordinates at one time or another.

ULYSSES SIMPSON GRANT 1822-1885. Grant enjoyed the greatest success story of the entire Civil War. After graduating in the bottom half of the West Point class of 1843, he served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the Mexican War, but the peacetime army left him lonely and bored. He turned to the bottle for solace and finally resigned as a captain in 1854. He failed even more miserably in civilian life and was virtually subsisting on the charity of his family when the Civil War erupted.

Again showing the stubborn determination that served him so well, he hammered the enemy mercilessly, launching coordinated offensives in all theaters of the war.

First given command of an Illinois regiment, Grant was soon appointed brigadier general. He achieved some notoriety with an attack on Belmont, Missouri, in November of 1861, but real fame came the next February, when he captured an entire Confederate army at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. His failure to take adequate precautions at Shiloh led to a surprise attack that nearly drove his army into the Tennessee River, but his stubbornness saved the day and reversed the tide of battle.

With the capture of Vicksburg Grant gained command of all Union forces in the western theater, and his spectacular victory at Chattanooga led Congress to approve his appointment as lieutenant general and general-in-chief of all Federal armies. Again showing the stubborn determination that served him so well, he hammered the enemy mercilessly, launching coordinated offensives in all theaters of the war. Lee's surrender at Appomattox was the acme of Grant's career, which was later tarnished by an embarrassing foray into politics, where his simple principles of courage and determination proved ineffective against special interests and greed.

WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, 1820-1891. Sherman graduated near the top of the class of 1840 at West Point. He spent the Mexican War in California, where there was little armed conflict, and he resigned in 1853 to become a banker there. In 1857 he returned to Ohio and gained admission to the bar, but that career displeased him and he sought reappointment in the army. Instead he found employment at a military school in Louisiana, resigning as superintendent two years later, when war broke out.

Given a Regular Army commission as colonel, Sherman led a brigade at First Bull Run, then took command of Union forces in Kentucky as a brigadier general. There he ran afoul of hostile newspapers that throve on his controversial remarks about the conduct of the war, and he hovered on the brink of a nervous breakdown when he was relieved. His career was saved by assignment to the army of Ulysses Grant: the two worked together successfully for the next two years, and when Grant took the top command he left Sherman in charge in the West.

Sherman waged war on all fronts, striking not only at the South's armies but at its economy and its will to resist.

Sherman waged war on all fronts, striking not only at the South's armies but at its economy and its will to resist, and his devastating March to the Sea marked the advent of modern warfare. He proved as magnanimous in peace as he had been relentless in war, however, and the surrender terms he first offered to Joseph Johnston's Confederate army were so generous that the government refused to honor them.

PHILIP HENRY SHERIDAN, 1831(?)-1888. Appointed to West Point in 1848, Sheridan was dismissed for attacking a cadet sergeant, but he was reappointed and graduated well down on the list in 1853. He served inconspicuously in the peacetime army and was still a lieutenant when the war began. For another year he remained at company rank, performing quartermaster service in the western theater, but in May of 1862 he was finally given command of an infantry regiment.

From there Sheridan rose meteorically to command of a brigade, earning a general's star in July and taking command of a division in September. He fought well at Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga. Grant noticed his performance at Chattanooga, where Sheridan's division stormed Missionary Ridge and chased the enemy into Georgia, and the following spring Grant chose the diminutive Irishman to command the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.

Sheridan's troops killed General J. F. B. Stuart in their first raid that year, and in August he was given command of the Union army in the Shenandoah Valley. There he trounced a smaller Confederate army at Winchester and Cedar Creek, and early in 1865 he scattered the remnants of that force at Waynesboro. Grant gave Sheridan effective command of a large portion of the Army of the Potomac at Five Forks, and Sheridan led one wing of the pursuit to Appomattox. A feisty, egotistical, and ambitious little fellow, once Sheridan tasted success he seemed unwilling to let anything stand in his way.



JOSEPH EGGLESTON JOHNSTON, 1807-1891. Johnston attended West Point with both Jefferson Davis and Robert F. Lee, graduating with Lee in 1829. He was wounded in every war that he fought, starting with the Seminole War, and in Mexico he was shot five different times. He served as an engineer in peacetime until 1855, when he was assigned to a mounted regiment as lieutenant colonel. In that capacity he served through the Kansas troubles and the Mormon expedition, but in the summer of 1860 he was appointed quartermaster general of the U.S. Army.

Johnston resigned that post ten months later, taking command of Confederate troops at Harpers Ferry. His little army arrived in time to help win the first battle at Manassas, after which Johnston was promoted to full general and given command of the troops in northern Virginia. Taking his army south to defend Richmond, Johnston was severely wounded at the battle of Seven Pines, and he remained inactive until given nominal command over all troops between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers.

This frustrating assignment was marked by repeated failures, largely because President Davis overruled Johnston, but at the end of 1863 Johnston was given direct command of the shattered Army of Tennessee. Davis grew annoyed when Johnston met Sherman's advance on Atlanta with defensive strategies, and late in July he replaced him with the more aggressive John Bell Hood. Johnston again assumed command of what remained of that army in February of 1865, jousting ineffectually with Sherman's much larger army until he was forced to surrender on April 26. Johnston was one of few senior Confederates who realized that offensive tactics would drain limited Southern manpower, and his foresight led to constant friction between him and President Davis.

ROBERT E. LEE, 1807-1870. The son of a renowned Revolutionary War soldier, Lee took second place in the West Point class of 1829, graduating without having accumulated a single demerit. Serving as an engineer for most of his career, he was one of Winfield Scott's most trusted staff officers during the Mexican War. He was superintendent of the military academy for three years, after which he was appointed colonel of a cavalry regiment on the frontier, but he spent much of that assignment on leave of absence. He commanded a detachment of U.S. Marines and stray soldiers who stormed John Brown's bastion at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and he had just returned to his cavalry regiment in Texas when secessionist troops forced him to return east.

Named one of the five original full Confederate generals, Lee served a few dismal months in western Virginia and on the coast of South Carolina before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862. His three years at the head of that army made him a legend as he first drove the Federals from the gates of Richmond, pushed them back into northern Virginia, and twice invaded the North.

In the end many of his soldiers seemed to cling to the army out of personal loyalty to the general himself.

Lee's boldness and sheer luck nearly brought the European recognition that might have saved the Confederacy, but his aggression also cost heavy casualties that the South could ill afford, and in the final year of the war he was forced to follow a defensive strategy, though he still attacked ferociously now and then within the confines of that strategy. In the end many of his soldiers seemed to cling to the army out of personal loyalty to the general himself.

THOMAS JONATHAN JACKSON, 1824-1863. Though he never commanded a large independent army, "Stonewall" Jackson is far more famous than most of those who did. A graduate of the West Point class of 1846, he served with distinction as an artilleryman in Mexico, resigning in 1851 to teach at Virginia Military Institute. Unimpressive as a professor there, he was often ridiculed by the cadets, who were puzzled at his personal idiosyncrasies.

Appointed a Confederate brigadier general in June of 1861, Jackson led a brigade at First Bull Run that stemmed a Union onslaught and put the enemy to his heels. There he earned his nickname and a slight wound to the hand. The following spring, with about 10,000 men, he began a campaign against three Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley, defeating them all at one time or another by virtue of rapid movements and surprise attacks; his maneuvering tied up some 70,000 Federals who might otherwise have taken part in the movement against Richmond. Afterward he served with Robert E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia.

He inspired his men with repeated successes rather than with his person presence or attention, and his name came to strike terror in the hearts of Union soldiers.

During the Seven Days Jackson put in a lackluster performance, but at Second Bull Run he shone again, holding against the more powerful Union army until the rest of Lee's troops could execute a decisive flank movement. He captured Harpers Ferry and 12,000 Federal soldiers during the Maryland campaign and staved off superior forces at Fredericksburg, but his greatest battle was Chancellorsville, where he led a wide flanking movement that crumbled the flank of the overwhelming Union army. There Jackson was mortally wounded, though, and he died eight days later. Laconic, dyspeptic, and secretive, Jackson was unsympathetic to his enemy and his troops alike. He inspired his men with repeated successes rather than with his personal presence or attention, and his name came to strike terror in the hearts of Union soldiers.

BRAXTON BRAGG, 1817-1876. After graduating near the top of the class of 1837 at West Point, Bragg spent nine teen years on active duty. As an artillery officer he fought in the Seminole War and in Mexico, most notably at the battle of Buena Vista, where his battery helped repel a key Mexican attack. After the war his battery was assigned to New Mexico, but Bragg served instead on staff duty. He finally resigned in 1856 to manage a plantation in Louisiana, but he was appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate army five weeks before the Civil War began.

Bragg commanded a wing of the army at Shiloh, and late in June of 1862 he took command of the Army of Tennessee, which he retained for seventeen unfortunate months. During a poorly coordinated invasion of Kentucky that autumn, Bragg missed an opportunity to fight the enemy on his own terms, and eventually he was forced to abandon everything he had gained. At Stones River he surprised the stronger Federals but failed to crush them, despite enormous casualties on both sides. His only real victory came at Chickamauga, but he was unable to break down the Union rear guard and scatter the retreating foe. His humiliating defeat at Chattanooga two months later led to his promotion to military adviser for President Davis.

Though extremely argumentative with subordinates and equals, Bragg got along well with Davis, and he served the Confederacy far better in this administrative capacity than he ever had on the battlefield. Toward the end of the war he accepted another field command, taking a corps in the army he had once led, and with that he participated in the final defeats in North Carolina.

JOHN BELL HOOD, 1831-1879. A contemporary of Philip Sheridan, Hood graduated near the bottom of his class at West Point in 1853, He fought Indians as an infantryman until he resigned from the army in April of 1861.

Though a Kentuckian himself, early in 1862 Hood took command of a Texas brigade, with which he broke the Union line at Gaines's Mill, during the Seven Days' battles. He led this brigade at Second Bull Run and Antietam, after which he was given a division. At Gettysburg he suffered a wound that crippled his left arm, but ten weeks later he returned to the front at Chickamauga, where he lost his right leg.

The wound would have put a less combative man out of the war, and it might have been better for the Confederacy if Hood had retired, but when the Atlanta campaign began, early in May, he took his place at the head of a corps, though he had to be strapped into the saddle. Preferring the offensive despite dwindling Confederate resources, Hood criticized Joseph Johnston's more cautious strategy, and the equally aggressive President Davis finally displaced Johnston in favor of Hood on July 17. In three days of fruitless hammering at the advancing Federals Hood lost more men than Johnston had during the entire campaign. Finally Hood allowed Sherman's army to encircle Atlanta completely, and Hood responded by swinging back on Sherman's line of communications, which allowed Sherman to proceed virtually unmolested across Georgia.

Doubling back to Tennessee, Hood sacrificed one-sixth of his army and his best division commander in an unsuccessful effort to eliminate part of the Union army at Franklin, and two weeks later his army was virtually destroyed at Nashville. In January of 1865 he asked to be relieved of command, which essentially ended his Confederate career.

It was often overlooked even at the time that all the while the Union waged its war to rebuild itself, it was also pushing its borders further west, admitting new states, beginning the preliminaries that led to the first transcontinental railroad, and after 1863 creating the land grant colleges that later became many of the nation's great state universities. Lincoln also conducted a remarkably successful foreign policy, aimed chiefly at keeping other nations out of the war, helped bring about a small social revolution by the enlistment of free Negroes into black regiments, and brought about substantial changes in the nation's economy, including the not exactly popular institution of the first income tax. By 1864 the war was costing $4 million a day, a staggering expense undreamed of before 1861, and a reflection not only of the magnitude of the war itself but also of the national expansion and organization that took place during the conflict. The Union was on its way from being a major power in its hemisphere to becoming a major power on the globe. Almost literally, Lincoln fought the Confederacy with one hand while he oversaw the transformation of the United States with the other.



By the end of 1862, events in the war in the eastern theater might have suggested that Lincoln use both hands for his war, for the story of defeat that began the war at Fort Sumter and Bull Run continued almost without letup. Following the retreat of his army to Washington, Lincoln brought a new man to its command, McClellan, who had made a name for himself with some very minor successes in western Virginia. "Little Mac," as his men affectionately called him, had the gift of inspiration and proved to be perhaps the finest organizer of the war. He rebuilt the demoralized army, soon to be called the Army of the Potomac. He selected officers almost as inspiring as himself, gave the men renewed pride in themselves, equipped them magnificently, drilled them to a degree unheard-of among volunteer troops, and in all turned them into the most impressive military body ever seen on the continent by early 1862. Fortunately, the war stayed quiet in Virginia for months after Bull Run, giving him time to do all this, but as the spring of 1862 approached, Lincoln and the Union expected McClellan to use this wonderful army.

McClellan's plan looked brilliant when presented. He wanted to put his army aboard transports and steam down the Potomac to Chesapeake Bay, then south to Fort Monroe, a massive fortification at the tip of the Virginia peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers. Monroe was too strong for the Confederates to drive its Union garrison out, and so it sat like a knife poised at the back of Richmond. McClellan would use it as his base, land his troops, and march up the Peninsula to attack and take Richmond from the rear. If he moved quickly, he could end the war in the East in a few weeks.



It all went wonderfully until McClellan landed. Then he showed the other side of his generalship—timidity, a tendency to exaggerate the size of the enemy before him, and a dread fear of responsibility in case of defeat. Opposed to him at first were only a few thousand Confederates at Yorktown. With more than 60,000 men ashore and more coming every day, McClellan could have walked over them. Instead, he stopped to prepare a siege. That gave Confederates time for the rest of their army, commanded by Johnston, to come to the scene. In the end Johnston would still have no more than 60,000 men while McClellan commanded more than 100,000. But throughout the campaign that followed, instead of moving quickly and taking advantage of his superiority, Little Mac stalled, stumbled, and consistently believed that the Rebels outnumbered him.

In fact, throughout April and most of May, McClellan advanced only because the equally timid and fearful Johnston pulled back before him without a fight. Not until May 31 did they finally meet in real battle at Seven Pines, where Johnston took a serious wound that put him out of the war for months. President Davis gave the command to Robert E. Lee, his chief military adviser, and now the Confederates had a commander worthy of their valor. Thereafter Lee completely dominated the campaign. Stonewall Jackson had just finished an electrifying campaign a hundred miles to the west in the Shenandoah Valley, where his small force had decisively met and defeated three separate Federal forces and driven them from the Valley and its vital agricultural resources. Lee now summoned him to Richmond, and together they struck at McClellan on June 25, commencing what were called the Seven Days' Battles. Day after day until July 1 Lee struck, and while he never obtained the decisive victory he sought, still he so overwhelmed McClellan that the Federals finally pulled back toward Fort Monroe and eventually withdrew entirely without offering battle again.

Little Mac's reputation was severely tarnished, but Lee's rose to the forefront, and through the balance of the year he polished it the brighter. While McClellan stumbled on the Peninsula, Washington built another command called the Army of Virginia, designed to protect it while McClellan's army was away. In late July its commander, General John Pope, led it south in the hope of drawing Lee away from Richmond to allow Little Mac to advance once more. But Lee knew that McClellan would not budge and sent Jackson to stop Pope. At Cedar Mountain on August 9 Jackson struck a devastating blow that turned back one of Pope's corps, and then Lee, seeing that McClellan was starting to abandon the Peninsula, took the balance of his army to reinforce Stonewall. On August 28-30, along the banks of Bull Run and on some of the same ground where the battle of the year before had been fought, Lee and Jackson soundly defeated Pope, though this time the Federals did not run in demoralization. Nevertheless, the sting of these defeats following hard or one another badly humiliated McClellan—who withheld much-needed support from Pope, ruined Pope himself, and stunned the North.




Lee and Davis sensed that this was the perfect time to launch an invasion of the Union, It would further disorganize Yankee morale and give northern Virginia some relief from the exhausting presence of the armies. He led his newly designated Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac in early September and drove into Maryland. McClellan, by now at nearby Frederick, encountered a monumental stroke of luck when a copy of Lee's plan of campaign fell into his hands, but he moved slowly to capitalize on it, and the two armies did not meet each other until September 17. Still, Little Mac caught Lee at a disadvantage, with much of his army several miles distant and the remainder backed up against the Potomac near Antietam Creek. Fortunately for the Confederates, McClellan conducted a miserable battle, wasting time, making piecemeal attacks with parts of his army instead of taking advantage of its numerical superiority. In the end, after what proved to be the bloodiest day of the whole war, with almost 5,000 killed between the two armies, the balance of Lee's army arrived in the last moment and he held his ground rather than be pushed back into the river. Typically, Lee wanted to fight again the next day, but McClellan had no stomach for it, and Lee, who was still in a very precarious position, had no choice but to retire to Virginia.

Because the Federals held the field and Lee retreated, the Union claimed Antietam as a victory, though if anyone should be counted the victor it was Lee for saving his army from such a dangerous position. Still, it was Lincoln's first success in the East, and he used it as the pretext for his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. But it would be McClellan's last battle. Fed up with the general's sloth and haughtiness, Lincoln replaced him on November 7 with General Ambrose Burnside. This handsome and well-liked officer would last through only one battle as a commander before he, like McClellan, learned just how formidable Lee and his army could be. Burnside advanced into Virginia toward Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River, barely fifty miles from Richmond, and there planned to cross and move on the Rebel capital. Lee was waiting for him, well entrenched on the southern side of the river, and when Burnside attacked on December 13, the Confederates summarily stopped his campaign. Delays in getting the pontoon bridges that he needed to cross the river lost Burnside valuable time, and when he did get his bridges erected—under fire—and his men across the river, Lee pinned them down in the streets of the city or met them with withering fire as they attacked up a slope. In the end, after suffering more than 12,000 casualties, Burnside gave up.





If Union fortunes in the East looked grim as the end of the year approached, they appeared a bit better in the West. In fact, the same Grant who failed at Belmont started the year with a significant victory in the taking of Forts Henry and Donelson, which guarded the lower reaches of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. These streams emptied into the Ohio in Kentucky, but their upper reaches passed through all of central Tennessee and northern Alabama. Yankee gunboats having access to them could steam clear into the heart of the Confederacy and actually get in the rear of Southern forces in Nashville and elsewhere. By taking the two forts, Grant stood poised to do just that. As a result, the Confederate commander in the region, Davis's bosom friend General Albert Sidney Johnston, had no choice but to evacuate Tennessee to avoid being cut off. He pulled into northern Mississippi, but then planned a campaign to regain the territory he had lost. In late March he moved north again and on April 6 almost completely surprised Grant and his army camped near Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee. In the most furious day's fighting yet seen in the West, Johnston struck all along Grant's line. The struggle blazed in places with names like the Peach Orchard, the Hornets' Nest, and beside Shiloh church. Johnston pressed the Yankees almost back into the Tennessee itself. But then Johnston fell from his saddle in a swoon and soon died. He bled to death from a bullet wound in his leg that he foolishly ignored. Command shifted to his second, Beauregard, who had been sent west chiefly because he and Davis could not get along, and the new general almost immediately lost his resolve. This, and large reinforcements during the night, saved Grant, so that on April 7, he was ready to take the initiative, and by the end of the day Beauregard was in retreat.



Hard on this success, Captain David G. Farragut's Union fleet steamed up the Mississippi, past the forts guarding New Orleans, and on April 25 captured the city. This gave the Union control of the lower Mississippi as well as the upper river, leaving the South only a hundred miles or so of the stream between Mississippi and Arkansas and north Louisiana. Once the Yankees gained complete mastery of the great river—if they did—they would divide the Confederacy in two, isolating Texas, Arkansas, and western Louisiana from the rest of the seceded states. Slowly, just as in the taking of the Tennessee and Cumberland the Yankees were carving the western Confederacy into slices by taking and using its rivers.

The summer and fall of 1862 saw Grant and Farragut attempting to close off the rest of the Mississippi, but the fortress city of Vicksburg defeated their efforts. Meanwhile, Beauregard left his command, and General Braxton Bragg took command of what was now termed the Army of Tennessee. Moving in tandem with Lee's invasion of Maryland, Bragg moved north in August hoping to retake middle Tennessee and push into Kentucky, where he believed he would find large reinforcements among Southern sympathizers. Instead, he found Kentuckians largely indifferent to Confederate interests and more loyal to the Union than he supposed. He got as far as the capital at Frankfort before a Union army led by Don C. Buell began to threaten his line of retreat. Rebuffed by Kentuckians, Bragg turned back, and at Perryville in October the two armies fought an inconclusive engagement that still left Bragg with no alternative but to continue his withdrawal.

In the end, Bragg pulled back to central Tennessee, while the Yankees followed him as far as Nashville. For two months they refitted themselves and planned their next move, and then a new commander, William Rosecrans, led Buell's Army of the Cumberland south to attack Bragg in December. Bragg met him in and around the small town of Murfreesboro, along Stones River on December 31. For several hours the armies hammered each other bloodily, and that evening Bragg wired Richmond that he had won a great victory. The unending tale of defeat for the Union seemed to roll onward without relief.



December 1862 was the high tide of the Confederacy. Never in all its brief history did its prospects look brighter. Lee stopped Burnside at Fredericksburg and was already showing himself to be the master of any general the Yankees could send against him. Despite the loss of Albert Sidney Johnston in the West and Bragg's repulse in Kentucky, the year ended with Lee at the verge of sending Rosecrans back north in defeat. Though much of the Mississippi fell to the enemy, still Vicksburg held, as did Port Hudson a hundred miles south, keeping communications open with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy and its rich resources of men and supplies. In Richmond Jefferson Davis had a government up and operating, men still turned out with gusto to fill his regiments, and though hard-pressed for weapons and money and every other article needled to wage war, the Confederacy was still doing it thanks to the high resolve of its people.

The infant nation had come a long way from the day back on February 4, 1861, when 47 delegates from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana met in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a defensive alliance. In four hectic days they formed a preliminary constitution based on the old United States Constitution, adding an article that specifically recognized the inalienable right to own property in slaves. Then they chose a president. Everyone expected him to be a Georgian because that state was a powerhouse of political leaders, including Robert Toombs, Howell Cobb, and Alexander H. Stephens. But Cobb had been too vacillating on Southern rights in the past. Toombs could not hold his liquor and became embarrassingly drunk just a night or two before the election. And Stephens took himself out of the running, saying he had been too ardent a Unionist in the past for Confederates to accept him now as their leader. Only on the last evening before the election did the delegates settle on Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and on February 8 they elected him unanimously, making Stephens his vice-president.



The task before him dwarfed even the Herculean challenge facing Lincoln. To get his government going, Davis almost literally stole much of it from the Union. More than one of his cabinet secretaries persuaded Southern sympathizers working in similar departments in Washington to come south, bringing their staffs and even their office forms with them. Secretary of the Treasury Christopher G. Memminger began announcing subscription loans to raise money for the government, and in the end Confederates contributed tens of millions in return for interest-bearing bonds to be redeemed after a successful conclusion of the war. The Post Office Department put itself in a position to be entirely self-sustaining and eventually returned a profit by reducing services and raising rates.

The founding fathers of the Confederacy saw themselves not as rebels, but as reformers. They did not try to establish some radical new form of government. They wanted the constitutional democracy they felt that had had all along until the balance of power shifted to the North. They wanted free trade with the world rather than a high tariff that protected certain—Northern—industries. They opposed spending the revenues raised from one state to make "internal improvements" or to encourage an industry in another state. They wanted the Constitution strictly obeyed in its literal intent and not "interpreted" to expand the powers of central government. And they wanted the sovereignty of the states recognized in all those matters in which they did not specifically grant power to the nation. Most especially, of course, they wanted protection for slavery.

Yet these men proved to be idealists in a way, too. Having seen all of the sectional discord caused by party politics, especially when the entirely sectional Republican Party rose to prominence, they dreamed of a nation and a government without parties. In February 1861 they could have such dreams, since in the excitement, euphoria, and fear of the time, men of all stripes seemed united to the one goal of Southern unification and defense. Unfortunately, it could not last. An opposition immediately arose, headed by men whose disappointed ambitions for high office made them instinctive enemies of Davis and his policy. Then there were those who favored an aggressive prosecution of the war, while Davis and the majority knew that the South was not equipped to do more than maintain a spirited defensive. Soon the state governors got into the fray, increasingly standing in Davis's way when he tried to get troops and supplies from them. They would willingly turn over their regiments, of course, but they refused to recognize the right of the government to command them to do so. Within only a few months of the formation of the Confederacy, the very doctrine of localism and states' rights that lay at its core began working against it. By early 1862, these elements and more, though they had no other issues to unite them, began to bond on the single matter of hostility to Jefferson Davis. In time, the partyless Confederacy had a second party after all, one with no name and but a single credo, to thwart the president. Happily, they never managed to do more than interfere. They never stopped any of his efforts, and even in the Congress, which by 1864 had a sizable minority of anti-Davis members, his majority remained safe enough that only one of his vetoes was ever overridden, and that was one of minor importance. Battered, abused, and maligned, still Jefferson Davis remained in command of the Confederacy from beginning to end and left his personal stamp on its history—for good and ill—even more than did Lincoln on the Union.

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