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Civil War Series

A Concise History of The Civil War


by William Marvel

The great smoke and clank of Northern factories credited an economy different from, and in many ways hostile to that of the agrarian South.

Industry forged the forces that rent the country asunder in 1861. The great smoke and clank of Northern factories created an economy different from, and in many ways hostile to, that of the agrarian South, and the underlying economic rivalries did as much to inflame the sections as the emotional rhetoric over slavery. But industry also played a significant role in welding the nation back together, for multitudes of Union troops might not have won the war without Northern iron and steel.

Had anyone guessed the importance of railroads to the movement and supply of armies, a rail map alone might have dampened Southern ardor. The vast Confederacy contained less than half the track mileage found in the loyal states, and much of its sparse network lay unconnected only one fragile corridor linked the key cities of Richmond and Chattanooga, and it was virtually impossible to reach the heart of the Confederacy by rail from west of the Mississippi or the state of Florida. In the North, a passenger could travel between almost any major cities with little more than a change of cars.

The distribution of iron and steel works told an even more alarming tale. In 1858 the vast majority of forges and foundries lay in Pennsylvania, and most of the rest were found north of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. Of the twenty-two cities that employed more than 5,000 hands at manufacturing in 1859, only one, Richmond, was in the South; Cincinnati and Chicago counted more than 25,000 operatives, while Philadelphia boasted over 50,000. The greatest manufacturing center of all was New York, with well over 100,000 employees. In the year before the war began, the South's percentage of the national manufacturing output still lagged in the single digits.

This industrial backwardness quickly caught up with the Confederacy. Railroads soon began to suffer from insufficient spare parts for locomotives and from a shortage of rail stock, for the South began the war with too few machine shops and only one rolling mill. And when the gray armies moved cross-country their wagons creaked precariously on homemade repairs. Efforts to correct the deficiencies succeeded only moderately and briefly, for Federal armies advanced to swallow new factories as quickly as they could be constructed.

Even clothing grew scarce. With no textile production outside private homes, the Confederate War Department began ordering shirts, socks, uniform material, and shoes from abroad as early as the summer of 1861. Shoes remained a prized commodity throughout the conflict: rumors of shoes drew the Southern troops who began the battle of Gettysburg, and the next winter Confederate generals gave their men patterns and instructions for making their own moccasins. In the final year of the war, Confederate quartermasters scoured their prison camps for Yankee cobblers.

Weapons were the greatest embarrassment, however. From the outset, Confederate troops found themselves outgunned. Southern forces captured about 150,000 small arms when they closed in on U.S. armories in 1861, but three times that many remained in the North. As each side geared up for wartime production, the South only fell further behind.

By September of 1862 only 14,349 small arms had been manufactured in the entire Confederacy, though public and private armories had been established for the production of as many as 3,600 weapons monthly. That capacity fell short of its promise, though, and by September of 1863 fewer than 35,000 more rifles, carbines, and revolvers had been delivered. Southern production dropped to 20,000 for 1864, while just one Northern facility, the National Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, was capable of manufacturing 300,000 rifles a year.

The Confederacy looked to foreign suppliers for firepower, and after 1861 most of its small arms came through the blockade. By the autumn of 1862 some 300,000 muskets and rifles had been issued to Confederate troops, while Northern soldiers had drawn more than a million. Another 1,275,000 Federal small arms stood in various stages of completion by November of 1862, and Northern armories lay largely idle by the end of the war, for the U.S. Army held 750,000 rifles in storage, besides the million and more still in the hands of its soldiers.

Artillery was more difficult to import, and much of the South's heavier ordnance came from Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works. At full production in the year ending with October of 1863, the South put a total of 677 new cannon into the field from all sources, including purchase. A year earlier, Northern foundries had already turned out 2,121 finished guns, and they had cast the tubes of 3,100 more.

By the final act in the drama, the slow-moving wheels of Southern industry had ground to a complete halt. The Confederacy's last manufacturing center went up in smoke the day the Army of Northern Virginia evacuated Richmond, and none of the wagons or guns lost on that final march could ever be replaced. Of the 28,000 ragged Confederates who straggled in to Appomattox Court House for the surrender, barely one in three still carried a rifle.


From the outset, the Confederates believed that much of their hope of independence lay in persuading European powers, especially England and France, to grant them diplomatic recognition followed by military intervention. To persuade—or coerce—them into doing so, the Confederates relied on "King Cotton." They would voluntarily withhold sale and shipment of cotton to Europe's hungry textile mills, hoping that nations would risk siding with them in order to reopen the trade. Yet by the end of 1861 Davis and others realized that the policy would not work. Britain already had a surplus of cotton on hand, and other sources in India and Egypt were opening. Nations, like men, acted chiefly out of self-interest, and Britain and France had nothing to gain from going to war with the Union. Moreover, both felt uneasy about slavery, having abandoned it themselves long before. Siding with the Confederacy would not put them on the moral high ground. Toward the end of the war, when Davis actually offered the prospect of emancipation—which he had not the power to enforce—in return for recognition, it came as too little and far too late.


Part of Davis's success against his enemies within lay in the nature of his people. The common folk of the Confederacy willingly sustained incredible sacrifice during the first three years of the war. A significantly higher proportion of its military-age men volunteered than in the North, most of them motivated not by slavery—few were slaveholders—or even by a sense of Confederate nationalism. Overwhelmingly they enlisted to protect their homes and hearths from an invader's heel. And whereas the North waged war while engaging in a host of other domestic endeavors not related to the conflict, almost from the first the South had to divert every muscle, every sinew, every fiber of its body to the one task of defending itself. All industry converted to war production. Civilians lived in some areas at subsistence levels in order to get foodstuffs to the armies. Hundreds of thousands were dislocated as refugees by the moving armies and swarmed to the cities to work in factories or hospitals or simply to try to survive. Beautiful iron railings and church bells were turned into cannon, wedding dresses became battle flags, and gold and jewelry were exchanged for cash to buy weapons and munitions from abroad. Only in 1864 did the exhaustion from this incredible exertion finally begin to tell in increasing desertions from the army, in a mounting war resistance among the largely Unionist peoples of the Appalachian hill country, and in a growing resignation among even the most patriotic that they had done all they could and that it would not be enough. As 1865 dawned, even if the Confederate armies had enjoyed enough manpower to fight with a hope of victory—which they did not—they no longer had a potent civilian and industrial phalanx behind them. Too much lay destroyed, too many were dead.

A harbinger of the direction the war would take came just two days after Davis received that telegram from Bragg announcing his victory at Stones River. From what looked like certain triumph on December 31, the conflict went against the Confederates in more fighting that followed, and in the end Bragg had to abandon the field. Stones River now loomed as a Yankee victory, though marginal. Moreover, it only presaged what was to follow in the West. Bragg's army fell into some demoralization after being led by him in two successive defeats and retreats, and internal squabbling broke out in his high command that would last for the rest of the year. In fact, he would not lead the Army of Tennessee in battle again for over eight months as he battled with his own commanders and dithered over what course to adopt in the field. Meanwhile, the war went on around him.



U. S. Grant, now a major general thanks to his successes in 1862, never gave up his intention to take Vicksburg on the Mississippi, despite a series of reverses the year before. Throughout the winter and on into the spring he steadily planned and maneuvered. During April he moved much of his army down the river, then landed it on the opposite bank of the river and started the laborious process of moving it south through the swamps and bayous of Arkansas, until it emerged once more on the riverbank several miles below Vicksburg. Then in a daring maneuver, Captain David Dixon Porter ran his fleet of gunboats, troop transports, and barges south by night, right past the looming batteries on the bluffs around Vicksburg. Although discovered, they kept on, and in the end all but one gunboat and seven transports made it safely past. Rendezvousing with Grant downstream, they ferried his army across to the east bank, and the Yankees started advancing north, now deep in the enemy rear and threatening to take Vicksburg from its land side.

Grant's operations left the Confederate defender, General John C. Pemberton, only two alternatives. Either he moved out of Vicksburg to try to defeat Grant in the open field, or he waited in his defenses, where inevitably the Federals would surround him and lay siege. Pemberton chose to take a risk and marched out. On May 16, 1863, after Grant had already brushed aside some smaller Rebel forces at Jackson, he engaged Pemberton at Champion's Hill and defeated him, sending some of the Confederate army scurrying off to the south and the rest back to Vicksburg. Three days later Grant stood at Vicksburg's gates. His initial attacks failed to break through, and he decided to erect siege works instead. For 47 days Vicksburg held out. Nothing could get into or out of the city. Soldiers and civilians alike were reduced to eating horses and mules, even rats. Pemberton expected a relief force commanded by Joseph E. Johnston—now recovered from his wound—to come to his aid, but Johnston was as irresolute as ever and simply watched from a distance as Pemberton's force withered. Finally, unable to break out and unable to hold out, Pemberton surrendered on July 4, giving the Union a resounding victory for its Independence Day. A few days later the other Rebel river bastion at Port Hudson, Louisiana, fell after a siege. Now at last, the Union controlled the entire length of the Mississippi, and the Confederacy was split in twain.



In the East, after what appeared to be yet another repeat of the Confederate successes of previous years, Southern fortunes took a drastic downturn as well. Lincoln had little choice but to replace Burnside after Fredericksburg, and the new commander seemed to inspire his men almost as much as McClellan had. Major General Joseph Hooker had been one of the Army of the Potomac's most combative corps commanders and he actively politicked to get the command. Lincoln gave it to him, and Hooker launched an excellent campaign in the spring to make one more drive toward Richmond. At first, he seemingly took Lee unawares and got his army across the Rappahannock before Lee was ready for him. But then the audacious Lee, outnumbered more than two to one, turned and marched to attack Hooker, which so unnerved the Federal that he stopped and dithered. That was all the opening Lee needed. As he occupied Hooker's attention in his front, he discovered that Hooker's right flank lay exposed and unprotected. Early on May 2 Stonewall Jackson led most of the army in a hard march some sixteen miles around the Yankee right and in the late afternoon emerged unsuspected on Hooker's flank and rear and put almost half of the Union army to rout. In the process, Jackson's own men accidentally gave him a mortal wound. Lee's cavalry chieftain, General J. E. B. Stuart, took over Jackson's command and the next day continued to push the Yankees back until Hooker lost his fight altogether and withdrew back across the Rappahannock.



The startling victory came at a high price with the death of Jackson, but Lee saw a whole summer of campaigning weather ahead of him and knew that he could not let his army lie idle. Having the initiative, he must keep it. In June he launched another invasion of the North, this time driving across Maryland and into Pennsylvania, very nearly to the capital of Harrisburg. The movement panicked the North, Washington feared for its safety, and Lincoln, lacking confidence in Hooker, replaced him on June 28 with General George G. Meade, Less than 72 hours later Meade would be locked in the greatest battle ever fought on the continent.


Hurrying to catch up to Lee and get his own army between the Confederates and Washington, Meade finally stopped him in central Pennsylvania. Their advance units encountered each other at Gettysburg on July 1. It all went against the Yankees on that first day, and by evening they had fallen back to some high ground just south of town. Hurriedly both commanders rushed more troops to the battlefield during the night, and on July 2 the fighting renewed. A host of places became immortal. The Wheat Field. The Peach Orchard. Devil's Den. Little Round Top. Culp's Hill. Lee took the offensive throughout the day, but no matter where he struck, the Federals either held their ground or else pulled back to better defenses. The climax came the following day. Having tried the left and right flanks of the enemy line, Lee launched a massive assault against the center. Two whole divisions and portions of others massed for what came to be called Pickett's Charge. Across almost a mile of open ground the Confederates marched, then rushed up against the guns and infantry on the Union line. Briefly a few broke through before Federal firepower and valor drove them back with appalling casualties. Lee had nothing left. His army was battered and disorganized, and he had no choice but to retreat back to Virginia.

Coming as it did the day before the surrender of Vicksburg, the victory at Gettysburg supercharged the North and cast a pall over Southerners. Yet the battle severely damaged Meade, too. His army would not be in shape to fight another battle for months, while Lee took such heavy losses in men and commanders that the Army of Northern Virginia would never be the same again. For the balance of the year, both Meade and Lee did little more than feint and maneuver as they sought to recover from Gettysburg.

Out in the West, however, Bragg finally showed some activity. He and Rosecrans traded possession of Chattanooga in August and September and then set out in a stumbling way, each hoping to drive the other out of southeastern Tennessee. On September 19, after considerable earlier skirmishing, they met along Chickamauga Creek a few miles south of Chattanooga. Neither commander knew enough of the confusing terrain to control his own army, much less know what his opponent was about and Bragg especially suffered with balky corps commanders who ignored or delayed in obeying his orders. As a result, the first day's fight was indecisive. But during the night a massive reinforcement from Virginia, led by Lee's premier corps commander, James Longstreet, arrived to bolster Bragg. The next day Bragg launched his main attack and so managed to harry Rosecrans's left flank that repeated pleas for reinforcement led to a confusion in the Federal center, resulting in a division moving off to support the left and leaving a huge gap in the line just as Longstreet launched an attack. He split the Army of the Cumberland in two. Rosecrans and many of his generals fled back to Chattanooga, and only the spirited resistance of George H. Thomas and those remaining kept the rout from becoming a disaster. It would be the Confederacy's greatest victory in the West.

Unfortunately, Bragg followed it with the most humiliating defeat. When the Federals retreated to Chattanooga, Bragg besieged them by placing his army on the heights of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, effectively boxing Rosecrans in with his back to the Tennessee River. Soon Lincoln put Thomas in charge in Rosecrans's place and ordered Grant to come to Chattanooga to retrieve the situation. On November 24, after breaking the siege and resupplying and reorganizing the army, Grant attacked and took Lookout Mountain. The next day Thomas ordered his army to move against Missionary Ridge. Going beyond their orders, the bluecoats drove straight up its slopes and completely routed Bragg's army, sending it fleeing in disorganization into north Georgia. As 1863 closed, well might people North and South wonder at what a difference a year could make.


There was another theater of the war in which Union fortunes now looked good, one not bounded by mountains or dotted with cities. From the very first, both sides knew that this conflict would be fought on the water as well as the land. Neither came prepared. Lincoln's entire fleet amounted to no more than a dozen modern warships well outfitted in 1861. Several were scuttled in Southern ports when the Union navy abandoned them to Confederates, and others were far away on distant seas. Yet with this small nucleus Lincoln declared a blockade of Confederate ports on April 16, 1861, and ordered his few ships to post themselves off Charleston, Wilmington, and the other major harbors into which foreign shipping could bring arms and munitions. By the summer, as Lincoln pressed obsolete warships, New York ferry boats, and even private luxury yachts into service, the blockade began to have some small effect, and every month thereafter it became tighter and stronger. Only about 10 percent of the ships that attempted to run the blockade in 1861 fell prey to Yankee blockaders, but by 1864, when a total of 600 or more vessels patrolled the Confederate coast and its harbors, one of every three blockade runners never got through. Pinning so much of its hopes on outside support and materials that it could not manufacture for itself, the Confederacy encouraged private entrepreneurs to build fast, sleek vessels that could get in and out of port through the cordon of enemy ships. Some runners made considerable fortunes, and even a single successful run with a full cargo of guns or powder, not to mention civilian luxuries, could make a captain a wealthy man and pay for the vessel as well.



By contrast, the Confederacy started with nothing. Its first navy consisted only of the few ships it captured at the outset. Immediately Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory started a program of buying ships abroad and converting them for war service. He also perceived the potential of ironclad warships, as yet untried in America. At Hampton Roads, Virginia, he raised the hulk of the Federal frigate Merrimack and had it rebuilt and converted, covered with a long barnlike shed with sloping sides covered with heavy iron plating, and renamed it the Virginia. On March 8, 1862, it steamed out into the Roads and challenged the Union blockaders, almost destroying the wooden fleet single-handedly. But when it went back the next day to finish the job, it encountered the Yankees own ironclad, the little Monitor. Better designed, better built, and a much smaller target, the Monitor steamed circles around the Virginia. At the end of the day both vessels retired, each thinking the other had given up, but the real victory lay with the Monitor, for the Virginia never steamed into the Roads again to threaten the Union fleet.




Seeing what these vessels accomplished started a virtual ironclad fever North and South. Dozens would be constructed during the remainder of the war. Most Confederate ships followed roughly the pattern of the Virginia, and most suffered its weaknesses of faulty engines and makeshift construction. The Union used a variety of designs, including behemoth ships that plied the Mississippi and its tributaries. Ironclads, and the lesser gunboats that sailed with them, rarely met in actual combat with each other, but where they did on the Mississippi, the Confederates almost invariably found themselves out-gunned and facing better armor. Still, the exploits of a few gallant ships like the Arkansas and the Tennessee showed that valor and determination could make up for what these Rebel ironclads lacked in armament and iron.

On the high seas, the Confederates early decided to take the offensive by attempting to disrupt Union commerce. Sinking Yankee merchant vessels, Davis reasoned, would discourage foreign shippers from risking their cargoes to Northern ships and at the same time show Union civilians that they were not immune to the war's hazards. Hit the enemy in the pocketbook, Confederates thought, and they would quit quickly, for the average Confederate believed erroneously that the Yankee valued his money above all else. Powerful vessels like the Sumter, the Florida, the Shenandoah, and most of all the Alabama, spread terror among Yankee captains, especially when commanded by daring and ruthless men like Admiral Raphael Semmes. In the end, however, their impact on the Northern war effort was minimal. Most were hunted down and sunk, and their greatest impact on the war was the international turmoil they caused between the Union and England, where many of them were built or fitted out.

By the dawn of 1865, the Confederacy had almost no navy left. As each of its major ports fell, one after another, to Union gunboats, the ships defending them were either lost or, having nowhere to go, steamed up rivers to the interior, where they posed no threat at all and were usually scuttled by their own crews. Some of the fighting for these ports was dramatic, nowhere more so than at Charleston in 1863, when it was demonstrated that ironclads did have limitations as a fleet of Yankee ironclads tried unsuccessfully to attack Fort Sumter and only got terrible losses for its pains. On the other hand, at Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, the daring Farragut demonstrated, as he had on the Mississippi, that ironclads could simply ignore forts and steam right on past to do battle with enemy vessels. Braving the fire of two masonry forts on either side, he ran his fleet past them and then took the bay itself and the Confederate ships in it, even while the Rebels still held the forts at the bay's mouth. Inevitably, they later had to surrender. Farragut also immortalized himself by his determination to "damn the torpedoes," when he was told that the Confederates had placed underwater mines called torpedoes in the main channel. One of his ironclads, the Tecumseh, struck one and went to the bottom in seconds, but Farragut pressed on undeterred.

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