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Civil War Series

A Concise History of The Civil War


by William Marvel

War tends to bring out the inventiveness of those whose countries fight, and the American Civil War was no exception. Many of today's sophisticated weapons and tools of war are the direct descendants of inventions that saw their first successful employment in the Civil War.

One of the earliest innovations employed by either side was the observation balloon. Balloons had seen some limited use in Europe a couple of generations earlier, but they had not caught on. As early as the spring of 1861 Thaddeus S. C. Lowe convinced the Federal government to test the potential of his hydrogen balloon, and on June 18 he ascended from the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution and relayed his observations to the ground by telegraph. The War Department hired him, and by November his apparatus was operating on the Potomac River from the deck of a coal barge towed by a steam tug. This was not the earliest employment of such an aircraft carrier, though, for the U.S. steamer Fanny carried a balloon within sight of Norfolk the previous August. The Confederates also used a ship board balloon during the Seven Days' campaign in 1862, watching Federal forces while Lowe's aeronauts observed from the opposite side.


The Civil War saw the introduction of land mines, hand grenades, and battlefield telegraphs, but the most significant efforts went into the production of firearms: the rifles that helped win this war changed the face of warfare forever. President Lincoln sometimes tested new weapons himself, and in the summer of 1861 he authorized two regiments of sharpshooters armed with breechloading rifles: these could be fired much more quickly than the muzzle-loading standbys, and shorter breech-loaders proved especially useful for cavalry. Most of the breech-loaders fired a metallic cartridge, which in turn allowed for the development of repeating rifles.

The most popular repeater was the Spencer, which was fed through a tubular magazine inserted in the stock. With a Spencer carbine, a horseman could fire seven rounds as quickly as he could cock the hammer and pull the trigger, and he could reload in less time than it took his enemy to cram a charge down the barrel of a rifle. The less common Henry, a lever-action rifle produced by the company that became Winchester, could fire sixteen rounds without reloading.

In 1862 Richard Gatling produced a carriage-mounted gun with several revolving barrels. Bullets were fed through a hopper atop the gun, and as the gunner turned a handcrank the barrels moved into place like the chambers of a revolver, The Gatling gun could fire 150 rounds a minute, and the multiple barrels allowed a couple of seconds for each one to cool before it was fired again. The same system was employed in the miniguns of Vietnam renown.

The first periscope was patented in 1864. It was used by infantry officers in their trenches, rather than by naval forces, but naval warfare was likewise transformed by Civil War innovations. Most obviously, the meeting of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia sounded the death knell of wooden warships. Both sides came to rely more on ironclads thereafter, though Southern shipbuilders had to improvise cumbersome rams from railroad iron by the waning months of the war. With iron ships came other inventions, like the revolving turret, which remains in use at sea today.

While impractical submarines had been used as early as the American Revolution, the first ship sunk by one was the USS Housatonic, which went to the bottom on February 17, 1864, off Charleston, With her went the hand-propelled Confederate submarine Hunley, which had been extemporized from two steam boilers. Sailors also learned to fear underwater mines for the first time in history, and the ironclad Federal gunboat Cairo became the first victim of one on December 12, 1862, in the Yazoo River, near Vicksburg.


Some of the Civil War's technological developments were devoted to the amelioration of war's effects. The first soldier to lose a limb in battle—a Confederate wounded on June 3, 1861—used barrel staves and some common hardware to fashion an ingenious artificial leg, and he spent the rest of his life manufacturing prostheses based on his original design. The first orthopedic hospital opened in New York City on May 1, 1863, at least partly to respond to the sheer mass of human wreckage from the battlefield. Perhaps with an idea of saving nearby Fort Monroe in case it were attacked with incendiary shells, the postmaster at Old Point Comfort, Virginia, invented the first fire extinguisher in 1863.

Industrial development accelerated as a result of wartime demands. The first Bessemer steel converter went into commercial production in Michigan in 1864, and the first steel railroad track was laid in Pennsylvania that same year. Heavy troop and freight traffic led to the installation of the first railroad signal system between Philadelphia and Trenton in 1863, The first oil pipeline was completed in 1863, and a year later came oil tank cars.

After 1865, armies would not march abreast at an enemy, fire a volley, and charge with the bayonet. Never again would the crews of powerful ships enjoy complete security. In four brutal years, technological development had advanced decades, and the war that changed America changed the world.

Indeed, by 1864 it was that determination to press on, despite setbacks or dangers, that came to characterize the Union war effort, thanks chiefly to Grant. In March Lincoln brought him to the East and made him general-in-chief of all Union armies, charged to direct a coordinated offensive from Virginia to the Mississippi and beyond. It would be the first time that a single guiding hand exerted absolute control over the several armies wearing the blue, and Lincoln now felt convinced that in Grant he had the man with the right grip. If he could keep all Confederates fully engaged on all fronts, no more reinforcements could move from one army to another as happened at Chickamauga. Moreover, in this way Grant could wear the Rebels down, taking advantage of Union superiority in manpower, material, and everything else. He was no butcher planning a war of attrition by trading the lives of his men for those of the enemy in order to win. But he knew what his predecessors had failed to grasp, that superiority was worthless unless a commander used it again and again. There would be no turning back from now on. Yes, he and his generals would suffer setbacks, defeats even. But they would never again run back to Washington after a bad battle. Win or lose, they would press on. It was a strategy that even the valor and wit of the Confederates could not withstand indefinitely.


Grant assigned General Nathaniel P. Banks to lead a small army up the Red River of Louisiana to occupy Confederates in the Trans-Mississippi. Meanwhile, his most trusted subordinate, William T. Sherman, assumed command of three armies combined into an army group, his task being to drive south out of Chattanooga and strike through Georgia to the rail center at Atlanta. That done, he could press on eastward across Georgia to strike Savannah and then move up the coast against Charleston, eventually ending up in North Carolina or even Virginia. His move would carve the southeastern Confederacy in two and disrupt or destroy the already shaky remaining Confederate rail and supply communications. As for Grant, he would go east and move with Meade and the Army of the Potomac, their goal being not Richmond this time but Lee's army itself. With a small force commanded by General Franz Sigel moving at the same time to take the Shenandoah Valley, there would be no place in the Confederacy safe from the threat of invasion or Confederate soldier not constantly committed to battle in his front.

Grant got a mixed bag of success and failure, but fortunately for the Union, the failures came where they mattered rather little. Banks, like Sigel, was a commander forced on by expedience. Both Lincoln and Davis had to try to appease political factions within their domains by doling out military commissions to men with no real experience or training at warfare. Called "political generals," more often than not these men proved woeful failures. Banks had been around since the beginning of the war and was one of the commanders beaten by Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah in 1862. Now he conducted an inept campaign up the Red River, accompanied by thirteen ironclads and a number of other gunboat, and with a total of around 40,000 troops at his disposal in three different columns. Facing him, Confederate General E. Kirby Smith had perhaps 30,000 men, widely scattered over his vast Trans-Mississippi command. Banks got as far as Alexandria to discover that low water on the Red River would make it difficult for his fleet to continue. Nevertheless, he pushed on, intending to follow the withdrawing Rebels to Shreveport. But then the Southerners handed him a sharp setback at Sabine Cross Roads on April 8. Banks retaliated with a small victory of his own the next day at Pleasant Hill but then decided to give up his campaign and retreat. By now the Red's depth had fallen further, and Captain Porter found that he could not get his fleet back down the river along with Banks's retiring army. Only ingenuity on the part of an engineer who built artificial dams to raise the level temporarily allowed the fleet to pass by. The campaign ended as a fiasco, and Banks himself finally was relieved of command in May, a result almost worth the cost of a failed expedition.


The same could have been said for Sigel, a prominent immigrant with a large following in the German population of the North. He gained high command because of his influence at enlisting other immigrants to the cause, but he was trouble wherever he served. In May 1864 he led his small army south into the Shenandoah hoping to ravage the valley called the "bread basket of the Confederacy." He conducted an even more inept campaign than Banks, however, moving too slowly, weakening his command in the face of small Confederate feints, and finally arriving near New Market, Virginia, with an army little more than half the size of what he started with. His opponent, another political general who proved to be the exception to the rule, was John C. Breckinridge, once vice president of the United States, and a very capable commander. Putting together a scratch force of Confederate volunteers partisans, home guards, and even the students from the Virginia Military Institute, he met Sigel on May 15. Sigel foolishly split his army, with the result that though he outnumbered Breckinridge by three to two or better, in the actual fighting Breckinridge met him on even terms by using every man and boy at his command, They fought all day in the rain, and in the end Breckinridge sent Sigel fleeing back north in panic. Sigel, too, would be replaced, and in June his successor, David Hunter, came back and this time ravaged the Shenandoah.




Elsewhere in Virginia, however, the daily headlines told a different story. On May 4 the 100,000-strong Army of the Potomac under Meade crossed the Rappahannock once more and marched into the dense woods where Hooker met defeat at Chancellorsville exactly a year before. But this time these men were led by Meade and with him the even more resolute Grant. During the next three days the heavy terrain called "the Wilderness" hampered and baffled their attempts to get through, with Lee and a mere 61,000 before them. Lee conducted a masterful defense and in the end stopped Grant's progress.



But gone were the days when a repulse ended a campaign. Grant and Meade decided on the night of May 7 that if they could not push through, they would simply go around. And so the Yankees stepped back and shifted to their left, hoping to get between Lee and his supply and communications line to Richmond. Lee stayed with them and met the Yankees next at Spotsylvania. During almost two weeks to follow, Grant maneuvered and attacked again and again, and Lee countered him each time. May 9 and 10 Grant hit Lee's left, then nearly pierced his center. May 12 Grant attacked again along much of the line, and yet once more on May 18, even as Lee extended his own line southward to meet Grant's next expected try to get around him, Grant was undeterred. He just kept shifting to his left and south and met Lee again for five days along the North Anna River.

Grant was taking heavy casualties by now, but so was Lee, and with every shift the Yankees got closer to Richmond. Lee was beginning to realize that if he could not stop Grant's progress in the open field, he would be forced eventually back into the defenses of Richmond itself. Once Lee's army was there, unable to maneuver, Grant's numerical superiority must inevitably allow him to surround the city and lay siege. Once that happened, Lee warned Davis, it would be but a matter of time.

Once more Grant failed to penetrate Lee's defenses, and on May 26 he pulled back and moved southward to Totopotomoy Creek and then on to Cold Harbor, Lee all the time in his front. Now Grant had moved, without winning a battle, all the way to the eastern environs of Richmond. Lee had to stop him at Cold Harbor, and stop him he did. On June 3, himself frustrated by now at his inability to bring Lee to bay, Grant decided on a tactic he had not tried before and that Lee's own experience at Gettysburg suggested would not work. He ordered a massive frontal assault against the right and center of the Confederate line, in a movement that he would later confess he regretted. In less than an hour of bitter fighting, he took 7,000 casualties without making a sustainable breakthrough in the Rebel line, and in the end he ordered the engagement broken off. Once more Lee had saved Richmond and his own army.

Even after this terrible reverse, however, the Yankees stood their ground. Stunned by the magnitude of the repulse and exhausted by their month of campaigning and almost daily fighting, the bluecoats waited and caught their breath. Then Grant pulled on Lee his greatest surprise of the war. On June 15, without the Confederates knowing it, Grant's engineers built a pontoon bridge across the James River below Richmond. In eight hours his engineers created a 2,200-foot span, and soon afterward, undetected by Lee, Grant pulled his army out of its position at Cold Harbor and marched. it across the bridge. At once he drove toward the vital rail and supply center at Petersburg, the back door to Richmond barely twenty miles north. Only the fact that his exhausted army could not move as it once did and the bumbling of his commanders on the scene prevented Grant from taking Petersburg almost without resistance.



Lee hurriedly moved south when he realized what had happened and only barely got into Petersburg's defenses before Grant struck again. He held the Yankees at bay, but at the cost of what he had long feared. He could move no more. Grant had him stuck in earthwork defenses that he could not abandon without giving up Petersburg and Richmond itself. Lee's army was exhausted. Almost half of it as casualties had been suffered in the past weeks, and he had no replacements. Grant and Meade took over 50,000 casualties, and the soldiers who remained were bone weary and almost in shock. But the Yankees could get more men, and now Grant accepted the siege he had hoped to avert. From the end of June through the end of the year and on into the spring of 1865 he gradually extended his lines, pressing Lee ever closer. One by one he cut off the rail lines into Richmond until only one remained, and from time to time he tried to end the siege by breaking through, to no avail. But as Lee had said, time now fought beside the Federals. The best he could do was to send General Jubal Early and his corps on a daring raid through the Shenandoah and into Maryland. Early actually got to the environs of Washington, where President Lincoln came briefly under fire as he watched skirmishing before Early was forced to retire. Later that summer Grant sent his trusted henchman General Philip Sheridan to clean Early out of the Valley, and in a series of battles in September and October Sheridan essentially took Early out of the war, and with him the Shenandoah itself. Meanwhile, out in the Trans-Mississippi, Confederates launched their last major offensive of the war when General Sterling Price struck north out of Arkansas in August and drove north into Missouri. He got all the way to the Missouri River, near present-day Kansas City, before Federal cavalry stopped him at Westport in the greatest battle fought in that territory.



By this time Grant's great lieutenant Sherman enjoyed much more spectacular success out in the West and much more room for maneuver, in part because he faced a much lesser foe than Lee. Davis had no choice but to replace Bragg after the rout at Missionary Ridge, but he had no other commanders to equal his great Virginian. Despite his distrust of Joseph E. Johnston, Davis was persuaded to turn to him in the hope that he could hold north Georgia and keep Sherman from knocking at the door to Atlanta. He hoped in vain. When the campaign began on May 7 with Sherman's advance south, Johnston set the pattern for the campaign to follow. With a very favorable defensive position on Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, Georgia, he neglected to guard a crucial gap that Sherman penetrated, forcing Johnston to withdraw to avoid having his army cut in two. Johnston pulled back without accepting a serious engagement and next took up a line several miles south near Resaca. Hereafter Sherman would advance, feint in Johnston's front, and then threaten to move around his left flank, and the Confederate would withdraw without a fight. Johnston pulled back to Cassville, and then again to Allatoona Pass, and so on. Only at Kenesaw Mountain, on June 27, did Johnston actually make a genuine stand, and there Sherman suffered a severe repulse when—like Grant at Cold Harbor—he abandoned his own policy and ordered a frontal assault up the steep slope against strong enemy defenses.


He need not have bothered, perhaps, for Johnston soon pulled back again to the Chattahoochee River, a wonderful natural line of defense that Sherman feinted him out of without difficulty. By now Jefferson Davis in Richmond was almost frantic. Not only was Johnston in almost constant retreat without giving battle, but he would not tell the president what he intended to do. Finally convinced that Johnston would abandon Atlanta itself without a fight, Davis relieved him on July 17 with General John B. Hood. Hood at least was a fighter, but his audacity sometimes outweighed his good sense. Pushed back into the defenses of the city after a sharp engagement at Peachtree Creek, Hood bravely tried to save Atlanta by turning from hunted to hunter. He moved out of his defenses to attack on July 22. Despite able planning, the effort failed, and Sherman now spread out to do to Atlanta what Grant even then was doing to Petersburg. For over a month Sherman laid siege to the city, all the while extending his lines until they nearly encircled Hood. Finally the Confederates had no choice but to evacuate on September 1 to avoid being completely surrounded, and Atlanta fell at last. It was an enormous morale boost to the Union, which was wearied by the high losses in Virginia and the stagnant siege at Petersburg. Sherman's victory played no small part in helping Lincoln achieve reelection, and that, in turn, helped ensure the eventual outcome of the war.



This was not to be the last heard from Hood, however. Later that fall, in an effort to regain Tennessee and force Sherman to abandon Georgia, the Confederate drove north through Georgia and all the way to the center of the Volunteer State. Rather than be turned from his mission to go on to the Atlantic, however, and knowing that Hood led a weakened army, Sherman did not follow. Instead, he ordered several army corps under Major General George H. Thomas to deal with Hood. By late November Hood had reached Franklin, Tennessee, where he encountered General John Schofield and unsuccessfully attacked in a battle that saw five Confederate generals killed, including the "Stonewall of the West," Patrick R. Cleburne. Meanwhile, Thomas was in Nashville seeing to the city's defenses and laboriously readying himself to move against Hood, who now moved up within sight of the city and took up a position. Too weak to attack and too stubborn to retire, Hood glared at Thomas for days until the Yankee general finally made his move, an assault that routed and all but erased Hood's organization. In tatters, his army retreated back toward northern Mississippi, where Hood asked to be relieved of command.

Meanwhile, leaving Thomas and Schofield to deal with Hood, Sherman pressed on toward the sea on November 15. Thirty-six days later he marched into Savannah, having cut yet another slice across the Confederacy, and left a path of industrial and agricultural waste in his wake. Now he perched on the Atlantic, ready to march northward to strike Lee from the rear while Grant faced him at Petersburg. Unquestionably the Confederacy was on its knees.

With almost four years of increasingly brutal warfare behind them, North and South faced greater costs than the loss of cities and hilltops. They were ravaging a whole generation of men. By the dawn of 1865 more than half a million men had died, 200,000 or more of them in battle and the rest from disease. The wounded totaled well over a million, and for any man injured in a vital organ, death was almost inevitable. Yet sometimes the living would maintain that survival was almost worse than death.


Conditions in military hospitals on both sides could be appalling. Medical and surgical knowledge had not progressed markedly for generations. The only anesthesia available was opiates, chiefly laudanum, that ran the risk of killing by an overdose or addiction if taken over too long a period of recuperation, and chloroform, which carried hazards of its own. Contrary to myth, almost all operations, even in the hard-pressed South, were conducted with the patient under some kind of sedative. Unfortunately, almost the only operation that could be performed was bullet extraction. If the lead hit a bone in an arm or leg, amputation almost always resulted, and then surgeons lost a high percentage of patients from gangrene and other infections that could set in afterward. Stonewall Jackson lost an arm as a result of his mortal wound and was recovering from that nicely until pneumonia attacked his weakened constitution. Thanks to utter ignorance about asepsis and infection even minor wounds often led to death when treated with contaminated instruments or handled by surgeons who went from patient to patient without cleansing their hands, literally spreading the infections they sought to prevent. Any form of internal surgery was out of the question. Men with abdominal wounds were most often simply left to heal or die on their own as the doctors turned their attention to the less severe injuries that an amputation or some needle and thread might help recover. For generations after the war, the empty sleeves and trouser legs of aging veterans North and South paid mute testimony to the ravages of bullets and surgery and the pain inflicted on mortal flesh.

Disease proved to be an even greater killer. Except for those men who had been city dwellers before the war, most of these men and boys had never been exposed to large numbers of people before, and as a result many never experienced even the minor childhood diseases like measles and mumps, or the more severe scarlet fever and whooping cough. But in camps with tens of thousands of men cramped together constantly, these viruses raged through the regiments, and of course adults risk far greater consequences from these diseases than children. Measles killed almost as many as bullets in many units, and the surgeons were powerless to help them.


All that the doctors could do was try to make them comfortable. With tens of thousands of casualties during and after the campaigns, some of them taking years to recuperate, hospitals all across the nation bulged. Cities like Nashville and Richmond, and even Washington, saw massive tent cities arise on their outskirts. Inside the cities any available warehouse or private dwelling could become a hospital, and on some battlefields, as at Gettysburg, the wounded remained behind for months, housed in tents as the doctors and nurses came to them. A host of civilians volunteered to assist in relieving the suffering, and charitable organizations such as the United States Sanitary Commission raised funds to buy medicines and provide nurses. It seemed to many a losing battle, a fight against unseen forces far more insidious than mere cannon and bullets. Disease, infection, shock, and a host of other enemies made no distinction between blue or gray. If a wound or the measles did not kill the soldier, his other enemy could. From the time of Fort Sumter, both sides dealt with the issue of prisoners of war, never very adequately. No one at the outset envisioned the phenomenal numbers of men who would be captured, whom the opposing side must somehow care for. More than 150 prison camps operated during the conflict, from small stations holding only a few hundred, to the massive centers like Camp Sumter at Andersonville that housed almost 30,000. In all during the war, at least 430,000 men, North and South, fell into enemy hands, not counting the final surrenders. While about half of them were paroled—released on their oath not to fight again—the rest went to prisons that ranged from a simple city of tents in a field, to old warehouses and factories, and even city jails.

Wherever a prisoner went, conditions were not good. In the North, prison officials believed that a man in custody required less to eat than an active soldier in the field. In the South the jailors simply did not have enough to give them, and despite later claims that the Confederacy deliberately starved Yankee prisoners, in fact the men ate about as well as the Rebel soldiers themselves. Buildings were drafty, often unheated and damp in winter, and hot in the summer. Confederates kept at Johnson's Island on Lake Erie nearly froze to death. Yankees kept at Camp Sumter and elsewhere suffered from fevers and malaria in the heat and humidity. Occasionally prison guards did behave brutishly. Occasionally fellow prisoners turned brutes themselves, bullying their mates to claim precious food or fresh water. But mostly they all suffered together. At Andersonville alone more than 12,000 perished, and death rates ran almost as high in some Northern compounds like Fort Delaware. At war's end many of the men released from these hell holes looked more like skeletons than living humans, and the bitterness engendered by prison suffering lasted longer than all of the other animosities between Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.


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