As I told you when I first started this written adventure, I’d be asking you to put up with occasional sorties into American history as a backdrop to what our nation has become today. So pack your imaginary bags!
I promised last time that I’d take you on a two- or three-part written and visual tour of important Civil War sites, much as many visitors will be doing with their feet this summer and over four more 150th-anniversary years of that bloody conflict. Since the Union won the war, I will use its terminology for the various battlefields; the Confederates often preferred different ones — as some southerners do to this day.
The fighting began at:
Fort Sumter, South Carolina
April 12, 1861. Abraham Lincoln had been elected, but ineffectual James Buchanan was still president when seven Deep South states, led by South Carolina, stormed out of the Union. Their state militias seized control of Federal customhouses and forts.
But at Buchanan’s insistence, coastal installations — including Fort Sumter, guarding Charleston’s harbor — remained in Union hands.
On April 10, before a relief expedition could arrive, Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard demanded surrender of the Union garrison. Its commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused, and two days later, Confederate batteries opened fire.
Declared or not, our great civil war was on.
The next day, Anderson began to evacuate. Unlike deadly battles to come, not a single life was lost in the opening salvo of the Civil War.
May, 1861. For 30 years, from the time Robert E. Lee married his childhood sweetheart and distant cousin, Mary Anna Custis, until he left to fight for his native Virginia, their grand mansion overlooked the Potomac River, and Washington, D.C., had been their home.
It had been built by George Washington Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, the wife of our first president, as a memorial to his step-grandfather.
Custis toyed with the idea of calling it “Mount Washington” but settled on “Arlington House” after the family estate in Tidewater Virginia, which had been granted by England’s Earl of Arlington. The Washington suburb of Arlington and Arlington Cemetery, which would later appear on the Lee-Custis Mansion grounds, carry the name to this day.
Soon after Robert E. Lee left the property for Richmond, Federal troops occupied Arlington House and the surrounding hectares as part of a ring of fortifications protecting the national capital. Fort Whipple — now Fort Myer — was built on the land as one of the fortresses.
First Bull Run
July 21, 1861. War was a lark for the 35,000 Federal troops under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell as they marched from Washington toward Manassas Junction in the Northern Virginia countryside. McDowell was in a hurry; 90-day enlistments of many of his volunteers were expiring.
His target was a rail line that, when captured, would carry the Federals “on to Richmond,” as his troops chortled while they marched. There, they were supremely confident, they would make short work of the secessionist nation. Thousands of giddy onlookers, packing picnic lunches, tagged along for the rout.
McDowell and the Confederates under Beauregard — up from South Carolina — staged grandiose, Napoleonic-style flanking maneuvers before colliding like cymbals along Bull Run (creek). When 10,000 more Rebels arrived from the Shenandoah Valley to the west, the Union Army and its suddenly not-so-mirthful entourage turned tail in what came to be known as “the Great Skedaddle” back to Washington. This war would not be blithe sport after all.
February 14-16, 1862. What appeared to be a potent Confederate line in the “West” — meaning anything west of Virginia — stretched all the way from the Appalachian Mountains to the Indian Territory, across the Mississippi River in what is now Oklahoma.
But that was before Ulysses S. Grant, previously a dyspeptic civilian clerk and mediocre military administrator, intervened. Grant and Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote devised a two-pronged attack on earthen Confederate forts protecting the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
Fort Henry on the Cumberland fell first, on February 6, under shelling from Foote’s ironclad gunboats. Many of its garrison escaped to join the Rebs at Fort Donelson, which enjoyed a stronger position high above the river.
The fighting around Henry and Donelson introduced the Yankees to the South’s most capable cavalryman, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the war, he would found the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan, from whose excesses he later disassociated himself.
Although batteries under Donelson’s commander, Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner, wounded Foote and disabled most of his fleet, Grant led a methodical encirclement of the fort. The Confederates tried a break-out but retreated back inside and, knowing that starvation was the only alternative, soon surrendered. It was here that Grant acquired his nickname, “Unconditional Surrender,” for the stern terms offered to Buckner.
April 6-7, 1862. Having lost forts Donelson and Henry, Confederate forces in the West were in disarray. General Albert Sidney Johnston withdrew from Kentucky and abandoned most of Tennessee, including its capital, Nashville. He concentrated his forces in northern Mississipppi, where rail lines to Richmond, Virginia, and Mobile, Alabama, converged.
Grant took his time but finally moved south along the Tennessee River to Pittsburg Landing, in Tennessee, above Corinth, Mississippi, where the Rebels were concentrated. His men camped in woods and fields around Shiloh Church, whose name — which means “place of peace” in Hebrew — would be applied to the epic battle to come.
Johnston ordered a surprise assault that nearly routed the overconfident Federals until they dug in along a long ditch. There, they held off repeated Confederate onslaughts. Ultimately falling back to the Tennessee River, the Federals prevailed after Union reinforcements arrived on the river.
One Union general who showed up, but late — for which he lost favor — was Lew Wallace, who became far better known as the author of the novel Ben-Hur, about a commander who also suffered disgrace at the time of Christ. Another Federal general and future novelist, Ambrose Bierce, wrote of a place called “Bloody Pond” at Shiloh, “Men? There were men enough, all dead.”
April 10-11, 1862. At the outset of war, Abraham Lincoln had vowed an immediate blockade of southern ports. To make it a reality, all manner of seagoing vessels were pressed into service, and the Union navy and armies set about supporting the envelopment by hammering a series of coastal forts that Rebel militias had occupied when hostilities began.
One by one they fell: Fort Royal in South Carolina; Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina; Jacksonville and Saint Augustine in Florida. In April of 1862, it was Fort Pulaski’s turn.
Built on Cockspur Island, Georgia, at the mouth of the Savannah River beginning in 1817, what looked like an impregnable fortress was breached in 30 hours by Captain Quincy A. Gillmore’s Yankee siege guns, roaring from nearby Tybee Island. The fort would lie rat-infested and broken until 1933, when it was transferred from the Department of the Army to the National Park Service, which restored its bricks, mortar, and moat.
The Peninsula Campaign
May 25-July 1, 1862. The Confederate capital in Virginia was an elusive but all-important prize. As Kingwood, Texas, Civil War enthusiast David L. Smith told me, “If the Civil War is viewed as a chess game, Richmond was the Confederate king.”
As I mentioned, had the Federals achieved their easy victory at Bull Run, they would likely have continued to Richmond. As it turned out, they took their sweet time about it. After drilling 200,000 troops to a fare-thee-well in Washington, dawdling Union General George B. McClellan finally advanced on Richmond from the east, via the Yorktown Peninsula, in April 1862.
His inertia in what became known as the “Peninsula Campaign” was soon compounded by exaggerated reports of enemy strength. Concluding that he was badly outnumbered, McClellan paused and initiated siege warfare. In the “Seven Days” campaign, Rebel commander Robert E. Lee attacked the skittish Yankee’s position. Lee was repulsed, but Richmond was saved when McClellan fell back to brood.
Lee, meantime, devised plans to take the war into the belly of the enemy, and things would get much, much worse for the Union before they got better.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Chortle. To chuckle or laugh gleefully.
Dawdle. To move incredibly slowly, wasting time along the way.
Dyspeptic. Grouchy, irritable — sometimes in conjunction with chronic drinking.
Giddy. Excited, often mirthful, sometimes to the point of dizziness.
Ineffectual. Ineffective and unable to produce desired effects. When describing an individual, it refers to an inability to handle one’s responsibilities or job.
Salvo. The discharge, all at once, of fire — usually artillery blasts.
Skedaddle. To depart in a hurried, even frenzied manner, often away from danger. The word has an unknown origin, although the “Words at Random” Web site speculates that it comes from the Irish word “sgedadol,” which means “scattered.”
Sortie. Pronounced “SOR-tee” in English, this French word means a sudden military attack, usually from what was originally a defensive position.