The War among the Generals
The problem was generals who would fight-and win. General Scott, head of the army, was not a man of the highest wisdom, as we have seen; he was also seventy-five and ultra-cautious. The overall strategy he impressed on Lincoln was to use the navy to blockade the Confederacy, the number of vessels being increased from 90 to 650, and to divide the South by pushing along the main river routes, the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland. But there was a desire among lesser generals, especially Confederate ones, to have a quick result by a spectacular victory, or by seizure of the enemy’s capital, since both Richmond and Washington were comparatively near the center of the conflict. In July 1861 one of Davis’ warriors, General P. G. T. Beauregard (1818-93), a flashy New Orleans aristo of French descent, who had actually fired the first shots at Sumter, pushed towards Washington in a fever of anxiety to win the first victory. He was joined by another Confederate army under General Joseph E. Johnston (1807 – 91), and together they overwhelmed the Unionist forces of General Irvin McDowell (1818-85) at Bull Run, July 21, 1861, though not without considerable difficulty. The new Unionist troops ended by running in panic, but the Confederates were too exhausted to press on to Washington.
The battle had important consequences nonetheless. McDowell was superseded by General George B. McClellan (1826-85), a small, precise, meticulous, and seemingly energetic man who knew all the military answers to everything. Unfortunately for Lincoln and the North, these answers added up to reasons for doing nothing, or doing little, or stopping doing it halfway. His reasons are always the same; not enough men, or supplies, or artillery. As the North’s overwhelming preponderance in manpower and hardware began to build up, McClellan refused to take advantage of it, by enticing the South into a major battle and destroying its main army. The War Secretary said of him and his subordinates: ‘We have ten generals there, every one afraid to fight … If McClellan had a million men, he would swear the enemy had two million, and then he would sit down in the mud and yell for three.’ Lincoln agreed: ‘The general impression is daily gaining ground that [McClellan] does not intend to do anything.’ At one point Lincoln seems to have seriously believed McClellan was guilty of treason and accused him to his face, but backed down at the vehemence of the general’s response. Later, he concluded that McClennan was merely guilty of cowardice. When Lincoln visited the troops with his friend O. M. Hatch, and saw the vast array from a high point, he whispered ‘Hatch-Hatch, what is all this?’ Hatch: ‘Why, Mr Lincoln, this is the Army of the Potomac.’ Lincoln (loudly): ‘No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s bodyguard.’
The best thing to be said for McClellan is that he had close links with Allan Pinkerton (181984), the Scots-born professional detective, who had opened a highly successful agency in Chicago. During Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency, and his inauguration, Pinkerton had organized his protection, and undoubtedly frustrated at least one plot to assassinate him. McClellan employed him to build up a system of army intelligence, part of which worked behind Confederate lines, with great success. It eventually became the nucleus of the federal secret service. But Lincoln seems to have known little of this. He believed, almost certainly rightly, that at Antietam in September 1862, McClellan, with his enormous preponderance, could have destroyed the main Confederate army, had he followed up his initial successes vigorously, and thus shortened the war. So he finally removed his non fighting general, and Pinkerton went with him; and the absence of Pinkerton’s thoroughness was the reason why it proved so easy to murder Lincoln in 1865.
First Bull Run had mixed results for the Confederates. It appeared to be the doing of Beauregard, and so thrust him forward: but he proved one of the least effective and most troublesome of the South’s generals. In fact the victory was due more to Johnston, who was a resolute, daring, and ingenious army commander. On April 6-7, 1862, in the first major battle of the war at Shiloh, at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee, Johnson hurled his 40,000 troops against General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85), who had only 3 3,000. The first day’s fighting brought overwhelming success to the Confederates but Johnston was wounded towards the end of it. That proved a disaster for the South: not only was their best general to date lost, but Grant turned the tide of battle the next day by leading a charge personally and the Confederates were routed. However, Johnston was not the only man brought to the fore by First Bull Run. During the melee, the officer commanding the South Carolina volunteers rallied his frightened men by pointing to the neighboring brigade commanded by General Thomas J. Jackson (1824-63) and saying: ‘There stands Jackson like a stone wall.’ The name stuck and Jackson’s fame was assured. But it was inappropriate. Jackson was not a defensive commander but a most audacious and determined offensive one, with the true killer instinct of a great general. There was only one way the South might win the war. That was by enveloping and destroying in battle the main Unionist Army of the Potomac, taking Washington and persuading the fainthearts on the Unionist side- there were plenty of them-that the cost of waging the war was too high and that a compromise must be sought. Had Lincoln thus been deserted by a majority in Congress, he would have resigned, and the whole of American history would have been different.
Jackson was an orphan, the son of a bankrupt lawyer from Allegheny, Virginia. He was about as unSouthern as it was possible for a Virginia gentleman to be. As Grant put it, ‘He impressed me always as a man of the Cromwell stamp, much more of a New Englander than a Virginian.’ He was a Puritan. There is a vivid pen-portrait of him by Mrs James Chesnut, a Richmond lady who kept a war diary. He said to her dourly: ‘I like strong drink-so I never touch it.’ He sucked lemons instead and their sourness pervaded his being. He had no sense of humor, and tried to stamp out swearing and obscene joking among his men. He was ‘an ungraceful horseman mounted on a sorry chestnut with a shambling gait, his huge feet with out-turned toes thrust into his stirrups, and such parts of his countenance as the low visor of his stocking cap failed to conceal wearing a wooden look.’ Jackson had no slaves and there are grounds for believing he detested slavery. In Lexington he set up a school for black children, something most Southerners hated-in some states it was unlawful-and persisted in it, despite much cursing and opposition. His sister-in-law, who wrote a memoir of him, said he accepted slavery ‘as it existed in the Southern States, not as a thing desirable in itself, but as allowed by Providence for ends it was not his business to determine.’
Yet, as Grant said, ‘If any man believed in the rebellion, he did.’ Jackson fought with a ferocity and single-minded determination which no other officer on either side matched. Mrs Chesnut records a fellow-general’s view: ‘He certainly preferred a fight on Sunday to a sermon. [But] failing to manage a fight, he loved next best a long, Presbyterian sermon, Calvinist to the core. He had no sympathy for human infirmity. He was the true type of all great soldiers. He did not value human life where he had an object to accomplish.’ His men feared him: He gave orders rapidly and distinctly and rode away without allowing answer or remonstrance. When you failed, you were apt to be put under arrest.’ He enjoyed war and battle, believing it was God’s work, and he was ambitious in a way unusual for Southerners, who were happy-go-lucky except in defense of their beliefs and ways. Jackson would have liked to have been a dictator for righteousness. But, having won the terrifying Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, he was shot in the back by men of one of his own brigades, Malone’s, who supposedly mistook him in the moonlight for a Yankee. After Jackson’s death the Confederacy lost all its battles except Chickamauga.
Jackson was not the only superb commander on the Confederate side. Colonel John Singelton Mosby (1833-1916), who worked behind the Unionist lines, also had the killer instinct. Like many Southern officers, he was a wonderful cavalryman, but he had solid sense too. General Richard Taylor, son of President Taylor, who wrote the best book about the war from inside the Southern high ranks, summed it up: ‘Living on horseback, fearless and dashing, the men of the South afforded the best possible material for cavalry. They had every quality but discipline.’ Mosby would have none of that nonsense and was the first cavalryman to throw away his saber as useless and pack two pistols instead. He hated the Richmond set-up-‘Although a revolutionary government, none was ever so much under the domination of red tape as Richmond’-and that was one reason he chose the sabotage role, remote from the order-chattering telegraph. The damage he did to the Unionist lines of communication was formidable and he was hated accordingly. On Grant’s orders, any of his men who were captured were shot. In the autumn of 1864, for instance, General George Custer executed six of them: he shot three, hanged two, and a seventeen-year- old boy, who had borrowed a horse to join Mosby, was dragged through the streets by two men on horses and shot before the eyes of his mother, who begged Custer to treat the boy as a prisoner-of-war. This treatment stopped immediately Mosby began to hang his prisoners in retaliation.
Mosby was ‘slender, gaunt and active in figure … his feet are small and cased in cavalry boots with brass spurs, and the revolvers in his belt are worn with an air of “business.” He had piercing eyes, a flashing smile, and laughed often but was always in deadly earnest when fighting. He was the stuff of which Hollywood movies are made and indeed might have figured in one since he lived long enough to see Birth of a Nation. He became a myth-figure in the North: he was supposed to have been in the theater when Lincoln was shot, masterminding it, and to have planned all the big railroad robberies, long after the war. But he was the true-life hero of one of the best Civil War stories. During a night-raid he caught General Edwin H. Stoughton naked in bed with a floozie and woke him up roughly. ‘Do you know who I am, sir?’ roared the general. Mosby: ‘Do you know Mosby, General?’ Stoughton: ‘Yes! Have you got the — rascal?’ Mosby: ‘No, but he has got you!’
Jackson and Mosby were the only two Confederate generals who were consistently successful. Jackson’s death made it inevitable that Lee would assume the highest command, though it is only fair to Lee to point out that he was finally appointed commander-in-chief of the Southern forces only in February 1865, just two months before he was forced to surrender them at Appomattox. Lee occupies a special place in American history because he was the South’s answer to the North’s Lincoln: the leader whose personal probity and virtuous inspiration sanctified their cause. Like Lincoln, though in a less eccentric and angular manner, Lee looked the part. He radiated beauty and grace. Though nearly six feet, he had tiny feet and there was something feminine in his sweetness and benignity. His fellow-cadets at West Point called him the ‘Marble Model.’ With his fine beard, tinged first with gray, then white, he became a Homeric patriarch in his fifties. He came from the old Virginian aristocracy and married into it. His father was Henry Lee III, Revolutionary War general, Congressman and governor of Virginia. His wife, Anne Carter, was great-granddaughter of ‘King’ Carter, who owned 300,000 acres and 1,000 slaves. That was the theory, anyway. In fact Lee’s father was also ‘Light Horse Harry,’ a dishonest land-speculator and bankrupt, who defrauded among others George Washington. President Washington dismissed his claim to be head of the United States Army with the brisk, euphemistic, ‘Lacks economy.’ Henry was jailed twice and when Robert was six fled to the Caribbean, never to return. Robert’s mother was left a penurious widow with many children and the family’s reputation was not improved by a ruffianly stepson, ‘Black Horse Harry,’ who specialized in adultery.