Grant: Butcher of the Wilderness?

When Ulysses Grant assumed command of all Union armies in the spring of 1864, Lincoln at last had found the aggressive leader he had needed and wanted. Frustrated by the failures of McClellan, Meade, and Halleck to prosecute the war in a vigorous and aggressive manner, Lincoln was very pleased with Grant’s plans to take the fight to the enemy throughout all theaters. Grant believed that all the Union armies needed to go on the offensive simultaneously and in a coordinated manner in order to keep the Confederacy from utilizing its interior lines of defense and communication to reinforce its disparate elements. Grant’s plan called for Nathaniel Banks to operate on the Gulf Coast, Benjamin Butler to move on Richmond from the Peninsula, and Franz Sigel to harass Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, meanwhile, would move overland from Washington to Richmond, with Grant accompanying. Lincoln agreed that pressuring the enemy at multiple points was ideal, stating that “those not skinning can hold a leg.”[1] Unfortunately for Grant and his plans, “the leg-holders bungled their jobs.”[2] Banks’s Red River campaign in Louisiana was a disaster, and he never moved on Mobile as planned, while Sigel did little more than display his “skill at retreating” in the Shenandoah Valley.[3] Butler’s expedition up the James River got off to an encouraging start, but ended with his army trapped between the James and the Appomattox River.[4] These failures would put additional—and certainly unneeded—pressures on Meade’s Army of the Potomac, but Grant surely understood and accepted Moltke’s admonition “that no plan survives contact with the enemy.”[5]

Grant’s decision to travel with the Army of the Potomac was controversial and probably created confusion about who was actually in charge, both inside and outside the chain of command.[6] Grant, however, shared the frustration of Lincoln and others in Washington at the unwillingness of Union commanders to pursue the enemy and destroy them after victories at Antietam and Gettysburg. Union armies in the eastern theater had repeatedly disengaged after both victories and defeats to return to Washington and lick their wounds. In accompanying Meade, Grant intended to ensure that the Army of the Potomac would pursue and engage Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a thoroughly aggressive manner. These tactics would lead to more casualties, but Grant believed that such a strategy would end the war and ultimately lead to fewer lives lost.[7]

As the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, Lee correctly ascertained Grant’s intentions and began moving his forces into blocking positions in the tangled brush of the Wilderness. Fighting was intense, and the thick scrub forest ensured that Federal forces could not maneuver well enough to bring their superior numbers to bear. As the fighting raged on throughout the fifth and sixth of May, neither side was able to gain a decisive advantage. Grant continued to press the fight despite the “defeatist attitudes” of his troops, and upbraided his subordinates for presuming to know Lee’s intentions. “’Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do,’ he barked. ‘Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time.’”[8] Grant eventually recognized the Wilderness as the “meat grinder” that it was, and moved his army to the east and around Lee’s left flank. The Army of the Potomac had suffered more casualties than the Army of the Northern Virginia, but the Union army was larger and “could afford this. Lee could not.”[9]

Grant’s tactics were called into question by Northern Democrats appalled by the casualties his aggressiveness had caused. They “began denouncing [him] as a ‘butcher,’ a ‘bull-headed Suvarov’ who was sacrificing the flower of American manhood.”[10] Two months of awful campaigning had indeed produced horrific carnage, with “some 65,000 northern boys…killed, wounded, or missing since May 4.”[11] But these charges against Grant were patently unfair. Grant understood better than any of his civilian critics that war was an awful business, and that “its glory,” as Sherman put it, “is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentation of distant families.”[12] Both Grant and Sherman understood that in order to end the war, it needed to be fought with utmost vigor, and that only aggressive campaigning would put an eventual stop to the bloodletting. Furthermore, the tactics employed by both sides did not keep pace with advances in technology. Each side suffered correspondingly higher casualties when it was on the offensive, the Confederates losing more men in its offensive campaigns of 1862 and 1863 than the Union. Grant’s 1864 campaign reversed the offensive situation and the casualty count.[13]

The soldiers of the Army of the Potomac did not seem to agree with the critics, for even “with their extremely close-up perspective on the battle they had just fought, the combat…did not seem all that much different from that of Chancellorsville or any of the other bloody and indecisive defeats the army had suffered at Lee’s hands.”[14] The difference under Grant, however, was that after receiving some knocks from the Army of Northern Virginia, the Union soldiers did not retire from the field, but kept pressing the attack. As the men emerged from the Wilderness, they approached a crossroads that offered a choice to go back north or head south. As the column turned south toward Richmond, and “despite the prospect of another immanent bloody meeting with Lee’s army, the men of the Army of the Potomac waved their caps and cheered at the realization that they had fought a battle and were still advancing.”[15]


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 721-2; Donald Stoker, Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 351-2,; Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 250-1.

[2] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 722.

[3] Ibid., 722-4, quotation on 724.

[4] Ibid., 723-4.

[5] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 251.

[6] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “U.S. Grant and the Union High Command during the 1864 Valley Campaign,” in The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 37,; Robert N. Thompson, “The Folly and Horror of Cold Harbor,” Military History 23, no. 8 (November 2006): 40-1,

[7] Stoker, Grand Design, 368.

[8] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 254.

[9] Ibid., 256.

[10] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 742.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sherman quoted in Stoker, Grand Design, 358.

[13] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 476-7.

[14] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 256.

[15] Ibid.


McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign

After spending the winter of 1861-1862 preparing his Army of the Potomac, all the while being prodded by Lincoln to advance on the rebels, General George B. McClellan finally agreed to take action. Lincoln had wanted McClellan to attack Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army at Centreville and then push straight on through to Richmond. McClellan resisted, claiming that the Rebel defenses at Centreville were too stout and that an assault would merely be a disastrous repeat of Bull Run. McClellan presented an alternative plan that involved shipping troops down to Fort Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, and then speeding the army up the Peninsula to attack Richmond from the southeast, behind Johnston’s lines. Lincoln feared that this was simply another McClellan delay, and he directly ordered the general to probe the rebel defenses at Centreville. To Lincoln’s dismay and McClellan’s embarrassment, Johnston had already evacuated his army to Richmond, and the fortifications left behind indicated that the Confederate position had never been as large or imposing as McClellan had claimed.[1] Artillery emplacements were discovered to contain “Quaker guns”—logs painted black to resemble cannons—and “there had clearly been no more than 45,000 rebels on the Manassas-Centreville line, fewer than half the number McClellan had estimated.”[2]

Johnston’s retreat to Richmond negated McClellan’s plan to come in behind him up the Peninsula, but McClellan continued to press for this option. Lincoln was skeptical, and insisted that McClellan would “find the same enemy, and the same, or equal intrenchments” whether he attacked up the Virginia Peninsula or overland from Washington.[3] Lincoln was also concerned that the Peninsula plan would leave Washington undefended should Johnston decide to make a move in that direction, and though the president “did not quite share [the abolitionists’] darkest suspicions” that such a move was deliberate on McClellan’s part, “he did find the matter troubling.”[4] McClellan promised to leave enough troops behind to defend Washington, though Lincoln detached more soldiers than McClellan had wanted, and the Army of the Potomac embarked for Hampton Roads, Virginia.[5]

In early April 1862, McClellan pushed up the Peninsula from Fort Monroe and approached Yorktown, where Confederate General John B. Magruder and thirteen thousand rebel soldiers hunkered down behind extensive defensive lines. McClellan was convinced that Magruder had far more troops than he actually had and that the fortifications would make a frontal assault far too costly. McClellan opted to besiege Yorktown and spent nearly a month preparing trenches and bringing up heavy guns with which to pound the rebel defenses. Lincoln was irritated by this delay, but McClellan insisted that it was necessary, writing “to his wife that if Lincoln wanted to break the rebel lines, ‘he had better come & do it himself.’”[6] While the Army of the Potomac toiled in the expanding trenches around Yorktown, Johnston exploited the delay and moved his entire army to the Peninsula. Finally, on the night of May 3-4, and just as McClellan was ready to begin his bombardment, the Confederates evacuated Yorktown and headed back up the Peninsula. Jefferson Davis was angry with Johnston over this surrendering of territory, but no more so than Lincoln was with McClellan for the delay that allowed so many rebel troops to escape and prepare defenses farther up the Peninsula and closer to Richmond.[7]

McClellan pursued the fleeing Confederate army, and by May, his “army of 100,000 had advanced to within hearing of Richmond’s church bells.”[8] Confederate morale was understandably low, and Jefferson Davis pleaded with Johnston to attack McClellan’s army while McClellan dawdled outside Richmond. Johnston finally acted on May 31, and the indecisive Battle of Seven Pines inflicted a combined eleven thousand casualties on the two armies, including Johnston himself.[9] General Robert E. Lee was selected by Davis to command Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia, and the “quiet Virginian” quickly began to take the offensive.[10] In a series of engagements known as the Seven Days’ Battles, Lee pushed McClellan and his army south to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. The Army of Northern Virginia was ably assisted in this endeavor by Jeb Stuart’s excellent cavalry and reinforced by Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley army. Despite the fact that the Army of the Potomac more than held its own against the Confederates during much of the fighting, McClellan continued to issue orders to withdraw, prompting General Phil Kearny to remark, “Such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason…We ought instead of retreating to follow up the enemy and take Richmond.”[11] McClellan wanted to remain at Harrison’s Landing, but because of mounting disease casualties in the hot and humid swamps, Lincoln ordered McClellan to evacuate in July 1862.[12]

Whether McClellan’s caution was attributable to the prudence of a wise commander or, as some radical Republicans suggested, to sympathy with the Confederate cause, it is nonetheless clear that the commander of the Army of the Potomac allowed numerous opportunities to pass by him. Russel Beatie is obviously an admirer of McClellan’s, and his conclusion was that the Peninsula Campaign failed because of Lincoln’s micromanaging and unwarranted intrusions into day-to-day operations. There is no doubt some truth to Beatie’s assessment, but his defense of McClellan often feels like an armchair general’s after-the-fact rationalization, full of unnecessarily inflammatory accusations directed toward Lincoln and his administration and endless excuses for McClellan’s obvious failures.[13] Had McClellan attacked overland to Centreville when Lincoln wanted him to, it is quite possible that the Army of the Potomac would have succeeded in smashing through defenses that were not as formidable as McClellan estimated them to be. At Yorktown, McClellan, in keeping with the standard doctrinal admonition never to leave the enemy in your rear, chose not to bypass Magruder and instead undertook a time-wasting siege. McClellan could have left a sizeable force capable of hemming Magruder in and keeping reinforcements out while navy gunboats bottled up the York River approaches. Thus free to resume his campaign, McClellan could have raced up the Peninsula and arrived at Richmond before Johnston had a chance to fully strengthen his positions and the city’s defenses. Once at Richmond, McClellan could have quickly assessed the situation and formulated a plan to assault the city, but he once again insisted on a siege. When Lee assumed command, he at once went on the offensive and pushed the Army of the Potomac back down to the James River and eventually back to Washington. McClellan was understandably worried about excessive casualties, in part because he had a habit of vastly overestimating his enemy’s strength of numbers. But as Stonewall Jackson was proving in the Shenandoah Valley, speed of maneuver could often negate numerical superiority, and even if McClellan’s army was outnumbered (which it was not), his constant delays did nothing but allow the Confederates to reinforce their troop strength and prepare their physical defenses. In the end, McClellan himself, whether through prudential caution or treasonous delay, was the reason the Peninsula Campaign failed.

[1] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 112-3.

[2] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 424.

[3] Lincoln quoted in McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 424.

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 104.

[5] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 424-5.

[6] Ibid., 426.

[7] Ibid., 427.

[8] Ibid., 454.

[9] Ibid., 462.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Quoted in ibid., 470.

[12] Ibid., 488.

[13]Russel H. Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan’s First Campaign, March-May 1862, Vol. III (Havertown, PA: Savas Beatie, 2007), 629-56,

First Manassas

In mid-summer 1861, Abraham Lincoln ordered General Irvin McDowell to advance his army from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia. Lincoln, motivated at least in part by the spirit of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and its masthead proclaiming “On to Richmond,” had concluded that a successful assault on the Confederate capital would boost Northern morale while simultaneously dealing a serious blow to the Confederacy. General McDowell was a regular army officer with over two decades of experience, and was “by all accounts a loyal and capable officer, though he had never before commanded troops in battle.”[1] McDowell pleaded for more time to train and prepare the soldiers in his army, but Lincoln dismissed his doubts, saying, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are green alike.”[2] The plan called for McDowell to move on Richmond while General Robert Patterson’s army pinned down Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s men in the Shenandoah Valley. As James McPherson pointed out, “McDowell’s plan was a good one—for veteran troops with experienced officers. But McDowell lacked both.”[3]

McDowell and his thirty-five-thousand-man army left Washington on July 16 and headed west toward Manassas Junction, where General P.G.T. Beauregard waited with twenty thousand Confederate troops. The inexperienced and poorly-disciplined Union soldiers travelled slowly as they made their way toward the waiting Confederates, and the planned one-day march to Manassas turned into five. The delay provided Beauregard with additional time to dig in, but more importantly it allowed Johnston to slip away from Patterson in the Shenandoah Valley and make his way toward Manassas by rail. These reinforcements were critical to Beauregard, since they increased his numbers to a level of parity with the invading Union army.[4] Upon his arrival at Beauregard’s headquarters on July 20, Johnston informed Beauregard that Patterson probably would attempt to link up with McDowell no later than July 22. Beauregard began making plans for an assault that would disrupt this anticipated rendezvous, but McDowell beat him to the punch by launching an attack early on the twenty-first.[5] McDowell’s assault began promisingly enough as his flanking movement threatened to panic and rout the inexperienced Confederate soldiers on Beauregard’s left. Beauregard, however, was able to rush reinforcements in time to slow the advance, and Confederate resistance was further stiffened by General Thomas J. Jackson’s brave stand at Henry House Hill, an action which earned him his nickname—Stonewall. McDowell was unable to organize his brigades into a massed attack, and the Union advance began to crumble. As the Union army lost its momentum, it began to disintegrate and panicked soldiers began fleeing the battlefield.[6] In their headlong retreat, they passed U.S. Congressmen who had come out to witness the battle, some of whom threatened to shoot the fleeing soldiers.[7]

As a result of the Confederate victory at Manassas, Southern hopes for independence soared while Northern optimism for a speedy end to the war and its attendant reunification crumbled. Horace Greeley, who had trumpeted a Union advance to Richmond, gloomily advised Lincoln that seeking peace with the rebels on their terms was the Union’s only option. Lincoln refused to give in to the naysayers, however, and he called for a million three-year enlistees. The throngs of volunteers who answered the call came to Washington and joined the new Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan.[8]

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the First Battle of Manassas was McClellan’s assignment to this command. McClellan had graduated from West Point in 1846 and fought bravely in the Mexican War before leaving the army and becoming a successful railroad executive. When the Civil War broke out, McClellan returned to the army “and rose rocket-like through the ranks. When the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, he was a civilian. Six months later he was general in chief.”[9] McClellan was greeted by all—soldiers, civilians, politicians, and even Lincoln himself—as the man who would save the Union army and thus the Union itself. McClellan’s ego delighted in the attention as he set out to rebuild the shattered and demoralized army. By all accounts he did an admirable job of reorganizing and training the Army of the Potomac, instilling discipline and pride in all who served.[10] McClellan, however, resisted deploying his army, despite Lincoln’s pleading and prodding, and his insubordination toward the president bordered on treasonous. After his poorly executed Peninsula Campaign failed miserably, McClellan was removed as general-in-chief, though he retained command of the Army of the Potomac. Even in this capacity, though, he seemed intent on thwarting all attempts at an overall Union victory. The man whom Lincoln believed would save the Union after the disaster at Manassas instead became an enormous hindrance to the Union cause, but Lincoln lacked the political capital to relieve a man so popular with his soldiers and the general population.

[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 44-45, quotation on 44.

[2] quoted in Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 38.

[3] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 335,;cc=acls;idno=heb00677.0001.001;node= heb00677.0001.001%3A1;view=toc.

[4] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 46-47.

[5] Donald Stoker, Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 42,

[6] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 47-49.

[7] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 345.

[8] Ibid., 347-8.

[9] Stoker, Grand Design, 52.

[10] Ibid., 53.

Lincoln and Emancipation

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, he unwillingly personified the schism that existed in antebellum America. To the South, Lincoln represented tyranny and oppression, the man who could accomplish by executive orders what Nat Turner and John Brown had tried and failed to do by force. Unwilling to suffer under the leadership of such a man, South Carolina and six other southern states severed ties with the Union even before Lincoln was inaugurated.  This characterization was puzzling to Lincoln, who had “repeated that he was interested only in preventing the further spread of slavery into the federally administered territories of the West.”[1] For those in the North who agreed that slavery’s expansion needed to be halted, Lincoln was their best hope to achieve this goal. Most Northern abolitionists, however, mistrusted Lincoln and his motives, and they were disappointed by his failure to emancipate the slaves early in the Civil War.[2] Thus Abraham Lincoln was placed in a most unenviable position, loathed, misunderstood, and mistrusted by nearly everyone on both sides of the slavery debate.

As president, Lincoln moved very cautiously toward emancipation, “more slowly and apparently more reluctantly…than black leaders, abolitionists, radical Republicans, and the slaves themselves wanted him to move.”[3] He did not want to overreach or overstep his constitutional authority, so he sought a solution “that would have a chance of surviving both politically and legally.”[4] Lincoln hoped that by inducing border state legislatures into a scheme of gradual, compensated emancipation, he might avoid a constitutional showdown with Chief Justice Roger Taney and his majority proslavery Supreme Court. The border states did not buy into the scheme, however, and Lincoln decided “it was time to take a further dramatic step.”[5] He approached his cabinet in July 1862 with a rough draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, telling them “that he was not asking their approval on the policy,” but that “he was open to any suggestions they might have on the specific wording.”[6] The cabinet members were divided in their reactions to the proclamation, and despite Lincoln’s admonition that the matter was already settled, several members spoke up either in favor of or opposed to the issuance of such a proclamation.[7] Secretary of State William Seward, while he agreed with Lincoln’s policy on the matter, suggested that the president should wait until the Union army had scored a decisive victory before issuing the proclamation. Otherwise, Seward explained, “It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.”[8] Lincoln agreed, later explaining that “it would sound like ‘our last shriek, on the retreat.’”[9] He shelved the proclamation and awaited a Union victory on the battlefield. Although McClellan’s defeat of Lee at Antietem fell far short of decisive, it was good enough for Lincoln’s purposes, and a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862.[10]

The differing views of Lincoln’s cabinet toward his Emancipation Proclamation can be explained by the political coalition that the new president had attempted to forge through his selection of government officials. Lincoln had consciously chosen men with a relatively diverse array of political leanings, from moderate Republicans to former Whigs and even border state former Democrats, in an attempt to shore up support from a wider constituency and thereby strengthen his own administration and the young Republican Party.[11] It was no wonder, then, that there would be such a wide range of reactions to Lincoln’s plans for emancipation. It is certainly a testament to Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership that in this case, as in so many others, he was able to harness and corral the strengths of his diverse team toward the decisive achievement of his goals.

[1] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 14.

[2] Allen C. Guelzo, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists,” The Wilson Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 60-63,

[3] James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 200,

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 137.

[5] Ibid., 137-8, quotation on 138.

[6] Ibid., 139.

[7] Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 134-6.

[8] Seward quoted in Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 139.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 160-1.

[11] Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 42-6,; William W. Freehling, Road to Disunion, Volume 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 520,

Civil War Diplomacy

There have always been leaders and citizens of the United States who have preferred an isolationist approach to foreign affairs, and that sentiment has ebbed and flowed throughout our history. Colonial North America was often a battleground for European powers jockeying for influence in the western hemisphere and around the globe, with Great Britain, France, and Spain spending enormous amounts of blood and treasure in their attempts to secure an American empire. George Washington in his Farewell Address counseled that “it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her [Europe’s] politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”[1] Even today there are those who would prefer to disengage from an increasingly interconnected world, and there is strong grass-roots appeal to solving our domestic problems before we attempt to solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately for the isolationists, the world has rarely been ready or willing to disengage from the United States and despite our best efforts to remain neutral and aloof we invariably find ourselves drawn into international relationships and alliances. The Civil War era was not immune to these disparate impulses, and the chaos here drew European interest that was by turns repelled by the violence or tempted to intervene by either humanitarian or imperialist ambitions. The United States and the Confederacy were both forced to realize that they existed within a wider Atlantic world, with all its commercial, strategic, and political entanglements.  

The diplomacy of the Confederate government was often a haphazard affair, as some constituencies within the South clamored for British and French recognition and others maintained that the Confederacy needed no outside assistance to accomplish its twin goals of winning the war and gaining independence.[2] Those who longed for European recognition of the Confederacy believed that the decrease in cotton exports caused by the Union blockade would force Britain and France to recognize the importance of the commercial interests that stitched the Atlantic world together. When the Europeans still hesitated to get involved, the Davis administration instituted a cotton embargo in an attempt to force the issue.[3] Europe, however, did not feel the sting of withheld cotton shipments since “bumper crops in the two years previous to the war had allowed the two chief benefactors of that trade, Britain and France, to stock huge surpluses that freed them from economic pressure.”[4] Thus, as Europeans began to procure cotton from elsewhere in their empires and Confederate military losses compounded, Britain and France chose to withhold both recognition and direct aid.[5]

The Lincoln administration, recognizing the importance of keeping European powers out of the conflict, attempted to achieve its diplomatic goals primarily by assuring the world that the war was a purely internal matter and that the Confederacy was not a legitimate government that deserved to be recognized by outside observers. The Union made some key missteps that nearly derailed its diplomatic efforts, with perhaps the most important one being the blockade it imposed on southern ports. In Allen Guelzo’s words, Lincoln was “burned” by this blockade attempt because “according to the ‘law of nations’ and the Paris Convention, he could only ‘close the ports’ of the rebels; blockades, with all the rights of prize and capture, could only be imposed on nations.”[6] When Charles Wilkes boarded the British ship Trent and seized two Confederate emissaries, the sensation it caused on both sides of the Atlantic further hampered Lincoln’s diplomacy and threatened to draw Great Britain into the war. Wilkes was feted in the United States while sabers rattled in London, and for a moment “the American people lost their senses and approved an act that was clearly a violation of neutral rights on the high seas.”[7] In the end, cooler heads in the administration prevailed and the two Confederate diplomats were released. Through skillful diplomacy, the threat of European intervention receded and Lincoln was free to suppress the rebellion.

In the end, the great powers of Europe chose not to intervene directly in the war, and it could be argued that this nonintervention was in fact an intervention for the Union. France’s Napoleon III wanted an end to the war, “but he refused to act unless England took the lead.”[8] He continued to meddle in affairs in North America, installing a puppet monarch on the Mexican throne in 1863, but British, Union, and Confederate distrust of Napoleon’s motives ensured that France’s diplomatic overtures bore little fruit.[9] As the war dragged on, the Confederacy lost ground, both literally and diplomatically. Southern hopes for European intervention faded, and the Union was free to act unrestrained by outside interference.

[1] George Washington, “Farewell Address (September 19, 1796),” Miller Center, University of Virginia,

[2] Charles M. Hubbard, “James Mason, the ‘Confederate Lobby’ and the Blockade Debate of March 1862,” Civil War History 45, no. 3 (September 1999): 223,; Henry Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions and International Realities,” The Journal of Southern History 32, no.2 (May 1966): 151,

[3] Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy,” 152.

[4] Jones, Howard, “Union and Confederate Diplomacy during the Civil War,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, (August 2010): 2, %20Confederate%20Diplomacy%20Essay.pdf.

[5] Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy,” 159.

[6] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 43.

[7] Victor H. Cohen, “Charles Sumner and the Trent Affair,” The Journal of Southern History 22, no. 2 (May 1956): 207,

[8] Jones, “Union and Confederate Diplomacy,” 3.

[9] Ibid., 10-12.

Civil War Economies

The economic issues that the Union and the Confederacy had to confront were not unique to either government, since they were the same issues that any nation at war must face. Financing the war effort while simultaneously minimizing serious disruptions to civilian economic life was a challenge for both Lincoln and Davis, and the Union had numerous advantages. The United States possessed a much larger population overall, and a higher concentration in urban areas, a much more extensive and developed industrial and transportation infrastructures, and a dramatically more diversified economy. The South was able to overcome its numerical disadvantages, at least for a time, and a concerted effort to capitalize on nascent domestic industries was moderately successful.[1] Financing the war, however, was particularly challenging for the Confederacy, and several factors contributed to this. In the end, the Confederacy’s inability to pay its bills may have been the one insurmountable obstacle that Davis faced.

As Roger Ransom pointed out, “No war in American history strained the economic resources of the economy as the Civil War did.”[2] The South was not impoverished at the start of the war, possessing “30 percent of the national wealth (in the form of real and personal property),” but the southern financial sector was not competitive with its Union counterpart, controlling “only 12 percent of the circulating currency and 21 percent of the banking assets.”[3] Furthermore, despite the Confederacy’s insistence that King Cotton would lead them to certain victory, the Union’s increasingly successful blockade of southern ports helped ensure that profits from any cotton that made it to Europe would be negated in the aggregate by costs associated with running the blockade.[4]

Both governments financed their war machines with the usual combination of taxes, loans (in the form of bonds), and currency issued by the respective treasuries. Although the Union struggled to stay afloat financially after initial military setbacks, creative and controversial economic policies pushed through by the Lincoln administration allowed the government to stabilize the economy.[5] These programs allowed the United States to create a more sustainable mix of the three sources of revenue, keeping inflation and public debt at manageable levels. The Confederacy, by contrast, relied very little on taxation, and was unable to borrow enough to pay its bills. It instead issued an ever-increasing number of Confederate treasury notes that were almost instantly worthless and served only to increase inflation to astronomical levels.[6]

The Union began the war with a much more fully developed economy, one that was responsive and adaptable to the exigencies of the war. It was also blessed with leadership willing to take risks and a populace largely united behind the effort. The South did not enjoy these advantages. The uninspired and reactionary attempts of the Davis administration to right its foundering ship only served to exacerbate the situation, as worthless Confederate money spewed forth from southern printing presses. The Confederate economy was almost entirely dependent on the inflexible plantation system, and southern wealth was tied up in land and slaves instead of in factories and banks. Finally, the states’-rights ideology that fueled secession itself helped ensure that top-down economic policies, such as internal taxes and legal tender treasury notes, would be viewed suspiciously, at best.

[1] Jaime Amanda Martinez, “Chapter 3: ‘The Question of Bread Is a Very Serious One’: Virginia’s Wartime Economy,” in Virginia at War, 1865, eds. William C. Davis & James I. Robertson Jr. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), 41-42,

[2] Roger L. Ransom, “The Economics of the Civil War,” EH.Net Encyclopedia, Economic History Association, February 1, 2010,

[3] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 437,;idno=heb00677.

[4] David G. Surdam, “King Cotton: Monarch or Pretender? The State of the Market for Raw Cotton on the Eve of the American Civil War,” The Economic History Review 51, no. 1 (February 1998): 113,; Stanley Lebergott, “Through the Blockade: The Profitability and Extent of Cotton Smuggling, 1861-1865,” The Journal of Economic History 41, no. 4 (December 1981): 877,

[5] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 444-8.

[6] Ransom, “The Economics of the Civil War,” Figures 4 and 5, and Table 4.

Conscription in the Civil War

In the initial flush of patriotic fervor after Fort Sumter, men in both the Union and the nascent Confederacy rushed to the defense of their respective causes and home states. In the North, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand militia, and “recruiting quotas were exceeded almost overnight”[1] amid patriotic rallies. Indeed, the response was so overwhelming that state governors offered many more troops than initially requested, with several states holding on to those units for future use by the Union army.[2] Both sides anticipated a short war, with each counting on the righteousness of their cause to propel them to certain victory. American experience in war, and recent wars in Europe, led Northerners and Southerners alike to believe that a single decisive battle would end the present conflict, and the Confederacy was duly elated over its victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. Imagine Southern surprise and disappointment, then, when Lincoln did not waver in his determination to suppress the rebellion and volunteers turned out in droves to his call for three hundred thousand more troops.[3] The war was going to last far longer than either side had anticipated.

As casualties mounted on a horrific scale never before experienced by American armies, both armies were forced to resort to some form of conscription in order to fill their depleted ranks. A year into the war, the Confederacy faced a truly daunting task, since its volunteer enlistments were set to expire just as the Union army was filling up with three-year enlistees. The Davis administration tried several tactics in order to forestall the coming manpower crisis, but none worked sufficiently. Finally, the Confederacy was forced to enact the first military draft in American history, which was richly ironic, given the CSA’s raison d’être—states’ rights and local control of a limited government.[4] There was resentment among some Southerners that, because of an exemption for slaveholders, poor whites would be forced to fight and die for the interests of the elite. Furthermore, the draft did not just apply to those who had not yet volunteered; it extended the enlistments of the volunteers for the duration of the war.[5]

The Union was able to put off conscription until the summer of 1863, and despite earlier Northern enthusiasm for the war, resistance to the draft was widespread. Many poor farmers and laborers, and especially immigrants, feared that the draft would unfairly target them for service, this despite Lincoln’s attempts to appease the lower classes with options for substitutes and commutation. Draft riots broke out among Irish laborers in New York City and German farmers in rural Wisconsin, as well as among various other constituencies in locations around the country.[6] Since the Union cause now focused on emancipation, many Northerners bridled at the thought of dying in a war being waged to free their racial inferiors. Despite their concerns, the data appear to show that Northern immigrants were not overrepresented in the draft, and accounted for only about three or four percent of those taken in the 1863 draft.[7]

When studying conscription policies, one must take into account the respective strategic positions of the Union and the Confederacy. Aside from Lee’s brief foray into southern Pennsylvania, the North did not experience a Confederate invasion and occupation of its territory. The South, by contrast, was subject to an invasion and occupation by Union armies that only grew in size and scope as the war continued. Southern fighting men, therefore, had to concern themselves with something their Northern counterparts did not, that they were not at home defending their families against a ravaging foe.

[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 36.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51-52.

[4] Ibid., 117-8.

[5] John M. Sacher, “’A Very Disagreeable Business’: Confederate Conscription in Louisiana,” Civil War History 53, no. 2 (June 2007): 142,

[6] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 226-8; Adam J. Kawa, “No Draft! Angry Farmers Turn a Wisconsin Town into a Battlefield When They Riot against Conscription,” Civil War Times, 37, no. 3 (June 1998): 54-60,

[7] Tyler Anbinder, “Which Poor Man’s Fight? Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863,” Civil War History 52, no. 4 (December 2006): 349-50,