The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – The Eastern Theater in mid-July 1862

Let’s look at the situation in the Eastern Theater, where the two capital cities sat, about 100 miles away from each other, 150 years ago this week. It was a busy time for armies, North and South, that were coming online again after the brutal Seven Days Battle. Up North, everyone was also thinking about politics (US Congressional elections are held in even-numbered years, while the Confederate Congress held theirs in odd-numbered years), and arguing about emancipation and how the war should be waged, or if it even should be continued.


The military situation in the East is much easier to summarize that it was for the West. After the Seven Days Battle, both Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac needed to rest and rebuild their strength. By mid-July, this process was well advanced: General McClellan had some 91,000 men with him at Harrison’s Landing, and General Burnside was on his way from North Carolina to reinforce him. General Lee had not only brought his army protecting Richmond back up to strength but also had added some 7000 additional troops.

Some of the Irish Brigade at Harrison's Landing, July 1862

Some of the Irish Brigade at Harrison’s Landing, July 1862 (Library of Congress)

Both armies were in fighting shape again, although the Army of the Potomac wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. General McClellan wanted more reinforcements, and President Lincoln was getting tired of telling him how impossible this was at the moment. However, in the eyes of President Davis and General Lee, the Union army on the peninsula represented a serious threat, as McClellan could potentially advance again on Richmond or cross the James River and attack the Confederate capital from the Petersburg side.

There was another US army in play, as well: General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. It was composed of the three smaller forces that CS General Jackson had played havoc with in the Shenandoah Valley earlier this year, with the addition of a cavalry brigade directly attached to each of Pope’s three 51,000-man corps.

General Fremont had resigned after overall command was given to Pope, and so General Franz Sigel led the Army of Virginia’s I Corps. One of CS General Jackson’s foes in the Shenandoah Campaign, General Nathaniel Banks, was in command of II Corps, and another, General Irvin McDowell, had III Corps.

Colonel John Beardsley‘s cavalry brigade reported to General Sigel, General George D. Bayard and his cavalry answered to General McDowell, and the cavalry led for the moment by General John Hatch was assigned to General Banks.

Part of this army had moved south across the Rappahannock and was heading for the important Southern rail connection at Gordonsville, while another part was now at Fredericksburg, where it threatened the railroad between Richmond and Gordonsville.

Railroad depot and yard, Culpeper Court House, VA, in the summer of 1862

Railroad depot and yard, Culpeper Court House, VA, about 28 miles north of Gordonsville, in the summer of 1862

When McClellan didn’t move right away, President Davis and General Lee sent General Jackson to the Gordonsville area on the 13th – Pope’s army was the more immediate threat since it could sever all railroad connections between Richmond and Northern Virginia (source of vital supplies for the Confederate army). General Ewell’s division went along, swelling Jackson’s total force to some 11,000 men. They would be joined by Colonel Beverly Robertson’s 4th Virginia Cavalry, some 1000-1200 men strong, that was already operating in the area.

Lee himself remained at Richmond with some 65,000 men, but he did ask General Jeb Stuart to send some of his 1st Virginia Cavalry “at least as far north as Hanover Junction or the North Anna, to watch the movements of the enemy and give protection to the railroad and country, and endeavor to get information of the enemy at Fredericksburg.” (3, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15)

Politics and Emancipation

Three heroes

Three Heroes (General Robert E. Lee, flanked by General Thomas Jackson and General Jeb Stuart) (Library of Congress)

Spirits were high in the Confederacy, where Lee was now a national hero, so the general and President Davis were free to concentrate primarily on military problems. Lincoln might have envied them at that moment.

The following are a few points from McPherson’s excellent in-depth chapter on this period, “We Must Free The Slaves Or Be Ourselves Subdued.”

The Union’s military setback outside of Richmond was bad enough, but President Lincoln also needed to call up more troops (the administration had stopped its recruiting program in the spring, when victory had seemed certain and the war’s end in sight) to continue fighting in spite of the big defeat, and he had to do it during an election year when the emancipation issue was turning much of the Democrat party into an antiwar party.

Reunion on the Secesh-Democratic Plan

“We’ll have the ‘Union as it was’ only a great deal more so.” Currier & Ives (Library of Congress, see for summary)

There were War Democrats – McClellan is the prime example and his Harrison Bar letter reflects their position regarding the war and emancipation – but 1862 also saw the rise of Peace Democrats (“copperheads” to Lincoln and those who supported him), whose slogan “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was” tapped popular support in many areas of the North where people felt they were fighting to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves.

Indeed, racial prejudice in the North was so strong that antiblack riots broke in some cities, while the War Department had to return several rail carloads of contrabands it had brought to southern Illinois to help with the harvest when locals rioted over the presence of African Americans, despite a desperate need for field workers because of the war.

Opposition to emancipation united the War and Peace Democrats in 1862. However, Lincoln had moved into the more radical Republican position supporting emancipation because he regarded it as “a military necessity” since the slaves were “an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.” (3) He now had a proclamation ready to emancipate slaves in rebellious states, but the US president had to be careful – one wrong move and this proclamation would tip public opinion against him and his party, causing a Democrat takeover of Congress that might ultimately lead to a quick end to the war and recognition of the Confederacy.

The US president and many Republicans also considered the “copperheads” traitors. To complicate matters, one prominent Peace Democrat had already visited McClellan at Harrison’s Landing, and there were rumors in the papers that General McClellan wanted to be the Democrat presidential candidate in 1864.

Lincoln makes some moves

All in all, President Lincoln had his hands full, and this was no time for him to also go on acting as general-in-chief, even with the “War Board’s” help. He therefore called General Halleck back to Washington to take the job.

During this week, 150 years ago, Lincoln got two major pieces of legislation through Congress that signaled a turn toward harsher prosecution of the war. One of these allowed for the confiscation of the property of “traitors,” including their slaves, who “shall be deemed captives of war and shall be forever free.” McPherson notes that the wording of this act was confusing, but it made sense to people at the time, and it showed what the war had become: a means to tear down the Southern social order in order to reconstruct the Union.

George McClellan probably didn’t approve of it, but property confiscation and destruction was already common in Union-occupied areas. Earlier in the month, General Sherman had said that “[s]tealing, robbery, and pillage has become so common in this army that it is a disgrace to any civilized people.” As for the contrabands and freed slaves, General Grant would tell his father later in the summer that “I am using them as teamsters, hospital attendants, company cooks, and so forth, thus saving soldiers to carry the musket. I don’t know what is to become of these poor people in the end, but it weakens the enemy to take them from him.”

Most important over the longer term was the Militia Act, under which the government subsequently called for a military draft (though a case can be made that this draft was used much as the Confederates used theirs, to force men to volunteer in order to avoid the stigma of being drafted). It also allowed the president to employ African Americans in any war role in which they might be useful, including as soldiers (a step Lincoln and the majority of the public were not yet ready to take).

Responses to the US Militia Act of 1862

Responses to the US Militia Act of 1862 (Click to enlarge)

(Note: Because coverage of the politics took extra time when describing the Eastern Theater, as well as the heat – there is no AC in this apartment that sits directly under the roof, and all week I’ve practiced the time-honored survival technique called siesta – the actual timeline will probably be out tomorrow, July 16.)



(2)  Morgan’s Raiders and The L&N Railroad in the Civil War, by Dan Lee.

(3)  Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

(4) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor

(5) The Lincoln Log timeline.

(6) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(7) Henry Halleck’s War: A Fresh Look at Lincoln’s Controversial General-In-Chief, by Curt Anders

(8) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(9)”The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (Vol. II), Jefferson Davis.

(10) Civil War Home’s “The Eastern Theater: 2nd Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg.

(11)  The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, by William Allan (1892)

(12)  Conquest of the Lower Mississippi.

(13) Civil War Interactive.

(14) Chronology of the Second Manassas Campaign.

(15) A Year of Glory, July 1862.

Categories: American Civil War

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