There is progress.
A year ago, I was trying to catch up on the most important events of 1861 in a single post, after having spent most of the year just searching for a valid way into the past.
Daily details about the campaigns, battles and plain old soldiering through 1862 have shed some light on those times and the people caught up in them.
For example . . .
The critter known as Political Man is short-lived, changing over time. This is good.
Nobody today much cares about the First Party System, say, or the merits/faults of a currency based on gold or silver unless they can make a living at it (historians) or use it in an argument over some modern political issue (activists/Internet arguers).
Not so with the American Civil War.
Learning about that helps one to understand the modern world. A case in point: the commercial failure of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) makes more sense when you know its bad guys actually received the US Medal of Honor for their actions.
However, this 150-year-old war can still be a flash point in discussions.
The reasons for this are myriad, but somewhere down near the root of it all, I suspect, is that everybody back then dug in and insisted their way was right. Generation after generation has since worked it over and passed it down to us.
It’s a real mess, in other words.
In terms of this series, the only 19th century American political notion that I want to mention now is that, in 1862, when you spoke of “the President,” you had one of two men in mind – Davis or Lincoln.
That was all anybody needed to know about you and your political correctness, and sometimes it meant the difference between life and death.
We have nothing like that today, thankfully.
Why They Fought
Words like “slavery,” “states rights,” “union” and perhaps even the phrase “because you’re down here” came into your mind just now, right?
We have learned to associate such thoughts with the American Civil War, but we did not start and fight that terrible war.
Our favorite words would mean little to the shivering Confederate soldier who marched along a muddy Virginia road in the cold spring of 1862, hating weird old “Tom Fool” Jackson up there at the head of the column more with each step, and then, later in the year, striding along proudly as a member of the Stonewall Brigade.
On the other side, Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, USA, wasn’t speaking like our idea of a proper Union soldier when he wrote home after the US Congressional election (emphasis is his):
Confound the election! I don’t want to hear anything about it. I presume the “n—-r” worshippers have all been elected. I am a Democrat, first, last and all the time, but as long as the rebels are in arms I will sustain the government’s efforts to put down rebellion – with my life if necessary. I think there should be but one party, one issue in the North as long as the war lasts. So hang the election, I say. . . .
The Stonewall Brigade and Captain Donaldson disagreed about who was their country’s president. All of them understood – as we do not, because it’s old business now – that once you have a CSA president, the US presidency changes forever, too.
Southerners – none of whom voted for Abe Lincoln on their 1860 ballot – were down with that. The North, however, objected.
Action, reaction, more reaction, more actions . . . everybody dug in, and it became a war.
As 1862 unfolded, Grant and others started realizing that this wouldn’t be over in a hurry. Still, they fought.
They had to.
That is the only honest reason why human beings fight – they have to. Anything more is just a sales pitch.
A bit earlier that same month, Donaldson had written correctly about his foe, “They are a brave people, a very brave people, and splendid soldiers, to conquer whom many a bloody battle will have to be fought and many a life sacrificed. I am willing to take my chances and should I be spared to see the end . . I will have a record to be proud of all my days, for it will, indeed, be a grand thing to conquer Lee’s army.”
Sounds like a white man’s war .
Since 1861, slaves escaping to Federal lines had met varied welcomes that depended on the local commander’s abolitionist tendencies.
In July 1862, the US Militia Act/Second Confiscation Act and a presidential executive order started to formalize the care and employment (with wages and humane treatment) of former slaves in areas under Union control.
However, in parts of Louisiana, South Carolina and Missouri, African American military units were already forming (at first, informally and without the commander-in-chief’s approval).
In October, black American troops (unofficial) entered combat for the first time, on foot and against Confederate cavalry.
Remember, this was the year of Confederate cavalry preeminence. Nonetheless, at great cost, fighting “like tigers” because they had to, the black soldiers won the Battle of Island Mound.
But there was more than the smell of gunpowder in the air this year. Something powerfully good was stirring.
I have never been able to understand how the slaves throughout the South, completely ignorant as were the masses so far as books or newspapers were concerned, were able to keep themselves so accurately and completely informed about the great National questions that were agitating the country. From the time that Garrison, Lovejoy, and others began to agitate for freedom, the slaves throughout the South kept in close touch with the progress of the movement. Though I was a mere child during the preparation for the Civil War and during the war itself, I now recall the many late-at-night whispered discussions that I heard my mother and the other slaves on the plantation indulge in. These discussions showed that they understood the situation, and that they kept themselves informed of events by what was termed the “grape-vine” telegraph.
— Booker T. Washington, in Up From Slavery
The most famous Watch Night service was held on December 31, 1862:
Much else was going on at this time: industrialization; western expansion; Native Americans and whose side(s) they supported in the war; international maneuvering by both sides to win European support; economic events (particularly in regard to taxes and “greenbacks”); and so forth.
I haven’t gotten into it this year during posts and so won’t take a closer look now. We have over two more years to go.
They didn’t know that back then. No one knew how it would turn out. Every campaign, every big battle might be the big breakthrough.
Today we have the Civil War to bring us to our senses when things get overheated. Back then, their model was the American Revolution, so they were all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
North and South, in a sense, were battling to set up their respective and very different visions of the America that came out of the Revolution.
They couldn’t know that they were themselves becoming, among other things (good as well as bad), the young nation’s worst example of how to handle domestic controversies.
The Tree of Liberty
I don’t get into much detail about events on each battlefield. Others are more qualified to do that.
Here’s one thing about some of the campaigns of 1862, though.
The South pushed the North away from their doorstep at Richmond, all the way to Washington, D.C. and Maryland . . . and failed to gain the support of local people once they crossed into the Union.
The North took first Fort Donelson, and then all of Tennessee, only to meet ferocious resistance at Shiloh and elsewhere as Union troops moved into the Confederacy.
CS General Bragg invaded Kentucky and was surprised that locals didn’t rise up en masse to greet his liberating army.
It seems that Americans everywhere did not like being invaded. And it came as such a surprise to Grant and Lee and McClellan and Bragg. How strange that is!
Home, Sweet Home
Even more strange is Abraham Lincoln’s pushing emancipation during this terrible year when so much else was happening.
That was a huge risk, with very little to be gained before the war’s end.
Antietam/Sharpsburg was a horrible battle, and it certainly wasn’t a Union victory the way Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory. Lincoln nonetheless used Antietam as the “victory” he needed before announcing the first version of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Then, shortly after the disaster at Fredericksburg, he released the Proclamation itself.
Since Captain Donaldson likely wasn’t the only Northerner to hold such opinions about black people and the “N****r worshippers,” and the Democrats had recently picked up a number of US Congressional seats, that wasn’t really wise, when you think about it. Unless . . .
I have this crazy idea.
Lincoln didn’t do this really to hurt the South, at least right away, since it could not be enforced in the areas of rebellion that it covered.
He didn’t do it for the slaves, either, for he had gone on record recently to say, that if he could save the Union while keeping slavery intact, he would do that.
Could it be that back in February, as his son Willie lay dying (probably of typhoid), he had made a promise to that little boy, or perhaps to God, to free the slaves by year’s end?
We’ll never know, but I like to think that’s the hidden back story of the Emancipation Proclamation.
After all, one child is all it takes to change the world.
Categories: American Civil War