This is the common story of a war growing completely out of hand and overwhelming the people who started it. As always, opposing factions argued for either peace or continued prosecution, with one group judging the price too great for any potential results and the other reluctant to waste the investment already made. Tragically, victory and peace might have satisfied both parties fairly early, but those opportunities were lost through a closely connected series of blunders, some of which can be traced back to the conscious decisions of Abraham Lincoln. Those executive decisions appear to have been influenced by pressure from Radical Republicans, and in some cases the unfortunate choices contradicted Lincoln’s own instincts.
The second half of 1861 had seemed laden with Confederate victories over the Union invaders, but 1862 began with a nearly unbroken string of Union triumphs. Most confrontations in the western theater that winter and spring ended in abject Southern defeat, and occasionally in complete surrender. By the end of April, New Mexico had been rid of Southern intruders; New Orleans had fallen; the Southern legions that had defended Kentucky and Tennessee had been driven into the tier of Gulf States, or conducted north as prisoners. The Atlantic coast bristled with Union bases. In May, Federals swarmed into Baton Rouge—the second Confederate state capital captured within two months—and in northern Mississippi a massive Union army closed in on its main opponent, under General Pierre G. T. Beauregard. In Virginia, despite much-criticized delay, George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac lay at Richmond’s eastern approaches with a hundred thousand Union soldiers, and forty thousand more stood at Fredericksburg, ready to swoop down on Richmond from the north and west. The Confederate capital could muster barely half as many defenders as the combined Yankee host, and things looked very gloomy for the new nation of slave states.
Then, in a matter of days, it all fell apart. Beginning on May 23, Stonewall Jackson descended on outnumbered Union defenders in the Shenandoah Valley and sent them flying to the far side of the Potomac River. Abraham Lincoln bore primary responsibility for depleting his Valley divisions and appointing incompetent politicians to command them, and at their flight he fell into a panic, scattering his Fredericksburg troops into the Valley in a needless e¬ort to repel Jackson—and in a vain attempt to capture him. That emasculated the overpowering dual movement against Richmond, where on May 31 Confederates pounced on an isolated wing of the Army of the Potomac and delivered an embarrassing, if uncoordinated, blow. Beauregard slipped his army out of beleaguered Corinth, Mississippi, causing weeks of apprehension that he had reinforced Richmond, and that apprehension posed a serious liability for Union arms at the end of June. Believing himself vastly outnumbered by the Confederates who assailed him so ferociously, McClellan retreated from Richmond’s door in a weeklong running fight that left his grand army gasping on the banks of the James River, a good twenty-five miles downstream from the chambers of the Confederate Congress.
In forty days the Union juggernaut appeared to have been halted. The battlefield reverses had all come in Virginia, which carried limited strategic importance in the quest to subdue the South, but the Virginia theater encompassed political symbols that far outweighed its military significance. The embattled hundred miles between Washington and Richmond therefore attracted a disproportionate measure of public attention, and that obsession with events in Virginia cost the Union cause dearly in 1862. The repulse of McClellan’s promising advance initiated a wave of dejection among the civilian population. The rise of the audacious John Pope, and his bloody disasters at the head of the Army of Virginia that August, had the same depressing e¬ect on Union soldiers. In conjunction with the administration’s decision to withdraw McClellan from the James and give most of his army to Pope, Pope’s failures also brought the war back to the outskirts of Washington, and then into the loyal states.
The restoration of McClellan to field command in September put much heart back in the army. McClellan brought a more deliberate and methodical approach to warfare, which naturally appealed to the men who would have to do the fighting, but McClellan’s soldiers may have admired him equally for his conservative politics: he advocated reunion uncontaminated by any abolitionist agenda, and that seemed to reflect the opinion of most Union troops in the summer of 1862. His success in repelling the Confederates from Maryland does not, however, seem to have restored Northern confidence so abruptly or so completely as retrospective accounts might suggest—as much as it may have dismayed Southern civilians. Their momentary sense of relief aside, many Northern observers gauged the Southern incursions into Maryland and Kentucky that September less as failed invasions than as successful raids that might be repeated any time. It was primarily those who had striven to see the administration adopt a higher ideological purpose than national unity whose spirits brightened in the wake of Antietam, and their optimism arose more from Lincoln’s decree on emancipation. Those who awaited improvement in the military situation remained doubtful, and the complication of emancipation infuriated those Unionists who had feared all along that abolitionists were scheming to preempt their cause.
For all the presumed support the president’s war enjoyed, recruiters found the Northern population increasingly unwilling to answer federal appeals for troops by the summer of 1862. Partial advance payments on the federal bounty and some local financial inducements attracted a skimming of volunteers, but it was not until bounties began to grow generous that another wave of citizens responded, reflecting an economic condition slightly higher, on average, than those who had previously enlisted. The August militia call introduced the threat of compulsory service, driving communities nationwide to shameless demonstrations disguised as patriotic rallies, where those who wished to avoid the army essentially raised funds for mercenaries to take their places. Only when the money proved su∞ciently inviting did enough men start coming forward, but more devastating defeats and the conclusion of the militia draft combined with unpopular political policies like emancipation and arbitrary arrests to dry up that last freshet of volunteers by the end of the year.
Thereafter, Union armies could be replenished by nothing short of general conscription and the astronomical bounties that more comprehensive conscription would eventually wring from a reluctant population. If it were considered a reflection of popular endorsement, recruiting hinted by the beginning of 1863 that the public had lost interest in a war of reunion, and perhaps especially in a war of abolition. Desertion rates suggested similar dissatisfaction within the army.
Letters, diaries, and newspapers from the period have provided most of the popular opinions portrayed in this work. The appearance of newly discovered material in manuscript repositories continues to fuel a renaissance in revisionist history as the words of the people actually living in the period collectively modify or challenge the conclusions of generations of historians who were forced to rely primarily on memoirs and published documents. One of the most glaring di-erences between contemporary observations and postwar accounts is the degree to which nationalistic...