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Civil War Armies

By Bruce Catton

© 1996 and 2003 The Cincinnati Civil War Round Table

[A note from the webmaster: The archives of the Cincinnati CWRT indicate this talk was given to The Civil War Round Table in Chicago, Illinois, although we have been unable to confirm that. Mr. Catton never addressed the Cincinnati CWRT, to our knowledge, but he did speak in Cincinnati in October 1962 at a symposium during the Civil War Centennial observance. CCWRT was a co-sponsor of the symposium, and we believe that this may be the text of Mr. Catton's address on that occasion.]

As devotees and self-appointed analysts of the Civil War, I suppose all of us have heard of von Moltke, who is supposed to have said that he didn't find our Civil War worth study because it was simply a contest of armed mobs. Now we're dedicated to people like Lee and Grant, Johnston, Thomas, Stuart, Sheridan and so on. We like to analyze the campaigns and the battles. We study the maps, and we admire the professional competence which these men and their armies brought to the task which they were engaged. We don't like to have these armies called "armed mobs." We think they were pretty good armies, frequently pretty well directed. Von Moltke's Prussian pronouncement tends to irritate us.

What I would like to suggest is that this Prussian general was more nearly correct than most of us are willing to admit. From his point of view, Civil War armies were "armed mobs," and it is only looking at this in that light that we can really understand how the Civil War occurred and how great their achievements were. Our Civil War armies were really very unlike the armies of European, or any, military tradition. As a soldier bred to that tradition, von Moltke was quite justified in saying what he said. It is in that difference, which is quite incomprehensible to a man of von Moltke's training, that the key to a real understanding of our Civil War is to be found.

It's often been said that the American Civil War was the last of the old wars and the first of the new ones. It was the last of the old in that the old-style tactics and concepts prevailed in the minds of so many of the generals. Civil War armies were taught to fight according to a Napoleonic system: the men massed in elbow to elbow ranks, confident that superior numbers, if they could be brought into effective range, would win the day, provided that discipline and determination were present. It was also considered, at least at the start, that our Civil War was like other wars in that it was strictly a matter for the army to settle. The civilian government was supposed to provide and equip those armies and to lay down the general objectives. Beyond that, they were supposed to keep their hands off and leave it entirely up to the soldiers.

As it happened, however, both of these ideas were one hundred percent wrong. Napoleonic tactics, of course, had been outdated by the introduction of rifled muskets and rifled artillery. The advance en masse, which was successful in the day of smooth bore muzzle loaders, when it was impossible to do any damage to the enemy if he stayed as much as 200 yards away, failed utterly in the face of new weapons of much greater accuracy and longer range. Foredoomed and hopeless assaults like those at Malvern Hill, at Fredericksburg, at Franklin, to name only three terrible examples, would have made perfectly good sense in Napoleon's day. They were disasters as actually delivered, simply because the development of weapons had gone beyond the developments of military thinking. The dreadful casualty lists rolled up in Civil War battles testify abundantly to the folly of trying to extend the old tactics into the beginning of the modern era.

Only toward the latter part of the war, when the defensive mastered the use of field entrenchments and attacking forces learned the advantage of advancing in open order with built up skirmish lines in place of massed battalions, did tactics begin to be adjusted to the realities of the situation. Much more important than this, however, was the fact that, in the ideological sense, this was a war of what, to our sorrow, we have come to recognize as the modern type. That is it was a war in which national loyalties were superseded by loyalties in ideas and ideals. The old concepts on which nations had previously fought were no longer valid. Only on the map was the Civil War a war between two separate nations. Basically, it was a contest for men's minds.

Consider the situation as it existed in 1861. Here was a country breaking apart, pulled by diverse ideas about the very function of the national government itself. To the men in one section, this was the best of all conceivable governments. To the men in the other, it had come to reflect the worst.

The problem was complicated further by the existence of the institution of slavery and by the presence of what most people then considered an inferior race. Somehow the race/slavery problem and the problem of centralization in government, as opposed to decentralization, had become inextricably tied together. In the End, they had to be steeled together. A decision on one carried with it a decision on the other.

As a result of this, the problem that faced the Union government at the outbreak of the war was totally unlike the problem which previous governments ordinarily faced when they went to war. Simply to defeat the opposing armies might not be enough. What had to be beaten down was an opposing idea. Under everything else, the Civil War was a contest in persuasion, a contest for men's minds. Yet, in the very nature of things since men had taken up arms over a matter of ideas, it was apt to develop into a fight to the bitter end, a fight to a situation in which if men could not be persuaded to give up their ideas they could at least be made incapable of struggling any longer to put these ideas into effect.

It was a war, on other words, between peoples, between opposing ideals of government and society, and it had come to a country which was totally unprepared for war and which had no military traditions stronger than the homespun tradition of the minuteman. So the Civil War from its very outset was bound to be a war between what von Moltke could only consider "armed mobs"; that is, a war entirely unlike anything that would be fought by formalized professional armies.

Consider the very first occasion on which Federal Infantry fired its muskets in action. These took place in the spring of 1861 on the streets of Baltimore and the streets of St. Louis. In each case men in uniform were shooting at men not in uniform. Out of each of these street fights, which, incidentally, I think, do justify calling this a "civil war", came successful attempts by the Federal government to prevent two sovereign states from taking formal leave of the Union. And the actions which resulted in Maryland an in Missouri, while they were absolutely vital to the success of the Union cause, bore no faintest resemblance to anything which, by ordinary military tradition, a nation at war might find itself called upon to do.

The dilemma of the Federal General Harney from St. Louis is a case in point. General Harney was in a very perplexing situation. He was commander of troops in an area where the local government was led by men who proposed to go over to the other side. He did his best to behave as a troop commander ought to behave in a time of crisis. He tried to follow all the regulations and do everything according to the book, and before he quite knew what was going on, he had been replaced by a very junior subordinate, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, who was willing to toss all of the regulations out of the window and approach this problem from a completely unorthodox angle.

It may be that I am laboring this point unduly, but it does seem to me that the only way in which we can hope to understand the Civil War is the approach that recognized that this war was somehow unique. It was not basically a military problem even though it finally had to be worked out in military ways. The military aspect, to be sure, is what chiefly engrosses us today. We want to know the details about the Seven Days' campaign. We want to trace Grant's movements in the Vicksburg campaign. We spend many hours trying to determine whether Joe Johnston did or did not make the best use of numbers and terrain when he tried to keep Sherman away from Atlanta. And yet, in the long run, we must examine a great many non-military considerations. Back of the generals and the armies and the dreadful, tragic battles we are obliged to contemplate the doings of a highly non-military people who were trying, amid bloodshed and flame and the clanging of beaten metal, to hammer out a way of life for our people - North and South alike - to whom a large part of the future of the human race had been entrusted.

The American experience has been unique from its beginning down to that bend in the road which we have not yet reached. The Civil War, likewise, was unique. It was the prodigious turning point in the American people's unending progress toward the unattainable. It was fought out with the materials at hand; that is, with armies and generals, with the implements of unmeasured violence marshaled by people who were really thinking about something quite different. But it was not like other wars, and the worst mistake we could make would take place if we tried to assay it in conventional military terms. This, of course, is what gives the Civil war its own distinctive character. It was a violent and unpredictable extension of a political contest, a transposition into the field of violent action from what had begun as a simple attempt to persuade. It had begun simply as a matter of politics, an attempt to win votes. The Civil War could not be like preceding wars because people had sought a military solution to something which it was not, at bottom a military problem at all.

George B. McClellan
I think this explains the fix of such a man as General George B. McClellan. It's a little hard to see that McClellan had any very deep feelings about the basic issues involved. He was a professional soldier by training, and he looked on himself as a perfectly nonpolitical, loyal American citizen, which, in terms of his birth and previous conditioning, meant that he stood by the Union when the split came. He offered his services; was made a general, and was put into a position of vast importance. And his one idea appears to have been to play it straight. Play it straight; that is, look at the map to determine where the enemy's principal army is; do your best to find out how strong it is, a matter at which McClellan was not uniformly too successful; then, by combat, drive that army out of the way and occupy your enmity's capital city. While you were doing all of this, neither you nor your soldiers need concern yourselves in the least with the political objectives that lay back of the contest. They were walled off. The soldiers' problem was strictly military. By established tradition, that was the proper approach for a soldier.

The trouble was that it wasn't that kind of a war. Professional soldiers could not play it straight because the game was a very devious one, with all sorts of unexpected political angles and curves forever rising in the path of ordinary military expediency. McClellan failed, not because he was not a good soldier, for he was a good one, although he was slightly lacking in the instinct of pugnacity. He failed because he was in a spot where he had to be something more than a soldier, and he never quite realized it.

By contrast there was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln knew nothing about military matters when the war broke out, but he did know about all that any American can know about politics. When the war came, he played politics with the command of the Union armies. That is usually taken as a severe criticism of his conduct as president and commander in chief. I would like to suggest that it was actually one of his greatest virtues. The Civil War was politics, and only a skilled politician could win it.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was quite frank about this. He remarked once that he did not pretend to have control of events. Rather, he said, events had controlled him. This means nothing less than that he took the situation as he found it, adjusted himself to it, and somehow managed to put himself at the head of the unformulated aspirations and ideals of the people of the North without ever letting himself get so far out in front that he lost touch with his followers. In the end, he provided leadership for a force that could be guided but never quite directed. He made himself the channel through which the majority sentiment of the nation could finally find expression. In other words, he behaved like a politician, like an uncommonly perceptive and skillful politician. And he made his actions as commander in chief of the nation's armed forces fit into that pattern. He knew politics. He did not know military science. No man in the America of the 1860's could know both. Probably no American, then or now, can know both. There was bound to be ignorance in one field or the other. Out of this ignorance would inevitably come gross miscalculations at times. But, under the circumstances, miscalculations in the military field would be much less likely to lead to final disaster than miscalculations in the political field.

That Lincoln made grievous mistakes in purely military matters is beyond question. The most flagrant example probably is the one which is to be found in the record of events in the spring and early summer of 1862, when Lincoln, or the War Department acting for him, interfered with McClellan's strategy with such unhappy results, following Stonewall Jackson's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. The Lincoln administration, at this point, committed a classic mistake. From a distance, it undertook to overrule the judgments of its commanders in the field, moving armies and pieces of armies about with high disregard for the strategic and tactical plans of the officers on the spot. From Washington, it tired to surround and destroy Jackson's venturesome army in the Lower Shenandoah Valley. It issued marching orders to Fremont, to Banks, to McDowell; and Jackson blithely slipped out of the net. McClellan's plans for his Richmond campaign were totally disarranged, with the result that Lee was given the opportunity, which he immediately accepted, to wage the brilliant and victorious battles of the Seven Days.

Ever since, this interference from afar has been strongly and properly condemned as the prime example of the way not to handle problems of strategy. Here, obviously, the nation had to harvest the fruits of military ignorance on the part of its commander in chief. If there is a little point to bear in mind even here, exactly the same sort of mistake has been made in other wars by men thoroughly trained in military matters, with equally bad results.

In 1914 and 1915, the British Admiralty handled the grand fleet and its supporting forces in precisely the same way. Admiral Jericho and his subordinates never had a free hand. The grand fleet was told when to go out and how far it should go and when to come back. Supporting flotillas of destroyers, submarines, and cruisers were directed from London. When German squadrons went to sea, the attempt to cut them off and bring thin to battle was handled from Whitehall; and consequently, the Germans usually got away. The parallel between Lincoln's handling of his Virginia armies in 1862 and the Admiralty's handling of its North Sea forces in 1915 is very close. And bear this in mind. The British Admiralty, then, was under the direction of trained naval strategists - the best career men the British navy could find - under the overall control of no less a person than Winston Churchill. Lincoln's errors in connection with the McClellan campaign were by no means errors that would automatically have been avoided if professional strategists had been in charge. The British professionals duplicated thin almost line for line half a century later. Furthermore, the important thing to remember about Lincoln's role as commander in chief is the fact that miscalculations in the military field would be tragically expensive but not necessarily fatal.

In the military sense, the Northern government was playing a winning hand from the start. It could afford to make mistakes with its armies, and it did make quite a number of them. Where it could not afford mistakes was in the field of politics. There was the area, from the beginning almost to the very end, where it cold always lose the war, and it was in that field that Lincoln brought to his task a genuinely expert touch. The overriding imperative on Lincoln, of course, was the necessity to save the Union. He had to bring about the return to the Union of the seceded states, by persuasion if possible, by brute force if necessary, everything else was subordinate to that. To do this, Lincoln had three subsidiary problems to solve, and a mistake on any of the three could have cost him "game and rubber".

First of all, he had to capitalize on and make permanent the tremendous upsurge of latent Union sentiment which existed all across the North among Democrats as well as Republicans immediately after Fort Sumter. Despite the enormous differences which there were between the parties in the North in regard to such matters as State's rights, abolition, and so on, the outbreak of the war did reveal an overpowering basic sentiment in favor of an undivided Union. It was, above everything else, essential for Lincoln to harness that sentiment and make it the foundation on which the whole war effort could be based.

The second problem was that of holding as many as possible of the border states in the Union by one means or another. If Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri had gone wholeheartedly with the Confederacy at the start, the war would have been lost before it had begun. At all costs, those states had to be either persuaded or compelled to rejoin in the Union.

The third problem was what to do about slavery. At the beginning of the war, this was a very minor problem. As the war progressed, it became primary, simply because the very existence of slavery finally compelled men to center their attention upon it.

Bear in mind that none of these problems could be handled in a traditional way. Lincoln could never behave as a chief of state would behave waging a foreign war with a professional military establishment seeking traditional objectives. He had to improvise. He had to put political considerations first, simply because anything that was done in the military sphere would be valid only if it were based on sound political considerations.

Lincoln met the first problem, that of using and making permanent the general upsurge of Union sentiment, by playing politics in every conceivable way. The most striking of these ways, and the one for which he is most criticized, involved his appointment of political generals. It must be confessed that some rather odd characters got stars on their shoulders as a result - men like Fremont, Sigel, Banks, McClernand, Sickles, and the one and only Ben Butler. These men turned out to possess a high degree of incompetence in military matters, and some of them can be considered nothing less than disasters in uniform. Others, of course - such men as Frank Blair, John Logan, Jacob Cox, Joshua Chamberlain - became good soldiers and acquitted themselves very well. But, in the main, the political generals did not make a happy record in the Federal army. Yet, I think we can justify the commissioning of these men; and I think that, in the long run, they were worth all they cost. The use of these men did help bring men of all parties and all shades of belief in active support of the war. Such men as Fremont, Sigel, McClernand, and Sickles unquestionably brought many thousands of recruits into the Northern armies. Their existence as general officers made it impossible for the people of the North to look on the war as a purely Republican Party activity. That could easily have happened, and, if so, the war would have been lost. Although these men made some rather horrendous mistakes as troop commanders, it is really very hard to see that their mistakes were any more costly than the mistakes made by such professionals as Pope, Hooker, and Burnside.

To hold the border states in line took some very nimble footwork. In Maryland, the Federal government simply disregarded all questions of legality, locked up such legislators and public officials as seemed likely to take a pro-Confederate stand, and held the state in the Union by force until such time as latent Union sentiment in western Maryland could assert itself. Very much the same thing was done in Missouri, with the same result. In Kentucky, a different tack was taken; and for a number of months, the state was permitted to retain a shadowy sort of neutrality, which was violated, finally, when it became evident that time to use force had arrived. In western Virginia, pro-Union sentiment was encouraged; Confederate sentiment was suppressed; and an entirely new state was created, with only the dimmest sort of legal foundation. I, the all important tier of border states was held in the Union; but, to do so, the government had to do some unorthodox things.

The slavery issue, of course, called for the most delicate handling of all. At the start of the war, there was nothing whatever to indicate that majority sentiment in the North would support an effort to abolish slavery. The abolitionists, noisy as they were, were very definitely in the minority. Furthermore, under the slavery problem, there was the race problem itself. To end slavery meant that the nation eventually would have to find some way by which the two races could live side by side in harmony and, presumably, ultimately, on a basis of full equality. Hardly anyone at that time had the idea that this would ever be humanly possible. We can hardly be said to have solved the problem even today. Consequently, whatever Lincoln did tin regard to slavery had to be done with the utmost care and with the most delicate touch.

I am going into this slavery point simply because it underlines the nature on Lincoln's problems as commander in chief. Here was an issue which finally turned out to be basic to the whole war effort. Yet it could not be solved as a military problem even though, when he finally proclaimed emancipation, Lincoln based the proclamation on his war powers, and he was doing it as a war measure. Yet, even though emancipation was finally embraced as a war measure, it had to be handled from the beginning as a political issue. If it had been adopted prematurely, it is very probable that the Northern war program would have been fatally handicapped. The same would have been true if it had been postponed too long. The crucial decision of the war, in other words, was one which Lincoln had to make, not on his determination as to what might be militarily possible, but on his judgment of what the minds and emotions of civilians would accept.

Looking back at this distance, we can see that it was actually handled most effectively; that is, it was a vital step in the conduct of the war, taken for military reasons. Bit guided by the instinct of the politician rather than the soldier. So, to repeat, in his conduct of the office of commander in chief, Lincoln had to concern himself primarily with political problems. Remember what he told Grant when he gave the stubby, little man from Illinois his commission as lieutenant general. All he had ever wanted, and wanted now, was a general who could take the military problem off his hands. Perhaps Grant's chief claim to true greatness is the fact that he understood what Lincoln was driving at without having to have a picture of it drawn for him. When Lincoln found Grant, that was it. Grant could take care of the fighting and leave Lincoln to deal with the intangibles. It was the intangibles which were Lincoln's chief concern.

In the last analysis, Lincoln was dealing with the future of America and perhaps, finally, with the future of the human race itself. What America hammered out in the fires of war would be the basis on which men who love freedom and equality would be able to go forward in the twentieth century. This was a terrible, large order.

Lincoln did not gain all that he wanted. No man could have done so given the conditions of the time. What Lincoln could and did do was come fairly close to his objective. He could come in, so to speak, second best to an unattainable ideal. He could make possible the final attainment of his goal by generations yet unborn. He did exactly that. We are still trying to reach his goal, which, I think, is why we still find the Civil War worth our study. It is still going on here, at home, and all over the world. The process of persuasion, that terrible political problem of getting men to see where fulfillment of the infinite aspirations of the human spirit really can be found, is still our unfinished business.

We are still working with the job Lincoln began for us, the job for which 600,000 American lives were laid down on the storm-swept battlefields and in squalid, fever-stained camps and bivouacs. For the Civil War was our doorway into the future. The old guidelines had been erased. The traditions that had served men from the days of Julius Caesar had ceased to be of any practical value, which, I suppose, is what the word American really means. Here, suddenly, is the limitless development of the human race - frightening, violent, unpredictable, heaven-sent - staring us in the face. Here is something where tradition is of no use, a force which the infinite power of unleashed violence cannot settle, something that we simply have to face as American and as the living sons of an eternal God, something that comes snaking down the road to meet us, saying grimly, "What are you going to do about me?"

Writing about the French Revolution, Victor Hugo once remarked, in connection with that vast upheaval of the human spirit, history is forever asking, "Why?" To this question, as Victor Hugo, we reply . . . "Because!" He goes on to say that this answer is the one which is given by the men who knows nothing about the subject, and it's also given by the man who knows everything. I don't suppose all of us together, vast as our knowledge is, would pretend that we know everything there is to know about the American Civil War. We are much too modest for that, and, as the lady in the movie said, "We have so much to be modest about!" Nevertheless, I do think that all of us realize this: that, as our knowledge of the Civil War broadens, the area within which we are willing to make hard and fast statements of fact steadily diminishes. It winds up as a mystery--a flaming, heaven-sent mystery--a strange business which comes out of men grappling bare-handed with fate, a complex and inexplicable affair in which ordinary human beings finally confront destiny coming down the road with a shattering question to which no one quite has the answer.

The Civil War begins in a mystery and ends in one. All we can be sure of is that, along the way, we see ordinary human beings rendered extraordinary by their confrontation with fate, coming to grips with something that goes beyond their own horizon. Life does this sort of thing to us as individuals and as citizens of the great American commonwealth. When this happens, we have nothing much to go on but what we are, the traditions we live by, the faith we have imbibed by living in this country of unlimited possibilities.

We met such a challenge in the 1860's simply, as von Moltke said, as a set of "armed mobs." My notion is that those "armed mobs" carried the future on their shoulders and could break through to something which the goose-stepping retainers of an established military tradition could never understand. We were a pugnacious people, but not a military people; and the military means which we finally used for our problem's solution, although they were means that a professional militarist, like von Moltke, could never recognize, were the only means which we, as Americans, could have used.

We do pursue, finally, an American dream, and we evoke American means to attain it. We are, in this country, something new; and even our war with ourselves--our stupid, costly, fearfully tragic attempt to lay hands on our own spirit--was unique! We are an "armed mob", answerable to no traditions and to no Old World formulas, going forward to shape the future in accord with the dream that we have dreamed. And as we go and look back on what we've done and try to figure out the cost and the meaning of it all, we have nothing much to go on except the words which a poet a century ago left to us: "Some day man will awaken from his long sleep, and will find that his dream remains, and only his sleep is gone."


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