The United States of America: A History Book 4: Chapter III - The Young Napoleon
GENERAL M'DOWELL had led the Northern army to a defeat
which naturally shook public confidence in his ability to command. A new
general was indispensable. \V1ien the war broke out, a young man—George B.
M'Clellan by name—was resident in Cincinnati, peacefully occupied with the
management of a railroad. He was trained at West Point, and had some
reputation for soldiership. Several years before, Mr. Cobden was told by
Jefferson Davis that M'Clellan was one of the best generals the country
possessed. He was skilful to construct and organize. His friends knew that
he would mould into an army the enthusiastic levies which flowed in and also
that, in obedience to the strongest impulses of his nature, he would shrink
from subjecting his army to the supreme test of battle. As a railway man, it
was jocularly remarked to Mr. Lincoln, by one who knew him, he was taught to
avoid collisions. It was said he built bridges noticeable for their
excellence, but could never without discomposure witness trains pass over
them. This infirmity of character, hitherto harmless, he was now to carry
into a position where it should inflict bitter disappointment upon a great
people, and prolong the duration of a bloody and expensive war.
General M'Clellan was appointed to the command of the army a few days after
the defeat at Bull Hun. Sanguine hopes were entertained that "the young
Napoleon," as he was styled, would give the people victory over their
enemies. He addressed himself at once to his task. From every State in the
North men hastened to his standard. lie disciplined them and perfected their
equipment for the field. In October he was at the head of 200,000 men—the
largest army ever yet seen on the American continent.
rebel Government, which at first chose for its home the city of Montgomery
in Alabama, moved to Richmond so soon as Virginia gave in her reluctant
adherence to the secession cause. Richmond, the gay capital of the old
Dominion, sits queen-like upon a lofty plateau, with deep valleys flanking
her on east and west, and the James river rushing past far below upon the
south—not many miles from the point where the "dissolute" fathers of the
colony had established themselves two centuries and a half ago. To
Washington the distance is only one hundred and thirty miles. The warring
Governments were within a few hours' journey of each other.
The supreme command of the rebel forces was committed to General Robert E.
Lee—one of the greatest of modern soldiers. Ile was a calm, thoughtful,
unpretending man, whose goodness gained for him universal love. He was
opposed to secession, but believing, like the rest, that he owed allegiance
wholly to his own State, he seceded with Virginia. It was his difficult task
to contend nearly always with forces stronger than his own, and to eke out
by his own skill and genius the scanty resources of the Confederacy. His
consummate ability maintained the war long after all hope of success was
gone; and when at length he laid down his arms, even the country against
which lie had fought was proud of her erring but noble son.
Thomas Jackson—better known as "Stonewall Jackson" was the most famous of
Lee's generals. In him we have a strange evidence of the influence which
slavery exerts upon the best of men. He was of truly heroic mould—brave,
generous, devout. His military perception was unerring his decision swift as
lightning, lie rose early in the morning to read the Scriptures and pray. He
gave a tenth part of his income for religious uses. He taught a Sunday class
of negro children. He delivered lectures on the authenticity of Scripture.
When lie dropped a letter into the post-office, lie prayed for a blessing on
the person to whom it was addressed. As his soldiers marched Past his erect,
unmoving figure, to meet the enemy, they saw his lips move, and knew that
their leader was praying for them to Him who "covereth the bead in the day
of battle." And yet this good man caused his negroes—male and female—to be
flogged when he judged that severity needful. And yet lie recommended that
the South should "take no prisoners"—in other words, that enemies who had
ceased to resist should he massacred. To the end of his life he remained of
opinion that the rejection of this policy was a mistake. So fatally do the
noblest minds become tainted by the associations of slave society.
During the autumn and early winter of 1861 the weather was unusually fine,
and the roads were consequently in excellent condition for the march of an
army. The rebel forces were scattered about Virginia--some of them within
sight of Washington. Around Richmond it was understood there were few
troops. It seemed easy for M'Clellan, with his magnificent army, to trample
down any slight resistance which could be offered, and march into the rebel
capital. For many weeks the people and the Government waited patiently. They
had been too hasty before. They would not again urge their general
prematurely into battle. But the months of autumn passed, and no blow was
struck. Winter was upon them, and still "all was quiet on the Potomac."
M'Clellan, in a series of brilliant reviews, presented his splendid army to
the admiration of his countrymen; but he was not yet ready to fight. The
country bore the delay for six months. Then it could be endured no longer,
and in January Mr. Lincoln issued a peremptory order that a movement against
the enemy should be made. M'Clellan had now laid upon him the necessity to
do something. He formed a plan of operations, and by the end of March was
ready to begin his work.
South-eastward from Richmond the
James and the York rivers fall into the Potomac at a distance from each
other of some twenty miles. The course of the rivers is nearly parallel, and
the region between them is known as the Peninsula. M'Clellan conveyed his
army down the Potomac, landed at Fortress Monroe, and prepared to march upon
Richmond by way of the Peninsula.
Before him lay the little
town of Yorktown—where, eighty years before, the War of Independence was
closed by the surrender of the English army. Yorktown was held by 11,000
rebels. M'Clellan had over 100,000 well-disciplined men eager for battle.
But he dared not assault the place, and he wasted a precious month and many
precious lives in digging trenches and erecting batteries that lie might
formally besiege Yorktown. The rebels waited till lie was ready to open his
batteries, and then quietly marched away. M'Clellan telegraphed to the
President that he had gained a brilliant success.
M'Clellan crept slowly up the Peninsula. in six weeks lie was within a few
miles of Richmond, and in front of the forces which the rebels had been
actively collecting for the defence of their capital. His army was eager to
fight. Lincoln never ceased to urge him to active measures. M'Clellan was
immovable. He complained of the weather. He was the victim of "an abnormal
season." He telegraphed for more troops. He wrote interminable letters upon
the condition of the country. But lie would not fight. The emboldened rebels
attacked him. The disheartened general thought himself outnumbered, and
prepared to retreat. He would retire to the James river and be safe under
the protection of the gunboats. He doubted whether he might not he
overwhelmed as he withdrew. If he could not save his army, he would "at
least die with it, and share its fate."
Under the influence
of such feelings M'Clellan moved away from the presence of a greatly
inferior enemy the splendid army of the North, burning with shame and
indignation. The rebels dashed at his retreating ranks. His march to the
James river occupied seven days. On every day there was a battle. Nearly
always the Federals had the advantage in the fight. Always after the fight
they resumed their retreat. Once they drove back the enemy—inflicting upon
him a crushing defeat. Their hopes rose with success, and they demanded to
be led back to Richmond. Nothing is more certain than that at that moment,
as indeed during the whole campaign, the rebel capital lay within
M'Clellan's grasp. The hour had come, but not the Man. The army was strong
enough for its task, but the general was too weak. M'Clellan shunned the
great enterprise which opened before him, and never rested from his
inglorious march till he lay in safety, sheltered by the gunboats on the
James river. He had lost 15,000 men; but the rebels had suffered even more.
It was said that the retreat was skilfully conducted, but the American
people were in no humour to appreciate the merits of a chief who was great
only in flight. Their disappointment was intense. The Southern leaders
devoutly announced "undying gratitude to God" for their great success, and
looked forward with increasing confidence to their final triumph over an
enemy whose assaults it seemed so easy to repulse.
this the only success which crowned the rebel arms. The most remarkable
battle of the war was fought while the President was vainly endeavouring to
rouse M'Clellan to heroic deeds; and it ended in a rebel victory.
At the very beginning of the war the Confederates bethought them of an
iron-clad ship of war. They took hold of an old frigate which the Federals
had sunk in the James river. They sheathed her in iron plates. They roofed
her with iron rails. At her prow, beneath the water-line, they fitted an
iron-clad projection, which might be driven into time side of an adversary.
They armed her with ten guns of large size.
resources of the Confederacy were defective, and this novel structure was
eight months in preparation. One morning in March she steamed slowly down
the James river, attended by five small vessels of the ordinary sort. A
powerful Northern fleet lay guarding the mouth of the river. The Virginia—as
the iron-clad had been named—came straight towards the hostile ships. She
fired no shot. No man showed himself upon her deck. The Federals assailed
her with well-aimed discharges. The shot bounded harmless from her sides.
She steered for the Cumberland, into whose timbers she struck her armed
prow. A huge cleft opened in the Cumberland's side, and the gallant ship
went down with a hundred men of her crew on board. The Virginia next
attacked the Federal ship Congress. At a distance of two hundred yards she
opened her guns upon this ill-fated vessel. The Congress was aground, and
could offer no effective resistance. After sustaining heavy loss, she was
forced to surrender. Night approached and the Virginia drew off, intending
to resume her work on the morrow.
Early next morning—a
bright Sunday morning—she steamed out, and made for the Minnesota—a Federal
ship which had been grounded to get. beyond her reach. The Minnesota was
still aground, and helpless. Beside her, however, as the men on board the
Virginia observed, lay a mysterious structure, resembling nothing they had
ever seen before. Her deck was scarcely visible above the water, and it
supported nothing but an iron turret fine feet high. This was the Monitor,
designed by Captain Ericcsoum;—the first of the class of iron-clad
turret-ships, which are destined, probably, to be the fighting-ships of the
future, so long as the world is foolish enough to need ships for fighting
purposes. By a singular chance she had arrived thus opportunely. The two
iron-dads measured their strength in combat. But their shot produced no
impression, and after two hours of heavy but ineffective firing, they
separated, and the Virginia retired up the James river.
This fight opened a new era in naval warfare. The Washington Government
hastened to build turret-ships. All European Governments, perceiving the
worthlessness of ships of the old type, proceeded to reconstruct their
navies according to the light which the action of the Virginia and the
Monitor afforded them.
The efforts of the North to crush
the rebel forces in Virginia had signally failed. But military operations
were not confined to Virginia. In this war the battle-field was the
continent. Many hundreds of miles from the scene of M'Clellan's feeble
efforts, the banner of the 'Union, held in manlier hands, was advancing into
the revolted territory. The North sought to occupy the Border States, and to
repossess the line of the Mississippi, thus severing Texas, Louisiana, and
Arkansas from the other members of the secession enterprise, and perfecting
the blockade which was now effectively maintained on the Atlantic coast.
There were troops enough for these vast operations. By the 1st of December
1861, six hundred and forty thousand mcii had enrolled themselves for time
war. The North, thoroughly aroused now, had armed and drilled these enormous
hosts. her foundries worked night and day, moulding cannon and mortars. Her
own resources could not produce with sufficient rapidity the gunboats which
she needed to assert her supremacy on the Western waters, but she obtained
help from the building-yards of Europe. All that wealth and energy could do
was done. While the Confederates were supinely trusting to the difficulties
of the country and the personal prowess of their soldiers, the North massed
forces which nothing on the continent could long resist. In the south and
west results were achieved not unworthy of these vast preparations.
During the autumn a strong fleet was sent southward to the Carolina coast.
Overcoming with ease the slight resistance which the rebel forts were able
to offer, the expedition possessed itself of Port Royal, and thus commanded
a large tract of rebel territory. It was a cotton-growing district, worked
wholly by slaves. The owners fled, but the slaves remained. The first
experiment was made here to prove whether the negro would labour when the
lash did not compel. The results were most encouraging. The negroes worked
cheerfully and patiently, and many of them became rich from the easy gains
of labour on that rich soil.
In the west the war was pushed
vigorously and with success. To General Grant—a strong, tenacious, silent
man, destined ere Iong to be Commander-in-Chief and President—was assigned
the work of driving the rebels out of Kentucky and Tennessee. His gunboats
ran up the great rivers of these States and took effective part in the
battles which were fought. The rebels were forced southward, till in the
spring of 1862 the frontier line of rebel territory no longer enclosed
Kentucky. Even Tennessee was held with a loosened and uncertain grasp.
In Arkansas, beyond the Mississippi, was fought the Battle of Pea Ridge,
which stretched over three March days, and in which the rebels received a
sharp defeat. Henceforth the rebels had no footing in Missouri or Arkansas.
New Orleans fell in April. Admiral Farragut with a powerful fleet forced his
way past the forts and gunboats, which composed the insufficient defence of
the city. There was no army to resist them. lie landed a small party of
marines, who pulled down the Secession flag and restored that of the Union.
The people looked on silently, while the city passed thus easily away for
ever from Confederate rule.
There was gloom in the rebel
capital as the tidings of these disasters came hi. But the spirit of the
people was unbroken, and the Government was encouraged to adopt measures
equal to the emergency. A law was enacted which placed at the disposal of
the Government every man between eighteen and thirty-five years of age.
Enlistment for short terms was discontinued. Henceforth the business of
Southern men must be war. Every man must hold himself at his country's call.
This law yielded for a time an adequate supply of soldiers, and ushered in
those splendid successes which cherished the delusive hope that the
slave-power was to establish itself as one of the great powers of the world.
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