Union Strategy at an Impasse
June 1–July 4, 1862
The month of june brings sweltering heat and humidity to Washington, and in 1862 it also brought malaria and typhoid. For their health and comfort, President Lincoln moved his family out to a Gothic Revival cottage in the suburbs on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, a government hospital and sanitarium for ill and disabled veterans. The president would dutifully ride into town on horseback or in an open carriage in order to work in his office at the White House or to sit anxiously by the telegraph in the War Department to get the latest intelligence from the fighting fronts.
For Lincoln the month was a time of frustration and forebodings of disaster. The depressive mood to which he was prone took hold. He left his meals half-eaten and remained up late into the night brooding. His dark, lean face went from gaunt to haggard.
On the surface the Union cause appeared to be riding a wave of success. The North Carolina sounds and Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina were now in Federal hands, and New Orleans had been captured. The western armies under General Halleck had driven the Rebel army out of Kentucky and the western half of Tennessee and seized Corinth as a base for further advances. In Virginia, "Stonewall" Jackson's apparent threat to Washington had been repelled, and General McClellan with the Army of the Potomac was at the gates of Richmond. There was a general consensus among both political leaders and military professionals that the victory there, which seemed imminent, would convince the Rebels to give up their attempt to gain independence. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was so sanguine that he ordered the recruiting offices closed as a measure of economy.
Lincoln did not share that optimism. As he read the course of events, it seemed to him increasingly clear that the strategy of conciliation had failed. It had been based on the belief that the Southern people's commitment to secession was shallow, and could be broken by the combination of swift and decisive military action, with reassurances that slavery would be protected in the states where it already existed. But the military and the political assumptions behind that strategy had demonstrably been mistaken.
It had proved to be impossible for the Union to mount effective military offensives during the first nine months of war, and that interval had given the Confederacy time to build up substantial military forces and consolidate its hold on the loyalty of the populace. Although the first six months of 1862 had seen successful Federal offensives all around the Confederate periphery, none of these had been decisive. Southern armies had escaped destruction and continued to build their powers; and Southerners had accepted the losses suffered in these campaigns as sacrifices, which actually strengthened the public's commitment to the Rebel cause.
The slow, seemingly interminable pace of offensive operations was partly to blame. The western campaign had begun with swift victories by Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. But the near defeat of Grant's army at Shiloh on April 7 had given General Halleck a fright. Halleck was not an experienced field general; rather, he was a veteran of staff appointments in the prewar army, a military bureaucrat and scholar of strategic theory whose nickname was "Old Brains." It took Halleck and his army of over 100,000 men more than a month to cover the thirty miles between Shiloh and Corinth, because he insisted on marching only half the day, and spent the rest digging entrenchments to ward off a Confederate attack — which the Rebel army, outnumbered and weakened by battle losses, was incapable of mounting.
As a result, the Rebel army — known as the Army of Tennessee and commanded by General Braxton Bragg — was able to slip away from Corinth into northern Alabama, where it spent the month of June recovering its strength and mobility. From that position the Rebels could harass and disrupt the march of General Buell's army, which was supposed to march east from Corinth and capture Chattanooga, more than three hundred miles away. If Buell moved at Halleck's pace it would take him ten months to reach his goal. Lincoln was also worried about the possibility that Bragg might send reinforcements over the mountains to prevent McClellan from taking Richmond.
McClellan's advance up the Virginia Peninsula, which was nearly simultaneous with Halleck's march on Corinth, had stultified for similar reasons. McClellan mistakenly believed he was outnumbered, and therefore paused to lay siege to every Rebel defense line. He had landed on the Peninsula in the first week of April but did not close with the main Rebel army until May 31, in the Battle of Seven Pines, a little over six miles from Richmond. It would take McClellan nearly four weeks more, until June 25, to get his troops into positions from which it would be possible to assault the city. Even then, his position was an awkward one. Four of his five army corps were south of the Chickahominy River, directly fronting the Richmond defense lines. The V Corps, commanded by General Fitz-John Porter, was north of the river, separated from the rest of the army by a rain-swollen stream crossed by a few rickety bridges. Porter's position was both vulnerable and vital. He was exposed to attack by Stonewall Jackson's troops moving south from the Shenandoah Valley; and his was the only substantial body of troops positioned to defend the army's line of supply, which ran back over the Chicakahominy to the small York River port of White House.
Whatever his ideas about the likelihood of McClellan taking Richmond, Lincoln was becoming convinced that it was no longer possible for the Union to defeat the Confederacy in a short war. He did not share the troubled drift of his ideas with anyone. For all his affability he was an extremely secretive man who kept his deepest thoughts to himself until he was ready to act upon them. But the effects were visible in his dark mood and loss of appetite, his frequent outbursts of dissatisfaction with his generals, and his new willingness to contemplate a major restructuring of the army command.
Excerpted from The Long Road to Antietam by Richard Slotkin. Copyright 2012 by Richard Slotkin. Excerpted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.