Saturday, August 06, 2011

150 Years Ago -- A Lull

Events moved swiftly after the war began at Fort Sumter, but there was a lull in the aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run as both sides paused to reassess the situation.  An update:

As the dog days of August 1861 began the war was starting to take shape along the border or what historian Bruce Catton called "that cross section of nineteenth-century America that ran for a thousand miles from Virginia tidewater to the plains of Kansas, reaching from the place of the nation's oldest traditions to the rude frontier where no tradition ran back farther than the day before yesterday."


In eastern Virginia, between the two capitols of Washington and Richmond, the two armies, both called the Army of the Potomac, were licking their wounds after Bull Run.  The "Forward to Richmond" sentiment and the belief in a short war were over.  Both commanders, George McClellan and Joe Johnston, were working hard now, organizing, drilling and equipping their men.  It would be many months before they would face off again.


After resigning his commission in the U.S. Army and going south, Robert E. Lee had been put in charge of Virginia's state troops.  He was briefly unemployed when those troops were put under Confederate control, but he became the top military adviser to Virginia Governor John Letcher, then to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Lee was sent to western Virginia to try to salvage the situation there after the Union victory at Rich Mountain.  Lee arrived on August 1, charged with "combining all our forces in western Virginia on one plan of operations."  Lee would soon find that it was impossible to get everyone on the same page.

The Federals had about 11,000 soldiers in the region.  Brigadier General Jacob Cox commanded a force of 2700 in the Kanawha Valley.  There were some small detachments in the north guarding key points along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the only direct link between Washington and the West.  Brigadier General William Rosecrans commanded the rest near Cheat Mountain.

Brigadier General W. W. Loring commanded the principal Confederate force, some 10,000 men, at Huntersville.  Lee joined up with this contingent that was facing Rosecrans's army.  Farther south, two politicians, former Virginia Governor Henry Wise and former U.S. Secretary of War John Floyd, commanded separate forces facing Cox.  Wise and Floyd would spend more time competing against each other for authority than they ever would against Cox.


Farther west, the war was not being fought at all in Kentucky as both sides endeavored for a time to respect the state's proclaimed neutrality.  Both sides badly needed Kentucky.  Lincoln would soon remark, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game."  The state served as a big shield separating the two powers.  A Confederate Kentucky would move the border all the way up to the Ohio River, depriving the Federals of a base from which to launch an offensive in the Mississippi Valley.  If the Union took the state, Tennessee and the Mississippi River would be threatened.  Neither side could afford to antagonize the state and push it to the other side, but both sides had camps either in the state or just outside its borders, rallying Kentuckians to their respective causes.


The next major conflagration of the war would take place on the far west end of the border in Missouri.  Union Major General John Frémont arrived on July 25 to take command of the Department of the West.

Frémont was a career U.S. Army officer, but he had come up through the Topographical Corps, where he had become famous as "The Pathfinder," charting trails to the West.  In 1856, he had become the first presidential nominee of the new Republican Party.  Now he was in over his head.  As Catton put it in Terrible Swift Sword, "Now he was in Missouri, a bewildering jungle where a trail could be blazed only by a man gifted with a profound understanding of the American character, the talents of a canny politician, and enormous skill as an administrator.  Of these gifts General Frémont had hardly a trace."

Frémont had a big job to do, but little to do it with.  He was expected to secure the state and also to organize an army and lead it down the Mississippi toward New Orleans, reopening the river to commerce and isolating the western part of the Confederacy.

He had about 23,000 troops, but about a third of those were three-month volunteers whose terms were about to expire.  He was receiving new recruits, but had few arms, uniforms or other equipment, few rations and no money.  Guerrilla warfare was becoming rampant in the state, and like many other commanders he was exaggerating the number of enemy troops he was facing.  He thought he faced about 25,000 state militia with another 50,000 Confederate soldiers in Arkansas and Tennessee ready to invade.  In actuality, he faced about half that number of both.

Nathaniel Lyon had done much to keep Missouri in the Union, but he had been blunt about it, forcing almost everyone in the state to choose sides.  He had moved quickly and thwarted a plot by Governor Claiborne Jackson to capture the arsenal at St. Louis.  In May, he had surrounded and captured some state militia legally encamped near St. Louis, then when he marched them through the town, it touched off a riot that left some two dozen civilians dead.  One of the Missourians who had chosen a side was Sterling Price, now in charge of most of the remaining state militia.  Price was fighting not so much for the Confederacy but to try to keep the war from engulfing the state.

Lyon had gone on to declare war on Price and Jackson, and had driven them away from the capital of Jefferson City.  Then he had routed the militia at Boonsville and pursued them to the southwest corner of the state.  His actions had allowed the Union men of the state to declare state offices vacant and to set up a new pro-Union government with Hamilton Gamble as governor.  But Lyon was now in a bad predicament.  He had advanced too far and was at the end of a long, precarious supply line.  He wrote to Frémont, asking for reinforcements and confessing that he now could not attack, stay where he was, or even conduct an orderly retreat.

Frémont, with much to do and little to do it with, decided his best bet was to reinforce the key town of Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River met the Mississippi.  He told Lyon to do the best he could and sent a few reinforcements, but Lyon would not see them.  He would die on August 10 at the Battle of Wilson's Creek.

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