Robert Penn Warren, Pulitzer Prize winner and American Southerner, has suggested that the Civil War rivets the attention of readers because of the striking human images it offers for contemplation - 'a dazzling array of figures, noble in proportion yet human, caught out of Time as in a frieze, in stances so profoundly touching or powerfully mythic that they move us in a way no mere consideration of "historical importance" ever could.' Most of those towering figures who carry a special aura functioned in the war's Eastern Theater, which is the focus of this volume. Lee, Jackson, Grant, and others of the American soldiers who fought that war continue to fascinate modern students.
The Osprey Essential Histories series divides the story of the American Civil War into four volumes. The rupture of the United States into two nations in 1861, detailed in The American Civil War: The war in the East 1861-May 1863, by Gary Gallagher, led to a vast internecine war. Hundreds of thousands of young men eagerly embraced the adventure of war. They joined volunteer units near their homes and cheerfully, innocently, headed away to what seemed surely to be a short, clean conflict. It would end, they felt certain, in victory for whichever of the contending sides they embraced. The frolicsome aspect of war dissipated in the intense mayhem along Bull Run, on the plains of Manassas, in July 1861. For months thereafter, thousands of boys in both armies died of disease. Many of the rustic youngsters-turned-soldiers had never been far from rural homes and they fell prey in droves to common childhood diseases such as measles.
Gallagher, The American Civil War, presents the story of the first half of the war in Virginia. After a relatively quiet first year of the war, the spring of 1862 ushered in months of steady campaigning in Virginia and Maryland, across the narrow swath of country between the contending capital cities of Washington, DC, and Richmond, Virginia. General Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on 1 June 1862, and with it drove the besieging Federal Army of the Potomac away from Richmond. During the 11 succeeding months, Lee steadily defeated an array of opposing generals: George B. McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose E. Burnside, and Joseph Hooker. The arenas in which Lee conquered that succession of enemies are among the most famous in American military history: the Seven Days' Campaign, Second Manassas (or Bull Run), Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.
This second volume covers the war in the Eastern Theater from June 1863 to the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. In the aftermath of Chancellorsville, the war in Virginia was about to undergo a fundamental change in tenor. The enormous Northern advantages in industrial might and population numbers would affect operations. With his invaluable lieutenant, 'Stonewall' Jackson, dead, Lee would find his options narrowed. Hoping to retain the initiative, Lee grasped the momentum offered by Chancellorsville and surged northward into enemy territory. When he returned after Gettysburg, the nature of the war in Virginia would trend steadily away from Confederate opportunities, and toward eventual Unionist victory.
The great Battle of Gettysburg opened this second phase of the story. From Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House the next spring, the contending armies moved to an extended siege of Petersburg, and eventually to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia
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followed General Robert E. Lee through the entire period. That army's sturdy, if ill-led, counterpart was the Union Army of the Potomac. General George G. Meade took over the Army of the Potomac just a few hours before its great victory at Gettysburg, and retained that command to the end of the war. The arrival of the commander of all Union armies, General U. S. Grant, in the field near the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864 overshadowed Meade and he never has received the immense credit that he deserves for winning the war.
Wars invariably generate momentum of their own, leading to results that neither side envisioned, or would have tolerated, at the outset. By 1864 the old-fashioned war of 1861-63, caparisoned with the trappings of antique chivalry, had given way to what aptly has been called 'the first modern war.' Railroads for the first time played an essential role. Industrial and mechanical might weighed in as heavily as tactical prowess and strategic skill. Troops who had been scornful of earthworks in 1861 frantically dug dirt in 1864 at every opportunity, to protect themselves. Perhaps most significantly, most in the modern vein, civilians and their property became the targets of military power.
As have most attempts to win independence and freedom over the centuries, the efforts to create a Confederate nation had to rely upon wearing down the will of their foe. Southerners had nothing remotely like the means to (or any interest in) subjugate their opponents as a vassal state; they merely longed to be let alone. Perhaps the most important day in the second half of the war, therefore, was 8 November 1864, when the Northern populace voted a second term for President Abraham Lincoln - who had been certain a few weeks earlier that he would lose. With the aggressive war party still in power in the North, determined to win the war, Confederates had no hope of beating an enemy with thrice the military population and virtually all of the continent's industrial capacity.
The surrender at Appomattox followed inevitably, leaving behind legendary battles and leaders who remain among the most-studied military topics in the English language. The war also left a ghastly harvest of more than 620,000 dead men in its wake, by far the largest proportional loss in American history; freed several million black men and women from slavery; and created an unmistakable watershed in United States history.
From June 1862 to May 1863. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had steadily defeated an array of opposing Federal generals. (Author's collection)
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