In World War II, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz and Marshall held key positions from the start to the finish.
There was no such continuity in the American Civil War. Leadership evolved, especially during the first two years of the conflict.
Considering the U S Army in 1860 numbered only 16,000 men, many of them spread across the continent, few officers commanded formations larger than a company or regiment.
Hundreds of thousands of troops were mustered in short order after the firing on Fort Sumter (by the end of 1861 it is estimated that the around 500,000 Union troops were present for duty; half that for the South). Men who commanded companies were now in charge of regiments or even brigades. Some officers returned to duty after years in civilian life, their last combat experience coming in the Mexican War. In most cases, officers were amateurs, some of whom never even served in local militias.
They were being called upon to assume responsibilities far greater than they ever could have imagined.
It is no wonder that many were not up to the task; but for every one who failed to live up to his potential, others stepped up admirably, including many with no prior military training.
The two men who would become giants in the conflict – Grant and Lee – were among the two most underutilized officers in their respective armies in 1861.
Grant raised a company of volunteers in Illinois and was promoted to colonel by the Governor to train recruits. He demonstrated his competence by turning a regiment of ill-disciplined ruffians into a reasonably cohesive unit worthy of taking the field. His success in this role led to a promotion to the rank of brigadier general. It helped that his mentor Congressman Elihu Washburne recommended him.
As late as spring 1862 the only thing Lee commanded was a desk in Richmond, Virginia, after mostly non combat responsibilities involving coastal defence improvements and raising troops. His only combat assignment was small and took place in the western part of Virginia (later West Virginia). It was a total failure.
All of this had to be disappointing for someone who turned down command of the entire Union Army only months earlier.
One can speculate that Lee may not have been the Union’s first choice had Texas not seceded in February 1861. Albert Sydney Johnston, a brigadier general in the prewar army and who commanded the vast Department of the Pacific from his headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco, might have been in the running. However, Johnston resigned his commission April 10, 1861 after learning his home state of Texas had seceded.
Johnston, along with Lee, was one of five men to be appointed to Lieutenant General, the highest rank in the Confederate Army. He was put in command of the western theatre with the primary responsibility for protecting Tennessee and Mississippi. He was not involved in major action until early 1862.
Unlike Johnston, Lee never had broad command responsibility. He was a colonel in charge of a cavalry regiment in Texas prior to that state’s secession, but he was considered the finest officer in the Army by his mentor, then Chief of Staff General Winfield Scott.
Lee resigned on April 20, 1861, three days after his home state of Virginia seceded and two days after discussing the offer of command with Francis Preston Blair, Sr., who represented Lincoln and the Secretary of War (the meeting took place at the historically significant Blair House across from the White House).
Grant did not get off to a fast start either. He suffered a defeat in his first battle at Belmont, Missouri in November, 1861. However, it was not a disaster. He organized an orderly retreat despite panic that spread among some of his direct subordinates when the tide turned against the Union forces.
The campaign required close coordination with Navy gunboats and river transports. Grant clearly demonstrated an aptitude for combined operations, a tactic he would exploit again and again. Perhaps it was his mathematical training that contributed to his mastery of joint Army-Navy movements.
He also narrowly escaped death twice. His reputation for coolness under fire and mastery of logistics was born as a result of this campaign.
John C. Fremont, the legendary explorer of the Western United States, a key figure in winning California’s independence from Mexico, and who finished a close second in the 1856 presidential race, commanded Union forces in the western theatre. He was Grant’s superior.
Fremont was an abolitionist and took it upon himself to authorize the emancipation of slaves in Missouri, then a neutral state. Lincoln feared Fremont’s unauthorized action would compel Missouri to side with the South. In November 1861, he removed Fremont and revoked the emancipation order. The Pathfinder was reassigned to a much smaller role in Virginia and left the Army in 1862 in a dispute over his seniority.
Months before the battle of Belmont and Lee’s failure in Western Virginia, forces were building in Northern Virginia and Washington City (as DC was known at that time).
Irwin McDowell commanded the gathering Union force. The story behind General McDowell’s assignment to command a field army was fairly typical for the time. He was politically connected to Salmon Chase, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet. Politics was as important - if not more so - as experience when it came to appointments.
McDowell’s opposite number was General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, an accomplished career soldier and engineer. His poetic name alone bestowed a romantic aura upon him. Aside from being commissioned as the first officer to earn the rank of general in the Confederate States Army, he was in charge of the batteries that shelled Fort Sumter. On the receiving end of his barrage was Major Robert Anderson, Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point.
Both generals faced the same problem – turning green troops into organized units. McDowell urged Lincoln to hold off sending his army against the Confederates. He had little confidence in his troops’ readiness.
McDowell’s warning was perhaps the only sound judgment he exercised in the entire war, but Lincoln demurred, the President stating that the rebels were equally unprepared to fight. The public’s cry of “on to Richmond” also fed the urge to attack.
So, on July 16, 1861, McDowell led his army south to Manassas, a bedroom community of DC today. He developed an ambitious plan to outflank Beauregard, sound in principle, but beyond the capabilities of his poorly trained troops commanded by mostly inexperienced officers at the company and regimental levels.
On July 21, the two opposing forces made contact and the battle of Bull Run was fought – the largest battle ever fought on American soil up until that time ….and a disaster for the Union.
A foreign military observer described the engagement as a fight between two armed mobs.
The South’s victory can be attributed to better initiative demonstrated by a handful of officers. General Thomas Jackson’s tenacious defense on the flank broke a poorly executed Union attack. It contributed to a breakdown in McDowell’s command and control. His conduct in the battle earned Jackson the nickname “Stonewall.”
The Confederate counter-attack that followed was able to break the Union line and send the federals fleeing back to Washington in disorder, leaving much equipment and many men behind.
The repulse of the Union attack and the successful counterattack would not have been possible without heads-up generalship by Joseph E. Johnston (yes, another Johnston). Johnston’s small army started the campaign to the west of Manassas in the Shenandoah Valley. He successfully evaded the covering force assigned to block him from assisting Beauregard, boarded his troops on trains and arrived at Bull Run in the nick of time to crush the Union flank attack and deliver the fatal blow to the federals.
Johnston’s skill and initiative also ended the career of the general in charge of the covering force – a veteran commander of the Mexican War Robert Patterson. The removal of General Patterson was probably the quickest dismissal of any general in the course of the war by either side.
Overall, 1861 saw many changes in the Union’s general officer ranks: Patterson was dismissed, McDowell’s and Fremont’s responsibilities were downgraded, but Grant’s stock was rising.
The command structure for the CSA was relatively stable, but 1862 would bring major changes.
Still, Lee was on the bench for all practical purposes – an utter waste of talent from the South’s perspective. He could have been assisting Albert Johnston in the west with strategy, logistics, organization and training. The Virginia front was already in the competent hands of Joseph Johnston, not to mention the command structure and quality of the opposing Union forces was in disarray.
As we will see later in the series, the west would be the critical front for the first half of 1862. Lee could have made a difference.