McClellan, Lee & Grant
McClellan's strategy of conciliation was the Union war policy in the first
years of the conflict. He wanted to fight Southerners while protecting their
property, including their slaves. McClellan felt that most Southerners were
secretly loyal to the Union, and that the war had been brought on by a small
clique of rabid secessionists.
If the South suffered one or two tactical defeats, with little damage to
civilian property, it might be persuaded to rejoin the union. The problem was
McClellan was never able to win those victories. In the summer of l862, he
bungled a massive campaign to capture Richmond. After this, Lee, his blood up,
invaded Maryland, hoping to win a big victory on Union soil that would end the
McClellan stalked Lee and brought him to conflict at Antietam Creek. The
battle ended in a draw, but McClellan allowed Lee's cornered and badly damaged
army to escape to Virginia. Then, when he failed to go after Lee, Lincoln,
infuriated, removed him from command.
But the war didn't go any better for the North. That December, the Army of the
Potomac again marched toward Richmond, but Lee cut it to pieces at
Fredericksburg, Virginia. "If there is a place worse place than Hell, I am in
it," Lincoln said at the time.
While the war continued to go badly for the Union in the east, out west it won
a succession of victories behind Ulysses Grant, the North's first war hero.
Grant was a master of river warfare. He worked in tandem with the navy's
powerful iron clad gunboats to push deep into Southern territory, all the way
to a place called Shiloh, in south-central Tennessee. There in the spring of
l862, he won a terrible two-day slaughter. More men fell at Shiloh, 20,000,
than in all other American wars combined up to that time.
That same month, the Union navy captured New Orleans, the South's major port,
and pushed up river to Vicksburg, Mississippi. But Vicksburg was too tough to
take. It sat on commanding bluffs above the river and was heavily fortified.
Even so, by the end of l862, the Union had retaken the Mississippi from the
mouth of the Ohio, south to Vicksburg, and from New Orleans, north to just
This made Vicksburg the most important strategic point in the Confederacy, the
"Gibraltar of the South." It was the last obstacle to Union efforts to regain
control of the Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two by isolating Rebel
territory west of the river, Texas, Arkansas and parts of Louisiana. Lincoln
summed it up: "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to an end
until the key is in our pocket." This would be Grant's job.
Grant is an amazing story. Just two years before this, he was a broken man
struggling to support his family as a clerk in his father's harness shop in
Galena, Illinois. One year after taking Vicksburg, he was put in command of all
Union forces in the war. The next year, he'd accept Lee's surrender at
Appomattox. Three years later, he'd enter the White House. No American has
ever risen so fast.
As a boy, growing up in southern Ohio, Grant didn't want to be a soldier and
the sight of blood always made him physically sick. He went to West Point to
get a free education, but he got used to army life and became a hero in the
Mexican War. Then, while stationed in California, far away from his family, he
started drinking, drinking hard, and was pressured to resign from the army.
After this, he failed at one job after another, and was nearly destitute when
the war rescued him, bringing out capacities even he didn't know he possessed.
Grant had done well up to Vicksburg, but Vicksburg would be his supreme test
and the turning point of his life. The Vicksburg campaign brought the Union
army, for the first time, into the heart of cotton culture. And it began, and
this is important, at the time Lincoln signed his Emancipation Proclamation on
January l, l863. These factors of geography and timing would make it the most
important military campaign of the war.
The Emancipation Proclamation
With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln turned a limited war for reunion
into a total war against slavery. The Proclamation also opened the way for
black participation in the fighting. By the end of the war, l80,000
African-Americans had served in the Union Army. Lincoln hated slavery, always
had. But he hadn't moved against it earlier in the war because he feared that
if he did, the border states of Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, where
pro-slavery feeling was very strong, would join the Confederacy.
It was black slaves themselves who forced his hand by running away in
tremendous numbers to invading Union armies. At first, Lincoln ordered his
generals to return the fugitive slaves to their owners. But some generals saw
the value of using black labor, and began keeping runaway slaves as so-called
contraband of war.
When Congress sanctioned this new policy, it cleared the way for Lincoln to do
what he'd wanted to do all along: declare slaves in rebellious states to be, as
he put it, "forever free." Lincoln didn't believe, by the way, that he had the
constitutional authority to free slaves in states that remained in the union.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in the unconquered portions of
the Confederacy. This made it look like an extremely ineffective document. But
there was dynamite in it. It turned the Union Army into an army of liberation.
From now on, wherever it went slavery was dead.
After Lincoln issued the Proclamation, Grant called in his officers and
informed them that the war had changed. Now, he told them, the objective is
the complete destruction and subjugation of the South. The army is to
confiscate or destroy Southern crops and livestock, and take the enemy's slaves
and make soldiers out of the men.
Even racist generals like Sherman liked the new policy -- not because it helped
the slaves but because it hurt the Rebels. It hurt them especially at
Vicksburg, and ironically, because Vicksburg was so tough to take. It took
Grant 6 months to capture the place. And in trying to capture it his huge,
marauding army roamed over the countryside, confiscating and burning
plantations and freeing slaves, and causing general wreck and ruin.
For the South it was a cruel irony. In holding on to Vicksburg, Rebel soldiers
were losing, losing their farms, losing their slaves, and having their wives
and children turned into terror-stricken refugees by Yankee raiders. But maybe
the worst indignity, the worst insult of all, was seeing their former slaves in
Yankee blue, carrying muskets.
In one of the battles of the Vicksburg campaign, Texans went up against
newly-formed black units of the Union army. The fighting was unbelievably
brutal, hand-to-hand, and the dead were found wrapped around each other's
bodies. It had become a racial war.
News of the approach of Grant's soldiers sent Southerners scurrying with
their slaves to Texas and South Carolina. It also produced racial panic.
Listen to a plantation overseer writing to his absentee master. "All is
anarchy and confusion here, everything going to destruction, and the Negroes on
the plantation insubordinate; my life has several times been in danger."
These same tough union policies also encouraged thrilling acts of black
liberation. I found a diary in an archive in which a Southern woman describes
an old black man breaking in on a white religious service, knowing that Union
troops would be there to protect him. When the old man burst through the door
and started down the aisle, the enraged minister demanded to know what he was
doing. The slave looked him in the eye and said, "I've come here to worship as
a free man." Then he took a seat in the front pew.
With the Union army as their shield and sword, slaves themselves helped bring
down slavery in this part of the South two years before the war ended. This is
one of the most important, and overlooked, outcomes of the Vicksburg campaign.
But just as the North began fighting with the gloves off, its fortunes
plummeted and it nearly lost the war. The problem was Vicksburg.