“Debates about how the bloody four-year conflict might have ended have raged for years.”
By Jim Stempel
WHAT IF THE South had marched on Washington D.C. in 1861 after the First Battle of Bull Run? Suppose General George McClellan had been bolder during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Picture General George Meade pursuing and destroying Robert E. Lee’s army once and for all after Gettysburg. Could any of these scenarios have led to an early conclusion to the U.S. Civil War?
Debates about how the bloody four-year conflict might have ended had one commander or another moved with greater haste, boldness, or discernment have raged for years.
In fact, some of the war’s finest scholars, and more than a few ‘armchair historians’ as well, have explored all manner of ‘what if’ scenarios. And playing these sorts of guessing games carries risks – anyone bold enough to hypothesize is often greeted with scorn, derision and ridicule. After all, Civil War buffs are a passionate breed!
Nevertheless – and grasping full well the firestorm such speculation often ignites among aficionados of the period – I will offer up a few speculations of my own, stipulating as I do, that they are my own humble opinions, and nothing more.
The Overland Campaign
The most hotly debated question has always been: were there times when the South might actually have won the war? I think the answer to that question is a qualified yes, so let’s begin here.
In my recent novel Windmill Point (published by Penmore Press) I have tried to bring to life through historical fiction the two-week period in the late spring of 1864 when both North and South had reason to believe victory was within their grasp.
At the time, General Ulysses S. Grant had confidence that Lee was weak and that one more hard push would crush his opponent’s army. Lee believed that another bloody disaster like the one his troops had inflicted at Cold Harbor might well cause Northern political will to dissolve. But the Rebel leader also realized that if the Union army gained the James River it could lay siege to Richmond. With the enormous advantage the North maintained in men, material, manufacturing, etc., a siege of the Southern capital would be fatal to the Confederacy.
The fighting and jockeying for position went on for weeks until Grant finally executed one of the most well conceived tactical and logistical maneuvers of the war – he slipped away from Lee, crossed the James, and marched on Petersburg unopposed. In doing so, he erased Lee’s slim chance for victory.
Yet a far better occasion for Southern victory materialized earlier in the war. In my book The Battle of Glendale; The Day the South Nearly Won the Civil War, I presented what I thought was the best opportunity the South had to achieve a victory.
It was spring, 1862 and McClellan was beating a hasty retreat from the gates of Richmond in a string of rearguard actions that would later come to be known as The Seven Days. McClellan, mentally overwhelmed by events, was convinced he was being pursued by a foe that outnumbered him two-to-one. In fact, the opposing forces were nearly equal. The Federal army was strung-out on miles of narrow country roads making for the James River; the Confederates pursued in three separate columns. One prong, under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, dogged the Federal rearguard. Another under Theophilus Holmes, rushed to head off the Yankee retreat at Malvern Hill just north of the James. A third detachment, the “battering ram” of James Longstreet, moved to overwhelm the enemy’s hastily assembled defensive line just west of a small country village known as Glendale. If it could strike in force, the Union army would surely be cut in two.
McClellan, overwrought and delusional, had abandoned his army for the safety of the gunboat Galena on the James without appointing a second in command. The leaderless Army of the Potomac had never been more vulnerable.
Astonishingly, Lee’s brilliantly conceived plan would go horribly wrong, bungled in an inexplicable succession of command errors and miscues that went off repeatedly and spectacularly like a string of errant fireworks. Yet despite the myriad of setbacks, a single brigade of South Carolinians did momentarily break the Yankee center, thus cutting the Federal army in two. But with no units rushing in to widen the gap, the fleeting chance to annihilate the Union army was lost. Never again would the South be presented with such an opportunity. As Douglas Southall Freeman wrote of Glendale, “It was the bitterest disappointment Lee had ever sustained, and one that he could not conceal.”
Early Too Late to Take D.C.
The last Confederate opportunity that I think bears examination is Jubal Early’s 1864 raid on Washington, which followed close on the heels of the Cold Harbor. Early’s Division had worked its way up the Shenandoah Valley, crossed over into Maryland and was marching virtually unopposed on Washington. Brushing aside a valiant effort to stop him along the Monocacy River near Frederick, Early closed on the outer defenses of the Yankee capital, finding them almost undefended. But “Old Jube” was no Stonewall. Southern scouts found Washington’s earthworks vacant in places (Grant had virtually stripped the garrison for his spring campaign), yet Early still balked.
The chance to enter the city, put government buildings to the torch and even raid the treasury was tantalizingly close, but Early turned away. Of course, his small army – perhaps no more than 9,000 men – could never have held Washington. But the political damage it could have inflicted upon the Lincoln Administration would have been incalculable, particularly in an election year. And it was the White House, not Meade or Grant, or even the people of the North that was the real force behind the Union war effort. But Early dallied, and by the following morning Grant’s reinforcements had arrived. Suddenly outnumbered in hostile territory, the Southern commander had little option but to race for home.
Dashed Hopes in the North
As for missed Union opportunities to end the war early, I believe there was really only one.
Many argue that Meade lost such a chance by not aggressively pursuing Lee’s army after defeat at Gettysburg, but I think that analysis fails to adequately take into account the condition of the Federal army at the time.
The Army of the Potomac had been mauled in the three-day battle, and its command structure was grievously compromised. Meade had lost four corps commanders (Reynolds, Hancock, Sickles, and Gibbon) in the fighting, along with numerous division and brigade commanders. He himself had been awake for nearly 72 hours straight and his army was simply in no condition to mount an aggressive pursuit on July 3rd or 4th, no matter what opportunities presented themselves.
I think the only real opening to end the war in a single blow for the North was lost in 1862 during the late morning hours at Antietam. It was then that Union forces overwhelmed and then crushed the Confederate center at what later would be called “the Bloody Lane.” As Federal commanders on the field frantically begged for reinforcements to press the attack, George McClellan, watching the action from afar at the Pry House, demurred.
The Confederate battle line had been blown wide open, no Southern reinforcements were rushing forward to fill the void. That’s because there were none. Yet McClellan, utterly incapable of seizing the moment, refused to budge. Decisive action and boldness were simply not a part of his DNA, so sadly, the war would rage on for almost three more years.
Delusion, confusion, fear, ignorance, hubris, exhaustion – upon these familiar human frailties do the spokes of history often turn, and turn they did during the American Civil War.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Apr 22, 2016)
Jim Stempel is the author of the new Civil War novel Windmill Point. He has published books on military nonfiction, historical fiction, spirituality and satire. His articles have appeared in numerous journals including North & South, Concepts In Human Development, and The New Times. He is a graduate of The Citadel, Charleston, South Carolina, and lives with his wife and family in Western Maryland.