Provided below is the “Introduction” to my new Civil War book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart and other bookstores. It is also a History Book Club Selection. (Abundant footnotes are in the book, but not in this free sample.) To inspect all of my books, please visit my author page at Amazon.
The Confederacy at Flood Tide was selected as a title to distinguish this book from the popular notion of the Confederacy at high tide. The latter expression is generally associated with Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, or, secondarily, the Rebel attack on Starkweather’s Hill at Perryville, Kentucky. However, the story of the Confederacy’s most opportune period for winning independence involved developments in Europe, Virginia, Washington, Maryland, Kentucky, Mississippi, and even Missouri and Arkansas.
Although it lasted only six months, from June to December 1862, the rising tide flooded all theaters of the war. It was not an isolated surge in Maryland or Kentucky. For example, at Prairie Grove, Arkansas, in early December 1862, more Missourians fought to win their state for the South than fought to keep it in the Union. Moreover, the Confederacy’s flood tide was not limited to military factors. It also swelled within the sectors of diplomacy, politics, and espionage. For instance, on July 4, 1862, the Confederacy signed a secret contract with a leading British warship builder for two deep-water ironclads superior to anything in the US Navy and capable of crossing the Atlantic.
The Confederacy never came closer to diplomatic recognition than in autumn 1862. After learning of the Union rout at Second Bull Run—known as Second Manassas in the South—in mid-September British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, advocated intervention. In an exchange of letters with the British foreign secretary, Earl John Russell—who held a post comparable to US secretary of state, albeit somewhat more prestigious—Palmerston wrote: “The Federals got a very complete smashing, and it seems not altogether unlikely that still greater disasters await them, and that even Washington or Baltimore may fall into the hands of the Confederates. If this should happen, would it not be time for us to consider whether . . . England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?” Russell agreed and added that if mediation failed, “we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern states as an independent state.”
US Secretary of State William H. Seward instructed his ambassador to Great Britain to inform Palmerston’s government that any attempt to intervene in America’s Civil War would result in a break in diplomatic relations with the United States, thereby implying that war between Britain and the United States would likely result. Such a war would have challenged both sides. Although it would be hard for Britain to maintain an army in America, its powerful navy might have ended the federal blockade of Southern ports and even blockaded Northern harbors. Contrary to popular belief, the Monitor and Merrimack (CSS Virginia) were not the first ironclad warships. The British and French began building bigger and faster deep-water ironclads before America’s Civil War started.
As one of the weapons used by the Union to reverse the Confederate tide, the Emancipation Proclamation was more controversial than commonly supposed. Contrary to popular belief, many contemporaries were confused, critical, and frightened by its implications. Major General George McClellan, among others, believed it was a deliberate attempt to incite a slave rebellion in the South.
Even President Abraham Lincoln admitted the possibility of such insurrections before he issued the proclamation. On September 13, 1862, he replied to a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visiting Washington that he recognized the potential “consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South” that such a proclamation might provoke. Whatever the moral benefits, or immoral consequences, of emancipation, he “view[ed] the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the [Confederate] rebellion.”
Whatever his intent, the proclamation led to an uproar about its potential to incite slave rebellions. Ultimately, however, there was a subtle but important difference in the language between the preliminary version—issued shortly after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862—and the final version issued on January 1, 1863. Lincoln added the following paragraph, which was altogether missing from the September version:
“And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”
The first six months of 1862 provided a string of federal victories in the West. They began in January with a Rebel defeat at Mill Springs, Kentucky, and continued with the surrender of fourteen thousand Rebels at Fort Donelson in February, further advanced with Confederate ejection from Missouri in March after the battle of Pea Ridge, and culminated with the repulse of the supreme Confederate counteroffensive at Shiloh, Tennessee in April together with the surrender of the fortifications on Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River between Tennessee and Missouri.
In May, the South’s largest city, New Orleans, surrendered to a Union fleet that fought past the city’s downstream fortifications. When Memphis was occupied in early June, only a single Rebel outpost at Vicksburg prevented Union commerce from flowing down the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers to export markets through New Orleans. By June, Union armies threatened outnumbered Confederates in Mississippi and eastern Tennessee. Chattanooga, the gateway to Atlanta, appeared ready to fall. There was almost no organized Rebel force contesting the control of Missouri, which was the most important slave state entirely west of the Mississippi River.
Union prospects were also favorable in the East, where Major General George McClellan commanded the largest army ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere. His troops were so close to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, many set their watches by the city’s church bells. “Unless McClellan can be driven out of his entrenchments,” wrote Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, “he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond.” Thereafter it would only be a matter of time before Richmond would need to be evacuated.
But the unexpected happened. In a week of nearly continuous fighting starting on June 26, Lee’s smaller army relentlessly drove McClellan back twenty miles to a defensive redoubt on the James River under the protective guns of a Union naval flotilla. And in Europe, developments started to lean toward the Confederacy as the effects of a cotton shortage made textile interests, and their sizable ecosystem, eager to put an end to the war. The tide was rising.