(October 13, 2019) The following is a copy of my speech on my book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide.
The book is titled The Confederacy at Flood Tide in order to distinguish it from the popular notion of the Confederacy at High Tide. The latter is generally associated with Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, or secondarily, the Rebel attack on Starkweather’s Hill at Perryville, Kentucky. The story of the Confederacy’s most opportune period for winning independence, however, 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 merely 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 the autumn of 1862. After learning of the late August Union rout at Second Bull Run, in mid-September British Prime Minister Henry Temple (Lord Plamerston) urged intervention. In a letter exchange with Foreign Secretary John Russell—who held a post comparable to the 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.”
Although the Emancipation Proclamation ultimately became a powerful Union weapon to reverse the Confederate tide, it 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 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.
Like all rising tides, the Confederacy’s flood tide began at the nadir of an ebb tide. In late June 1862 Washington brimmed with expectations of an impending Confederate collapse. The first six months of the year provided a string of federal victories in the West. They began in January at Mill Springs, Kentucky and continued with the surrender of 14,000 Rebels at Fort Donelson in February, further advanced with Confederate expulsion from Missouri in March after the battle of Pea Ridge, and culminated with the repulse of the supreme Confederate counter-offensive at Shiloh in April which coincided with the surrender of the fortifications on Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River between Missouri and Tennessee.
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 likely 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 George McClellan commanded the largest army ever assembled in the Western hemisphere. By late June his troops were so close to the Confederate capital at Richmond that many set their watches by the city’s church bells. Their confidence soared after they defeated a Rebel attempt at the battle of Seven Pines to halt their advance on Richmond.
Only in Europe did developments show signs of leaning toward the Confederacy as the effects of a cotton shortage made textile interests, and their sizeable ecosystem, anxious to put an end to the war.
In short, Union expectations of a Confederate collapse seemed justified. General Robert E. Lee admitted as much when he wrote Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, “unless McClellan can be driven out of his entrenchments he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond.” Thereafter, as the preceding map suggests, it would only be a matter of time before the Confederacy’s capital city would need to be evacuated. McClellan’s 110,000-man army was advancing on it from the Southeast while Major General Irvin McDowell’s 40,000-man army was poised to close the Union vice by converging on Lee from the North. Once McDowell joined-up with McClellan, the 60,000-man Rebel army near Richmond would be hopelessly outnumbered and out flanked.
The unexpected, however, did happen after General Lee took charge of the Confederacy’s largest army following the disabling wounds suffered by its prior commander at Seven Pines. Lee was not temperamentally content to merely drive McClellan’s army away from Richmond. He intended to destroy it. He would compensate for his army’s smaller size by concentrating superior numbers at vulnerable attack points. He thereby intended to so demoralize the enemy that their army would disintegrate. Perhaps more than any Rebel leader, Lee believed the Confederacy must win independence quickly, or not at all. The South, he reasoned, could not win a war of attrition against the more powerful federal Union. Guided by such thinking, Lee would perpetually try to seize the initiative during his entire Confederate career.
Lee’s message to Jackson hinted at his plan. If the victorious commander of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign would join Lee the two might launch a numerically superior attack against an isolated part of McClellan’s army before McDowell showed up. During a week of nearly continuous fighting starting on 26 June 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. Lee’s method of attacking with superior numbers at vulnerable points was a promising plan that might have broken McClellan’s army into pieces had the Rebel army been more experienced. It could not work, however, after McClellan became ensconced at the James River on Malvern Hill where, to Lincoln’s great frustration, the Union field commander seemed satisfied with a stalemate.
For his part, Lee had hoped to achieve more. Seasonal rains caused the Chickahominy River to flood thereby stranding about 30,000 Yankees north of the stream where McClellan could not readily reinforce them. Lee hit them with a force of 65,000 Rebels. Since the Confederate army was inexperienced, however, the attacks were poorly coordinated. The Yankees, nonetheless, retreated.
That was enough to prompt Lee into attacking again the next morning. Again the assaults were uncoordinated until late in the day when the Union defense line finally collapsed. Nightfall enabled the Yankees to retreat over a bridge that the Rebels had failed to capture. McClellan, however, became so temperamentally unhinged that he telegraphed Washington to complain about a decision by his superiors to withhold McDowell’s reinforcing army, “The Government has not sustained [my] army. If you do not do so now the game is lost . . . If I serve this army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
Since McClellan’s insecurities immobilized his army, Lee decided to turn his attention to the Union army in Northern Virginia, presently under the command of Major General John Pope who had replaced McDowell. The movement culminated with a decisive battle at Second Bull Run, which left Lee’s victorious army at Washington’s doorstep. When his retreating and routed army was only twenty-one miles from the White House, Pope telegraphed Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, “I should like to know whether you feel secure about Washington should this army be destroyed.” False rumors that Jackson’s wing of Lee’s army was crossing the Potomac at Georgetown triggered hysteria, prompting thousands of residents to flee the capital.
Despite Pope’s discouragement, however, Lee was not strong enough to attack Washington directly. Instead he hoped that he might beat the presumably demoralized Union army north of the Potomac River. Such a victory might lead Northerners to conclude the war was not worth the cost required to prevent Southern secession. Additionally, as Lord Palmerston himself suggested, it might encourage the British to intervene on the side of the South in order to stabilize the Atlantic trade, especially that of cotton. In the two months from late June to late August, Lee had so reversed prospects in the East that Lincoln’s attorney general said the President “felt almost ready to hang himself.”
Meanwhile the June ’62 situation in the West after the Rebel defeat at Shiloh and the federal capture of abandoned enemy fortifications at Corinth, Mississippi is pictured in the above map. Major General Ulysses Grant’s army remained in western Tennessee where he was planning an offensive against the Rebel Mississippi River stronghold at Vicksburg. Simultaneously, Major General Don Carlos Buell’s army was marching eastward to capture Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Ultimately command of the Confederate army defeated at Shiloh devolved to General Braxton Bragg who waited in northern Mississippi while anticipating a Yankee advance. When it became clear that inadequate supply lines caused Buell’s army to make only slow progress toward Chattanooga, Bragg took the initiative away from the Yankees by quickly moving his army to Chattanooga over roundabout railroads south of the battle lines.
Bragg did not merely intend to defend Chattanooga. Instead he planned to coordinate an invasion of Kentucky with a smaller army under Major General Edmund Kirby Smith in Knoxville. The movement, they reasoned, would require Buell to retreat to defend the Bluegrass state. Simultaneously, smaller Rebel armies under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price might advance on Buell’s rear or directly into western Tennessee to contest Grant’s control of that region and disrupt the latter’s designs against Vicksburg.
Shortly before the failed Rebel attack at Shiloh, Richmond ordered nearly all Arkansas troops transferred to the left bank of the Mississippi in order to join the Tennessee offensive. Although they arrived too late for Shiloh, their departure left Arkansas nearly defenseless. The Union army under Major General Samuel Curtis that had been victorious at Pea Ridge was maneuvering to capture the state capital at Little Rock. Richmond’s only response was to send the energetic Brigadier General Thomas Hindman back to his home state to organize a new army from scratch.
Although vastly outnumbered, Hindman ordered guerrillas to attack Curtis’s supply lines, which stopped the Union advance on Little Rock. Consequently, Curtis shifted his goal to the Mississippi River port town of Helena, Arkansas where—after occupying the place—the Yankees switched their attention to the lucrative wartime cotton trade. By September, Hindman had organized an army big enough to challenge the Union forces in southwest Missouri for control of the “Show Me” state and simultaneously defend the approaches to Little Rock from Helena.
As the eastern, western, and Trans-Mississippi Rebel armies made military progress from late June to early September of 1862, prospects for Confederate diplomatic recognition in Europe also improved. Southerners put most of their hopes on Great Britain and France, which were the two most influential powers in the region. Cotton textiles were Britain’s biggest industry and supported about 20% of her economy. The country consumed over half of the World’s cotton production while the United States and France tied each other as distant seconds.
Since both American belligerents originally denied that slavery was the central issue, Europeans were confused about the causes of the war. During the summer of 1862, therefore, they reasoned that the conflict was a matter of Southern self-determination opposed by Northern economic hegemony. Just as we usually favor self-determination for modern nations so did 19th century Europe, which put her sympathies more with the South than the North.
While Lee and McClellan battled during the Seven Days, the British and French representatives living in Washington City met to discuss how cotton shipments to Europe might be increased. The British representative wrote the Foreign Secretary in London that the French minister believed a joint British-French intervention to end the war was the only way to insure adequate supplies. Although basically agreeing with the French ambassador the British representative thought such a proposal must be timed to coincide with the contingencies of future events. That such a contingency could soon arrive might have been inferred when his superior wrote back from London, “If you can manage . . . to get a supply of cotton for England before the Winter you will have done a greater service than has been effected by Diplomacy for a century.”
US Secretary of State William H. Seward instructed his ambassador living in London to inform Palmerston’s government that any attempt to intervene in America’s Civil War would likely result in war between Britain and the federal Union. Such a war would have challenged both sides. Although it would be hard for Britain to maintain an army in America, her powerful navy might have ended the federal blockade of Southern ports, and even blockaded Northern harbors. Contrary to popular belief, the Monitor and Merrimack were not the first ironclad warships. The British and French began building bigger and faster deep-water ironclads before America’s Civil War even started.
At the time, Britain and France had the World’s most powerful navies. Each was also in an arms race with the other. Two years before the American war, France launched the first deep-water ironclad, La Gloire. Britain quickly followed with the HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince. In 1861 the British had already decided that their future fleet would be entirely composed of armored ships.
Louie Napoleon, who winced that his reputation was overshadowed by his famous deceased uncle, ruled France during this period. Like other European monarchs he resented the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and hoped America’s domestic turmoil would prevent Lincoln from enforcing it. Consequently, he used trade debts as an excuse to form a puppet Mexican regime and reasoned that an independent Confederacy could function as a buffer state between the federal Union and Mexico. Ever since the Great Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory and Haiti won independence in 1803, France had been locked out of the Western Hemisphere. Louie hungered for a second chance at New World empire building.
France, however, was not strong enough to be confident of victory if she alone allied with the Confederacy. The French Emperor felt the British must be maneuvered into joining him. During a July meeting with Confederate representative John Slidell, he said, “My sympathies have always been with the South, whose people are struggling for . . . self-government. I have several times intimated [to the British government] my wish for action in your behalf. . . ” According to historian Howard Jones, “By mid-July 1862 both the Union and the Confederacy thought that popular pressure would force British and French intervention.”
Almost immediately after his smashing victory at Second Bull Run Robert E. Lee began taking his army north of the Potomac River where he hoped to win a showdown battle that might persude the North to abandon the war or prompt dipolmatic recognition of the Confederacy. Since Washington learned of the crossing only days after the Second Bull Run debacle, the news burst upon the town like an artillery barrage. War Secretary Stanton and General in Chief Halleck ordered that all of the arms and ammunition in the city’s arsenal be sent to New York, and that the steamer Wachusett be kept ready to evacuate the President and his cabinet.
After replacing the disgraced Pope, McClellan led the Union army to hunt down Lee. By a stroke of good luck on 13 September one of his soldiers found a copy of Lee’s marching orders at an abandoned Rebel campsite near Frederick, Maryland only fifty miles northwest of Washington. The orders revealed that Lee’s army was separated into five widely scattered components that could almost certainly be defeated in sequence by McClellan’s overwhelming numerical advantage of 85,000 to 45,000.
Although a Southern sympathizer soon secretly informed the Rebels that McClellan had gained an intelligence advantage important enough for the Union general to exclaim aloud, “Here is the paper by which if I am unable to whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home,” Lee remained unaware of the specifics. As a result, he ordered his scattered units to concentrate along the west bank of Antietam Creek near where it drained into the north bank of the Potomac River. Although the Confederates held their ground by the narrowest of margins during the resultant battle, Lee was forced to retreat due to a shortage of supplies and his smaller numbers.
On the same day of General Pope’s disorderly retreat from Second Bull Run, Confederate troops under Kirby Smith gained a similar one-sided Rebel victory at Richmond, Kentucky on 30 August. Throughout the day veterans repeatedly assaulted an inexperienced Union army as the latter retreated from one defensive position to another. Since Confederate cavalry blocked retreat from the final Union position, the 6,500-man federal army suffered 5,400 casualties, which included 4,300 prisoners. After the victory, Kirby Smith took his army into Lexington where it was greeted enthusiastically and deployed to occupy the hometown of President Lincoln’s wife.
Bragg had a similar success in south central Kentucky when he surrounded and forced the surrender of a 4,000-man Yankee garrison at Munfordville on 17 September. Despite such successes, however, Smith did not coordinate his movements with Bragg. Consequently, Union General Buell was able to retrace his army’s footsteps from northern Alabama to Louisville, Kentucky where he gained reinforcements and was positioned to block any Rebel attempt to cross the Ohio River. After Buell’s numbers grew over the balance of the month he judged it safe to start an advance on Bragg and Smith to drive them out of Kentucky.
The result was the accidental battle of Perryville, Kentucky on 8 October. The Confederates attacked under the mistaken impression that only a single corps of Buell’s three-corps army opposed them. Partly because an acoustic shadow at Buell’s command center left him ill informed, nearly all of the Yankees engaged in fighting were limited to a single corps even though two other corps were readily available. When Bragg learned after sundown that he was facing a much bigger army than he originally assumed, his position was similar to Lee’s after Antietam. The Rebels were low on supplies and did not have the numerical strength to attack the Yankee army again with a reasonable chance of success. As a result, he and Smith retreated to a defensive position at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which was forty-five miles south of Nashville.
While Bragg was moving into Kentucky during September he urged that the remaining Confederates in Mississippi under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price either attack Buell’s rear as Buell followed Bragg, or advance on the Yankee armies in western Tennessee. The suggestion culminated in the battle of Corinth, Mississippi on 3-4 October. Although Van Dorn was in charge, Price’s men held the initiative with attacks that repeatedly came tantalizingly close to success until the Rebel soldiers were depleted to exhaustion. As a result, the third Flood Tide offensive was repulsed. Van Dorn’s army barely escaped the twin jaws of Yankee units brought forward from west Tennessee to block his retreat and the pursing, victorious federals from Corinth.
Across the Mississippi River in Arkansas Hindman had required more time to organize an army capable of invading Missouri, but he was ready to make a move late in November. As winter approached Union Major General John Schofield had wrongly assumed there would be no more fighting until the following spring. Accordingly, he allowed his two divisions under subordinate Brigadier Generals James Blunt and Francis Herron to bivouac in campsites that were a hundred miles apart so that they might more effectvily forage and be supplied from different depots in the thinly populated Ozark Mountains. Meanwhile Scholfield retired to St. Louis to convalesce from an illness.
The distant separation between Herron and Blunt enticed Hindman to attack Blunt who was the closer of the two. The result was the battle of Prairie Grove on 7 December. Since Hindman had to march over more rugged terrain, his army was not in place until Herron units, which had been summound by Blunt, had nearly arrived. Hindman, therefore, abruptly changed plans and attacked Herron first. The battle proceeded well enough for the Rebels until Blunt backtracked via a circutious route to reinforce Herron. By nightfall the Rebel army was out of amuntion and had no option but to retreat, much like at Sharpsburg and Perryville.
After the fourth of the Flood Tide offensives came to grief, Hindman’s army lost more than half its strength by desertion. Since the Missouri soldiers only wanted to be part of an army that would fight to regain their home state, they refused to join Hindman’s march back to Little Rock.
Since it normally took about two weeks for news to cross the North Atlantic, Britain and France were still considering intervention as the armies of Lee, Bragg, Kirby Smith, and Van Dorn took the offensive. Prompted by the September exchange of letters between Lord Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Russell noted earlier, the British scheduled a 23 October cabinet meeting to consider intervention. After the Palmerston-Russell letter exchange, Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone also indicated a preference for Confederate recognition. Gladstone’s office was similar to the U. S. Secretary of the Treasury.
President Lincoln, however, concluded that he could discourage intervention by reversing the administration’s official policy that slavery was not a cause of the war. Consequently, he announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September. As explained earlier, Europeans were initially hostile to the announcement because they feared it might transform the war into one of racial genocide that might spread to other parts of the Western Hemisphere. Such a development would not only be bloody, but would devastate the Atlantic trade, which the Europeans regarded as crucial to their increasingly industrialized economies.
As events evolved and no slave uprisings occurred, European apprehensions subsided. Lincoln gained the moral high ground and prospects for Confederate recognition dwindled. As a result, the Emancipation Proclamation was the most decisive event of the Flood Tide period. Ironically, it may never have happened if the Confederacy had failed to reply effectively to the Union’s military achievements during the first half of 1862.
Thus are the inscrutable paths of destiny.