This past week, Aug. 30 marked the 149th anniversary of the Union’s second consecutive defeat at Bull Run. But Union futility on the fields of Virginia over this 14-month stretch was more pathetic than the record might indicate. The Yankee losing streak that had begun on the same battlefield the previous year, in July 1861, included repeated losses on battlefields between Washington and Richmond and up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Then, on Sept. 22, 1862, after a somewhat questionable home-field win in Maryland, President Abraham Lincoln issued the most historic challenge in all of American history, declaring his intention to formally issue the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, applicable to any state still in rebellion at that time.
Even today, some people question Lincoln’s sincerity as an enemy of slavery and his legacy as “The Great Emancipator,” suggesting instead that his Sept. 22 Proclamation was merely a cynical and desperate political ploy which didn’t actually free a single slave. To understand the significance of Lincoln’s decisions on what to include in the Proclamation and when to publicly announce it requires a close look at a variety of domestic attitudes in the North as well as the South, including a rapid deepening of dissatisfaction with the Lincoln Administration from New England abolitionists and border state slaveholders alike.
But first, in order to appreciate his decision to make the announcement in September of 1862, it’s important to understand the course of the Civil War up to that point, particularly in the eastern theater. A simple but more or less accurate assessment of the first 16 months of eastern theater fighting suggested that the Rebels were significantly more committed to battling their way out of the Union than originally believed, and they were winning a lot more battles than they were losing.
Beginning with the defeat at Bull Run (1st Manassas) in July 1861, and culminating with yet another defeat on the very same battlefield (2nd Manassas) on Aug. 30, 1862, it seemed that nothing was going well for the Union war effort in the east. Furthermore, after Shiloh, the timid and jealous General Henry Halleck had effectively slowed and marginalized the Union’s best general, Ulysses S. Grant, in the western theater, ordering him to essentially stay put and guard railroad lines.
In the east, after eight months of hesitation and delay, General McClellan was finally pushed into action by President Lincoln. In the spring of 1862, he began a predictably cautious advance on Richmond, known as the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan’s original plan had been to attack the Confederates at Manassas, thus avenging the still mortifying July 1861 route of the Union Army. But while he was repeatedly delaying an attack due to his typical overestimate of the enemy’s troop strengths, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his army to the south in order to provide a more fortified defense of the Confederate Capitol.
McClellan’s forces, significantly superior in numbers, met with encouraging initial success, including a successful siege and occupation of Yorktown. But any small flames of hope and encouragement were extinguished on May 31, 1862. In what would likely have otherwise been remembered as a relatively unimportant chapter in the overall campaign, the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) resulted in two critical and memorable occurrences both of which immeasurably benefited the Confederacy. First, the senior Confederate commander, General Johnston, was seriously wounded, and second, the Union’s senior Commander, General McClellan, lost his nerve when confronted with his first up close exposure to the horror of fierce fighting and high casualties. The significance of General Johnston’s wounding always brings to my mind the admittedly superficial analogy to the 1925 Major League Baseball season, when New York Yankees’ ailing first baseman, Wally Pipp, decided he needed to miss a game due to injury. In 1925, the Yankees replaced Pipp that day with Lou Gehrig, whereas in 1862, the Yankees unwittingly helped the Confederacy when Johnston was replaced by Jefferson Davis’ military advisor, General Robert E. Lee.
The significance of the second occurrence, McClellan’s horrified reaction to the loss of 5,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing), was its “final straw” impact on his debilitating paranoia that the troop strength of his unseen enemy was always vastly superior to his own and that victory was therefore impossible. In fact, at the Battle of Fair Oaks the Union troops far outnumbered their Confederate adversaries.
Furthermore, Confederate losses in that battle were higher not only in real numbers (over 6,000 killed, wounded or missing, compared with about 5,000 Union casualties), but also in percentage losses (10 percent of Confederate troop strength lost compared to 5 percent Union troop strength lost). But unlike Grant at Ft. Donelson and Shiloh, or for that matter Robert E. Lee at this same battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, McClellan had no internal reservoir of strength, confidence and resolve upon which to draw. Instead, he became even more insecure and fearful of defeat than before, at the very time when the Confederacy had finally found its leadership and direction in Lee.
Matters continued to deteriorate even further for the Union. Concurrently with Lee’s unlikely arrival and success at Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was wreaking havoc in the Shenandoah Valley. Through grueling fast paced marching and brilliant deployment of his 16,000 soldiers, Jackson managed to win battles against three separate Union forces totaling about 60,000 men. As a result, those Union forces, commanded by Generals Nathaniel Banks, Irvin McDowell, and John C. Fremont, were not only expelled from the strategically vital Shenandoah Valley; they were likewise prevented from reinforcing McClellan’s beleaguered army near Richmond.
Understandably heartened by these successes, Lee called for Jackson’s troops to disengage from the Valley and join him for what became known as the Seven Days Battle, in June 1862. On June 12-15, Lee’s Cavalry commander, General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart, had led 1200 men on a legendary “scouting” raid, during which his horsemen literally ran a circle around the entire Union army. Stuart reported the weakness of McClellan’s right flank to Lee, and Lee successfully exploited that weakness to send McClellan back toward Washington with an army still superior in numbers but broken in spirit.
At this point Lee was not about to lose his momentum, and once again Stonewall Jackson’s troops were brilliantly deployed in advance of Lee’s other forces at Manassas, thus setting the stage for a two day battle and another Union defeat. This time it was General John Pope whose Union forces were embarrassed and soundly defeated at Manassas/Bull Run, while McClellan sulked and pouted his way back to Washington. To this day, there remains a compelling body of evidence to suggest that McClellan and at least one of his senior commanders (Fitzhugh) failed to come to Pope’s aid and rescue because of their personal hatred and resentment of Pope and his command.
Lee’s 2nd Manassas victory on Aug. 30, 1862 constitutes one of the three lowest points for the Union of the Civil War (late December 1862 through June 1863; and June through August 1864 were the others). It was at this low point in Union confidence and morale for both its civilians and its soldiers that Lincoln desperately awaited a Union victory in order to give credibility to his proposed Emancipation Proclamation. But Lee had other ideas, and chose to invade northern territory for the first time in the war, marching north to reclaim Harper’s Ferry and to cross the Potomac River into Maryland at the nearby town of Sharpsburg.
In my September columns I will look at the greatness of Lincoln as embodied in his Emancipation Proclamation and at the “feet of clay” of his hopelessly intimidated commanding general. For although McClellan would win the upcoming September battle at Sharpsburg (also known as Antietam), his irretrievable lost nerve in the face of Lee’s fierce counterpunching in earlier battles would cause him to keep his troops frozen in place after the bloodiest single day of the entire Civil War, thus allowing Lee’s defeated forces to limp back to the safety of Virginia.
Patrick Teegarden is The Statesman’s special columnist writing on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.