Mark Grimsley on the Impetus for the Advance on Manassas

3 06 2008

The Hard Hand of War - Mark GrimsleyMark Grimsley has been discussing his book The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865 over at Civil Warriors (see here and here).  I read the book recently after it sat on my bookshelf for a few years, and I’m one of the folks who sent the emails to which Prof. Grimsley referred in his post.  I won’t go into all the reasons why The Hard Hand of War is one of the most important books on the American Civil War of the last 25 years.  But I’ve been meaning to mention something covered in it, as it directly deals with First Bull Run.  I just hope I can do it justice.

A component of the traditional narrative of the campaign is that the Federal advance on Bull Run was prompted by pressure from the Northern public as expressed via the press.  While some historians have removed the President from the equation by saying that the army was prompted to advance by this pressure, or that Winfield Scott was induced to advance by it, or even that McDowell was compelled to advance by it, to me it has always seemed obvious that the moving force behind the advance was Abraham Lincoln.  I think Lincoln himself sought to distance himself after the fact, if the story of his reaction to Scott’s post battle lament about Scott’s allowing himself to be pressured to send the army to the field before it was ready is to be believed (AL basically said “surely you’re not blaming me for pressuring you” – Scott’s response, interpreted by most as backing down, was to me delightfully sarcastic and probably not lost on a sharp wit like Lincoln’s).  But that’s neither here nor there as far as Grimsley’s book is concerned, and I’ll discuss the Scott-Lincoln exchange more fully in a post some other time.

Grimsley’s work does not run counter to the idea that the primary force behind the advance on Manassas was Lincoln.  Where he differs with the accepted story line is in the influence on Lincoln of a supposedly unified, howling Northern press.  This discussion is in Chapter 2, Conciliation and its Challenges.  It begins (italics are extractions from the text):

Conciliation formed the dominant Union policy for the first fifteen months of the war.  It not only characterized the way in which Federal forces were to deal with Southern civilians, it also shaped the Federal strategy to defeat the Confederacy.  Northern officials instinctively grasped the truth of Treitschke’s statement that “Again and again, it has been proved that it is war that turns a people into a nation.”  The slave-holding aristocrats had made a rebellion; they must not be allowed to make a nation.  Conciliation on the one hand, and a sweeping military effort on the other, seemed the keys to preventing this.  Together these two approaches would sap Southern resistance and make possible an early victory.

(One of the great things about this book is that it was written by that rarest of birds in Civil War literature, an honest to God military historian – see here for what I mean by historian)

Winfield Scott was on board with the idea of a combination of conciliation and military effort.  As Grimsley points out, tact and patience characterized Scott’s behavior over the years in things military and diplomatic (if not personal).  Concerns in the early days of the rebellion were for the promotion of pro-Union sentiment in the southern states, and Scott was of the opinion that this could best be done through the adoption of a policy that might defeat the Confederacy without the bloodshed, devastation, and bitterness that would accompany a major offensive.  In May of 1861 these thoughts manifested in Scott’s overall strategy for victory, dubbed by the press The Anaconda Plan.  Note that Scott’s plan was born of experience and not, as has been stated by some, of his fondness for his native South.

Initially the press was unanimously behind Scott, because he was Winfield Scott, after all; because they were patriotic, of course; because many believed the idea that victory could and should be won with as little loss of life and property as possible; and because rumors also circulated that Scott’s deliberation would extend no further than mid-July at the latest.  Criticism came not from people who thought Scott was wrong about the potential of pro-Union sentiment in the South, but rather from those with different ideas concerning the best way to tap it.  To them, only quick action could ignite Southern Unionists; delay would leave them correspondingly discouraged.

Within Lincoln’s cabinet, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was one whose thoughts on the best way to encourage Southern Unionists opposed those of Scott.  Blair felt that the regular army officers grossly overestimated the strength of secessionist spirit in the South.  “This,” he declared (in a mid-May 1861 letter to Lincoln), “is a fundamental and fatal error and if our military movements are predicated on it & we fail to go to the relief of the people of the South they will be subjugated and the state of consolidation now falsely assumed will be produced.”  Immediate, offensive action was what was needed to best encourage Southern Unionists, and it could be accomplished by a very small portion of the army. Blair wasn’t questioning Scott’s patriotism, just his ability to grasp the true state of affairs.  He recommended that the President should adopt a policy independent of the General-in-Chief.

Despite Blair’s advice, Lincoln decided to bear with Scott’s policy for awhile.  But as time dragged on (and we’re talking mere weeks here – the definition of dragging time would change dramatically by 1865) without any significant offensive action, elements in the Northern press began to express opinions more similar to those of Blair.  Then, on June 26, Horace Greeley’s Republican paper New York Tribune declared:

Forward to Richmond!  Forward to Richmond!  The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th of July!  BY THAT DATE THE PLACE MUST BE HELD BY THE NATIONAL ARMY!

The Chicago Tribune jumped on the bandwagon the next day, echoing Blair’s sentiment:

The Union men of the South, to whose relief the loyal army is marching, will be crushed out, or forced into cooperation with the rebels, long before the anaconda has got the whole country enveloped in its coils.

But a number of Northern newspapers were still backing Scott’s plan, and their editorials ridiculed the “Forward to Richmond” cries of the two Tribunes.  The New York Times reported on June 27 that the General was still committed to the conciliatory plan, concluding that By January, he [Scott] thinks that the rebellion will be entirely defeated, and the Union reconstructed.  On July 1 that paper responded to a letter critical of Scott it had printed two days earlier, stating:

The South must be made to feel full respect for the power and honor of the North: she must be humbled, but not debased by a forfeiture of self-respect, if we wish to retain our motto – E pluribus unum – and claim for the whole United States the respect of the world.

Grimsley points out that:

With public opinion on its efficacy still divided, the popular notion that Lincoln was somehow forced to launch an immediate offensive is untenable.  It is much more likely that the President himself embraced the Blair thesis that an early offensive offered the best way to encourage the Southern Unionist sentiment that, he hoped, would then overwhelm the slaveholding aristocracy.  

Fully embracing Blair’s thesis required the adoption of a policy that was independent of Lincoln’s General-in-Chief.  It wouldn’t be the last time the President would make that choice.

At a meeting with his cabinet, Scott, and Irvin McDowell on June 29, Lincoln directed – despite Scott’s objections – that an advance be made within a few weeks.  He issued positive orders to that effect to McDowell on July 8.  On July 16, McDowell put his army in motion.

Grimsley concludes that the repulse of McDowell’s offensive ended any hopes of a rapid Confederate collapse.  It also destroyed whatever promise the Anaconda held out, for the South had been further united by the nationalistic pride generated by the victory.

Talk about a turning point.








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