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Battle of Antietam Sections
Skirmish in the East Woods
The Battle of Antietam
Battle of Antietam
We had the Most Brilliant Prospects
by Kevin S. Lacey

Several years after the end of the Civil War, Confederate General James Longstreet, the commander of General Robert E. Lee's First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, still remembered the days following the defeat of John Pope's Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run as the zenith of Confederate arms during the Civil War. Longstreet wrote that in the late summer of 1862 "we had the most brilliant prospects the Confederates ever had."[1]  Longstreet's heady optimism was understandable. The recent series of military successes achieved by the Army of Northern Virginia beginning with the Seven Days and ending with the drubbing of John Pope's Army of Virginia at Second Manassas would have, under any circumstances, been impressive; but, the morale and political impact of Lee's victories were magnified far beyond their actual military significance because they stood in stark contrast to the seemingly unending series of military setbacks and defeats that had plagued the beleaguered Confederacy from the end of 1861 through the first half of 1862. Lee's campaigns had, quite literally, breathed new life into fading Southern hopes for independence.

The first half of 1862 had not gone well for the fledgling Confederacy. Although the South had won the first major clash of the Civil War at Bull Run in July 1861, the afterglow of this unexploited victory had long since faded.[2]  Nothing of any real lasting significance had been reaped as a result of this battle, and for months the Confederate Army of the Potomac simply watched impotently as the defeated Union Army regained its strength and morale under the watchful and paternal eye of its new commander, Major General George B. McClellan.

A Winter of Discontent in the West

While general inaction marked the beginning of the year in the East, the same could not be said of events west of the Appalachians where the Union launched the first offensive campaign of the war. The Confederate commander in the west, General Albert Sidney Johnston, employed a perimeter defense of the upper South to defend all of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi from invasion.[3]  As part of their defensive scheme, the Confederates erected fortifications to block the major rivers, and to hopefully check the Federal naval advantage and inhibit use of the major rivers as invasion routes into the Confederacy. On the Mississippi River, Island No. 10 blocked the Federal advance. In north-central Tennessee, where the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers almost converged, the Confederates built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland.

A favorite and close friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, great things were expected of the martial Sidney Johnston, and to succeed in his new command Johnston would have to come close to realizing these high expectations. Johnston had a vast area to defend that was susceptible to attack at several points, he had virtually no naval forces to contest the Federal fleet, and he possessed limited material and manpower resources.[4]  Sidney Johnston did, however, enjoy the advantages of a superior command structure and excellent interior lines.[5]  Utilizing the Memphis and Ohio Railroad rail line, which ran north-east from Memphis to Bowling Green, Johnston could potentially rapidly re-deploy and concentrate his outnumbered forces at points along this entire front to meet any threat as it materialized.[6]  Confederate success in implementing this plan, however, would ultimately depend on Johnston's quick recognition of any threat coupled with a rapid redeployment to meet it. Subsequent events proved both that Johnston was simply not up to events as they unfolded, and that the entire Confederate defensive plan was simply too ambitious for its limited resources.[7]

In late January 1862, Major General Halleck launched a simultaneous advance on the Mississippi and in central Tennessee. Federal forces under Major General John Pope moved south against Island No. 10, while Major General U. S. Grant, operating with the support of the U.S. Navy, moved against Forts Henry and Donelson. Simultaneously, Major General Don Carlos Buell demonstrated against Johnston's main army at Bowling Green.
Johnston, fixating on Buell, failed to move until it was too late. General Grant quickly captured Fort Henry in early February. Inexplicably, Johnston then reinforced Fort Donelson, some twelve miles east of Fort Henry, sending troops commanded by the inept General John B. Floyd. The maneuver was odd, especially since Johnston had previously acknowledged that the loss of Fort Henry rendered Fort Donelson virtually indefensible.[8]

Approximately a week after capturing Fort Henry, Grant moved to attack Donelson. The recently reinforced Confederates were soon besieged, and, except for about 4,000 (including the cowardly Floyd) who managed to escape, Grant bagged the lot. In less than two months, and for the relatively small cost of 3,000 casualties, Grant had secured both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, rendered the brief Confederate occupation of Kentucky untenable, secured central Tennessee and inflicted more than 19,000 casualties on the enemy.[9]

Johnston's perimeter defense had been punctured and all of Tennessee was threatened. His forces were now divided, separated by the advancing Federals who severed his lateral rail connections. Johnston was effectively isolated as he retreated from Bowling Green to Nashville. Faced with the advancing armies of Buell and Grant, and unable to unite with the rest of his command to the west, Johnston abandoned Nashville, and reluctantly retreated to Chattanooga. Federal control of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, combined with Grant's advance, rendered the strong Confederate position at Columbus untenable, and it was also abandoned. With Johnston all but abandoning Tennessee, Island No. 10 became indefensible, and Major General John Pope occupied it, and began to move south. [10]
As the Federals advanced, Johnston attempted to retrieve his rapidly disintegrating position. Concentrating his forces in Corinth, Mississippi, Johnston marched north and launched an attack against Grant at Shiloh Church on April 6, 1862. Although he achieved complete surprise, Union forces fought stubbornly and Grant, joined on the evening of April 6th by Buell, counter-attacked the following day, driving the Confederates back to their original positions.[11]  Johnston's gamble had ended in failure, costing the South another 11,000 casualties, including the popular Johnston who bled to death from a minor wound received on the first day of the battle.[12]

Following the Confederate defeat at Shiloh, General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had assumed command of the Army of the Mississippi following Johnston's death, retreated out of Tennessee to Corinth, Mississippi.[13]  Beauregard, a fiery Creole with a Napoleonic flair, had unconsciously exacerbated the negative public reaction to the defeat at Shiloh, and in the process further undermined his already thin credibility with President Davis, by penning a deceptive report on the evening of April 6th that claimed a decisive Confederate victory.[14]  In fact, Beauregard probably believed that Shiloh was a Confederate victory.[15]  Beauregard further annoyed his already distraught chief when he expressed doubts about his ability even to defend Corinth.[16]  Indeed, Beauregard was to abandon Corinth the following month in the face of Halleck's slow but inexorable advance.[17]

The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, the abandonment of Island No. 10, the retreat from Kentucky, the fall of Columbus, the loss of Nashville and evacuation of central Tennessee, the terrible toll in casualties, and the death of one of the more popular Confederate field commanders was enough to dampen even the spirits of the most ardent secessionist, yet still worse was to come.

Major General Mansfield Lovell had been placed in command of New Orleans in the fall of 1861. Immediately upon assuming command, Lovell requested reinforcements, advising Davis that the city was vulnerable to attack from the sea. Davis ignored him, certain that any danger would come, not by a sea borne invasion from the south, but over-land from the north.[18]  Yet on April 25-26, Admiral David Farragut led his fleet past Davis' "impregnable" forts and, for the loss of but a single ship, captured the South's largest port.[19]

By the early spring of 1862, Union forces in the West had won several significant victories in the field. They had maneuvered the Confederates out of Kentucky, overrun central and western Tennessee, captured Nashville and Memphis, easily routed the Confederates at Forts Henry and Donelson, defeated and killed Sidney Johnston at Shiloh, defeated Van Dorn at Pea Ridge, pushed Beauregard from Corinth and captured New Orleans.


[1] Longstreet, James "The Invasion of Maryland" in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War ("B&L"), (The Archive Society 1991) vol. II, pt. 2, p. 663.

[2] Even this Southern "victory" had significant and long lasting negative consequences for the Confederacy. The relationship among the three principal Confederate leaders involved in the battle, President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, had never been more than cordial, but after the battle it began a process of disintegration that continued even after the war was over. Beauregard was upset at what he perceived to be the President's attempts to usurp credit for the victory when Davis signed the post-battle dispatch claiming victory instead of having either Johnston or Beauregard sign it. Davis, William C. Battle At Bull Run (Doubleday, 1977), p. 244; Davis, William C. The Lost Cause Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (Univ. of Kansas, 1996), pp. 20-21. Following the battle, Beauregard leaked highly critical information to the press and congressmen which embarrassed the President For his part, Davis showed uncharacteristic patience, but Beauregard forever forfeited the President's good-will when he submitted his post-battle report that implied that Davis was responsible for the failure of the Confederate Army to capture Washington after Bull Run. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Grey (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), pp. 96-98, 102-108. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 361-369. War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies ("O.R.") Series I, vol. 2, pp. 484-504. This was particularly aggravating to Davis for of the three he was the only one to suggest and encourage any type of pursuit. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Grey (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), pp. 89-91. In January 1862, Beauregard was ordered west where he became Albert Sydney Johnston's de facto second in command. Id. at 113-115. O.R., Series 1, vol. 5, p. 1048. Joe Johnston, for his part, chaffed when he discovered that, although he had been the highest-ranking officer in the old army he was now outranked by Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee, and Johnston peppered Davis with his petty and pedantic complaints, which Davis considered insubordinate. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 356-360.

[3] Hattaway, Herman & Jones, Archer, How the North Won, A Military History of the Civil War (University of Ill. Press, 1983), pp. 57-58.

[4] Hattaway, Herman & Jones, Archer, How the North Won, A Military History of the Civil War (University of Ill. Press, 1983), pp. 58-61.

[5] The Union command organization in the West was not as unified. Major General Henry W. Halleck's department included Missouri and continued east to the Cumberland River. East of the Cumberland and centered in the portion of Kentucky dominated by Unionist sentiment was the much smaller department of Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell. But although Johnston ostensibly commanded all Confederate troops west of the Appalachians he sometimes had difficulty translating his authority into obedience. In February 1862, when Johnston ordered the transfer of troops from Arkansas to Mississippi General Earl Van Dorn, who commanded Confederate forces in Arkansas, simply ignored him and instead launched his own independent campaign that culminated in the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge on March 6-8. Subsequently, Van Dorn failed to timely comply with Johnston's orders to concentrate his troops in time to participate in Johnston's offensive into Tennessee. Shea, W. & Hess, E. J. Pea Ridge, Civil War Campaign in the West (Chapel Hill, 1992), pp. 286-289; Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 403.

[6] Although there was strong secessionist sentiment in parts of Kentucky, Johnston occupied Columbus and Bowling Green more in an effort to protect Tennessee and his rail lines than to precipitate Kentucky's secession. Sidney Johnston clearly realized the importance of the rail lines in Tennessee and Kentucky and disposed his troops to protect them, knowing that any successful defense of this region would depend on his control of the rail lines. Turner, George E. Victory Rode the Rails (Bison Books, 1992), pp. 100-103. Hattaway, Herman & Jones, Archer How the North Won, A Military History of the Civil War (University of Ill. Press, 1983), pp. 57-58.

[7] Although there are discrepancies in the figures, the Confederates were clearly outnumbered. Beauregard recalled that, on the eve of Grant's attack, Johnston had 14,000 men at Bowling Green, 5,500 men at Forts Henry and Donelson, 8,000 at Clarksville Tennessee, and 17,000 at Columbus. B & L, vol. 1, pt. 2, p. 570. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Grey (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), pp. 116-117. Johnston, however, estimated his strength at Bowling Green at around 28,000. O.R., Series 1, vol. 7, pp. 852-855. In any case, total Confederate effectives were somewhere between 45,000 and 59,000. This does not count the approximately 20,000 who, considering Van Dorn's refusal to cooperate with Johnston or obey his orders, may have well been on the Moon. Shea, W. & Hess, E. J. Pea Ridge, Civil War Campaign in the West (Chapel Hill, 1992), pp. 286-289. Opposing Johnston, were 75,000 men under Buell (of which less than 60,000 were effectives), Grant commanded about 20,000 men, and John Pope commanded another 30,000 men in Missouri. B & L, vol. 1, pt. 2, p. 570.

[8] Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Grey (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), pp. 118-119. Williams' speculates that Johnston's actions indicate that he "was moving temporarily in a fog of mental paralysis induced by the crisis he was facing." Id. at 119.

[9] The majority of the Confederate losses during the campaign occurred at Fort Donelson where General Simon B. Buckner, who had been left behind by General Floyd, was forced to surrender the entire garrison. This represented approximately one-fourth of Johnston's entire army. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 398.

[10] Tennessee's importance to the Confederacy has rarely been appreciated, possibly because it was lost so early in the war. It was one of the most heavily populated states in the Confederacy. Nashville was, with the sole exception of New Orleans, the most important Confederate city west of the Appalachians. It occupied a strategic position along the Cumberland River, had extensive rail connections to the rest of the South, possessed a large arsenal, two powder mills, a plant that manufactured percussions caps, factories for the production of rifled cannon, a supply depot, and the Nashville Plow Works was literally turning plowshares into swords for the Confederacy. See, Horn, Stanley The Army of Tennessee (Ind., 1941), p. 75. The loss of central Tennessee, and particularly Nashville, was a devastating blow. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 398-399. Grant wrote that Nashville, at the time of its capture, was probably the "the best provisioned depot … in the Confederacy." Grant, U.S. "The Battle of Shiloh" in B&L, vol.1, pt. 2, p. 465.

[11] The main attack hit Sherman's division and caught him completely off guard. Although he had clear warning of the impending attack, Sherman refused to believe it. O.R., Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, pp. 248-254. Marazalek, John F. Sherman A Soldier's Passion for Order (Free Press, 1993), pp. 176-177. Sherman sometimes "lacked balance and judgment. As an admiring friend once said, [Sherman's] intellect was a beautifully intricate piece of machinery, with all the screws a little loose." Nevins, Allan The War For The Union: War Becomes Revolution 1862-1862 (Scribners, 1960) p. 81. On the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman's screws were a bit looser than usual.

[12] Jefferson Davis wept when the news of Johnston's death was confirmed, and told those around him that he had lost his best friend. He lamented that "The cause could have spared a whole State better than that great soldier." Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 404.

[13] Following his last clash with Davis over his controversial Bull Run report, Beauregard went west to assume command of Sidney Johnston's "left wing", consisting primarily of the Confederate forces in Kentucky. He arrived on the eve of Grant's attack, and within just a few days Johnston had no "left wing" for Beauregard to command. Beauregard remained around Columbus where he again proposed some not-to-realistic plans for taking the offensive. Ultimately, he assisted Johnston in bringing the army together at Corinth. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Grey (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), pp. 113-124. Beauregard suggested much of the subsequent planning for the Shiloh campaign, including the organization and command structure of the Army of Mississippi. Id., at 125-132.

[14] Beauregard's message to Davis stated, "We … attacked the enemy in strong position … and after a severe battle of ten hours … gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position." O.R., Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, p. 384. Davis, upon receipt of the message, reported to Congress that the Federals under Grant had been destroyed. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), p. 143. Beauregard's supplemental report drafted 4 days from Corinth was also less than candid. Even after the defeat of the Army of Mississippi and its retreat to Corinth, he referred to Grant's army as a "shattered fugitive force" that was saved from destruction only by the unexpected arrival of Buell. O.R., vol. 10, pt. 1, p. 389. In fact, although he had been surprised the first day, Grant's army was anything but shattered, and the delay in following Beauregard to Corinth was due more to Halleck's natural caution than to anything else. Beauregard admitted to suffering almost 11,000 casualties but significantly exaggerated Union casualties, which were slightly more than 13,000, to almost 20,000 men. O.R., Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, pp. 108 and 391. By the time of Shiloh the relationship was very strained and Davis was personally insulted that Beauregard's long report of the battle referenced the dead Sidney Johnston only four times. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 405.

[15] Several days after the battle Beauregard issued a bombastic proclamation to the Army of the Mississippi claiming that "[y]our success has been signal. [The enemy's] losses have been immense, outnumbering yours in all save personal worth [and that only] untoward events saved the enemy from annihilation." O.R., Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, p. 397. Writing to Beauregard a few days before he penned his proclamation, Lt. General Braxton Bragg, Beauregard's second in command, painted a far more accurate picture of the situation: "Our condition is horrible. Troops utterly disorganized and demoralized … No provisions and no forage … It is most lamentable to see the state of affairs…." O.R., Series I, vol. 10, pt. 2, p. 398. This was hardly a picture of a victorious army. Yet, Beauregard evidently believed his own propaganda. Writing to Van Dorn on April 9th, Beauregard urged him to hurry to Corinth where Beauregard hoped to "whip them again." O.R., Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 2, p. 405. A few days later Beauregard wrote to General Samuel Jones "We gained a complete victory on the 6th, remaining master of the field … Next day, finding Buell's forces arriving… I withdrew, bringing away one of the enemy's finest batteries. In a few days we will be ready for another victory." O.R., Series 1, vol. 10, pt. 2. p. 407. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Grey (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), pp. 146-147.

[16] Beauregard found the Corinth unfortified and unhealthy. As one newly arrived Confederate officer wrote, Corinth was "a sickly, malarial spot fit only for alligators and snakes." Suhr, Robert C. "Old Brains' Barren Triumph" in America's Civil War (May 2001), p. 44.

[17] Shortly after retreating from Corinth, Beauregard sent word to Richmond that he was leaving his command a period of four months for reasons of his health. In fact he had already left. Davis responded by ordering the newly elevated Braxton Bragg to take command and not to relinquish it to Beauregard unless he received express instructions from Richmond. The Army of the Mississippi now had its third commander in just 10 weeks. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 405-409. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), p. 157-159. Beauregard, once the toast of the South following Sumter and Manassas, now saw his star begin to set. As noted by Mary Chesnut "Such a lovely name – Gustave Toutant (sic) de (sic) Beauregard. But Jackson and Johnson and Smith and Jones will do – and Lee—short and sweet." (Emphasis in original.) Chesnut, Mary, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, C. Vann Woodward ed. (Yale University Press, 1981), p. 384.

[18] Davis was "serenely confident" that the forts guarding the southern approaches to the city would be sufficient to withstand a Union assault. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 379. His confidence may have initially been justified, or at least understandable, but after the relative ease with which Grant captured the Forts guarding the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, Davis would have been wise to revisit his faith in the forts guarding the southern approaches, and to heed Lovell's entreaties for aid. Yet, despite the evidence mounting to the contrary, Davis seemed to have been certain that New Orleans would not be attacked by sea. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), pp. 407-408.

[19] As Mary Chestnut gloomily reported in her diary, "New Orleans gone – and with it the Confederacy." Chesnut, Mary, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, C. Vann Woodward ed. (Yale University Press, 1981), p. 330. For a time in Richmond, "nothing was talked of but the capture of New Orleans." Harrison, Constance "Richmond Scenes in ‘62" in B&L, vol. II, pt. 2, p. 441. President Davis, who had significantly contributed to its loss by ignoring or dismissing Lovell's reports, was never one to shoulder blame when it could be laid elsewhere, and despite his complete exoneration before a board of inquiry convened to ascertain the cause of the fall of New Orleans, Lovell was removed and never held another independent command during the war. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991), p. 408.

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Copyright © 2002 Kevin S. Lacey

Written by Kevin S. Lacey.
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