Combatants of the Civil War

Yet 7500 volunteer officers had to be used before the war was over. These came mostly from the merchant service and were generally brave, capable, first-rate men. But a nautical is not the same as a naval training, and the dearth of good professional naval officers was felt to the end. The number of enlisted seamen authorized by Congress rose from 7600 to 51,500. But the very greatest difficulty was found in “keeping up to strength,” even with the most lavish use of bounties.

Federal Navy Officers, 1862

Federal Navy Officers, 1862

The number of vessels in the navy kept on growing all through. Of course, not nearly all of them were regular men-of-war or even fighting craft “fit to go foreign.” At the end of the first year there were 264 in commission; at the end of the second, 427; at the end of the third, 588; and at the end of the fourth, 671.

Bearing this in mind, and remembering the many other Northern odds, one might easily imagine that the Southern armies fought only with the courage of despair. Yet such was not the case. This was no ordinary war, to be ended by a treaty in which compromise would play its part. There could be only two alternatives: either the South would win her independence or the North would have to beat her into complete submission. Under the circumstances, the united South would win whenever the divided North thought that complete subjugation would cost more than it was worth. The great aim of the South was, therefore, not to conquer the North but simply to sicken the North of trying to conquer her. “Let us alone and we’ll let you alone” was her insinuating argument; and this, as she knew very well, was echoed by many people in the North. Thus, as regards her own objective, she began with hopes that the Northern peace party never quite let die.

Then, so far as her patriotic feelings were concerned, the South was not fighting for anyone point at issue–not even for slavery, because only a small minority held slaves–but for her whole way of life, which, rightly or wrongly, she wanted to live in her own Southern way; and she passionately resented the invasion of her soil. This gave her army a very high morale, which, in its turn, inclined her soldiers the better to appreciate their real or imagined advantages over the Northern hosts. First, they and their enemies both knew that they enjoyed the three real advantages of fighting at home under magnificent leaders and with interior lines. Robert Lee and Stonewall Jackson stood head and shoulders above any Northern leaders till Grant and Sherman rose to greatness during the latter half of the war.

Lee himself was never surpassed; and he, like Jackson and several more, made the best use of home surroundings and of interior lines. Anybody can appreciate the prime advantage of interior lines by imagining two armies of equal strength operating against each other under perfectly equal conditions except that one has to move around the circumference of a circle while the other moves to meet it along the shorter lines inside.

Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson

The army moving around the circumference is said to be operating on exterior lines, while the army moving from point to point of the circumference by the straighter, and therefore shorter, lines inside is said to be operating on interior lines. In more homely language the straight road beats the crooked one. In plain slang, it’s best to have the inside track.

Of course, there is a reverse to all this. If the roads, rails, and waterways are better around the circle than inside it, then the odds may be turned the other way; and this happens most often when the forces on the exterior lines are the better provided with sea-power.

Again, if the exterior forces are so much stronger than the interior forces that these latter dare not leave any strategic point open in case the enemy breaks through, then it is evident that the interior forces will suffer all the disadvantages of being surrounded, divided, worn out, and defeated.

This happened at last to the South and was one of the four advantages she lost. Another was the hope of foreign intervention, which died hard in Southern hearts, but which was already moribund halfway through the war. A third was the hope of dissension in the North, a hope which often ran high till Lincoln’s reelection in November, ’64, and one which only died out completely with the surrender of Lee. The fourth was the unfounded belief that Southerners were the better fighting men.

They certainly had an advantage at first in having a larger proportion of men accustomed to horses and arms and inured to life in the open. But, other things being equal, there was nothing to choose between the two sides, so far as natural fighting values were concerned.

Practically all the Southern “military males” passed into the ranks; and a military male eventually meant anyone who could march to the front or do non-combatant service with an army, from boys in their teens to men in their sixties. Conscription came after one year; and with very few exemptions, such as the clergy, Quakers, many doctors, newspaper editors, and “indispensable” civil servants. Lee used to express his regret that all the greatest strategists were tied to their editorial chairs. But sterner feelings were aroused against that recalcitrant State Governor, Joseph Brown of Georgia, who declared eight thousand of his civil servants to be totally exempt. From first to last, conscripts and volunteers, nearly a million men were enrolled: equaling one-fifth of the entire war-party white population of the seceding States.

Conquered Banner of the Confederacy

Conquered Banner of the Confederacy.

All branches of the service suffered from a constant lack of arms and munitions. As with the ships for the navy so with munitions for the army, the South did not exploit the European markets while her ports were still half open and her credit good, Jefferson Davis was spotlessly honest, an able bureaucrat, and full of undying zeal. But, though an old West Pointer, he was neither a foresightful organizer nor fit to exercise any of the executive power which he held as the constitutional commander-in-chief by land and sea. He ordered rifles by the thousand instead of by the hundred thousand, and he actually told his Cabinet that if he could only take one wing while Lee took the other they would surely beat the North. Worse still, he and his politicians kept the commissariat under civilian orders and full of civilian interference, even at the front, which, in this respect, was always a house divided against itself.

The little regular army of ’61, only sixteen thousand strong, stood by the Union almost to a man; though a quarter of the officers went over to the South. Yet the enlisted man was despised even by the common loafers who would not fight if they could help it. “Why don’t you come in?” asked a zealous lady at a distribution of patriotic gifts, “aren’t you one of our heroes?” “No, ma’am,” answered the soldier, “I’m only a regular.”

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