Chapter 1:

  • Causes of the War
  • -- principles of the Union -- State-rights and secession -- slavery -- immediate and gradual emancipation -- Douglas and Lincoln -- War imminent -- the South responsible -- a slander refuted -- McClellan always for the Union -- enters the service -- made major-general of volunteers in Ohio.

When the occurrences at Fort Sumter in April, 1861, aroused the nation to some appreciation of the gravity of the situation, I was engaged in civil life as president of the Eastern Division of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, having resigned my commission as a captain of cavalry in January, 1857. My residence was then in Cincinnati, and the fact that I had been in the army threw me in contact with the leading men of the State. My old army associations had placed me in intimate relations with many Southern men, and I had travelled much in the South, so that I was, perhaps, better prepared to weigh the situation than the majority of Northern men. So strongly was I convinced that war would ensue that when, in the autumn of 1860, I leased a house in Cincinnati for the term of three years, I insisted upon a clause in the lease releasing me from the obligation in the event of war.

The general current of events during the winter, and many special instances of outrage or insult offered to unoffending Northern travellers in the Southwest (coming to my knowledge as a railway official), reduced this impression to a certainty in my mind, even before the firing upon Sumter.

After all that has been said and written upon the subject, I suppose none now doubt that slavery was the real knot of the question and the underlying cause of the war. It is now easy to perceive how the war might have been avoided if for two or [30] three generations back all the men of both sections had been eminently wise, calm, unselfish, and patriotic. But with men as they are, it would be difficult indeed to indicate how a permanent pacific solution could have been reached. It is no doubt true that events were precipitated, perhaps rendered inevitable, by the violent course of a comparatively small number of men, on both sides of the line, during the thirty years preceding the war.

But it is the distinct lesson of history that this is always so; that the great crises in the world's history are induced by the words and actions of a few earnest or violent men, who stir up the masses and induce them blindly to follow their lead, whether for good or evil. As a rule the masses of civilized men, if left to themselves, are not prone to disturb the existing order of things or to resort to violent measures, unless suffering under intense evils which come home to each man individually and affect either his personal safety or personal possessions and prosperity; and even in such cases spontaneous uprisings of the masses are rare.

In our own case the people of the two sections did not understand each other before the war, and probably neither section regarded the other as seriously in earnest. The wide difference existing in social organization and habits had much to do with this.

In the South the habit of carrying, and using on slight provocation, deadly weapons, the sparse settlement of the country, the idle and reckless habits of the majority of the illiterate whites, the self-assertion natural to the dominant race in a slave-holding country, all conspired to impress them with an ill-founded assumption of superior worth and courage over the industrious, peaceful, law-abiding Northerners. On the other hand, the men of the North had become somewhat habituated to the boastful assertions too common among the Southerners, and had learned to believe that no real purpose of using force lay concealed beneath their violent language. Both were mistaken. The Southerner, with all his gasconading, was earnest in his intention to fight to the last for slavery and the right of secession. The peaceful Northerner, unaccustomed to personal warfare and prone to submit his disputes to the regular ordeal of law, was ready to lay down his life for the cause of the Union. [31]

More gallant foes never met on the field of battle than these men of the same race, who had so long lived under the ample folds of the same flag; more desperate battles were never fought than those now about to occur. The military virtues of patriotism, patience, endurance, self-abnegation, and heroism were about to receive their most striking illustrations.

In judging the motives of men at this great crisis it must be remembered that the vast majority of Southern men had been educated in the doctrine of secession and of extreme State-rights — which is, that allegiance was due first to the State, next to the general government, and that the State when it entered the Union retained the right to withdraw at will; while in the North the doctrine was generally held that allegiance to the general government was paramount and the Union indissoluble. The masses on each side were honest in their belief as to the justice of their cause. Their honesty and sincerity were proved by the sacrifices they made, by the earnestness with which so many devout Christians on both sides confidently relied upon the aid of God in their hour of trial, and by the readiness with which so many brave men laid down their lives on the field of battle.

When the generation which took part in this contest shall have passed away, and the question can be regarded in the cold light of dispassionate historical and philosophical inquiry, it will be clearly seen that in this case also history has repeated itself, and that the truth lay midway between the extreme positions assumed by the controlling spirits at the time. The right of secession would virtually have carried us back to the old Confederacy, which proved so weak from lack of cohesion between its parts and of the necessary force in the executive. The tendency of Northern Republicans was towards a centralized power, under which the autocracy of the States would disappear.

It is impossible for any government to recognize the right of secession unless its assertion is supported by such overwhelming force as to render opposition entirely hopeless, and thus practically convert rebellion into successful revolution. There can be no stability, no protection of person and property, no good government, no power to put down disorder at home or to resist oppression from without, under any other principle.

On the other hand, in a country so vast as ours, with such [32] great differences of topography and of climate, with a population so numerous and derived from such a variety of sources, and, in consequence of all this, such diversities of habits, local laws, and material interests, it is impossible for a centralized government to legislate satisfactorily for all the domestic concerns of the various parts of the Union.

The only safe policy is that the general government be strictly confined to the general powers and duties vested in it by the old Constitution, while the individual States preserve all the sovereign rights and powers retained by them when the constitutional compact was formed.

As a corollary from this I am convinced that no State can be deprived of any of these retained rights, powers, and duties without its own consent; and that the power of amending the Constitution was intended to apply only to amendments affecting the manner of carrying into effect the original provisions of the Constitution, but not to enable the general government to seize new power at the expense of any unwilling State.

A strict adherence in practice to this theory presents, in my opinion, the only possibility of the permanent maintenance of our Union throughout the long years of the future.

The old Southern doctrine of extreme State-rights, including that of secession, would reduce the Union to a mere rope of sand, and would completely paralyze the general government, rendering it an object of just contempt at home and abroad.

The doctrine of centralization, if carried to its legitimate conclusions, in substituting the legislation of the general government for that of the States in regard to the local and domestic affairs of the people, would soon cause so much discontent and suffering as to result in a resort to secession as the only practical remedy. And in this case the Union could only be maintained by the superior force of a strong military central government, thus rendering the Union valueless for its great object of securing the liberties of the people.

In the course of my narrative the fact will appear — a fact well known to all who intelligently followed the events of the time-that, at the beginning of the great civil war, the general government was powerless, both in the East and West, to maintain its rights and vindicate its authority, and that the means to accomplish these vital ends were furnished by the individual States, [33] acting in their capacity as sovereigns. The history of that period is the best possible vindication of the Northern doctrine of State-rights.

And no impartial observer of the events of the war can fail to see that all the subsequent violations of the Constitution and of the rights of the loyal States, by the general government, were not only wholly unnecessary but positively pernicious at the time. The safety of the republic at no time during the war required or justified any departure from the provisions of the Constitution. That great instrument was broad enough to cover even the necessities of that most eventful period. The loyalty of the great masses of the Northern people was so marked and so strong that they could be trusted far more than most of the selfish servants whom a minority had placed in power. The happiest condition of affairs for us would no doubt be found in a return to the situation before the war, when the action of the general government, being strictly confined to its legitimate purposes, was so little felt by individual citizens that they almost forgot its existence, and were almost unaware that there was any other government in the land than those of the States and municipalities,

Soon after my arrival in Washington in 1861 I had several interviews with prominent abolitionists — of whom Senator Sumner was one--on the subject of slavery. I invariably took the ground that I was thoroughly opposed to slavery, regarding it as a great evil, especially to the whites of the South, but that in my opinion no sweeping measure of emancipation should be carried out, unless accompanied by arrangements providing for the new relations between employers and employed, carefully guarding the rights and interests of both; and that were such a measure framed to my satisfaction I would cordially support it. Mr. Sumner replied — others also agreed with him — that such points did not concern us, and that all that must be left to take care of itself. My reply was that no real statesman could ever contemplate so sweeping and serious a measure as sudden and general emancipation without looking to the future and providing for its consequences; that four and a half millions of uneducated slaves should not suddenly be manumitted without due precautions taken both to protect them and to guard against them; that just there was the point where we differed radically and probably irreconcilably. [34]

My own view was that emancipation should be accomplished gradually, and that the negroes should be fitted for it by certain preparatory steps in the way of education, recognition of the rights of family and marriage, prohibition against selling them without their own consent, the freedom of those born after a certain date, etc. I was always prepared to make it one of the essential conditions of peace that slavery should be abolished within a fixed and reasonable period. Had the arrangements of the terms of peace been in my hands I should certainly have insisted on this.

During the autumn of 1861, after arriving in Washington, I discontinued the practice of returning fugitive slaves to their owners.

In Western Virginia, after Pegram's surrender, when I had been directed to parole the prisoners, I collected the large number of negro slaves captured with their masters, and gave them their choice as to returning with the latter, remaining in camp under pay as laborers, or going North. With one or two exceptions they decided to return with their masters. From that time forward I never returned a negro slave to his master, although many such requisitions were made on me. I followed the principle that there could be no slave in my camp.

On the Peninsula I not only received all negroes who came to the camps, but (especially when on the James river) frequently sent out parties to bring in negroes, because I required them for certain work around the camps and depots too severe for white men in that climate. They were employed upon police work, loading and unloading transports, etc., and sometimes upon entrenchments. They were fed and received some small wages. As a rule much strictness was necessary to make them work; they supposed that in leaving their masters they left all labor behind them, and that they would be clothed, fed, and allowed to live in idleness in the North. That was their only idea of liberty. It was very clear that they were entirely unfit for sudden emancipation and the reception of the electoral franchise, and should have been gradually prepared for it.

While on this subject I must say that, although I was a strong Democrat of the Stephen A. Douglas school, I had no personal political ambition. I knew nothing about “practical politics,” had never even voted except for Douglas, and during the whole [35] period of my command I never did or wrote anything, or abstained from doing or writing anything, in view of its political effect upon myself. My ambition was fully gratified by the possession of the command of the army, and, so long as I held that, nothing would have induced me to give it up for the Presidency. Whenever I wrote anything of a political nature it was only with the hope of doing something towards the maintenance of those political principles which I honestly thought should control the conduct of the war. In fact, I sacrificed my own interests rather than acquiesce in what I thought wrong or impolitic. The President and his advisers made a great mistake in supposing that I desired political advancement.

Many of the Democratic leaders did me great harm by using my name for party purposes without my knowledge or consent; and, without intending it, probably did more than my armed enemies in the way of ruining my military career by giving the administration some reason to suppose that in the event of military success I might prove a dangerous political rival.

Regarding, as I did, the restoration of the Union and preservation of the national life to be the great object of the war, I would, no doubt, have acquiesced in any honorable measure absolutely necessary to bring about the desired result, even to the forcible and general abolition of slavery, if found to be a military necessity. I recognized the fact that as the Confederate States had chosen to resort to the arbitrament of arms, they must abide by the logical consequences of the stern laws of war. But, as I always believed that we should fight to bring them back into the Union, and should treat them as members of the Union when so brought back, I held that it was a matter of sound policy to do nothing likely to render ultimate reconciliation and harmony impossible, unless such a course were imperative to secure military success. Nor do I now believe that my ideas were quixotic or impracticable.

Since the war I have met many of my late antagonists, and have found none who entertained any personal enmity against me. While acknowledging, with Lee and other of their generals, that they feared me more than any of the Northern generals, and that I had struck them harder blows when in the full prime of their strength, they have all said that I fought them like a gentleman [36] and in an honorable way, and that they felt nothing but respect for me.

I remember very well, when riding over the field of South Mountain, that, passing by a severely wounded Confederate officer, I dismounted and spoke with him, asking whether I could do anything to relieve him. He was a lieutenant-colonel of a South Carolina regiment, and asked me if I was Gen. McClellan; and when I said that I was Gen. McClellan, he grasped my hand and told me that he was perfectly willing to be wounded and a prisoner for the sake of taking by the hand one whom all the Confederates so honored and admired. Such things happened to me not unfrequently, and I confess that it gave me no little pleasure to find that my antagonists shared the feelings of my own men for me.

To revert to politics for a moment: Then residing in Chicago I knew Mr. Stephen A. Douglas quite well. During his campaign for the senatorship against Mr. Lincoln they were on one occasion to hold a joint discussion at Bloomington, and, as my business called me in that direction, I invited Mr. Douglas to accompany me in my private car. We started late in the evening, and Mr. Douglas brought with him a number of his political henchmen, with whom he was up all night. We reached Bloomington early in the afternoon of the nest day, and about half an hour before arriving I warned Mr. Douglas, who had continued his amusements up to that time, not having slept at all. I dreaded a failure in the discussion about to take place, for the Little Giant certainly had had no opportunity of thinking of the subject of the debate, and did not seem to be in fit condition to carry it on. Not that he was intoxicated, but looking unkempt and sleepy. He, however, retired to my private cabin, and soon emerged perfectly fresh and ready for the work before him; so much so that I thought his speech of that day his best during the campaign.

Mr. Lincoln entertained a very high respect for Mr. Douglas's powers, and no doubt had the latter survived he would have exercised a great and most favorable influence upon Mr. Lincoln, as well as upon the Democratic party of the North. His death was a severe blow to the country. He would, in all probability, have been able to control the more flighty leaders of the Northwestern Democracy, and have kept the party in the eyes of [37] the world, as its masses really were, united in a hearty support of the war.

While giving due weight to all said or done by the ultra abolitionists of the North, I hold the South directly accountable for the war. If the election of Mr. Lincoln meant a more determined attack upon slavery, they of the South were responsible for the result, in consequence of their desertion of Mr. Douglas and the resulting rupture of the Democratic party. Even after that, if they had chosen to draw near the Northern Democrats again, seeking their remedy and protection within the Union, the Constitution, and the laws, they would have retained the right on their side. If left to their own cool judgment it is probable that the majority of the Southern whites would have realized that slavery could not exist much longer, and that their wisest course was to recognize that fact, consent that it should not be extended beyond its existing limits, and provide for its gradual extinction. But, for various reasons, more reckless counsels prevailed. The Southern States rallied to the support of their peculiar institution, declared it to be a holy ordinance, demanded that it might be extended over the Territories, and bitterly opposed the idea that general manumission should be provided for in any form. Thus a state of feeling arose, more particularly in the South, which could only be quieted by the drastic methods of war.

In the early part of 1861, as has already been stated, it became almost impossible for any Northern man to travel in the Southwest without being subjected to gross insults or to personal maltreated; this conduct soon produced a counter irritation, and, as for myself, I confess that ere long I came to the conclusion that there was but one way to put an end to such proceedings, and that the sooner we entered upon that way the better it would be. When Sumter was fired upon there was no longer room for discussion, and the question was narrowed to the issue of the life of the Union and the honor of the flag. For men who thought as I did there was but one course open.

It was clear that, even if a peaceable separation were arranged, we would soon come to blows on some secondary issue, such as boundaries, the division of public property, the slavery question on the borders, the free navigation of the Mississippi, the territorial domain, etc., etc., and in that view it was better [38] to throw everything else to one side and fight upon the main underlying issue — the preservation of the Union and the observance of the laws of the general government.

It is perhaps hardly worth while to notice here any of those unfounded slanders which some papers uttered concerning me — that is, the statement that at the outbreak of the war I entertained offers to enter the Southern service. I need only say that there was not the shadow of a foundation for this. The leading men on the Southern side knew perfectly well that of all men I would be the last to waver in my allegiance to the general government and its flag.

At no period, either before or after the war broke out, did any one suggest to me, either directly or indirectly, the idea of my taking part with the South. No one ever made me any offer to join the rebel service; no one ever suggested the possibility of my dreaming of espousing that side. I never, in any manner, intimated to any one that it would be possible for me to take any other side than that of the general government and the Union, nor did such a thought ever pass through my mind. I always stated distinctly that, should the apprehended crisis arrive, I should stand by the Union and the general government. I make this record because there have been people so foolish as to believe the statements made by radical newspapers to the effect that I had offered my services to the secessionists. Those papers must have known their statements to be entirely false and void of foundation, when they made them for the sole purpose of serving party political ends.

The secession of South Carolina, Dec. 20, 1860, was closely followed by that of six other States, and on the 8th of Feb., 1861, the Southern Confederacy was formally proclaimed and its president elected. But, without even awaiting the organization of the new Confederate government, the seceding States seized all the unprotected United States arsenals and fortifications within their limits, together with all the arms, stores, and munitions of war they contained. Forts Moultrie and Sumter in Charleston harbor, Fort Pickens at Pensacola, and the fortresses at Key West and Tortugas in Florida were about the only forts within the seceded States which remained in the possession of the general government.

How soon the work of organizing and instructing troops began [39] in the South will appear from the fact that as early as the 9th of Jan., 1861, an expedition for the relief of Fort Sumter was turned back by the fire of the Southern batteries near the entrance of Charleston harbor. About the same time the navy-yard at Pensacola was occupied by an armed force under Bragg, and the works at the mouth of the Mississippi garrisoned.

In brief, at least from the beginning of Jan., 1861, and probably in many cases yet earlier, the work of organizing, arming, and instructing troops began throughout the seceded States, and not improbably in such of the slaveholding States also as had not yet formally joined the movement of secession. As early as Feb. 18, Gen. Twiggs surrendered the forces under his command in Texas.

Meanwhile neither the general government nor the Northern States were doing anything to counteract this movement and meet the impending storm. Not only were there no additional troops raised, no steps taken to organize and arm the militia and volunteers, but, so far as the general government was concerned, the authorities seemed to dread even the semblance of a movement to reinforce the few forts still in their possession. The little regular army, scattered over the vast area of the West, was left without orders, and not even concentrated for self-defence, much less brought in where its services might be available against the active forces of the secessionists, as common prudence would have suggested, as early as the passage of the South Carolina ordinance of secession.

Such was the condition of affairs when Fort Sumter surrendered on the 14th of April, 1861. The general government and the Northern States were utterly unprepared for war; not a man enlisted, not a musket procured, not a cartridge made, not a piece of clothing or equipment provided, beyond those maintained during a state of profound and apparently permanent peace. The Southern States for nearly four months had been actively preparing for the eventuality they intended to force on, and had made no little headway in the collection of material, the organization and instruction of troops.

Moreover, on the breaking-out of hostilities they possessed another and very considerable advantage over the Northerners: that is to say, one of the results of the peculiar institution of the South was that the class of slaveholders, the highly educated [40] whites, had always composed an aristocracy, which furnished the social and political leaders to whom the poor whites were, as a rule, accustomed to defer, so that when the time arrived to raise troops the aristocratic class furnished officers always accustomed to control, and the poor whites furnished the mass of the private soldiers, always habituated to that deference to their leaders which under the new circumstances rapidly passed into obedience. Discipline was thus very easily established among them.

Among the Northern men there was little difficulty in establishing discipline when the officers were intelligent gentlemen; but, in the early part of the war particularly, it occurred that the officers were sometimes inferior in intelligence and education to the soldiers, and in these cases the establishment of discipline presented far greater difficulties.

Here let me say that, given good officers, there are no men in the world who admit of a more thorough and effective discipline than the native-born Americans of the North. Their intelligence soon shows them the absolute necessity of discipline in an army, and its advantages to all concerned; but the kind of discipline best adapted to them differs materially from that required by other races. Their fighting qualities are second to none in the world.

When the catastrophe occurred — the firing upon Fort Sumter--the excitement in Cincinnati and along the Ohio river was naturally intense. The formation of regiments began at once, and all who had military knowledge or experience were eagerly sought for, myself among others. I did what I could in the way of giving advice to those who sought it, and in allaying the excitement in Cincinnati. About this time I received telegrams from friends in New York informing me that the governor of that State desired to avail himself of my services; another from Gen. Robert Patterson, offering me the position of chief-engineer of the command of militia then organizing under his orders; and one from Gov. Curtin, of Pennsylvania, offering me the command of the Pennsylvania Reserves, afterwards given to McCall. I promptly arranged my business affairs so as to admit of a short absence, and started for Pennsylvania to see what was best to be done. At the request of several gentlemen of Cincinnati I stopped at Columbus to give Gov. Dennison some [41] information about the conditions of affairs in Cincinnati, intending to remain only a few hours and then proceed to Harrisburg.

According to the then existing laws of Ohio the command of the militia and volunteers called out must be given to general officers of the existing militia establishment. The legislature being in session, the governor caused to be presented a bill permitting him to appoint as major-general commanding, any resident of the State. This was intended for my benefit, was passed by both houses in a few hours, and the appointment offered to me the same day, the 23d of April, 1861. I at once accepted and without an hour's delay entered upon the performance of my duties, abandoning my intended trip to the East.

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