Friday, June 03, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XV: Tell Me How This Thing Works


The month of April and May in 1861 were a very confused -- and confusing -- time. No one was entirely sure what was happening on the ground in some of the border states, least of all the poor folks that lived there.

Take Missouri for example. Missouri's pro-Secession Governor, Claiborne Jackson, called a convention after the initial rush of seceding slave states to consider joining the Confederacy. The convention so convened voted quite convincingly against secession. The Governor wasn't happy with that answer, but there wasn't much he could do about it. Then, after Fort Sumter, the Governor rejected President Lincoln's call for volunteers. Not only that, but after a secessionist mob seized the U.S. Arsenal in Liberty, Missouri, Governor Jackson called out the state militia and put secessionist officers in charge. Then, Captain Nathaniel Lyon of the U.S. Army captured a fair number of said secessionist militia at Camp Jackson ... and all Hell broke loose.

The secessionists failed to make much headway in Missouri, but Governor Jackson got away, with a "government-in-exile" of sorts. Technically, I suppose you could say that Missouri belonged both to the Union and the Confederacy. It was a God-awful mess all around. It was like this all through the border states, particularly in Missouri, parts of Tennessee, and in the northwestern part of Virginia. There was fighting between ardent pro-secessionists, and equally ardent Unionists, but quite often it wasn't really about Secession or Union. All politics is local, after all, and there were a lot of cases where the crisis gave people a semi-legitimate reason to do something they might have wanted to do for decades...

"What's that? That damn wheelbarrow-stealing bastard Jenkins is a secessionist? Well, I reckon that makes me a UNION MAN! Come on boys, get yer squirrel guns!"

Later on, they'd tell their grandchildren about their ardor for liberty and Union, but if they were being honest with themselves, a lot of it in those confused early days was good old-fashioned score-settling. And some of that score-settling wouldn't end for years after the war was officially over...

But not all of the fighting was unorganized. There were a few men who were working according to a plan. Major General George McClellan was one such man. He had the command of the Department of the Ohio, headquartered in Cincinnati. McClellan was a West Point man, and had been generally successful at everything he did. Among other things, he had re-written the Army's cavalry manual, invented a new saddle, and surveyed several railroad routes. He had actually resigned from the Army in 1857 to work for the Illinois Central Railroad. He had also worked for the Ohio and Missouri railroad, so he knew well the importance of the railroad to keeping an army well-supplied. With Virginia seceded, part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was now in enemy territory. This was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to continue. Also, McClellan had good reason to believe that this part of Virginia was of a strongly pro-Union sentiment, and he could count on considerable local support.

McClellan ordered Colonel Benjamin Kelley to take his troops south, and secure the line of the B&O Railroad. This area of Virginia was only lightly defended, being that no one really expected a major attack here. There's a pretty good reason for that. Northwestern Virginia was a rough, hilly place. It's hard to move men and supplies. The Confederates holding this ground were at the end of a fairly long supply chain, while Col. Kelley would be fairly close to his base. And, if he could seize and hold the railroad, resupply would be fairly simple.

The Battle of Phillipi was a fairly small affair, all told. Some called it the "Phillipi Races", because the Confederates didn't do a whole lot of fighting, and did a lot more running. They were outflanked, outnumbered, and badly outgunned. Only four Union men were killed out of about two thousand, while the Confederates lost 26 of about 800 defenders.

At the time it was dismissed as inconsequential. But there were two important facts about this skirmish. For one, it was the first engagement between regular Federal and regular Confederate forces in an open pitched battle. And for another, it marked the beginning of the long, slow campaign that would proceed down the Ohio river to the Mississippi, and then from the Gulf of Mexico northward, meeting somewhere in the middle. The Union controlled the railroads along the Ohio River, and this would never be seriously threatened by the Confederacy, although they would attempt raids throughout the rest of the war.

The Union was beginning to execute its grand strategy. Would the Confederacy ever have an answer?

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