Guest Columns


“Resist manfully,” Johnny Reb! All the Rebels had to do was run out the clock

Contributing Columnist

In reflecting on the greatest Civil War battles prior to Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864/65, as well as upon public opinion in both the North and the South during that period, it’s truly bewildering that the Union didn’t “throw in the towel.” It takes nothing away from the courage and determination of the southern white people who constituted the Confederacy to say that they had the much less daunting task of the two warring sides.

With the exception of General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of a Confederate army at Ft. Donelson (1862), his snatching of victory from the “jaws of defeat” at Shiloh (1862), his military masterpiece to capture another Confederate army at Vicksburg (1863), and his equally impressive rescue of a besieged and hungry Union Army at Chattanooga (1863), the score was strongly favoring the Confederacy, even AFTER Gettysburg.

As ludicrous as this assertion (that the Confederacy had the easier task) might seem on its face, consider:

• Conventional wisdom at the time held that the Union had to invade, conquer and capture enemy armies and/or territory, and thereby “coerce” an unwilling population to rejoin the United States.

• Conversely, the Confederacy merely had to avoid losing, which it could by avoiding the above-mentioned defeat and destruction of its armies.

Thus, when major Union offensives were rebuffed at Manassas (McDowell-1861), outside of Richmond (McClellan-1862), at Manassas again (Pope-1862), at Fredericksburg (Burnside-1862), and at Chancellorsville (Hooker-1863), these Northern military failures vaulted the Confederacy to the brink of victory/independence/perpetual slavery. After all, “victory” for the South only required that the North lose its political will and give up sacrificing its human and economic resources to preserve (or reconstruct) the Union.

By contrast, the Union had to actually destroy both military and civilian infrastructure in the South. Generals Halleck, McClellan, and Meade squandered the true opportunities for Union victory, when they failed to pursue and destroy Beauregard’s Army of Tennessee after Shiloh in 1862 (Halleck’s fault*), Lee’s Army of Virginia after Antietam/Sharpsburg in 1862 (McClellan’s fault), and Lee’s Army again after Gettysburg (1863) (Meade’s fault**).

Those leaders with a sense of perspective understood the different measures of “victory” for the two sides.
President Abraham Lincoln stated repeatedly his preference for his generals to attack and defeat Confederate Armies rather than occupy Confederate soil. In fact, when Lincoln finally (and belatedly) fired McClellan, it was due to his refusal to pursue Lee’s battered forces into Virginia after Antietam. Likewise, he never fully forgave Meade for allowing Lee to once again escape after Gettysburg. Among the more famous of Lincoln’s papers is an unsent letter he wrote to Meade after his failure to pursue Lee — it is scathing and Lincoln’s frustration at the missed opportunity to end the rebellion is palpable — and Lincoln’s greatness is apparent not only in the draft, but in his innate human decency and sensitivity to Army morale, which gave rise to his decision not to send it to Meade.

After the defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln stated that, “if there’s a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” After the defeat at Chancellorsville, he lamented, “My God, my God! What will the country say?” After Lee escaped across the Potomac following Gettysburg, Lincoln cried, “Great God! What does this mean?... There is bad faith somewhere… Our Army held the war in the hollow of their hand & they would not close it.”

Lincoln began his unsent letter to Meade with congratulations for the victory at Gettysburg, but then he continued:

“My dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war.”

Lee, on the other hand had written a political prognosis for Southern victory to his wife in April, prior to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

“If we can baffle them in their various designs this year, next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go in on that basis. We have only therefore to resist manfully…[and] our success will be certain.”

While Vicksburg in particular, and also Gettysburg, were unmistakable Confederate military defeats, nonetheless, Lee’s April insights were still very much on target, because all the Confederacy had to do was hang on by “resist[ing] manfully.” And hope that Yankee generals would continue allowing Lee to escape.

*Although it was General Grant who chose not to immediately pursue Beauregard’s forces after Shiloh, that decision was based on the immediate need to regroup his own battered forces after an intense two-day battle. Halleck soon stepped in as commander of the forces Grant had marshaled to victory, and embarked on an excruciatingly slow and cautious crawl toward Beauregard’s regrouped forces in nearby Corinth, MS. Halleck’s hesitating and plodding tactics resulted in Beauregard sneaking his entire Confederate army out of Corinth while Halleck waited outside the city limits with what he thought was a successful siege.

** Like Grant after Shiloh, Meade can be excused for needing some time to “pick up the pieces” after a grueling three day battle at Gettysburg. Nonetheless, Lincoln (and many historians) faulted him for lingering too long and allowing Lee to eventually get his own battered army back across the Potomac to the “safety” of Virginia.

Patrick Teegarden is an award-winning columnist for The Colorado Statesman. He can be reached at