Civil War Questions Even History Buffs Don't Know The Answers To

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The American Civil War is an immense topic. You can study it your whole life and still not know more than a fraction of what there is to know about this epic conflict. That, of course, is part of its fascination: studying it is like reading a great novel that goes on for millions of pages.

You might fancy yourself well-versed on the topic - you know your Gettysburg from your Antietam, your Jackson from your Longstreet, your Seward from your Stanton. You might be able to quote Lincoln's Second Inaugural from memory or hold forth on the unique properties of the rifled musket and the Minié ball. Still, inevitably, there's more to learn. Here are the answers to some questions even Civil War buffs may be scratching their heads about.

  • Did The Union Have A Submarine Too?
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    91 VOTES

    Did The Union Have A Submarine Too?

    With such limited resources compared with their opponents, Confederates sometimes relied on technical innovation to aid their cause. This was especially the case with the naval conflict, where Confederates could not hope to match the Union in sheer tonnage of ships produced. Two of the most famous Confederate naval innovations were the ironclad warship, CSS Virginia, and the submarine, H.L. Hunley.

    The Union, of course, was not sitting idly by while these Southern innovations took to the waves. Famously, the USS Monitor was built around the same time the Virginia was being retrofitted with iron plating, and the two ships clashed at the Battle of Hampton Roads. (As the war developed, superior Northern industrial capacity allowed them to build more than 80 ironclads.) Similarly, the North got into the submarine game as well.

    The USS Alligator was designed by French engineer Brutus de Villeroi, who had been working on submersible craft for some 30 years. (The concept of a submarine was not new; there was even a primitive one employed in the American War of Independence. Such a vehicle was, however, a long way from the 20th-century behemoths we associate with the word.)

    Based on an 1859 prototype, the Alligator was commissioned in 1861 as part of the same flurry of naval innovation that saw the creation of the ironclad Monitor. Among its noteworthy features was an innovative air-purification system that used limewater to remove carbon dioxide and keep the air breathable for long periods. The sub had a 16-man crew, later reduced to eight.

    The Alligator was deployed to remove obstructions in Charleston Harbor in advance of an attack by a Union ironclad fleet, but on April 2, 1863, while being towed to nearby Port Royal, SC, it was lost in a gale. Its wreckage was never recovered.

    91 votes
  • Why Was Fort Sumter Attacked And Not Another Fort?
    Photo: Mike Goad (after George Edward Perine) / Flickr / Public domain
    87 VOTES

    Why Was Fort Sumter Attacked And Not Another Fort?

    A great deal of uncertainty existed during the lame-duck period of James Buchanan’s presidency, from November 1860 to March 1861. As some people scrambled to find a way to save the Union, others hurried to establish a Confederate government that could hold off Federal incursions. Some major Southern states were slow to secede - Virginia, the most populous and the future seat of the Confederate government, did not even secede until after the battle of Fort Sumter.

    A key flashpoint in this period was the status of Federal forts in Southern states. Although the Confederacy always claimed it merely wished to be let alone, it could not persuasively claim sovereignty while allowing multiple “foreign” forts to sit unmolested in its territory. And Buchanan, though largely indecisive - to a degree that has seen him consistently ranked one of the worst presidents of all time - did at least refuse to cede those forts to the South.

    But during that Secession Winter, overwhelming force of Confederate arms settled the question in most cases. Georgia seized Fort Pulaski on January 3; Alabama seized the US arsenal at Mount Vernon the day after, and Forts Morgan and Gaines the day after that. On January 6, Florida seized the Apalachicola arsenal, and, on January 7, Fort Marion, in St. Augustine. (The ranking officer there refused to surrender until he had been given a receipt.) In Texas, Fort Brown and the Federal arsenal in San Antonio were abandoned by US officers who felt they had no hope of defending them against state militias.

    Fort Moultrie, in South Carolina, was also seized, on December 26, 1860. But its commander, Major Robert Anderson, on his own initiative, had already relocated his garrison, under cover of night, to the more defensible Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

    These fort seizures could all have been considered Confederate acts of aggression, but they didn’t trigger a full-scale war - partly because they all occurred without shots being fired, and partly because Buchanan, whose stated position was that the Federal Government could take no action to curb secession, was still in the White House. Both of these things would be different when Sumter fell in April 1861.

    Buchanan did not order Anderson to surrender Sumter - partly because his cabinet threatened to resign if he did - but he also wasn’t willing to do much to help the besieged fort. He did order a relief ship, the Star of the West, to bring supplies, but it was chased away by Confederate guns on January 9.

    As the lone holdout, Sumter’s garrison became politically useful to the incoming Lincoln administration. By waiting for Confederate assaults to force its surrender, Lincoln could claim a casus belli and call for volunteers to fight the Confederacy from a more defensive standpoint.

    Essentially the reason Fort Sumter became the flashpoint is because it was the first Federal installation that held out against the Confederates until a bombardment, and that had a commander willing to do so. Anderson’s stealthy move from Moultrie to Sumter created a situation that Buchanan could not ignore, and forced South Carolina into giving Lincoln the pretext he needed for a full-fledged war on the Confederacy.

    87 votes
  • Why Did Lincoln Wait Two Years To Emancipate Enslaved People?
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    96 VOTES

    Why Did Lincoln Wait Two Years To Emancipate Enslaved People?

    From Abraham Lincoln’s point of view, the Civil War was fought with the primary objective of preserving the Union. He famously said this in an August 1862 letter to Horace Greeley:

    My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. 

    Unbeknownst to Greeley, Lincoln had, by that time, already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and was sitting on it until Union armies scored a significant victory.

    Upon taking office, Lincoln initially hoped for conciliation with the seceding states, and explicitly stated in his first inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

    Even after Fort Sumter, when hopes for reconciliation quickly faded, Lincoln believed the executive branch did not have authority to end slavery (this is why, in 1865, he backed the 13th Amendment to settle the question once and for all). In addition to this legalistic reason, Lincoln had a practical purpose not to come down hard on slavery: the institution still existed in four Union states (Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland) as well as in Washington, DC. Any forceful denunciation of slavery would threaten to drive the border states into the arms of the Confederacy, possibly tipping the balance too far in the South’s favor. 

    In a September 1861 letter to Senator Orville Browning, Lincoln wrote: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland.” (Lincoln wrote this letter to defend his negating John C. Frémont’s Missouri emancipation proclamation - a move that angered Northern abolitionists, one of whom, Wendell Phillips, called Lincoln a “first-rate second-rate man.”)

    In 1861, another general, Benjamin Butler, took a craftier approach to emancipation than Frémont had done. He allowed escaped enslaved people to shelter at Virginia's Fort Monroe and work for the Union military, on the grounds that they were “contraband of war,” and keeping them out of Confederates’ hands aided the Union war effort. 

    This line of thinking influenced Lincoln’s own Emancipation Proclamation the following year; it only applied to slaves in territories that were still currently in rebellion. Therefore, it didn’t actually free anyone upon its issuance. What it did do was provide a unified policy for Union military commanders to follow as they conquered Confederate territory. Thousands of refugees, for example, followed General William Sherman’s army as it marched through the South in 1864 (although, tragically, thousands were abandoned to die at Ebenezer Creek).

    Throughout the conflict, abolitionists complained that Lincoln wasn’t doing enough for those who were enslaved. But abolitionist Frederick Douglass reflected, years later, that Lincoln did about as well as could be expected of a man in his position. In an 1876 speech dedicating the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC, Douglass said:

    Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

    96 votes
  • What Was Done To Stop Disunion Before Lincoln's Inauguration?
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    51 VOTES

    What Was Done To Stop Disunion Before Lincoln's Inauguration?

    Simplified narratives of the Civil War tend to jump straight from secession to Fort Sumter. But that's an almost four-month period, and more than two months after South Carolina's secession elapsed under the lame-duck presidency of Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan. War was not, at this time, a foregone conclusion; Buchanan refused to mobilize against Southern states and nobody could predict what Lincoln would do once in office.

    Meanwhile, legislators were scrambling to find a peaceful solution. Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden, part of a 13-member Senate committee dedicated to saving the Union, proposed a compromise package involving six new Constitutional amendments and four Congressional resolutions designed to appease Southern states. A key provision of the compromise was that it would guarantee the existence of slavery in the South in perpetuity. Many backed the plan, but prominent Republicans - including Lincoln - did not, and it failed to pass. In any case, Southern senators were resigning from the US Senate in droves as their states withdrew from the Union, making any reconciliation seem that much less likely.

    A separate committee formed in the House of Representatives. Comprising 33 members, it submitted a proposal in January 1861. Like Crittenden's proposal, the plan, framed by Ohio congressman Thomas Corwin (a Republican), made certain concessions to Southern states, including an amendment to protect slavery where it existed. Like the Senate plan, the House proposal went nowhere.

    Another last-ditch effort was the Washington Peace Conference of February 1861, at which 131 prominent politicians (including former president John Tyler) met in Willard's Hotel to try to hash out a peace agreement. The delegates came at the invitation of the Virginia General Assembly, which was at the time vexed by the question of whether to join other Southern states in secession. (Virginia would not finally secede until after Fort Sumter surrendered in April.)

    The conference had dubious chances from the start; none of its delegates were from the Deep South, and Tyler felt its scope was limited to finding a way to keep other Southern states from seceding. The convention settled on a proposal not unlike the Crittenden Compromise, but nothing came of it, and the secession of Southern states continued.

    51 votes
  • How Many Southern-Born Officers Fought For The Union?
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    51 VOTES

    How Many Southern-Born Officers Fought For The Union?

    Many of the most prominent Confederate officers had served in the US Army prior to the Civil War, and resigned their commissions to fight for the breakaway nation. James Longstreet, James E.B. “Jeb” Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Pierre Gustave Toutant “PGT” Beauregard, and of course Robert E. Lee were all former West Pointers whose first military experience came in the service of the US. When secession happened, they faced a difficult decision about where to put their loyalties, and they went with their states.

    But it would be a mistake to suppose this was always the case. A number of Southern-born Army officers stayed with the Union. Perhaps the most famous was the Virginian George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, who may have been the Union’s best general after Ulysses S. Grant. (Thomas's own sister disowned him for his decision to stay with the Union.) Winfield Scott, the aging General-In-Chief who determined US strategy in the opening months of the conflict, was also a Virginian. Union General John C. Frémont, who issued the war's first Emancipation Proclamation in Missouri (it was quickly revoked by Lincoln), was born in Georgia and grew up in South Carolina.

    Sometimes it went the other way. General John C. Pemberton, for example, was a Pennsylvanian who joined the Confederacy because he had married a Virginian. He would command the garrison at Vicksburg, MS, ultimately surrendering it to a besieging force commanded by Grant. And Bushrod Johnson had been born to abolitionist Quakers in Ohio, but took up the Southern cause.

    Some 40% of Virginia-born Army officers stayed loyal to the Union. More than 30 Union generals were born in the South - and more than 30 Confederate generals were born in the North.

    51 votes
  • What Was The Last Time The South Could Have Won?
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    56 VOTES

    What Was The Last Time The South Could Have Won?

    Some people, like author Shelby Foote, have argued that the Confederacy was doomed from the start: the Northern advantage in men, materiel, and industrial capacity was simply too great for the Southern states to overcome. Indeed, in terms of raw numbers, it’s hard to dispute this. Not unlike the WWII conflict between the US and Japan, the Civil War began with a “sleeping giant” getting shocked awake by a string of defeats from an audacious opponent, but ended with that giant bringing its vastly superior resources to bear and utterly steamrolling its foe.

    Such arguments, however, assume a sustained commitment from the Union, something that cannot be guaranteed in a democracy. Lincoln, for his part, knew how much public opinion depended on the appearance of Union military success. Early in the war, he strove to keep the slaveholding border states from seceding, even quashing an emancipation proclamation by General John C. Fremont in Missouri. Much later, he feared that his losing the 1864 presidential election would likely mean victory for the Confederacy, famously writing that his successor “will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save [the Union] afterwards.”

    The best chance the Confederacy ever had was to secure foreign intervention from European nations like Britain and France. Confederates knew this, and put much hope in the economic power of their cotton exports to entice allies to their aid. Confederate diplomats repeatedly lobbied the French and British to come in on their side. However, once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, converting the war from a mere territorial squabble to a humanitarian enterprise, Confederate hopes for foreign aid essentially vanished.

    Lincoln, advised by his secretary of state William Seward to avoid making the Emancipation Proclamation seem like a desperate gambit, withheld it until the Union could claim a victory. This victory (tactically, it was actually more of a draw) turned out to be the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, where Union forces under General George McClellan stopped General Robert E. Lee’s incursion into Maryland and ended a string of Confederate victories in the Eastern Theater that had stretched all the way back to Bull Run.

    If Lee had smashed McClellan’s army at Antietam, this might have had the effect of both delaying the Emancipation Proclamation and further galvanizing support for the Confederacy within Britain and France. However, this was a slender chance at best: Lee’s army at Antietam was tired, hungry, beset by desertion, and heavily outnumbered. The army of Northern Virginia was lucky not to be destroyed that day; a triumphant victory against even the cautious McClellan would have been highly unlikely - though perhaps not impossible.

    Although Gettysburg, in July 1863, has been called the turning point of the war, even a Confederate victory there might not have changed much. Union fortunes in the Western Theater had fared well for more than a year, and General Ulysses S. Grant was about to capture Vicksburg. Lee might have been able to romp unopposed through Pennsylvania for a time until Northern forces reorganized, but he could not have marched on Washington: he had inadequate supplies for a siege, and Washington was by then on the way to becoming the most heavily fortified city in the world.

    The final chance, which, as noted, greatly worried Lincoln, was the presidential election of 1864. But would a Democratic victory really have saved the Confederacy? It is true that the Democratic platform called for “immediate efforts [to] be made for a cessation of hostilities,” but it said nothing about actually recognizing the Confederacy; instead, it proposed “an ultimate convention of the States” to resolve matters peaceably. The Democratic candidate, George McClellan, had himself led legions against the South and never supported his party’s peace platform.

    In any case, McClellan would not have taken office until March 1865, by which time, in our timeline, there was barely any Confederacy left to make terms with. Finishing the work would have been a trivial matter for a President McClellan - would he really give in to an already-defeated foe he had spent more than a year fighting? (A counterargument might be that, in a timeline where Lincoln lost, the war effort would necessarily have gone worse in the preceding months, perhaps with Sherman failing to capture Atlanta, and so the strategic situation by 1865 might not have been quite as dire for the South.)

    There are no definitive answers to the question of when (or if) the South might have won. But two moments stand out. The moment when the Confederacy lost even the tiniest sliver of hope was November 8, 1864, when Lincoln was reelected. But the end of any realistic hope came much earlier, on the banks of Antietam Creek.

    56 votes