The Civil War: An American Iliad

This book by Otto Eisenschiml and Ralph Newman was originally The American Iliad: The Epic Story of the Civil War. You can download and read the original version for free here.

Like Richard Harwell’s The Union Reader and The Confederate Reader, this book relies on words of the participants to tell most of the story, though many of the accounts are postwar accounts, not written at the time of the action. In some areas it gives a discredited interpretation, such as this example advocating the “Blundering Generation” view of how the war came about: “It was brought about by a succession of errors in which the whole country shared.” [Introduction]

In this example, we see a factual error caused by what I see is laziness: “In contrast t Buchanan, influential Northern journals had foreseen the secession of South Carolina, and were in sympathy with it.” [p. 3] That’s not exactly right. There were some who were sympathetic, but more were not. The authors also think Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain “was a minister by profession.” [p. 342] As most students of the war know, Chamberlain was a college professor.

The authors provide an excerpt from Gideon Welles’ diary regarding Fort Sumter. “The President had been apprised of the condition of things at Sumter on the fourth of March, and a discussion took place at the first interview at the Executive Mansion. A general and very determined opinion was expressed that Fort Sumter ought to be and should be reinforced. General Scott declared this was impracticable. The President was averse to offensive measures and anxious to avoid them. In council, and in personal interviews with myself and others, he enjoined upon each and all to forbear giving any cause of offense. He desired that General Scott should prepare a statement, how far and long the garrison could maintain itself and repel an attack, if made. General Scott was decidedly opposed to any attempt to relieve Major Anderson. The Navy he was confident could not do it, and an army of at least 20,000 men would be necessary to effect it. We had no such army, and the government could not collect and arm one before the garrison would starve. In the almost daily discussions which for a time were held in regard to Sumter, the opposition to forwarding supplies gathered strength. The time had gone by. It was too late. The attempt would be attended with a useless sacrifice of blood and treasure. Postmaster General Blair took an opposite view. He warned the President that the abandonment of Sumter would be justly considered by the people, by the world, by history, as treason to the country. With the exception of Mr. Seward, all his colleagues had concurred with Mr. Blair at the commencement but, as the impossibility and inutility of the scheme was urged, with assurance from the first military men in the country that it was a military necessity to leave Sumter to its fate, our opinions changed.” [pp. 11-12] They also provide Major Robert Anderson’s pledge not to initiate hostilities in Charleston Harbor:

“Fort Sumter, S. C, April 12, 1861. General: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt by Colonel Chesnut of your second communication of the 11th instant, and to state in reply that, cordially uniting with you in the desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood, I will, if provided with the proper and necessary means of transportation, evacuate Fort Sumter by noon on the 15th instant, and that I will not in the meantime open my fires upon your forces unless compelled to do so by some hostile act against this fort or the flag of my government, by the forces under your command, or by some portion of them, or by the perpetration of some act showing a hostile intention on your part against this fort or the flag it bears, should I not receive prior to that time controlling instructions from my government or additional supplies. ROBERT ANDERSON, Commanding” [p. 17]

The authors quote an unnamed “Frenchman, residing in the North” as saying, “The Constitution, said the South, recognizes slavery, which is the base of our social and political organization.–No, cried the North, we tolerate slavery where it exists, but we contend against introducing it in the territories which are free.–Our fathers, said the South, founded a Union of sovereign states based upon self-government. We make use of our right, and we dissolve the Union.–The Union, replied the North, is based upon the perpetual renunciation by the states of certain rights of sovereignty. You have no right to dissolve the Union.–Above all, proclaimed the South, we owe allegiance to our respective States.–Above all, proclaimed the North, we owe allegiance to the Federal government.” [p. 34] That’s a pretty good job of encapsulating the basic arguments.

We hear from Joseph E. Johnston in his postwar account on why the confederates didn’t attack Washington, DC after the First Battle of Manassas. “My failure to capture Washington received strong and general condemnation. Many erroneously attributed it to the President’s prohibition; but he gave no orders and expressed neither wish nor opinion on the subject. The conditions forbade an attempt on Washington. The Confederate army was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat. Besides, the reasons for our course were unfitness of our raw troops for assailing entrenchments; the fortifications upon which skillful engineers had been engaged since April; the Potomac, a mile wide, bearing United States vessels of war, the heavy guns of which commanded the wooden bridges and southern shore. The Confederate army would have been two days in marching from Bull Run to the Federal entrenchments, with less than two days’ rations, or not more. It is asserted that the country could have furnished food and forage in abundance. Those who make this assertion forget that a large Federal army had passed twice over the route in question. As we had none of the means of besieging, an immediate assault upon the forts would have been unavoidable; it would have been repelled, inevitably, and our half supply of ammunition exhausted; and the enemy, increased by the army from Harpers Ferry, could have resumed their march to Richmond without opposition. And, if we had miraculously been successful in our assault, the Potomac still would have protected Washington and rendered our further progress impossible.” [pp. 60-61]

Oliver Wilcox Norton describes seeing George B. McClellan riding past the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac while they were at Harrison’s Landing after the Seven Days battles. “But the real man of the army is Little Mac. No general could ask for greater love and more unbounded confidence than he receives from his men, and the confidence is mutual. He is everywhere among his boys, as he calls them, and everywhere he is received with enthusiasm. He was here yesterday about noon. The boys were getting dinner or lounging about, smoking, reading or writing, when we heard a roar of distant cheers away a mile or more. ‘Little Mac’s a-coming,’ was on every tongue. The men flocked to the roadside. He rode slowly, looking as jovial and hearty as if he could not be more happy. Up go the caps, and three rousing cheers that make the old woods ring greet the beloved leader. He raises his cap in graceful acknowledgment and passes along. But what have we to say to the men who have been using their influence to prevent his being reinforced, to secure his defeat and in some way to so prolong the war as to make the abolition of slavery a military necessity? Curses loud and deep are heaped on such men. Ten thousand men have been sacrificed to that idea now, and the remainder demand that some other policy be adopted henceforth.” [p. 205]

When R. E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland in 1862, Federal soldiers found a copy of General Orders No. 191 lying in a field in Frederick, Maryland and thus the Federals had the disposition of Lee’s forces laid out for them. John Bloss, a soldier who claimed to have found the order, said, “On September 13, Company F, 27th Indiana, was placed on the skirmish line and reached the suburbs of Frederick. We threw ourselves upon the grass to rest. While lying there, I noticed a large envelope. It was not sealed and when I picked it up two cigars and a paper fell out. The cigars were readily divided and, while the needed match was being secured, I began to read the enclosed document. As I read, each line became more interesting. It was Lee’s order to his army giving his plans for the next four days from that time and, if true, was exceedingly important. I carried it back to the captain of our company and together we took it to the colonel. He was at that time talking to General Nathan Kimball. They read it with the same surprise which I had felt and immediately started with it to General McClellan.” [p. 250]

Also in 1862 the western army was on the move. Newspaperman Albert D. Richardson was with them. “Grant impressed me as possessing great purity, integrity and amiability, with excellent judgment and boundless pluck. But I should never have suspected him of military genius. However, nearly every man of whom, at the beginning of the war, I prophesied a great career proved inefficient, and vice versa. Hooker once boasted that he had the best army of the planet. One would have declared that Grant commanded the worst. There was little of order, perfect drill or pride, pomp and circumstance, but Grant’s rough, rugged soldiers would fight wonderfully and were not easily demoralized. If their line became broken, every man, from behind a tree, rock or stump, blazed away at the enemy on his own account. They did not throw up their hats at sight of their general, but they were wont to remark, with a grim smile, ‘There goes the old man. He doesn’t say much; but he’s a pretty hard nut for Johnny Reb to crack.’ ” [p. 276]

At the Battle of Stones River, Union Private Henry Castle was made his unit’s sergeant major and talks about that position. “I soon found that the position of sergeant major in a battle is no sinecure. A staff officer dashes up with an order for the major commanding the regiment, stationed behind a tree a little to the rear. The major calls to the adjutant behind a smaller tree on his right who communicates the order to the sergeant major. He, while the bullets hum like a swarm of bees around his head, gets the order, then runs to each company commander, shakes him up and shouts it into his ear, before the line could be moved. I was the sergeant major!” [p. 301]

We don’t normally hear of the use of balloons after 1862, but in this book we read the account of Huntington W. Jackson, who says he ascended in a balloon and was able to observe Lee’s army on the move at the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign in June of 1863. “One afternoon the writer made a balloon ascension for the purpose of reporting whether any movement could be detected across the river. A mile or more back from the shore, the entrenchments of the enemy could be plainly distinguished, and one glance in this direction through the powerful field glass told the whole story. Marching toward the left flank were seen long columns of infantry, artillery and wagon trains. The rumor of a movement had become a demonstrated fact.” [p. 458]

William S. Rosecrans was conducting a campaign in the west in 1863 as well. Charles A. Dana was with Rosecrans, and we have his observations. “In the midst of all his difficulties General Rosecrans dawdled with trifles in a manner which scarcely can be imagined. Precious time was lost because our dazed and muzzy commander could not perceive the catastrophe that was close upon us, nor fix his mind on the means of preventing it. Our animals were starving, the men had starvation before them, and the enemy was bound soon to make desperate efforts to dislodge us. Yet the commanding .general devoted that part of the time which was not employed in pleasant gossip to the composition of a long report, to prove that the government was to blame for his failure on September 20. I have never seen a public man possessing less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He had inventive fertility and knowledge, but his mind scattered; there was no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights, no courage against individuals in his composition and, with great love of command, he was a feeble commander.” [p. 528]

1864 came about, and one of the famous campaigns was William T. Sherman’s campaign to take Atlanta. According to Sherman, “The great question of the campaign was one of supplies. Nashville, our chief depot, was itself partially in a hostile country, and even the routes from Louisville to Nashville had to be guarded. Chattanooga, our starting point, was 136 miles in front of Nashville, and every foot of the way had to be strongly guarded against a hostile population and the enemy’s cavalry.” [p. 605]

The book has two major weaknesses. First, they uncritically accept the postwar writings, which in many cases had a subsidiary goal of burnishing the writers’ reputations. Secondly, they don’t give us a good citation of where the excerpts can be found in the primary sources. That makes the book not useful for serious students of the war, but if one is only interested in reading a series of accounts by the participants, the book will serve that purpose.


#ThanksFrank  #Beamerball280

One comment

  1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Most every CW buff will recognize the name Otto Eisenschiml for his highly controversial 1938 book, “Why was Lincoln Murdered? Ralph Newman? Well … not so much. He opened a book shop on the near North Side during the Depression and renamed it The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in 1938. He was also one of the charter members of the Chicago Civil War Round Table in 1940 and the group met in his shop for many years. The Chicago CWRT, by the way, was the first in the United States. Newman was an acknowledged expert on historic documents and appraised the Presidential papers of Hoover, Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. His appraisal of Nixon’s papers got him in trouble in the 70s when he worked a deal with “Tricky Dick” to inflate the value of Nixon’s stuff. Newman was found guilty in Federal court but I do not know if he ever did any jail time. It hurt his reputation and he was never again asked to evaluate any other Presidential papers.

    The shop is still there, on West Chicago Avenue between Sedgwick and Orleans. My father-in-law had a photo studio on Ontario just about four blocks south of there. My first time in the store was around 1990. I remember that I bought a first edition set of “Lee’s Lieutenants,” which I still have. CW stuff back then, even antiques, was pretty cheap. IIRC, I paid something like $50 for the 3-volume set. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were in Chicago and I stopped in. Anyone in the Chicago area should stop in. Whether you buy anything or not, it’s just a great place to visit and browse. It’s like a book store and a museum all in one.

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