CIVIL WAR: Building an Army from Scratch and Losing a Lynchpin Soldier

By Steele, Dennis | Army, June 2011 | Go to article overview

CIVIL WAR: Building an Army from Scratch and Losing a Lynchpin Soldier


Steele, Dennis, Army


Wten the flag of the Confederate States of America was hauled above Fort Sumter, S.C., the federal army numbered a few more than 14,000 Regular Army soldiers present for duty. More than three-quarters of its combat units were serving on the frontier to protect continued American westward settlement along a line from Kansas to the Rio j Grande in Texas, with a handful of soldiers garrisoned in the gold -boom state of California and the new territories of the Southwest.

When Fort Sumter fell, federal combat power in the East (mostly coastal artillery garrisons) that could have been quickly hurled at the secessionists is estimated to have been less than the troop equivalent of one infantry battalion today.

The United States Army in 1861 was small, and promotions were stagnant. The uniformed chain of command was petrified at its upper levels. LTG Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812, had served as the general in chief for four decades, and the heads of all but one of the War Department's various second-tier divisions were 1812 veterans as well. In May 1861, however, the U.S. Army's promotion picture was about to open up.

Middle officer grades generally were occupied by men who received their commissions as lieutenants in the Mexican War. Robert E. Lee was one of them. Lee was considered among the best - if not the best - in the Army officer corps, but it had taken 17 years for him to go from captain to lieutenant colonel, and he had to switch branches to achieve that rank. Lee had been brevetted to colonel and served as the Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy in that capacity, but he sought to escape the especially slow promotions in his branch (Engineer). In 1855, he gained a Cavalry lieutenant colonel's commission and second-in-command slot in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which was stationed in Texas and fighting Comanches.

Lee served four years in Texas before the Civil War, in the 2nd Cavalry and, later, as head of the Department of Texas, with his tours broken up by an extended leave of absence (about two years) to handle family matters at his Arlington, Va., home. While on leave, he led the Marine Corps detachment that subdued and arrested John Brown at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., with ILT J.E.B. (Jeb) Stuart at his side.

In February 1861, when Texas seceded, Scott recalled Lee to Washington and gave him a colonel's commission in anticipation of the portending conflict following Abraham Lincoln's election. Arriving at his family mansion, Arlington House, inherited by his wife, Anna Custis Lee, and overlooking the White House and Capitol, COL Lee landed in the eye of the storm - personally and in the larger strategic sense of the situation at hand.

Washington, D.C, was already becoming a military city. In a succession of call-ups, a total of 24 companies of volunteers from the District of Columbia were raised to secure the city for Lincoln's inauguration and meet continuing threats amid the escalating situation at Fort Sumter and other southern federal facilities under siege.

In the aftermath of South Carolina's secession - quickly followed by the secession of six other states of the Deep South - an immediate political concern of the newly inaugurated Lincoln was keeping other slaveholding states from joining the flight. The President had to try to isolate the knot of states that formed the nascent Confederate States of America and keep it as far as possible from the doorstep of his capital.

Virginia, Lee's native state, where his roots ran deep, was vastly important. It was a big and powerful state, and other states were watching its accelerating pace to join the Confederacy. It was separated from Washington only by the Potomac River, and potential gun positions commanded the capital from Arlington Heights. If Maryland, a slaveholding state encompassing the capital from the north, also joined the Confederacy, the city would be surrounded.

As the Lincoln administration watched what Maryland and, especially, Virginia would do, Lee was watching, too.

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CIVIL WAR: Building an Army from Scratch and Losing a Lynchpin Soldier
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