Breaks in the Storm

By Matt Slattery
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the spring of 2001.

In the history of war much has been written of the drama, the excitement and the glory of battle. Little ink has been spilled to tell of the vast effort, mental and physical, of the preparation for battle. We will not burden you with it here, except to relate that three times during the Civil War these enormous efforts were made and there was no battle. Look at the good side of it from the soldiers’ standpoint: there were no casualties.

1: Following First Bull Run

Following the rout of the untrained Union troops at the First Battle of Bull Run, Gen. Joe Johnston’s troops advanced a few miles toward Washington and built massive earthen fortifications with embrasures for large cannon. General McClellan was brought east to properly prepare an army to drive them out. The ranks grew, the training went on — and on.

Lincoln and the Northern press demanded action, but the Little Napoleon was fearful of throwing his worshipful regiments against so imposing a target.

It could last no longer. In September 1861, the blue boys, 112,000 strong, marched out of the capital and grimly climbed the Confederate entrenchments. There was only silence. Joe Johnston had pulled his troops out days before. The fearsome artillery had been abandoned. They were only black-painted logs, dubbed “Quaker cannon.”

An evacuated Rebel post near Centreville, Virginia. The Union Army found this “Quaker Gun”—a derisive log, painted black. This gag photograph shows a Union soldier setting off the “Quaker Gun” using a stick for the wire.

2: Following Fredericksburg

Ambrose Burnside

The tragic Battle of Fredericksburg was not seen by the North as an unrecoverable defeat. Half the Union army had not even been engaged. The rebels had not driven them back but remained stubbornly across the Rappahannock. Washington was demanding action and Burnside, acutely aware of McClellan’s fate, pondered and planned military action.

What he came up with was a drive up the river to the southwest to draw Lee away from his direct route to Richmond and so neutralize the odds. So on January 20, 1863, the ponderous Army of the Potomac got under way. Simultaneously, an icy and heavy winter rain broke. Roads disappeared, wagon beds sunk to their level in the mud, horses and mules died by the hundreds, men could not march. It did not let up for three days.

The question was no longer how to get forward, but how to get back. They succeeded at the latter and thankfully reentered their camp on Stafford Heights.

3: Following Nashville

General Sherman had taken the cream of the Union army off for his march to Savannah, and General John Bell Hood, with an army of some 45,000, was left rampaging in the West.

General George Thomas smartly assumed that Hood would head for Nashville. He kept 30,000 with him to fortify that city and dispatched General John Schofield with 28,000 to dog Hood. Schofield set up a good defense on the Duck River and Columbia, but Hood scouted the position, crossed upstream and camped at Spring Hill, ten miles north on the road to Nashville. Schofield was trapped.

But in the oddest tactical mystery of the war, the hard-hitting Hood allowed the Union troops to march past him from mid-afternoon to midnight. Shots were fired but no forceful effort was made to block the highway. The next day, Schofield set up his defense at Franklin, where the Southerners paid a deadly penalty for their ineptness.