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“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

The Civil War

At the outbreak of hostilities, both sides were unprepared for war. The weeks after Fort Sumter saw both North and South gripped with an enthusiasm for a war which most thought, optimistically, would be decided swiftly.
The Union regular army was only 16,000 strong, and many of those troops were at frontier posts in the West. In addition to them, Lincoln could call on the state militias. In April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. In July, he asked for another 400,000 to fight for three years. The Confederacy had to raise its army virtually from scratch, although the Southern state militias were generally better prepared than those in the North. The Confederate Congress authorized President Davis to raise 100,000 volunteers in February 1861 for up to twelve months. In August, this was increased to 400,000 for a period of three years. General in Chief Winfield Scott urged Lincoln to offer Robert E. Lee command of the Union army. Lee, however, declined the offer and resigned from the army. Within four weeks, Lee took command of Virginia’s military forces as a major general in the Confederate army.
The South, by avoiding defeat, hoped to win by making the war so costly for the North that public support for the war would wane. President Davis preferred to wage a defensive war, trading space for time. However, he could ill afford to lose territory, which would further deplete the South’s limited resources and weaken Southern morale. The Confederacy adopted what has become known as an “offensive-defensive” strategy. While maintaining a cordon defense, Confederate armies would exploit opportunities to counterattack and raid. The objective was to disrupt Union plans and undermine Northern morale.
Unlike the South, the North had to win the war. Gen. Scott proposed the “Anaconda Plan,” in which the Union would impose a naval blockade on the South and win control of the Mississippi. This would deprive the South of military resources and split the Confederacy in two. Scott believed this plan would bring the South to terms with less bloodshed than any other plan. However, Scott’s method would take time, and he feared, quite rightly, “the impatience of our patriotic and loyal Union friends. They will urge instant and vigorous action, regardless, I fear, the consequences.” Scott was right. With the Confederate capitol only a hundred miles away, the cry in the Northern press was “On to Richmond.”
In early July 1861, Confederate forces were within a day’s march of Washington. Mindful of public opinion and that the initial three-month enlistment period was coming to a close, Lincoln pressed Gen. Irvin McDowell to take action. McDowell expressed concern because the army was not yet ready for battle. But Lincoln was adamant. “You are green, it is true,” the president remarked, “but they are green, also; you are all green alike.” With a force of about 30,000 troops, McDowell drew up plans to attack the main Confederate army under the command of Gen. Beauregard. McDowell’s plan of attack was to advance with 35,000 troops on the main Confederate army of 20,000 under Pierre G. T. Beauregard, which was camped near Manassas Junction.
The first major battle of the Civil War was about to unfold, and like so many battles that would follow—Bull Run to Appomattox Courthouse—the soldiers and leaders of North and South would display a measure of courage and sacrifice that would, more than any other event in our nation’s history, set the direction for America’s future.