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The current method of differentiating levels of war did not exist during the Civil War. Most Civil War leaders only looked at the prospective battle (tactical issues), not at how each individual engagement fitted into a campaign (the operational level of war), and how this related to the nation’s military strategy (the methods for prosecuting it). Some tout a supposed awareness of the teachings of Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s Art of War among Civil War leaders, but all that can be proven is this work’s influence upon certain generals such as the Union’s Henry Wager Halleck and the Confederacy’s Pierre G. T. Beauregard.
Prior to the Civil War, the US War Department, and particularly the navy, concentrated on fighting a European foe in foreign and home waters. Britain was the most commonly conceived enemy. Great coastal forts were built at major river mouths or a short distance upstream. There was no need to protect the vast network of inland rivers and smaller streams. The Civil War created unforeseen problems for both the North and the Confederacy.
As the Southern states cascaded toward secession, Virginia, the “mother of presidents,” stood at the precipice of Civil War. Virginia was the pivotal state. The first battles of the Civil War, after Fort Sumter’s nearly bloodless fall, were fought on the soil of Virginia. Four anguished years would pass before the war ended on her doorstep, at a rural courthouse called Appomattox.
When the American Civil War began in April 1861, statesmen around the world realized that the conflict held the potential to shape the future of the Western Hemisphere. Despite the rapid economic and territorial growth of the United States in the years after the War of 1812, the geopolitical development of the Americas remained unsettled. During the more than three-quarters of a century that preceded the Battle of Fort Sumter, a series of wars and revolutions had swept the hemisphere. As a result, the United States emerged independent; victorious slave insurgents founded the nation of Haiti; and Spanish Americans established a number of independent republics in South and Central America. To many observers it appeared that the people of the Americas had forever rejected the principles of monarchy and colonialism.
The Civil War was America’s great national trauma. Like the Napoleonic Wars in nineteenth-century Europe and World War II in the twentieth, the Civil War birthed a new civic order. Politics, economic and social life, and cultural expression all assumed a new cast for the war’s participants and their children. Even a century and a half later, after industrialization, urbanization, the dramatic expansion of America’s military and political power in the world, and generations of cultural change, the war’s impact is plain to see. The structure of the national government and the nature of American federalism took their modern shape as a result of the war. Americans’ sense of sectional identity emerged more clearly defined after the conflict and continues to shape politics and cultural life. The only genuine American philosophical tradition, pragmatism, emerged among postwar thinkers as a response to the horrors of the conflict. The war ended the long-standing system of racial bondage even as white Americans met the efforts of black Americans to achieve full and meaningful freedom with apathy, intransigence, and, in some cases, violent resistance.
On May 14, 1860, New York’s Harper’s Weekly published a double-page lithograph, depicting eleven “Prominent Candidates for the Republican Nomination at Chicago” just a few days before the party convention. The artist arranged the portraits in two groups of five on the right and left, with New York’s William H. Seward occupying the central place. A past senator and governor, Seward was a strong-minded abolitionist and one of the early architects of the Republican party. Many felt that the nomination was his to lose. To Seward’s left were five men in three rows: Missouri’s Edward Bates, New Jersey’s Alexander Pennington, Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, transplanted Californian John C. Frémont, and Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. Frémont had been the Republican standard-bearer four years before, but this time around he was not seen as a likely choice. Chase, on the other hand, had a substantial reputation as an ardent Radical and a leading Republican. The fairly moderate Lincoln was also a serious possibility, although he lacked the national stature of Seward or Chase.