New Union Leadership

However, the overly cautious McClellan refused to pursue Lee into Virginia and deliver a fatal blow to the Confederate army. Lincoln was so angry at McClellan for passing up a chance to end the war that he fired McClellan and replaced him with another general. After terminating McClellan, Lincoln had to sift through a couple more generals before he finally settled on Ulysses S. Grant, who, unlike McClellan, knew that time was of the essence and that the war could not be allowed to drag on.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Despite McClellan’s failure to follow up, Lincoln nonetheless capitalized on the Antietam victory by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in the Confederacy. The immediate practical effects of the proclamation were limited: since it declared that slaves only in the secessionist states were free (not the border states, for Lincoln did not want to provoke them into secession), it was effectively unenforceable.

The proclamation did have a large political impact, though, because it tied the issue of slavery to the restoration of the Union. Indeed, reunification, not emancipation, remained Lincoln’s most important goal by far. He once remarked, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” Lincoln received a lot of criticism from the Peace Democrats and other groups for wedding the goals of emancipation and reunification.

Despite the priority Lincoln placed on reunification, he knew that a reunified nation would not survive long if slavery still existed. Slavery had been at the root of every major sectional conflict since the 1780s, and the issue had to be addressed. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation failed to ban slavery in the border states, it did mark the symbolic beginning of the end for the “peculiar institution” for every state in the Union.

The War at Sea

While the armies battled on land, the Union and Confederate navies clashed on the high seas. At the very beginning of the war, Lincoln bypassed Congress and ordered a naval blockade of all Southern ports. The South’s economy relied almost entirely on cotton trade with Britain, so Lincoln hoped the blockade would strangle the Confederacy financially.

The Confederate navy, though small, proved a formidable adversary. The British-built Confederate warship Alabamasank more than sixty Union ships before it was finally defeated. The South also created a major new naval weapon—the ironclad—when ingenious Confederate shipbuilders refitted the old warship USS Merrimackwith a steam engine and iron plates to make it impervious to bullets and cannonballs. The ship, renamed the Virginia, easily destroyed several Union ships and broke through the blockade. In response, the Union built an ironclad of its own, the USS Monitor, that featured an innovative gun turret. The two ships met in March 1862 at the Battle of the Ironclads, which ended in a draw.

Popular pages: The Civil War 1850–1865