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The Situation in America

The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1165, p.301.

September 20, 1862


Assuming that the intelligence received at the beginning of this week bears with it that partial correctness which has characterised all accounts of late from the American continent, no one in the civilised world out of Washington, and, we should imagine, scarcely any one within that capital, will deny that the crisis of the internecine contest is at hand. The forces of the contending parties stand in such a position that all literally may depend upon one battle. A brief review of the events which have recently occurred is necessary to the elucidation and verification of such an assertion.

It may be remembered that the accounts which preceded those which were received on Monday last, and which brought intelligence down to the 5th instant, extended to the 29th of last month, on which day, according to a despatch written on the following morning by General Pope, a fierce battle had been fought between his corps and a Confederate force on the identical field of Bull Run which has become so famous in the history of the civil war. It may be said in passing that, like many other of General Pope's statements in the despatch in question, this assertion is inexact, as the battle was actually fought at six miles distance from Bull Run. This battle the Federal General claimed as a victory, and concluded his despatch by stating that the Confederates were retiring. They did nothing of the kind, but on the morning of the 30th attacked General Pope's corps with what is designated "fury," and the Federals fell back in disorder, the Confederates rapidly pouring shot and shell into the retreating masses. The Confederates broke the Federal centre and turned the Federal left, and, although the latter fought with great bravery, and Pope made great efforts to retrieve the day, at five o'clock in the evening the left wing of his army gave way, and retreated in great confusion, crossing Bull Run; while along the road to Centreville artillery, infantry, cavalry, and waggons were mingled together in the inextricable confusion of a complete rout. It is stated that the remainder of the force retreated in tolerable order to Centreville, where, on the following day, Pope was joined by two divisions of the army of the Potomac. On the 1st of September General Banks, who was said to have been cut off, also reached Centreville with the force under his command. Here it might have been supposed that another stand would have been made; but so imminent was the danger to Washington from a movement of the Confederates by way of Leesburg, a few miles further to the north-west, that Centreville was abandoned on Tuesday, the 2nd inst., and the combined armies of Virginia and the Potomac were massed behind the intrenchments and fortifications which have been constructed for the defence of Washington, and, in fact, exactly in the position they occupied when they marched out for the invasion of the territory occupied by the Confederates. The latter are nearer Washington than they have yet been, and in a position more favourable for attack; for, instead of being massed around Manassas, they are in full force at a place called Vienna, on the Upper Potomac, only twelve miles distant from the Federal capital, and at a point where the river is fordable at the present season of the year. In short, the situation is completely changed; the Federals stand at bay around their chief city and seat of government; and the Confederates, who have hitherto had to defend Richmond against the invading movements of the Northern forces, have it now in their power to become the aggressors in their turn, and it probably depends on the strength of the defences of Washington, and the chances of success by an investment of and ultimate assault on that city, whether they do not actually become the invaders this time.

While these disasters and reverses have been accumulating on the Federal forces in Virginia, the accounts from the west and other quarters are not more favourable to their cause. The troops of the North had been defeated, with loss of their artillery, in Kentucky, and had been forced to retreat to Lexington, which place, however, they had speedily to abandon. The Federals were preparing to evacuate Cynthiana, while from 20,000 to 30,000 Confederates occupied Lexington. Frankfort had also been abandoned by the Federals, while Louisville was threatened. In Tennessee there has been continued fighting; in Louisiana the recapture of B√Ęton Rouge had encouraged the Confederates to attempt the recovery of New Orleans, which city was menaced by Generals Breckenridge and Van Dorn, with a force variously stated at 20,000 and 30,000 men. Thus it appears that while the Northern party actually holds the coast line, it is but nominally master of the Mississippi; and everywhere beyond the reach of their naval armaments the fortune of war is adverse to the Federals. Six months of land warfare has brought their armies back to the point from which they started for that which was boasted to be a triumphant raid through the enemy's country; and they have to defend Washington with tens of thousands fewer disciplined troops than they possessed in the spring, to conduct the defence with maimed instruments, in the shape of beaten troops aided by new recruits, and this against an enemy gathered at an advantageous point, of great numerical strength, and naturally and justly flushed with success and elated by achievements from the merit of which their worst wishers cannot detract.

This statement of facts--and it is just possible that they are not all the facts--we think, justify the proposition with which we set out in the consideration of the momentous question involved--namely, that the crisis in the civil war in America has arrived. Of the issue of the next encounter between desperate men defending their last stronghold, and foes with all the prestige of victory warming and urging them to still greater deeds, it is not easy to utter predictions. We confess, however, that the fact of the appointment of General M'Clellan to the chief command in Washington seems to be an ill-omen for the Federal cause. This commander has eminently illustrated the familiar saying which speaks of a person "going up like a rocket and coming down like its stick." It may be that he is really the military prodigy that his friends proclaimed him to be, and that he has been the victim of circumstances over which he had no control; but the fact is patent that "victory does not sit upon his helm;" and he carries with him to his new and most important command the disadvantages of failure, and is the very last General calculated to restore confidence to troops who must be in the frame of mind of all soldiers driven to intrenchments and fortifications within which they are beleaguered. We will not more than allude to the rumours which have been prevalent that M'Clellan is at heart a Southerner, and by consequence a gigantic traitor, hut it is enough for our argument to say that he is not the man who can infuse into the army he commands the spirit which is essential to success.

On the other hand, the Confederate Generals have shown themselves eminently vigilant and energetic, prompt to take advantage of every weakness or oversight or mistake of the enemy to which they have been opposed; they have co-operated with each other with almost mechanical exactness; and they have evidently been pursuing a plan of operations which was probably devised by some master-mind; they have mingled boldness with prudence, rapidity of movement with breadth of design; and it is no secret that recent success has tended to render it possible, and even likely, that the whole male population of the South capable of bearing arms will be at the disposal of the Confederate military chiefs; while it is equally well

Page 302

known that recruiting in the North is in anything but a flourishing condition.

In this state of things the natural inquiry is, has not blood enough been shed? Are those hundreds of thousands of armed men who stand opposite to each other to mix in mortal--nay, in extreme--combat which, if not decisive, must lead to further draughts on both populations, to the manifest disadvantage of the North? For, in order to supply new armies to protract a warfare already sufficiently exhaustive, the North must suspend its whole industrial and commercial existence, and draw out its whole male population--youthful and middle-aged--to be literally expended like some consumable article of common use, while those who survive only become partners in defeat, and the broken instruments of military incompetency; and this while the agricultural South is being tilled and cultivated by the same labourers who have always hitherto been attached to the soil in that character, and who are neither needed as, nor would they be permitted to be, combatants--namely, the negro population.

It is at this moment that one can most fully recognise the wisdom of that policy of non-intervention in the contest in America which England has not only strictly observed herself but has prevailed on France also to preserve. We now see that it was possible for the parties to this quarrel to work it out for themselves, and by their own action to decide the fate of the Union. If it be the destiny of the South to become a self-constituted and self-existent Republic, such a result will have been brought about by her own means and her own operations alone; and, if the vexed question between the two races who have hitherto formed together the United States is to be settled by the establishment of two States, it will be settled at once and for ever; but if the South had been bolstered up into success by foreign moral intervention, far less by active and material aid from any European Power, her title to a separate existence as a Power would not have been duly and truly established; and the time would have come when the North, with some show of reason on her side, might have demanded that the issue involved between the two parties should be submitted to the process of a new trial. This, at least, cannot be gainsaid--that the South has vindicated her right to be considered a State; and, looking to the situation of affairs as they stand between the Federals and Confederates, it seems clear that the time has arrived when the North and South can negotiate as State to State; and there can be but few, we imagine, who will deny that now is the moment when they ought to negotiate, upon what basis it is not for us to say, in plain language; but it is implied in the opinion which we have expressed under a sense of what is due to that good feeling which, irrespective of party, we bear to that which has hitherto been the American nation.

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