Vespasian Warner’s War pt 1: Enlistment to Belmont
In today’s history blog, we begin tracing the path of the Civil War as the library’s namesake, Vespasian Warner, would have experienced it.
Photo to Left:
C.C. Williams (left) and Vespasian Warner (right), photographed on July 31, 1861, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Hello all! This will be the first in a new series of blogs covering the Civil War. Before we begin, a couple notes: First and foremost, I have learned from my last series of blogs, and will not be writing this series all in a row, nor am I aiming for any particular number of blogs in this series. Expect a blog on a different topic next month, and I’ll return to this topic periodically when I need a topic for a blog. In trying to keep this relevant to local history, I aim to relate the war as Vespasian Warner, who enlisted at the start of the war and stayed with the army to 1866, would have experienced it. If I can keep tabs on the unit he mustered into (the 12th Illinois Volunteers), I’ll cover each major battle they, or the larger unit they were attached to, participated in. Also, Vespasian himself didn’t leave too much on his experience of the war behind, so I’ll also be drawing on other first-hand accounts to fill in details of what Vespasian’s everyday life as a soldier would have been like. Finally, and to bridge us into covering the war: The Civil War was over slavery. My recounting will reflect that fact, and I will not be entertaining any nonsense to the contrary, beyond the next paragraph.
The idea that the Civil War was over anything but the immediate fate of slavery in the United States is simply ridiculous; an attempt by an embarrassed post-war Southern planter class, its allies, and their descendants to make the cause they killed at least 600,000 people for anything other than what Ulysses S. Grant described in his memoirs: “One of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Proponents of this planter revision of history generally claim the war’s actual ideological core was the nebulous concept of “states’ rights” and the question of whether a state could secede the Union. Unfortunately for proponents of this “states’ rights” fig leaf, it is blown away by the gale of statements from the rebelling states and their representatives which made it quite clear they seceded because slavery was under threat by the newly-dominant-in-the-North abolitionist Republican Party. South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, joined by 6 other slave states in secession by February 1861, and another 4 more after the South Carolina militia started bombarding Fort Sumter in April 1861. Most states made some statement of their reasons for leaving: 4 explicitly listed a perceived threat to slavery as one of, if not the, prime cause for secession, 2 referenced slavery through vague language but in any case made it clear they felt a particularly Southern way of life was in danger, and the rest, save Arkansas, seemed content that others had already made the issue at hand quite clear and made no statements. Arkansas, for their part, had the audacity to cite Federal use of military force in response to the developing secession crisis as their reason for seceding. And in case the founding principle of the Confederacy was not yet clear enough, Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens made sure there should be no confusion in his “Cornerstone Speech” given on March 21, 1861:
“…Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its
foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro
is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race,
is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in
the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and
There is simply no debating that the Confederate cause was the continuance of slavery unfettered. Whatever “gallantry” Confederate soldiers showed must always be considered in light of the fact that it was done in defense of their own right, or, even more embarrassingly, the right of those vastly wealthier than themselves, to have absolute, life-and-death control over other human beings as property.
If the nascent Confederacy had hoped South Carolina’s bombardment of Fort Sumter would convince what remained of the Union to accept secession, it failed entirely. Abolitionism was already extremely popular in the North, and the start of fighting hardly gave any abolitionists second thoughts. In fact, many of the earliest volunteers for the war, such as Illinois native Ira Blanchard, had been members of the “Wide-Awakes,” an abolitionist Pro-Lincoln group somewhere between a militia, a modern college fraternity, and a political organizing committee. Many other early volunteers were agnostic to, or at least not primarily motivated by the question of slavery, but instead were interested in simply stopping the dissolution of the Union, seeing secession as an unjustified escalation in the political debate over the fate of slavery. Especially in Illinois and nearby states, there was a financial reason to oppose the seceding states. The formation of a hostile state with control over half of the Mississippi river meant commerce moving down the river could be tariffed or stopped all together at the whim of an independent Confederacy, potentially ruining the livelihoods of Western farmers who relied on the waterway to get their produce to market. Regardless of what brought them to the army, Union soldiers were highly motivated, dashing the hopes of the secessionists that a quick few victories would convince the North to let the Confederacy leave the Union.
As to what motivated Vespasian Warner to enlist, it’s not clear, but enlist he did on June 13, 1861, with the 12th Illinois Volunteers regiment. As the Union scrambled in the early months of the war to enlarge its army into something capable of conquering and occupying the 11 Confederate states, it was necessary to quickly create many junior officers to get the army properly organized. Vespasian Warner benefited from this officer shortage, getting a promotion to sergeant only 10 days after he enlisted. Ira Blanchard gives us some detail on how these new officers were selected: “The field and staff officers were elected by ballot after an exciting canvass of two days, during which time many prominent men came to camp to urge their claims upon the boys for an office.” Vespasian, like Ira and many other soldiers, probably had to put up with the poor accommodations and supplies of the rapidly-expanding Union Army. Standard rations in camp were just some sourdough bread, a slice of bacon, and a cup of coffee, and in the earliest days, Ira reports his regiment’s barracks were nothing more than sheds with some hay on the floor as bedding. Discipline was also lax among the young, new soldiers, Ira reporting that many spent their first night in Joliet’s Camp Goodel loudly goofing off all night while others struggled to sleep on the hay-covered floors. Ira also reports that a few days after, another company tore down a section of the camp’s fence to escape for an overnight bender in town. Unsurprisingly, it was some time before the wave of volunteers at the start of the war were made into proper soldiers.
Weeks of training followed any soldier’s enlistment, as well as time spent building the infrastructure necessary to support the new armies. Ira’s regiment spent six weeks in Camp Goodel, constantly drilling, before they were officially mustered into the Army for 3 years’ service. During that time, they frequently went on parade, drawing large crowds and visitors as far away as Chicago. When they weren’t marching, time was spent turning their sheds into proper barracks- installing bunks and setting up a common eating area. Altogether, Ira reports of camp life: “we had nothing to complain of but hard drill and poor grub.”
As soon as 6 weeks’ training was finished, Ira, and likely Vespasian as well, were shipped to southern Illinois and Missouri, where the first Union campaigns in the West were taking shape. Missouri and Kentucky, both slaves states, both border states, and both bitterly divided between Union and Confederate factions, were the key prizes up for grabs in 1861. Both states had strong positions from which to defend the Mississippi River, so the Union needed to secure these states as soon as possible before the Confederates could properly fortify key chokepoints. When Vespasian would have arrived in this theater, Major General John C. Fremont was already conducting raids in Missouri, while Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant had been delegated by Fremont to keep a careful eye on the situation in Kentucky.
Grant was an unassuming character prior to the war; he had flopped out of the army due to a real or perceived drinking problem, then failed at everything else he tried. With the start of the war he seized his second chance at an army career, quickly advancing in rank until Fremont recognized his talent and put him in command of the District of Southeastern Missouri. Fremont, on the other hand, was already a national figure at the start of the war, having been the 1856 Republican Party nominee for president, and before that he was already a well-known western explorer and soldier-of-fortune. Unfortunately for Fremont, it would be his erstwhile subordinate Grant who would soon outshine him.
Missouri and Kentucky were already thorny problems for both generals and common soldiers like Vespasian. Missouri was practically a free-for-all at this stage in the war. Small, poorly-trained Union and Confederate armies struggled to differentiate each other from irregular partisans for both sides. With little combat capacity, each side largely focused on making life harder for the other while trying to form armies capable of real offensive operations. For the common soldier, this first year of the war was mostly spent repairing roads, rails, and bridges destroyed in raids by the other side and being woken up in the middle of the night to prepare for attacks that never came. Kentucky was even trickier to handle. The Confederate-sympathetic governor, with state legislature elections set to be held in August 1861 and a massive pro-Union shift likely now that war had broken out, chose to declare the state neutral in the conflict, to keep its resources out of Union hands and close Kentucky off as an invasion route to the Confederacy. This left Grant and his Confederate counterpart, Major General Leonidas Polk, eyeing each other the entire summer to see who would break Kentucky’s neutrality first. Ultimately, the two decided to make a move about the same time, in early September 1861. For both, the tiny Kentucky town of Columbus’ value as a defensive chokepoint on the Mississippi had become too clear to continue risking the enemy reaching first. Polk beat Grant to Columbus, but after this breakdown in Kentucky’s neutrality, the whole state went up for grabs, and the Union ended up occupying about 2/3s of it. Vespasian’s regiment, the 12th Illinois, seems to have been sent to capture Paducah, KY, another important town in the state, during this scramble for Kentucky. The Union also won out in recruiting, as many Kentuckians in the Appalachians, resentful of the slave-owner aristocracy that normally ran the state, flocked to the Union banner, while the Confederates regularly complained of how hard it was to find anyone in Kentucky willing to fight for their cause. However, the key prize, Columbus, still sat in Confederate hands, preventing any Union offensive down the Mississippi.
A map of Grant’s earliest campaigns in the West. Grant’s headquarters at this time were in Cairo, at the extreme southern end of Illinois.
Fremont and Grant used Columbus’ central importance to their advantage, with Fremont launching an offensive into southwest Missouri in November 1861, while Grant was dispatched with a few thousand men to feint at Columbus. Grant’s force attacked on November 7, 1861, in what became known as the Battle of Belmont, overrunning a Confederate camp across the river from Columbus at an even smaller town called Belmont, MO. Discipline among the new soldiers quickly broke down and they began looting the camp until a Confederate force from Columbus drove them off into a hasty retreat. Despite the retreat, the attack had its desired effect, keeping Confederate focus on Columbus into the winter.
Despite little combat happening, 1861 had still been an eventful year as Union and Confederate armies in the West settled down for the winter. For average soldiers, they had gone from everyday common folk to being drilled, professional soldiers, many of whom had already experienced some light combat and raids. On the map, an entire neutral state had been split up, and true battle lines were forming, as the Union spent winter preparing an offensive to dislodge the Confederate garrison at Columbus. Vespasian, for his part, must have been diligently at work as a sergeant in the 12th Illinois, as on February 4, 1862 he was promoted to second lieutenant. Perhaps the most important change the year brought was a change in thinking among those in the Union army. Grant, an agnostic on slavery before the war, was already by the end of 1861 willing to accept its destruction if it was necessary to break the Confederacy. His journey to eventually see slavery as an evil that must be destroyed as part of any peace plan mirrored the journey many Union soldiers took, and which many, like Grant, had already taken the first steps on by the end of 1861.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, by Steven E. Woodworth tracks the development and campaigns of perhaps the most effective Union army fielded during the Civil War. In 1861, Grant was already commanding part of what would become this army, and besides being the army Vespasian Warner’s regiment was part of, it also fought it some of the most famous and critical battles of the entire war, such as the siege of Vicksburg. The book can be found in the library’s non-fiction section under WAR>Civil War>Confederacy>WOO
Madness Rules the Hour, by Paul Starobin zooms in on Charleston, South Carolina in the lead up to secession and war. South Carolina was the first state to secede, and Starobin examines Charleston to see how support for secession was built up until it was strong enough to set in motion a cascade of events that cause the bloodiest war in American history. It can be found in the library’s non-fiction section under WAR>Civil War>Confederacy>STA
The Civil War in the West, by Earl J.Hess provides an overview of the entire Civil War west of the Appalachians. Hess focuses on the key challenges of logistics and occupation, and how each army succeeded or failed to meet those challenges in the difficult and varied geography of the western United States. The book is not available at the library, but can be requested through interlibrary loan on our website, by calling us, or at the desk of the library next time you’re in.
“Alabama.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190910/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/alord.htm
“Arkansas.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190914/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/arord.htm
“Battle of Belmont.” Wikipedia.org. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Belmont
“Belmont Union Order of Battle.” Wikipedia.org. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belmont_Union_order_of_battle
Blanchard, Ira. I Marched With Sherman: Civil War Memoirs of the 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Edited by Nancy Ann Mattingly. San Jose: toExcel, 2000.
“Confederate States of America - Georgia Secession.” Avalon.law.yale.edu. Accessed March 22, 2022. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_geosec.asp
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“A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” Avalon.law.yale.edu, Accessed March 22, 2022. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp
“Confederate States of America - Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Avalon.law.yale.edu. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp
“Florida.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190920/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/flord.htm
“Georgia.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190928/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/gaord.htm
Hess, Earl J. The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
“Louisiana.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190935/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/laord.htm
“Mississippi.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190945/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/msord.htm
“North Carolina.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012190953/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/ncord.htm
“Ordinances and Constitution of the State of South Carolina.” Docsouth.unc.edu. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/southcar/south.html
“Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Wikipedia.org. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_Memoirs_of_U._S._Grant
Stephens, Alexander H. “Modern History Sourcebook: Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883): Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861” sourcebooks.fordham.edu. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1861stephens.asp
“Tennessee.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012191004/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/tnord.htm
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“Virginia.” Web.archive.org. Accessed March 21, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20071012191039/http://gen.1starnet.com/civilwar/vaord.htm
Zeller, Bob. “How Many Died in the American Civil War?” History.com, published January 6, 2022. https://www.history.com/news/american-civil-war-deaths#:~:text=But%20how%20many%20died%20has,deaths%20and%20258%2C000%20Confederate%20deaths.