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A House Divided:

The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54


By Chris Oakley


Part 3



adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com



Summary: In the first two episodes of this series we traced the sequence of events leading to the start of the Southern Rebellion War, the early battles of the war itself, the debut of ironclad naval vessels during the war’s second year, and the return of former Union Secretary of War Winfield Scott to active duty with the U.S. Army after the death of the C-in-C for Union troops in Virginia, General Ethan Allen Hitchcock. In this chapter we’ll look back at the second phase of the Union Army’s Shenandoah campaign; the appointment of Scott’s successor as Union Secretary of War; and the personal feud between CRA president Robert Toombs and newspaper publisher Jefferson Davis which hampered the Confederate government’s ability to prosecute the war with the Union administration.


The morale of the Union forces in Virginia, which had taken a serious hit when General Hitchcock was killed at the Second Battle of Petersburg, soared again upon the news that Winfield Scott was coming to take command of the Virginia front. Scott was a legend among the Union troops as a result of his exploits during the Mexican War; they were highly confident he could defeat the Confederate Army and pave the way for Union forces to advance all the way to Richmond.

Scott had a detailed strategy mapped out for subduing the Army of Northern Virginia. Dubbed "the Anaconda plan"1, it called for Union regiments to encircle the main body of the ANV and cut it off from any possible avenues of retreat, then squeeze it into a steadily shrinking pocket until it collapsed; from there, Union forces were to seek out and neutralize the ANV’s remnants before consolidating Union control of Virginia. Knowing the Confederates would try to circumvent these encirclement maneuvers by shipping troops, supplies, and munitions into Virginia by sea, Union naval commanders had their vessels deployed to interdict-- and, if need be, sink-- any Confederate transport ships approaching the Virginia coastline.2

Scott’s hope was that by the beginning of summer the ANV would be weakened to the point where it could be finished off with a well-timed combined assault of Union infantry and artillery. Once Virginia was secured, Scott intended to inflict what the Chinese might call "death by a thousand cuts" on the Confederate Republic, slowly strangling it with a combination of blockade at sea and flank attacks against the more vulnerable sectors of the Confederate Army’s defenses on land. By the general’s calculations it might take as little as nine months or as long as three years to bring the Confederate Republic to its knees, depending on how fiercely the Confederates resisted, but time was of little concern to him; he was well aware of the myriad advantages the Union had over the CRA and believed that patience would be an asset to the Union Army in the long run.


Scott’s quest to crush the Army of Northern Virginia, and by extension the Confederate Republic itself, had an unwitting ally in the heart of the CRA: one Jefferson Davis, a newspaper publisher who was fighting his own personal civil war with Confederate president Robert Toombs. Davis had never made a secret of his strong distaste for Toombs, and Toombs in turn loathed Davis with a passion. The two men had had, to say the least, a less than cordial introduction at the Charleston convention-- and time hadn’t done much to cool off the burning antagonism between them. In fact, if anything that antagonism had gotten noticeably worse, so much so that by the time Winfield Scott resigned as Union Secretary of War rumors were circulating all over Charleston that Toombs and Davis were ready to duel each other in the street with pistols.

However, Toombs’ and Davis’ actual preferred weapons of choice were harsh words. Davis seldom if ever passed up an opportunity to mock the Confederate president in the pages of the Charleston Mercury, of which Davis was both publisher and editor. In turn, Toombs attacked the Mercury boss at length in many of his presidential speeches. In just one speech before the Confederate Senate in April of 1852 Toombs called Davis a "viper", a "traitor", a "race-mixer", and "the Devil’s own spawn"-- and those were the kindest things he had to say about the publisher.

Davis was not one to suffer insults gladly, and within three days of Toombs’ speech he had printed a scathing anti-Toombs diatribe in the Mercury that essentially accused the Confederate president of being directly responsible for every reverse the Confederate Army had endured on the battlefield since the Southern Rebellion War began. It also implied Toombs was to blame(though Davis didn’t elaborate how) for the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass the "Compromise of 1850" bill. He even hinted Toombs might be a Union spy, a suggestion which nearly got him arrested for treason.

Many people in the Confederacy rightly worried that this bitter personal feud could eventually spell the end of the Confederate cause, and numerous efforts were made to mend the breach between Toombs and Davis. Such efforts did little good: right up until the last days of the war, Davis continued to view President Toombs as an incompetent dolt and Toombs kept on branding the Charleston Mercury publisher as a menace to the Confederate government.3

Indeed, even as General Scott was executing the first phase of the Anaconda Plan, Toombs was too distracted by his grudge against Davis and the Mercury to react in a timely fashion to the Union Army’s bid to crush the Army of Northern Virginia. By the time Toombs gave Confederate regiments the green light to counterattack, Scott’s troops had advanced to within artillery range of Arlington and trapped at least one good-sized Confederate cavalry unit in an isolated pocket northeast of the town of Culpeper. Not realizing that Scott planned to wage a war of attrition aimed at wearing the CRA down, General Lee and his senior staff braced themselves for what they thought was an imminent Union Army thrust on Richmond.

Such fears were also present in the Mercury publishing offices; they prompted Davis to draft an editorial in which he grimly declared, "Our beloved nation is being murdered, and the killer is none other than our own president Mr. Robert Toombs."4 That sentiment incited a band of Toombs stalwarts to ambush Davis two nights later and beat him up so badly he had to spend three days in a hospital recovering from his injuries. Of course, the first thing Davis did when he got back on his feet was to publish yet another anti-Toombs editorial.


While Scott was busy tightening the noose on Virginia, one of his former Mexican War comrades was assuming Scott’s old position as Union Secretary of War. Philip Kearny, a New Yorker who’d served with distinction in several key Mexican War engagements and had also seen action in the Indian wars then being fought out on the American frontier, had grown frustrated with his promotion prospects-- or, to be more accurate, apparent lack thereof --and had been considering resigning his commission when the Southern Rebellion War broke out. Instead he accepted a position as chief of staff for the main US Army regiment assigned to defend Washington, and he was still outlining his plans for guarding the nation’s capital against the threat of possible
Confederate assault when President Fillmore selected him to succeed General Scott as Union Secretary of War.

Kearny was a staunch supporter of Scott’s Anaconda Plan. In fact, back when Scott was still Union Secretary of War, he had accompanied Kearny on an inspection tour of Washington’s defenses and the two of them had discussed early versions of some of the key elements of what later became the Anaconda Plan. In personal papers found shortly after Kearny’s tragic death in a riding accident in 1862, there was included a letter written to Kearny by Scott just after the end of the Southern Rebellion War in which General Scott lauded Kearny as "the true father of our victory against the rebels."5

The new Union Secretary of War had little patience with those who criticized the Anaconda Plan. Legend has it that Kearny was sitting in a tavern in Baltimore one night and overheard an especially inebriated patron who was mocking General Scott in the most obscene, irreverent terms imaginable; according to the story Kearny set aside his beer mug without a word, walked over to the offending patron, socked him in the jaw hard enough to knock him out cold, and then went right back to his beer.

Scott and Kearney’s critics, however, would be emboldened in early June of 1852 when the Confederate Army stunned Union forces in the west by launching an ambitious new campaign along the Tennessee-Kentucky border that would temporarily give the Confederate Republic the upper hand and spark renewed fears of Kentucky going over to the Confederate camp. Taking advantage of a gap in the Union defenses along the eastern end of the Tennessee-Kentucky frontier, General Doniphan ordered his best regiments to launch a massive thrust through that gap into Union territory just after midnight on June 5th; Union regimental commanders were caught off-guard by the new offensive, and before the campaign was three days old President Fillmore’s senior military aides were openly voicing fears that Doniphan’s army might soon be marching on Louisville...


To Be Continued



[1] So nicknamed because when describing to his officers how he intended it to work, Scott used the analogy of an anaconda constricting its prey until the prey suffocated.

[2] These deployments were part of the larger overall Union naval blockade against the Confederacy; to see how the course of the war might have been affected if Confederate naval power had succeeded in getting supplies through the Virginia coast section of the blockade, read Wade Dudley’s “Carry Me Back: The CRA Victory On The Appalachian Front” in Peter G. Tsuoras’ book Look Away, Dixie Land!: The Alternate History Of The Confederate Victory In The Southern Rebellion War(copyright 2008 by Greenhill Books).

[3] The way in which the two men reacted to the Confederate Republic’s impending final defeat in the summer of 1854 spoke volumes about the intensity of the Toombs-Davis vendetta. Davis, in his final wartime editorial as Mercury publisher, blamed Toombs- - by then already out of office - -for every ill that had befallen the Confederate Republic throughout its brief history; Toombs, in his last official act as president of the CRA, called for Davis to be deported to Mexico(a demand emphatically rejected both by the Mexican government and by Toombs’ own cabinet).

[4] From the editorial pages of the April 23rd, 1852 edition of the Charleston Mercury.

[5] The letter can be seen today at the Kearny Library of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.


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