Modern history

The Tide of War Turns

In the spring of 1863, Lee’s army defeated a Union force twice its size at Chancellorsville, Virginia, setting the stage for a Confederate thrust into Pennsylvania. Yet Lee’s decision to go on the offensive ultimately proved the Confederacy’s undoing. Even as draft riots erupted across the North in July 1863, the Union won two decisive military victories: at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. These victories improved northern morale while devastating Confederate hopes. At the same time, the flood of African Americans, including former slaves, into the Union army transformed the very meaning of the war. In late 1864 and early 1865, the momentum favored the Union, and the South was forced to consider prospects for peace.

Key Victories for the Union

In mid-1863, Confederate commanders believed the tide was turning in their favor. Following victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, General Lee launched an invasion of northern territory. While the Union army maneuvered to protect Washington, D.C., from Lee’s advance, General Joseph Hooker resigned as head of the Union army. When Lincoln appointed George A. Meade as the new Union commander, the general immediately faced a major engagement at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. If Confederates won a victory there, European countries might finally recognize the southern nation and force the North to accept peace.

Neither Lee nor Meade set out to launch a battle in this small Pennsylvania town. But Lee was afraid of outrunning his supply lines, and Meade wanted to keep Confederates from gaining control of the roads that crossed at Gettysburg. So on July 1, fighting commenced, with Lee pushing Union forces to the south of town. The Union vanguard managed to hold the ground along Cemetery Ridge until more troops arrived the following day. Although Confederate troops suffered heavy losses on July 2, Lee believed that Union forces were spread thin and ordered General George Pickett to launch a frontal assault on July 3 (Map 13.2). But Pickett’s men were mowed down as they crossed an open field. The battle was a disaster for the South: More than 4,700 Confederates were killed, including a large number of officers; another 18,000 were wounded, captured, or missing. Although the Union suffered similar casualties, it had more men to lose, and it could claim victory.

As a grieving Lee retreated to Virginia, the South suffered another devastating defeat. Troops under General Ulysses S. Grant had been pounding Vicksburg, Mississippi, for months. In May 1863, Grant sent his men in a wide arc around the city and attacked from the east, setting the stage for a six-week siege. Although civilians refused to leave and even hid out in caves to outlast the Union barrage, Confederate troops were forced to surrender the city on July 4. This victory was even more important strategically than Gettysburg (Map 13.2). Combined with a victory five days later at Port Hudson, Louisiana, the Union army now controlled the entire Mississippi valley, the richest plantation region in the South. This series of victories also effectively cut off the Confederacy from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, ensuring Union control of the West. In November 1863, Grant’s troops achieved a major victory at Chattanooga, opening up much of the South’s remaining territory to invasion. Thousands of slaves deserted their plantations, and many joined the Union war effort.

MAP 13.2

Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, 1863 The three-day battle in Gettysburg and the six-week siege of Vicksburg led to critical victories for the Union. Together, these victories forced General Lee's troops back into Confederate territory and gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. Still, the war was far from over. Confederate troops controlled the southern heartland, and Northerners wearied of the ever-increasing casualties.

As 1864 dawned, the Union had twice as many forces in the field as the Confederacy, whose soldiers were suffering from low morale, high mortality, and dwindling supplies. Although some difficult battles still lay ahead, the war of attrition (in which the larger, better-supplied Union forces slowly wore down their Confederate opponents) had begun to pay dividends.

The changing Union fortunes increased support for Lincoln and his congressional allies. Union victories and the Emancipation Proclamation also convinced Great Britain not to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. And the heroics of African American soldiers, who in 1863 engaged in direct and often brutal combat against southern troops, encouraged wider support for emancipation. Republicans, who now fully embraced abolition as a war aim, were nearly assured the presidency and a congressional majority in the 1864 elections.

Northern Democrats still campaigned for peace and the readmission of Confederate states with slavery intact. They nominated George B. McClellan, the onetime Union commander, as their candidate for president. McClellan attracted working-class and immigrant voters who traditionally supported the Democrats and who bore the heaviest burdens of the war. But Democratic hopes for victory in November were crushed when Union general William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, Georgia, just two months before the election. Lincoln and the Republicans won easily, giving the party a clear mandate to continue the war to its conclusion.

African Americans Contribute to Victory

Lincoln’s election secured the eventual downfall of slavery. Yet neither the president nor Congress eradicated human bondage on their own. From the fall of 1862 on, African Americans enlisted in the Union army and helped ensure that nothing short of universal emancipation would be the outcome of the war. By the spring of 1865, nearly 200,000 African Americans were serving in the Union army and navy. Private Thomas Long, a former slave serving with the First South Carolina Volunteers, explained the connection between African American enlistment and emancipation: “If we hadn’t become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before; our freedom might have slipped through de two houses of Congress and President Linkum’s four years might have passed by and notin’ been done for us. But now tings can neber go back, because we have showed our energy and our courage and our naturally manhood.”

In the border states, which were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved men were adamant about enlisting since those who served in the Union army were granted their freedom. Because of this provision, slaveholders in the border states did everything in their power to prevent their slaves from joining the army, including assault and even murder. Despite these efforts, between 25 and 60 percent of military- age enslaved men in the four border states joined the Union army and quickly distinguished themselves in battle. By the end of the war, approximately 37,000 black soldiers had given their lives for freedom and the Union.

Yet despite their courage and commitment, black soldiers felt the sting of racism. They were segregated in camps, given the most menial jobs, and often treated as inferiors by white recruits and officers. Many blacks, for instance, were assigned the gruesome and exhausting task of burying the dead after grueling battles in which they had fought alongside whites. Particularly galling was the Union policy of paying black soldiers less than whites were paid. African American soldiers openly protested this discrimination even after a black sergeant who voiced his views was charged with mutiny and executed by firing squad in February 1864. An African American corporal wrote to Lincoln, describing the blood black troops had shed for the Union and asking, “We have done a Soldier’s Duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?” The War Department finally equalized wages in June 1864.

One of African American soldiers’ primary concerns was to liberate slaves as Union armies moved deeper into the South. During 1863 and 1864, thousands more slaves headed for Union lines, joining the “contraband” who had escaped earlier in the war. Even those forced to remain on plantations realized that Union troops and freedom were headed their way. In areas close to Union lines, they talked openly of the advancing army. “Now they gradually threw off the mask,” a slave remembered of this moment, “and were not afraid to let it be known that the ‘freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”

The Final Battles and the Promise of Peace

In the spring of 1864, the war entered its final stage. That March, Lincoln placed General Grant in charge of all Union forces, and he embarked on a strategy of total war, including attacks against civilian as well as military targets. Grant was willing to accept huge casualties in order to achieve victory. Over the next year, he led his troops overland through western Virginia in an effort to take Richmond. At the same time, he ordered General Sherman to head south through Georgia, destroying the remnants of the plantation system.

Grant’s troops headed toward Richmond, where Lee’s army controlled strong defensive positions. The Confederates won narrow victories in May 1864 at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. In June, 7,000 Union soldiers were killed in one hour during a frontal assault at Cold Harbor, Virginia, where Confederates once again turned back the Union army. But Grant continued to push forward. Although Lee lost fewer men (31,000 casualties at Cold Harbor versus 55,000 for the Union), his army was melting away with each so-called victory.

The battles took a terrible toll on soldiers on both sides. Union troops and civilians called Grant “the butcher” for his seeming lack of regard for human life. Grant, however, was not deterred. He laid siege to Petersburg in June 1864, where both sides lived in trenches and tunnels for months on end. That August, Sherman also laid siege to Atlanta, but on September 2 he ordered his troops out of the trenches, swept around the city, and destroyed the roads and rails that connected it to the rest of the Confederacy. When General John B. Hood and his southern troops abandoned their posts, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” The victory cut the South in two.

Sherman then led his troops on a 300-mile march to the Atlantic coast and north through the Carolinas. Embracing the strategy of total war, his troops cut a path of destruction 50 miles wide during their “March to the Sea,” destroying crops, livestock, and houses before they reached Savannah in late December. Nearly 18,000 enslaved men, women, and children left the ruined plantations and sought to join Sherman’s victorious troops. To the fleeing slaves’ dismay, soldiers refused to take them along. Worse, some Union soldiers abused African American men, raped black women, or stole their few possessions. Angry Confederates captured many of those who were turned away, killing some and reenslaving others.

Richmond in Ruins, April 1865 This photograph captures the devastation the war brought to the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Depot after General Grant drove General Lee's troops out of the Confederate capital in April 1865. This defining moment marked the end of the Civil War and the defeat of the South. During the next decade, the North and South struggled over reconfiguring the Union. Library of Congress

Sherman’s callous actions caused a scandal in Washington. In January 1865, Lincoln dispatched Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Georgia to investigate the charges. At an extraordinary meeting in Savannah, Stanton and Sherman met with black ministers to hear their complaints and to ask what newly emancipated African Americans wanted. The ministers spoke movingly of the war lifting “the yoke of bondage.” Freed blacks, they argued, “could reap the fruit of their own labor” and, if given land, “take care of ourselves, and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.” In response, Sherman issued Field Order Number 15, setting aside more than 400,000 acres of captured Confederate land to be divided into small plots for former slaves. Although Sherman’s order proved highly controversial, it suggested that the Civil War might, in the end, be a revolutionary force for change.

As defeat loomed, even Confederate leaders began to talk of emancipating the slaves. Jefferson Davis called for recruiting slaves into the army, with their payment to include freedom for themselves and their families. The Confederate Congress passed such a law in early 1865, but it was too late to make any difference. Still, the very idea suggested that the Civil War had turned southern society upside down.

In early April 1865, with Sherman heading toward Raleigh, North Carolina, Grant captured Petersburg and then drove Lee and his forces out of Richmond. In one of the war’s most dramatic moments, seasoned African American troops led the final assault on the city and were among the first Union soldiers to enter the Confederate capital. On April 9, after a brief engagement at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Lee surrendered to Grant with fewer than 30,000 soldiers remaining under his command. Within hours, his troops began heading home. Although Confederate soldiers continued to engage Union forces in North Carolina and west of the Mississippi, the Civil War, for all intents and purposes, had come to an end.

The legal abolition of slavery was initiated in Washington a few months before Lee’s surrender. Following on the petitions submitted by the Women’s National Loyal League, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on January 31, 1865, prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude anywhere in the United States. Although it still required approval by three-quarters of the states, wartime experiences made ratification likely. Some states and cities had already enacted laws to ease racial inequities. Ohio, California, and Illinois repealed statutes barring blacks from testifying in court and serving on juries. San Francisco, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and New York City desegregated their streetcars. In May 1865, Massachusetts passed the first comprehensive public-accommodations law in U.S. history, ensuring equal treatment in theaters, stores, schools, and other social spaces. With the final surrender of the Confederacy, many Northerners were hopeful that the nation reunited would be stronger and more just.


• What role did African Americans play in the defeat of the South?

• How did the Union win the war? How did attitudes toward African Americans change in the final year of the war?

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