After Lincoln’s reelection, the war hastened to its conclusion. In November 1864, Sherman and his army of 60,000 set out from Atlanta on their March to the Sea. Cutting a sixty-mile-wide swath through the heart of Georgia, they destroyed railroads, buildings, and all the food and supplies they could not use. His aim, Sherman wrote, was “to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their innermost recesses, and make them fear and dread us.” Here was modern war in all its destructiveness, even though few civilians were physically harmed. In January 1865, after capturing Savannah, Sherman moved into South Carolina, bringing even greater destruction. Anarchy reigned on the plantations as slaves drove off remaining overseers, destroyed planters’ homes, plundered smokehouses and storerooms, and claimed the land for themselves.
General William T. Sherman photographed in 1864.
On January 31, 1865, Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the entire Union—and in so doing, introduced the word “slavery” into the Constitution for the first time. In March, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln called for reconciliation: “with malice toward none, with charity for all,... let us... bind up the nation’s wounds.” Yet he also leveled a harsh judgment on the nation’s past.
The military defeat of the Confederacy came in the East, with Sherman’s March to the Sea, Grant’s occupation of Richmond, and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army.
Unlike the northern clergy, who were sure of what God intended, Lincoln suggested that man does not know God’s will—a remarkably modest statement on the eve of Union victory. Perhaps, Lincoln suggested, God had brought on the war to punish the entire nation, not just the South, for the sin of slavery. And if God willed that the war continue until all the wealth created by 250 years of slave labor had been destroyed, and “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” this too would be an act of justice (see the Appendix for the full text).
April 1865 brought some of the most momentous events in American history. On April 2, Grant finally broke through Lee’s lines at Petersburg, forcing the Army of Northern Virginia to abandon the city and leaving Richmond defenseless. The following day, Union soldiers occupied the southern capital. At the head of one black army unit marched its chaplain, Garland H. White, a former fugitive from slavery. Called upon by a large crowd to make a speech, White, as he later recalled, proclaimed “for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind.” Then the “doors of all the slave pens were thrown open and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe.”
On April 4, heedless of his own safety, Lincoln walked the streets of Richmond accompanied only by a dozen sailors. At every step he was besieged by former slaves, some of whom fell on their knees before the embarrassed president, who urged them to remain standing. Meanwhile, Lee and his army headed west, only to be encircled by Grant’s forces. Realizing that further resistance was useless, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, on April 9. Although some Confederate units remained in the field, the Civil War was over.
The Evacuation of Richmond, a Currier and Ives lithograph from 1865, dramatically depicts the last days of the Civil War. Residents flee the Confederate capital as fires set by retreating troops to destroy ammunition supplies consume parts of the city.
The ruins of Richmond, in an 1865 photograph by Alexander Gardner.
Lincoln did not live to savor victory. On April 11, in what proved to be his last speech, he called publicly for the first time for limited black suffrage. Three days later, while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the president was mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth, one of the nation’s most celebrated actors. Lincoln died the next morning. A train carried the president’s body to its final resting place in Illinois on a winding 1,600-mile journey that illustrated how tightly the railroad now bound the northern states. Grieving crowds lined the train route, and solemn processions carried the president’s body to lie in state in major cities so that mourners could pay their respects. It was estimated that 300,000 persons passed by the coffin in Philadelphia, 500,000 in New York, and 200,000 in Chicago. On May 4, 1865, Lincoln was laid to rest in Springfield.