“In considering the policy to be adopted for suppressing the insurrection,” Lincoln wrote in December 1861, “I have been anxious and careful that the inevitable conflict for this purpose shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Yet the president always emphasized that he would employ “all indispensable means” to preserve the Union and that he would “not surrender this game leaving any available cards unplayed.” By the winter of 1862–1863 his conciliatory policies had failed to preserve the Union, and Lincoln began laying his unplayed cards on the table. He issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, armed black troops, supported conscription, and continued to suppress civil liberties in the North in order to control antiwar activities. The war’s length and intensity had spawned the “violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle” that Lincoln wanted no more than did McClellan.
Black Recruitment and Conscription
January 1, 1863, was a Day of Jubilee. One hundred days earlier Lincoln had issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation promising to release a final Emancipation Proclamation on this date. But would he? Pressure to rescind the promise was intense, and the president’s racial views remained ambiguous. True to his word, Lincoln signed the final Proclamation, basing it on his war powers as commander in chief rather than on humanitarian grounds. The president took grave risks issuing the document. Fighting for the Union and emancipation might fragment northern support for the war while uniting southerners behind the Confederate cause. Conservatives in the North considered the Proclamation unconstitutional and feared it would precipitate a race war. The new war aim might provoke even fiercer southern resistance, push the border slave states into the Confederacy, and alienate southern Unionists. Yet few other acts had such important military advantages. The prospect of European intervention ultimately waned further. If emancipation outraged some northerners, others considered freedom a great moral battle cry, infusing new vigor into the war effort. Since slavery supported the South’s economy and social system, freeing the slaves was an excellent method of economic and psychological warfare. As the trickle of slaves responding to freedom’s lure by crossing over behind Union lines became a torrent, southern white men had to serve in agriculture and industry instead of in the ranks. “Every slave withdrawn from the enemy,” Halleck wrote Grant, “is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat.”
Perhaps the greatest military asset flowing from the Proclamation was the large-scale recruitment of black men. Utilizing blacks for military purposes was not unprecedented. The Navy had always employed blacks, and black soldiers served in the colonial wars, the Revolution, and the War of 1812. Furthermore, by 1862 the Union Army was exploiting black labor, and some generals, without official approval, had organized black regiments. In occupied territory Union officers acted virtually as new masters over fugitive slaves, forcing them to build fortifications and abusing them unmercifully. Black people also aided the Army in less onerous ways—as scouts and spies, teamsters and carpenters, cooks and nurses. Meanwhile, ignoring government policy, James H. Lane organized the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, composed of Missouri fugitive slaves and northern free blacks; Butler raised the 1st, 2d, and 3d Louisiana Native Guards from among the free blacks and escaped slaves in New Orleans; and Hunter recruited the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers from blacks on the Sea Islands.
The government hesitantly moved toward black recruitment during the last half of 1862. The Second Confiscation and Militia Acts of July 17, 1862, authorized the president to employ black soldiers at his discretion, and on August 25 Stanton officially sanctioned raising black troops for the first time. The secretary of war ordered Rufus Saxton, who had replaced Hunter in South Carolina, to arm and equip up to 5,000 former slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was the final step, indicating Lincoln’s intention to employ black soldiers to the maximum extent. Dual motives of exploitation and idealism had irresistibly converted a white man’s war into a black man’s war as well. “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union,” Lincoln wrote. A song written by a Union staff officer best expressed the element of crass exploitation in black manpower mobilization:
Some tell us ’tis a burnin’ shame
To make the naygers fight;
An’ that the thrade of bein’ kilt
Belongs but to the white:
But as for me, upon my sowl!
So liberal are we here,
I’ll let Sambo be murthered instad of myself
On every day in the year.
Yet many people supported black recruitment for noble reasons. Soldiering would give blacks a claim to not just freedom but also equality. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” said the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”
The organization of black regiments began in earnest during the first half of 1863. Initially the War Department authorized state governors and enterprising citizens to enlist regiments, just as they had organized white units. However, the national government soon exercised a near monopoly over black recruitment. In March it sent Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to the Mississippi Valley to organize as many black regiments as possible, and in May it established the Bureau of Colored Troops in the War Department to administer recruitment nationwide. Officially 178,892 blacks, commanded by approximately 7,000 white officers, served in the Army and at least 10,000 more in the Navy. Approximately 9 percent of all men fighting for the Union were black. Although black army units did a disproportionate share of fatigue duty, they bore an increasing combat responsibility as the war neared its end, fighting in thirty-nine major battles and dispelling the myth of black docility and cowardice.
National conscription was an even more profound assertion of centralized authority. On April 16, 1862, the Confederacy enacted the first national draft law in American history. Fighting for freedom and states’ rights, the South paradoxically forced individuals to serve under central authority. The Confederate congress understood that conscription, although distasteful, was necessary. Casualties were high, few men volunteered, and the 1861 one-year enlistments soon expired. The law made all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five members of the army for three years, automatically reenlisting the one-year volunteers for two more years. Subsequent legislation extended the age limits to seventeen and fifty, and in February 1864 the congress ordered all men already in the army to serve for the duration. Compulsory reenlistment meant that southerners served until they were killed or discharged due to disability, they deserted, or the war ended.
Two features weakened Confederate conscription. First, the law permitted substitutes. The substitute market was discriminatory and fraudulent. Prices soared to more than $5,000, which only the rich could pay, and many substitutes were unfit or soon deserted. When the Confederate congress later abolished substitution and made men who had provided substitutes liable for service, the rich felt betrayed. Second, although the original law contained no exemptions, a mere five days later congress began to correct this “oversight” by providing for several exempt categories; subsequent legislation expanded the exemption list. Exemptions included a large number of state and national government officials, militia officers, workers in critical war-production occupations, professional men, and one white man for every twenty slaves. Southerners abused many of these categories, and ultimately the Confederacy exempted about 50 percent of the men called out by conscription.
The North also felt a manpower squeeze during 1862. Realizing his error, Stanton reestablished Federal recruiting in June, and on July 2 Lincoln called for 300,000 three-year volunteers, but the response was slow. Like the South, the North turned to compulsion, though less directly. The Militia Act of July 17, 1862, authorized the president to “make all necessary rules and regulations” for states without adequate militia laws. Broadly interpreting that provision, on August 4 the government called for a draft of 300,000 nine-month militia. A proviso stated that a special militia draft would be conducted to meet the deficiency of three-year volunteers in those states failing to reach their quotas. Governors protested their quotas were too high and that the date for the special draft was too soon, and antidraft disturbances occurred in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Under pressure Stanton postponed the militia draft, which never went into effect. However, the threat of conscription brought forth 421,000 volunteers and 87,500 militiamen. Since the government considered one volunteer equivalent to four nine-month militiamen, the states more than met the July and August calls. But it had not been easy.
Confronted with the grievous casualties of the 1862 fall and winter campaigns, the likelihood of even greater losses in the upcoming campaigns, and the growing reluctance of volunteers to come forward, the North needed a more certain method of obtaining men. On March 3, 1863, Congress adopted a Conscription Act (also known as the Enrollment Act) based on the constitutional clause permitting the government “to raise and support armies.” The law established a bureaucracy for administering and enforcing the draft that gave primary responsibility to military officers. At the apex was another new War Department bureau, the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau headed by James B. Fry. At the base were 185 enrollment boards, one for each congressional district. To compile a list of eligible men, a board divided its district into subdistricts and for each one appointed an enrollment officer who went from house to house writing down the names and addresses of draft-age men. Between the apex and the base Fry appointed one or more acting assistant provost marshal generals for each state who would coordinate district affairs and serve as intermediaries between himself and local officials.
In important respects the Conscription Act contained features similar to militia laws. First, it maintained the principle of universal military obligation, imposing it on all able-bodied male citizens and alien declarants between the ages of twenty and forty-five. It divided enrollees into two classes: Class I, including all men between twenty and thirty-five and unmarried men between thirty-five and forty-five; and Class II, containing all men not in Class I. No Class II enrollees would be drafted until the Class I pool was exhausted. If a man was drafted, the term of service was three years or the duration, whichever ended first. However, as in militia laws, universal military service was theoretical, not actual. Congress intended to raise men indirectly, using the threat of conscription to spur volunteering. The president set draft quotas for each enrollment district based on population and the number of men from a district already in service. Districts had about fifty days to fill their quotas with volunteers. If too few volunteers entered service, a draft would be held to meet the deficiency. Ironically, Confederate conscription was a more forthright exertion of national authority. Southern lawmakers designed their act to raise troops directly, not to stimulate volunteering.
Second, the northern law contained exemptions. The list was unusually brief, consisting of the physically or mentally unfit, convicted felons, a restricted number of state and national officials, only sons of dependent widows, and sole supporters of infirm parents or orphaned children. The North did not allow the occupational exemptions that southerners so successfully manipulated to evade the draft. However, more than 50 percent of northern draftees found a way to gain an exemption, with physical disability being a sure avenue of escape. Some men practiced self-mutilation, while other draftees fabricated disabilities, buttressing their claims with testimonials from unscrupulous friends and doctors.
Third, a drafted man who was ineligible for an exemption, legal or otherwise, had two traditional means of evading service. He could provide a substitute or pay a $300 commutation fee. By setting a fixed commutation rate, Congress kept the price of substitutes under $300, since no one would pay more than that for a substitute. As in the South, substitutes were often of poor quality and likely to desert at the first opportunity; but unlike the Confederacy the North did not abolish the practice. However, in July 1864 it abolished commutation for everyone but conscientious objectors, and substitute prices rapidly increased. Since the South needed men more than money, Confederate conscription contained no provision for commutation.
Finally, to entice volunteers, the North resorted to the traditional method of offering bounties. Although providing a substitute or commuting carried no stigma, being conscripted did for both the draftee and his community. Wards, cities, and counties collected money for bounties through voluntary contributions, real estate taxes, and special fundraising events. States tacked on an additional bounty, as did the national government. The nation spent more than $700 million on bounties, which equaled the entire wartime pay for the Army! Since localities competed for volunteers, local bounty rates spiraled upward, giving richer cities and counties an advantage in avoiding the draft. With bounty piled upon bounty, a man could collect a substantial sum for volunteering, and he could become even richer if he volunteered more than once. “Bounty jumping” became a national scandal. A man would volunteer, collect the bounties, desert, volunteer in another district collecting more bounties, and so on. Not all volunteers were jumpers, but there were so many that the Army detailed armed squads to escort groups of them to the front. The Confederacy, with its more direct method of raising men and its limited financial resources, avoided the bounty problem.
Surprisingly, among those who volunteered, both North and South, were hundreds of women who—for reasons including the desire to be near a husband or brother in the ranks, patriotism, love of adventure, or the lure of a soldier’s paycheck—rejected the battlefield exclusion that being female ordinarily provided them. Moreover, women who had been living as men before the war may have felt the pressure to enlist to prove their “manhood.” In an age when medical exams were cursory and superficial, and when individuals did not carry personal identification papers (such as a driver’s license), enlisting was fairly easy. Hiding one’s identity could be more challenging as a woman made the difficult dual transition from a female to a male persona, and from a civilian to a soldier. Some women were discovered when hospitalized for illnesses or wounds and some when they had babies. At the Battle of Antietam, for example, two were killed in action and three more suffered wounds, including one who had to have an arm amputated. “There was an orderly in one of our regiments & he & the Corporal always slept together,” wrote a soldier in a Massachusetts regiment. “Well, the other night the Corporal had a baby, for the Corporal turned out to be a woman! She has been in 3 or 4 fights [battles].” Many females served lengthy enlistments without being discovered and, at least in some cases, continued living as men long after the war. When an accident in 1911 required “his” hospitalization, it turned out that Albert Cashier, who had served in the 95th Illinois Regiment, was really Jennie Hodgers.12
If northern conscription remained dependent on the colonial past for some of its operative features, it also represented a radical change from previous manpower mobilization policies. The draft law made the principle of universal military service an obligation to the national government rather than the states. Both in the Confederacy and in the Union the conscription procedure ignored the states. Another significant change was from voluntary to compulsory enlistments as the basis for mobilization. In one respect these changes weakened the war efforts of both North and South. With their intense localism and a strong tradition of voluntary associations, Americans identified with and took pride in regiments drawn from a limited geographic area. These bonds of kinship and friendship between the folks at home and the regiment in the field began to dissolve as the national government put conscripted “outsiders” into the ranks. However, the changes permitted more efficient use of manpower. States had rarely channeled volunteers into old regiments, since governors preferred to create new regiments, earning the loyalty of men appointed as officers. As a unit in the field became more experienced, it shrank from battlefield losses and disease, the numerical decline offsetting any increase in military skills. At Stones River, for example, Rosecrans commanded 139 regiments, representing a theoretical strength of approximately 139,000 men, but he actually had only one-third that many soldiers. Commanders believed that one new man in an old regiment was worth two or three in a new regiment, for, as Sherman wrote, “the former, by association with good experienced captains, lieutenants, and non-commissioned officers, soon became veterans, whereas the latter were generally unavailable for a year.” Although the North and South continued to form new volunteer units, by assigning at least some draftees to experienced regiments both governments increased the fighting effectiveness of their units.
In October 1863, Halleck wrote to Sherman regarding the Conscription Act. “A more complicated, defective, and impracticable law could scarcely have been framed,” he said. Twentieth-century authorities agreed and revamped the process in 1917. The act of 1863 showed them what to do fifty years later: omit substitution and commutation; outlaw bounties; increase civilian participation in administration; and instead of using enrolling officers, make it an obligation of citizenship for men to come forward to enroll. Despite the judgment of the general in chief that northern conscription was a failure, it worked exactly as its authors intended. The government held four drafts, and altogether enrollment boards examined 522,187 men, exempting 315,509 of them. Of the 206,678 men held to service, 86,724 commuted, 44,403 hired substitutes before they were drafted, 73,607 furnished substitutes after being drafted, and only 46,347 were actually drafted. Combining all substitutes and draftees, only 13 percent of Union Army enlistments came directly from the draft. Yet during the war’s last two years the North enlisted more than 1 million men. Some of these were veterans who reenlisted, but most were new volunteers motivated in varying degrees by the fear of conscription and the lure of bounties. Southern conscription more directly augmented the gray armies. It kept veterans in the ranks and produced approximately 120,000 draftees and 70,000 substitutes, representing 20 percent of Confederate manpower. Inevitably the South’s draft also had an indirect effect: Anxious to avoid the odium associated with conscription, an undetermined number of Confederates volunteered.
Although conscription filled the ranks, it also created internal dissension. Long accustomed to limited government, people in both sections considered conscription an un-American and despotic exercise of national power. To the lower classes it seemed especially unfair, since exemptions, substitution, and commutation appeared to make the conflict a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. Although opponents of the Davis and Lincoln administrations vigorously cultivated the charge of class favoritism for political purposes, this accusation was unfair. The Confederate and Union armies rather accurately mirrored their respective populations. If anything, unskilled laborers were proportionally underrepresented and white-collar workers proportionally overrepresented. To states’ rights adherents, conscription was unconstitutional. In the South, Governors Brown and Vance obstructed its enforcement by expanding the number of civil and militia offices that qualified for exemption, and state judges issued writs of habeas corpus preventing the arrest of unwilling draftees. Northern Peace Democrats, often as state-oriented as southerners, fanned antidraft sentiment, sparking widespread evasion, bitter hostility to draft officials, and riots. More than 161,000 men who were not exempt and did not provide a substitute or commute failed to report when summoned by their local enrollment boards. The number of these illegal draft evaders nearly equaled those who obtained substitutes or paid the commutation fee. Enrollment officers discovered their duty was dangerous, since they were assaulted by irate individuals and mobs, threatened and intimidated, attacked by dogs, scalded with boiling water, and bombarded with everything from eggs to bricks. The worst antidraft riot (which included a strong element of racist, antiblack sentiment) occurred in New York City, where four days of arson, looting, lynching, and shooting erupted in mid-July 1863, resulting in about 120 deaths. Grim troops coming from the Gettysburg battlefield finally quelled the outbreak. Lesser mob violence against the draft took place throughout the North.
The Lincoln administration not only freed and armed the slaves and countenanced conscription but also suppressed civil liberties, permitting the occasional repression of newspapers, the censorship of reporters’ telegraphic dispatches, and the military arrest of perhaps as many as 15,000 people. The vast majority of those arrested were from the border states or the Confederacy and included blockade-runners, smugglers, spies, defectors, and refugees. The only large group of Northerners arrested came in the wake of the militia draft and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which generated tremendous opposition among Peace Democrats (reproachfully known as Copperheads). These antiwar advocates urged resistance to both emancipation and the draft, discouraged volunteering, and encouraged desertion. Primarily to deal with resistance to the militia draft, the administration suspended the writ of habeas corpus nationwide. Suspension of the writ, the final Emancipation Proclamation, and the Conscription Act intensified opposition to the government’s war policies. Copperheads accused “King Lincoln” of military despotism and vowed they would not support his “wicked abolition crusade against the South,” but would “resist to the death all attempts to draft any of our citizens into the army.” But Republicans countered charges of tyranny with accusations of treason. Congress passed a Habeas Corpus Act in March 1863 sanctioning the practices established by the executive branch, and the president vigorously defended his administration’s actions. Under the guise of freedom of speech and press and the right of habeas corpus, he said, the Confederacy “hoped to keep on foot amongst us a most efficient corps of spies, informers, supplyers, and aiders and abettors of their cause in a thousand ways.” Ordinary legal processes did not restrain these disloyal persons, but courts-martial and military commissions would. Furthermore, the infringements were only temporary. Military arrests during the rebellion did not mean that Americans would be denied their constitutional liberties “throughout the indefinite peaceful future which I trust lies before them.”
Drawing the line between disloyalty and legitimate expressions of free speech, press, and assembly is not easy, and Lincoln did not draw it perfectly. Although innocent men suffered injustice, the administration’s use of the Army against civilians resulted in no reign of terror. Moreover, just as Polk established bold precedents of strong executive wartime leadership, Lincoln created equally far-reaching precedents for the wartime interference with basic civil liberties. To conquer the South, he exercised new presidential powers that many people believed he did not and should not have, for liberty squelched in war might be lost in peace.
1863: Year of Decision
As the 1863 campaigning season approached, Union forces stood poised at five critical points. The Army of the Potomac, under a new commander, held the Rappahannock line. Following Fredericksburg, Burnside tried to redeem his reputation with a mid-January movement around Lee’s left flank, but torrential rains turned the countryside into a swamp and the army sank to its knees and axles in muck. The “Mud March” destroyed what little confidence the army still had in Burnside, and on January 25 Lincoln replaced him with “Fighting Joe” Hooker. In the western theater Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland occupied Murfreesboro, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was north of Vicksburg, and Banks’s Army of the Gulf held the lower Mississippi. At sea Samuel DuPont had an ironclad squadron off Charleston. The South viewed these enemy hosts with alarm but for the first half of 1863 had reason to be optimistic. Northern antiwar sentiment surged, the drive to clear the Mississippi seemed stalled, Rosecrans remained inert, and the Confederacy won victories at Charleston and Chancellorsville. Then in midsummer and fall disaster struck. The North mangled Lee’s army at Gettysburg, captured Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and expelled the rebels from Tennessee.
The Union public expected DuPont to achieve a victory at Charleston akin to Farragut’s at New Orleans. But the tactical problems were not comparable. Once beyond the river forts Farragut could continue upstream, but Charleston was a cul-de-sac protected by powerful batteries. DuPont had a mere thirty-two guns on his eight monitors and the flagship New Ironsides. Moving on the noontime ebb tide of April 7, the vessels came within range of enemy batteries about three o’clock. To DuPont’s chief of staff, “It seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union fleet,” as Confederate gunners badly damaged all the ships. The repulse was a naval Fredericksburg, and its impact on northern morale was similarly depressing.
Surely Hooker would redeem Union fortunes! Fighting Joe performed wonders in reviving the dispirited army. For example, he abolished the “grand divisions” and reestablished the old corps, insisting that the men of each wear a distinctive insignia to enhance esprit de corps. Hooker also reorganized the cavalry into a single corps. Previous commanders assigned cavalry regiments individually to infantry divisions, a practice that hampered Union cavalry operations, since Lee and Stuart kept their cavalry concentrated. Properly organized and, after midsummer, increasingly armed with Spencer repeating carbines, Union troopers soon demonstrated that they were not inferior to their Confederate counterparts. Finally, the general’s fighting spirit was contagious. When he proclaimed that he commanded “the finest army on the planet,” people expected imminent victory.
Hooker was a skillful commander as well as a proficient organizer. Outnumbering Lee two to one, he planned to leave 40,000 men under John Sedgwick at Fredericksburg and take the remainder of the army upstream to turn the enemy left flank. Crossing the Rappahannock River simultaneously, the two wings would crush the Army of Northern Virginia. Initially the plan went well. By April 30 both Sedgwick and Hooker were across the river, the latter near Chancellorsville, a crossroads in an extensive area of tangled brush and second-growth timber called the Wilderness. “The rebel army,” exulted Hooker, “is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac.”
Hooker’s strategy placed Lee in a precarious position, but he responded with tactical daring. As he had done against Pope, the Confederate general divided his army, containing Sedgwick with 10,000 men and taking 50,000 troops to assail Hooker. Lee then further divided his army, sending Jackson’s corps around Hooker’s right flank on May 2. A vigilant commander would have crushed Lee’s scattered army. Hooker, however, lost his nerve. When Jackson’s men smashed the Union flank, Lee also attacked and the southerners initially drove the Yankees back. But stiffening resistance and nightfall halted the attacks, with Lee’s army still divided. Most of Hooker’s subordinates urged him to counterattack on May 3, but he refused. Instead, Lee attacked again, reuniting his army’s wings after fierce fighting. Meanwhile, Sedgwick seized Marye’s Heights and advanced toward Chancellorsville. Running another incalculable risk, Lee divided his army yet again. A fraction watched Hooker while the remainder assaulted Sedgwick on May 3–4, forcing him north of the Rappahannock. Lee then returned to confront Fighting Joe, who ordered his army to recross the river on the night of May 5–6.
Although the Battle of Chancellorsville was Lee’s most dazzling victory, two factors tempered the rejoicing. First, Lee’s 13,000 casualties, while fewer than the North’s 17,000, represented a much higher proportion of his army. One of those casualties was especially costly: In the twilight after his flank attack, Jackson rode beyond his lines to survey the situation. As he returned, a jittery Confederate unit fired, fatally wounding him. His death forced Lee to reorganize the army, from the successful two-corps structure into three corps under Longstreet, Ambrose P. Hill, and Richard Ewell. Whether Hill or Ewell could match Jackson’s genius for long marching and tough fighting was questionable. Second, the Union army had again been humiliated and hurt but not destroyed. Accustomed to suffering and surviving, the Army of the Potomac still manned the Rappahannock line.
Lee was eager to capitalize on his latest success by carrying the war into the North. Since early spring he had asked for permission to invade, but a great strategic debate snared his request. With the Yankees pressing hard on all fronts, which front was most vital for Confederate survival? The investment of Vicksburg, where Grant was closing in on John Pemberton’s garrison, caused special concern. Some men suggested that Lee send reinforcements to Bragg, so that the Army of Tennessee could defeat Rosecrans, threaten Kentucky and Ohio, and save Vicksburg. Lee opposed any scheme for western reinforcement, however, because he could not reduce his army without sacrificing Virginia. Southern railroads were so dilapidated that the North could shift troops more rapidly than the Confederacy; Confederate reinforcements would always arrive too late. Lee also argued that since northerners could not survive a deep south summer, Grant would soon retreat anyway. The solution to Confederate difficulties was an invasion of Pennsylvania, which would dislocate Federal plans, force Grant and Rosecrans to send reinforcements eastward, save Virginia, and allow Confederates to obtain supplies from northern farms and storehouses. Victories on northern soil might gain foreign recognition and foster Copperhead sentiment. Lee’s arguments convinced Davis that southerners should again wade the Potomac.
On June 9, as Lee shifted his 75,000 troops toward the Shenandoah, Union cavalry surprised Stuart at Brandy Station, resulting in the war’s largest cavalry action. Although Confederate troopers forced the bluecoats to retreat, the victory margin was thin. Eager to refurbish his reputation, Stuart suggested a raid into Hooker’s rear, and Lee consented. Departing on June 25, Stuart promised to rejoin the army in a few days, but unexpected difficulties delayed the cavalry’s return a week and Lee advanced blindly. With his men at York, Carlisle, and Chambersburg in Pennsylvania, Lee still believed Hooker was in Virginia. The Federal army was actually at Frederick, and Fighting Joe no longer commanded it. Hooker’s unwillingness to tangle with Lee as the gray column marched from the Rappahannock to Pennsylvania dismayed Lincoln, and on June 27 the president replaced him with George G. Meade. The new commander believed he could stand on the tactical defensive, since Lee would not retreat into Virginia without fighting. Meanwhile, learning that the Federals were dangerously close, on June 28 Lee ordered his forces to concentrate at Cashtown. Three days later men from James J. Pettigrew’s brigade went to seize a supply of shoes in Gettysburg. They bumped into a Yankee advance unit, John Buford’s cavalry division, which held off the graycoats until infantry support arrived. Although nobody planned to fight at Gettysburg, once the shooting began both armies converged there.
Fighting on the first day was chaotic and fierce, as the Union I and XI Corps tried to hold ground west and north of Gettysburg, but the Confederates drove them through the town and onto Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. As more Federals arrived, the line extended southward along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top and Round Top. The position resembled a four-mile-long inverted fishhook running from the barb at Culp’s Hill, along the shank of Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, to the eye at the Round Tops. The Confederate line ran roughly parallel from east of Gettysburg, through the town, then south along Seminary Ridge. Not only were the Federals dug in on high ground, but in terms of maneuver and communications they held interior lines. Reaching the battlefield at midnight, Meade saw enough by moonlight to know his 88,000-man army held formidable terrain. If only Lee would attack!
Longstreet opposed fighting at Gettysburg. The army, he told Lee, should slide around the Federal left flank, get between Meade and Washington, find good defensive terrain, and force the Army of the Potomac to attack. Rejecting the advice, Lee issued attack orders for Longstreet to deliver the primary blow against Meade’s southern flank and Ewell to launch a secondary assault against Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Longstreet hammered but did not break the main Union line, and Ewell made only slight headway, securing a lodgment on the lower slope of Culp’s Hill. That evening Meade met with his subordinates to decide whether the army should retreat, attack, or hold its ground. Almost all agreed that the Federals should maintain their defensive posture. Where was Lee most likely to hit? Meade reasoned that the enemy, having tested the flanks, would attack the center. He was correct. Lee planned an assault, preceded by a massive barrage, aimed at the middle of the fishhook. The striking force would consist of approximately 13,500 men stretching across a mile-long front. Lee again entrusted the attack to Longstreet, who again protested his superior’s plan. But the southern commander waved off his subordinate. “The enemy is there, General Longstreet,” said Lee, indicating Cemetery Ridge, “and I am going to strike him.”
Lee’s plan was almost Burnside-like in its simplicity, and it produced a Fredericksburg with the roles reversed. The artillery barrage shattered the sultry stillness at one o’clock and continued for almost two hours before the Confederates emerged from the woods on Seminary Ridge and advanced as if on a parade ground. Pickett’s Charge, named after George Pickett, who commanded the largest of the three attacking divisions, pitted gallantry against firepower. Forty minutes decided the issue. Yankee batteries rained grapeshot and canister on the exposed ranks. Federal infantry unloosed volley after volley, while punishing fire from the flanks engulfed the column. The storm of hot metal shredded the attacking column, which suffered 50 percent casualties.
“It is all my fault,” Lee told the survivors, urging them to rally in case Meade counterattacked. Within a few hours the Army of Northern Virginia had regrouped, but Meade did not leave his lines. As after Antietam, Lee held his ground for a day before retreating. Battle casualties amounted to one-third of his army, and thousands of men straggled during the withdrawal. Meade did not pursue vigorously. With his army having suffered 23,000 casualties, he seemed content to escort the invaders off northern soil. By late July both armies were again on the Rappahannock, and a long stalemate ensued in the eastern theater. Lincoln was disconsolate when he learned that Lee’s army had reached Virginia soil, and he penned a harsh letter to Meade, which he never actually sent. “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape,” the president wrote. “He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war.” The “other late successes” occurred in the western theater, where Vicksburg and Port Hudson surrendered and Bragg was in retreat.
A muddled command system exacerbated normal Confederate problems in the west: Too many places to defend, too few troops, and too little logistical support. In November 1862 Davis appointed Joseph E. Johnston, recovered from his wound at Fair Oaks, to command a newly formed Department of the West that included the armies of Bragg in Tennessee and Pemberton in Mississippi. The command difficulties were threefold. First, the extent of Johnston’s authority was unclear. Retaining the right to correspond directly with Richmond, Bragg and Pemberton could circumvent him. Second, Johnston could not effectively coordinate the two armies due to the distance between them, the South’s primitive transportation system, and Federal control of the Tennessee River. Third, Johnston and Davis disagreed on a fundamental issue. The department commander believed middle and east Tennessee were more important than the Mississippi, but Davis stressed holding the river.
Following his unsuccessful overland campaign toward Vicksburg, Grant went to Young’s Point to oversee the river campaign. Both geography and man had made Vicksburg difficult to attack. Only the high ground south and east of the city offered suitable terrain for military operations. Grant’s problem was to get there. The bayou country fanning northward from Vicksburg was impenetrable, as Grant learned after months of searching for a feasible route. Powerful batteries lining the river presented a barrier seemingly as impassable as the bayous. Grant admitted that the “strategical way according to the rule” would be to return to Memphis and try the overland route again. But in the Union’s grim springtime mood people would have interpreted the move as another defeat, so Grant determined upon a plan as daring as any that Lee devised. His army would slog down the Mississippi’s west side and cross below the city. David D. Porter, commanding the river flotilla, would simply have to run the gauntlet with gunboats and transports. Grant knew he might have a difficult logistical problem once he left his supply base north of Vicksburg. For supplies he would depend in part on a wagon road coming down the river’s west bank and on the Navy’s ability to run additional transports past the Confederate batteries. But the road was tenuous and the Navy’s task risky, and Grant would have to live primarily off the country until he got back to the Mississippi above Vicksburg—if he could.
In early April Grant started his men marching south, and on the night of April 16–17 a dozen of Porter’s ships slipped downriver. Confederate gunners hit all twelve ships, but only one sank, and on April 30 the army crossed at Bruinsburg. The next day Grant brushed aside rebels at Port Gibson and then paused for more than a week to stockpile supplies and organize a wagon train before resuming his advance. His first task was to keep Pemberton and Johnston, who had patched together a force near Jackson, from uniting. Grant headed for Jackson, winning another minor battle at Raymond and forcing Johnston to retreat. Then Grant turned toward Vicksburg, defeating Pemberton’s main force at Champion Hill and his rear guard at the Big Black River. The Confederate commander retreated into Vicksburg’s earthworks. Reluctant to undertake a siege during the summer months, Grant twice stormed the fortress, but the Confederates bloodily repulsed the assaults. The only way to take the city was by siege.
Throughout the campaign Johnston and Pemberton never agreed on a common strategy. Johnston had urged Pemberton to abandon Vicksburg and join him for a joint attack on Grant, but Pemberton refused, since he believed Vicksburg was a “vital point, indispensable to be held.” Thus Grant was successful even though Confederates in the vicinity outnumbered him until mid-June. By then, however, he had 71,000 troops closing in on Vicksburg. Shelling went on night and day as the inhabitants huddled in basements or caves, subsisting on mule meat and rats, and on July 4 Pemberton surrendered. Four days later Port Hudson capitulated to Banks, who had besieged it since mid-May. “The Father of Waters,” Lincoln happily wrote, “again goes unvexed to the sea.”
As the Vicksburg siege entered its final stage, Rosecrans launched an offensive with his 60,000-man army. Moving with speed and skill, he maneuvered Bragg out of middle Tennessee. Bragg took refuge in Chattanooga, and Rosecrans paused to regroup. When he resumed his advance in mid-August, Burnside’s Army of the Ohio marched simultaneously from Kentucky toward Knoxville. Burnside forced Simon B. Buckner’s Knoxville defenders to withdraw and entered the city on September 3. Six days later Rosecrans took Chattanooga after clever maneuvering again forced Bragg to retreat. Rosecrans plunged southward in pursuit, each of his three corps pouring through mountain gaps twenty miles apart. Bragg prepared to pounce as the South effected another far-flung strategic concentration similar to the one preceding Shiloh. He received reinforcements from Buckner and Johnston, and he anxiously awaited two divisions under Longstreet coming from Lee’s army. But the Union occupation of Knoxville severed the direct rail link between Virginia and Bragg, compelling Longstreet to take a roundabout route. Before he arrived, Bragg tried three times to strike Rosecrans’s dispersed forces. The attempts miscarried but alerted Rosecrans, who hastily concentrated his army along Chickamauga Creek. At the ensuing Battle of Chickamauga, the Confederates had a numerical advantage of about 10,000 men. On September 18, as Longstreet’s first troops detrained, the Confederates fought their way across the creek. The next day Bragg delivered an all-out attack but made little progress. He renewed the attack the next morning and rolled up the Union right flank. One-third of the army, including Rosecrans, fled to Chattanooga, and it appeared Bragg might annihilate the remaining two-thirds. But George H. Thomas rallied the Federals and repulsed attacks until dark, earning the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.” That night Thomas retreated to Chattanooga.
Chickamauga was another dearly bought Confederate victory devoid of strategic consequences. The rebels suffered 18,400 casualties, the Yankees 16,100. Furthermore, the Union army retained Chattanooga even though Bragg besieged it. Since the only supply route Rosecrans utilized was circuitous and subjected to rebel cavalry raids, by mid-October his army was starving. With Rosecrans acting, in Lincoln’s memorable phrase, “confused and stunned like a duck hit upon the head,” the administration responded decisively by sending reinforcements and changing the command structure. Stanton ordered two corps from the Army of the Potomac under Hooker to Chattanooga. In the war’s greatest railroad operation, 23,000 men covered 1,200 miles in twelve days. The War Department also ordered four divisions under Sherman to the beleaguered city. On October 17 Lincoln appointed Grant as commander of all forces (except Banks’s army) between the Appalachians and the Mississippi and directed him to assume personal control at Chattanooga. He replaced Rosecrans with Thomas, opened up a direct supply route, and developed plans to break the siege. Meanwhile, Bragg committed a blunder. At Davis’s behest he sent Longstreet to recapture Knoxville just as the Union army was seizing the initiative under Grant’s energetic generalship. On November 24–25 Union attacks drove the Confederates from their siege positions, forcing the Confederates to retreat to Dalton. Shortly thereafter Longstreet retreated from Knoxville, although he remained in a position to menace east Tennessee. Bragg admitted that Davis had erred in keeping him in command, since, as both men knew, he had lost the confidence of his generals. In October Davis had visited Bragg’s headquarters and in the commander’s presence asked each subordinate whether the army needed a new leader. All said yes, yet Davis retained Bragg! Now, after one failure too many, Davis replaced Bragg with Johnston.
Grant planned for a significant winter campaign, hoping for permission to advance from New Orleans to Mobile and then to “make a campaign into the interior of Alabama, and, possibly, Georgia.” Concern in Washington for the security of east and middle Tennessee prevented Grant from undertaking the campaign. Lincoln and Halleck wanted him to drive Longstreet completely out of east Tennessee and to push Johnston farther back into Georgia. Although unable to undertake his Mobile campaign, Grant did send Sherman from Vicksburg to Meridian, Mississippi, in what was the first example of his raiding strategy. Departing Vicksburg in early February 1864 with 25,000 men, Sherman devastated the railroads and resources of central Mississippi and then withdrew to Canton before returning to Vicksburg in early March.
The North’s achievements during the last half of 1863 gave it a firm strategic position for winning the war. Augmenting the substantial gains in the eastern and western theaters was a success along the coast. Following DuPont’s failure, Lincoln replaced him with John A. Dahlgren, who cooperated with Quincy A. Gillmore’s army forces to seal off Charleston by capturing Morris Island. Although the city remained in Confederate hands, blockade-running became doubly dangerous since ships had to escape Dahlgren’s cordon and avoid Union artillery on Morris Island. The North had tightened the blockade one more notch. Indeed, less spectacularly than the land battles but more steadily, the blockade was strangling the Confederacy.
The Civil War at Sea
The most important aspect of the sea war was the blockade, which the North tried to tighten and the South struggled to break. The blockade’s architects were Secretary of the Navy Welles and his assistant secretary, Gustavus V. Fox. They helped plan and organize the amphibious operations that captured bases in enemy territory and closed southern ports, and oversaw the Navy’s expansion to 671 ships by December 1864, including 236 steam vessels built during the war. With steam dominating the building program, in July 1862 Congress restructured the five naval bureaus into a new system of eight bureaus. The most significant change was the addition of a Bureau of Steam Engineering, headed by Benjamin F. Isherwood. Working closely with John Lenthall, chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, Isherwood did more than any other individual to design the Union’s steam navy.
The steam navy’s growth created special problems. Prices for labor and materials rose during the war, and cost overruns played havoc with the Navy Department budget. As Isherwood and Lenthall supervised the construction of vessels, they often changed specifications, leading to what Fox called “those horrible bills for additions and improvements and everlasting alterations.” The biggest problem, however, was finding capable steam engineers. Although their numbers increased from 192 to 1,805, many were inexperienced. To compensate for the novices, Isherwood designed power plants for simplicity, reliability, and durability. But he achieved these admirable qualities by building machinery that was often heavy, underpowered, and inefficient, resulting in many slow, deep-draft ships with limited cruising ranges.
Whatever problems the Union Navy encountered, they were minor compared to those of the Confederate navy. Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory faced obstacles that made even a modest naval effort appear impossible. The southern population contained few sailors, and at its peak naval manpower was 25 percent below requirements. The South suffered more than the North from a shortage of engineers, and many of the skilled workers went into the army. Fuel, lubricants, iron, and other raw materials were scarce. The Confederacy initially had major naval facilities at Norfolk, Pensacola, and New Orleans, but the Union captured them in 1862, forcing the South to utilize small yards or build new ones in isolated locations beyond the reach of enemy amphibious operations. The transportation system often could not get even small quantities of materials to these far-flung facilities. Since Davis favored the army, the navy received inadequate funding. Money shortages crippled the effort to purchase foreign-built ships. Furthermore, constructing warships for a belligerent violated the neutrality laws of various European nations. The South’s achievement was remarkable, considering the difficulties, for it built or acquired at least 130 ships.
The Confederate navy undertook two major activities intended to weaken the blockade. First, utilizing an array of technological innovations, the navy tried to protect southern harbors. With technology in rapid flux, Mallory hoped to pit southern ingenuity against northern ships. The navy department had a Torpedo Bureau and a Naval Submarine Battery Service to develop torpedoes (mines). Specially designed fifty-foot-long, cigar-shaped boats called “Davids” carried contact mines at the end of bow-mounted spars. Torpedoes sank or damaged forty-three Union warships. The Confederacy built the world’s first successful submarine, CSS Hunley, which destroyed USS Housatonic off Charleston in February 1864, though Hunley also sank after the explosion. Torpedoes, “Davids,” and submarines induced a well-founded fear in Union naval officers, who approached enemy harbors and river mouths with increasing caution.
The most ambitious effort to utilize new technology was the ironclad program. Prompted by Mallory, the government converted the captured Merrimack into the ironclad Virginia, authorized construction of two ironclads at Memphis and two at New Orleans, and appropriated $2 million to purchase ironclads abroad. The original purpose of the ironclads was to raise the blockade by sinking the Union’s wooden ships and challenging the Federal Navy for control of the southern coast. The Virginia started the process spectacularly. On March 8, 1862, it steamed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, destroying Cumberland and Congress. Three other Union ships ran aground trying to escape the iron-skinned beast. The day’s events demonstrated that an unarmored ship could not fight an armored one. Fortunately for the Union, it had an antidote. When Welles learned of enemy plans for Merrimack, he appointed an Ironclad Board to study the problem. It recommended that the Navy Department authorize contracts for three different experimental ironclads, one of them designed by John Ericsson and known as Monitor. The Monitor’s most revolutionary feature was a revolving gun turret: Only the turret, not the ship, need turn in battle. On the night of March 8 Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads, and the next day, when Merrimack ventured forth to finish off the blockading squadron, the world’s first fight between ironclads occurred. Armor against armor produced a tactical stalemate that worked to the North’s strategic advantage. Union ironclads could prevent southern armored ships from directly lifting the blockade. Henceforth, the South primarily used ironclads to supplement harbor defenses, leaving Yankee sea power unchallenged along the seaboard.
The Battle of Hampton Roads touched off a Monitor-mania in the North and convinced the South that it should devote a major portion of its naval energies to acquiring ironclads. However, the Confederate ironclad program was not successful. The effort to buy foreign armored vessels yielded minimal results, and the domestic building program fared little better, as indicated by the fate of the four armored ships authorized in 1861. The two at New Orleans fell into Union hands after Farragut’s triumph, the rebels destroyed one of the Memphis ironclads in August 1862 to prevent its capture, and the Federals captured the other one two years later. Although the South laid down or contracted for about fifty armored ships, only twenty-two ever became operational. Moreover, the South learned that once it built a novel weapon, the North, with its superior industrial capacity, could produce more of them. Before the war ended, the North had seventy ironclads in service.
The other Confederate naval activity was commerce raiding, which the South hoped would hurt the northern economy so badly that Welles would withdraw ships from the blockade to hunt down the raiders. Commerce raiders included privateers, converted merchantmen, and English-built steam cruisers. Davis issued a call for privateers in April 1861, and the government granted the first commission to the schooner Triton on May 10. A few more ships received commissions, but privateering soon ceased, since privateers had no place to take prizes. The blockade closed off southern ports, and the major European nations had signed the Declaration of Paris of 1856, outlawing the practice. The South possessed few merchant ships, but the government refitted about a dozen and commissioned them as regular navy vessels. But far more important than privateers or refitted merchantmen were three specially built cruisers bought in England. The CSS Alabama covered 75,000 miles under sail and steam in less than two years, capturing sixty-four prizes before the Kearsarge sank it. Its sister ship, Florida, took thirty-eight prizes before the sloop Wachusett captured the vessel as it refitted in a neutral port in Brazil. The South purchased the Shenandoah to replace the Alabama, and it practically destroyed the Yankee whaling fleet in the Bering Sea during the summer of 1865 before learning the war was over.
The direct losses from Confederate raiders amounted to about 250 ships, but the indirect costs were much higher. Hundreds of vessels lay in port fearing to put to sea, and shipowners transferred at least 700 more to foreign registry to avoid rebel depredations. Insurance rates skyrocketed for those ships brave enough to put to sea flying the American flag. However, though the commerce raiders practically drove the United States merchant marine from the oceans, they did not affect the war’s outcome. Foreign shipping carried northern commerce, and Welles, recognizing the blockade’s cardinal role in the war effort, refused to divert many ships from the southern coast.
Unable to weaken seriously the blockade with ironclads or commerce raiders, the South relied on blockade-running, an enterprise involving private individuals, foreigners, state governments, and the Confederate government. The allures of the business were adventure, patriotism, and money. Initially blockade-running was dominated by opportunistic captains, primarily interested in profit, who brought in high-value, low-bulk items such as perfume and silk that civilians craved but that did not noticeably help the army. In 1863–1864 the Confederate government began regulating the business by buying blockade-runners, taking control of half the cargo space on other ships, and banning a long list of nonessential goods. As the blockade tightened, blockade-running became more skillful and organized. The British yards at Clydeside built special ships. Fast, drably painted, and burning practically smokeless anthracite coal, they were nearly invisible during nighttime runs in and out of port. The business centered in Bermuda, Nassau, Havana, and the Mexican cities of Tampico and Veracruz, where cargoes shipped in bulk from Europe arrived for transshipment to blockade-runners.
In the deadly hide-and-seek game played nightly along the coast the blockade-runners had great advantages. They chose the port, time, weather, and other circumstances to maximize their chances, and even if spotted they were invariably faster than the blockaders. However, the number of ships penetrating the blockade declined as Federal warships became more numerous and amphibious operations closed Confederate ports, until by 1864 only Mobile and Wilmington remained open. In 1861 nine out of ten blockade-runners were successful, but by 1865 only one out of two made it. These ships brought in impressive quantities of war materials, such as 600,000 small arms, 624,000 pairs of boots, and millions of pounds of lead and meat. Yet this supply line was always tenuous: Union blockaders, storms, mangled propellers, blown cylinders, cracked steam pipes, limited cargo space, and intense competition made it unpredictable and expensive, vastly complicating the Confederate war effort. And, of course, the important question is not how much got through, but did enough? The answer is no. Although leaky, the blockade was one of the Union’s most effective weapons, contributing significantly to the decline in the South’s home-front standard of living and in the Confederate army’s logistical support.
The Sinews of War
By the winter of 1863–1864 the disparity in strength was obvious, as the Union became stronger while the Confederacy, besieged by land and sea, grew weaker. In the North, order and organization replaced the chaos of 1861, manpower and material resources appeared inexhaustible, and industrial and agricultural output increased. In the South, raw materials were difficult to obtain, industrial production lagged, facilities deteriorated, the armies shrank, famine conditions occurred, and defeatism stalked the land. Compared to the Union, the Confederacy faced grave crises in supply, transportation, manpower, and home-front morale.
In the North an improvised logistical effort characterized by shortages and corruption soon gave way to a centralized, organized mobilization that abundantly supplied the Army. When the war began, the Army’s rapid expansion overwhelmed the War Department’s supply bureaus. Understaffed, headed by aged officers, dedicated to technical routine, and uncoordinated, the bureaus were initially as much hindrance as help. As expedients the North depended on cities and states to supply the men they raised and turned to foreign markets. Federal, state, and local purchasing agents and private speculators competed feverishly at home and abroad (where they also bid against southern agents), buying an assortment of arms and equipment. With a desperate demand for great quantities, buyers paid too little attention to quality—and to honest dealings. Lobbyists, contractors, and speculators descended on Washington and the state capitals like a cloud of locusts, devouring the national and state treasuries. Although the Army’s unprecedented expansion made some logistical chaos inevitable, Lincoln’s original secretary of war, Simon Cameron, contributed to the frenzy and corruption with deplorably lax administration.
By mid-1862, however, most of the inefficiency and deficiencies had disappeared. Congress established investigative committees to uncover fraud and passed laws regulating the letting of contracts. The forces of centralizing nationalism that brought manpower mobilization under federal control also returned logistical mobilization to the War Department’s Ordnance, Subsistence, and Quartermaster Departments. The personnel in these bureaus expanded dramatically. For example, when Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs assumed office in June 1861, he had only thirteen clerks, but by 1865 he had almost 600 civilian employees. War Department organization also became more elaborate. To use the same example, the Quartermaster Department initially had one subdivision (clothing), but Meigs created eight more, dealing with specialized logistical functions such as forage and fuel, barracks and hospitals, and wagon transportation. At a higher administrative level Stanton established a War Board composed of the bureau heads and chaired by Major General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, whom Lincoln and Stanton appointed as their personal military adviser. Acting as an embryonic American-style general staff, the board facilitated logistical coordination. Although it soon ceased meeting formally, Halleck inherited a budding tradition of interbureau cooperation when he became commanding general, which made his task easier. The Union was also blessed with honest administrators in high places, particularly Secretary of War Stanton, who replaced Cameron in January 1862, and Meigs, who spent $1.5 billion and could account for every penny.
Industry responded to the necessity and opportunity presented by the war, quickly converting to wartime production and expanding its output. The war demanded plan, order, and system, transforming what historian Allan Nevins called “a loose, inchoate, uncrystallized society” into an organized one. The war intensified business trends already evident in the antebellum era as industries became increasingly concentrated and coordinated. Truly national industries arose that utilized mass, mechanized production techniques and more sophisticated managerial methods. Without any economic controls, American industry geared up so successfully that foreign purchases ceased in mid-1862, and surpluses rather than shortages became the rule. By the end of 1862 Lincoln believed logistical excess hampered the war effort. “My dear General,” he wrote in exasperation to Banks, “this expanding, and piling up of impedimenta, has been, so far, almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned.”
Northern acquisition of weapons exemplified the evolution from hectic improvisation to an efficient system. When the war commenced, the North turned to European markets, buying 738,000 firearms in fifteen months. Most of the foreign weapons were dependable but some were inferior, and agents scouring the Continent paid premium prices for all of them. Meanwhile, the government stimulated the private arms industry by offering profitable contracts, and it increased production at government arsenals. The private and public armaments industries that produced fewer than 50,000 firearms in 1860 turned out more than 2.5 million during the war, and after 1862 foreign purchasing stopped.
While the North’s logistical mobilization expanded, the South’s peaked in early 1863 and then declined. Fundamental interlocking problems beset southern logistics. The Confederacy had few preexisting industries to expand and lacked sufficient raw materials upon which to build an industrial base. The South did have an existing agricultural foundation, dominated by tobacco and cotton. Efforts to convert to grain and meat production did not completely succeed. Northern conquests eroded the South’s ability to make a sustained logistical effort, forcing it to draw raw materials and food from an ever-smaller area. The inability to meet the army’s needs from domestic sources increased Confederate dependence on hazardous blockade-running. Economic difficulties, produced in large part by inflation, crippled both domestic and foreign procurement. Skilled labor remained scarce, and the transportation system faltered, ruining the essential link between procurement and timely distribution. While the North added 4,000 miles of track, increased its rolling stock, and captured or disrupted critical southern railroad lines, the South barely kept a few lines operating by cannibalizing less important lines, and it could not replace worn-out rolling stock. Furthermore, the Union occupied the upper south horse- and mule-breeding region, making wagon transport difficult.
Nothing hurt the supply services as much as the failure of decisive action and hard-headed planning by the Davis administration. The South needed a careful weighing of assets and liabilities, the setting of strict priorities, and centralized direction in order to use its resources efficiently. But Confederate leaders allowed events to control planning, resulting in uncoordinated, tardy, and generally impotent centralization of the logistical effort. The government gave no overall direction to the supply bureaus, which often bid against each other for materials and labor. Davis never permitted the military to utilize the railroads to best advantage and was slow to exert even moderate control over blockade-running. The Confederacy could have developed an extensive trade through Union lines, but the president at first prohibited it and then shackled the trade with so many regulations that it never fully developed. In sum, Davis’s defective supply management made unavoidable problems worse.
The efforts of Lucius B. Northrop, the Commissary General of Subsistence, and Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, illustrate Confederate problems. In a rich agricultural region like the South, food should have been the least of difficulties. But the North soon overran or isolated its most productive areas, such as Tennessee, and in states remaining under rebel control labor shortages appeared as white men went into the army and slaves fled to Union lines. Farm machinery broke down, with no spare parts available. As Confederate currency depreciated, farmers became less willing to sell, since they rightly believed future prices would be higher. Confronted by massive hoarding, the government resorted to impressment and a tax in kind. The War Department published a price schedule for impressed goods, but the prices were far below prevailing market rates. Under the tax in kind the Subsistence Bureau confiscated one-tenth of a farmer’s produce. The forcible seizures of food caused outraged protests, especially when much of the produce rotted before the transportation system could move it to the army. Evasion and outright resistance became common. In desperation Northrop tried to import meat—a bulky and hence expensive item—adding to the bureau’s financial woes. By the spring of 1863 the food situation was critical. Lee’s pickets along the Rappahannock shouted to their enemy counterparts that they had a new, tough general. When the Yankees asked for his name, the pickets replied, “General Starvation, by God.”
Gorgas performed wonders in arming the South from three sources: Blockade-running, battlefield captures, and domestic manufacturing. He bought blockade-runners for his bureau’s use, importing large quantities of firearms, saltpeter, lead, and percussion caps. Organized battlefield scavenging yielded about 80,000 weapons during the 1862 spring and summer campaigns alone. But the domestic arms industry was Gorgas’s most remarkable accomplishment, as he expanded or constructed armories, arsenals, and depots throughout the South. Yet shortages prevented Gorgas from doing more. Lack of money retarded the work of his European purchasing agent, Caleb Huse. Minerals remained scarce despite the abilities of Isaac M. St. John, who headed the bureau’s Nitre and Mining corps, which became a separate bureau in April 1863. Charged with finding and developing mineral resources, St. John strove imaginatively to supply them. For example, when Bragg withdrew from Tennessee, losing the mines that produced 90 percent of the South’s copper, St. John salvaged copper from apple-brandy stills. But he could not perform miracles. The scarcity of pig iron, for instance, prevented the South’s largest manufacturing establishment, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, from operating at more than one-third capacity. The loss of a single skilled worker could be disastrous. When Yankee raiders killed John Jones, an expert barrel straightener, the Richmond Armory’s production dropped by 369 rifles per month, and it took several months to train a replacement. Finally, Gorgas wanted to centralize operations at a few secure locations, but the railroads could not haul raw materials or finished products great distances.
If Confederate logistical support diminished after 1863, so did southern armies, and the two phenomena were not unrelated. The “present for duty” total was 253,208 on January 1, 1863, but only 154,910 two years later. Casualties and disease accounted for part of the shrinkage, but two other factors were more important in the Confederate army’s disintegration. The feeble conscription enforcement machinery all but collapsed and was unable to provide a steady flow of new recruits. Meanwhile, the number of deserters, which would total more than 100,000 during the war, increased dramatically. Although the Union Army had twice as many deserters, the effect on the larger Federal force was less severe. To the South the absence of 100,000 men was of paramount importance, especially since the army had to detail men to track down the deserters, further reducing available manpower. Deserters also invariably took their arms and equipment, which the South could ill afford to replace.
Both sides tried to control desertion by similar means: Stationing guards at fords, ferries, and bridges; offering rewards for capturing deserters; appeals by officers, politicians, and editors; amnesty offers; and drastic punishment. Nothing worked. Many Confederate deserters entered Union lines, but most took to the hills, caves, and swamps, often joining draft dodgers to form armed bands that defied authorities. A few Federal deserters went over to the enemy, some fled to Canada or Mexico, but like southern deserters most sought refuge in inaccessible areas in their home section. Why did men desert? Some reasons were exactly the same for Billy Yank and Johnny Reb, such as cowardice before a battle or lack of devotion to the cause among conscripts and substitutes. Other reasons, although similar, varied in degree. The hardships of soldiering and worry about the family back home influenced men in both armies, but more so in the Confederacy, where the privations were much greater in the service and behind the lines. Some causes were unique to each army. The northern bounty system encouraged desertion, while rising defeatism on the southern home front, conveyed to soldiers through letters and rumors, motivated deserters, who knew they would get a sympathetic reception from their families and friends.
“The people are soul-sick and heartily tired of the hateful, hopeless strife,” wrote a prominent Georgian. “We have had enough of want and woe, of cruelty and carnage, enough of cripples and corpses. There is an abundance of weeping parents, bereaved widows, and orphaned children in the land.” Such sentiments represented the collapse of civilian morale that preceded, and contributed to, the army’s defeat. Between 1861 and 1864 the South managed to maintain effective armies, but it failed to preserve the population’s well-being. Shortages and inflation, the fear of a centralized government impinging on individual and state liberty, and the hopelessness arising from losses on the battlefield and in the international arena fostered a southern peace movement. People carried money to market in a basket and brought home their purchases in a purse—or so people said—and when Davis called for a day of fasting and prayer in March 1863, one man wrote that the president had asked for “fasting in the midst of famine!” That spring bread riots occurred in five cities, and everywhere gaunt-looking people wore dingy clothes. The knowledge that the North was virtually untouched by the war’s ravages made the privations especially unbearable. The contrast was so stark that some southerners urged soldiers to desert to the Yankees “whear you can get plenty and not stay in this one-horse barefooted naked and famine stricken Southern Confederacy.”
The Confederate government, wrote a North Carolina congressman in 1863, is becoming “a consolidated military despotism.” Defining liberty as freedom from an arbitrary government, many southerners agreed with him. For popular liberty to survive, civil power must control the military, and state governments must protect the populace from the inevitable authoritarian tendencies of a central government. Yet the dual safeguards of civilian control and strong states seemed to be disappearing. Conscription, the periodic suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, arbitrary arrests, the impressment of private property, and novel taxes all spurred doubts about the justness of the Confederate cause. The government defended its actions on the grounds of temporary military necessity, but more and more civilians attested to the evils without acknowledging the necessity.
Had the South been winning, the privations and infringements might have been endurable. But even when the South won a battle the North became more powerful, and when the North won a battle the South became permanently weaker. By 1864 all hope that foreign aid would redress the imbalance was gone. Skillful northern diplomacy prevented an internal conflict from becoming an international war. Many reasons accounted for British nonintervention: English dependence on northern foodstuffs, access to new cotton supplies, turmoil in Europe, fear of what might happen to Canada and to British commerce in a war with the Union, and an unwillingness to side with slavery. The British government also wanted to establish precedents by respecting the blockade, a weapon that it often used. Most important, the South did not earn recognition on the battlefield. Realizing that England would never intervene, in August 1863 Davis canceled the diplomatic mission to London, and in December he told the Confederate Congress that European powers had become “positively unfriendly.”
Incipient peace sentiment found organized expression in the Peace and Constitutional Society, the Peace Society, the Order of the Heroes of America, and other smaller societies. Dedicated to ending the war, these organizations resisted Confederate authority, discouraged enlistments, and assisted invading Union armies. Yet if some southerners despaired, most remained committed to independence. Tenacity among civilian leaders, the fighting prowess of rebel soldiers, and a dash of luck might reverse the war’s adverse course. Northern Copperhead sentiment was by no means dead, and although the South could no longer win an outright military victory, it might forestall Union conquest long enough that the Yankees would give up in frustration.
The Final Campaigns, 1864–1865
“There is no enthusiasm for Gen. Grant; and on the other hand, there is no prejudice against him. We are prepared to throw up our hats when he shows himself the great soldier in Virginia against Lee and the best troops of the rebels.” So wrote a colonel in the Army of the Potomac upon learning that Grant had been commissioned a lieutenant general on March 9, 1864, and replaced Halleck as general in chief. Eastern soldiers were skeptical about this westerner who now held a rank that only George Washington had previously held on a permanent basis. Yet they were ready to embrace him if he could duplicate his western successes against the Army of Northern Virginia, which they thought superior to any army that Grant had defeated beyond the Appalachians.
With Grant’s promotion an awkward but workable command system with modern overtones emerged. To facilitate communications between Lincoln and Grant and between the commanding general and his department commanders, the War Department established the position of chief of staff. Halleck, who had been functioning informally as chief of staff since the summer of 1862, filled the new post. His ability to translate civilian thoughts into military language and vice versa ensured that Lincoln and Grant never misunderstood each other. The chief of staff also relieved Grant of the burden of personally corresponding with his department commanders. Halleck’s position was especially important since Grant did not establish his headquarters in Washington but took the field with the Army of the Potomac, though he left Meade in tactical command of the Army.
Grant’s plan for the spring campaign demonstrated a grand strategic design that would put simultaneous pressure on as many fronts as possible, working “all parts of the Army to-gether, and, somewhat towards a common center.” In the east, Meade would assail the Army of Northern Virginia, assisted by smaller forces operating on the strategic flanks. Moving from Fort Monroe toward Richmond via the James River, Butler’s Army of the James would capture the capital if possible but at least sever Lee’s supply lines running south to Petersburg. Franz Sigel would move up the Shenandoah, depriving the south of the Valley’s resources. Without supplies and threatened in the rear and on the flanks, Lee would have to move into the open to fight. In the west, Grant wanted Banks to move against Mobile and then thrust toward Georgia to cooperate with Sherman, whose task was to move against Johnston’s army and then “to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can upon their War resources.” While ravaging the countryside Sherman was also determined to strike at civilian morale. “My aim, then,” he wrote, “was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us.”
From the start the plan went awry. Banks did not advance toward Mobile. Instead, Lincoln ordered him up the Red River to shore up the reconstructed pro-Unionist governments that had been organized in occupied portions of Arkansas and Louisiana, to warn the French in Mexico not to become too ambitious, and to seize the region’s cotton supplies. Since it pointed away from Sherman and Grant, the Red River campaign was a strategic blunder, made worse by Banks’s inept generalship. When a Confederate army defeated his advance divisions at Mansfield on April 8, Banks retreated to New Orleans. The two other political generals performed no better. Sigel confronted an outnumbered Confederate force at New Market on May 15. When the rebels attacked, Sigel excitedly issued orders in German to his English-speaking staff, contributing to a Union debacle. Butler initially outnumbered the scratch force facing him by six or seven to one, but he avoided capturing Richmond or Petersburg or cutting the vital rail lines. The Confederates penned up his army inside Bermuda Hundred, “as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond,” wrote Grant, “as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.”
Grant had a very costly encounter with Lee. As the Army of the Potomac moved into the Wilderness on May 4, the commanding general believed he could defeat the Confederates somewhere between the Rapidan and the James. He had a two-to-one numerical superiority, the subsidiary attacks by Butler and Sigel would supposedly provide diversions, and the Federals had the initiative. Lee, however, also had advantages. The terrain provided defensive positions, morale remained reasonably high despite austere conditions and civilian backsliding, and a sense of desperation honed his fighting instincts. “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River,” Lee wrote. “If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Lee awaited Grant not far from where he had humiliated Hooker a year earlier, and on May 5 the Battle of the Wilderness began. After two days 17,000 Federals and 11,000 rebels were casualties. Grant had been jolted as badly as Hooker, and when the wagons moved rearward, soldiers thought that, as usual, they were retreating. But orders came for the army to move south. No retreat! Troops sang with joy, even though another cauldron awaited them in the near future.
What followed was a five-week ordeal in which a battle and a campaign became synonymous. Previous battles lasted several days and then the armies disengaged to recuperate. Now the fighting was continuous. Incessant skirmishing and shelling accompanied the almost weekly battles. Grant kept moving southeast, trying to outflank Lee, but the Army of Northern Virginia anticipated each move, raced along interior lines, and repeatedly blocked the way. The first flanking movement brought the armies to Spotsylvania Court House, where ferocious fighting occurred on May 10 and 12. Then Grant looped to the southeast, but Lee met him on the North Anna; the Federals again shifted, only to run into the rebels at Totopotomy Creek; still another flanking movement ended at Cold Harbor, where Grant launched an all-out attack on June 3. Grant always regretted ordering this ill-conceived frontal assault, which gained little but cost thousands in dead and wounded.
After more than a week of nasty trench warfare around Cold Harbor, on the night of June 12–13 Grant crossed the James heading for Petersburg, the railroad hub serving the capital. Seize Petersburg and Lee would have to come out from behind his entrenchments to fight for his supply lines. Grant conducted the maneuver brilliantly, leaving Lee mystified as to his destination and intentions. By June 15 the Federal army was below the James, while Lee was still north of it, and only a thin gray line manned the Petersburg defenses. But Beauregard’s heroic defense, and the Union forces’ conflicting orders and ill-coordinated attacks, allowed the rebels to hold the city until Lee awoke to his danger and moved the Army of Northern Virginia into the defenses. The armies then settled into a siege that would last nine months.
The Wilderness-to-Petersburg campaign earned Grant the reputation of a plodding butcher who resorted to slaughterhouse tactics, knowing that even if he lost two men to every rebel, the North would still win. True, the campaign extracted a terrible toll: 64,000 Union and 30,000 Confederate casualties. But Grant did not want a head-on killing match. With skill and ingenuity he tried to flush Lee into the open, but subordinates poorly executed good orders, and Lee parried each thrust by waging a stolid defensive struggle, refusing to risk his dwindling manpower outside the protecting trenches. Although Grant did not destroy Lee, he pinned the Army of Northern Virginia down in the strategic arena. Unlike Pope or Hooker, Grant did not disengage and let Lee seize the initiative. Remorselessly and at great cost he prevented Lee from launching an offensive that could restore the strategic balance.
Lincoln recognized this considerable achievement and urged Grant to “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.” Grant needed no special prompting as he sought to snap Lee’s defenses either by a breakthrough or by overextending them. The most famous breakthrough attempt was the Battle of the Crater on July 30. The Yankees dug a long tunnel and placed tons of powder under a Confederate redoubt. When the explosion went off, the position disappeared in a geyser of mud, timbers, and mangled Confederates, creating an enormous gap in Lee’s lines. However, tragic blundering, including sending men into the crater instead of around it, gave Lee time to recover. “Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen,” Grant sadly wired to Washington, “and do not expect again to have.” Meanwhile, Grant pushed his lines westward, trying to cut Lee’s supply arteries, spreading the Confederate defenders more thinly in the ever-extending trenchworks.
While Grant fought to Petersburg, Sherman maneuvered to Atlanta. Coordinating his offensive with Grant’s, Sherman faced difficult problems. Supply depended on the railroad back to Nashville, which, said Sherman, “takes a whole army to guard, each foot of rail being essential to the whole.” The rugged terrain, which Johnston knew how to utilize, was ideal for defense. Rather than attack at every opportunity, Johnston preferred to concede territory and conserve manpower. He wanted to draw the Federals deep into southern territory, inviting them to make frontal assaults against prepared positions, and await that supreme moment to unleash a lethal counterstroke. But Sherman refused to attack and instead flanked the Confederate left, never leaving an opening for Johnston to exploit. The armies engaged in a minuet, dancing from Johnston’s initial position along Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain, where, mistakenly assuming Johnston had overextended his lines and left his center vulnerable, Sherman attacked on June 27. Suffering 3,000 casualties for his effort, he resumed the indirect approach, inducing Johnston to withdraw behind the Chattahoochee River. Then for the first time the Yankees flanked to the east and Johnston fell back to Peach Tree Creek.
President Davis watched the campaign with dismay. He had opposed retreating, and his confidence in Johnston waned in proportion to the length of the retreat. When the commander refused to give a firm commitment to defend Atlanta, Davis’s tolerance snapped. The city had a symbolic significance second only to Richmond’s, contained invaluable war industries, and was the last important railroad link between the west and Virginia. Losing it, especially without a fight, would be a severe blow, and on July 17 Davis placed John B. Hood in command of the Army of Tennessee. Hood had an arm mangled at Gettysburg and lost a leg at Chickamauga, but his fighting spirit remained intact. As both Sherman and Davis expected, Hood assailed the Federals. At the Battles of Peach Tree Creek, Atlanta, and Ezra Church, fought between July 20 and 28, Union troops had the advantage of entrenchments and inflicted 13,000 casualties at a cost of 6,000. Hood poured out the army’s lifeblood to no effect, except to decrease morale and increase desertions. Davis ordered him not to attack again, and the army assumed a defensive stance in the trenches surrounding Atlanta. Like Grant at Petersburg, Sherman undertook a siege.
With the war degenerating into a protracted siege in both theaters and apparently stalemated, the northern public’s determination wavered. The North expected imminent victory, anticipating that the Confederacy could not survive for long after the 1863 defeats; but instead of collapsing, the South seemed capable of prolonging the war indefinitely. Lincoln knew that the enemy armies retained little of their former striking power, but most people did not share his appreciation for his generals’ accomplishments. Civilians saw that Meade and Sherman had failed to crush Lee and Johnston or to capture Richmond and Atlanta. They also saw the grisly casualty lists, especially from Grant’s theater, and the South’s ability to fight back: In July, Jubal Early’s corps rampaged down the Valley, unbeknown to Grant for several weeks, reaching the outskirts of Washington on July 11. Early soon withdrew, but he did not go far and remained a threat.
As frustration increased, the 1864 election became a referendum on the war. The Democrats, who nominated McClellan, adopted an anti-emancipation, pro-peace platform. As the public feeling that the South could never be defeated increased, Lincoln received such pessimistic reports that he predicted his own defeat. Ironically, a dramatic reversal in the war was already underway; it began at Mobile Bay in a three-week August campaign. Farragut led a fleet through the minefields and past the forts protecting the bay’s entrance, defeated an enemy naval squadron, and helped capture the forts, sealing Mobile off from the outside world. A week after the last fort capitulated, Sherman captured Atlanta. Although Hood’s army escaped, the North exploded in celebrations. Further good news came from the Valley, where Grant ordered Philip H. Sheridan to destroy Early’s army and turn the Shenandoah into “a barren waste.” With a large numerical advantage, Sheridan defeated Early at Opequon, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek and systematically destroyed the Shenandoah’s resources, ending organized military operations in the Valley. Military success paved the way for Lincoln’s overwhelming reelection, dashing southern hopes that McClellan’s election meant independence. People everywhere realized that the election demonstrated the North’s resurrected dedication to victory.
Although the South had no chance of winning after Lincoln’s reelection, the war continued for another six months. In Georgia the armies that had waltzed together for months parted company. After he evacuated Atlanta, Hood moved north, threatening Sherman’s railroad line, and for a month the Federals futilely chased him. Sherman finally decided to avoid dependence on vulnerable supply lines and undertake a massive raid through Georgia, while Hood planned an invasion into Tennessee. Sherman’s purpose was primarily logistical and psychological: To cripple southern resources and to show even diehard rebels that the Confederacy was powerless. He left Atlanta with 62,000 men in mid-November. Foraging off the land, they cut a 250-mile swath against token resistance and captured Savannah on December 21. Only the veteran character of Sherman’s army allowed it to complete the march. Nearly four out of five enlisted men and nearly 100 percent of the noncommissioned officers had been in service since 1862. Consequently they were campaign-toughened, inured to hardship and disease, self-reliant, and deeply committed to Union victory. They had also developed a ruthless, callous attitude toward enemy civilians that characterized so many experienced troops on both sides by 1864–1865, so they embraced their commander’s goal of instilling fear in noncombatants as a means to hasten the war’s end.
While Sherman’s veterans advanced through the Confederate heartland, the Army of Tennessee marched to its death. At the Battle of Franklin on November 30, Hood made another suicidal Confederate assault against an entrenched force under John M. Schofield, losing 6,252 men to Schofield’s 2,326. When Schofield pulled back to Nashville to join Thomas’s army, Hood pursued and nominally besieged the strongly fortified city. In mid-December Thomas attacked and virtually annihilated Hood’s army, which by then numbered only 25,000 demoralized men.
As the 1865 campaigns began, northern morale was unshakable, Federals controlled the Shenandoah, Sherman’s march to the sea had bisected the Confederacy again, and one of the South’s two major field armies had been obliterated. Furthermore, in January Union forces captured Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River, bottling up Wilmington, which had been the last blockade-running port. All that remained of the shriveled Confederacy was Lee’s army manning the Richmond-Petersburg trenches and a small army forming in North Carolina under Johnston, who was recalled to duty. Yet hardened rebels such as Davis and Lee were unwilling to quit. An indication of their determination and desperation was the South’s decision in March to arm its slaves. Aside from the question of whether blacks would fight for the South, the law authorizing black enlistments came too late to do any good. The final acts already unfolding were not heroic drama, but needless tragedy.
In early February Sherman resumed his campaign against the South’s resources and morale, heading north through the Carolinas. Though less well known than the march to the sea, the Carolinas trek was a more stunning accomplishment. The journey was longer, the terrain and weather were worse, and resistance was stiffer. Since the army burned “with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina,” the birthplace of secession, the devastation was greater and more vindictively inflicted than in Georgia. On February 17 the army entered Columbia, causing the Confederates to evacuate Charleston, since the Federals had severed its communications to the interior. A month later the combatants fought the campaign’s one large battle at Bentonville. Johnston tried to rout Sherman’s left wing but failed, and on March 23 the Yankees entered Goldsboro, where they found Schofield’s corps, which Grant had transferred from Tennessee, awaiting them. Although Sherman refitted for an advance against Lee’s rear, it was unnecessary, for Grant drove the Army of Northern Virginia from its trenches and forced it to capitulate.
During the winter Grant undertook no major offensives, letting disease and desertion weaken Lee’s army. Lee’s only hope was to unite with Johnston, for combined they might push back Sherman, then turn on Grant. To make Grant contract his left flank and thereby open an escape hatch, on March 25 Lee struck at Fort Stedman in the Union center. Disastrous failure followed initial success, and Grant seized the initiative, massing Sheridan’s cavalry and 43,000 infantry against 11,000 Confederates at Five Forks on Lee’s extreme right. When the Federals routed the rebels on April 1, Grant ordered an attack against the Petersburg line on April 2, which overran long stretches of Confederate trenches. That night Lee abandoned Richmond and retreated westward, with Sheridan and several infantry corps in pursuit. Sheridan got in front of Lee’s dwindling band on April 8, and after an unsuccessful breakout attempt on the 9th Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Like the Army of Tennessee, the Army of Northern Virginia had been practically annihilated. Offering rations for Lee’s starving army, Grant asked if 25,000 would be enough. “Plenty; plenty; an abundance,” replied Lee, for he had fewer than 8,000 effectives.
Recalling the night of April 9, a Union cavalryman wrote that the “thought that I was certain, yes, certain of having a quiet night, the idea of security, was ineffable.” All over the South, men soon experienced the same sense of relief, for by late May all other Confederate armies had surrendered. The immediate fears of neither the South nor the North came true. Southerners thought the victors might engage in mass reprisals, but no postwar bloodletting occurred. Grant, Sherman, and others worried that Confederates would form guerrilla bands and continue fighting, but this did not happen either. Many southern officers advised against it. No place existed for guerrillas to use as bases, since the North occupied much of the South, and Unionists and deserters ruled the mountains and swamps. Partisan bands would get little sympathy from the population, whose morale had cracked long before the army’s. Finally, the average soldier was sick of war. The troops knew better than anyone that by force majeure the North had crushed the Confederacy.
The Final Reckoning
In Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel Gone With the Wind, heroine Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband, Charles Hamilton, rushes off to war in 1861 with romantic visions of glory. In less than two months he is dead—from measles followed by pneumonia. While hardly heroic, Charles’s death was typical, since twice as many soldiers died from disease as from battle. Diseases swept through regiments in two waves. Shortly after a unit assembled, infectious childhood diseases such as measles and mumps thinned the ranks. Those who survived this wave then endured the camp diseases, primarily dysentery, malaria, and typhoid fever. Since these often occurred in epidemics, leading to unexpected reductions in fighting force, camp diseases were of great military significance.
The number of battle casualties was enormous, even though the theoretical long-range killing power of rifled weapons rarely came into play. Two significant factors limited the rifle’s impact. One was that few troops received training in estimating ranges, setting rifle sights, and firing live ammunition. Yet such practice was essential if a soldier hoped to hit a target—especially one that was moving—at more than a hundred yards. To counter both the minie ball’s low velocity and gravity’s tug at that distance, a shot would have to be aimed well above the target and come plunging down at a steep angle. If a rifleman aimed at the target, the bullet would plow into the ground well short of the intended victim. The second limiting factor was that many battles occurred in places like Chickamauga and the Wilderness, where the rugged terrain and dense foliage greatly reduced the killing range because combatants could not see each other at more than a few dozen yards’ distance. Only in a few engagements such as Pickett’s Charge, when a massed force advanced over a long expanse of relatively open ground, did rifled firepower and artillery quickly inflict fearsome losses.
Unlike Pickett’s Charge, most battles rapidly degenerated into prolonged firefights between two “entrenched” forces, which were often so close to each other that old-fashioned smoothbores would have been just about as effective as rifles. The close-order ranks that an attacking army used so that soldiers could hear or see their officers giving orders rarely survived the opening moments of combat. Traversing stream-laced, heavily forested, steep terrain in tight formations was impossible. And the first few shots frequently impelled the attackers to take cover, since they invariably confronted defenders who enjoyed both the physical and psychological advantages of being protected by entrenchments and field fortifications. “The truth is,” wrote one soldier, “when bullets are whacking against tree-trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg-shells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way.” But how? Fear of death or injury told a soldier he should not go forward; fear of being considered a coward restrained him from retreating. So an attacking force simply stopped, with each soldier seeking safety behind a nearby fence, rock, or tree stump or else digging a shallow, sheltering hole. Casualties accumulated slowly because the soldiers on both sides were dug in, but the final toll could be quite large, since these slugging matches often lasted for hours.
For attackers and defenders, losers and winners, a battlefield was a melancholy scene. Hundreds of men would be blasted into shapeless masses of pulpy gore. In warm weather the bodies and parts of bodies bloated, turned black, and putrefied rapidly, filling the air with a pungent stench. Though the guns might be still, the battlefield remained noisy with the anguish of the wounded. Perhaps the most chilling description came from Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine Volunteers, regarding the night of December 13–14 at Fredericksburg:
But out of that silence from the battle’s crash and roar rose new sounds more appalling still; rose or fell, you knew not which, or whether from the earth or air; a strange ventriloquism, of which you could not locate the source, a smothered moan that seemed to come from distances beyond the reach of the natural sense, a wail so far and deep and wide, as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness; the writhing concord broken by cries for help, pierced by shrieks of paroxysm; some begging for a drop of water; some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names, as if the dearest were bending over them; some gathering their last strength to fire a musket to call attention to them where they lay helpless and deserted; and underneath, all the time, that deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless or too heroic to articulate their agony.
And in the rear of each army the same grisly scene took place: temporary hospitals where bare-armed surgeons in blood-stained aprons and with bloody instruments worked to save the gashed and dying, invariably creating a mound of amputated limbs, the slicing and sawing more often than not done without the benefit of anesthetics.
Using round figures that are educated estimates, total Civil War casualties for soldiers and sailors on both sides were 1,095,000. Of these, 640,000 were Federals: 112,000 killed or mortally wounded in action; 227,500 dead of disease; 277,500 wounded; and 23,000 dead from miscellaneous causes such as drowning, murder, execution, sunstroke, and suicide. The remaining 455,000 were Confederates: 94,000 killed or mortally wounded in action; 164,000 dead of diseases; 194,000 wounded; and at least 3,000 deaths from miscellaneous causes. To put these figures in perspective, American deaths in World War I, World War II, and Korea totaled 564,000, but still do not reach the Civil War total of 620,000.13
Although war involves killing, killing is not the object of war. Men fight for vital reasons, as defined by their country’s political leadership. The North fought for the preservation of the Union and the destruction of slavery, while the South fought for independence and the preservation of its “peculiar institution.” In saving the Union and freeing the slaves, Lincoln believed the North would be achieving goals of cosmic significance, transcending national boundaries into the infinite future. Like many of America’s leaders, he thought the United States had a special destiny to safeguard and foster its democratic institutions as an example for the world. The North, he said in December 1862, “shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” And in the Gettysburg Address he urged his fellow citizens to take increased resolve from the northern soldiers who had given “the last full measure of devotion” on the battlefield. Let us ensure “that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Those northerners who fell at Gettysburg and elsewhere did not die in vain, since the North achieved its dual war aims. The conflict delivered a deathblow to the doctrine of secession and considerably weakened (though it did not destroy) the idea of states’ rights. Within the American federal system, the balance of power shifted from the states to the national government. People no longer said “the United States are” but instead “the United States is.” In the process of saving the Union, the North also destroyed slavery. Advancing Union armies and the Emancipation Proclamation undermined the institution, and the Thirteenth Amendment killed it.
Southerners had seemingly died in vain, since the Confederacy achieved neither of its war aims. And yet merely saying that the Union lived and slavery died left several crucial questions unanswered. What was the status of the defeated states? How and when were they to return to “their proper practical relation with the Union”? Who would control the restored states, former secessionists or southern Unionists, perhaps in league with the freedmen? And what was the status of the former slaves? Although pledged to black freedom, the North had not adopted a third war aim of equality, and between freedom and equality lay a vast middle ground. As solutions to these perplexing problems emerged during Reconstruction, southerners salvaged much that looked like victory from their apparent defeat. Former secessionists regained effective control over the former Confederate States and maintained unquestioned white supremacy. Furthermore, southerners soon took as much pride in the legend of the Lost Cause as northerners did in the fact of Appomattox. Ironically, even perversely, by 1877 both North and South could proclaim success. How and why the North lost so many of the fruits of victory is a complex story in which the Army played a central role.