“Previous to the formation of colored troops,” recalled Sergeant William H. Carney, “I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry.” He was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, but became a soldier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he volunteered for military service in 1863. After donning the blue uniform, the 23-year-old believed that he could best serve God by “serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”
Carney served in Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first “colored troops” in the U.S. Army. Commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, they traveled to South Carolina to fight against the slaveholders. At first, they performed fatigue work reminiscent of slave labor. Eventually, the 600 men of the regiment saw their first action at Hilton Head, St. Simon's Island, Darien, and James Island.
On July 18, 1863, Carney gazed upon Fort Wagner, a Confederate post on Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. From the cover of a sand dune, he and his comrades watched a day-long bombardment by Union cannons and warships. By nightfall, they stood up, dressed ranks, and formed two columns of five companies each.
The 54th Massachusetts rushed to the ramparts, advancing 1,500 yards through a barrage of artillery shells, grapeshot canisters, and volley fire. With smoke enveloping the battlefield, hand-to-hand combat raged for more than two hours. Severed limbs and mangled bodies covered the ground. In a hailstorm of bullets, the regimental color bearer fell to his knees near Carney.
Carney seized the American flag from his fallen comrade, holding the staff high for all to see. He urged the regiment forward to face another volley from the long gray line. As he moved through a muddy ditch, two bullets pierced his body. Two more grazed his arm and head, forcing him to crawl. He found his way to a field hospital but refused to leave the colors behind. Before collapsing from the loss of blood, he declared: “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!” He recovered from his wounds and later received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner, though he insisted that “I only did my duty.”
Figure 7.1 “To Colored Men!”, 1863. Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1762–1984, National Archives
Spearheading the assault on Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts elicited great pride in African American communities. With Union casualties mounting in a two-month siege, the regiment lost 272 killed, wounded, and missing in action before their withdrawal. Afterward, Confederate gravediggers hurled the regimental commander, who perished near the ramparts, into a pit with other slain men. However, the news of black gallantry electrified those still in bondage and inspired many to set out for Union lines. In spite of pervasive discrimination, the courage and the skill of the men in uniform began to dispel lingering doubts about their fighting abilities. Their actions helped to liberate almost 4 million slaves, who wanted nothing but freedom. They constituted a powerful instrument, as abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, to “raise aloft their country's flag.”
Individuals from all walks of life served with distinction in the American Civil War, although they disagreed violently about the principles associated with “their country's flag.” What began as an effort by the North to preserve the Union became a struggle to end slavery in the South. Given the moral dimensions of the military objectives, many considered it a second American Revolution. Patriotic gore eclipsed the doctrines of Napoleonic warfare, which long punctuated the discourse of West Point. Generals named Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Jackson became legendary commanders for their exploits in fields of battle. From Fort Sumter to Appomattox Station, the duel between the men in blue and gray redefined America.
America's bloodiest war involved dueling ideologies as well as arms, which determined whose vision of the Constitution defined the U.S. during the nineteenth century. On the one hand, slaveholders asserted that no federal restrictions legitimately prevented them from exercising their property rights in the western territories. On the other hand, their opponents worried that the extension of slaveholding undermined the viability of free labor. For decades, the sectional orientation of civilian authorities created friction between the states of the North and the South. When the differences threatened the nation with disunion, the opposing forces formed massive armies and built ironclad navies. Once mobilized, their destructive energies killed more participants than all of the previous wars combined. Warfare itself became the only guiding principle, eventually making everything subservient to winning at all costs.
After the war against Mexico ended, the U.S. divided along sectional lines. For years, industrialization in the northern states sustained a manufacturing sector and free labor. At the same time, southern states largely depended upon plantation agriculture and slave labor for growth. The rapid expansion of the nation intensified the fearsome competition between the North and the South.
As the population in the western territories began to surge, the question for the nation was: Would new states enter the Union “free” or “slave”? The Compromise of 1850 permitted California to enter as a free state while making several concessions to southern congressmen in respect to other contentious issues. For example, the Fugitive Slave Act made the federal government responsible for apprehending runaway slaves. Rather than easing the sectional tensions caused by black chattel slavery, the politics of compromise infuriated northern abolitionists.
With American corporations developing a transcontinental railroad, the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 led to another dispute between the sections. According to the law's concept of popular sovereignty, the settlers of each territory would decide for themselves whether or not to permit slaveholding. Antislavery members of Congress denounced it as an effort to turn the Trans-Mississippi West into “a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” Groups of “free soilers” set out to save Kansas from a “slave power conspiracy.” In the town of Lawrence, they clashed with “border ruffians” from neighboring Missouri. An abolitionist named John Brown attacked opponents at Pottawatomie Creek, where his party dragged five men from their houses, split open their skulls, cut off their hands, and laid out their entrails. Two separate governments organized in Lecompton and in Topeka, each vying for federal recognition. Army regulars attempted to restore order among the partisan bands without success. For years, fighting between proslavery and antislavery forces raged in “bleeding Kansas.”
Democrat James Buchanan became president in 1857 but failed to stop the forces of disunion. The Republican Party, which northerners organized to promote the “free soil” doctrine, opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories. Amid the rancor, the Supreme Court opined that Congress lacked the authority to restrict the property rights of slaveholders. A financial panic upset southern “fire-eaters,” who blamed the economic downturn on “Yankee” businesses and high tariffs. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican candidate for the Senate the next year, intoned: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The partisanship of the Republicans and the Democrats exacerbated the quarrels between the North and the South, which made the ideological disagreements almost impossible to resolve. Heading east from Kansas, the fanatical Brown attempted to foment a slave insurrection inside Virginia. On October 16, 1859, he seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in a forlorn effort to distribute arms to slaves. Along with 20 accomplices, he anticipated waging a “holy war” in the mountains. After taking hostages, they hid in a fire-engine house adjacent to the armory. Militiamen surrounded them, as Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived on the scene with a detachment of marines. Brown was captured, tried, and hanged for treason. Consequently, abolitionists referred to him as a martyr.
In the wake of the raid, Lincoln narrowly won the presidential election on November 6, 1860. Assuming that the president-elect threatened slavery, South Carolina quickly passed an ordinance declaring that the Union “is hereby dissolved.” Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas soon joined the secessionist movement. On February 7, 1861, the seceding states established a provisional framework for the Confederate States of America. The Confederates seized arsenals, forts, mints, and other property of the federal government within their borders – save Fort Pickens outside Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. While a “lame duck” in office, Buchanan did almost nothing to stop the rebellion.
As Buchanan dithered in the White House, the leaders of the rebellion elected Jefferson Davis as the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. He remained devoted to states' rights in addition to “King Cotton.” His administration abided by a new Constitution, which made slaveholding a cornerstone of civil society. Noted for his considerable knowledge of military affairs, he gambled that European recognition of the Confederacy was inevitable.
Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the Army, worried that the “rashness” of the Confederacy threatened the safety of the 68 soldiers garrisoned at Fort Sumter. He ordered an attempt to resupply Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the garrison. However, Confederate batteries fired a salvo upon an unarmed steamer, Star of the West. Though an act of war, it merely drove the supply ship away from Charleston. After taking office on March 4, 1861, Lincoln learned that Fort Sumter would not hold out much longer without provisions.
During his inauguration, the president addressed the impending crisis. Though pledging not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy. In other words, the ordinances for secession were illegal. Furthermore, he placed the onus for the “momentous issue of civil war” upon the South. While promising to preserve, protect, and defend the American republic, his words denied any intention of belligerence. Instead, he concluded with a plea to “the better angels of our nature.”
After taking command of Confederate outfits in Charleston, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard delivered an ultimatum to Anderson, his erstwhile instructor at West Point. Anderson remained steadfast and rejected his former student's demand to surrender. With time running out, Lincoln sent a fleet of ships to resupply the garrison. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, Confederate batteries began a 34-hour bombardment of Fort Sumter. The federal cannons answered in kind, but they were no match for the “ring of fire” from Beauregard's artillery. The ships of the relief expedition arrived at the harbor mouth yet dared not proceed. Although no soldiers inside Fort Sumter died from the attack, Anderson capitulated two days later.
For the Lincoln administration, the surrender of Fort Sumter signaled the beginning of the Civil War. On April 15, the commander-in-chief called upon the states to immediately mobilize 75,000 militiamen for 90 days of federal service. While upholding the rule of law, he intended to suppress an insurrection with force. Four days later, he issued another proclamation, which ordered a naval blockade of southern ports. Henceforth, any vessel operating for the Confederacy faced capture by the Navy. With northern solidarity growing, the public rallied in support of military action to preserve the Union.
Southern defiance of the Union spread quickly. All of the slaveholding states except Maryland and Delaware rejected the federal request for troops. Thereafter, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas seceded and increased the size of the Confederacy to 11 states. They moved the capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, which was located no more than 100 miles south of Washington D.C. After less than a century of existence, the U.S. came apart in 1861.
Young men of the North and the South answered the call of their states. “Billy Yanks” vowed to prevent national disunion, whereas “Johnny Rebs” denounced tyrannical government. Fields, workshops, and factories emptied, as the armed forces swelled with volunteers. Full of bravado, few wanted to miss out on a romantic duel for honor. Both sides expected a short war to settle their differences.
Whether recruiting for the Union or the Confederacy, civilian authorities organized their armies in a similar fashion. Local officials often launched recruiting rallies or opened recruiting offices. A hundred or so citizens usually formed a company. Sometimes hailing from the same communities, 10 companies made a regiment. More often than not, they elected officers based upon their preeminence or affiliations. The motley array of uniforms, weaponry, and equipment indicated that the raw recruits amounted to nothing if not armed mobs.
Within months, the Union and Confederate armies began to achieve a wartime footing. While the former raised twice as many regiments as the latter, the infantry comprised the bulk of the combat units. The federal government supplied the cavalry and artillery with horses, but rebel leaders expected regimental officers to provide their own mounts. Upon reaching full strength, three or four regiments amounted to a brigade. A few brigades grouped together to form a division, which commanders combined as required to make an army. Later, both sides organized two or more divisions into a corps to further enlarge the armies. In the first year alone, more than a million men marched in formations for the North and the South.
With few exceptions, the South initially commissioned a higher caliber of officer than the North. An officer of distinction and a native of Virginia, Lee received an offer to command federal troops massing in Washington D.C. After meeting with Scott and Lincoln, however, he responded that he was not able to “raise my hand against my birthplace.” He resigned his commission in the Army and assumed command of Virginia's defenses.
The aging Scott, also a Virginian, regretted the loss of Lee, whom he called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” Acknowledging the defense posture of the Confederates, the general-in-chief devised war plans to “envelop the insurgent states” with a quarantine of Atlantic and Gulf ports while launching an invasion down the Mississippi River. He hoped to avoid excessive bloodshed with a deliberate stranglehold. Because the joint operation would move slowly to quell the rebellion, newspapers derisively called it the “Anaconda Plan.”
Lincoln clamored for swift action, because several “border states” between the North and the South contemplated secession as well. He directed subordinates to prevent the secession of Maryland, where federal troops suppressed riots and arrested rebels. After suspending the writ of habeas corpus, he permitted the detainment of Confederate sympathizers at Fort McHenry. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in ex parte Merryman issued a ruling against the commander-in-chief, but Lincoln disregarded it.
Lincoln urged General George B. McClellan of Ohio to move rapidly across the border into Virginia. The western portion of the state included the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which McClellan, who commanded 20,000 volunteers, secured in the summer of 1861. After a series of battles, the defeated Confederates fled eastward and left most of Virginia west of the Alleghenies under federal control. Hailed as a “Young Napoleon,” McClellan's success led to the creation of West Virginia as a separate state in the Union.
Lincoln wanted the military to occupy northern Virginia, where 20,000 Confederates under Beauregard defended the railroad center of Manassas Junction. Moving in haste before their enlistments expired, General Irvin McDowell marched 37,000 federals toward a meandering creek called Bull Run. Southerners tended to identify battles with nearby towns, whereas northerners preferred to name them with natural features such as mountains or waterways.
On July 21, 1861, the blue-clad regiments travelled on the Warrenton turnpike across Bull Run, where they met the men in gray. After confusion and delay, the first federal thrust struck 11 Confederate companies and two guns that morning. The field artillery blasted the opposing lines with canister and shell. Waves of Union infantry pressed against Beauregard's left flank. As the troops scrambled forward, the Battle of Bull Run began.
Under the direction of General Joseph E. Johnston, thousands of Confederate reinforcements poured into the battlefield from the Manassas Gap Railroad. Nevertheless, their dispositions appeared to give way that afternoon. General Barnard E. Bee of South Carolina rallied his troops on a flat-crested hill behind a house, where General Thomas J. Jackson's newly arrived brigade of Virginians formed a line. As his flanks wavered, Bee shouted: “Look, there is Jackson with his Virginians, standing like a stone wall!” Though Bee himself was killed, his memorable words endured as Jackson's nickname.
The Confederate interior lines held, while the Union advance started to falter. Launching a counterattack with incredible ferocity, Jackson urged his men to “yell like furies.” Their frightening “rebel yell” combined the sounds of a wailing scream with a foxhunt yip. When McDowell sounded the retreat before nightfall, the federals fled across the creek in panic. Soldiers overran civilians, who watched the battle unwind from nearby. They streamed back to Washington D.C. in a chaotic dash called the “Great Skedaddle.” The rebels also became disorganized and abandoned the chase that evening. Only 18,000 personnel on each side actually engaged in combat. The Union lost 625 killed along with 950 wounded, whereas the Confederates counted 400 fatalities and close to 1,600 wounded.
After the Battle of Bull Run, a gravedigger found an unsent letter upon a corpse. It belonged to a member of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, Major Sullivan Ballou. Written to his wife while awaiting action, several passages described his yearning to return home unharmed. “If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you,” he penned before dying, “and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”
In spite of the sobering defeat, the Lincoln administration redoubled the war effort. The next day, the president signed a bill calling for a 100,000-man force composed of three-year volunteers to replace the “three-month men.” Following Scott's advice, he summoned McClellan to Washington D.C. and assigned him command of the demoralized troops encamped near the capital. On August 21, McClellan named them the Army of the Potomac and commenced rebuilding the regiments.
While the regiments drilled, few sounds expressed the pride of the North more eloquently than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That fall, Julia Ward Howe of Boston heard Massachusetts soldiers singing the refrain at a camp in northern Virginia. Afterward, she composed her own version of the martial song with transcendent words that foretold of Armageddon. “He hath loosed the fateful lightning,” she wrote as a battle cry, “of His terrible swift sword.” In contrast to the high-pitched squall of the “rebel yell,” the Union anthem resonated with the deeper-toned shouts of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”
During the first year of fighting, military campaigns from Missouri to Virginia produced no decisive victories for either side. Scott retired from the Army on November 1, 1861, permitting McClellan to succeed him as the general-in-chief. Prone to exaggeration, the latter declared: “I can do it all!” Though an able administrator, he was enigmatic, stubborn, inflexible, strong-willed, and self-righteous. For all his faults, he became the Union's first strategist.
Like his predecessor, McClellan recognized that the Union held the upper hand against the Confederacy. With a four-to-one advantage in human resources, the northern states possessed a large pool of able-bodied men for military service. Northern foundries produced almost all of the nation's firearms. In addition to equipment, wagons, and ships, the majority of the nation's railroads crisscrossed the North. Along with industry and factories, the North contained two-thirds of the nation's farm acreage.
On the other hand, the South enjoyed a few advantages. The southern economy produced the nation's leading export – cotton. With slaves forced to continue laboring behind the lines, almost 80 percent of the white male population mobilized for military service. Despite deficits in aggregate numbers, the Confederate army benefited from veterans in command at the outset. Though beset with internal conflicts, the rebel states needed only to defend 750,000 square miles of territory – not to seize it.
To mount multipronged offensive operations, McClellan unified the command system of the federal forces. Requesting the mobilization of even more men, he envisaged the formation of massive armies benefiting from extraordinarily complex logistics. He weighed with caution various thrusts aimed at defined objectives, which revealed the operational imperatives of a grand strategic plan. With the Army of the Potomac concentrating on Virginia, other Union columns would advance simultaneously into Kentucky and Tennessee. McClellan intended to stretch the Confederate military along a broad front while conducting campaigns in the field to break their lines. Though advocating the use of “overwhelming physical force,” he wanted no actions against “private property or unarmed persons.” After dissipating the strengths of his opponent's interior lines, he wanted to “crush” their defenses and to occupy their land. Unfortunately, his personality and politics undermined the implementation of the strategy.
By the end of 1861, the House and Senate established the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. Dominated by Republicans, members investigated command decisions, medical services, and wartime procurement. Allegedly, “shoddy” millionaires supplied the Union soldiers with defective uniforms made from reprocessed wool rather than virgin wool. Congressional leaders teamed with Edwin M. Stanton, who became the Secretary of War the next year, to refine the federal contract system with corporations manufacturing military goods. Whatever the benefits of civilian oversight, the meddling of officials in Washington D.C. inhibited the effective coordination of military campaigns in the field.
As federal forces readied for campaigning, the War Department massed not only men but also firepower. Captain Thomas J. Rodman developed a whole family of Columbiad-type smoothbore artillery for coastal defense. Made of cast iron, the Rodman guns utilized powder grains that increased muzzle velocities with lower maximum pressures compared to conventional ball powder. For field artillery batteries, smoothbores remained easier to operate than breechloaders but lacked the accuracy of rifled pieces. During 1861, the foundry at West Point produced a cast iron rifled muzzleloader with a wrought iron band around the breach for additional strength. Its 3-inch bore threw a 10-pound shell 3,200 yards at an elevation of 5 degrees. However, gun crews seldom utilized the greater ranges in wooded, broken terrain. Artillery officers preferred older 12-pound Napoleons, which raked enemy lines with shell, shot, and canister in close fighting. Despite the technological innovations, the mixture of weaponry and the increases in costs threatened to create serious supply problems for Union armies.
Federal expenditures for naval forces reached record levels in an age of iron and steam. To quarantine 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline, the Navy grew in size from only 42 ships in 1861 to over 671 in 1865. The enlarged fleet eventually included more than 70 ironclads – steam-powered vessels protected with armored plating to deflect explosive shells from their hulls. Significant beyond their numbers, at least 100,000 seamen participated in brown and blue water operations that stifled the Confederacy. Lincoln called Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, his “Neptune.”
Union interdiction of maritime commerce threatened to upset British neutrality, though. On November 8, 1861, the U.S.S. San Jacinto stopped the British ship, the Trent, near Havana. Captain Charles Wilkes apprehended James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana and dispatched them to prison in Boston, Massachusetts. The naval action roused protests in London, where the Trent affair stirred talk of war. Responding to an ultimatum for the return of the prisoners, Lincoln decided to release them. “One war at a time,” he cautioned his Secretary of State, William Seward.
Meanwhile, Lincoln insisted that Missouri comply with his request for troops. Unruly militia in St. Louis clashed with federal regiments commanded by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, who was promoted to brigadier general. Lyon marched a force of 6,000 men to occupy Jefferson City, the state capital, and a small battle followed in Boonville. Regrouping near Springfield, the rebels formed an opposing army and a shadow government. The Confederacy soon granted them a star on the flag as well as seats in Congress. On August 10, 1861, they repulsed Lyon in the Battle of Wilson's Creek. He perished in the attack. Each side suffered more than 1,200 casualties. A month later, Confederates marched northward to capture a garrison at Lexington. For years, guerrilla warfare raged across the state.
General John C. Frémont arrived in St. Louis to assume command of the Western Department. A former Republican candidate for president, he issued what has been called “the first Emancipation Proclamation.” Beginning on August 30, 1861, he placed the entire state of Missouri under martial law. Then, he ordered anyone captured under arms behind Union lines to be court-martialed and shot. Moreover, he decreed that the property of Missouri rebels would be seized and that their slaves would be freed by the military. Ostensibly, the ramifications extended beyond his command and antagonized proslavery Unionists. To squelch a national debate about abolition, Lincoln ordered him to modify his proclamation. Frémont refused to obey. On November 1, the commander-in-chief fired him.
General Henry Halleck took command of federal forces in the newly created Department of Missouri, which included parts of Kentucky. That fall, Confederate troops occupied several towns in the state. They were opposed by General Ulysses S. Grant, whose Illinois regiments entered Kentucky at the invitation of the legislature. At the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Grant occupied Paducah and Southland. He struck rebels on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River at Belmont. Though divided in allegiance, Kentucky remained in the Union because of Grant's actions.
Figure 7.2 The U.S. Civil War
Next, Halleck authorized Grant to move into Tennessee. He attacked Fort Henry, which fell on February 6, 1862. A week later, he marched 27,000 bluecoats against the trenches at Fort Donelson, while the gunboats of Flag Officer Andrew Foote blasted the earthworks. Caught in a trap, Confederates tried to break out by assaulting Grant's right wing on February 15. Grant calmly regrouped in the snow and ordered counterattacks all along the line. After rebel officers requested terms of surrender, he replied: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” A few weeks after the fall of Fort Donelson, Confederates evacuated Nashville, Tennessee. In exultation, northern newspapers heralded Grant with the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.”
That spring, Confederate forces seemed unable to counter the Union strategy. Just over the state line in Arkansas, Missouri rebels joined with other Confederates – including regiments of Cherokee and Creek Indians – to assail federal troops on March 6. Union regiments under General Samuel R. Curtis defeated the graybacks during the two-day Battle of Pea Ridge. In New Mexico, Texas Confederates faltered during the Battle of Glorieta Pass from March 26 to March 28. Of the 3,700 rebels seeking to capture the gold mines of the Colorado Territory and possibly California, only 2,000 survived the disastrous retreat to Texas. Trapped by General John Pope's columns on the Mississippi River, Confederates at Island Number 10 finally surrendered on April 8. With Union forces in control of the waterway from St. Louis to Memphis, Halleck's command was renamed the Department of the Mississippi for the drive southward.
General Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate commander of the Western Department, established a defensive line with over 40,000 men at Corinth, Mississippi, where two key railroads intersected. Because the trunk line constituted the backbone of the Confederacy, Davis sent Beauregard westward to reinforce Johnston. They quietly planned a counteroffensive against Grant's Army of West Tennessee, which prepared to link with General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio on the Tennessee River. Their only chance at reversing Confederate fortunes involved a surprise attack on the bluecoats at Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles north of Corinth.
On the morning of April 6, 1862, around 33,000 Union soldiers bivouacked in the woods around Shiloh Church near Pittsburg Landing. One of Grant's divisions under General William T. Sherman took almost no defensive precautions. Catching them unprepared, Johnston's army pushed through several clearings and a peach orchard before midday. Along an old sunken road, the federals courageously defended the “Hornets' Nest,” into which the rebels charged repeatedly. Confederate cannons hammered the thin blue line, but General Benjamin Prentiss' division held the salient for hours. When Johnston died that afternoon, Beauregard took command of the rebel advance. Union infantry, artillery, and gunboat fire on the left flank hurled back Confederate troops attempting to cross the Dill Creek terrain. Arriving that evening, General Lew Wallace's division reinforced the Union regiments holding the heights. As the remainder of Buell's troops reached Pittsburg Landing, the fighting paused after nightfall.
While a thunderstorm struck overnight, the armies of blue and gray remained in the field. In a heavy downpour, Sherman asked his commander: “Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?” With a puff of his cigar and a flash of lightning, Grant replied calmly: “Yes. Lick 'em in the morning, though.”
Grant's command surged to 55,000 troops before dawn, which Beauregard's graybacks did not anticipate. Beginning at 6 a.m., the Confederates attacked the Union dispositions but were driven backward. In the muck, dying men crawled to “Bloody Pond” for their last drink of water. With nearly every yard of the battlefield covered in corpses, Beauregard withdrew the remnants of his fatigued army to Corinth. The men in blue at one point surrounded General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry officer on horseback. He escaped capture by grabbing a Union soldier, throwing him across his back, and using him as a human shield during his flight to safety.
The Battle of Shiloh was a bloodbath, although the worst was yet to come. In two days of fighting, Confederate and Union casualties numbered 10,699 and 13,047, respectively. Spreading rumors about Grant's drinking, Halleck reassigned him to “deputy commander” and took direct command of his troops. By May 30, Halleck had seized Corinth, but Beauregard slipped away once more.
The Confederates suffered more stunning defeats on the Mississippi River. On April 24, Admiral David G. Farragut steered the Gulf Expeditionary Force past the guns of New Orleans. After sailors and marines went ashore, federal regiments commanded by General Benjamin Butler occupied the city. Next, Farragut sent ships to capture Baton Rouge and Natchez. By June 6, Memphis had surrendered to another Union flotilla. Along the Mississippi, only Vicksburg remained as a major stronghold for the Confederacy.
The string of military victories foreshadowed the Union strategy for Confederate defeat. In long campaigns punctuated by sharp engagements, federal forces tightened the naval blockade and penetrated the defensive cordon. As the tempo of operations quickened, the Civil War seemed all but over.
Lee Takes Command
While McClellan recovered from typhoid, all remained quiet along the Potomac River. His contempt for the commander-in-chief did not auger well for conducting simultaneous, coordinated operations against the Confederacy. Lincoln issued General War Order 1, which designated February 22, 1862, as “the day for a general movement of all the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.” After months of training, the Army of the Potomac finally began an offensive along the Chesapeake Bay.
Another delay occurred, because of the arrival of a Confederate ironclad near Hampton Roads, Virginia. Rebuilt from the hull of a burned-out steamship previously christened the Merrimack, the armor-plated Virginia attacked Union warships on March 8. Using a ram to sink wooden vessels, she destroyed two and ran three more aground. The next morning, she was blocked by the U.S.S. Monitor, which the Navy built according to an ingenious design for ironclads by Swedish inventor John Ericsson. With only two Dahlgren guns stationed inside a rotating turret upon the armored deck, observers called the mobile craft “a tin can on a shingle.” The Monitor and the Virginia engaged in a 3-hour battle – the first clash between ironclads in history. The shots of the latter bounced off the turret and the deck of the former. The spectacular contest ended in a tactical draw, but the blockade held. Union ironclads played key roles in virtually all subsequent naval operations.
A few days later, Lincoln relieved McClellan as general-in-chief to enable him to personally command operations against the Confederate capital. McClellan directed a seaborne move to the tip of the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. His ships ferried approximately 100,000 soldiers as well as large numbers of horses, wagons, and cannons to Fortress Monroe. His objective, Richmond, was 75 miles inland.
The Lincoln administration grew alarmed about Confederate forces operating in northern Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley, “Stonewall” Jackson attacked a federal division on March 23. Recruiting from the countryside, his strength grew to 17,000 with additional reinforcements over the next month. He fended off a federal division under General Nathaniel Banks to the north as well as scattered troops under Frémont to the west. In a futile effort to trap Jackson in the valley, McDowell's corps of bluecoats abandoned a planned overland thrust toward Richmond. Utilizing geography and mobility in a diversionary campaign, Jackson's “foot cavalry” marched 350 miles while winning four battles against three separate armies with superior numbers. He summarized the outcome to a colleague: “General, he who does not see the hand of God in this is blind, sir, blind!”
McClellan seemed blinded by the theatrics of General John B. Magruder, who defended Yorktown with 15,000 Confederates until May 3. After a brief delay, federals reached Williamsburg and took Norfolk. Union gunboats on the James River confronted Confederate artillery at Drewry's Bluff, while McClellan's army straddled the Chickahominy River 6 miles from Richmond. The Confederate Congress fled, but heavy rains and muddy roads slowed the Union advance. Citing intelligence reports by Allan Pinkerton's agents, McClellan wrongly presumed that the graybacks outnumbered the bluecoats.
With McClellan protecting his supply base at White House Landing, Johnston hurled Richmond's defenders against the Union lines in the Battle of Seven Pines. Beginning on May 31, nearly 42,000 men on each side clashed in the woods, sloughs, and swamps. After the initial assault, the federals held their ground and repulsed the rebels. The former suffered 5,000 casualties, but the latter lost 6,000. Johnston was severely wounded on the first day of fighting, prompting Davis to replace him with Lee.
Figure 7.3 General Robert E. Lee, 1864. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Lee took command of Confederate forces that he named the Army of Northern Virginia. Called the “King of Spades” by his troops, he directly oversaw the substantial strengthening of Richmond's defenses. The entrenchments enabled him to secure the capital with fewer men while taking the initiative against McClellan. Expecting his foe to remain cautious, the new commander ordered Jackson back from the Shenandoah Valley with all possible speed. He also dispatched General J. E. B. Stuart on a cavalry reconnaissance of the field. Boldly dividing his forces, Lee launched a series of attacks on June 26. During the Seven Days Battles, engagements occurred at Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Savage Station, and Frayser's Farm. With his interior lines cut, McClellan shifted his supply base to Harrison's Landing on the south side of the peninsula. His troops backpedaled at every turn. At Malvern Hill, Confederate infantry stubbornly assaulted Union artillery along the crest. By July 1, Lee absorbed 20,441 casualties – nearly one-quarter of his army – while McClellan lost 15,849. Thanks to a costly offensive, Lee saved Richmond.
On July 11, 1862, Lincoln appointed Halleck to the vacant post of general-in-chief. While the Army of the Potomac outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan pleaded with Halleck to send reinforcements and demonstrated, as one of his subordinates suggested, either “cowardice or treason.” Frustrated by McClellan's floundering, Halleck ordered a withdrawal of Union troops from the peninsula.
Meanwhile, Pope was summoned from the Mississippi River to command the newly formed Union Army of Virginia. After a sharp engagement at Cedar Mountain, the bluecoats awaited the arrival of the Army of the Potomac to strengthen their thrust southward against Richmond. While Lee sparred with Pope near the Rappahannock River, Jackson traveled over 50 miles in two days to strike a federal supply depot at Manassas.
On August 29, the entire Army of Northern Virginia converged on Pope's columns in the Second Battle of Bull Run. The blue-clad soldiers actually outnumbered their attackers, who took them by surprise. Short on ammunition, the rebels occasionally threw rocks at the federals. The fighting raged for days, but Confederate divisions under General James Longstreet smashed the Union left. Embarrassed in the field, Pope withdrew back to Washington D.C. Confederates inflicted 14,500 casualties on the Union but lost 9,500 men in action. Afterward, Halleck dissolved the Army of Virginia and reassigned its regiments to the Army of the Potomac.
Sensing the weakness of his enemy, Lee marched the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland. “I am aware that the movement is attended with much risk,” he wrote to Davis, “yet I do not consider success impossible and shall endeavor to guard it from loss.” Close to 50,000 rebels briefly encamped at Frederick, Maryland, on September 7, when Lee divided his forces. He intended to draw the federals away from Washington D.C. and to defeat them with superior tactics. He not only expected to win the “border state” for the Confederacy but also hoped to win diplomatic recognition from Great Britain and France.
Under McClellan's command, the Army of the Potomac moved into Maryland with 80,000 soldiers. After entering the abandoned Confederate campsite at Frederick, a Union corporal found a copy of Lee's Special Order 191 wrapped around three cigars. Holding the “lost orders” of his rival, McClellan stated: “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee I will be willing to go home.” Accordingly, he learned that Lee had dispatched three columns to Harpers Ferry while leading three divisions through South Mountain. The rebels headed for Hagerstown, Maryland, as Stuart's cavalry screened the right flank. With the Confederate divisions 20 miles apart from each other, the Army of the Potomac stood ready to overpower them.
Inexplicably, McClellan tarried for 18 hours before taking action against Lee at South Mountain. On September 14, a day-long battle raged at Fox's Gap and at Turner's Gap. The rebels counted 2,700 casualties compared with the federals' 1,800. On the brink of annihilation, Lee prepared to order a full retreat into Virginia.
Once Jackson returned from Harpers Ferry, Lee marched 38,000 men to Sharpsburg, Maryland, and waited for McClellan to act. East of the town, Lee's troops occupied a low ridge stretching north and south for nearly 4 miles. With the Potomac River to their backs, their lines formed behind Antietam Creek. Pausing along the creek bank, the Union I and XII Corps under Generals Joseph Hooker and Joseph Mansfield prepared to assault the Confederate left held by Jackson. Also, the IX Corps under General Ambrose Burnside approached a stone bridge on the Confederate right to confront Longstreet. Finally, three Union corps held in reserve anticipated smashing the Confederate center, where Lee commanded from a hilltop. McClellan and his staff devised a reasonable plan of action if executed with synchronicity, but the Battle of Antietam unfolded seriatim.
Beginning at 6:00 a.m. on September 17, the federals moved forward to bludgeon the rebels. As Hooker's lines swept into the North Woods, Union artillery and musketry blasted Confederate infantry hiding in a 40-acre cornfield. The bluecoats scrambled through the West Woods to the edge of a whitewashed church, which belonged to a pacifist sect called the Dunkards. Three hours later, the graybacks counterattacked through the West Woods. Surging back and forth across the cornfield 15 times, the soldiers experienced “fighting madness” – a combat narcosis in which the flood of adrenalin turned them into preternatural killers beyond control. Men, horses, and arms fell upon the contested ground.
Union divisions under General Edwin Sumner charged through the East Woods but veered into a sunken farm road known thereafter as “Bloody Lane.” The federal infantry enfiladed the natural trench and drove out the rebel defenders, running across a floor of dead bodies. With McClellan's forces exploiting a two-to-one advantage, Lee's lines began to break.
Burnside's corps on the Union left concentrated on a stone bridge, which Confederate cannons and sharpshooters defended from the bluffs. After finally crossing it at 3:00 p.m., the soldiers raced to the outskirts of Sharpsburg. Lee held firm until General A. P. Hill's division suddenly arrived from Harpers Ferry and proceeded to batter the Union flank. Some of the yelling rebels wore captured blue uniforms, which prompted the confused federals to hold their fire and to pull back to the bridge. Vexed by the carnage, McClellan refused to commit his reserves for a decisive blow to the Confederate center.
The Battle of Antietam marked the bloodiest single day in the history of the American military. A total of 12,800 Americans on both sides died, while another 15,000 suffered wounds. Even if a tactical draw, the outcome constituted a major setback for the Army of Northern Virginia. It arguably amounted to a strategic defeat for the South as a whole, because Lee failed to achieve his military objectives with the incursion. Though unmolested the next day, he withdrew across the Potomac to the safety of Virginia. Consequently, the Lincoln administration lost patience with McClellan and removed him from command of the Army of the Potomac.
While Lincoln worried about the “inferiority of our troops and our generals,” the North experienced a growing sense of frustration and weariness. New recruits seemed more reluctant to volunteer during 1862, when the War Department began to issue requisitions to the states for 300,000 more men. Many states promised enlistment bounties of $100, while some resorted to militia drafts. Though morale among the rank and file appeared low, the Union army obtained 421,000 three-year volunteers by the fall.
The states remained responsible for enlisting volunteers, although the federal government enacted measures to assist them with professional military education in the future. Congress approved the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which donated public lands to states willing to establish a least one educational institution that, among other things, included instruction on “military tactics.” The grants that started under the Lincoln administration underwrote state-by-state efforts to provide officer training at new agricultural and mechanical colleges.
The Lincoln administration reiterated that the military objective of the Civil War was to save the Union but not to end slavery. Nevertheless, the commander-in-chief backed a deportation plan for compensating loyal slaveholders and for sending all freedmen to “a climate congenial to them,” that is, Africa or Central America. Though abolitionists protested, the federal government weighed various colonization schemes. Congress passed a series of Confiscation Acts, which seized chattel slaves aiding the rebellion. Other laws ended slavery in Washington D.C. and in the territories. Northern anxieties about race and equality, however, complicated the constitutional questions about antislavery policies in wartime.
As Union columns penetrated the South, thousands of slaves fled farms and plantations. When they arrived in military camps, field commanders disagreed about their status. Some called them “contraband of war” and made them unofficial soldiers. Others simply set them free.
Pondering the military implications of emancipation, Lincoln privately decided to make it a goal of the war. It gave the federal government the double advantage of taking a labor force away from rebel states and, in turn, employing the fugitives against their former masters. Eliminating slavery damaged the cornerstone of the Confederacy while bolstering the cause of the Union. Likewise, Republicans in office appealed to moral principles to justify the sacrifices in blood and treasure. As Confederate leaders sought foreign recognition, both Great Britain and France were unlikely to support a slaveholder's war against emancipation.
Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Acting with his inherent powers as commander-in-chief, he said that all persons held as slaves in rebelling states or districts on January 1, 1863, would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While reaffirming an intention to compensate slaveholders loyal to the federal government, he directed all military personnel not to repress slaves “in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” His executive order would endow the Civil War with a larger purpose, which made the Union armies and navies responsible for the spread of freedom in the South.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves initially, because any executive order from Lincoln was inoperative in the Confederacy. It promised freedom only to slaves in rebel hands, not to those within areas already subjugated by Union might or inside the “border states” of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. By setting a deadline, however, it created an opportunity for the secessionists to rejoin the Union and to retain “domestic institutions.” The order took effect as scheduled, making it a “fit and necessary war measure” in suppressing an armed rebellion. Though warranted by “military necessity,” it also invoked “the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” Its implementation produced no immediate results, except to arouse potential slave insurrections.
Irrespective of the shortcomings, emancipation mobilized blacks to join the armed forces of the Union. On May 22, 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops. More than 180,000 African Americans donned uniforms, making them a vital source of manpower at a time when voluntary enlistments in the North were waning. In fact, approximately 80 percent of the black soldiers and sailors hailed from slaveholding states. Placed under the command of white officers, the rank and file encountered prejudice and scorn. They served in segregated regiments, inherited degrading assignments, and received lower pay – $10 per month in contrast to the standard $13. When eventually assigned to combat arms, they fought in 39 major battles and 449 smaller engagements. Hoping to strike a blow against the Confederacy, a black soldier told his commander: “We expect to plant the Stars and Stripes on the city of Charleston.”
Meanwhile, riding with guerrillas offered a popular form of military service among young and restless males of the South. In fact, Confederate leaders authorized the formation of partisan “rangers” for homeland defense. From Missouri to Virginia, they spent much of the war tearing up tracks, blowing up bridges, and holding up trains. As the mayhem spread, their ruthless actions provoked deadly reprisals. While disrupting Union operations behind the lines, the bands of guerrillas drew manpower away from the organized corps of the Confederacy.
With manpower in the South dwindling, the Confederacy enacted a conscription law on April 16, 1862. All white males between the ages of 18 and 35 were required to serve for three years. Before the Civil War ended, the top age for conscription increased to 50. However, substitutions permitted some civilians to stay home. Despite later revisions to the measure, it retained loopholes and exemptions that led to complaints about “a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.” Instead of improving end strength, conscription tended to alienate and to divide the Confederates.
A year later, attrition spurred Washington D.C. to replenish Union forces with conscription. On March 3, 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act, which made able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 45 liable for a federal draft. A number of married men obtained deferments until younger, unmarried males first received calls. Governors, judges, and federal officials were exempted altogether. For a fee of $300, civilians in the North legally dodged military service by paying for a substitute. Conscripts accounted for less than 10 percent of the rank and file, because widespread opposition in the states impeded the enforcement of draft laws.
After the announcement of a draft lottery in New York City, the streets and docks erupted in violence on July 13, 1863. In particular, Irish laborers associated conscription with policies that seemed arbitrary and undemocratic. Mobs assailed offices, factories, and homes, but they directed their fury at African Americans. While lynching more than a dozen blacks, they burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum. During the riots, at least 120 people died. Lincoln sent Union regiments to restore order.
In addition to issues of race and class, the Civil War raised awareness about the significance of gender. Women in both the North and the South sewed uniforms, composed poetry, and raised money for the war effort. With the mobilization of the armed forces, many saw that few men remained at the home front. Several found themselves managing farms, plantations, shops, and schools. Some followed the armies from Virginia to Texas, offering to spy or to cook without pay. Wives, sisters, and daughters even dressed as men and “fought like demons.”
In their most visible role, scores of women volunteered to serve as nurses. Thousands staffed hospitals, infirmaries, and clinics across the nation, although many casualties died before reaching them. They helped to treat gangrene, septicemia, pyemia, and osteomyelitis, which often resulted in amputation. Out of necessity, they encountered piles of arms and legs, corpses covered with flies, smells of rotting flesh, and sounds of suffering humanity. The “ambulance corps” administered first aid and evacuated the wounded from the front lines. Known as an “angel of the battlefield,” Clara Barton oversaw the distribution of medicines and supplies in field hospitals and later helped to found the American Red Cross. In Richmond, Virginia, Phoebe Yates Pember was a “matron” of the hospital wards of Chimborazo. Whatever their sectional orientation, female nurses advanced the professional status of working women.
As voluntary female associations proliferated, no other civilian organization achieved the prominence of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Recognized by the War Department in 1861, its 7,000 local auxiliaries distributed clothing, food, bandages, and medicine. Though its national officers were typically males, Dorothea Dix became the first superintendent of female nurses. In addition to fundraising through “Sanitary Fairs,” it dispatched inspectors to military camps to lecture soldiers about latrines, health, diet, and cleanliness. With bacteriology largely a mystery, diarrhea and other maladies threatened to incapacitate armies in the field.
Though commensurable with the standards of the time, the comparative mortality rates for the opposing armies remained shocking. Evidently, two soldiers died of disease for every one killed in action. One of every six wounded graybacks perished. However, only one of every seven wounded bluecoats suffered the same fate. Likewise, the percentage of Confederate soldiers who died of disease was twice the percentage of Union soldiers. Lacking the service networks of their northern counterparts, the southern military operated more or less in the medical “Dark Ages.”
Tragically, both northerners and southerners mistreated war prisoners. Conditions in the stockades appeared poor, though they worsened as shortages of food, clothing, and medicine became more acute. The resource advantages of the Union offered a better chance of survival for rebel captives compared with federal prisoners held in the Confederacy. Prisoner exchanges and paroles stopped in 1863, when Secretary of War Stanton insisted that Confederates not abuse or kill black soldiers in captivity.
The next year, the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia, degenerated into a death camp. More than 33,000 Union soldiers crowded into an enclosure of approximately 16 acres, where a contaminated stream served as both a sewer and a water supply. At the cemetery, the prisoners' graves numbered 12,912. The commandant of Andersonville, Henry Wirz, was later hanged for war crimes.
Given the scale and the scope of military operations, the Lincoln administration grew concerned about the conduct of the war. The War Department tapped Dr. Francis Lieber, a professor at Columbia College in New York and a renowned German American jurist, to serve on an advisory board. With a combination of political philosophy and moral realism, he helped to craft General Order 100 for the president’s endorsement. On April 24, 1863, the War Department disseminated the Lieber Code as the “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field.”
The Lieber Code demanded the humane and ethical treatment of combatants and noncombatants in wartime. It stated that “men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.” Its greatest theoretical contribution, however, was the identification of “military necessity” as a general legal principle governing actions. It explicitly forbade killing prisoners of war, except in such cases that the survival of the soldiers holding them appeared in jeopardy. Consequently, it offered a precursor to the first Geneva Convention, which promulgated international rules for the treatment of the sick and the wounded in 1864.
Advance and Retreat
The federal government counted on the armed forces to reverse the rebel momentum. The Confederate tide rolled in thousands of places, which involved separate theaters to the west and to the east of the Appalachian Mountains. Soldiers marched and countermarched month after month, struggling to find their footing in the battlegrounds for the Union.
Confederates led by General Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky during 1862 and installed a sympathetic government in Frankfort. Cavalry units cut railroad lines and bedeviled hapless bluecoats, melting back into the countryside after their raids. Planning a counterstroke, Buell placed his Union army between Bragg and the Ohio River. On October 8, 1862, they fought the Battle of Perryville to a standoff. The federals counted 4,200 killed, wounded, and missing, while the rebels suffered 3,400 in losses. Afterward, Bragg withdrew to eastern Tennessee.
A few hundred miles away, General William S. Rosecrans commanded dispersed federals in northern Mississippi. While blocking a rebel thrust into western Tennessee, “Old Rosy” prevailed against combined armies at key railroad junctions. In the two battles of Iuka and Corinth, Union and Confederate casualties numbered 3,300 and 5,700, respectively. After Lincoln dismissed Buell, Rosecrans reorganized his command into the Army of the Cumberland.
Davis also reorganized the Confederate forces, sending Johnston to Chattanooga to head the Western Department and Bragg to Murfreesboro to command the Army of the Tennessee. After Rosecrans maneuvered southward from Nashville, the Army of the Cumberland faced the Army of the Tennessee astride Stones River. During the evening of December 30, their bands played a series of northern and southern tunes. When they struck up “Home Sweet Home,” nearly 78,000 opposites in uniform sang together through the night.
At dawn on December 31, the Battle of Stones River began. Rosecrans sent his soldiers against the rebel right, while Bragg ordered a thrust against the federal right. Because of the deafening roar of artillery and musketry, soldiers picked cotton from stalks and stuffed it into their ears. The fiercest fighting occurred at an angle in the federal line inside the Round Forest. By January 3, 1863, each army had lost roughly a third of its effectives. In the aftermath, Bragg decided to withdraw southeast to Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Commanding the Department of the Tennessee, Grant inched federal forces overland to Vicksburg, Mississippi. “I gave up all idea of saving the Union,” he later recalled, “except by complete conquest.” Confederates concentrated on defending Chickasaw Bluffs, which loomed about 3 miles north of Vicksburg. Grant's subordinate, the indefatigable Sherman, resolved to make war “so terrible” that the rebels would realize “they are mortal.” On December 29, 1862, Sherman ordered four divisions to attack the high ground. After suffering 1,800 casualties, he withdrew up the Mississippi River in disappointment.
In early 1863, Grant's command became bogged down in the tangled bayous, woods, and deltas north of Vicksburg. Along the Mississippi and Yazoo River swamps, the death rate from typhoid and dysentery mounted. Eluding Union patrols at every turn, Forrest conducted dazzling raids that threatened Grant's supply lines. In Washington D.C., rumors circulated that the commander was drinking again.
To command the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln turned to Burnside in late 1862. Known for his stylish side-whiskers, he marched 113,000 men “on to Richmond” as winter came. Reaching the Rappahannock River in the bitter cold, he waited for the arrival of his pontoons – flat-bottomed boats anchored in a line to support a floating bridge. With 74,000 men, Lee concentrated the Army of Northern Virginia across 7 miles of hills near Fredericksburg. He placed Longstreet's corps on Marye's Heights west of the town, while Jackson's men scaled Prospect Hill to the south. Rather than preparing entrenchments, the Confederates utilized the high ground to give their cannons and their rifles an edge against the Union. Swampy ground and rough terrain limited the avenues for an attack against the defensive line. Braving sniper fire along the river, Burnside's engineers eventually assembled six bridges under the cover of fog. His artillery shelled the town, while his infantry began crossing the Rappahannock.
On December 13, Union troops entered and occupied Fredericksburg. Formed into three “grand divisions,” one wave surged forward and crashed into the Confederates on the flank. At midday, Jackson drove them back with unyielding cannonades. The main force of federals raced toward Marye's Heights, where Longstreet's riflemen waited along a 4-foot stone wall at the base. From the top, Confederate artillery covered a half-mile stretch of open ground. Burnside decided to test the strength of enemy dispositions, sending his infantry against the belching guns. He ordered 14 assaults, which melted in the deadly barrage. By nightfall, the stone wall remained in rebel hands. Piles of bodies littered the ground in front of it. The Army of the Potomac lost 12,000 men in the Battle of Fredericksburg, while the Army of Northern Virginia suffered 5,300 casualties.
As morale in the Army of the Potomac faltered, Burnside attempted to regain the initiative on January 20, 1863. He ordered the “Mud March,” which involved an aborted movement up the Rappahannock to flank Fredericksburg. His maneuvering achieved nothing. As his division commanders grew insubordinate, he offered his resignation to Lincoln.
A few days later, Lincoln tapped “Fighting Joe” Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac. With a reputation as a drinker and a womanizer, he revived the faltering regiments. Among other things, he increased unit pride by devising badges for each corps. The Union fielded “the finest army on the planet,” or so the bombastic commander claimed.
Hooker led 115,000 soldiers along the Rappahannock, nearly twice the force of Lee. On April 30, he positioned 40,000 bluecoats in Fredericksburg to feign another direct assault against Confederate lines. The rest of his troops headed upriver and then crossed into the Wilderness, an area of scrub forests, thick underbrush, and narrow roads. He planned to catch his enemy in a vise. By the next day, they advanced through the junction of Chancellorsville to flank the unsuspecting graybacks.
In a daring countermove, Lee divided his forces and attacked the overconfident Hooker. After a preliminary skirmish in the Wilderness, he forced his rival to defend Chancellorsville on May 2. Once again, he directed an audacious maneuver that defied military maxims. With the Union flank “in the air,” Jackson took 28,000 troops on a roundabout march to hit their exposed right. Around 5:30 p.m., some of Hooker's regiments were playing cards while cooking supper. Suddenly, Jackson's yelling rebels burst out of the woods and pressed the federal camps.
As darkness fell, Jackson rode ahead to reconnoiter the shifting lines. Nervous Confederates standing guard mistakenly fired three bullets at the shadowy figure. Wounded, Jackson's arm was amputated the next morning. While recovering, he contracted pneumonia and died. “I have lost my right arm,” Lee lamented afterward.
Over the next few days, Union columns withdrew in disarray. With only half of his force engaged in battle, Hooker was knocked temporarily unconscious by an exploding shell. Dazed and confused, he refused to relinquish command. His troops huddled north of Chancellorsville, while Lee directed another strike against federals marching from Fredericksburg. By May 6, the Army of the Potomac had retreated across the Rappahannock. Despite the long odds, the Army of Northern Virginia won an amazing victory in the field. The Battle of Chancellorsville produced 13,000 Confederate casualties compared with 17,000 for the Union.
The Union was down but not out. Owing to the daunting arithmetic of battle, gone were the lingering hopes for an affair of honor. Rifled musketry, which achieved an effective range of almost 800 yards, made the concepts of Napoleonic warfare foolhardy. Though once unthinkable, winning a revolutionary struggle demanded the massing of enough bodies and machines to utterly crush the Confederacy.
During 1863, Confederate leaders decided upon a risky strategy. Davis suggested that Lee campaign near Vicksburg or in Tennessee, but the general preferred to launch an invasion of Pennsylvania. He hoped to divert Grant as well as to threaten Washington D.C. Furthermore, a major victory in the northern states might entice foreign intervention.
With over 70,000 men, the Army of Northern Virginia moved northward. Hooker sent Union cavalry under General Alfred Pleasonton to scout Lee's movements. On June 9, they clashed with Stuart's cavalry at Brandy Station along the Rappahannock. While Stuart took three brigades on a pointless raid immediately afterward, the Army of the Potomac followed the rebels without engaging them in battle. Irritated by another inept commander, Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade.
At the crossroads town of Gettysburg, a Confederate scavenging party in search of shoes encountered Union cavalry. Both armies began converging on the town, as the rebels entered from the north and the federals arrived from the south. Neither side planned for the greatest land battle in the history of North America.
On the morning of July 1, Union cavalry under General John Buford clashed with advance parties of Confederates at Gettysburg. While abandoning the town, the former held the high ground to the south. Their decisiveness delayed the onrush of the latter. Soon, Union infantry and artillery arrived to reinforce the cavalry, particularly at Cemetery Hill. That afternoon, Lee ordered General Richard Ewell, who inherited Jackson's old corps, to take the hill “if practicable.” Ewell hesitated, leaving the position in federal hands at nightfall. In the darkness, federals organized their interior lines while massing 85,000 men. They established a position resembling a “fishhook,” with the barbed end curving from Culp's Hill to Cemetery Hill and the shank extending southward for a mile along Cemetery Ridge. On their far left, the Union line ended at two other hills, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. Despite arriving late to the field, Meade resolved to defend the position against Lee.
On the morning of July 2, Lee ordered his army to attack. Defending the right flank, Union forces drove Ewell's rebels off Cemetery Hill and stopped them at Culp's Hill. To prevent Meade from shifting reinforcements, Lee sent Longstreet's corps on a coordinated move against the Union left flank at the Round Tops. A countermarch delayed their primary advance, which did not commence until late afternoon.
Contrary to orders, General Daniel Sickles marched the Union III Corps to meet the Confederates near Emmitsburg road. Longstreet's men fought their way through a peach orchard, where Sickles was wounded. The 1st Minnesota Regiment closed a gap in a wheat field but lost nearly all of their men in only five minutes. Ferocious combat raged in the “Devil's Den,” a mound of boulders across a boggy creek. As the Confederates swept forward, the Union dispositions at Little Round Top appeared vulnerable. In response, the Union V Corps dispatched regiments from Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine to defend the end of the line “at all hazards.”
In command of the 20th Maine Regiment was a 33-year-old college professor, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Standing with 386 bluecoats, he nervously watched the graybacks advance up Little Round Top. Both sides opened a brisk fire at close range, as smoke enveloped the steep, rocky slopes. In an hour and a half, a third of the soldiers fell. The fighting surged back and forth five times, but the men from Maine “refused the line.”
With their ammunition exhausted and their ranks decimated, Chamberlain made a critical decision. “The bayonet,” he ordered, and he led his regiment on a charge. Holding fast by the right and swinging forward to the left, they formed an extended “right wheel” that swept downhill. Suddenly, a lost company rejoined the fray. Taken by surprise, the stunned rebels broke and ran. The federal position at Little Round Top was saved by one of the finest small-unit actions of the Civil War.
Once the day ended, the federals retained the high ground. However, Lee believed that Meade was forced to weaken his center to reinforce the flanks. He planned to mass his force for a direct assault on Cemetery Ridge in the morning. Longstreet opposed the plan, urging his superior to consider a broad turning movement that would bypass the heights. “The enemy is there” Lee announced with a gesture, “and I am going to strike him.”
On July 3, Lee's plan resulted in a disaster. On the flank, Stuart's cavalry swung east of the battlefield almost 2.5 miles, but was stopped by Union cavalry commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. That afternoon, General E. Porter Alexander massed 143 Confederate cannons along Seminary Ridge for a 2-hour bombardment of the Union center. Though the earth shook, Meade kept Cemetery Ridge reinforced.
After rebel guns ceased firing at 2:45 p.m., General George E. Pickett led his division out of the woods at Seminary Ridge. With other divisions from Longstreet's corps added to the long gray line, more than 13,000 men paraded across a mile of open terrain. They marched toward a clump of trees, as Union infantry and artillery on Cemetery Ridge decimated their ranks. “Give them the cold steel!” shouted General Lewis Armistead, a Confederate brigade commander, who fell at the federal dispositions. “Pickett's Charge” lasted less than an hour. No more than half of the rebel attackers returned to the woods alive.
The three days of fighting exhausted the armies in the field, although the Battle of Gettysburg produced a dramatic Union victory. American casualties numbered 51,000 men, many of whom were left strewn for weeks between the lines. The Army of Northern Virginia counted around 4,300 killed in action, while the Army of the Potomac suffered 3,155 fatalities. Because Meade failed to order a counterattack, Lee withdrew his army southward across the Potomac River to recover.
Winning the West
The most innovative operations occurred in the western theater, which extended from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains. Because the vast area lacked suitable infrastructure, Union commanders confronted serious logistical problems. As a military solution, they targeted the railroads, wagons, depots, livestock, and crops that sustained the population. Widespread foraging not only supplied federals on the move but also starved rebels in the countryside. Under pressure, civilian support for the Confederacy began to collapse.
No individual grasped the significance of pressure better than Grant, who resolved to take Vicksburg in 1863. With his strength mounting to 75,000 men, he led four attempts – and four failures. By April, he devised a new plan to bypass the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River with the help of Admiral David Dixon Porter, the naval officer in charge of the Union flotilla. More than half his army rendezvoused at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, 35 miles to the south, and began an overland campaign without conventional lines of supply and communication. Grant's men would “live off the country” until they reached Vicksburg.
Grant marched them approximately 130 miles, fighting and winning four battles against Confederate forces. With orders to hold Vicksburg at all costs, General John C. Pemberton commanded the rebel diehards. By May 1, Union troops had captured Port Gibson and began choking off supplies to the city. Two weeks later, they drove graybacks under Johnston out of Jackson, Mississippi. Next, they prevailed at Champion's Hill, a ridgeline about midway between Jackson and Vicksburg. Following another victory at Black River Bridge, Grant reached the outskirts of Vicksburg with 45,000 bluecoats.
Facing fortifications and earthworks around Vicksburg, Grant's initial assaults were halted by a firewall of rifles and cannons. While Union gunboats pounded Confederate defenses, he settled into a siege. Civilians huddled in caves within the hillsides, where many resorted to eating mules, horses, dogs, and rats. On July 4, Pemberton ordered his 31,000 Confederates to surrender. The campaign against Vicksburg produced 10,142 Union casualties, but Confederates lost almost the same number. Five days later, more rebels downriver at Port Hudson, Louisiana, surrendered under pressure. Because the Union controlled “The Father of Waters,” the Confederacy was divided in two.
With momentum shifting, Union advances unhinged Confederate defenses inside eastern Tennessee. While federal forces captured Knoxville, Rosecrans maneuvered the Army of the Cumberland to Chattanooga. Feinting one direction, he steered 63,000 bluecoats across the Tennessee River and placed them in Bragg's rear. They forced the rebels out of Chattanooga while concentrating their lines at Chickamauga Creek, a dozen miles south of the city.
After Longstreet arrived with reinforcements, Bragg attacked at Chickamauga on September 19. The lines of blue and gray crossed inside dense timberlands. Given the limited visibility, the divisions initially engaged without adhering to a plan of action. The next day, Bragg ordered a series of sequential attacks followed by a straightforward thrust. Seeking to plug a supposed gap in his line, Rosecrans ordered a division shifted from one part of the field to another. The shifting actually created a notable gap on the Union left, which Longstreet quickly breached. In haste, Rosecrans abandoned the field to Bragg.
Left behind, General George H. Thomas rallied the Union troops at Snodgrass Hill. Again and again, the Confederates assailed his line without success. Because his stubborn defense saved the Army of the Cumberland from complete disaster, he was known thereafter as the “Rock of Chickamauga.” After dark, his soldiers found their way into Chattanooga.
Even though the Battle of Chickamauga represented a jarring defeat for Rosecrans, Bragg allowed his foe to reposition the retiring divisions. In two days of vicious combat, more than 4,000 Americans gave their lives. Confederate casualties reached 18,454, compared with Union losses of 16,170. The former could not replace their losses, but the latter did.
On October 17, the Lincoln administration appointed Grant to command the reorganized Federal Military Division of the Mississippi. Immediately, he relieved Rosecrans and elevated Thomas to command the Army of the Cumberland. He gave Sherman command of the Army of the Tennessee. Moreover, he personally journeyed to Chattanooga to direct operations from the front. Thanks to the arrival of 20,000 reinforcements under Hooker, Union troops reestablished a supply system through the Tennessee Valley known as “the Cracker Line.”
In early November, Bragg sent Longstreet with nearly 20,000 soldiers against Knoxville. However, the diversionary attack reduced Confederate strength near Chattanooga to fewer than 45,000. As the month ended, Longstreet accomplished nothing at Knoxville.
With nearly 60,000 men, Grant decided to dislodge Confederates from the high ground outside of Chattanooga. On November 24, he sent Hooker against the 2,000-foot summit of Lookout Mountain. In the “Battle above the Clouds,” the bluecoats drove the graybacks off the slopes. The next day, Sherman moved forward against a 6-mile line on the 400-foot-high Missionary Ridge. However, the Union assault was blocked on the Confederate flank to the north.
Conducting operations from his command post, Grant called on Thomas to order a diversionary attack against the center of Missionary Ridge. With rebel artillery lining the crest, rifle pits covered the slopes. Trenches stretched along the base, which made the Confederate defenses appear impregnable. Without pausing, the Army of the Cumberland swept through the trenches and scrambled up the slope. The infantrymen found ravines and dips for cover, as the line officers barked impromptu commands to swarm the crest. The graybacks surrendered by the thousands, while the bluecoats shouted derisively: “Chickamauga! Chickamauga!”
Wearing the Confederate uniform that day, 23-year-old Sam R. Watkins was a private in Company “Aytch” of the 1st Tennessee Regiment. “The Yankees were cutting and slashing,” he recalled, “and the cannoneers were running in every direction.” As the rebel lines disintegrated, his beaten comrades broke “like quarter horses.” Despite the rout, Confederates regrouped near Dalton, Georgia, 25 miles to the south.
By defeating the Confederate Army of the Tennessee, the Federal Military Division of the Mississippi controlled virtually all of the western theater. Grant's losses reached 5,800 during the storming of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, but Bragg's casualties reached 6,700. Both sides paused for the winter. Reassigning Halleck to staff work in the War Department, Lincoln promoted Grant for winning. On March 9, 1864, Grant became the general-in-chief of all Union armies and the highest-ranking American officer since George Washington.
Grant commanded five Union armies deployed across a 1,000-mile front. While coordinating simultaneous advances against Confederate forces, he made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. “Lee's army will be your objective point,” he told Meade. Banks's Army of the Gulf inched up the Red River in Louisiana to separate Texas from the rest of the Confederacy. In Georgia, Sherman confronted the remnants of an army led by Johnston, who replaced Bragg. Auxiliary campaigns along the James River and in the Shenandoah Valley would “hold a leg,” as Lincoln put it, while Grant did the “skinning” in northern Virginia.
Figure 7.4 General Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters, 1864. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
With 115,000 bluecoats, Grant launched the Wilderness campaign on May 5, 1864. Lee confronted the marching columns with only 65,000 graybacks. After crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, the Army of the Potomac battled the Army of Northern Virginia near the intersection of two main roads. After twilight, many of the wounded burned to death in brushfires started by muzzle flashes. The next day, the federals attacked the rebels again but soon retreated through the woods and thickets.
Grant ordered a movement south toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, where he slid around Lee's right flank to interpose the Army of the Potomac between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. However, the rebels raced to a junction north of the capital to intercept the federals. Confederate troops entrenched along a 5-mile line to block Union progress. Surveying the entrenchments, Grant pledged “to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” On May 12, the Union VI Corps bent the opposing lines into the “Bloody Angle.” Soldiers battled in the rain and fog for days, as the slain piled up in the trenches.
Grant dispatched General Philip Sheridan to stop the raiding of Stuart's cavalry, which harassed and slowed Union infantry and artillery. Sheridan's cavalry fought a series of running battles that culminated in a victory at Yellow Tavern, just 6 miles north of Richmond. In addition to destroying supply depots and railroad tracks, they killed Stuart. Though operating elsewhere in Virginia, auxiliary campaigns by Union troops on the James River and at New Market failed to dislodge Confederate forces.
Still trying to envelop Lee's right flank, Grant sidled southward again. Lee entrenched at the North Anna River before the federals arrived, which prompted Grant to maneuver across the Pamunkey River. They encountered each other at a crossroads known as Cold Harbor, 10 miles northeast of Richmond. With Confederate flanks protected on one side by the Totopotomoy Creek and on the other by the Chickahominy River, nearly 60,000 graybacks entrenched along a 6-mile line. Ordered to conduct a deadly charge, Union veterans pinned slips of paper to their uniforms for post-mortem identification. At 4:30 a.m. on June 3, Grant oversaw a direct assault by 60,000 men in blue against withering rifle and artillery fire. Almost 7,000 of them fell in 20 minutes, while the rebels lost 1,500. The Battle of Cold Harbor climaxed a month of campaigning in which Grant absorbed 55,000 casualties compared to 32,000 for Lee.
As the northern press denounced Grant as a “butcher,” he quietly crossed the Chickahominy River to prolong the campaign. He ordered engineers to construct a 2,200-foot pontoon bridge across the James River. Union troops passed over to the south bank and sprinted toward Petersburg, where major railroads converged 20 miles south of Richmond. Although they cut supplies to the capital, their opponents prepared trenches, redoubts, redans, and abatis that remained impenetrable. By June 18, the Army of the Potomac extended the lines southward and westward while settling down for a siege of Petersburg.
The labyrinth of trenches did not hinder the coal miners from the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment, who dug a shaft under Confederate defenses and filled it with 4 tons of gunpowder. On July 30, the explosion left a crater measuring 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Instead of filtering around the gaping hole, Union troops charged directly into it. After the smoke cleared, Confederate artillery and infantry began shooting at them like “fish in a barrel.” The Battle of the Crater was “the saddest affair” Grant ever witnessed, but the siege continued.
The Red River campaign ground to a halt in 1864, as the Union Army of the Gulf failed to eliminate the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department of General Kirby Smith. Banks moved 27,000 bluecoats upriver with the aid of Porter's ironclads, but the graybacks confronted them at Sabine Crossroads, Mansfield, and Pleasant Hill that spring. With Union troops retreating downriver to escape harassment, the Confederates retained control of Texas, northern Louisiana, and southern Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the Union navy tightened the blockade of southern ports. Although rebels challenged the quarantine, imposing warships intercepted blockade runners from Nassau to Cape Fear. In Charleston Harbor, a submarine named the Hunley sank the U.S.S.Housatonic on February 17, 1864. However, the explosion also sank the innovative craft and its nine crewmen. A Confederate cruiser named the Alabama prowled from Singapore to Newfoundland, but the U.S.S. Kearsarge sank the commerce raider in the English Channel on June 19. On August 5, Farragut navigated 18 Union vessels past Confederate underwater mines in Mobile Bay. Suffering from vertigo, the admiral ordered the crew to strap him to the rigging of his flagship. “Damn the torpedoes,” he bellowed, while signaling to his officers: “Full speed ahead!” The Union navy steamed forward, defeating the Confederate fleet and securing the Gulf Coast.
That summer, Lee sent General Jubal Early with 14,000 rebels on a desperate raid across the Potomac River. In addition to striking towns in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Early reached the outskirts of Washington D.C. Grant placed Sheridan in command of the Department and Army of the Shenandoah and provided him with 45,000 men to stop the raiders. While scorching the Confederate “breadbasket” in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan also destroyed two-thirds of Early's forces at Winchester and Fisher's Hill. The federals staggered at Cedar Creek on October 18, but Early arrived too late. The next day, Sheridan galloped forward on his black horse and shouted at his men to “come up to the front.” When the counterattack ended at nightfall, Confederate soldiers vanished from “the valley of death.”
Sherman commanded 100,000 soldiers in a campaign against the Confederates north of Atlanta, Georgia. He maneuvered past Dalton, Resaca, Cassville, Allatoona, and Dallas but directed a costly assault at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27. No Confederate grasped the military situation better than Forrest, whose cavalry wreaked havoc on Sherman's supply lines. “War means fighting,” he repeated to fellow southerners, and “fighting means killing.” However, the federals outflanked the rebels at the Chattahoochee River.
Davis sacked Johnston for retreating and replaced him with General John Bell Hood. Having lost an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamauga, Hood was strapped to a horse while leading a Confederate counteroffensive. At Peachtree Creek, General James B. McPherson, who commanded the Army of the Tennessee, became the highest-ranking Union officer killed in action. By late July, the rebels had lost about 15,000 of their 40,000 troops in three battles. Sherman maneuvered around Atlanta and severed the rail lines, which forced Hood to evacuate the city on September 1.
The fall of Atlanta coincided with the presidential election cycle of 1864. The Democratic Party nominated McClellan, who gave many southerners hope that the defeat of Lincoln would bring peace. Attempting to turn northern voters against the “Union Party,” General Sterling Price led 12,000 rebels on a forlorn raid across Missouri. Thanks to the ballots of soldiers and civilians, Lincoln's successful re-election signaled doom for the Confederacy.
With the blessings of the commander-in-chief, Sherman struck Georgia with the “hard hand of war.” Nearly one-third of Atlanta burned, as Union troops departed for the coast on November 15. Numbering 62,000, they marched 285 miles in four parallel columns of infantry with the cavalry weaving from one flank to the other. Known as the “March to the Sea,” they advanced with impunity. Foraging parties confiscated crops and livestock, destroyed railroads and mills, and torched plantations and warehouses. Thousands of slaves fell in line, while bands of stragglers and deserters known as “bummers” looted in the rear. After reaching Savannah, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln with news about capturing the city as “a Christmas gift.”
Hoping to bait Sherman into reversing course, Hood steered 39,000 Confederates through Alabama and drove into Tennessee. Instead, Sherman sent Thomas to greet him with 60,000 federals. At Franklin, Tennessee, two Union corps under General John M. Schofield cut the rebels to pieces across 2 miles of open terrain. On November 30, the Battle of Franklin produced 6,300 casualties for the South – three times greater than the number for the North. Refusing to retire, Hood reached Union defenses at Nashville. Thomas launched an attack, which began on December 15. While a Union division hit the Confederate line on the right, nearly 40,000 men hammered the left for two days. Thomas's cavalry fired seven-shot Spencer carbines, as the infantry crushed Hood's flank. The Union lost no more than 3,000 men but killed, wounded, and captured 7,000 Confederates in the Battle of Nashville. The remnants of Hood's command streamed toward Tupelo, Mississippi, that winter.
As a new year began, Sherman pushed northward into South Carolina. In one of the greatest logistical feats of the age, his columns advanced 10 miles a day for 45 days under heavy rainfall and across swollen rivers. While burning dozens of cities and towns along the way, they ravaged civilian as well as military property in the “hell-hole of secession.” They rolled into North Carolina and seized Wilmington, the Confederacy's last available port. Johnston pulled together a Confederate force of 21,000 men to annoy two Union wings at Bentonville, North Carolina. A major battle ensued on March 19, 1865, but Sherman resumed the march toward Virginia a few days later.
Amid rumors of Confederate plots to assassinate or to abduct him, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in Washington D.C. In only 700 words, he endowed “this mighty scourge of war” with transcendent meaning. Weary but resolute, the commander-in-chief placed the bloodshed in the context of divine judgment. Sensing that the end was near, he urged the Union “to finish the work” with “malice toward none.”
The work of the Union focused on a 38-mile siege line at Petersburg, where the rebel cause was nothing if not lost. After a long, cold winter, the Army of Northern Virginia dwindled to less than 35,000 troops in early 1865. Nevertheless, they remained on the defensive and seemed likely to fight to the last man. The Confederate Congress appointed Lee as general-in-chief of all Confederate armies, which he attempted to replenish by enlisting slaves into the depleted ranks. Across the trenches, he gazed upon the Union juggernaut of 101,000 infantrymen, 14,700 cavalrymen, and 9,000 artillerymen.
In late March, Lee ordered a night raid against Fort Stedman, a Union bastion at Petersburg. Ready to begin a spring offensive, Grant responded with a counterattack that inflicted thousands of enemy casualties. By April 1, Union infantry and cavalry flanked the Confederate right. At Five Forks, Sheridan routed a division under Pickett and took 4,500 prisoners. The next day, the Army of the Potomac assaulted the weakened center. With deserters heading home in droves, Lee's command abandoned Richmond. A few days later, Union soldiers took control of the burning capital. Escaping to Georgia, Davis avoided capture for another month.
With Sheridan's cavalry in hot pursuit, the Army of Northern Virginia fled westward. At Sayler's Creek, bluecoats captured 7,000 graybacks. Furthermore, they captured trainloads of rations at Appomattox Station, 100 miles west of Petersburg. Demoralized by attrition, the starving rebels were encircled by federal forces. Although one of his officers suggested dashing into the woods to fight as guerrillas, Lee decided to surrender.
On April 9, the surrender occurred in Wilmer McLean's home at Appomattox Court House. Lee appeared resplendent in full dress uniform with an engraved sword at his side. In contrast, Grant arrived for the parlay wearing a faded campaign blouse and mud-spattered boots. After shaking hands, they agreed to simple terms. Despite Lincoln's assassination five days later, Confederate holdouts across the South surrendered in subsequent weeks.
Americans assumed in 1861 that the Civil War amounted to a limited conflict between the sections, but the four years of military campaigning proved them wrong. Unable to resolve their ideological differences over the future of slavery, the North and the South engaged in a revolutionary struggle. The opposing sides experimented in the organization of their armed forces, which largely depended upon the infantry. Commanders moved the artillery behind the lines and downplayed the role of the cavalry on the flanks. Consistent with Jominian doctrines, Union and Confederate armies stood up and marched forward. Troops charged through battlegrounds while firing their rifled muskets. From crossroad towns to rolling hills, they resorted to improvised defenses wherever their maneuvers halted. In spite of early disappointments, federal columns later ravaged rebel dispositions and broke down desultory resistance. The Navy choked southern ports with a blockade, as Grant's operations pressed Lee's residuals into submission. Across a war-torn nation, attritional combat yielded massive destruction in addition to immeasurable suffering.
The magnitude of the Civil War defied comprehension, although the numbers told part of the story. According to one estimate, the short-term cost to the U.S. was $6.5 billion. After calculating the long-term liabilities such as pensions and borrowing, the figure exceeded $20 billion. Northern wealth increased by 50 percent within a decade, but southern wealth decreased by 60 percent. Millions of slaves won freedom from the heinous institution that the slaveholders made, even if their struggle continued. Out of a nation with some 34 million people, approximately 3,867,500 Americans wore uniforms of blue and gray. In other words, over 11 percent of the U.S. population served in the military. While Union and Confederate armies resorted to conscription, the vast majority of the service members volunteered for duty. The clash of arms occurred in more than 10,000 places and produced roughly a million casualties. In fact, almost 50,000 returned home missing at least one limb from amputation. On one side, 360,000 federals lost their lives. On the other, 260,000 rebels died. In sum, as many as 620,000 Americans perished.
Americans survived the effects of “total war,” that is, an enormous contest with an unlimited objective that required not only winning the battles but also crushing the enemy. Even though resources alone did not determine the outcome, the Union completely destroyed the Confederacy. The southern system of black chattel slavery ceased to exist, while the northern states transformed Dixieland into an inferno. With the advent of industrial supremacy, technologies such as locomotives, telegraphs, balloons, steamships, torpedoes, and photography redefined armed conflict. As military operations expanded in scale and in scope, individuals slaughtered each other without knowing who fired the deadly shot. The increasing harshness and cruelty of military power instilled a passion for killing that made warfare, as one soldier put it, “simply murder.” The killing became distant, mechanical, and impersonal, although the victors chose not to execute the vanquished in the end. Whatever the audacity of the generals, the rebellion did not match the strength of Washington D.C.
Nothing else in the American experience approached the agony caused by the rebellion, which left the nation unprepared to deal with the challenges of the reconstruction era. Imbued with the myth of a lost cause, a multitude of southerners explained and justified their defeat by pointing to forces beyond their control. Likewise, the spiritual language of northerners insinuated that the bloodshed and the sacrifice achieved a higher purpose. A distinctly new holiday, Decoration Day – later named Memorial Day – served to commemorate the deceased service members of all the armies and navies. Even before Grant achieved his goal of unconditional surrender, Congress authorized the establishment of “a final resting place” for American warriors scattered near and far. As an act of vengeance, the Quartermaster Department turned Lee's plantation along the Potomac River into Arlington National Cemetery. At the center of an old rose garden, they built a tomb and buried the bones of more than a thousand anonymous soldiers.
1 What strengths and weaknesses did each side possess at the start of the Civil War?
2 How did the military objectives of the Union evolve over time?
3 In what ways did Grant's winning strategy differ substantially from Lee's losing one?
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