ALL NEXT MORNING, HAVING COMPLETED THE perilous nighttime disengagement of both wings in order to form a continuous line of defense along Seminary Ridge, from Oak Hill on the north to the confronting loom of Round Top on the south, the Confederates awaited the answer to the question that was uppermost in their minds: Would the Federals attack? Apparently they would not. “What o’clock is it?” Longstreet finally asked an artillerist standing beside him. “11.55,” the officer replied, and ventured a prediction: “General, this is the ‘Glorious Fourth.’ We should have a salute from the other side at noon.” Noon came and went but not a gun was fired. Old Peter believed he knew why. “Their artillery was too much crippled yesterday to think of salutes,” he said with satisfaction. “Meade is not in good spirits this morning.”
Presently there was evidence that he was wrong. Across the way, in the vicinity of the Peach Orchard, a Union brigade was seen deploying for battle. Nothing came of this, however; for just at that time—about 1 o’clock—rain began to fall, first a drizzle, then a steady downpour; the bluecoats jammed their fixed bayonets into the ground to keep the water from running down their rifle barrels, then squatted uncomfortably beside them, shoulders hunched against the rain. Obviously they had abandoned all notion of attack, if indeed they had had any such real intention in the first place. On their separate ridges, an average mile apart, the men of both armies peered at one another through the transparent curtain of rain as it sluiced the bloodstains from the grass and rocks where they had fought so savagely the past three days, but would not fight today.
Lee appeared calm and confident as he watched the departure of the long column of wounded at the height of the afternoon rainstorm and continued his preparations for the withdrawal of the infantry and artillery that night. Beneath the surface, however, he was testy: as was shown by his response to a well-meant pleasantry from one of Ewell’s young staff officers who came to headquarters with a report from his chief. “General,” he said encouragingly, “I hope the other two corps are in as good condition for work as ours is this morning.” Lee looked at him hard and said coldly, “What reason have you, young man, to suppose they are not?” Even before it became evident that the Federals were not going to attack he proposed, by means of a flag of truce, a man-for-man exchange of prisoners, thus risking a disclosure of his intentions in hope of lightening his burden on the march. Nothing came of this; Meade prudently declined, on grounds that he had no authority in such matters, and Lee continued his preparations for the withdrawal, prisoners and all. Imboden and the wounded were to return by way of Cashtown and Chambersburg, Greencastle and Hagerstown, for a Potomac crossing near Williamsport, a distance of forty-odd miles, while the infantry would follow a route some dozen miles shorter, southwest through Fairfield to Hagerstown for a crossing at the same point, its left flank protected by units of Stuart’s cavalry on the road to Emmitsburg. Though he felt confident that his opponent would be restricted in maneuver by the continuing obligation to cover Baltimore and Washington, Lee recognized the impending retrograde movement as probably the most hazardous of his career. His troops did not seem greatly dispirited by the failure of the campaign, but their weariness was apparent to even a casual eye and a good third of those who had headed north with such high hopes a month ago would not be returning. Including the walking wounded who remained with their commands, he had fewer than 50,000 effectives of all arms. Moreover, Meade by now must have received heavy reinforcements from the surrounding northern states, as well as from his nearby capital: whereas Lee could expect no such transfusions of strength until he crossed the Potomac, if at all.
Leaving his campfires burning on the ridge, Hill began the withdrawal soon after nightfall. Longstreet followed, still in a driving rain that served to muffle the sound of the army’s departure from its opponent across the valley. There were delays, however, and it was 2 o’clock in the morning before Ewell began his march. By now the roads were troughs of mud, which made for heavy going: so heavy, indeed, that it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon by the time the lead elements of the Second Corps plodded into Fairfield, only nine miles from the now deserted ridge just west of Gettysburg. Part of the delay was caused by free-swinging Union troopers, who got among the trains and captured a number of wagons, together with their guards and drivers. Old Bald Head was so outraged by this development that he was for facing about and fighting, then and there. But Lee would not agree. “No, no, General Ewell,” he said; “we must let those people alone for the present. We will try them again some other time.” Hill and Longstreet, well beyond Fairfield before sundown, had no such difficulties. The latter, in fact, was in high good spirits when he called a halt that evening, conveniently near a roadside tavern where his staff had arranged for dinner to be served. Apparently the troops outside were getting theirs, too, for in the course of the meal there was a sound of scuffling in the adjoining chamber, followed by the appearance of a hard-faced farmwife who pushed her way into the dining room, exclaiming as she advanced: “Which is the General? Where is the great officer? Good heavens, they are killing our fat hogs! Our milk cows now are going!” On the march northward, such a complaint would have brought sudden and heavy reprisal on the offenders, but not now. “Yes, Madam,” Old Peter told her, shaking his head in disapproval, “it’s very sad; very sad. And this sort of thing has been going on in Virginia for more than two years. Very sad.”
He took over the lead from Hill next day, July 6, and though the rain continued to fall and the mud to deepen, the men stepped out smartly once they were clear of Monterey Pass and beyond South Mountain. “Let him who will say it to the contrary,” a Texan wrote home, “we made Manassas time from Pennsylvania.” At 5 p.m. Longstreet entered Hagerstown, and Lee, who rode with him as usual, was relieved to learn that the train of wounded had passed through earlier that day and should have reached the Potomac by now, half a dozen miles away. Imboden had made good speed with his 17-mile-long column, though at the cost of much suffering by the wounded, whose piteous cries to be left by the road to die were ignored by the drivers in obedience to orders that there were to be no halts for any reason whatever, by day or night. Many of the injured men had been without food for thirty-six hours, he later wrote, and “their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed, and still oozing wounds. Very few of the wagons had even a layer of straw in them, and all were without springs.… From nearly every wagon as the teams trotted on, urged by whip and shout, came such cries and shrieks as these: ‘Oh, God! Why can’t I die?’ ‘My God, will no one have mercy and kill me?’ ‘Stop! Oh, for God’s sake, stop just for one minute; take me out and let me die on the roadside!’ ‘I am dying, I am dying!’ … During this one night,” the cavalryman added, “I realized more of the horrors of war than I had in all the two preceding years.” Bypassing Chambersburg in the darkness, the lead escort regiment rode through Greencastle at dawn, and when the troopers were a mile beyond the town, which had offered no resistance at all in the course of the march north the week before, some thirty or forty citizens rushed out of their houses and “attacked the train with axes, cutting the spokes out of ten or a dozen wheels and dropping the wagons in the streets.” Imboden sent a detachment of troopers back, and this put an end to the trouble there. Beyond Hagerstown, however, the Union cavalry appeared in strength from Frederick and began to harass the column. At Williamsport, finding the pontoon bridge destroyed by raiders from downstream on the opposite bank, Imboden called a halt and deployed his men and vehicles in the style employed by wagon trains when attacked by Indians on the plains. Arming his drivers with spare rifles and placing his 23 guns at regular intervals along the half-circle of wagons, he faced northeast, the river at his back, and managed to hold off the attackers until Fitz Lee arrived and drove them away.
The army commander got there the following morning, still riding with Longstreet at the head of the infantry column, and though he was pleased to learn that Imboden and his nephew Fitz had staved off the immediate threat by the blue horsemen, who had greatly outnumbered the defenders until now, he could see for himself that his predicament, here on the north bank of the river he had marched so hard to reach, was worse by far than the one in which he had found himself three days ago at Gettysburg, after the failure of his final attempt to break the Union fishhook. Not only was the pontoon bridge destroyed, but the recent torrential rains had swollen the Potomac well past fording. Low on food, as well as ammunition for its guns, the army was cut off from Virginia, together with its prisoners and its wounded. Lee’s first thought was for these last; he directed that all the ferryboats in the region were to be collected and used in transporting the injured men to the south bank; the wagons, like the infantry and the artillery, would have to wait until the river subsided or the bridge could be rebuilt. Meanwhile, if Meade attacked, the Confederates, with small chance to maneuver and none at all to retreat, would have to give him battle under conditions whereby victory would yield but little profit and defeat would mean annihilation.
Accordingly, the engineers began their task of laying out a system of defense that extended some three miles in each direction, upstream and down from Williamsport, where in normal times a man could wade across. Both of its extremities well covered, the six-mile curve of line was anchored north on Conococheague Creek and south on the Potomac below Falling Waters, the site of the wrecked bridge. As at Gettysburg, Hill took the center and Ewell and Longstreet the left and right—they had by now about 35,000 effectives between them, including the cannoneers whose limber chests were nearly empty—while Stuart’s troopers reinforced the flanks and patrolled the front. By next day, July 8, the dispositions were complete, though the men continued to improve them with their shovels, and Lee received the welcome news that ammunition for his guns was on the way from Winchester; it would arrive tomorrow and could be brought across by the ferries already hard at work transporting the wounded to the Virginia bank. Foam-flecked and swollen, the river was still on the boom, however, farther than ever past fording and with no decrease predicted. So far, Meade’s infantry had not appeared, but Lee did not believe it would be long in coming—and in strength much greater than his own. He kept up a show of calmness, despite a precarious shortage of food and the personal strain of having been informed that his son Rooney, taken to Hanover County to recover from his Brandy Station wound, had been captured by raiders and hauled off to Fort Monroe, where he was being held as a hostage to insure the safety of some Federal prisoners charged with various crimes against the people of the Old Dominion. Despite the fret of such distractions, Lee wrote that night to the President, proposing once more that Beauregard’s “army in effigy” march at once for the Rappahannock and thus create a diversion in his favor through this anxious time of waiting for the Potomac to subside.
“I hope Your Excellency will understand that I am not in the least discouraged,” he added, somewhat apologetic over this second appeal for help from outside his department, “or that my faith in the protection of an all-merciful Providence, or in the fortitude of this army, is at all shaken. But, though conscious that the enemy has been much shattered in the recent battle, I am aware that he can be easily reinforced, while no addition can be made to our numbers. The measure, therefore, that I have recommended is altogether one of a prudential nature.”
Learning from scouts the following evening that the Federal main body was on the march from Frederick, he was convinced that his army would soon have to fight for its survival, which in turn meant the survival of the Confederacy itself. In this extremity he occupied himself with the inspection and improvement of his defenses, the distribution of the newly arrived ammunition for his batteries, and the nerving of his troops for the shock he believed was coming. Though the river continued to rise in his rear and food and forage were getting scarcer by the hour—the men were now on half rations and the horses were getting nothing to eat but grass and standing grain—he kept up a show of confidence and good cheer. Only those who knew him best detected his extreme concern: Alexander, for example, who later testified that he had never seen his chief so deeply anxious as he appeared on July 10, one week after the guns of Gettysburg stopped roaring. This did not show, however, in a dispatch the general sent Davis that night from his still bridgeless six-mile bridgehead on the north bank of the still unfordable Potomac. “With the blessing of Heaven,” he told the President, “I trust that the courage and fortitude of the army will be found sufficient to relieve us from the embarrassment caused by the unlooked-for natural difficulties of our situation, if not to secure more valuable and substantial results. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. LEE.”
In all this time, Sunday through Saturday, no two opposing infantrymen had looked at one another along the barrels of their rifles, and the source of this week-long lethargy on the part of those who should have been pursuers lay in the make-up of the man who led them. His caution, which had given the blue army its first undeniable largescale victory to balance against the five major defeats it had suffered under as many different leaders in the past two years, was more enlarged than reduced by the discovery, on the morning of July 5, that the Confederates were no longer in position on the ridge across the way; so that while the first half of Lee’s prediction—“General Meade will commit no blunder on my front”—had been fulfilled, the second half—“If I make one, he will make haste to take advantage of it”—had not. Not that there was no occasion for this increase of caution. The defenders had suffered heavily in the three-day conflict, particularly in the loss of men of rank. Schimmelfennig, who emerged from his woodshed hiding place when Gettysburg was reoccupied on the 4th, was meager compensation for the sixteen brigade and division commanders killed or wounded in the battle, let alone for the three corps commanders who had fallen. Besides, avoidance of risk having gained him so much so far, Meade had no intention of abandoning that policy simply because the winds of chance appeared to have shifted in his favor for the moment.
Whether they had in fact shifted, or had merely been made to seem to, was by no means certain. Lee was foxy, as Meade well knew from old acquaintance. He was known to be most dangerous when he appeared least so: particularly in retreat, as McClellan had discovered while pursuing him under similar circumstances, back in September, after presuming to have taken his measure at South Mountain. Moreover, he was not above tampering with the weather vane, and there was evidence that such was the case at present. Francis Barlow, who had been wounded and captured on the opening day of battle while commanding one of Howard’s overrun divisions north of town, was left behind in Gettysburg when the rebels withdrew to their ridge on the night of July 3. He got word to headquarters next morning that Lee’s plan, as he had overheard it from his sick-bed, was to feign retreat, then waylay his pursuers. Meade took the warning much to heart and contented himself that afternoon, at the height of the sudden rainstorm, with issuing a congratulatory order to the troops “for the glorious result of the recent operations.” That those operations had not ended was evident to all, for the graybacks were still on Seminary Ridge, less than a mile across the rain-swept valley. “Our task is not yet accomplished,” the order acknowledged, “and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.”
It was read to all regiments that evening. In one, when the reading was over, the colonel waved his hat and called for three cheers for Meade. But the men were strangely silent. This was not because they had no use for their new chief, one of them afterwards observed; it was simply because they did not feel like cheering, either for him or for anyone else, rain or no rain. Many of them had been engaged all day in burying the dead and bringing in the wounded of both armies, and this was scarcely the kind of work that put them in the frame of mind for tossing caps and shouting hurrahs. Mostly though, as the man explained, the veterans, “with their lights and experiences, could not see the wisdom or the occasion for any such manifestation of enthusiasm.” They had done a great deal of cheering over the past two years, for Hooker and Burnside and Pope and McDowell, as well as for Little Mac, and in the course of time they had matured; or as this witness put it, their “business sense increased with age.” Someday, perhaps, there would be a reason for tossing their caps completely away and cheering themselves hoarse, but this did not seem to them to be quite it. So they remained silent, watching the colonel swing his hat for a while, then glumly put it back on his head and dismiss them.
That evening the corps commanders voted five to two to hold their present ground until it was certain that Lee was retreating. Next morning—Sunday: Meade had been just one week in command—they found that he was indeed gone, but there was doubt as to whether he was retreating or maneuvering for a better position from which to renew the contest. Sedgwick moved out in the afternoon, only to bog down in the mud, and fog was so heavy the following morning that he could determine nothing except that the Confederates had reached Monterey Pass, southwest of Fairfield. “As soon as possible,” Meade wired Halleck, “I will cross South Mountain and proceed in search of the enemy.” On second thought, however, and always bearing in mind his instructions to “maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the capital and Baltimore,” he decided that his best course would be to avoid a direct pursuit, which might necessitate a costly storming of the pass, and instead march south into Maryland, then westward in an attempt to come up with Lee before he effected a crossing near Williamsburg, where French’s raiders had wrecked the pontoon bridge the day before. In Frederick by noon of July 7, fifty-odd hours after finding that his opponent had stolen away from his front under cover of darkness, the northern commander indulged himself in the luxury of a hot bath in a hotel and put on fresh clothes for the first time in ten days. This afforded him considerable relief, but it also provided a chance for him to discover how profoundly tired he was. “From the time I took command till today,” he wrote his wife, “I … have not had a regular night’s rest, and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a state of mental anxiety. Indeed, I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.”
The men, of course, were in far worse shape from their exertions. Four of the seven corps had been shot almost to pieces, and some of the survivors had trouble recognizing their outfits, so unequal had been the losses in the various commands, including more than 300 field and company grade officers lost by the quick subtractive action of shells and bullets and clubbed muskets. III Corps veterans, who were among the hardest hit in this respect, sardonically referred to themselves as “the III Corps as we understand it.” Their uniforms were in tatters and their long marches through dust and mud, to and from the three-day uproar, had quite literally worn the shoes off their feet. Meade’s regular army soul was pained to see them, though the pain was salved considerably by a wire received that afternoon from Halleck: “It gives me pleasure to inform you that you have been appointed a brigadier general in the Regular Army, to rank from July 3, the date of your brilliant victory.” This welcome message was followed however by two more from Old Brains that were not so welcome, suggesting as they did a lack of confidence in his aggressive qualities. “Push forward and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac,” one directed, while the other was more specific: “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up, and give him another before he can reach the Potomac.… There is strong evidence that he is short of artillery ammunition, and if vigorously pressed he must suffer.” Meade wanted it understood that the suffering was unlikely to be as one-sided as his superior implied. He too was having his troubles and he wanted them known to those above him, who presumed to hand down judgments from a distance. “My army is assembling slowly,” he replied, still in Frederick on July 8. “The rains of yesterday and last night have made all roads but pikes almost impassable. Artillery and wagons are stalled; it will take time to collect them together. A large portion of the men are barefooted.… I expect to find the enemy in a strong position, well covered with artillery, and I do not desire to imitate his example at Gettysburg and assault a position where the chances were so greatly against success. I wish in advance to moderate the expectations of those who, in ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, may expect too much. All that I can do under the circumstances I pledge this army to do.”
Apparently Halleck did not like the sound of this, for he replied within the hour: “There is reliable information that the enemy is crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost. The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him by forced marches.” Meade had not heard a word from Lincoln, either of thanks for his recent victory or of encouragement in his present exertions, and now there was this indirect expression of a lack of confidence. Forced marches! The Pennsylvanian bristled. “My army is and has been making forced marches, short of rations and barefooted,” he wired back, pointing out in passing that the information as to a rebel crossing differed from his own, and added: “I take occasion to repeat that I will use my utmost efforts to push forward this army.” Old Brains protested that he had been misconceived. “Do not understand me as expressing any dissatisfaction,” he replied; “on the contrary, your army has done most nobly. I only wish to give you opinions formed from information received here.” But having entered this disclaimer he returned to his former tone, ignoring Meade’s denial that any appreciable part of the rebel force had crossed the Potomac, either at Williamsport or elsewhere. “If Lee’s army is so divided by the river,” he persisted, “the importance of attacking the part on this side is incalculable. Such an opportunity may never occur again.… You will have forces sufficient to render your victory certain. My only fear now is that the enemy may escape.”
At Middletown on July 9, having replaced Butterfield with Humphreys as chief of staff and thus got rid of the last reminder of Hooker’s luckless tenure, Meade was pleased that no rain had fallen since early the day before. Though the Potomac remained some five feet above its normal level and therefore well past fording, the roads were drying fast and permitted better marching. Moreover, Halleck was keeping his word as to reinforcements. The army had 85,000 men present for duty and 10,000 more on the way, which meant that its Gettysburg losses had been made good, although a number of short-term militia and grassgreen conscripts were included. “This army is moving in three columns,” Meade informed Halleck before midday, “the right column having in it three corps.… I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days. In view of the momentous consequences, I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgment will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.” Delighted to hear that Meade was in motion again, however tardy, the general-in-chief was careful to say nothing that might cause him to stop and resume the telegraphic argument. “Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgment,” he told him. “Regard them as suggestions only. Our information here is not always correct.” In point of fact, now that contact seemed imminent, it was Old Brains who was urging caution. More troops were on the way, he wired next day, and he advised waiting for them. “I think it will be-best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserves and reinforcements.… Beware of partial combats. Bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad.”
Meade agreed. He spent the next two days, which continued fair, examining the curved shield of Lee’s defenses and jockeying for a position from which to “hurl” his army upon them. By early afternoon of July 12—Sunday again: he now had been two full weeks in command—he was ready, though the skies again were threatening rain. Selected divisions from the II, V, and VI Corps confronted a rebel-held wheat field, pickets out, awaiting the signal to go forward, when a Pennsylvania chaplain rode up to the command post and protested the violation of the Sabbath. Couldn’t the battle be fought as well tomorrow? he demanded. For once Meade kept his temper, challenged thus by a home-state man of the cloth, and explained somewhat elaborately that he was like a carpenter with a contract to construct a box, four sides and the bottom of which had been completed; now the lid was ready to be put on. The chaplain was unimpressed. “As God’s agent and disciple I solemnly protest,” he declared fervently. “I will show you that the Almighty will not permit you to desecrate his sacred day.… Look at the heavens; see the threatening storm approaching!” Whereupon there were sudden peals of thunder and zigzags of lightning, as in a passage from the Old Testament, and rain began to pour down on the wheat field and the troops who were about to move against it. Meade canceled the probing action, returned to his quarters, and got off a wire to Halleck. “It is my intention to attack them tomorrow,” he wrote; but then—perhaps with the chaplain’s demonstration in mind—he added, “unless something intervenes to prevent it.”
So he said. But a council of war he called that evening showed that his chief subordinates were opposed to launching any attack without a further examination of Lee’s position. Only Wadsworth, commanding the I Corps in the absence of Newton, who was sick, agreed with Meade wholeheartedly in favoring an assault, although Howard, anxious as always to retrieve a damaged reputation, expressed a willingness to go along with the plan. Despite reports that the Potomac was falling rapidly after four days of fair weather, Meade deferred to the judgment of five of his seven corps commanders, postponed the scheduled advance, and spent the next day conducting a further study of the rebel dispositions. Informing Halleck of the outcome of the council of war, he told him: “I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.” Old Brains was prompt to reply that he disapproved of such flinching now that the two armies were once more face to face. “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing,” he wired. “Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Reinforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.”
It was plain that the advice as to councils of war amounted to an attempt to lock the stable after the pony had been stolen. And so too did the rest of it, as the thing turned out. When Meade at last went forward next morning, July 14, he found the rebel trenches empty and all but a rear-guard handful of graybacks already on the far bank of the Potomac. Aside from a number of stragglers picked up in the rush, together with two mud-stalled guns—the only ones Lee lost in the whole campaign—attacks on the remnant merely served to hasten the final stages of the crossing, after which the delivered Confederates cut their rebuilt pontoon bridge loose from the Maryland shore and looked mockingly back across the swirling waters, which were once more on the rise as a result of the two-day rainstorm the chaplain had invoked.
Meade was not greatly disappointed, or at any rate he did not seem so in a dispatch informing Halleck of Lee’s escape before it had even been completed. The closing sentence was downright bland: “Your instructions as to further movements, in case the enemy are entirely across the river, are desired.”
For Lee, threatened in front by twice his number and menaced within the perimeter by starvation, the past three days had been touch and go, all the time with the receding but still swollen Potomac mocking his efforts to escape. In the end it was Jackson’s old quartermaster, Major John Harman, who managed the army’s extraction and landed it safe on the soil of Virginia, having improvised pontoons by tearing down abandoned houses for their timbers and floating the finished products down to Falling Waters, where they were linked and floored; “a good bridge,” Lee called the result, and though a more critical staff officer termed it a “crazy affair,” it served its purpose. Its planks overlaid with lopped branches to deaden the sound of wheels and boots, it not only permitted the secret withdrawal of the guns and wagons in the darkness; it also made possible the dry-shod crossing of the two corps under Longstreet and Hill, while Ewell managed to use the ford at Williamsport, his tallest men standing in midstream, armpit deep, to pass the shorter waders along. By dawn the Second Corps was over, but the First and Third were still waiting for the trains to clear the bridge. At last they did, and Longstreet crossed without interference, followed by Hill’s lead division: at which point guns began to roar.
“There!” Lee exclaimed, turning his head sharply in the direction of the sound. “I was expecting it—the beginning of the attack.”
He soon learned, however, that Heth, who had recovered from his head injury and returned to the command of his division, had faced his men about and was holding off the attackers while Hill’s center division completed the crossing; whereupon Heth turned and followed, fighting as he went. It was smartly done. Despite an official boast by Kilpatrick that he captured a 1500-man Confederate brigade, only about 300 stragglers failed to make it over the river before the bridge was cut loose from the northern bank, and the loss of the two stalled guns, while regrettable, was more than made up for by the seven that had been taken in Pennsylvania and brought back. Another loss was more grievous. On Heth’s return to duty, Johnston Pettigrew had resumed command of what was left of his brigade, which served this morning as rear guard. He had his men in line, awaiting his turn at the bridge, when suddenly they were charged by a group of about forty Union cavalrymen who were thought at first to be Confederates brandishing a captured flag, so foolhardy was their attack. Pettigrew, one of whose arms was still weak from his Seven Pines wound, while the other was in a sling because of the hand that had been hit at Gettysburg, was tossed from his startled horse. He picked himself up and calmly directed the firing at the blue troopers, who were dashing about and banging away with their carbines. Eventually all of them were killed—which made it difficult to substantiate or disprove the claim that they were drunk—but meantime one took a position on the flank and fired so effectively that the general himself drew his revolver and went after him in person. Determined to get so close he could not miss, Pettigrew was shot in the stomach before he came within easy pistol range. He made it over the bridge, refusing to be left behind as a prisoner, and lived for three days of intense suffering before he died at Bunker Hill, Virginia, the tenth general permanently lost to the army in the course of the invasion. The whole South mourned him, especially his native North Carolina, and Lee referred to him in his report as “an officer of great merit and promise.”
Saddened by this last-minute sacrifice of a gallant fighter, but grateful for its delivery from immediate peril, the army continued its march that day and the next to Bunker Hill, twenty miles from the Potomac, and there it went into camp, as Lee reported, for rest and recruitment. “The men are in good health and spirits,” he informed Richmond, “but want shoes and clothing badly.… As soon as these necessary articles are obtained we shall be prepared to resume operations.” That he was still feeling aggressive, despite the setback he had suffered, was shown by his reaction on July 16 to information that the enemy was preparing to cross the river at Harpers Ferry. “Should he follow us in this direction,” Lee wrote Davis, “I shall lead him up the Valley and endeavor to attack him as far from his base as possible.”
Meade’s exchanges with his government, following his laconic report of a rebel getaway, were of a different nature. Halleck was plainly miffed. “I need hardly say to you,” he wired, “that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active before.” This was altogether more than Meade could take, particularly from Lincoln, who still had sent him no word of appreciation or encouragement, by way of reward for the first great victory in the East, but only second-hand expressions of doubt and disappointment. The Pennsylvanian stood on his dignity and made the strongest protest within his means. “Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability,” he declared, “the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch … is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.” There Halleck had it, and Lincoln too. They could either refrain from such goadings or let the victorious general depart. Moreover, Meade strengthened his case with a follow-up wire, sent half an hour later, in which he passed along Kilpatrick’s exuberant if erroneous report of capturing a whole rebel brigade on the near bank of the Potomac. Old Brains promptly backtracked, as he always seemed to do when confronted with vigorous opposition from anyone, blue or gray, except Joe Hooker. “My telegram, stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army, was not intended as a censure,” he replied, “but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.”
In the end Meade withdrew his resignation, or at any rate did not insist that it be accepted, and on July 17, 18, and 19—the last date was a Sunday: he now had been three weeks in command—he crossed the Potomac at Harpers Ferry and Berlin, half a dozen miles downstream, complying with his instructions to conduct “an active and energetic pursuit,” although he was convinced that such a course was overrisky. “The proper policy for the government would have been to be contented with driving Lee out of Maryland,” he wrote his wife, “and not to have advanced till this army was largely reinforced and reorganized and put on such a footing that its advance was sure to be successful.” In point of fact, however, he had already been “largely reinforced.” His aggregate present on July 20 was 105,623 men, including some 13,500 troopers, while Lee on that same date, exclusive of about 9000 cavalry, had a total of 50,178, or barely more than half as many infantry and cannoneers as were moving against him. Confronted with the danger of being cut off from Richmond, he abandoned his plan for drawing the enemy up the valley and instead moved eastward through Chester Gap. On July 21—the second anniversary of First Manassas, whose twice-fought-over field lay only some thirty miles beyond the crest of the Blue Ridge—Federal lookouts reported dust clouds rising; the rebels were on the march. Lee reached Culpeper two days later, and Meade, conforming, shifted to Warrenton, from which point he sent a cavalry and infantry column across the Rappahannock on the last night of the month. Gray horsemen opposed the advance, but Lee, aware of the odds against him and unwilling to take the further risk of remaining within the V of the two rivers, decided to fall back beyond the Rapidan. This was accomplished by August 4, ending the sixty days of marching and fighting which comprised the Gettysburg campaign. Both armies were back at their approximate starting points, and Meade did not pursue.
He had at last received from Washington the accolade that had been withheld so long, though the gesture still was not from Lincoln. “Take it altogether,” Halleck wrote, “your short campaign has proved your superior generalship, and you merit, as you will receive, the confidence of the government and the gratitude of your country.” But Meade had already disclaimed such praise from other sources. “The papers are making a great deal too much fuss about me,” he wrote home. “I claim no extraordinary merit for this last battle, and would prefer waiting a little while to see what my career is to be before making any pretensions.… I never claimed a victory,” he explained, “though I stated that Lee was defeated in his efforts to destroy my army.” Thin-skinned and testy as he was, he found it hard to abide the pricks he received from his superiors. He doubted, indeed, whether he was “sufficiently phlegmatic” for the leadership of an army which he now perceived was commanded from Washington, and he confided to his wife that he would esteem it the best of favors if Lincoln would replace him with someone else. Who that someone might be he did not say, but he could scarcely have recommended any of his present subordinates, whose lack of energy he deplored. Most of all, he missed his fellow Pennsylvanians, the dead Reynolds and the convalescing Hancock. “Their places are not to be supplied,” he said.
With nine of his best generals gone for good, and eight more out with wounds of various depth and gravity, Lee had even greater cause for sadness. Just now, though, his energies were mainly confined to refitting his army, preparing it for a continuation of the struggle he had sought to end with one hard blow, and incidentally in putting down a spirit of contention among his hot-tempered subordinates as to where the blame for the recent defeat should go. Few were as frank as Ewell, who presently told a friend that “it took a dozen blunders to lose Gettysburg and [I] committed a good many of them,” or as selfless as Longstreet, who wrote to a kinsman shortly after the battle: “As General Lee is our commander, he should have the support and influence we can give him. If the blame, if there is any, can be shifted from him to me, I shall help him and our cause by taking it. I desire, therefore, that all the responsibility that can be put upon me shall go there, and shall remain there.” Later he would vigorously decline the very chance he said he hoped for, but that was in the after years, where there was no longer any question of sustaining either the army commander or the cause. Others not only declined it now but were quick to point out just where they thought the blame should rest: Pickett, for instance, whose report was highly critical of the other units involved in the charge tradition would give his name to. Lee returned the document to him with the suggestion that it be destroyed, together with all copies. “You and your men have covered yourselves with glory,” he told him, “but we have the enemy to fight and must carefully, at this critical moment, guard against dissensions which the reflections in your report would create.… I hope all will yet be well.”
His own critique of the battle, from the Confederate point of view, was given five years later to a man who was contemplating a school history. Referring the writer to the official accounts, Lee avoided personalities entirely. “Its loss was occasioned by a combination of circumstances,” he declared. “It was commenced in the absence of correct intelligence. It was continued in the effort to overcome the difficulties by which we were surrounded, and [a success] would have been gained could one determined and united blow have been delivered by our whole line. As it was, victory trembled in the balance for three days, and the battle resulted in the infliction of as great an amount of injury as was received and in frustrating the Federal campaign for the season.” Reticent by nature in such matters, he was content to let it go at that, except for once when he was out riding with a friend. Then he did speak of personalities, or anyhow one personality. “If I had had Stonewall Jackson with me,” he said, looking out over the peaceful fields, “so far as man can see, I should have won the battle of Gettysburg.”
That was still in the future, however. For the present he reserved his praise for the men who had been there. “The army did all it could,” he told one of his numerous cousins in late July. “I fear I required of it impossibilities. But it responded to the call nobly and cheerfully, and though it did not win a victory it conquered a success. We must now prepare for harder blows and harder work.”
Having failed in his effort to “conquer a peace” by defeating the principal Union army north of its capital, Lee had failed as well in his secondary purpose, which had been to frighten the Washington authorities into withdrawing Grant and Banks from their strangle-hold positions around Vicksburg and Port Hudson, thereby delivering from danger not only those two critical locations but also the great river that ran between them, the loss of which would cut the South in two. But Lee’s was not the only attempt to forestall that disaster. In addition to Joe Johnston, whose primary assignment it was, Kirby Smith too had plans for the relief of Pemberton and Gardner, on whose survival depended his hope of remaining an integral part of the Confederacy. Though these included nothing so ambitious as an intention to end the war with a single long-odds stab at the enemy’s vitals, they were at least still in the course of execution when Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s men came stumbling back from Cemetery Ridge, leaving the bodies of their comrades to indicate the high-water mark of Lee’s campaign, which now was on the ebb. Nor were these Transmississippi plans without the element of boldness. Encouraged by Magruder’s success in clearing Texas of all trace of the invader, Smith hoped his other two major generals, Holmes in Arkansas and Taylor in West Louisiana, might accomplish as much in their departments. If so, he might attain the aforementioned secondary purpose of causing the Federal high command to detach troops from Grant and Banks, in an attempt to recover what had been lost across the river from their respective positions, and thus lighten the pressure on Vicksburg and Port Hudson. At any rate Smith thought it worth a try, and in mid-June, being frantically urged by Richmond to adopt some such course of action—Davis and Seddon by then had begun losing confidence that anything was going to come of their increasingly strident appeals to Johnston along those lines—he instructed Taylor and Holmes to make the effort.
Taylor, who had just returned disgruntled to Alexandria after his strike at Milliken’s Bend—a tactical success, at least until Porter’s gunboats hove onto the scene, but a strategic failure, since the objective turned out to be little more than a training camp for the Negro recruits Grant had enlisted off the plantations roundabout—was pleased to be ordered back onto what he considered the right track, which led down to New Orleans. His plan, as he had outlined it before the fruitless excursion opposite Vicksburg, was to descend the Teche and the Atchafalaya, recapture Berwick Bay and overrun the Bayou Lafourche region, which lay between Grand Lake and the Mississippi, deep in Banks’s rear, interrupting that general’s communications with New Orleans and threatening the city itself; whereupon Banks would be obliged to raise his siege of Port Hudson in order to save New Orleans, whose 200,000 citizens he knew to be hostile to his occupation, and Gardner then could march out to join Johnston for an attack on Grant’s rear and the quick delivery of beleaguered Vicksburg. Such at least were Taylor’s calculations—or more properly speaking, his hopes; for his resources were admittedly slim for so ambitious a project. He had at Alexandria three small cavalry regiments just arrived from Texas under Colonel J. P. Major, a twenty-seven-year-old Missouri-born West Pointer whose peacetime army career had included service in Albert Sidney Johnston’s 2d Cavalry, which already had provided the South with eight and the North with two of their leading generals. Awaiting instructions on the upper Teche, to which they had returned in the wake of Banks’s withdrawal in mid-May, were five more such mounted regiments under Thomas Green, the Valverde hero who had been promoted to brigadier for his share in the New Year’s triumph at Galveston, along with three regiments of Louisiana infantry under Brigadier General Alfred Mouton, thirty-four years old and a West Pointer, a Shiloh veteran and native of nearby Vermilionville, son of the former governor and brother-in-law to Frank Gardner, whose rescue was the object of the campaign. The combined strength of the three commands was about 4000 effectives, barely one tenth of the force available to Banks, but Taylor intended to make up in boldness for what he lacked in numbers.
The advance was made in two widely divided columns. While Mouton and Green swung down the west bank of the Teche, marching unopposed through Opelousas and New Iberia, Taylor rode with Major across the Atchafalaya, then down Bayou Fordoche to within earshot of the guns of Port Hudson. At that point he left him, on June 18, with orders to move rapidly to the rear of Brashear City, the objective upon which the two forces were to converge for a simultaneous attack five days later. The distance was one hundred miles, entirely through occupied territory, but Major made it on schedule. Skirmishing briefly that afternoon with the bluecoats on guard at Plaquemine, a west-bank landing below Baton Rouge, he bypassed fortified Donaldsonville after nightfall and set off next morning down Bayou Lafourche, which left the Mississippi just above the town. Some thirty miles below on the 20th, he rode into Thibodaux, whose garrison had fled at the news of his approach, and next day he struck the railroad at Terrebonne, thirty miles east of Brashear, then turned due west to complete his share of the convergence Taylor had designed. Moving crosscountry with relays of quick-stepping mules hitched to his ambulance, that general had joined Mouton and Green on their unopposed march through Franklin to Fort Bisland. By nightfall of June 22 they were at Berwick and were poised for an amphibious attack, having brought with them a weird collection of “small boats, skiffs, flats, even sugar-coolers,” which they had gathered for this purpose during their descent of the Teche. Batteries were laid under cover of darkness for a surprise bombardment in support of the scheduled dawn assault on the Brashear fortifications, just eastward across the narrow bay. Taylor’s old commander in the Shenandoah Valley doubtless would have been proud to see how well his pupil, whose preparatory work had been done not at West Point but at Yale, had learned the value of well-laid plans when the object was the capture or destruction of an enemy force in occupation of a fixed position.
Old Jack’s pride would have swelled even more next morning, when the Louisianian gathered the fruits of his boldness and careful planning. While some 300 dismounted Texans manned the 53 boats of his improvised flotilla—it was fortunate that there was no wind, Taylor said later, for the slightest disturbance would have swamped them—Green’s cannoneers stood to their pieces. At first light they opened fire, and as they did so the sea-going troopers swarmed ashore, encouraged by the echoing boom of Major’s guns from the east. Flustered by the sudden bombardment, which seemed to erupt out of nowhere, and by the unexpected assault from both directions, front and rear, the blue defenders milled about briefly, then surrendered. The take was great, for here at the western terminus of the railroad Banks had cached the ordnance and quartermaster supplies he intended to use in his planned return up the Teche and the Red. In addition to 1700 prisoners, a dozen heavy-caliber guns and 5000 new-style Burnside repeaters and Enfield rifles were captured, together with two locomotives and their cars, which were unable to get away eastward because Major had wrecked the bridge at Lafourche Crossing, and commissary and medical stores in such abundance that they brought to more than $2,000,000 the estimated profit from Taylor’s well-engineered strike. The general’s pleasure was as great as that of his men, who wasted no time before sitting down to gorge themselves on the spoils. Their main concern was food, but his was the acquisition of the implements with which to continue his resistance to the invasion of his homeland. “For the first time since I reached western Louisiana,” he exulted afterwards, “I had supplies.”
All in all, it was the largest haul any body of Confederates had made since Stonewall followed up his raid on Manassas Junction with the capture of Harpers Ferry, back in September. Like his mentor, however, Taylor did not allow his exultation to delay his plans for the further discomfiture of his adversary. Next morning, leaving one regiment to sort the booty and remove it to Alexandria for safekeeping, he pressed on north and east, once more in two columns. While Green and Major marched for Donaldsonville, near which they were to establish batteries for the purpose of disrupting traffic on the Mississippi and thus sever the main line of supply and communications available to the besiegers of Port Hudson, Mouton’s infantry went by rail to Thibodaux, from which point he sent pickets down the line to Bayou des Allemands, within twenty-five miles of New Orleans. It was during the early morning hours of June 28 that Taylor encountered his first setback, though not in person. Approaching Donaldsonville the night before, Green had meant to bypass it, as Major had done on his way south, but the existence of an earthwork at the junction of the Lafourche and the Mississippi proved irresistible, perhaps in part because the Yankees had given it a hated name: Fort Butler. He disposed 800 dismounted troopers for attack and sent them forward two hours before dawn. The result was a bloody repulse, administered by the 225 defenders and three gunboats that arrived in time to support them. Green, who had suffered 261 casualties and inflicted only 24, pulled back, chagrined, and went about his proper business of establishing his three batteries on the west bank of the river, some ten miles below the town. He opened fire on July 7 and for three days not only kept the Mississippi closed to transports and unarmored supply boats, but also sent out mounted patrols as far downstream as Kenner, barely a dozen miles from the heart of New Orleans, which was already in a turmoil of expectancy as a result of Mouton’s continued presence at Thibodaux and nearby Bayou des Allemands.
Secessionists were joyously predicting the imminent entry of the graybacks who were knocking at the gates, and William Emory, with fewer than 1000 men to oppose a rebel host he reckoned at 13,000, was altogether in agreement that the place was the Confederacy’s for the taking. What was more, as we have seen already, he had said as much to Banks. “It is a choice between Port Hudson and New Orleans,” he informed him on July 4, adding: “You can only save this city by sending me reinforcements immediately and at any cost.” Dick Taylor thus had accomplished the preliminary objective of his campaign; that is, he had brought the pressure he intended upon Banks, who now would be obliged to withdraw from Port Hudson, permitting Gardner to join Johnston for the delivery of Pemberton by means of an attack on Grant’s intrenchments from the rear. So much Taylor had planned or anyhow hoped for. But Banks, as we have also seen, refused to cooperate in the completion of the grand design. If New Orleans fell, he told Halleck, he would retake it once the business at hand was completed and his army was free to be used for that purpose; but meantime he would hang on at Port Hudson till it surrendered, no matter what disasters threatened his rear. Observing this perverse reaction, Taylor was obliged to admit that once again, as at Milliken’s Bend a month ago, though his tactics had been successful his strategy had failed. He had gained much in his brief campaign—particularly at Brashear City, whose spoils would greatly strengthen his future ability to resist the blue invaders—but he had not accomplished the recapture of New Orleans, which he saw as a cul-de-sac to be avoided, or the raising of the siege at Port Hudson.
Theophilus Holmes, though neither as energetic nor as inventive as Zachary Taylor’s son and Stonewall Jackson’s pupil, was also under compunction to do something toward relieving their hemmed-in friends across the way. Since the turn of the year, when Marmaduke made his successful raid into Missouri, burning the Springfield supply base and bringing a hornetlike swarm of guerillas out of the brush and canebrakes, all the elderly North Carolinian had attempted in this regard was a repeat performance by that same general in late April, this time with twice as many men and instructions to put the torch to the well-stocked military depots along the west bank of the Mississippi north of Cairo, particularly Cape Girardeau, from which Grant was drawing much of his subsistence for the campaign far downriver. Little came of this, however. Marmaduke and his 5000 troopers—the largest body of horsemen ever assembled in the Transmississippi—struck and routed an inferior blue force at Fayetteville on April 18, then crossed the line into his native state and rode eastward across it in two columns, one through Fredericktown and the other through Bloomfield, driving Yankee outpost garrisons before him as he advanced. Secessionists, many of whom had kinsmen riding with him, greeted their favorite with cheers. His father had been governor before the war and he himself would be governor after it, a bachelor just past thirty now, tall and slender, quick-tempered and aristocratic in manner, with a full beard, delicate hands and feet, and fine hair brushed smooth on top and worn long in back so that it flared in a splendid ruff behind his head. His eyes were kindly and intelligent, though they had a disconcerting squint that came from his being at once near-sighted and unwilling to disfigure himself with glasses. He had studied both at Harvard and Yale before his graduation from West Point six years ago, but neither this formal preparation nor his success on the similar mission back in January stood him in much stead on April 25, when he completed his investment of Cape Girardeau with a demand for an immediate surrender; to which Brigadier General John McNeil, a fifty-year-old former Boston hatter and St Louis insurance agent, who had increased the strength of the garrison to 1700 by bringing in his brigade the day before, replied with an immediate refusal. Marmaduke attacked and found the resistance stiff, all the approaches being covered by well-served artillery. Not only was he repulsed, but scouts reported steamers unloading reinforcements from St Louis at the Cape Girardeau dock. So he withdrew next morning, after launching one more attack designed to discourage pursuit. It failed in its purpose, however, and the retreat southward across the St Francis bottomlands of the Missouri boot heel required all his skill to avoid being intercepted by the now superior forces of the enemy. By May Day he was back in Arkansas, having suffered 161 casualties, and though he claimed that Federal losses “must have been five times as great as mine in killed and wounded”—McNeil and the others who had opposed him admitted a scant 120, combined—all he had to show for his pains, aside from some 150 recruits picked up in the course of the 400-mile-long ride, was “a great improvement in the number and quality of horses” in his command.
Grant was over the river by then, hard on the march for Jackson, but Holmes attempted nothing more in the way of interference until he received in mid-June an excerpt from a letter the Secretary of War had written Johnston in late May, after Pemberton was besieged, suggesting that he urge the Transmississippi commanders to “make diversions for you, or, in case of the fall of Vicksburg, secure a great future advantage to the Confederacy by the attack on, and seizure of, Helena, while all the available forces of the enemy are being pushed to Grant’s aid.” Seddon added that, though he was cut off from those commanders and therefore had no means of ordering the adoption of his suggestion, its tactical soundness was “so apparent that it is hoped it will be voluntarily embraced and executed.” He was right, so far at least as concerned its being “embraced,” for Holmes had already conferred with Sterling Price on the same notion, and Price, who had taken command in early June of two brigades of infantry, not only declared that his men were “fully rested and in excellent spirits,” but also expressed confidence that if Holmes would bring up two more brigades, together they could “crush the foe” at Helena. He had, moreover, an up-to-the-minute report from “an intelligent lady” just arrived from the west-bank Arkansas town, in which she described the enemy garrison as “exceedingly alarmed,” much reduced by downriver calls for reinforcements, “and apprehensive that you will attack them daily.” Seddon’s suggestion reached Holmes at Little Rock on June 14, together with a covering letter from Kirby Smith, who left its adoption or rejection up to him. Holmes was eager, for once, being greatly encouraged by Price’s coincidental approval of the project. “I believe we can take Helena. Please let me attack it,” he replied next day, and Smith consented promptly. “Most certainly do it,” he told him. That was on June 16. Two days later Holmes issued orders for a concentration of his forces, preparatory to launching the attack.
He had available for the effort just under 5000 infantry in Price’s two brigades and a third under Brigadier General James Fagan, a thirty-five-year-old Kentucky-born Arkansan who was a veteran of the Mexican War as well as of Shiloh and Prairie Grove, and just over 2500 cavalry in the two brigades remaining with Marmaduke—two others had been detached since his repulse at Cape Girardeau—and a third under Brigadier General Lucius Walker, who was thirty-three, a nephew of Tennessee’s James K. Polk and a West Point graduate, though he had abandoned army life to enter the mercantile business in Memphis until Sumter put him back in uniform. Holmes’s instructions called for a cavalry screen to be thrown around Helena as soon as possible, in order to conceal from its blue defenders the infantry concentration scheduled for June 26 across the St Francis River at Cotton Plant and Clarendon, within fifty miles of the objective. Walker and Marmaduke moved out promptly, followed by Price and Fagan. Anxious to get back onto the victory trail that had led to Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, up in his home state, before he was sidetracked into defeat at Pea Ridge and more recently at Iuka and Corinth, Price had announced to his troops that they would “not only drive the enemy from our borders, but pursue him into his own accursed land.” The men, who idolized him and affectionately called him Pap, cheered at the news that these words were about to be translated into action, and Fagan likewise reported that his brigade was “ready and in high condition and spirit” as the march got under way. Those spirits were soon dampened, however, by torrents of rain that turned the roads to quagmires and flooded the unbridged streams past fording. As a result, it was June 30 before the infantry reached the areas designated. Holmes remained calm, despite the strain of a four-day wait, and engaged in no useless criminations. “My dear general,” he wrote Price while the former Missouri governor was still on the march through calf-deep mud, “I deeply regret your misfortune.” Revising his schedule accordingly, he moved out from Clarendon and Cotton Plant on July 1, arrived within five miles of Helena on the evening of July 3, and issued detailed instructions for an attack at dawn next morning. Much depended on concert of action, for the Union position featured mutually supporting earthworks and intrenchments, but Holmes counted also on his assumed superiority in numbers. His strength was 7646 effectives, and he reckoned that of the enemy at “4000 or 5000” at the most.
It was in fact much closer to the lower than to the higher figure; 4129 bluecoats were awaiting him in the Helena defenses. But what he did not know was that they had been warned of his coming and had made special preparations to receive him, including arrangements for the support of the gunboat Tyler, whose 8-inch guns had helped to save the day at Shiloh under similar circumstances. The post commander, Benjamin M. Prentiss, had done even stouter service on that bloody field by holding the Hornets Nest until he and his division were overrun and captured. Exchanged in October, the Virginia-born Illinois lawyer had won promotion to major general and assignment to command of the District of East Arkansas—meaning Helena, since this was the only Union-occupied point in the region below Memphis. For the past four days, disturbed by the rebel cavalry thrashing about in the brush outside his works, Prentiss had had the garrison up and under arms by 2.30 each morning, and just yesterday he had issued an order forbidding a Fourth of July celebration his officers had planned for tomorrow. However, the most effective preparation of all had begun in late December, when Fred Steele went downriver with Sherman and three fourths of his corps, leaving the remnant exposed to a sudden thrust such as Holmes was launching now. At that time, six months ago, the total defense consisted of a single bastioned earthwork, called Fort Curtis for the then commander of the department, whose guns could sweep the gently rising ground of the hills that cradled the low-lying town beside the river, but since then Prentiss had constructed breastworks and dug rifle pits along the brow of the ridge, an average half mile beyond the fort, overlooking the timber-choked terrain of its more precipitous eastern slopes, and on the three dominant heights, Rightor Hill on the right, Graveyard Hill in the center, and Hindman Hill on the left, he had installed batteries which he designated, north to south, as A, B, C, D. Stoutly emplaced and mutually supporting, so that if one fell those adjoining could turn their fire on it, those four batteries and their protective intrenchments, which linked them into an iron chain of defense, covered the six roads that passed over the semicircular ridge and converged on Fort Curtis like so many spokes on the hub of half a wheel, and the cannoneers who manned them could feel secure—especially after a look back over their shoulders at the Tyler riding at anchor beyond the town—in the knowledge that Prentiss and his engineers had made the most of what nature had placed at their disposal Brigadier General Frederick Salomon commanded the division Steele had left behind. One of four immigrant brothers who served the Union through this crisis—three of them as colonels and brigadiers and the fourth as wartime governor of Wisconsin, to which they had fled from their native Prussia to avoid the consequences of having fought on the losing side in the Revolution of 1848—he had three small brigades, each led by a colonel: two of infantry, under William McLean and Samuel Rice, and one of cavalry under Powell Clayton. Like Salomon, these three officers were all in their middle or early thirties, nonprofessionals who had risen strictly on merit if not in action, and their troops were Westerners to a man, mostly farm boys out of Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Except for a single regiment of Hoosiers who had served with Pope in the taking of New Madrid and Island Ten, some fifteen months ago, the total field experience of the garrison had been the recent Yazoo Pass fiasco, in which they had been matched primarily against gnats and mosquitoes while the navy tried in vain to reduce Fort Pemberton. Still irked by the memory of that unhappy experience, and in accordance with Prentiss’s standing instructions, they turned out of their bunks and took their posts at 2.30, an hour before dawn and a good two hours before sunrise of this Independence Day. Clayton’s troopers were on the far right, guarding the river road north of town; McLean’s and Rice’s cannoneers and riflemen were disposed along the hilltop chain of batteries and intrenchments. Half an hour after they were in position, Holmes’s attack opened against the left center. At first it was rather tentative, driving the Federal outpost pickets back up the rugged western slopes of Hindman and Graveyard hills, but presently it exploded in full fury as the butternut pursuers came yelling after them, massed shoulder to shoulder in a solid drive for possession of the two high-sited batteries Prentiss had labeled C and D.
Their repulse was not as sudden as their eruption, but it was equally emphatic. In part this was because they had found the last five miles of road, which they covered after dark, in even worse shape than the hundred-odd they had traversed so painfully during the past week: with the result that they had been unable to bring their guns along and therefore had to attack without artillery support, of which the Federals had plenty. Fagan’s brigade struck first, storming Hindman Hill—so called because it was here that the former Confederate commander had built the fine brick house Curtis had taken for his headquarters soon after occupying the town the year before. Three successive lines of half-bastions were rapidly penetrated and seized, but not the hilltop battery itself, which met the attackers with volleys of grape that shattered their formation, sent them scrambling for cover, and pinned them down so effectively that they could not even retreat. Price’s two brigades did better, at least at first. Battery C was taken in a rush, the graybacks swarming over Graveyard Hill and whooping among the captured guns. The weaponless rebel artillerymen came up, prepared to turn the pieces on their late owners, only to find that the retreating cannoneers had carried off all the friction primers, which left the guns about as useless to their captors as so much scrap iron. Moreover, they came under enfilade fire from the two adjoining batteries and took a pounding as well from Fort Curtis, dead ahead at the foot of the gradual eastern slope. Nor was that all. Receiving word that Hindman Hill was under assault, Prentiss had signaled Lieutenant Commander J. M. Prichett of the Tyler: “Open fire in that direction.” Now Prichett did, and with a vengeance, the fuzes of his 8-inch shells cut at ten and fifteen seconds. So demoralized were the attackers by the sudden deluge of heavy-caliber projectiles that, according to one blue officer, two groups of about 250 men each responded “by hoisting a white flag, their own sharpshooters upon the ridge in their rear firing from cover upon and cursing them as they marched out prisoners of war.”
Holmes did what he could to expand the lodgment, sending one of Price’s brigades to co-operate with Fagan in the stalled drive on Battery D. But to no avail; McLean and Rice held steady, backed up stoutly by Fort Curtis and the Tyler, whose bow and stern guns were firing north and south, respectively, while her ponderous broadside armament tore gaps in the rebel center. The early morning coolness soon gave way to parching heat; men risked their lives for sips of water from the canteens of the dead. Around to the north, Marmaduke had even less success against the defenders of Rightor Hill, and though he later complained vociferously that Walker had not supported him on his vulnerable left flank, the fact was he had already found Batteries A and B too hot to handle. He and Walker together lost a total of 66 men, only a dozen of whom were killed. As usual, it was the infantry that suffered, and in this case most of the sufferers wore gray. Including prisoners, the three brigades under Price and Fagan lost better than 1500 men between them. Holmes was not only distressed by the disproportionate losses, which demonstrated the unwisdom of his unsupported assault on a fortified opponent; he also saw that the attack would have been a mistake even if it had been successful, since the force in occupation would have been at the mercy of the Tyler and other units of the Federal fleet, which would make the low-lying river town untenable in short order. By 10.30, after six hours of fighting, all this was unmistakably clear; Holmes called for a withdrawal. By noon it had been accomplished, except for some minor rear-guard skirmishing, although better than one out of every five men who had attacked was a casualty. His losses totaled 1590, nearly half of them captives pinned down by the murderous fire and unable to retreat.
Prentiss lost 239: less than six percent of his force, as compared to better than twenty percent of the attackers. However, even with the odds reduced by this considerable extent, he still had too few men to risk pursuit. Reinforcements arrived next day from Memphis, together with another welcome gunboat, but he was content to break up a rebel cavalry demonstration which he correctly judged to be nothing more than a feint designed to cover a general retirement. By dawn of July 6 the only live Confederates around Helena were captives, many of them too gravely wounded to be moved. In praising his troops for their stand against nearly twice their number, Prentiss did not neglect his obligation to the Tyler, whose skipper in time received as well a letter of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy. “Accept the Department’s congratulations for yourself and the officers and men under your command,” the Secretary wrote, “for your glorious achievement, which adds another to the list of brilliant successes of our Navy and Army on the anniversary of our nation’s independence.”
It was indeed a Glorious Fourth, from the northern point of view; Gideon Welles did not exaggerate in speaking wholesale of a “list of brilliant successes” scored by the Union, afloat and ashore, on this eighty-seventh anniversary of the nation’s birth. For the South, however, the day was one not of glory, but rather of disappointment, of bitter irony, of gloom made deeper by contrast with the hopes of yesterday, when Lee was massing for his all-or-nothing attack on Cemetery Ridge and Johnston was preparing at last to cross the Big Black River, when Taylor was threatening to retake New Orleans and Holmes was moving into position for his assault on Helena. All four had failed, which was reason enough for disappointment; the irony lay in the fact that not one of the four, Lee or Johnston, Taylor or Holmes, was aware that on this Independence Eve, so far at least as his aspirations for the relief of Vicksburg or Port Hudson were concerned, he was too late. At 10 o’clock that morning, July 3, white flags had broken out along a portion of Pemberton’s works and two high-ranking officers, one a colonel, the other a major general, had come riding out of their lines and into those of the besiegers, who obligingly held their fire. The senior bore a letter from his commander, addressed to Grant. “General,” it began: “I have the honor to propose to you an armistice for several hours, with a view to arranging terms for the capitulation of Vicksburg.”
Pemberton’s decision to ask for terms had been reached the day before, when he received from his four division commanders, Stevenson, Forney, Smith, and Bowen, replies to a confidential note requesting their opinions as to the ability of their soldiers “to make the marches and undergo the fatigues necessary to accomplish a successful evacuation.” After forty-six days and forty-five nights in the trenches, most of the time on half- and quarter-rations, not one of the four believed his troops were in any shape for the exertion required to break the ring of steel that bound them and then to outmarch or outfight the well-fed host of bluecoats who outnumbered them better than four to one in effectives. Forney, for example, though he expressed himself as “satisfied they will cheerfully continue to bear the fatigue and privation of the siege,” answered that it was “the unanimous opinion of the brigade and regimental commanders that the physical condition and health of our men are not sufficiently good to enable them to accomplish successfully the evacuation.” There Pemberton had it, and the other three agreed. “With the knowledge I then possessed that no adequate relief was to be expected,” the Pennsylvania Confederate later wrote, “I felt that I ought not longer to place in jeopardy the brave men whose lives had been intrusted to my care.” He would ask for terms. The apparent futility of submitting such a request to a man whose popular fame was based on his having replied to a similar query with the words, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” was offset—at least to some extent, as Pemberton saw it—by two factors. One was that the Confederates had broken the Federal wigwag code, which permitted them to eavesdrop on Grant’s and Porter’s ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship exchanges, and from these they had learned that the navy wanted to avoid the troublesome, time-consuming task of transporting thousands of grayback captives far northward up the river. This encouraged the southern commander to hope that his opponent, despite his Unconditional Surrender reputation, might be willing to parole instead of imprison the Vicksburg garrison if that was made a condition of avoiding at least one more costly assault on intrenchments that had proved themselves so stout two times before. The other mitigating factor, at any rate to Pemberton’s way of thinking, was that the calendar showed the proposed surrender would occur on Independence Day. Some among the defenders considered a capitulation on that date unthinkable, since it would give the Yankees all the more reason for crowing, but while Pemberton was aware of this, and even agreed that it would involve a measure of humiliation, he also counted it an advantage. “I am a northern man,” he told the objectors on his staff. “I know my people. I know their peculiar weaknesses and their national vanity; I know we can get better terms from them on the Fourth of July than on any other day of the year. We must sacrifice our pride to these considerations.”
One other possible advantage he had, though admittedly it had not been of much use to Buckner at Donelson the year before. John Bowen had known and befriended Grant during his fellow West Pointer’s hard-scrabble farming days in Missouri, and it was hoped that this might have some effect when the two got down to negotiations. Although Bowen was sick, his health undermined by dysentery contracted during the siege—he would in fact be dead within ten days, three months short of his thirty-third birthday—he accepted the assignment, and that was how it came about that he was the major general who rode into the Union lines this morning, accompanied by a colonel from Pemberton’s staff. However, it soon developed that the past seventeen months had done little to mellow Grant in his attitude toward old friends who had chosen to do their fighting under the Stars and Bars. He not only declined to see or talk with Bowen, but his reply to the southern commander’s note, which was delivered to him by one of his own officers, also showed that he was, if anything, even harsher in tone than he had been in the days when Buckner charged him with being “ungenerous and unchivalrous.” Pemberton had written: “I make this proposition to save the further effusion of blood, which must otherwise be shed to a frightful extent.” Now Grant replied: “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose, by an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison.… I do not favor the proposition of appointing commissioners to arrange terms of capitulation, because I have no terms other than those indicated above.”
There were those words again: Unconditional Surrender. But their force was diminished here at Vicksburg, as they had not been at Donelson, by an accompanying verbal message in which Grant said that he would be willing to meet and talk with Pemberton between the lines that afternoon. Worn by strain and illness, Bowen delivered the note and repeated the off-the-record message, both of which were discussed at an impromptu council of war, and presently—by then it was close to 3 o’clock, the hour Grant had set for the meeting—he and the colonel retraced in part the route they had followed that morning, accompanied now by Pemberton, who spoke half to himself and half to his two companions as he rode past the white flags on the ramparts. “I feel a confidence that I shall stand justified to my government, if not to the southern people,” they heard him say, as if he saw already the scapegoat role in which he as an outlander would be cast by strangers and former friends for whose sake he had alienated his own people, including two brothers who fought on the other side. First, however, there came a ruder shock. Despite the flat refusal expressed in writing, he had interpreted Grant’s spoken words, relayed to him through Bowen, as an invitation to parley about terms. But he soon was disabused of this impression. The three Confederates came upon a group of about a dozen Union officers awaiting them on a hillside only a couple of hundred yards beyond the outer walls of the beleaguered city. Ord, McPherson, Logan, and A. J. Smith were there, together with several members of Grant’s staff and Grant himself, whom Pemberton had no trouble recognizing, not only because his picture had been distributed widely throughout the past year and a half, but also because he had known him in Mexico, where they had served as staff lieutenants in the same division. Once the introductions were over, there was an awkward pause as each waited for the other to open the conversation and thereby place himself in somewhat the attitude of a suppliant. When Pemberton broke the silence at last by remarking that he understood Grant had “expressed a wish to have a personal interview with me,” Grant replied that he had done no such thing; he had merely agreed to such a suggestion made at second hand by Bowen.
Finding that this had indeed been the case, though he had not known it before, Pemberton took a different approach. “In your letter this morning,” he observed, “you state that you have no other terms than an unconditional surrender.” Grant’s answer was as prompt as before. “I have no other,” he said. Whereupon the Pennsylvanian—“rather snappishly,” Grant would recall—replied: “Then, sir, it is unnecessary that you and I should hold any further conversation. We will go to fighting again at once.” He turned, as if to withdraw, but fired a parting salvo as he did so. “I can assure you, sir, you will bury many more of your men before you will enter Vicksburg.” Grant said nothing to this, nor did he change his position or expression. The contest was like poker, and he played it straight-faced while his opponent continued to sputter, remarking, as he later paraphrased his words, that if Grant “supposed that I was suffering for provisions he was mistaken, that I had enough to last me for an indefinite period, and that Port Hudson was even better supplied than Vicksburg.” Grant did not believe there was much truth in this, but he saw clearly enough from Pemberton’s manner that his unconditional-surrender formula was not going to obtain without a good deal more time or bloodshed. So he unbent, at least to the extent of suggesting that he and Pemberton step aside while their subordinates talked things over. The Confederate was altogether willing—after all, it was what he had proposed at the outset, only to be rebuffed—and the two retired to the shelter of a stunted oak nearby. In full view of the soldiers on both sides along this portion of the front, while Bowen and the colonel talked with the other four Union generals, the blue and gray commanders stood together in the meager shade of the oak tree, which, as Grant wrote afterwards, “was made historical by the event. It was but a short time before the last vestige of its body, root and limb had disappeared, the fragments taken as trophies. Since then the same tree has furnished as many cords of wood, in the shape of trophies, as ‘The True Cross.’ ”
But that was later, after the souvenir hunters had the run of the field. For the present, the oak remained as intact as almost seven weeks of bullets and shells from both sides had allowed, and Grant and Pemberton continued their pokerlike contest of wills beneath its twisted branches. If the Confederate played a different style of game, that did not necessarily mean that he was any less skillful. In point of fact—at any rate in the limited sense of getting what he came for—he won; for in the end it was the quiet man who gave way and the sputterer who stood firm. In the adjoining group, Bowen proposed that the garrison “be permitted to march out with the honors of war, carrying with them their arms, colors, and field batteries,” which was promptly denied, as he no doubt had expected; whereupon Pemberton, after pointing out that his suggestion for the designation of commissioners had been rejected, observed that it was now Grant’s turn to make a counteroffer as to terms. Grant agreed; Pemberton would hear from him by 10 o’clock that evening, he said; and with that the meeting broke up, though it was made clear that neither opponent was to consider himself “pledged.” Both returned to their own lines and assembled councils of war to discuss what had developed. Pemberton found that all his division commanders and all but two of his brigade commanders favored capitulation, provided it could be done on a basis of parole without imprisonment. Grant found his officers of a mind to offer what was acceptable, although he himself did not concur; “My own feelings are against this,” he declared. But presently, being shielded in part from the possible wrath of his Washington superiors by the overwhelming vote of his advisers, he “reluctantly gave way,” and put his terms on paper for delivery to Pemberton at the designated hour. Vicksburg was to be surrendered, together with all public stores, and its garrison paroled; a single Union division would move in and take possession of the place next morning. “As soon as rolls can be made out, and paroles signed by officers and men,” he stipulated, “you will be allowed to march out of our lines, the officers taking with them their side-arms and clothing, and the field, staff, and cavalry officers one horse each. The rank and file will be allowed all their clothing, but no other property.” Remembering Pemberton’s claim that he had plenty of provisions on hand, Grant added a touch that combined generosity and sarcasm: “If these conditions are accepted, any amount of rations you may deem necessary can be taken from the stores you now have, and also the necessary cooking utensils for them.… I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant, U. S. GRANT, Major General.”
Now that he had committed his terms to paper, he found them much more satisfactory than he had done before. “I was very glad to give the garrison of Vicksburg the terms I did,” he afterwards wrote. To have shipped the graybacks north to Illinois and Ohio, he explained, “would have used all the transportation we had for a month.” Moreover, “the men had behaved so well that I did not want to humiliate them. I believed that consideration for their feelings would make them less dangerous foes during the continuance of hostilities, and better citizens after the war was over.” So he said, years later, making a virtue of necessity and leaving out of account the fact that he had begun with a demand for unconditional surrender. For the present, indeed, he was so admiring of the arrangement, from the Union point of view, that he did what he could to make certain Pemberton could not reject it—as both had reserved the right to do—without risking a mutiny by the beleaguered garrison. He had Rawlins send the following note to his corps commanders: “Permit some discreet men on picket tonight to communicate to the enemy’s pickets the fact that General Grant has offered, in case Pemberton surrenders, to parole all the officers and men and to permit them to go home from here.”
He could have spared himself the precaution and his courier the ride. “By this time,” a Confederate declared, “the atmosphere was electric with expectancy, and the wildest rumors raced through camp and city. Everyone had the air of knowing something vital.” What was more, a good deal of back-and-forth visiting had begun on both sides of the line. “Several brothers met,” a Federal remarked, “and any quantity of cousins. It was a strange scene.” Whatever the blue pickets might say, on whatever valid authority, was only going to add to the seethe of speculation within and without the hilltop fortress which was now about to fall, just under fourteen months after its mayor replied to the first demand for surrender, back in May of the year before: “Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut and Brigadier General Butler can teach them, let them come and try.” The upshot was that Grant had come and tried, being so invited, and now Pemberton had been taught, although it galled him. Assembling his generals for a reading of the 10 o’clock offer, he remarked—much as his opponent had done, an hour or two ago, across the way—that his “inclination was to reject these terms.” However, he did not really mean it, any more than Grant had meant it, and after he had taken the all but unanimous vote for capitulation, he said gravely: “Gentlemen, I have done what I could,” then turned to dictate his reply. “In the main, your terms are accepted,” he told Grant, “but in justice both to the honor and spirit of my troops, manifested in the defense of Vicksburg, I have to submit the following amendments, which, if acceded to by you, will perfect the agreement between us.…” The added conditions, of which there were two, were modest enough in appearance. He proposed to march his soldiers out of the works, stack arms, and then move off before the Federals took possession, thus avoiding a confrontation of the two armies. That was the first. The second was that officers be allowed “to retain their … personal property, and [that] the rights and property of citizens … be respected.” But Grant declined to allow him either, and for good cause. As for the first, he replied, it would be necessary for the troops to remain under proper guard until due process of parole had been formally completed, and as for the second, while he was willing to give all citizens assurance that they would be spared “undue annoyance or loss,” he would make no specific guarantees regarding “personal property,” which he privately suspected was intended to include a large number of slaves, freed six months ago by Lincoln’s Proclamation. “I cannot consent to leave myself under any restraint by stipulations,” he said flatly. Denial of the proposed amendments was contained in a dispatch sent before sunrise, July 4. Pemberton had until 9 a.m. to accept the original terms set forth in last night’s message; otherwise, Grant added, “I shall regard them as having been rejected, and shall act accordingly.”
Now it was Pemberton’s turn to bend in the face of stiffness, and this he did the more willingly since the morning report—such had been the ravages of malnutrition and unrelieved exposure—showed fewer than half his troops available for duty as effectives. “General,” he answered curtly about sunrise: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of this day, and in reply to say that the terms proposed are accepted.” The rest was up to Grant, and it went smoothly. At 10 o’clock, in response to the white flags that now fluttered along the full length of the Confederate line, John Logan marched his division into the works. Soon afterwards the Stars and Stripes were flying over the Vicksburg courthouse for the first time in two and a half years. If the victors were somewhat disappointed professionally that seven weeks of intensive shelling by 220 army cannon, backed up by about as many heavier pieces aboard the gunboats and the mortar rafts, had done surprisingly little substantial damage to the town, it was at least observed that the superficial damage was extensive. Not a single pane of glass remained unbroken in any of the houses, a journalist noted. It was also observed that, despite the southern commander’s claim that he had ample provisions, the gauntness of the disarmed graybacks showed only too clearly, not only that such was not the case, but also that it apparently had not been so for some time. One Federal quartermaster, bringing in a train of supplies for the troops in occupation, was so affected by the hungry looks on the faces of the men of a rebel brigade that he called a halt and began distributing hardtack, coffee, and sugar all around. Rewarded by “the heartfelt thanks” of the butternut scarecrows, he said afterwards that when his own men complained that night about the slimness of their rations, “I swore by all the saints in the calendar that the wagons had broken down and the Johnny Rebs had stolen all the grub.” Not only was there little “crowing,” which some Confederates had feared would be encouraged and enlarged by a Fourth of July surrender, but according to Grant “the men of the two armies fraternized as if they had been fighting for the same cause.” Though that was perhaps an overstatement of the case, there was in fact a great deal of mingling by victors and vanquished alike—“swapping yarns over the incidents of the long siege,” as one gray participant put it—and even some good-natured ribbing back and forth. “See here, Mister; you man on the little white horse!” a bluecoat called out to Major Lockett, whose engineering duties had kept him on the move during lulls in the fighting. “Danged if you aint the hardest feller to hit I ever saw. I’ve shot at you more’n a hundred times.” Lockett took it in good part, and afterwards praised his late adversaries for their generosity toward the defeated garrison. “General Grant says there was no cheering by the Federal troops,” he wrote. “My recollection is that on our right a hearty cheer was given by one Federal division ‘for the gallant defenders of Vicksburg!’ ”
Pemberton did not share in the fraternization, not only because of his present sadness, his sense of failure, and his intimation of what the reaction of his adoptive countrymen would be when they got the news of what had happened here today, but also because of his nature, which was invariably distant and often forbidding. For him, congeniality had been limited mainly to the family circle he had broken and been barred from when he threw in with the South. Even toward his own officers he had always been stiffly formal, and now toward Grant, who came through the lines that morning on his way to confer with Porter at the wharf, he was downright icy; indeed, rude. Perhaps it was the northern commander’s show of magnanimity, when he knew that such concessions as had been granted—parole of the garrison, for example, instead of a long boat ride to prison camps in Ohio and Illinois—had been the result of hard bargaining and a refusal to yield to his original demand for unconditional surrender. In any event, one of his staff found Pemberton’s manner “unhandsome and disagreeable in the extreme.” No one offered Grant a seat when he called on Pemberton in a house on the Jackson road, this officer protested, and when he remarked that he would like a drink of water, he was told that he could go where it was and help himself. He did not seem perturbed by this lack of graciousness, however; he went his way, taking no apparent umbrage, content with the spoils of this Independence Day, which were by far the greatest of the war, at any rate in men and materiel. Confederate casualties during the siege had been 2872 killed, wounded, and missing, while those of the Federals totaled 4910; but now the final tally of captives was being made. It included 2166 officers, 27,230 enlisted men, and 115 civilian employees, all paroled except one officer and 708 men, who preferred to go north as prisoners rather than risk being exchanged and required to fight again. In ordnance, too, the harvest was a rich one, yielding 172 cannon, surprisingly large amounts of ammunition of all kinds, and nearly 60,000 muskets and rifles, many of such superior quality that some Union regiments exchanged their own weapons for the ones they found stacked when they marched in.
One additional prize there was, richer by far than all the rest combined and to which they had served as no more than prologue. The Mississippi would return to its old allegiance as soon as one remaining obstruction had been removed, and that allegiance would be secure as soon as one continuing threat had been abolished. The obstruction—Port Hudson—was not really Grant’s concern except for the dispatching of reinforcements, which he could now quite easily afford, to help Banks get on with the job. He kept his attention fixed on Joe Johnston—the threat—who continued to hover, off to the east, beyond the Big Black River. Conferring with Porter, Grant requested his co-operation in flushing out the rebels up the Yazoo, re-established there by Johnston while the Federals were concentrating on the reduction of Vicksburg. As usual, the admiral was altogether willing; he assigned an ironclad and two tinclads the task of escorting 5000 infantry upstream to retake Yazoo City, which the Confederates had refortified since their flight from the approaching gunboats back in May. But the northern army commander’s main concern was Johnston himself and the force he was assembling west of Jackson. Yesterday, while surrender negotiations were under way, Grant had notified Sherman, whose troops were already faced in that direction, that he was to strike eastward as soon as Vicksburg fell. “I want Johnston broken up as effectually as possible, and roads destroyed,” he wired. This message was followed shortly by another, in which he was more specific as to just what breakage was expected. “When we go in,” he told his red-haired lieutenant, “I want you to drive Johnston from the Mississippi Central Railroad, destroy bridges as far as Grenada with your cavalry, and do the enemy all the harm possible. You can make your own arrangements and have all the troops of my command, except one corps—McPherson’s, say. I must have some troops to send to Banks, to use against Port Hudson.”
As it turned out, there was no need for more troops at Port Hudson. All that was required was valid evidence that its companion bluff 240 miles upriver was in Union hands, and this arrived before the reinforcements: specifically, during the early hours of July 7. That evening Gardner received from one of his three brigade commanders—Miles, whose position on the far right afforded him a view of the river, as well as of the extreme left of the Federal intrenchments—a report of strange doings by the enemy, ashore and afloat: “This morning all his land batteries fired a salute, and followed it immediately [by another] with shotted guns, accompanied by vociferous yelling. Later in the day the fleet fired a salute also. What is meant we do not know. Some of them hallooed over, saying that Vicksburg had fallen on the 4th instant. My own impression is that some fictitious good news has been given to his troops in order to raise their spirits; perhaps with a view of stimulating them to a charge in the morning. We will be prepared for them should they do so.”
The colonel’s men shared his skepticism as well as his resolution, even when confronted with documentary evidence in the form of a “flimsy” tossed into their lines, bearing the signature of the Federal adjutant-general and announcing Pemberton’s surrender three days ago. “That’s another damned Yankee lie!” a butternut defender shouted back. But Gardner himself was not so sure. He had fought well, inflicting 4363 casualties at a cost of only 623 of his own, and though by now the trenches were less than twenty feet apart in places and the enemy was obviously about to launch another massive assault, which was likely to succeed at such close range, he was prepared to fight still longer if need be. On the other hand, it was no part of his duty to sacrifice the garrison for no purpose—and obviously Port Hudson’s purpose, or anyhow its hope of survival, was tied to that of Vicksburg. If the Mississippi bastion had fallen, so must the Louisiana one, exposed as it would be to the possible combination of both Union armies. So Gardner adopted the logical if somewhat irregular course of inquiring of his opponent, by means of a flag of truce next morning, as to whether the report of Vicksburg’s fall was true. And when Banks supplied confirming evidence, in the form of a dispatch Grant had sent on the surrender date, Gardner decided that the time for his own capitulation was at hand. Final details were not worked out until the following day, July 9, when the besiegers marched in and took possession, but a train of wagons had already entered Port Hudson the previous afternoon, loaded with U.S. Army rations for the half-starved garrison. Banks combined firmness and generosity. Though his terms had been unconditional, he paroled his 5935 enlisted captives and sent only their 405 officers to New Orleans to await exchange or shipment north. Moreover, having acquired some 7500 excellent rifles and 51 light and heavy guns, he closed the formal surrender ceremony with “a worthy act, well merited.” Thus his adjutant characterized the gesture in describing it years later. “By General Banks’s order, General Gardner’s sword was returned to him in the presence of his men, in recognition of the heroic defense.”
If there was haste in the northern commander’s method, including parole of all his enlisted prisoners, there was also method in his haste. Albeit they were the sweeter, being his first, Banks was no more inclined than Grant to sit down and enjoy the fruits of his victory; for just as the latter took out after Joe Johnston as soon as Vicksburg fell, so did the former concern himself with Dick Taylor as soon as Port Hudson followed suit. Faced as he was with the departure of the nine-month volunteers who made up a considerable portion of his army, Banks had to choose between using the remainder as guards for the captured garrison or as a mobile force for driving out the reported 13,000 Confederates who had moved into his rear and were threatening New Orleans from Bayou Lafourche and Berwick Bay. Quite aside from the pleasure he derived from being generous to a defeated foe, that was why he paroled nearly 6000 of his 6340 prisoners: to get them off his hands and thus be free to deal with Taylor. Having decided, he wasted no time. While the surrender ceremony was in progress he put Weitzel’s and Grover’s divisions aboard transports and sent them at once to Donaldsonville, where they would begin their descent of the Lafourche, disposing of infiltrated rebels as they went. The debarkation was completed on July 11; next afternoon the two blue divisions began their advance down opposite banks of the bayou. Early the following morning, however—July 13 at Koch’s Plantation, six miles from Donaldsonville—Weitzel’s two west-bank brigades, and indirectly Banks himself, were given a cruel demonstration of the fact that haste sometimes made waste, even in pursuit.
Tom Green, with his own and Major’s brigade of mounted Texans, had been having a fine time disrupting traffic on the Mississippi with the guns he had established on its right bank, ten miles below the town. Though they could do no real damage to the Essex, which came down to challenge them, they did succeed in driving the ironclad off and puncturing the steam-drums of several less heavily armored vessels. A battery commander referred to the 12-foot levee as “the best of earthworks,” and Green was prepared to stay there indefinitely, finding balm in his present success for the sting of the recent setback at Fort Butler. After three days of such fun, however, he learned of the arrival of ten transports at Donaldsonville and the debarkation of two blue divisions with better than five times his number of men. Determined not to leave without a fight, whatever the odds, he pulled back from the river, crossed the Lafourche, and lay in wait for what was coming. What was coming was Weitzel, supported by Grover across the way. Green struck hard, soon after sunrise of July 13, caught the bluecoats off guard, and threw them into such hasty retreat that they abandoned three of their guns to their pursuers. They lost 50 killed, 223 wounded, and 186 captured or missing, while Green lost 9 killed and 24 wounded. He withdrew westward, unmolested, and rejoined Taylor at Vermilionville, that general having retired with all his spoils from Brashear City when he learned of Gardner’s surrender and the intended return downriver of the besieging army. By no means strong enough for a full-scale battle with the greatly superior forces of the Federals near their base, he was content to wait for them to attempt a second ascent of the Teche. They would find him better equipped for resistance than he had been before his recent brief but profitable drive to the outskirts of New Orleans.
Banks accepted the Koch’s Plantation check with his usual easy grace, even setting aside a court-martial’s findings that one of Weitzel’s brigade commanders had been guilty of drunkenness on duty and misconduct in the presence of the enemy. The former Speaker was looking for no scapegoat; he would take whatever blame there was, along with the praise, as designer and director of the campaign from start to finish. And of praise there was much. It was Banks, after all, who had removed the final obstruction to Union control of the Mississippi, following Grant’s extraction of “the nail that held the South’s two halves together.” On July 16, one week after the fall of Port Hudson, the unarmed packet Imperial tied up at New Orleans and began unloading cargo she had brought unescorted from St Louis. For the first time in thirty months, the Father of Waters was open to commerce from Minnesota to the Gulf.
Meanwhile Porter and Sherman had gone about their assignments, though for both there had been irksome delays followed by mishaps for which irksome was all too mild a word; Porter’s, in fact, had occurred on the same day as Weitzel’s, and while it had been considerably less bloody it was also a good deal more expensive. Originally intended as reinforcements for Banks, since they had spent less than a month in the Vicksburg trenches, 5000 men of Herron’s division were shifted to lighter-draft transports on July 11, when news of the fall of Port Hudson arrived, and set out up the Yazoo next morning, escorted by two 6-gun tinclads and the 14-gun ironclad Baron de Kalb, formerly the St Louis but rechristened when it developed that the navy already had a warship by that name. One of the original seven built by James Eads in the fall of ’61 and a veteran of all the major engagements on the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Mississippi north of Vicksburg, she had carried the flag eight weeks ago on a similar expedition to Yazoo City and beyond, which had resulted in much damage to the enemy at no cost to the fleet. This last was not to be the case this time, however. Isaac Brown, who had sunk the De Kalb’s sister ship Cairo with a demijohn of powder up this same winding river in December, was back again with forty survivors of the crew from his lost ram Arkansas, and he had plans for a repeat performance. His navy artillerists managed to drive the ironclad back around the bend when she appeared below the town at noon of July 13, but a Tarheel regiment assigned to the place by Johnston withdrew on learning that Herron had landed three of his own with instructions to bag the defenders. Obliged to pull back for lack of support, Brown and his sailors left something behind them in addition to their guns: as Porter and Herron presently discovered. The two were on the bridge of the flagship, steaming slowly upstream toward the undefended town, when—just after sunset, abreast of the yards where, about this time a year ago, the Arkansashad acquired her rusty armor—one of Brown’s improvised torpedoes exploded directly under her bow. As she began to settle, another went off under her stern, which hastened her destruction. Within fifteen minutes, though all aboard managed to escape with nothing worse than bruises, she was on the muddy bottom, providing a multichambered home for gars and catfish. Herron, having survived this violent introduction to one of the dangers involved in combined operations, went ashore to complete his share of the mission, afterwards reporting the destruction of the Yazoo City fortifications and five of the nine rebel steamboats found lurking in the vicinity, together with the capture of some 300 prisoners, six guns, and about 250 small-arms, as well as 2000 bales of cotton and 800 horses and mules which he commandeered from the planters roundabout. He was enthusiastic; no less than 50,000 more bales were awaiting discovery and seizure in the region, he declared. Porter, on the other hand, summed up the operation somewhat ruefully. “But for the blowing up of the Baron de Kalb, it would have been a good move,” he informed his superiors, and he added, by way of extenuating this loss of his fourth ironclad since December: “While a rebel flag floats anywhere the gunboats must follow up. The officers and men risk their lives fearlessly on these occasions, and I hope the Department will not take too seriously the accidents which happen to the vessels when it is impossible to avoid them.”
Sherman made no such apology, though his particular mishap had occurred the day before and had been preceded by a week of hot and profitless activity. Grant’s instructions for him to “do the enemy all the harm possible,” accompanied as they were by the prospect of having close to 50,000 troops with which to carry them out, had put the red-haired Ohioan in what he liked to call “high feather,” and when they were followed next day—July 4—by the news that Vicksburg had fallen, his excitement reached fever pitch. “I can hardly restrain myself,” he replied. Nor did he: adding, “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing to the faithful.… Already are my orders out to give one big huzza and sling the knapsack for new fields.” Those new fields lay on the far side of the Big Black, however, which was now past fording because of a sudden four-foot rise resulting from heavy rains upstate. Sherman spent two days throwing bridges at Birdsong’s Ferry and Messinger’s Ford and due east of Bovina, thus providing a crossing for each of his three corps, and on July 6 the “Army of Observation,” so called from the days of the siege, passed over the river in pursuit of Johnston, who had retired toward Jackson the day before, on learning of Pemberton’s surrender. As the rebels withdrew eastward along roads that were ankle-deep in dust—no matter how many inches of rain had fallen upstate, not a drop had fallen here in weeks—they made things difficult for their pursuers by leading animals into such few ponds as had not dried in the heat, then killing them and leaving their carcasses to pollute the water. It was Johnston’s intention not only to delay his opponent by such devices, but also to goad him into attempting a reckless, thirst-crazed assault on the Jackson intrenchments, which the Confederates had repaired and improved since Grant’s departure and in which they had taken refuge by the time the superior Federal force completed its crossing of the Big Black, twenty-five miles away.
The crafty Virginian’s attempt to discourage and torment his pursuers with thirst was unsuccessful, however, for several reasons. For one, the siege-toughened bluecoats simply dragged the festering carcasses from the ponds, gave the water a few minutes to settle, then brushed the scum aside and drank their fill, apparently with no ill effects at all. For another, the rain soon moved down from the north, sudden thunderous showers under which the marchers unrolled their rubber ponchos and held them so that the water trickled into their mouths as they slogged along. Lifted so recently by the greatest victory of the war, their spirits were irrepressible, whether the problem was too little moisture or too much. “The dirt road would soon be worked into a loblolly of sticky yellow mud,” one veteran was to recall. “Thereupon we would take off our shoes and socks, tie them to the barrel of our muskets, poise the piece on the hammer on either shoulder, stock uppermost, and roll up our breeches. Splashing, the men would swing along, singing ‘JohnBrown’s Body,’ or whatever else came handy.” They gloried in their toughness and took pride in the fact that they never cheered their generals, not even “Uncle Billy” Sherman. A surgeon wrote home that they were “the noisiest crowd of profane-swearing, dram-drinking, card-playing, song-singing, reckless, impudent daredevils in the world.” They would have accepted all this as a compliment, second only to one Joe Johnston had paid them in warning his Richmond superiors not to underrate Grant’s Westerners, who in his opinion were “worth double the number of northeastern troops.” They thought so, too, and were ready to prove it on July 10 when their three columns converged on the rebel intrenchments outside Jackson and took up positions before them, Ord’s four divisions to the south, Steele’s three in the center, and Parke’s two on the north.
Within the semicircular works—which, as usual, he considered “miserably located”—Johnston had four divisions of infantry confronting the Union nine, plus a small division of cavalry which he used to patrol the flanks along Pearl River, above and below the town. He made several brief sorties in an attempt to provoke the bluecoats into attacking, but Sherman, though he enjoyed a better than two-to-one numerical advantage, had had too much experience with earthworks these past eight weeks to be tempted into rashness. Instead, he spent two days completing his investment, meantime sending raiders north and south to break the Mississippi Central and thus cut Jackson off from any possible rail connection with the outside world, the bridge in its rear not having been rebuilt since its destruction back in May. Then on July 12, despite his admonitions as to caution, the mishap came. On Ord’s front, Lauman was advancing his division through an area obscured by trees and brush, when the lead brigade of 880 veterans suddenly found itself exposed to a withering crossfire from guns and rifles, losing 465 men and three stands of colors, as well as most of the cannoneers and horses of a section of artillery, before the remnant could recover from the shock and backpedal. “I am cut all to pieces,” Lauman lamented; Ord relieved him of command. Sherman approved the brigadier’s removal, but refused to be disconcerted by the affair, which had at least confirmed his assumption that Joe Johnston was a dangerous man when cornered: so much so, in fact, that the Ohioan began to wish the Virginian gone. “I think we are doing well out here,” he informed Grant two days later, “but won’t brag till Johnston clears out and stops shooting his big rifle guns at us. If he moves across Pearl River and makes good speed, I will let him go.”
That was just what Johnston had in mind, now that Sherman had the capital invested on three sides. “It would be madness to attack him,” he wired Richmond that same day. “In the beginning it might have been done, but I thought then that want of water would compel him to attack us.” By next morning, July 16, he was convinced that his only hope for survival lay in retreat. “The enemy being strongly reinforced, and able when he pleases to cut us off,” he notified Davis, “I shall abandon this place, which it is impossible for us to hold.” Accordingly, after nightfall, he proceeded to carry out the most skillful of his withdrawals so far in the war. Previously—at Manassas and Yorktown, as well as here at Jackson two months ago yesterday, on the day after his arrival from Tennessee—it had been his practice to leave guns and heavy equipment in position lest their removal, which was likely to be noisy, warn the enemy of his intention; but not now. Silently the guns were withdrawn by hand from their forward emplacements while the sick and wounded were being sent eastward across the river, followed by brigade after brigade of soldiers who had been kept busy with picks and shovels till after midnight, drowning out the sounds of the evacuation. Breckinridge’s Orphans, who had accomplished Lauman’s discomfiture four days ago, went last. The lines of the aborted siege, which had cost the Federals 1122 casualties and the Confederates 604, yawned empty in the darkness and remained so until daylight brought a blue advance and the discovery that Johnston had escaped across the Pearl, much as Lee had done across the Potomac three nights earlier with somewhat less success.
He took with him everything movable but he could not take the railroad or the town. Undefended, Jackson was reoccupied—and re-burned. That task was assigned to Sherman’s old corps, primarily to Blair’s division, which was fast becoming proficient in such work, while Ord moved south with instructions to break up the Mississippi Central “absolutely and effectually” for a distance of ten miles, and Parke did the same in the opposite direction. Steele’s men did a thorough job on the capital, sparing little except the State House and the Governor’s Mansion. Pettus had departed, but the victorious generals held a banquet in his mansion on the second night of the occupation, and when one brigadier was missing next morning he was found asleep beneath the table, so freely had the wine flowed. “You can return slowly to Black River,” Grant replied to news that the town had fallen, but Sherman stayed on for a week, supervising the extensive demolition his chief had prescribed at the outset. Added to what had been done in May, this new damage converted the Mississippi capital into what he referred to as “one mass of charred ruins.” (Blair’s exuberant veterans had a briefer, more colorful description of the place; “Chimneyville,” they called it.) Though he found the stripping of the countryside by his foragers for fifteen miles around “terrible to contemplate,” Sherman thought it proper to add that such was “the scourge of war, to which ambitious men have appealed rather than [to] the judgment of the learned and pure tribunals which our forefathers have provided for supposed wrongs and injuries.” Characteristically, however, before his departure he distributed supplies to civilian hospitals and turned over to a responsible committee enough hard bread, flour, and bacon to sustain five hundred people for thirty days, his only condition being that none of this food was to be converted “to the use of the troops of the so-called Confederate states.” Despite the damage to their pride, the committeemen were glad to accept the offer, whatever the condition. “The inhabitants are subjugated. They cry aloud for mercy,” Sherman informed his commander back at Vicksburg.
How lasting the damage would be, either to their pride or to their property, was open to some question. Up to now, particularly in regions where the occupation had been less than constant, the rebels had shown remarkable powers of recovery from blows about as heavy. On the march eastward from the Big Black, for example, one of the Federal columns had crossed a portion of the field that took its name from Champion Hill, which the shock of battle had left all torn and trampled, scorched and scored by shells and strewn with wreckage. That was how the marchers remembered the scene from their passage this way a little less than two months back; but now, to their considerable surprise, they found that much of the field had been plowed and planted and corn stood four feet tall in neat, lush rows, not only as if the battle had never been fought, but also as if, except for the reappearance of the soldiers, there had never been a war at all, either here or anywhere else. It was in a way discouraging. This time, though, as Johnston faded back before them without fighting, they were less distracted and could give their full attention to the destruction which had been more or less incidental on the western march. They blazed a trail of devastation; gins, barns, farmhouses, almost everything burnable went up in flames and smoke; rearward the horizon was one long smudge. Looting took on new dimensions, sometimes of absurdity. One officer, watching a cavalryman stagger along with a grandfather’s clock in his arms, asked what on earth he planned to do with it, and the trooper explained that he was going to take it apart “and get a pair of the little wheels out of it for spur rowels.” There was time, too, for bitterness. A colonel viewing a porticoed mansion set back from the road in a grove of trees, neatly fenced and with a well-kept lawn and outbuildings, including slave quarters, burst out hotly: “People who have been as conspicuous as these in bringing this thing about ought to have things burned! I would like to see those chimneys standing there without any house.” That his troops had taken his words to heart was evident on the return from Jackson, when the regiment passed that way again. His wish had been fulfilled. All that remained of the plantation house was its blackened chimneys. “Sherman monuments,” they were called; or, perhaps more aptly, “Sherman tombstones.”
Some among the Confederates in and out of uniform, but most particularly Richmond friends of Davis and Seddon, put the blame for much of this on Johnston, whose policy it had ever been to sacrifice mere territory, the land and all it nourished, rather than risk avoidable bleeding by any soldier in his charge. Always, everywhere in this war except at Seven Pines—which battle, poorly fought as it was, had done more to sustain than refute his theory: especially from the personal point of view, since it had cost him two wounds and command of the South’s first army—he had backed up after a minimum of fighting, leaving the civilians of the evacuated region to absorb the shocks he evaded. So some said, angered by his apparent lack of concern for the fate of Vicksburg, which he had been sent to save. Others not only disagreed; they even pointed to the recent campaign as an example of his superior generalship. Unlike Pemberton, who had lost his army by accepting risks Johnston had advised him to avoid, the Virginian had saved his men to fight another day, and in the process had inflicted nearly twice as many casualties as he suffered. Mainly such defenders were members of his army, who not only had good cause to feel thankful for his caution, but also had come under the sway of his attractive personality. A genial companion, as invariably considerate of subordinates as he was critical of superiors, he won the affection of associates by his charm. There were, however, a few who were immune, and one among them was Pemberton, though this was only recently the case. At the outbreak of the war they had been friends; Johnston in fact had chosen the Pennsylvanian as his adjutant before the northern-born officer’s transfer to South Carolina. But that was far in the past, in the days before the siege one friend had waited in vain for the other to raise.
Soon afterwards, in mid-July and in accordance with Grant’s instructions for the paroled lieutenant general to report to his immediate superior, Pemberton found the Virginian “sitting on a cleared knoll on a moonlight night surrounded by members of his staff.” Thus a witness described the scene, adding that when Johnston recognized the “tall, handsome, dignified figure” coming toward him up the slope, he sprang from his seat and advanced to meet him, hand outstretched.
“Well, Jack old boy,” he cried. “I’m certainly glad to see you!”
Pemberton halted, stood at attention, and saluted.
“General Johnston, according to the terms of parole prescribed by General Grant, I was directed to report to you.”
The two men stood for a moment in silence as Johnston lowered his unclasped hand. Then Pemberton saluted once more, punctiliously formal, and turned away.
They never met again.
News that Meade had stopped Lee at Gettysburg sent Lincoln’s expectations soaring; he foresaw the end of the war, here and now, if only the victory could be pressed to its logical conclusion with “the literal or substantial destruction” of the rebel host before it recrossed the Potomac. Then came the letdown, first in the form of the northern commander’s Fourth of July congratulatory order to his troops, calling for still “greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” Lincoln’s spirits took a sudden drop. “My God, is that all?” he exclaimed, and presently he added: “This is a dreadful reminiscence of McClellan.… Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.” His fears were enlarged the following day by word that Lee had stolen away in the night, and no dispatch from Meade, that day or the next, gave any assurance of a vigorous pursuit. Lincoln fretted as much after as he had done before or during the three-day battle, so high were his hopes and so great was his apprehension that they would be unfulfilled. At a cabinet meeting on July 7 his expression was one of “sadness and despondency,” according to Welles, “that Meade still lingered at Gettysburg, when he should have been at Hagerstown or near the Potomac, in an effort to cut off the retreating army of Lee.” That afternoon he was conferring with Chase and a few others in his office, pointing out Grant’s progress to date on a map of Mississippi, when Welles came running into the room with a broad smile on his face and a telegram from Porter in his hand. The admiral had sent a fast boat up to Cairo, the Memphis wirehead having broken down, and beat the army in getting the news to Washington: “I have the honor to inform you that Vicksburg has surrendered to the U.S. forces on this 4th day of July.”
Lincoln rose at once. “I myself will telegraph this news to General Meade,” he said, then took his hat as if to go, but paused and turned to Welles, throwing one arm across the shoulders of the bearer of good tidings. “What can we do for the Secretary of the Navy for this glorious intelligence? He is always giving us good news. I cannot in words tell you my joy over this result. It is great, Mr Welles; it is great!” The Secretary beamed as he walked to the telegraph office with his chief, who could not contain his pleasure at the outcome of Grant’s campaign. “This will relieve Banks. It will inspire me,” he said as he strode along. He thought it might also inspire Meade, and he had Halleck pass the word to him that Vicksburg had surrendered; “Now if General Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far … the rebellion will be over.”
A wire also went to Grant: “It gives me great pleasure to inform you that you have been appointed a major general in the Regular Army, to rank from July 4, the date of your capture of Vicksburg.” Moreover, on Grant’s recommendation, Sherman and McPherson soon were made permanent brigadiers, the reward that had gone to Meade at Frederick that same day. The following day, however, when Grant’s own announcement of Pemberton’s capitulation came limping in behind Porter’s—which had said nothing about terms—there was cause to think that his victory was by no means as complete as had been supposed before details of the surrender were disclosed. Surprise and doubt were the reaction to the news that practically all of the nearly 30,000-man garrison had been paroled. Halleck, for instance, protested by return wire that such terms might “be construed into an absolute release, and that the men will immediately be placed in the ranks of the enemy.” Grant had already noted that the arrangement left his and Porter’s “troops and transports ready for immediate service” against Johnston and Gardner, which otherwise would not have been the case, and when he explained that the parolees had been turned over to an authorized Confederate commissioner for the exchange of prisoners, which made the contract strictly legal, Old Brains was mollified. So was Lincoln, who was a lawyer himself and knew the dangers that lurked in informalities, though what appealed to him most was Grant’s further contention that the surrendered troops were “tired of the war and would get home just as soon as they could.” There, he believed, they would be likely to create more problems for the Confederacy than if they had been lodged in northern prison camps, a headache for the Union, which would be obliged to feed and guard them while awaiting their exchange.
Others not only disagreed, but some among them formed a delegation to call on Lincoln with a protest against Grant’s dereliction and a demand for his dismissal from command. What rebel could be trusted? they asked, and predicted that within the month Pemberton’s men would violate their parole and be back in the field, once again doing their worst to tear the fabric of the Union. Referring to his callers as “crossroads wiseacres,” though they must have included some influential dignitaries, Lincoln afterwards described to a friend his handling of the situation. “I thought the best way to get rid of them was to tell the story of Sykes’s dog. Have you ever heard about Sykes’s yellow dog? Well, I must tell you about him. Sykes had a yellow dog he set great store by—” And he went on to explain that this affection was not shared by a group of boys who disliked the beast intensely and spent much of their time “meditating how they could get the best of him.” At last they hit upon the notion of wrapping an explosive cartridge in a piece of meat, attaching a long fuze to it, and whistling for the dog. When he came out and bolted the meat, cartridge and all, they touched off the fuze, with spectacular results. Sykes came running out of the house to investigate the explosion. “What’s up? Anything busted?” he cried. And then he saw the dog, or what was left of him. He picked up the biggest piece he could find, “a portion of the back with part of the tail still hanging to it,” and said mournfully: “Well, I guess he’ll never be much account again—as a dog.” Lincoln paused, then made his point. “I guess Pemberton’s forces will never be much account again as an army.” He smiled, recalling the reaction of his callers. “The delegation began looking around for their hats before I had got quite to the end of the story,” he told his friend, “and I was never bothered any more after that about superseding the commander of the Army of the Tennessee.”
Now as always he shielded Grant from the critics who were so quick to come crying of butchery, whiskey, or incompetence. “I can’t spare this man. He fights,” he had said after Shiloh, and more than a month before the surrender of Vicksburg he had called the campaign leading up to the siege “one of the most brilliant in the world.” In a sense, this latest and greatest achievement was a vindication not only of Grant but also of the Commander in Chief who had sustained him. Perhaps Lincoln saw it so. At any rate, though previously he had corresponded with him only through Halleck, even in the conferring of praise and promotions, this curious hands-off formality, which had no counterpart in his relations with any of the rest of his army commanders, past or present, ended on July 13, when he wrote him the following letter:
My dear General
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did—march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition and the like could succeed. When you got below and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join General Banks; and when you turned northward, east of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.
Yours very truly
Though in time, when news of the fall of Port Hudson arrived, a congratulatory dispatch also went to Banks, expressing Lincoln’s “thanks for your very successful and very valuable military operations this year”—“The final stroke in opening the Mississippi never should, and I think never will, be forgotten,” he wrote—no such letter went to Meade, nor did Lincoln mention him by name in responding to a White House serenade on the evening of July 7, tendered in celebration of the double victory. “These are trying occasions,” he said, adding a somber note to the tone of jubilation, “not only in success, but also for want of success.” He withheld personal praise of Meade because he was waiting for a larger occasion that did not come, though he kept hoping against hope. Finally, his hopes dwindling, he turned cynical. On July 12, when the general wired that he would attack the flood-stalled Confederates next day “unless something intervenes to prevent it,” Lincoln ventured a prediction: “They will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight.” Nevertheless, the news two days later that Lee had made a getaway came as an awful shock to him. “We had them in our grasp,” he groaned. “We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move.” He told his son Robert, home from Harvard: “If I had gone up there, I could have whipped them myself.” So great was his distress, he adjourned a cabinet meeting on grounds that he was in no frame of mind for fit deliberation. Nor was he. In his extremity—having passed in rapid succession from cynicism, through puzzlement and exasperation, to the edge of paranoia—he questioned not only the nerve and competence of Meade and his subordinates, but also their motives. “And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac!” he cried as he walked out with the Secretary of the Navy. “There is bad faith somewhere. Meade has been pressed and urged, but only one of his generals was for an immediate attack, was ready to pounce on Lee; the rest held back. What does it mean, Mr. Welles? Great God, what does it mean?”
Halleck did not exaggerate in wiring Meade of Lincoln’s “great dissatisfaction” on that day; Welles recorded in his diary that “on only one or two occasions have I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected and discouraged.” Meade’s request to be relieved of command, submitted promptly in response to Halleck’s wire, shocked Lincoln into recovering his balance. For this was more than a military matter; it was a downright political threat, with sobering implications. The Administration simply could not afford to be placed in the position of having forced the resignation of the man who, in three hard days of fighting, had just turned back the supreme Confederate effort to conquer a peace: an effort, moreover, launched hard on the heels of Union defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, which had been fought under leaders now recognized as hand-picked incompetents, both of whom had been kept in command for more than a month after their fiascos. No matter what opinion the citizenry might have as to whether or not the rebels had been “invaders,” politically it would not do to make a martyr of the hero who had driven them from what he called “our soil.” After instructing Old Brains to decline the general’s request to be relieved, Lincoln sat down and wrote Meade a letter designed to assuage the burning in his breast. So great was his own distress, however, that the words came out somewhat differently from what he had intended. In the end it was Lincoln’s burning that was assuaged, at least in part. For example, yesterday’s letter to Grant had begun: “My dear General,” whereas today’s bore no salutation at all, merely the heading: “Major General Meade.” He opened by saying, “I am very—very—grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg, and I am sorry now to [have been] the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it.” Whereupon he proceeded to extend that expression of dissatisfaction in a review of the events of the past ten days. Meade had “fought and beat the enemy,” with losses equally severe on both sides; then Lee’s retreat had been halted by the swollen Potomac, and though Meade had been substantially reinforced and Lee had not, “yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.” The words were cutting, but those that followed were sharper still. “Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.… It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
He ended with a further attempt at reassurance: “I beg you will not consider this a prosecution or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.” But on reading the letter over he could see that it was perhaps not so “kindly” after all; that, in fact, rather than serve the purpose of soothing the general’s injured feelings, it was more likely to provoke him into resubmitting his request to be relieved of his command. So Lincoln put the sheets in an envelope labeled “To General Meade, never sent or signed,” filed it away in his desk, and having thus relieved his spleen contented himself with issuing next day a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” expressing his gratitude, not to Grant or Meade or Banks or Prentiss, but to Almighty God for “victories on land and on the sea so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored.” He further besought the public to “render the homage due to the Divine Majesty, for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion, to change the hearts of the insurgents, to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles, and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body, or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation, through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace. In witness whereof,” the Proclamation ended, “I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.”
Though it was in large part a reaction to the knowledge that the suffering and bloodshed of the past two years would continue indefinitely past the point at which he believed they could have been stopped, Lincoln’s extreme concern over the fact that one of his two great victories had been blunted was also based on fear that if he did not win the war in the field, and soon, he might lose it on the home front. There appeared to be excellent grounds for such apprehension. Ever since the fall elections, which had gone heavily against him in certain vital regions of the country, the loyal and disloyal opposition had been growing, not only in size but also in boldness, until now, in what might have been his hour of triumph, he was faced with the necessity for dealing with riots and other domestic troubles, the worst of which reached a climax in the nation’s largest city on the day he issued his Proclamation of Thanksgiving. Though he could assign a measure of the blame to Meade, whose timidity had cost him the chance, as Lincoln saw it, of ending the war with a single stroke, he knew well enough that the discontent had been cumulative, the product of an almost unbroken seven-month sequence of military reverses, a good many of which he had engineered himself, and that the failure might be defined more reasonably as one of leadership at the top. Indeed, many did so define it, both in speeches and in print. During the past two years, while healing the split in his cabinet and winning the respect of those who were closest to him, he had grown in the estimation of the great mass of people who judged him solely from a distance, by his formal actions and utterances and by the gathering aura of his honesty and goodness. There were, however, senators and congressmen, together with other federal and State officiais of varying importance, who saw him only occasionally and were offended by what they saw.
“The lack of respect for the President in all parties is unconcealed,” Richard Dana, a U.S. district attorney from Massachusetts, had written home from the national capital at the beginning of a visit in late February. Author of Two Years Before the Mast, a founder of the Free Soil party and now a solid Republican, Dana spent two weeks looking and listening, then delivered himself of a still harsher judgment based on what he had seen and heard: “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head. If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would not get the vote of a State. He does not act, or talk, or feel like the ruler of a great empire in a great crisis. This is felt by all, and has got down through all the layers of society. It has a disastrous effect on all departments and classes of officials, as well as on the public. He seems to me to be fonder of details than of principles, of tithing the mint, anise, and cummin of patronage, and personal questions, than of the weightier matters of empire. He likes rather to talk and tell stories with all sorts of persons who come to him for all sorts of purposes than to give his mind to the noble and manly duties of his great post. It is not difficult to detect that this is the feeling of his cabinet. He has a kind of shrewdness and common sense, mother wit, and slipshod, low-leveled honesty, that made him a good Western jury lawyer. But he is an unutterable calamity to us where he is. Only the army can save us.”
If there was some perception here, there was also much distortion, and in any event the judgment was merely personal. More serious were the signs of organized obstruction. “Party spirit has resumed its sway over the people,” Seward had lamented in the wake of the fall elections, and Sumner had written a friend soon after the turn of the year: “The President tells me that he now fears ‘the fire in the rear’—meaning the Democracy, especially at the Northwest—more than our military chances.” When the Bay State senator spoke of “the Democracy” he meant the Democrats, particularly that wing of the party which opposed the more fervent innovations of his own: Emancipation, for example, and the draft. At any rate Lincoln’s anxiety seemed well founded. “I am advised,” Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana had wired the Secretary of War, “that it is contemplated when the Legislature meets in this State to pass a joint resolution acknowledging the Southern Confederacy and urging the States of the Northwest to dissolve all constitutional relations with the New England States. The same thing is on foot in Illinois.” The same thing, or something resembling it, was indeed on foot in the President’s home state, where the legislature had likewise gone Democratic in the fall. However, though the Illinois house passed resolutions praying for an armistice and recommending a convention of all the states North and South to agree upon some adjustment of their differences, the senate defeated by a few votes the proposal to discuss the matter; Governor Richard Yates was not obliged to exercise the veto. On the other hand, Morton did not allow matters to progress even that far in Indiana. He had spies in the opposition ranks, and when he saw what he believed was coming he dissolved the legislature by the simple expedient of advising the Republican minority to withdraw, which left the body without a quorum. The trouble with this was that it also left the Hoosier governor without funds for running the state for the next two years. But he solved the dilemma by strenuous and unconstitutional efforts. After obtaining loans from private sources and the counties, amounting to $135,000 in all, he appealed to Lincoln for the necessary balance. Lincoln referred him to Stanton, who advanced him $250,000 from a special War Department fund. Morton had what he needed to keep Indiana loyal and going, though it bothered him some that the law had been severely bent if not broken in the process. “If the cause fails, you and I will be covered with prosecutions, imprisoned, driven from the country,” he told Stanton, who replied: “If the cause fails I do not wish to live.”
Stanton believed in rigorous methods, especially when it came to dealing with whatever seemed to him to smack or hint of treason, and he had been given considerable sway in that regard. Perceiving at the outset that the septuagenarian Bates was unequal to the task, Lincoln had put Seward in charge of maintaining internal security, which included the power to arrest all persons suspected of disloyalty in those regions where habeas corpus had been suspended despite the protest of the courts, including the Supreme Court itself. The genial New Yorker did an effective job, particularly in Maryland and Kentucky during their periods of attempted neutrality; judges and legislators, among others who seemed to the government or the government’s friends to favor the government’s enemies, were haled from their benches and chambers, sometimes from their beds, and clapped into prisons, more often than not without being told of the charges or who had preferred them. When protests reached Lincoln he turned them aside with a medical analogy, pointing out that a limb must sometimes he amputated to save a life but that a life must never be given to save a limb; he felt, he said, “that measures, however unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation.” After Seward came Stanton, who assumed the security duties soon after he entered the cabinet in early ’62. In addition to the fierce delight he took in crushing all advocates of disunion, he enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. “If I tap that little bell,” he told a visitor, obviously relishing the notion, “I can send you to a place where you will never hear the dogs bark.” Apparently the little bell rang often; a postwar search of the records disclosed the names of 13,535 citizens arrested and confined in various military prisons during Stanton’s tenure of office under Lincoln, while another survey (not concerned with names, and therefore much less valid) put the total at 38,000 for the whole period of the war. How many, if indeed any, of these unfortunates had been fairly accused—and, if so, what their various offenses had been—could never be known, either then or later, since not one of all those thousands was ever brought into a civil court for a hearing, although a few were sentenced by military tribunals.
One of these last was Ohio’s Vallandigham, who had continued to fulminate against the abuses of the minority by the majority, including the gerrymandering of his district by the addition of a Republican county, which had resulted in his defeat in the fall election. “I learned my judgment from Chatham: ‘My lords, you cannot conquer America.’ And you have not conquered the South. You never will.… The war for the Union is, in your hands, a most bloody and costly failure,” he told his fellow congressmen during the following lame duck session. His main targets were the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act. With the former, he declared, “war for the Union was abandoned, war for the Negro openly begun, and with stronger battalions than before. With what success? Let the dead at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer.… Will men enlist now at any price? Ah, sir, it is easier to die at home. I beg pardon, but I trust I am not ‘discouraging enlistments.’ If I am, then first arrest Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck and some of your other generals, and I will retract; yes, I will recant. But can you draft again? Ask New England, New York; ask Massachusetts; [but] ask not Ohio, the Northwest. She thought you were in earnest, and gave you all, all—more than you demanded. Sir, in blood she has atoned for her credulity, and now there is mourning in every house and distress and sadness in every heart. Shall she give you any more? Ought this war to continue? I answer, no; not a day, not an hour. What then? Shall we separate? Again I answer, no no, no! What then? … Stop fighting, Make an armistice.”
So he counseled, and though a Republican member wrote in his diary that this was “a full exhibition of treason” and downright “submission to the rebels,” Vallandigham and others like him considered themselves dedicated rather to opposing men like Thaddeus Stevens, whose avowed intent it was to “drive the present rebels as exiles from this country” and to “treat those states now outside of the Union as conquered provinces and settle them with new men.” Democrats knew only too well who these “new men” would be: Republicans. To ask them to support this redefined conflict was asking them to complete the stripping of their minority of its former greatest strength, the coalition with conservatives of the South, and thus assure continuing domination by the radical majority down the years. Faced with this threat of political extinction, and having seen their friends arrested by thousands in defiance of their rights, diehard anti-Republicans banded together in secret organizations, especially in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where a prewar society known as “Knights of the Golden Circle,” so called because it had been founded to promote the advancement of national interests around the sun-drenched rim of the Caribbean, was revived and enlarged; “Order of American Knights,” its new members called it, and later changed the name again to “Sons of Liberty.” Their purpose was to promote the success of the Democratic party—first in the North, while the war was on, and then in the South when it was over, which they hoped would be soon—and to preserve, as they said, “the Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.” By way of identification to one another, in addition to such intricate handclasps and unpronounceable passwords as were common in secret fraternities, they wore on their lapels the head of Liberty cut from an old-style penny; “Copperheads,” their enemies called them, in scornful reference to the poisonous reptile by that name.
Vallandigham was their champion, and when Congress adjourned in March he came home and addressed them from the stump, along the same lines he had followed in addressing his former colleagues. A tall man in his early forties, handsome and gifted as a speaker, with clear gray eyes, a mobile mouth, and a dark fringe of beard along his lower jaw and chin, he found his words greeted with more enthusiasm here than they had received in Washington, where one or another of his opponents had threatened from time to time to cut his throat. On May Day, with Hooker stalled in the Wilderness and Grant on the march across the Mississippi, the Ohioan addressed a crowd of thousands assembled in his home state for a mass Democratic meeting at Mount Vernon. He made a rousing speech, asserting that the war could be concluded by negotiation but that the Republicans were prolonging the bloodshed for political purposes. The Union had gone by the board as a cause, he added; what was being fought for now, he said, was liberation of the blacks at the cost of enslaving the whites. This brought him more than the cheers of the crowd, which included a large number of men wearing copper Liberty heads in their buttonholes. It also resulted, four days later—or rather three nights later, for the hour was 2.30 a.m. May 5—in his arrest by a full company of soldiers at his home in Dayton, by order of Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio.
Still smarting from the whips and scorns that followed Fredericksburg and the Mud March, the ruff-whiskered general had established headquarters in Cincinnati in late March and, outraged by Copperhead activities in the region, issued on April 13 a general order prescribing the death penalty for certain overt acts designed to aid or comfort the Confederacy. Moreover, he added, “the habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed.… It must be distinctly understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.” Then on May Day had come Vallandigham’s speech at Mount Vernon, reported to Burnside by two staff captains he had sent there in civilian clothes to take notes. Clearly this was a violation of the general order, and on May 4, without consulting his superiors or subordinates or even an attorney, he instructed an aide-de-camp to proceed at once to Dayton and arrest the offender. The aide boarded a special train, taking a company of soldiers along, and by 2.30 next morning was banging on Vallandigham’s door. Refused admittance, the soldiers broke it down, seized the former congressman in his bedroom, and carried him forthwith to prison in Cincinnati. Brought before a military commission eight days later—though he declined to plead, on grounds that the tribunal had no jurisdiction over a civilian—he was given a two-day trial, at the close of which he was found guilty of violating the general order and was sentenced to close confinement for the duration of the war. Burnside approved the findings and the sentence that same day, May 16, and designated Fort Warren in Boston Harbor as the place of incarceration.
From the outset, though he promptly assured the general of his “firm support,” Lincoln had doubted the wisdom of the arrest. Now his doubts were abundantly confirmed. Vallandigham had declined to plead his case before the tribunal, but he did not hesitate to plead it before the public in statements issued from his cell in Cincinnati. Denouncing Burnside as the agent of a despot, he asserted: “I am here in a military bastille for no other offense than my political opinions.” Newspapers of various shades of opinion were quick to champion his basic right to freedom of speech, war or no war. As a result, he progressed overnight from regional to national prominence, his cause having been taken up by friends and sympathizers who sponsored rallies for him all across the land. Vallandigham in jail was a far more effective critic of the Administration than he had been at large; Lincoln was inclined to turn him loose, despite his previous assurance of “firm support” for Burnside and his subsequent reply to a set of resolutions adopted at a protest meeting in Albany, New York: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert? … I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional but withal a great mercy.” However, this was leaving out of account the fact that the soldier and the agitator came under different codes of law, and the last thing Lincoln wanted just now was for the legality of Burnside’s general order to be tested in the civil courts. He cast about, and as usual he came up with a solution. Burnside had warned that offenders might be sent “beyond our lines and into the lines of their friends.” Early the previous year, moreover, Jefferson Davis had done just that to Parson Brownlow, arrested under suspicion of treasonous activities in East Tennessee. Wherever the notion came from, Lincoln found in it the solution to his problem of what to do with Vallandigham, and on May 26 commuted his sentence to banishment, thereby creating the prototype for “The Man Without a Country.” Soon afterwards, south of Murfreesboro, the Ohioan was delivered by a detachment of Federal cavalry, under a flag of truce, to a Confederate outpost north of Tullahoma. Informed that he could not remain in the South if he considered himself a loyal citizen of the Union, he made his way to Wilmington, where he boarded a blockade-runner bound for the West Indies. On July 5, two months after his arrest, he turned up in Nova Scotia. Ten days later—having been nominated unanimously for governor by the state Democratic convention, which had been held at Columbus in mid-June—he opened his campaign for election to that high office with an address to the people of Ohio, delivered from the Canadian side of the border at Niagara Falls. Under the British flag, he said, he enjoyed the rights denied him by “usurpers” at home, and he added that he intended to “return with my opinions and convictions … not only unchanged, but confirmed and strengthened.”
In time he did return, wearing false hair on his face and a large pillow strapped beneath his waistcoat. Presently he threw off these Falstaffian trappings and campaigned openly, despite the warning that the original sentence would be imposed if he broke the terms of his commutation. Lincoln did not molest him this time, however, nor would he allow the military to do so, having learned from the experience in May. Moreover, he had acted by then to prevent further unnecessary roiling of the citizenry by Burnside. In early June, encouraged by his apparent success in suppressing freedom of speech in his department, the general moved against the press in a similar heavy-handed manner. At 3 o’clock in the morning, June 3, cavalry vedettes rode up to the offices of the ChicagoTimes, which he had charged with “repeated expression of disloyalty and incendiary statements.” Reinforced an hour later by two companies of infantry from Camp Douglas, they stopped the presses, destroyed the papers already printed, and announced that theTimes was out of business. The reaction was immediate and uproarious. A noon meeting of prominent Chicagoans, presided over by the mayor, voted unanimously to request the President to revoke the suppression, and in Court House Square that evening a crowd of “20,000 loyal citizens,” including many Republicans, gathered to hear speeches against such arbitrary seizures of power by the military and to cheer the news that in Springfield that afternoon the legislature had denounced the general for his action. Confronted with such outbursts of indignation, which seemed likely to spread rapidly beyond his home-state borders, much as the Vallandigham affair had spread beyond the borders of Ohio, Lincoln rescinded Burnside’s order the following morning. What was more, he followed this up by having Stanton direct his over-zealous subordinate to arrest no more civilians and suppress no more newspapers without first securing the approval of the War Department.
In all conscience, he had troubles enough on his hands without the help or hindrance of the fantastically whiskered general in Cincinnati, whose brief foray against the Illinois paper was by no means an isolated example of all-out censorship. From start to finish, despite Lincoln’s instructions for department commanders to exercise “great caution, calmness, and forbearance” in the matter, no less than 300 newspapers large and small, including such influential publications as the New York World, the Louisville Courier, the New Orleans Crescent, the Baltimore Gazette, and the Philadelphia Evening Journal—Democratic all—were suppressed or suspended for a variety of offenses, ranging from the usual “extension of aid or comfort to the enemy” to the release of a bogus proclamation which had the President calling for “400,000 more.” In thus increasing the public’s apprehension of an extension of the draft, he was treading on dangerous ground—dangerous to the government, that is—for nothing so inflamed resentment as did the Conscription Act which Congress had passed in early March and which had begun to be placed in operation by early summer. This resentment was directed less against the draft itself, which was plainly necessary, than it was against the way the act was written and administered. Actually, though it provoked a good deal of volunteering by men who sought to avoid the stigma of being drafted and the discomfort of not being able to choose their branch of service, it was far from effective in accomplishing its avowed purpose, as postwar records would show; 86,724 individuals escaped by paying the $300 commutation fee, while of the 168,649 actually drafted, 117,986 were hired substitutes, leaving a total of 50,663 men personally conscripted, and of these only 46,347 went into the ranks. Though barely enough to make up the losses of two Gettysburgs, draftees and substitutes combined amounted to less than ten percent of the force the Union had under arms in the course of the war; in fact, they fell far short of compensating for the 201,397 deserters, many of whom had been drafted in the first place. However, the popular furor against conscription was provoked not by its end results, which of course were unknown at the time, but rather by the vexations involved in its enforcement, which brought the naked power of military government into play on the home front and went very much against the national grain. While provost marshals conducted house-to-house searches, often without the formality of warrants, boards of officers sentenced drafted boys as deserters for failing to report for induction, and troops were used without restraint to break up formal protest meetings as well as rowdy demonstrations. In retaliation, conscription officials were roughed up on occasion, a few being shot from ambush as they went about their duties, and others had their property destroyed by angry mobs, all in the good old American way dating back to the Revolution. So-called “insurrections,” staged at scattered points throughout the North, invariably met with harshness at the hands of soldiers who did not always bother to discriminate between foreign and domestic “rebels,” especially when brought back from the front to deal with this new home-grown variety. In mid-June, for example, an uprising in Holmes County, Ohio, was quelled so rigorously by the troops called in for that purpose that their colonel felt obliged to account for their enthusiasm when he made his report of the affair. “The irregularities committed by some of the men,” he wrote, “were owing more to their having campaigned in the South than to any intention on their part of violating my express orders to respect private property.”
This rash of draft disturbances, which broke out during the long hot summer leading up to and continuing beyond the two great early-July victories, was by no means limited to the Old Northwest or the Ohio Valley, where secret societies were most active in opposition to the Administration and its measures. Boston and Newark had their clamorous mobs, as did Albany and Troy, New York, and Columbia and Bucks counties, Pennsylvania. There were uprisings in Kentucky and New Hampshire, and the governor of Wisconsin had to call out the state militia to deal with demonstrations in Milwaukee and Ozaukee County, where immigrants from Belgium, Holland, and Germany, especially vigorous in resisting what they had left Europe to escape, attacked the draft headquarters with guns and clubs and stones. By far the greatest of all the riots, however, was the one that exploded in New York City, hard on the heels of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, while Lincoln was writing his sent and unsent letters to Grant and Meade. Partly the trouble was political; protests had been made by party orators that Democratic districts were being required to furnish more than their fair share of conscripts and that ballot boxes were being stuffed with imported Republican soldier votes. Partly, too, it was racial; charges were also made that Negro suffrage was a device for overthrowing the white majority, including Tammany Hall, and that Negroes were being shipped in from the South to throw the Tammany-loyal workers, mostly Irish, out of work. Whatever began it, the three-day riot soon degenerated into violence for its own sake. On Monday, July 13, a mob wrecked the draft office where the drawing of names had begun two days before, then moved on to the Second Avenue armory, which was seized and looted, along with jewelry stores and liquor shops. By nightfall, with the police force overpowered, much of the upper East Side had been overrun. Segments of the mob were reported to be “chasing isolated Negroes as hounds would chase a fox,” and the chase generally ended beneath a lamppost, which served conveniently as a gibbet. All next day this kind of thing continued, and nearly all of the next. A colored orphanage was set afire and the rioters cheered the leaping flames, seeing the Negroes not only as rivals for their jobs but also as the prime cause of the war. According to one witness of their fury, “three objects—the badge of a defender of the law, the uniform of the Union army, the skin of a helpless and outraged race—acted upon these madmen as water acts upon a rabid dog.” By morning of the third day, however, representatives of all three of these hated categories were rare. The mob had undisputed control of the city.
In Washington, Lincoln and Stanton reacted to news of the violence by detaching troops from Meade to deal with the situation. They arrived on Wednesday evening and got to work at once. “We saw the grim batteries and weatherstained and dusty soldiers tramping into our leading streets as if into a town just taken by siege,” another witness recorded in his diary. According to him, the action was brief and bloody. “There was some terrific fighting between the regulars and the insurgents; streets were swept again and again by grape, houses were stormed at the point of the bayonet, rioters were picked off by sharpshooters as they fired on the troops from housetops; men were hurled, dying or dead, into the streets by the thoroughly enraged soldiery; until at last, sullen and cowed and thoroughly whipped and beaten, the miserable wretches gave way at every point and confessed the power of the law.” Estimates of the casualties ranged from less than 300 to more than 1000, though some Democrats later protested that the figures had been enlarged by Republican propagandists and that there was “no evidence that any more than 74 possible victims of the violence of the three days died anywhere but in the columns of partisan newspapers.” Whether the dead were few or many, one thing was clear: Lincoln was determined to enforce the draft. “The government will be able to stand the test,” Stanton had replied by wire to Mayor George Opdyke’s request for troops at the height of the trouble, “even if there should be a riot and mob in every ward of every city.”
Conscription resumed on schedule, August 19, and though there was grumbling, there was no further violence in the nation’s largest city; the Secretary had seen to the fulfillment of his prediction by sending in more troops, with orders to crack down hard if there was any semblance of resistance. Lincoln stood squarely behind him, having denied Governor Horatio Seymour’s plea for a suspension of the draft. “Time is too important,” he told the Democratic leader, and while he agreed to look into the claim that the state’s quota was unfair, he made it clear that there would be no delay for that or any other purpose. “We are contending with an enemy who, as I understand, drives every able-bodied man he can reach into his ranks, very much as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter pen. No time is wasted, no argument is used. This produces an army … with a rapidity not to be matched on our side if we first waste time to re-experiment with the volunteer system.” His intention, he said in closing, was to be “just and constitutional, and yet practical, in performing the important duty with which I am charged, of maintaining the unity and free principles of our common country.” And so it was. Under Lincoln there was Stanton, and under Stanton there was Provost Marshal General James B. Fry, who headed a newly created bureau of the War Department. Under Fry, in charge of enrollment districts corresponding roughly to congressional districts all across the land, were the provost marshals, who were responsible not only for the functioning of the conscription process but also for the maintenance of internal security within their individual districts. Each could call on his neighboring marshals for help in case of trouble, as well as on Fry in Washington, and Fry in turn could call on Stanton, who was prepared to lend the help of the army if it was needed and the Commander in Chief approved. Lincoln’s long arm now reached into every home in the North, as well as into every home in the South that lay in the wake of his advancing armies, east and west.
Now that he had had time to absorb the shock Lee’s getaway had given him, he felt better about the outcome of the battle in Pennsylvania and the capacity of the general who had won it. Though he was still regretful—“We had gone through all the labor of tilling and planting an enormous crop,” he complained, “and when it was ripe we did not harvest it”—he was also grateful. That was the word he used: saying, “I am very grateful to Meade for the service he did at Gettysburg,” and asking: “Why should we censure a man who has done so much for his country because he did not do a little more?” All the same, he could scarcely help contrasting the eastern victory with the western one, which had left him not even “a little more” to wish for. Nor could he avoid comparing the two commanders. More and more, he was coming to see Grant as the answer to his military problem: not only because of his obvious talent, demonstrated in the capture of two rebel armies intact, but also because of his attitude toward his work. For example, when Lorenzo Thomas was sent to Mississippi to direct the recruiting of Negro troops, Grant had been instructed to assist him, and though he said quite frankly, “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery,” he had replied forthrightly: “You may rely upon it I will give him all the aid in my power. I would do this whether the arming the negro seemed to me a wise policy or not, because it is an order that I am bound to obey and I do not feel that in my position I have a right to question any policy of the government.”
Lincoln liked the tone of that. In contrast to the petulance he had encountered in his dealings with five of the six commanders of the eastern army (McDowell, the exception, had also turned sour in the end, after two months of service under Pope) Grant had the sound of a man he could enjoy working closely with, and apparently he had the notion of bringing him East, although Halleck and Charles Dana, who had returned to Washington shortly after the fall of Vicksburg, were certain that the general would prefer to continue his service in the West. Presently there was first-hand evidence that such was indeed the case; for Dana wrote to Grant in late July, telling him what was afoot, and got a reply in early August. “General Halleck and yourself were both very right in supposing that it would cause me more sadness than satisfaction to be ordered to the command of the Army of the Potomac. Here I know the officers and men and what each general is capable of as a separate commander. There I would have all to learn. Here I know the geography of the country and its resources. There it would be a new study. Besides, more or less dissatisfaction would necessarily be produced by importing a general to command an army already well supplied with those who have grown up, and been promoted, with it.… While I would disobey no order, I should beg very hard to be excused before accepting that command.” This too was forthright; the President, if he saw the letter, was left in no doubt as to Grant’s own preference in the matter. At any rate Lincoln decided to stick with Meade for the time being, much as he had done with Burnside and Hooker after telling a friend that “he was not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once; that he would pick the lock and try it again.” Grant would keep, Grant would be there in case he was needed; Grant was his ace in the hole.
Meanwhile there was the war to get on with, on the political front as well as on the firing line. In mid-June out in Illinois, at the height of the Vallandigham controversy and two weeks after Burnside’s suppression of the Chicago Times, a monster protest rally had been staged in Lincoln’s own home town; Copperhead orators had whipped the assembly into frenzies of applause, and the meeting had closed with the adoption of peace resolutions. Now, with the fall elections drawing near, Republicans were calling for loyal Democrats to join them, under the banner of a “National Union” party, in campaigning for support of the Administration’s war aims. They planned a record-breaking turnout at Springfield in early September, to offset whatever effect the previous gathering might have had on voters of the region, and the arrangements committee invited Lincoln to come out and speak. He considered going—after all, except for military conferences, he had not left Washington once in the thirty months he had been there—but found the press of business far too great. Instead, he decided in late August to write a letter to the chairman of the committee, James Conkling, to be read to the assembly and passed on to the rest of the country by the newspapers, giving his views on the conflict at its present stage. He began by expressing his gratitude to those “whom no partizan malice, or partizan hope, can make false to the nation’s life,” then passed at once, since peace seemed uppermost in men’s minds nowadays, to a discussion of “three conceivable ways” in which it could be brought about. First, by suppressing the rebellion; “This I am trying to do. Are you for it? If you are, so far we are agreed.” Second, by giving up the Union; “I am against this. Are you for it? If you are, you should say so plainly.” Third, by negotiating some sort of armistice based on compromise with the Confederates; but “I do not believe any compromise, embracing the maintenance of the Union, is now possible. All I learn leads to a directly opposite belief.”
After disposing thus, to his apparent satisfaction, of the possibility of achieving peace except by force of arms, he moved on to another matter which his opponents had lately been harping on as a source of dissatisfaction: Emancipation. “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the Proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes. I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do, as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept.”
And having progressed so far in what an associate called a “stump speech” delivered by proxy, Lincoln passed to the peroration. Here he broke into a sort of verbal buck-and-wing:
The signs look better. The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea. Thanks to the great Northwest for it. Nor yet wholly to them. Three hundred miles up, they met New England, Empire, Keystone, and Jersey, hewing their way right and left. The Sunny South, too, in more colors than one, also lent a hand. On the spot, their part of the history was jotted down in black and white. The job was a great national one, and let none be banned who bore an honorable part in it. And while those who have cleared the great river may well be proud, even that is not all. It is hard to say that anything has been more bravely and well done than at Antietam, Murfreesboro, Gettysburg, and on many fields of lesser note. Nor must Uncle Sam’s web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks. Thanks to all. For the great republic, for the principle it lives by and keeps alive, for man’s vast future—thanks to all.
Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay, and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that among free men there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost. And then there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue and clenched teeth and steady eye and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation, while I fear there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.
Still, let us not be over-sanguine of a speedy final triumph. Let us be quite sober. Let us diligently apply the means, never doubting that a just God, in his own good time, will give us the rightful result.
In their first reports of Gettysburg, southern newspapers hailed the battle as a climactic triumph. “A brilliant and crushing victory has been achieved,” the Charleston Mercury exulted on July 8, and two days later the Richmond Examiner informed its readers that the Army of Northern Virginia, with upwards of 30,000 prisoners in tow, was on the march for Baltimore. Presently, when it was learned that the graybacks had withdrawn instead to the Potomac, these and other southern journals assured the public that there was “nothing bad in this news beyond a disappointment”; Lee, whose “retrograde movement” had been “dictated by strategy and prudence,” was “perfectly master of the situation.” Though the victory “had not been decisive” because of “the semblance of a retreat,” the outcome of the Pennsylvania conflict remained “favorable to the South.” Not until the last week of the month did the Examiner refer to the “repulse at Gettysburg.” By that time, however, the Mercury’s editor had also come full circle and like his Richmond colleague had recovered, through hindsight, his accustomed position as an acid critic of the Administration’s conduct of the war. “It is impossible for an invasion to have been more foolish and disastrous,” he pronounced.
For the most part, Lee’s weary soldiers were content to leave such public judgments to the home-front critics, but privately there were some who agreed with the angry Carolinian. They had been mishandled and they knew it. “The campaign is a failure,” a Virginia captain wrote home on his return to native soil, “and the worst failure the South has ever made. Gettysburg sets off Fredericksburg. Lee seems to have become as weak as Burnside. And no blow since the fall of New Orleans had been so telling against us.” News of the loss of Vicksburg, which the strike across the Potomac had been designed in part to prevent, served to deepen the gloom, especially for those whose lofty posts afforded them a long-range view of the probable consequences. Longstreet, for example, wrote years later, looking back: “This surrender, taken in connection with the Gettysburg defeat, was, of course, very discouraging to our superior officers, though I do not know that it was felt as keenly by the rank and file. For myself, I felt that our last hope was gone, and that it was now only a question of time with us.” Officials in Richmond also were staggered by the double blow, and of these perhaps the hardest hit was Seddon, who had put his faith in Johnston. Nowadays, according to a War Department clerk, the Secretary resembled “a galvanized corpse which has been buried two months. The circles around his eyes are absolutely black.” Others about the office were as grim, particularly after reading the preliminary reports of the commanders in the field. “Gettysburg has shaken my faith in Lee as a general,” R. G. H. Kean, chief of the Bureau of War, recorded in his diary on July 26. “To fight an enemy superior in numbers at such terrible disadvantage of position in the heart of his own territory, when the freedom of movement gave him the advantage of selecting his own time and place for accepting battle, seems to have been a great military blunder. [Moreover] the battle was worse in execution than in plan.… God help this unhappy country!” Two days later another high-placed diarist, Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas, who had worked brilliantly and hard to provide the enormous amounts of matériel lost or expended, west and east, confessed an even darker view of the situation. “It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space,” he lamented. “Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success; today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”
The one exception was Davis, who neither contributed to nor shared in the prevailing atmosphere of gloom that settled over the capital as a result of the triphammer blows struck by the Federals east and west. It was not that he failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation, the extent and intensity of the danger in both directions. He did. “We are now in the darkest hour of our political existence,” he admitted in mid-July. Rather, it was as if defeat, even disaster, whatever else it brought, also brought release from dread and a curious inverse lift of the spirit after a time of strain which had begun with Grant’s crossing of the Mississippi River and the death of Stonewall Jackson. Visitors to the White House in mid-May found him “thin and frail and gaunt with grief,” and the tension increased tremendously when Vicksburg was besieged and Lee started north on June 3, the President’s fifty-fifth birthday. Mrs Davis said afterwards that throughout this time her husband was “a prey to the acutest anxiety”: so much so, indeed, that he found it nearly intolerable to have to wait deskbound in Richmond while his and the nation’s fate was perhaps being decided in Pennsylvania and far-off Mississippi. He yearned for the field, a return to his first profession, and like Lincoln—who would declare somewhat later, under a similar press of anxiety: “If I had gone up there I could have whipped them myself”—he considered personal intervention. At any rate he expressed such a hope aloud, if only to his wife. “If I could take one wing and Lee the other,” she heard him say one hot June night, “I think we could between us wrest a victory from those people.” But that was not to be, either for him or his opponent, though presently there was disquieting news from Bragg and Buckner that Rosecrans and Burnside were on the march in Middle and East Tennessee, and hard on the heels of this came the first vague reports of Lee’s retreat and Pemberton’s surrender. Moreover, on July 10, when Vicksburg’s fall was officially confirmed and Lee reported his army marooned on the hostile northern bank of the Potomac, bad news arrived from still another quarter. Beauregard wired that the enemy had effected a sudden lodgment on Morris Island; Fort Wagner had not been taken, the Creole declared, but the build-up and the pressure were unrelenting. Three days later, however, with Bragg in full retreat and the possible loss of Charleston increasing the strain on the President’s frayed nerves, word came from Lee that his army was over the swollen river at last and back on the soil of Virginia, unpursued. Davis seized upon this one gleam of brightness in the gloom, and the clerk who had noted the black circles around Seddon’s eyes recorded in his diary: “The President is quite amiable now. The newspaper editors can find easy access and he welcomes them with a smile.”
There was more to this than a grasping at straws, though of course there was that as well; nor was his smile altogether forced, though of course it was in part. Davis saw in every loss of mere territory a corresponding gain, if only in the sense that what had been lost no longer required defending. Just as the early fall of Nashville and New Orleans had permitted a tighter concentration of the Confederacy’s limited military resources and had given its field commanders more freedom of action by reducing the number of fixed positions they were obliged to defend, so might the loss of the Mississippi make the defense of what remained at once more compact and more fluid. What remained after all was the heartland. Contracted though its borders were, from the Richmond apex south through the Carolinas to Savannah on the Atlantic and southwest through East Tennessee and Alabama to Mobile on the Gulf, the nation’s productive center remained untouched. There the mills continued to grind out powder, forge guns, weave cloth; there were grown the crops and cattle that would feed the armies; there on the two seaboards were the ports into which the blockade-runners steamed. In the final analysis, as Davis saw it, everything else was extra—even his home state, which now was reduced to serving as a buffer. Besides, merely because the far western portion of the country had been severed from the rest, it did not follow that the severed portion would die or even, necessarily, stop fighting. In point of fact, some of the advantages he saw accruing to the East as a result of the amputation might also obtain in the Transmississippi, if only the leaders there were as determined as he himself was. Accordingly, after making himself accessible to the Richmond editors so that they might spread these newest views among the defenders of the heartland, he took as his first task next day, July 14, the writing of a series of letters designed to encourage resolution among the leaders and people whose duties and homes lay beyond the great river just fallen to the Union.
Of these several letters the first went to Kirby Smith, commander of that vast region which in time would be known as Kirby-Smithdom. “You now have not merely a military, but also a political problem involved in your command,” Davis told him, and went on to suggest that necessity be made a virtue and a source of strength. Cut off as it was, except by sea, the Transmississippi “must needs be to a great extent self-sustaining,” he wrote, urging the development of new plants in the interior to manufacture gun carriages and wagons, tan leather for shoes and harness, and weave cloth for uniforms and blankets, as well as the establishment of a rolling mill for the production of ironclad vessels, “which will enable you in some contingencies to assume the offensive” on the Arkansas and the Red. In any case, he added, “the endurance of our people is to be sorely tested, and nothing will serve more to encourage and sustain them than a zealous application of their industry to the task of producing within themselves whatever is necessary for their comfortable existence. And in proportion as the country exhibits a power to sustain itself, so will the men able to bear arms be inspired with a determination to repel invasion.… May God guide and preserve you,” the long letter ended, “and grant to us a future in which we may congratulate each other on the achievement of the independence and peace of our country.” This was followed by almost as long a letter to Theophilus Holmes, the only one of Smith’s three chief subordinates who had suffered a defeat. Far from indulging in criminations for the botched assault on Helena, the details of which were not yet known in Richmond, Davis chose rather “to renew to you the assurance of my full confidence and most friendly regards.… The clouds are truly dark over us,” he admitted, but “the storm may yet be averted if the increase of danger shall arouse the people to such a vigorous action as our situation clearly indicates.” Nor were the military leaders the only ones to whom the President wrote in this “darkest hour.” He also addressed himself, in a similar vein of encouragement, to Governors Harris Flanagin of Arkansas, Francis R. Lubbock of Texas, and Thomas C. Reynolds of Missouri. And having received from Senator R. W. Johnston a gloomy report of dissatisfaction in Arkansas, including some talk of seceding from the sundered Confederacy, he replied on this same July 14: “Though it was well for me to know the worst, it pained me to observe how far your confidence was shaken and your criticism severe on men who I think deserve to be trusted. In proportion as our difficulties increase, so must we all cling together, judge charitably of each other, and strive to bear and forbear, however great may be the sacrifice and bitter the trial.… The sacrifices of our people have been very heavy both of blood and of treasure; many like myself have been robbed of all which the toil of many years had gathered; but the prize for which we strive—freedom, and independence—is worth whatever it may cost. With union and energy, the rallying of every man able to bear arms to the defense of his country, we shall succeed, and if we leave our children poor we shall leave them a better heritage than wealth.”
In urging these Westerners to “judge charitably of each other, and strive to bear and forbear,” he was preaching what he practiced in the East in regard to Lee and Pemberton. Both had come under a storm of criticism: especially the latter, who not only had suffered a sounder defeat, but also had no earlier triumphs to offset it. So bitter was the feeling against him in the region through which he marched his Vicksburg parolees on their way to Demopolis, Alabama—a scarecrow force, severely reduced by desertions which increased with every mile it covered—that the President was obliged in mid-July to detach Hardee from Bragg, despite the touch-and-go situation in Tennessee, and send him to Demopolis to gather up the stragglers and assume the task of remolding them into a fighting unit. This left Pemberton without a command, though he had been exchanged and was available for duty. In early August, Davis wrote him a sympathetic letter: “To some men it is given to be commended for what they are expected to do, and to be sheltered, when they fail, by a transfer of the blame which may attach. To others it is decreed that their success shall be denied or treated as a necessary result, and their failures imputed to incapacity or crime.… General Lee and yourself have seemed to me to be examples of the second class, and my confidence has not been diminished because ‘letter writers’ have not sent forth your praise on the wings of the press. I am no stranger to the misrepresentation of which malignity is capable, nor to the generation of such feeling by the conscientious discharge of duty.” However, it was no easy thing to find employment for a discredited lieutenant general. Bragg at first expressed a willingness to take him, but presently, having conferred with his officers, reported somewhat cryptically that it “would not be advisable.” Pemberton returned to Richmond, and after waiting eight months for an assignment, appealed to the Commander in Chief to release him for service “in any capacity in which you think I may be useful.” Davis replied that his confidence in him was unimpaired—“I thought and still think that you did right to risk an army for the purpose of keeping command of even a section of the Mississippi River. Had you succeeded none would have blamed; had you not made the attempt, few if any would have defended your course”—but ended, two months later, by accepting the Pennsylvanian’s resignation as a lieutenant general, at which rank he was unemployable, and by presenting him with a commission as a lieutenant colonel of artillery, the rank he had held in that same branch when he first crossed over and threw in with the South. In this capacity Pemberton served out the war, often in the thick of battle, thereby demonstrating a greater devotion to the cause he had adopted than did many who had inherited it as a birthright.
To Lee, too, went sustaining letters expressive of the President’s confidence after the late reverse in Pennsylvania. “I have felt more than ever before the want of your advice during the recent period of disaster,” Davis wrote in late July, closing “with prayers for your health, safety and happiness,” and in early August, after assuring the general that he could “rely upon our earnest exertions to meet your wants,” he offered the opinion that the Virginian might do well to withdraw his army closer to Richmond and thus encourage the enemy to attack him in a position that could be reinforced more readily; but he made it clear that now as always he was leaving the final decision to the commander in the field, who might prefer to defend the line of the Rappahannock, as he had done so successfully twice before. In closing, Davis spoke again of how sorely Lee had been missed throughout the fourteen months since he had left his post as presidential adviser: “I will not disturb your mind by reciting my troubles about distant operations. You were required in the field and I deprived myself of the support you gave me here. I need your counsel, but must strive to meet the requirements of the hour without distracting your attention at a time when it should be concentrated on the field before you.… As ever, truly your friend, Jeffn Davis.”
No such letter went to Joe Johnston, though the correspondence between the Chief Executive and this other top-ranking Virginian was a good deal more voluminous. When a friend remarked, one day amid these troubles, that Vicksburg had fallen “apparently from want of provisions,” Davis replied scathingly: “Yes, from want of provisions inside, and a general outside who wouldn’t fight.” First his anger and then his scorn had been aroused by efforts on the part of Johnston and his friends to free the general of all responsibility for the loss not only of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, but even of Jackson, their claim being based on a renewal of the complaint that he had not been allowed enough authority to permit decisive action. Davis replied on July 15 with a fifteen-page letter in which he reviewed the entire case, order by order, dispatch by dispatch, showing that Johnston had been given unlimited authority to act as he thought best, and he concluded in summation: “In no manner, by no act, by no language, either of myself or of the Secretary of War, has your authority … been withdrawn, restricted, or modified.” Johnston’s response was a request that he be relieved of all responsibility for the disaster that seemed to be shaping up for Bragg, and Davis was prompt to comply. On July 22 the Department of Tennessee was removed from the Virginian’s control. However, the apparent effect of this was to afford the general and his staff more time for self-justification. There now began to appear, in various anti-Administration journals throughout the South, excerpts from a 5000-word “letter” written by Dr D. W. Yandell, Johnston’s medical director, ostensibly to a fellow physician in Alabama. Secret dispatches and official orders were quoted, certain evidence that the writer had had access to the generar’s private files, and Johnston was praised extravagantly at the expense of Pemberton and the Commander in Chief, who were charged with indecision and lack of foresight. On August 1 Davis sent a copy of this “article-letter,” which was being passed around in Richmond, directly to Johnston with a covering note that combined irony and contempt: “It is needless to say that you are not considered capable of giving countenance to such efforts at laudation of yourself and detraction of others, and the paper is sent to you with the confidence that you will take the proper action in the premises.” The effect, of course, was to widen the rift between the two leaders, whose rupture was soon complete. An acquaintance observed that from this time forward Johnston’s “hatred of Jeff Davis became a religion with him.” Davis, on the other hand, was content to restrict himself to slighting references such as those he had made while the latest of the Virginian’s “retrograde adjustments” was still in progress. “General Johnston is retreating on the east side of Pearl River,” he informed Lee on the second anniversary of Manassas, “and I can only learn from him of such vague purposes as were unfolded when he held his army before Richmond.” A week later the veil lifted a bit, but only to descend again. “General Johnston, after evacuating Jackson, retreated to the east, to the pine woods of Mississippi,” Davis wrote Lee on July 28, “and if he has any other plan than that of watching the enemy, it has not been communicated.”
Meanwhile Johnston, having advised the War Department of his intention “to hold as much of the country as I can and to retire farther only when compelled to do so,” was enjoying a brief vacation in Mobile with his wife, who told a friend in early August that she had found her husband looking well and in “tolerable spirits, as cheerful as if Jeff was throwing rose leaves at him, instead of nettles and thorns.”
“Misfortune often develops secret foes,” Davis had said in a letter written earlier that week to Lee, “and of tener still makes men complain. It is comfortable to hold someone responsible for one’s discomfort.” Lee could testify to the truth of this, having seen it demonstrated first on his return from western Virginia, back in the rainy fall of ’61, and now again on his return from Pennsylvania, when some of the same irate critics took him to task for blunders in the field. But the President had something else to say, of which Lee, concerned almost exclusively with army matters throughout the past year, was perhaps much less aware. Convinced that “this war can only be successfully prosecuted while we have the cordial support of the people,” Davis had been pained to observe what he set down next: “In various quarters there are mutterings of discontent, and threats of alienation are said to exist, with preparation for organized opposition.… If a victim would secure the success of our cause,” he added in closing, “I would freely offer myself.”
This last was scarcely necessary, however, since a good many influential men had already singled him out for that distinction. In Charleston, for instance, the Robert Barnwell Rhetts, Senior and Junior, stepped up their attacks against him in the columns of theirMercury, and the father was in Columbia even now, suggesting as a member of the South Carolina convention, still in session, that Davis be impeached. There was considerable disagreement as to whether his sins were mainly ones of omission or commission, but his critics agreed that, whichever they were, he had them to a ruinous extent. Old Edmund Ruffin, Virginia’s secession leader who had gone down to Sumter to fire the first shot of the war, referred contemptuously nowadays to “our tender conscienced and imbecile President,” while James L. Alcorn, a fellow Mississippian of doubtful loyalty to the Confederacy, pulled out all the stops in calling him a “miserable, stupid, one-eyed, dyspeptic, arrogant tyrant.” Two of his more vehement opponents, W. L. Yancey and seventy-year-old Sam Houston, were removed from the political scene by death before the end of July—the former as a result of a kidney ailment, though some editors hostile to Davis claimed the Alabamian died of a broken heart and acute regret at having presented “the man and the hour” to the inaugural crowd thirty months ago in Montgomery—but plenty of others remained: Robert Toombs, for example, whose wounded pride continued to fester down in Georgia. “Toombs is ready for another revolution,” a diarist observed, “and curses freely everything Confederate from the President down to a horse boy.” North Carolina’s Governor Zebulon Vance, who had fought against secession as a Unionist and then against the Yankees as an officer of the line, was equally ready to take on the Richmond government as a champion of States Rights. “I can see but little good, but a vast tide of inflowing evil from these inordinate stretches of military powers which are fast disgracing us equally with our northern enemies,” he told his constituents, and he was so zealous in his concern for their comfort and welfare that he was said to have in his warehouses, on the chance they might be needed some day, more uniforms than were on the backs of the ragged soldiers in Lee’s army, to which he himself had belonged until he resigned and came home to campaign for the election he had won last fall.
How a nation which at the outset had been practically without industrial facilities for warfare, which had lost more than half its harbors and had the remaining few blockaded, which was penetrated from the landward side by large and well-organized columns of invasion, and which was outnumbered worse than five to one in available manpower for its armies, could hope to survive unless its people were united in diehard resistance Vance did not say. His concern at that particular time had been the suspension of habeas corpus during a crisis, and apparently his concern stopped there, whatever concomitant problems loomed alongside it or lurked in the background. Other leaders had other concerns as exclusive. Georgia’s Joe E. Brown—“Joseph the Governor of all the Georgias,” a home-state editor dubbed him; another said that he suffered from delusions in which he was “alternately the State of Georgia and the President of the Confederate States”—saw conscription as the great evil to be feared and fought. “The people of Georgia will refuse to yield their sovereignty to usurpation,” he had notified Davis in October, and since then he had done much to prove he meant it, beginning with an executive order forbidding the taking or shipment of firearms from the state. Under his guidance the legislature elected Herschel V. Johnson, Stephen Douglas’s 1860 running mate, to the Confederate senate on a program of opposition to the central government. Its members cheered wildly an address Johnson delivered before his departure, protesting the concentration of power in Richmond, and were joined in their applause by a fellow Georgian in whose hands a good part of that power had supposedly been placed: Vice President Alexander Stephens. There was nothing unusual in his presence at Milledgeville on this occasion, for he had early become disenchanted with the republic he had helped to establish and now he spent more time at home in nearby Crawfordville than he did at his duties in the national capital. Nor was there anything unusual, by now, in his indorsement of a speech against the Administration of which he was nominally a part. Like his friend Toombs, he was “ready for another revolution” whose cause would be the same as the First and Second, staged respectively in 1776 and 1861: both of which, as Stephens saw it, had since been betrayed. What he feared most, whether it was dressed in red or blue or gray, was what he later termed “the Demon of Centralism, Absolutism. Despotism!” That was the true enemy, and with it there could be no compromise whatever. “Away with the idea of getting independence first, and looking after liberty afterward,” he declared. “Our liberties, once lost, may be lost forever.”
Such opinions, voiced by such leaders—“impossiblists,” they would be called one day—made waverers of many among their listeners who had been steadfast up to then, and defeatists of those who were wavering already. Moreover, their influence ranged well beyond the halls and stumps from which they spoke, for their words were broadcast far and wide by newspapers whose editors shared their views. The Rhetts and Edward Pollard of the Examiner, who referred to Davis as “a literary dyspeptic [with] more ink than blood in his veins, an intriguer busy with private enmities,” were only three among the many, including the editors and owners of the Lynchburg Virginian, the Atlanta Southern Confederacy, the Macon Telegraph and Intelligencer, the Columbus Sun, and the Savannah Republican. Georgians were thus predominant, but the most blatant in his approach to downright treason was William Holden of the Raleigh Standard. Unsuppressed (for the Confederate government never censored so much as a line in a single paper throughout the war) Holden continued to rail against the Administration and all it stood for, uninterrupted except for one day in September when a brigade from Lee’s army, passing through the North Carolina capital, indignantly wrecked the office of theStandard. Holden resumed publication without delay; but meanwhile, the soldiers having departed, a crowd of his admirers marched in retaliation on the plant of the rival State Journal, a Davis-loyal paper just up the street, and destroyed its type, presses, and machinery. Despite a presidential warning that those who sowed “the seeds of discontent and distrust” were preparing a “harvest of slaughter and defeat,” hostile editors not only continued their attacks on the government, but also carried in their news columns the identification of military units in their areas, plans of yet unfought battles and campaigns, the arrival and departure times of blockade-runners, descriptions and locations of vital factories and munition works, all in such detail, a diarist remarked, that the North had no need for spies; “Our newspapers tell every word there is to be told, by friend or foe.” Helpful though all this was to the enemy, the worst effect on the nation’s chances for survival lay in the undermining of the public’s confidence in eventual victory. Profoundly shaken by the double defeat of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the people looked to their leaders for reassurance. From some they got it, while from others all they got was “I told you so”—as indeed they had, with a stridency that increased with every setback. All too often, as a result, enthusiasm was replaced by apathy. “They got us into it; let them get us out,” men were saying nowadays, and by “them” they meant the authorities in Richmond.
In point of fact, if the public’s faith in its government’s paper money was a fair reflection of its attitude in general, the decline of confidence had begun much earlier. For the first two years of the war—that is, through April of the present year—the dollar had fallen gradually, if steadily, to a ratio of about four to one in gold. This was not too bad; the Federal greenback had fallen to about three to one in the same period. However, in the next four months, while Union money not only held steady but even rose a bit, Confederate notes declined nearly twice as much in value as they had done in the course of the past two years. In May, despite the splendid victory at Chancellorsville, the dollar fell from 4.15 to 5.50, the worst monthly drop to date. In June, moreover, with Lee on the march in Pennsylvania to offset Grant’s progress in Mississippi, it took an even greater drop, from 5.50 to 7. In July, with Vicksburg lost and Lee in retreat, it tumbled to 9, and by the end of August, with the full impact of the two defeats being felt by all the people, one gold dollar was worth an even dozen paper dollars. To some extent, though the figures themselves could not be argued with, their effect could be discounted; men—some men; particularly money men—were known to be more touchy about their pocketbooks than they were about their lives, withholding the former while risking the latter for a cause. Davis, for one, could maintain that the shrinking of the dollar, even though the damage was to a large extent self-inflicted, was only one more among the hardships to be endured if independence was to be achieved. “Our people have proven their gallantry and patriotic zeal,” he had written Lee; “their fortitude is now to be tested. May God endow them with all the virtue which is needed to save a suffering country and maintain a just cause.”
Beyond the northern lines, as we have seen, there were many who agreed with Davis that his cause was just; who at any rate were willing to have the Confederates depart in peace. Similarly, or conversely, there were many behind the southern lines who disagreed with him; who were also for peace, but only on Union terms. Some had lost heart as a result of the recent reverses, while others had had no heart for the war in the first place. The latter formed a hard core of resistance around which the former gathered in numbers that increased with every Federal success. It was these men Davis had in mind when, after referring to “mutterings of discontent,” he spoke of downright “threats of alienation” and “preparation for organized opposition.” Such preparations had begun more than a year ago, but only on a small scale, as when some fifty men in western North Carolina raised a white flag and marched slowly around it praying for peace. Since then, the movement had grown considerably, until now the South too had its secret disloyal societies: Heroes of America, they called themselves, or Sons of America, or sometimes merely “Red Strings,” from the identifying symbol they wore pinned to their lapels. While neither as numerous nor as active as their counterparts in the North, they too had their passwords, their signs and grips and their sworn objectives, which were to discourage enlistment, oppose conscription, encourage desertion, and agitate for an early return to the Union. Mostly the members were natives of a mountainous peninsula more than a hundred miles in width and six hundred miles in length, extending from the Pennsylvania border, southwest through western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, down into northern Georgia and Alabama. Owning few or no slaves, and indeed not much of anything else in the way of worldly goods, a good portion of these people wanted no part of what they called “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” War or fight, its goals were those of the Piedmont and Tidewater regions, not their own, and they contributed substantially to the total of 103,400 Confederate desertions computed to have occurred in the course of the war. So far, they had amounted more to a potential than to an actual danger; Streight’s raid across North Alabama, for example, had been planned with their support in mind, but they had not been of much use to him with Forrest close in his rear. However, the coming months would show that Davis had been quite right to give them his attention in late July, when they made their first significant gains outside the fastness of the Appalachian chain.
Reverses in the field, increasingly forthright opposition to the central government by regional States Rights leaders, the formation and expansion of societies dedicated to sabotage of the entire Confederate effort, all combined to increase the discouragement natural to the hour. If not convictions of defeat, then anyhow widespread doubts of ultimate victory took root for the first time. In the present “gloom of almost despondency,” a Richmond editor wrote in mid-August, “many fainthearted regard all as lost.” This was Pollard, who tended to exaggerate along these lines for reasons of his own; but even so staunch a supporter of the Administration as Congressman Dargan of Alabama—who had proved his mettle, if not his effectiveness, by making an unsuccessful bowie knife attack on his opprobrious colleague Henry Foote—fell into a midsummer state of desperation. “We are without doubt gone up; no help can be had,” he wrote Seddon from Mobile in late July. “The failure of the Government to reinforce Vicksburg, but allowing the strength and flower of the Army to go north when there could be but one fate attending them, has so broken down the hopes of our people that even the little strength yet remaining can only be exerted in despair.” He pinned his own hopes, such as they were, on foreign intervention, and since he believed that what stood in the way of this was slavery, he favored some form of Confederate emancipation. “So would the country,” he declared, if the people were given the choice between abolition and defeat—especially in light of the fact that defeat would mean abolition anyhow. At any rate, he told his friend the Secretary of War, “If anything can be done on any terms in Europe, delay not the effort. If nothing can, God only knows what is left for us.”
Dargan would perhaps have done better to write to the Secretary whose proper business was diplomacy. But it was as well he did not; Benjamin’s department was having the least success of all this summer, both at home and abroad. In June, for example, Davis had had a letter from the Vice President down in Georgia, suggesting that he be sent on a mission to Washington, ostensibly to alleviate the sufferings of prisoners and humanize the conduct of the war, but actually, once negotiation on these matters was under way, to treat for peace on a basis of “the recognition of the sovereignty of the States and the right of each in its sovereign capacity to determine its own destiny.” Just what he meant by this was not clear, and anyhow his disapproval of the government was too well known to permit his use as a spokesman, particularly at a conference on peace with the government’s enemies. But Davis too was distressed by the growth of what he considered barbarism in the conflict, and he wired for Stephens to come to Richmond at once. Though he had no intention of allowing the Georgian any large authority—“Your mission is one of humanity, and has no political aspects,” he informed him—he thought it might be advantageous to have an emissary on northern soil, whatever his basic persuasion, when Lee delivered the knockout blow he planned as a climax to the invasion about to be launched. Armed with two identical letters, one from Commander in Chief Davis to Commander in Chief Lincoln, the other from President Davis to President Lincoln—his instructions were to deliver whichever was acceptable—Stephens set off down the James, July 3, on the flag-of-truce steamer Torpedo. His hopes were high, despite the imposed restrictions, for he and Lincoln had been fellow congressmen and friends before the war. Off Newport News next morning, however, he submitted to the Union commander a request that he be allowed to proceed to Washington, only to be kept sweltering for two days aboard the motionless Torpedo while waiting for an answer. At last it came, in the form of a wire from Stanton on July 6: “The request is inadmissible. The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful military communications and conference between the United States forces and the insurgents.” Back at Richmond next day, the frail and sickly Georgian, who was barely under average height but weighed less than one hundred pounds with his boots on, learned that Gettysburg had been fought and lost—which explained, as a later observer remarked, why “Lincoln could afford to be rude”—and that evening the first reports of the fall of Vicksburg arrived. Discomfited and disgruntled, Stephens remained in Richmond for a couple of months, then returned to Crawfordville before Congress reconvened. A guidebook to the capital, listing the office and home addresses of government officials, contained the note: “The Vice President resides in Georgia.”
Events abroad had taken a turn no more propitious than those on the near side of the Atlantic, although this too came hard on the heels of revived expectations. Despite the North’s flat rejection of Mercier’s offer to mediate a truce in February, friends of the Confederacy had been encouraged since then by what seemed to them an increasing conviction in Europe that the South could never be conquered. Chancellorsville had served to confirm this impression, even in the minds of men unwilling to admit it, and the London Times on May 2, unaware that the Wilderness battle was in mid-career, had noted that the Union was “irreparably divided.” Looking back on the earlier Revolution, the editor said of the former Colonies: “We have all come to the conclusion that they had a right to be independent, and it was best they should be. Nor can we escape from the inference that the Federals will one day come to the same conclusion with regard to the Southern States.” James Mason drew much solace from such remarks. Observing the hard times the cotton shortage had brought to the British spinning industry, he found himself emerging from the gloom into which more than a year of diplomatic unsuccess had plunged him. “Events are maturing which must lead to some change in the attitude of England,” he informed Benjamin. Across the way in Paris, John Slidell was even more hopeful. “I feel very sanguine,” he wrote, “that not many months, perhaps not many weeks, will elapse without some decided action on Napoleon’s part.” Grant’s slam-bang May campaign in Mississippi offset considerably the brilliance of Lee’s triumph over Hooker, but when it was followed by the determined resistance of Vicksburg under siege, with Johnston supposedly closing on Grant’s rear, the Confederate flame of independence burned its brightest. Moreover, it was at this point that Lee set out on his second invasion of the North. The first, launched just under ten months ago, had come closer to securing foreign intervention than anyone outside the British cabinet knew; now if ever, with the second invasion in progress, was the time for an all-out bid for intervention. To ease the way, Benjamin assured a distinguished English visitor—Arthur Fremantle, who passed through Richmond in mid-June on his way to join Lee in Pennsylvania—that the South’s demands were modest. To draw up a treaty of peace acceptable to the Confederacy, he said, it would only be necessary to write the word “self-government” on a blank sheet of paper. “Let the Yankees accord that,” he told the colonel, “and they might fill up the paper in any manner they choose.… All we are struggling for is to be let alone.”
There were those in the British Parliament who not only saw the opportunity as clearly as did anyone in the Confederate State Department, but also were willing to act. Two such were William S. Lindsay and John A. Roebuck, opposition stalwarts who, perceiving their chance for action after months of forced delay, crossed the Channel for an interview with Napoleon on June 20. Informed of his views that the time was ripe for joint intervention in the war across the sea, they hastened back to present them in a motion Roebuck brought before the house on June 30, requesting the Queen to enter into negotiations with foreign powers for the purpose of welcoming the Confederacy into the family of nations. They hoped thereby to place the government in a dilemma between recognition and resignation; however, they had neglected in their enthusiasm to make sure of their forces. When the ministry replied that no such proposal had been received from France, Napoleon failed to confirm their account of the interview, and thus exposed their veracity to question. John Bright and W. E. Forster, long-time Liberal proponents of the Union, both made powerful speeches against the motion, laced with sarcastic remarks on Roebuck’s efforts to represent the Emperor on the floor of Parliament. What was more, as the debate wore on it developed that other pro-Confederate members did not approve of such overzealous methods, and Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative leader, declined to commit the party to what amounted in the popular mind to a defense of slavery. Finally, on July 13, after waiting two weeks in vain for word of a victory won by Lee on northern soil, Roebuck—a diminutive individualist of somewhat ridiculous aspect; “Don Roebucco,” Punch had dubbed him, “the smallest man ‘in the House’ ”—admitted defeat by moving the discharge of his motion. Three days later the first reports of Gettysburg reached London, followed within the week by news of the fall of Vicksburg; after which there was no hope of a revival of the motion, either by Roebuck or anyone else. In fact, the ill-managed debate had done a good deal more to lower than to raise the Confederacy’s chances of securing foreign recognition, particularly in England, where some of the ineptness and downright absurdity of its champions was connected, as a general impression, with the cause they had sought to further.
Benjamin perceived in this another instance of the attitude he had complained of earlier: “When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because ‘it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.’ When reverses occur … ‘it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.’ ” Davis agreed with this bleak assessment of the situation. “ ‘Put not your trust in princes,’ ” he had told his people before New Year’s, “and rest not your hopes on foreign nations. This war is ours; we must fight it out ourselves.” All the same, he had kept Mason in London all this time, suffering under snubs, on the off-chance that something would occur, either on this or that side of the water, to provoke a rupture between the Unionists and the British, who in that case would be glad to find an ally in the South. But this latest development, with its tarnishing absurdities, was altogether too much for him to bear. The game was no longer worth the candle, and he had Benjamin notify Mason of his decision. On August 4 the Secretary wrote as follows to the Virginian in England: “Perusal of the recent debates in the British Parliament satisfies the President that the government of Her Majesty has determined to decline the overtures made through you for establishing, by treaty, friendly relations between the two governments, and entertains no intention of receiving you as the accredited minister of this government near the British court. Under these circumstances, your continued residence in London is neither conducive to the interests nor consistent with the dignity of this government, and the President therefore requests that you consider your mission at an end, and that you withdraw, with your secretary, from London.”
A private letter accompanied the dispatch, authorizing the envoy to delay his departure “in the event of any marked or decisive change in the policy of the British cabinet.” But Mason too had had all he could bear in the way of snubs by now. Before the end of the following month he gave up his fashionable West End residence, removed the diplomatic archives, and took his leave of England, sped on his way by a hectoring editorial in the Times on the South’s folly in demanding recognition before it had earned it. Despite the high hopes raised at the start of his mission by the Trent Affair, all he had to show for twenty months of pains was a note in which the foreign minister, Lord John Russell, after explaining that his reasons for declining the Virginian’s overtures were “still in force, and it is not necessary to repeat them,” expressed “regret that circumstances have prevented my cultivating your personal acquaintance, which, in a different state of affairs, I should have done with much pleasure and satisfaction.” Joining Slidell in Paris, only a day away from London by train and packet, Mason kept himself and his staff in readiness for a return to England on short notice. Moreover, he believed he knew what form, if any, this notice was likely to take. Translating his diplomatic problems into British political terms, he pinned his remaining hopes on a Tory overthrow of Palmerston’s coalition government, whose continuance in power he felt depended on the survival of the elderly Premier, and his correspondence with friends he had left behind, across the Channel, was peppered from this time forward with anxious inquiries as to the octogenarian’s health. But Lord Palmerston—who, in point of fact, had been friendlier to the South than Mason knew—had a good two years of life left in him, and those two, as it turned out, were six months more than quite enough.
The shock felt by Davis at this all but final evidence that the Confederacy would have to “fight it out,” as he had said, without the hope of foreign intervention—for it was generally understood that France could not act without England, and Russia had been pro-Union from the start—was lessened somewhat, or at any rate displaced, by an even greater shock which he received on reading a letter the South’s first soldier had written him four days after Benjamin wrote Mason. From Orange Courthouse, his new headquarters south of the Rapidan, Lee sent the President on August 8 what seemed at first to be some random musings on the outcome of the Gettysburg campaign. His tone was one of acceptance and resolution, of confidence in what he called “the virtue of the whole people.… Nothing is wanting,” he declared, “but that their fortitude should equal their bravery to insure the success of our cause. We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.” Davis agreed. In fact he had spent the past month saying much the same thing, not only to the public at large, but also, more specifically, to the heads of the nation’s armies, including Lee. Nor did he disagree with what came next, having heard it before from his dead friend and hero Albert Sidney Johnston, who had been the subject of far more violent attacks by the press in another time of crisis. “I know how prone we are to censure,” Lee continued, “and how ready [we are] to blame others for the non-fulfillment of our expectations. This is unbecoming in a generous people, and I grieve to see its expression. The general remedy for want of success in a military commander is his removal. This is natural, and in many instances proper. For no matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he loses the confidence of his troops disaster must sooner or later ensue.” For all his basic agreement with the principle here expressed, Davis was by no means prepared for the application Lee made in the sentence that followed: “I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another commander for this army.”
There was where the shock came in. Davis read on with mounting apprehension as Lee explained what had brought him to make this request. Moreover, the care with which he had chosen his words indicated plainly that the letter had not been written as a mere gesture, but rather with publication in mind, as the closing document of a career that had ended in failure and sadness, but not in bitterness or despair:
I have seen and heard of expression of discontent in the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it, and so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair, however, to suppose that it does exist, and success is so necessary to us that nothing should be risked to secure it. I therefore, in all sincerity, request Your Excellency to take measures to supply my place. I do this with the more earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others? In addition I sensibly feel the growing failure of my bodily strength. I have not yet recovered from the attack I experienced the past spring. I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel to be necessary. I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled. Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander, and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon Your Excellency from my belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be obtained.…
I have no complaints to make of anyone but myself. I have received nothing but kindness from those above me, and the most considerate attention from my comrades and companions at arms. To Your Excellency I am specially indebted for uniform kindness and consideration. You have done everything in your power to aid me in the work committed to my charge, without omitting anything to promote the general welfare. I pray that your efforts may at length be crowned with success, and that you may long live to enjoy the thanks of a grateful people.
With sentiments of great esteem,
I am very respectfully and truly yours,
R. E. LEE, General
Davis was dismayed. He had by now become reconciled to the permanent loss of some 15,000 of the South’s best fighting men at Gettysburg, but if that defeat was also going to cost him Lee, who had held the North’s main army at bay for more than a year and had provoked the removal of four of its commanders in the process, the loss might well be insupportable. Moreover, recent adversity East and West had drawn the two men even closer to one another, in their service to an imperiled cause, than they had been fifteen months ago in Richmond during a similar time of strain. Whether the nation could survive without Lee at the head of its first-line army Davis did not know, but he doubted that he himself could. “I need your counsel,” he had written him earlier that week. Besides, for Davis, loyalty rendered was invariably returned, and Lee was not only personally loyal, he was also modest, magnanimous, and unselfish. Contrasting these qualities with those lately encountered in that other Virginian, that other Johnston—Joe—Davis could tell his ranking field commander: “Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations, and seek to exalt you for what you had not done rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come.” Such words might serve to ease the sting of the lashings the journalists had been handing out. As for the general’s failing health, this too could be set aside as no valid reason for resigning, Davis believed, even without the example of his own debilitation, which included loss of sight in one eye and searing pain that sometimes made the other almost useless. “I am truly sorry to know that you still feel the effects of the illness you suffered last spring, and can readily understand the embarrassment you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so much accustomed to make your own reconnaissances. Practice will however do much to relieve that embarrassment, and the minute knowledge of the country which you have acquired will render you less dependent for topographical information.”
These things he could and did say, along with much else, in an attempt to dissuade Lee from resigning and thus spare the nation the calamitous loss of his service in the field. Fully conscious of the importance of choosing the proper tone and phrasing, he spent two days studying the general’s letter and composing his own thoughts by way of rebuttal. Then on August 11, incorporating the sentences quoted above, he wrote his answer:
General R. E. Lee,
Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:
Yours of the 8th instant has been received. I am glad to find that you concur so entirely with me as to the want of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.
It well became Sidney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit, and yet there has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions, that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability; but when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of an army.…
But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications, the points which you present, where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required? I do not doubt the readiness with which you would give way to one who could accomplish all that you have wished, and you will do me the justice to believe that if Providence should kindly offer such a person for our use, I would not hesitate to avail of his services.
My sight is not sufficiently penetrating to discover such hidden merit, if it exists, and I have but used to you the language of sober earnestness when I have impressed upon you the propriety of avoiding all unnecessary exposure to danger, because I felt our country could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by someone in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army or of the reflecting men in the country, is to demand of me an impossibility.
It only remains for me to hope that you will take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for the independence which we have engaged in war to maintain.
As ever, very respectfully and truly yours,
After this, there was no more talk of Lee resigning. As long as the Army of Northern Virginia existed he would remain at its head.