Chapter Eight

A RAY OF LIGHT SHINES BRIEFLY THROUGH THE RAFTERS

May through December 1864

From the Union’s point of view, the start of 1864 seemed to brim over with military promise. During the previous six months, victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson had completed the conquest of the strategic Mississippi River and its fertile valley. That had divided the Confederacy along a North-South axis, effectively isolating its eastern and western regions from each other. More recently, the stunning victory outside Chattanooga had overwhelmed and driven the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of the state whose name it bore. Meanwhile, the Union navy’s blockade of the Confederate coast tightened, as did the Union army’s grip on portions of it.

The United States was also making strides in identifying and empowering effective military leadership. In February and March, Congress revived the rank of lieutenant general—previously held only by George Washington and Winfield Scott (the latter on an honorary basis). Lincoln conferred the full rank on Ulysses S. Grant and then made him general in chief of all Union armies. Grant, in turn, handed over command of all forces in the West to William Tecumseh Sherman.

In June, Lincoln’s party affirmed its commitment to him and his war program. The Republican national convention in Baltimore renominated Lincoln for the presidency on a platform promising “to prosecute the war with the utmost possible vigor to the complete suppression of the Rebellion.” To help attract the broad political support that it now sought, the party rechristened itself the National Union party and gave its vice presidential nomination to Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat whom Lincoln had appointed as war governor of Tennessee and who had by now reconciled himself to emancipation.

The 1864 platform also called for amending the U.S. Constitution to “terminate and forever prohibit the existence of Slavery” not only within the rebellious states but everywhere “within the limits of the jurisdiction of the United States.”1 Abolitionists and radical Republicans had begun to press for such an amendment in the spring of 1863, partly to protect Lincoln’s proclamation against judicial attempts to nullify it as unconstitutional. But they also wanted to extend liberty to many legally unaffected by the proclamation or any other emancipatory measure. The destruction of slavery throughout the United States, they asserted, was essential to building a just society in the restored Union.2 By mid-1864, teams of northern women and men had collected almost four hundred thousand signatures on petitions supporting nationwide abolition.

The Republicans’ promise to support the amendment represented a major radicalization of the party program since 1860, when it had pledged only to prevent slavery’s expansion into the territories while promising solemnly not to touch the institution within any of the states. Two confiscation acts, an emancipation proclamation, the large-scale recruitment of black soldiers, and a series of other state and federal actions marked the road along which public (but especially Republican) opinion had traveled during the ensuing years of war.

The Democratic Party as a whole set itself determinedly against the proposed amendment, and in June that opposition deprived it of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass the U.S. House of Representatives.3 But events and much popular sentiment continued to press toward emancipation. Abolition was steadily advancing in border states and Union-occupied parts of the Confederacy where civilian antislavery forces had taken political power. By the summer of 1864, constitutional conventions had outlawed slavery in Maryland, Arkansas, and Louisiana; emancipation came to the new state of West Virginia and to occupied parts of Virginia proper through statute and decree.4

Lincoln’s own views about emancipation’s place in Union war policy were also evolving. Having initially depicted it strictly as a means to save the Union, Lincoln had now come to regard it as a war aim in its own right. He was thus asked in mid-1864 under what conditions he would consider negotiating with the Confederacy. Only, he replied, when Jefferson Davis consented in advance to both “the restoration of the Union” and the “abandonment of slavery.” In accepting his party’s renomination for the presidency, Lincoln endorsed the proposed amendment “in the joint names of Liberty and Union.”5 Undoubtedly influencing this change was the Union president’s growing appreciation for those thousands of “black men who … with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet” were serving in the Union army and navy.6

In private, Lincoln was going even further. Representatives of African American communities in both the North and Union-occupied parts of the South were pressing to make freedom for black people mean the same thing that it did for whites. That meant granting them the full rights of citizenship. In October 1864, a national convention of black men held in Syracuse, New York, called not only for the abolition of slavery throughout the United States, but also for equality before the law and voting rights for adult black males.7 Earlier that year, Lincoln had met with two black residents of New Orleans who urged that they and other black men in Louisiana be given the suffrage. A day after that meeting Lincoln gently and privately suggested that those attempting to erect a Union-loyal government in conquered portions of Louisiana grant the franchise to “the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.”8

As the Union’s military strength and commitment to emancipation grew, Robert E. Lee revised his strategic plans in light of the Confederacy’s weakened condition. The Army of Northern Virginia’s depleted ranks would no longer allow the kind of strategic offensives launched earlier, most notably in Kentucky, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Lee would now depend more heavily on the advantage of defensive postures to inflict as many casualties on Union forces as possible, hoping thereby to demoralize the northern population into sending a Democrat to the White House in November—a man more pliable than Lincoln and open to a negotiated peace that would leave the slaveholders’ republic intact and independent. “Every bullet we can send against the Yankees,” explained a Georgia newspaper at the start of the year, “is the best ballot that can be deposited against Lincoln’s election.”9

Lincoln’s new general in chief was planning a series of changes in the Union’s military effort as well. Like Lincoln, Grant had concluded early that Confederate forces were profiting from a lack of coordination among the larger Union armies. That failing had allowed Davis to take advantage of his interior lines to shuttle troops to whichever front was under the greatest pressure.

Confederate forces also benefited from the fact that combat had occurred only intermittently. Nearly all the fighting took place between early spring and late autumn, with both sides using the winter to rest, recuperate, and regroup. Even in good weather major battles were generally followed by more or less prolonged periods of quiescence. Grant understood that such disengagement took the pressure off Confederate forces and minimized the impact of the North’s numerical advantage, allowing the Confederacy to “furlough large numbers to go to their homes and do the work of producing for the support of their armies.”10

Grant therefore proposed to alter both patterns. He would initiate the “active and continuous operations of all the troops that could be brought into the field, regardless of season and weather.” In this way he aimed “to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources until, by mere attrition, if in no other way, there should be nothing left to him” but surrender.

To these two guidelines, Grant added a third: Whenever possible, systematically destroy the material resources—the potential sources of supply—that enemy armies depended upon and crack the morale of the secessionist population.11

Grant intended to implement these new policies in campaigns against the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee in Georgia and its Army of Northern Virginia in the Old Dominion. Still formally under the command of George Gordon Meade, who had led it to victory at Gettysburg, the Union Army of the Potomac would run Robert E. Lee’s army to the ground and subdue it. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters would travel with Meade’s army and, in fact, direct its operations. In the meantime, Sherman’s army, then camped in southeastern Tennessee, would link up with two other smaller ones and then move against the Confederate Army of Tennessee, by now led by Joseph Johnston, pulverize it, and then proceed farther southward into Georgia. Grant assigned supporting roles to smaller Union armies in western and eastern Virginia and Louisiana (under the commands of Generals Franz Sigel, Benjamin Butler, and Nathaniel Banks, respectively) to keep up the pressure, thereby preventing the Confederacy from concentrating all its forces against the two biggest Union armies.12

The North now pinned on Grant the kind of extravagant hopes that it had placed upon George B. McClellan a few years earlier. And at first, those expectations seemed on the verge of fulfillment. By May 1864 northern newspapers were cheering that “the Virginia campaign approaches a Glorious consummation” and even that “Lee’s army as an effective force has practically ceased to exist.”13

Once again, however, military events dispelled illusions that the end of the war was nigh. Instead, Confederate officers and men managed to stall Union progress for crucial months.

Sherman’s men began their march through the hills of southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia in May 1864. They were bound for Atlanta, a rail hub linking together much of the Confederacy east of the Mississippi and a key administrative and logistical supply center that produced or stored ammunition, firearms, cannons, saddles, flour, railroad rails, and other key items. Robert E. Lee believed that the safety of all Confederate forces “on the Atlantic” depended upon holding Georgia.14

To hold it, General Joseph E. Johnston had resupplied, reimposed discipline upon, and raised the esprit of the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the depths to which it had fallen after Chattanooga. One of its soldiers now told his sister that he “never saw the army in such fine spirits”; all were now “hopeful and confident.”15

As Sherman’s troops headed southward, Johnston repeatedly placed his army across their path, dug in, and dared the Union force to attack. But the Union commander, determined to avoid the costly losses that frontal assault had usually incurred, instead launched a series of flanking attacks. In response to each of these, Johnston pulled his men back just far enough southward along the tracks of the Western and Atlantic Railroad to protect that supply line and avoid encirclement. And the same dance steps would then repeat.

Johnston’s delaying tactics, plus difficult terrain and weather, slowed Sherman’s progress toward Atlanta considerably. “If we can keep this up,” a Confederate captain assayed in early July, “we win.”16 The Richmond Sentinel thought so, too: “Time is victory to us and death to our enemies.”17

In the third week of June, Sherman’s patience gave out. Frustrated at the slow pace of his advance and his failure to deal a mortal blow to the Army of Tennessee, Sherman sent his men on a frontal assault across a third of a mile against a strong Confederate position on the seven-hundred-foot-high Kennesaw Mountain.18 The assault failed bloodily, at the cost of three thousand casualties while imposing only a sixth as many upon the Confederates. Atlanta applauded. Sherman, announced one newspaper there, “has been successfully halted in his mad career and Gen. Johnston has said to him, ‘Thus far shall thou come, and no further.’ ”19

In the meantime, Grant, Meade, and their Army of the Potomac had crossed the Rapidan River in northern Virginia and in May 1864 entered a dense, fifteen-to-twenty-mile-deep forest near Chancellorsville known as the Wilderness. Lee’s men pounced on Union troops before they could make their way out of the woods, relying upon the thicket to slow the enemy down and thin out his lines. Federal casualties in that battle were 50 percent higher than Confederate.

Instead of disengaging and pulling back, however, this time the Army of the Potomac resumed the offensive, moving around Lee’s right flank toward Richmond. The two armies clashed again at Spotsylvania Court House in nearly two weeks of bloody combat. Grant pushed Lee’s lines back but could not break them, and Union casualties were once more half again as great as those of the enemy. Mistakenly believing that the Army of Northern Virginia was by now not only weakened but demoralized as well, on June 3 Grant tried simply throwing three corps of Union infantry directly at Confederate defenses at Cold Harbor. The result was a calamitous repulse, and Union losses were this time almost five times those of the Confederacy.

Grant’s steady pressure had nonetheless brought both armies to the outskirts of Richmond. Grant now sought to surprise Lee with a strategic flanking maneuver, keeping his foe preoccupied with a distracting demonstration on the north side of the James River while leading the bulk of his army on a long swing around Lee’s right flank and across the river to its southern bank. Grant would then catch Lee unawares by thrusting northward through Richmond’s neighboring city of Petersburg, striking the unsuspecting Army of Northern Virginia from the rear.

Much went according to plan. Grant successfully flanked Lee and crossed the James undetected on June 12, 1864. Benjamin Butler’s army then joined Grant’s on the outskirts of Petersburg. But the subsequent attacks on the Petersburg defenses were poorly coordinated, and the Union troops—badly shaken by the enormous losses sustained to date in the campaign—demonstrated little ardor. The relatively small force that Lee had placed in Petersburg under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard therefore managed to hold off Grant’s advance guard long enough for reinforcements to arrive from the main army at Richmond.

Union hopes for a dramatic, decisive breakthrough in Virginia had thus been disappointed once again. Magnifying that disappointment was the huge number of casualties that Grant’s forces had sustained. While Lee had lost more than 30,000 men in these clashes, Grant’s army lost anywhere from 55,000 to 65,000.20

Such was the bleak news for the Union that newspapers carried northward in mid-1864. In both Georgia and Virginia, federal armies were bleeding badly while making little dramatic progress against the enemy. Public spirits in the North collapsed back into the depths they had plumbed a year earlier, before the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Reciprocally, a new surge of Confederate optimism carried North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance to a lopsided reelection victory in midsummer over his opponent, the newspaper editor and peace candidate William W. Holden. Vance garnered about four-fifths of the civilian vote, leaving Holden with a majority only in three of the state’s most consistently anti-secessionist counties.21 Vance owed his triumph not only to the revival of Confederate military fortunes that season. As a persistent critic of the Richmond government, he could evade blame for the Confederacy’s failures and impositions on its citizens—and even associate himself with popular resentment of them. At the same time, his racially charged campaign shrilly warned the voters that reunification with the North would bring emancipation, and emancipation would surely mean black equality.22

By summer’s end, Confederate triumphalists were in full cry. “Who [is] so blind,” one Virginian demanded, “as not to be able to see the hand of a merciful and protective God” in accomplishing this “wonderful deliverance of our army and people from the most powerful conflagrations ever planned for our destruction!”23 A Richmond editor assured readers that within six months “the armies of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan” might well be “almost annihilated.” Indeed, the journalist enthused, “six weeks hence, instead of waging defensive warfare, we may be invading the enemy’s soil, and carrying out offensive warfare.”24 More sober-minded slaveholders and their allies began once again to hope that the Union’s military problems in Virginia and Georgia would at least discourage the North enough to doom Lincoln’s reelection campaign that fall and place a more pliable man in the White House.

Having failed to outflank Lee’s army at Petersburg, Ulysses S. Grant settled down into a siege of that city and the Confederate capital—a siege that would last a full ten months. The grisliest moment of the campaign occurred in its first phase. During June and July of 1864, Pittsburgh hard-coal miners serving in the Forty-Eighth Pennsylvania regiment dug a five-hundred-foot-long tunnel that began behind Union lines and ended under those of Lee’s army. At the end of the tunnel they planted four tons of gunpowder. Just before 5 A.M. on July 30, 1864, they detonated the mine.

The explosion was terrific. It blew tons of dirt and timber into the air and killed or wounded some 350 men. Union commanders then ordered three divisions of unprepared and badly led troops to charge through the breach torn in the Confederate defenses. The blue-clad soldiers did so but haplessly headed straight into the crater that the explosion had dug. Unable to climb out of it, they clawed futilely at its walls and milled about helplessly while Confederate troops recovered from the shock, regrouped, and counterattacked. The trapped Union troops died like fish in a barrel.

One of the units on the Union siege lines was the Twenty-Eighth Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), in which Garland White then served as chaplain. When the crater swallowed the first wave of Union troops ordered forward that day, commanders could think of nothing else to do but order White’s regiment and thousands of other black soldiers in after them. Those men had by then seen enough to guess what lay in store. Before the assault, a number requested that chaplain White write to their families and assure them that their relatives had died bravely.25 The black troops then dutifully charged forward, but many of them, too, were soon driven into the crater.

What followed was probably the worst massacre of African American soldiers to occur during the war. Claiming that the black infantrymen had proclaimed “no quarter” during their initial charge, Confederate troops from Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama now butchered them by the score. John S. Wise, ex-governor Henry Wise’s son, was a young Confederate soldier in Petersburg that day. “It was the first time Lee’s army had encountered negroes,” he wrote later, “and their presence excited in the troops indignant malice.… Inflamed,” they “disregarded the rules of warfare which restrained them in battle with their own race, and brained and butchered the blacks until the slaughter was sickening.”26 “As soon as we got upon them,” Confederate artillery colonel William Pegram recalled, “they threw down their arms in surrender, but were not allowed to do so.… This was perfectly right, as a matter of policy,” Pegram declared, and had “a splendid effect on our men.”

A conservative estimate holds that almost a thousand black soldiers were killed that day, perhaps half of them after surrendering or while trying to surrender.27

Northern Peace Democrats were hardly bothered by the killing of black Union troops, but they hammered away at the apparent lack of military success on the Petersburg front and the high price being paid in the blood of northern white soldiers. The Confederacy was obviously unbeatable, they trumpeted, and the Republican government was prolonging the war simply “to serve its own unrighteous ends”—that is, emancipation.28 The South stands upon the verge of victory, declared one Democratic newspaper, while Lincoln stands “between the people and an honorable peace.”29

The Democratic Party held its national convention in Chicago in the last days of August, nearly two months after the Republicans’ gathering. Democratic delegates, like their party, were divided into “War” and “Peace” wings—divided, that is, over whether or not to prosecute the war until the Confederacy was destroyed. The convention tried to bridge the rift by emphasizing a shared opposition to emancipation.

Members of the Peace wing wrote the party platform. It demanded “immediate efforts” to stop the fighting in the expectation that “an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means” could then reunite the country “at the earliest practicable moment.”30 A cease-fire first, in other words, to be followed eventually by negotiations of some sort to restore the Union peacefully.

That platform pleased Alexander Stephens. He was confident, and rightly so, that during any such armistice, the Union population’s commitment to the war would drain away. In negotiations conducted after fighting had ceased, Confederates would make it clear that reunion was “out of the question.” So the talks would break down and Confederate independence would become permanent. No wonder Stephens’s brother called the Peace Democrats’ platform “a ray of light.”31

War Democrats, in contrast, recognized that only military defeat could compel Confederate leaders to give up the rebellion, and they therefore opposed that platform. To placate them, the convention gave the party’s presidential nomination to one of their number—ex-general George B. McClellan, who promised to prosecute the war until reunion was achieved but without wielding the weapon of emancipation.

What would a McClellan victory in November 1864 mean? What effect would the electoral triumph of a man who vociferously denounced emancipation and who was publicly identified as the “peace candidate” have on the morale of Republican-minded troops and civilians, the most dedicated and unswerving supporters of the Union war effort? What impact would it have on the Union’s ability and willingness to continue that effort into the winter of 1864–65 and beyond?

Such questions weighed on Abraham Lincoln’s mind. By the end of the summer, flagging war spirit in the Union populace had led him to doubt that he would be reelected in November; a great number of his friends and advisers concurred. The worried president reviewed his apparently dwindling options. A McClellan triumph, Lincoln felt sure, would have grave consequences for the Union. For if his Democratic opponent should conquer at the polls, Lincoln believed, “he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save [the Union] afterwards.”32

But Lincoln would not seek to avoid electoral defeat by sacrificing his party’s platform. He would not offer peace on any terms other than reunion and emancipation. As he had instructed his secretary of state to say some months earlier, there were now two conditions for peace: “The Union must be maintained,” and “African slavery must cease to exist.”33 Were he to renege on the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote in August, he could not “escape the curse of Heaven, or of any good man.” More practically, such an announcement would kill all recruitment of black soldiers and lead those already in the ranks to desert. “And rightfully, too,” Lincoln judged. For “why should they give their lives for us, with full notice of our purpose to betray them?” That path led, Lincoln believed, to the Union’s military defeat. “Take from us, and give to the enemy, the hundred and thirty, forty, or fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers,” he said, “and we can not longer maintain the contest.”34

The Confederacy did all it could to bring on the Republican electoral defeat that Lincoln feared. Everything hung on its armies’ ability to protract the summer’s seeming stalemates until the Union’s election day arrived. Lee was able to do that at Petersburg. But things went differently in Georgia.

After the costly frontal assaults he ordered at Kennesaw Mountain, a chastened William Tecumseh Sherman abandoned those aggressive tactics and returned to flanking maneuvers. And with them he continued to press Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee steadily southward. On July 10, 1864, his soldiers began to cross the Chattahoochee River, the last natural barrier between them and Atlanta, now only some five miles away.35

Johnston’s deliberate, cautious defensive tactics had slowed Sherman’s advance, but they had won him no points in Richmond. Jefferson Davis disliked and distrusted Johnston and had given him command of the Army of Tennessee only with the greatest reluctance. The Confederate president and cabinet were now sure that much more could have been accomplished in Georgia by a more aggressive commander. Davis decided to remove Johnston on July 17, 1864, replacing him with John Bell Hood, a general with a well-earned reputation as a tough and hard-charging fighter.

But Hood’s elevation to command proved a bad mistake. His penchant for aggressive tactics regardless of circumstances swiftly yielded severe and costly defeats for his army. In nine days Sherman soundly defeated Hood three times in head-to-head combat, in the process inflicting terrible casualties upon Hood’s forces. Desertion once again grew rampant in the Army of Tennessee.36 And then, in the last week of August, as Lincoln contemplated defeat in the coming election, Sherman’s men cut Hood’s supply lines and threatened him with encirclement. The Army of Tennessee fled Atlanta on the night of September 1 and 2, 1864, after torching part of the city to deny its use to the Yankees. Sherman’s troops marched in on September 3.37

The consequences of Atlanta’s fall transcended even the city’s considerable military importance. Newspapers in both North and South had focused public attention on the fate of that important center, and many people on both sides had come to see the contest as a microcosm of the war as a whole and a harbinger of its likely outcome. Charles Colcock Jones’s son John judged the loss of Atlanta to be “the greatest blow of the war,” adding that “without special divine interposition we are a ruined people.”38 Mary Chesnut, following developments from Charleston, concluded, “We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth.”39

In hopes of restoring calm and élan, Jefferson Davis boarded a train for Georgia in late September. Union control of Atlanta forced him to take a circuitous route, along which he addressed supporters seeking reassurance.40 He promised listeners in Macon that the Union army in Georgia would soon overextend its supply lines. And when that welcome day arrived, Sherman, just like Napoléon in Russia in 1812, would begin a terrible retreat from which he would “escape with only a bodyguard.”41

Davis finally reached the headquarters of Hood’s army, twenty miles to Atlanta’s southwest, on September 25, 1864. This was his third visit to the Army of Tennessee since 1862. In both 1862 and 1863, the soldiers he reviewed had cheered him lustily. This time they saluted him somberly and in silence.42

On the surface, however, much of the Confederate elite seemed blissfully untroubled. “Never,” according to a letter published in a Montgomery, Alabama, newspaper, “were parties more numerous” among the First Families than in the winter of 1864–65. And “never were the theaters and places of public amusement so resorted to.” After a “brief abstinence,” moreover, “the love of dress, the display of jewelry and costly attire, the extravagance and folly” now seemed greater than ever.43 No matter the disasters occurring without, recorded Mary Chesnut, “we are—in this house—like the outsiders at the time of the Flood. We care for nothing of these things. We eat, drink, laugh, dance, in lightness of heart!!”44 In Richmond, Sallie Putnam saw “a reckless expenditure of money, and a disposition to indulge in extravagances at whatever cost.”45

To Virginia’s Sara Agnes Rice Pryor, this “disposition to revel in times of danger and suffering” seemed “passing strange.”46 But South Carolina’s Grace Elmore understood that “utter abandonment to the pleasure of the present” allowed “shutting out for the moment the horrors that surround us.”47 In fact, the splendid balls and other social events that members of the elite threw for themselves looked like nothing so much as tableaus out of another Edgar Allan Poe tale—“The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the wealthiest residents of a plague-ridden land seek desperately to keep their terror at bay with expensive entertainments and fabulous food and drink. More than one witness drew the same parallel. “Florence was never so gay,” noted Sarah Pryor, “as during the Plague!”48 In Texas, a displaced Katherine Stone observed, “The refugees remind me of the description of the life of the nobility of France lived during the days of the French Revolution—thrusting all the cares and tragedies of life aside and drinking deep of life’s joys while it lasted.”49

Stunning the white South, Sherman’s victory at Atlanta transformed the political atmosphere in the North as well. “The political skies begin to brighten,” reported a relieved New York Times. “The clouds that lowered over the Union cause a month ago are breaking away.”50 Helping to brighten the skies was good news arriving from other fronts. A week before the taking of Atlanta, Union naval and land forces had closed the blockade-running port of Mobile, Alabama. And in September and October, Philip H. Sheridan’s troops repeatedly overwhelmed Jubal A. Early’s in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ultimately sending the enemy troops into what a Confederate observer considered “one of the most shameful and disgraceful stampedes on record.” A Louisiana captain thought it “equal to the First Manassa stampede,” but with men in gray now doing the running.51

Even in Virginia, the Union’s situation was far more favorable than most northerners had recognized. In driving the Army of Northern Virginia back into the Richmond and Petersburg defenses in June, Grant had placed Lee’s army under siege, a position that the southern general had long dreaded. During the summer and fall of 1864, Lee’s position deteriorated. As the Union’s Army of the Potomac slowly grew in numbers, Grant was able to steadily lengthen his siege lines around Richmond and Petersburg, compelling Lee’s smaller army to match him yard by yard, mile by mile, stretching its thin lines ever thinner.

With their confidence in Republican leadership restored, especially by Sherman’s success in Georgia, Union voters reelected Abraham Lincoln by a comfortable margin that November. The official count gave him an edge of about four hundred thousand votes over McClellan, or a majority of 55 percent. McClellan carried only one free state (New Jersey) and two loyal slave states (Delaware and Kentucky). Allowing for ballot irregularities, the Republicans probably garnered about the same share of the vote in the free states that they had won in 1860.

Considering the amount of blood and treasure that the war effort had cost—and especially how the administration’s war program had radicalized—over the intervening four years, this outcome registered an important set of changes in the northern population’s sentiments.52 In 1864, a majority of northern voters endorsed and strengthened the hand of the party that was bent on the Confederacy’s unconditional surrender, the party of the Emancipation Proclamation, the party now committed to freedom for all slaves throughout the United States. With that election, Secretary of State William H. Seward observed, “the country has safely passed the turning-point in the revolutionary movement against slavery.”53 Lincoln also proved to have long coattails: As a result of those elections, the Republican Party controlled about four out of every five seats in both houses of Congress, regained all the state legislatures it lost in 1862, and controlled the governor’s office in every Union state but New Jersey.

Southern hopes of securing Confederate independence electorally, by going around Lincoln and his party, vanished. “There is no use in disguising the fact,” sighed Confederate ordnance chief Josiah Gorgas, “that our subjugation is popular at the North.”54

During Jefferson Davis’s visit to Georgia two months earlier, in September 1864, General John Bell Hood had outlined the grandiose plans he had formulated for his badly weakened army. He would move north and west into Alabama and Tennessee, threatening Sherman’s railroad link to his supply base in Chattanooga, and hoping thereby to pull Sherman’s army after him and away from its intended line of march (to Georgia’s coast and then northward toward Robert E. Lee in Richmond and Petersburg). Hood would recruit additional troops in Tennessee and then turn eastward in order to rendezvous with and reinforce Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

At first, in early October, it looked as though at least part of that plan would succeed. Sherman did begin to turn and pursue the retreating Hood. But the Union general then reconsidered. He didn’t need a supply line, he decided. He and his men could plow ahead into Georgia, living off the rich low-country land much as both he and Grant had done in Mississippi the previous year. His army would “cripple their resources” and “make Georgia howl”55—both deprive the Confederacy of the state’s war-making resources and drive home to civilians that continuing the rebellion would carry a big price tag.

Sherman dispatched a portion of his command under General George H. Thomas to deal with the Army of Tennessee. At the end of November, Hood clashed with part of Thomas’s force at the town of Franklin. The Confederate commander ordered a grand charge against the Union works across a half mile of open ground. The result was a predictable disaster for the South. Confederate casualties exceeded six thousand, including five generals wounded, one captured, and six (including Patrick Cleburne) killed. Federal losses were only about a third as large. About two weeks later, Thomas attacked Hood’s army at Nashville and smashed it. What was left of it—some eighteen thousand beaten and demoralized men—retreated farther westward into Mississippi.

In the middle of November 1864, meanwhile, Sherman and the bulk of his army began their long and destructive march to Savannah and the Georgia coast. Before leaving Atlanta, however, they emptied it of its civilian population and deliberately destroyed much of what the retreating Army of Tennessee had left standing, determined to leave behind as little as possible to whatever Confederate force might later return. As Sherman’s troops filed out of the burning city, the general later recalled in his memoirs, “some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of ‘John Brown’s soul goes marching on.’ ” Soldiers “caught up the strain,” their commander recalled, “and never before or since have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’ done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.”56

Sherman’s army proceeded to cut a wide swath through the lower two-thirds of Georgia. Marching along four parallel roads, his men began to lay waste to a strip of countryside sixty miles wide and eventually three hundred miles long. They destroyed buildings, farm equipment, wagons, crops—anything that might aid the Confederate war effort. With the Army of Tennessee out of the way, there was little to impede them. Georgia’s state militia tried feebly, as did Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry and small groups of Confederate infantry. Sherman’s army accepted the surrender of Savannah, on the Atlantic coast, on December 21, 1864.

Today Sherman’s march is remembered almost solely for the physical destruction it wrought. But those Union soldiers destroyed more than buildings, crops, and farm implements. Wherever they went they broke the power of the secessionist government, the slaveholders’ social order, and most of whatever fighting spirit remained among Confederate partisans.57 One Georgia farmer reported to Jefferson Davis that “if the question were put to the people of this state, whether to continue the war or return to the union, a large majority would vote for a return”—and would do so even “if emancipation was the condition.”58

As Confederate loyalists in Georgia lowered their heads, white unionists—silenced or in hiding for more than three years—raised theirs. And black people who had known only bondage since birth saw a road to freedom open before their eyes.

The process had begun as soon as Sherman’s troops entered northern Georgia back in the spring of 1864. Unionists rushed to them from the surrounding hills, almost a thousand strong in the town of Jasper alone, where they formed a loyal home guard unit and prepared for the arrival of hundreds more recruits from surrounding counties.59 Other hill-country unionists took advantage of the collapse of Confederate power to make their way to the rear, to the more secure Union bastions of eastern Tennessee, taking with them as much of their property as they could carry.60

Slaves also greeted Sherman’s soldiers as they entered the state—and in steadily larger numbers as the army moved south toward the low country.61 They came on foot or on horses, cows, wagons, carts, and whatever other type of vehicle could be found or taken from their masters. By the time the army reached Atlanta, somewhere between ten thousand and twenty thousand refugees were following behind it.62

That army’s commander felt little affection for them, however. William Tecumseh Sherman despised black people and felt no distaste for slavery. He had lived much of his adult life in the South, where he had owned slaves himself. He believed implicitly in “the strong attachment between master and slave,”63 and was still claiming in the summer of 1862 that “not one nigger in ten wants to run off.”64 Though the general’s loyalty to the Union was absolute, he had strongly opposed the Second Confiscation Act as well as Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom.

Sherman had eventually come to accept emancipation as a war measure, but his racial animus remained. He was happy to make use of black labor, and about a thousand men, most of them recently emancipated field slaves, performed a range of tasks for his army as it pushed toward Atlanta.65 Other black refugees served as guides, foraged, cooked, cleaned, and brought intelligence and whatever foodstuffs they could from their masters’ larders.66 But Sherman refused to enlist such men as soldiers or to allow black men already in Union ranks to serve with him. He stubbornly resisted attempts by Halleck, Grant, and even Lincoln to permit black recruitment along his line of march through Georgia.67 He could not, he said, “bring myself to trust negroes with arms in positions of danger and trust.”68 They were not brave and were incapable of the kind of independent initiative that soldiers needed.69

Sherman’s concerns went far beyond the soldierly capabilities of black men. He also worried about the social consequences of placing them in uniform. The general declared himself reconciled to the fact that “we are in a Revolution” and to the notion that “the negro should be a free man.”70 But black people did not deserve “an equality with whites.”71

Sherman made no secret of his views, a fact that encouraged those of his men who shared them. Not all did, of course. Many appreciated the welcome that black Georgians gave them and former slaves’ evident love for and support of the Union cause. They also admired fugitives’ willingness to endure great hardship in pursuit of freedom. But others freely and loudly announced their hatred for blacks—a hatred that fostered callousness and sometimes brutality. As Sherman’s army cut through Georgia between Atlanta and the Atlantic coast, many of his soldiers plundered or destroyed the meager belongings of slaves as readily as they did the far greater wealth of the masters. Few helped infirm or older black refugees struggling to match the army’s pace.

In early December, the Fourteenth Corps crossed a deep and fast-moving creek near Savannah by marching over portable pontoon bridges. After reaching the other side, the Union commander ordered his troops to immediately pull up the bridges. That trapped most of the refugees who had been following them alone and unarmed on the other bank, vulnerable to vengeful rebel cavalry and militia. Terrified, men, women, and children threw themselves into the icy water, desperately trying to escape. Some of them drowned. Others were apparently killed by pursuing Confederates.72 “The waters of the Ogeechee and Ebenezer Creek can account for hundreds … abandoned … after being encouraged ‘to gwine along,’ ” according to a Union captain. Others “died in the bayous and lagoons of Georgia.”73

And occasionally Union soldiers did worse. One tired and resentful soldier, seeing a freedman asleep by the side of the road, shot the man and cursed, “Take that you damned Niger and see if you’ll sleep again while I have to march.” Later, when they reached Beaufort, South Carolina, some of Sherman’s troops attacked a group of black soldiers and civilians, leaving two or three dead and more wounded.74

To put it mildly, Sherman’s army sent out mixed signals to their black would-be friends and companions. But still they came. “Although the Negroes have suffered every form of injury from the enemy in their persons and property,” Georgia plantation mistress Mary Jones noted in bemusement, “yet they regard them as their best friends.”75 Warned by masters that the Yankees would kill them, some blacks told Union troops that they “preferred death by Yanks than longer to live with their cruel masters, in slavery.”76

Decisions like these shocked some masters, including Savannah’s Mrs. H. J. Wayne. As Sherman approached, she tried to refugee her slaves, many of whom had promised to accompany her wherever she went. Unlike the Old Testament’s Ruth, however, they did not make good on that pledge. As Wayne hastily departed the city, “every one of my negroes left me,” she wrote.77 Her experience was not unusual.78 Although some house servants helped owners to hide valuables from Sherman’s soldiers, others proved just as eager to reveal them.79

At the end of November, one of Gertrude Thomas’s slaves, a man named Henry, left her plantation. The next morning Henry, now wearing a Union uniform, returned with federal troops “and showed them the place in which Uncle Sykes (our Negro driver) had concealed the Horses and mules.” Thomas consoled herself that of all her servants only Henry had turned on her. But soon she learned that her heretofore faithful coachman had vanished, too.80 A month later she was wondering if she would “have any servants … when another Christmas comes around.”81

Many Atlanta masters would have envied Thomas’s small servant problem. According to a disapproving Union soldier, black people in Atlanta celebrated the first night after Sherman’s arrival with a rampage through the city, “smashing the windows, doors, and furniture of every description.” They “broke the china-ware, smashed the pianos, and annihilated the chairs, tables and bedsteads. They cut open the beds, and emptied the contents into the streets. They dashed into the cellars, and drank all the liquors.”

Captain George Pepper disdained the conduct of this “drunken and furious mob.”82 He could not identify with the pent-up resentment and fury of people forced to wait hand and foot, day after day, year after year, on those who owned them, beat them, and held over them the power of life and death. A house servant named Louisa would have understood better. Her master’s house, she told another Union officer just outside Savannah, “ought to be burned” because “there has been so much devilment here, whipping niggers most to death to make ’em work.”83

The path of Sherman’s army, as another of its generals noted accurately, led through a part of the Confederacy “never before visited by a Union soldier.”84 But everywhere that army went, Georgia slaves made it clear that they understood exactly why the war was occurring and what was at stake in it, sometimes down to the smallest political details.85 An elderly couple was determined to leave their owner, despite his entreaties and attempts by Union soldiers to dissuade them. “We must go,” the two insisted, for “freedom is as sweet to us as it is to you.”86

Sherman personally encountered evidence of that knowledge and understanding. After leaving Atlanta, he came across an elderly black man in the town of Covington. As Sherman recalled in his memoirs, he asked the man “if he understood about the war and its progress.” The freedman replied that even though the Yankees “professed to be fighting for the Union, he supposed that slavery was the cause, and that our success was to be his freedom.” He assured Sherman that all the slaves he knew held the same view of things.87 Two hundred miles to the south, in Savannah, Sherman would hear similar things from a spokesman for that city’s black population, who also proved strikingly well informed about the war’s origins and the policies of both sides.88

Sherman’s opinion of black people—and even the way some of his soldiers treated them—was less important in shaping their decisions than what they knew his army meant to their future. But the general’s contempt for blacks and his refusal to enlist them in his army deeply dismayed sections of the Republican Party. Union cabinet member Salmon P. Chase, a fellow Ohioan who had previously sought to advance Sherman’s career, advised the general that his racial views and “the apparent harshness of your actions towards the blacks” were becoming a scandal.89 General Henry W. Halleck, who sympathized with Sherman’s opinions, suggested the general disarm Republican critics by giving “escaped slaves … at least a partial supply of food in the rice-fields about Savannah, and cotton plantations on the coast.”90

On January 7, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton boarded the ship Nevada and sailed down to Georgia to confer with the general about his relations with the freedpeople. Stanton’s own views had evolved over time from those of a typical War Democrat to those of a radical Republican. In Savannah he asked Sherman to arrange a meeting with leaders of the black population to discuss their fate and that of the thousands of refugees who had followed Sherman’s forces.91

On Thursday evening, January 12, 1865, at 8 P.M., the two men and some other officers met at Sherman’s headquarters with twenty black men, fifteen of whom were former slaves. Nine of those fifteen had obtained their freedom only with the arrival of Sherman’s army. According to General Oliver O. Howard, the men included barbers, ships’ pilots, sailors, ministers, and some that he called plantation “overseers” (but who were more likely drivers). Nearly all were connected with one or another black church. One of those was William Gaines, a Methodist preacher who, like Garland White, had been owned by Robert Toombs’s family until the Union army freed him.92

As the meeting began, the twenty black men distributed themselves around the room. Sherman stood near the fireplace, and Stanton sat at a table and began to take notes.93 The general and secretary had a list of questions for the men and asked them to select a spokesman who would reply. They chose Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister. Sixty-seven years of age, the North Carolina–born Frazier had been a slave until eight years before, when he managed to buy freedom for himself and his wife.

For the two northerners, the most important question of the day was what to do with the thousands of refugees who had followed Sherman’s army to Savannah and the coast. What would it take to detach them from the general’s moving columns? Rev. Frazier answered clearly and concisely. “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” he said, “is to have land, and turn in and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.”94

After the meeting ended, Stanton and Sherman produced Special Field Orders No. 15, which set aside abandoned cotton and rice plantations of coastal South Carolina and Georgia—from Charleston southward to Jacksonville and along the rivers for thirty miles inland—for the exclusive occupation of black people.95 It also established procedures by which those people might acquire “possessory” (which proved to mean “temporary”) title to forty-acre plots. As a result, some twenty thousand freedpeople came for a time into possession of some one hundred thousand acres by the end of the war.96 Once again, the logic of events had induced an unlikely individual to advance the interests of the former slaves.

Elsewhere in the Confederacy, meanwhile, the direct struggle between masters and bondspeople escalated. South Carolina’s Adele Petigru Allston learned from her overseer in mid-July 1864 that a slave named Stephen had taken his family and fled by boat from her coastal Chicora Wood rice plantation. Their successful escape, the overseer added, was now encouraging “a goodeal of obstanetry in Some of the People.” Allston decided to respond harshly. She ordered Stephen’s aged parents, Mary and James, to be confined in “some secure jail in the interior and held as hostages for the conduct of their children.” The same should be done to all “the old people whose children have deserted.” Only when they learn “that they will be held responsible for the behavior of their children” would “the older negroes” try “to influence the younger ones to order and subordination while this war lasts.”97

But plantation discipline continued nonetheless to erode. A few months later, Allston’s overseer again informed her that her slaves “doant seem to care to obay orders.” It was the job of the enslaved driver, a man named Jack, to help the overseer to enforce compliance. But Jack had now become part of the problem. In the overseer’s words, Jack was “not behaveing write.… He doant talk write among the People.”98

Slavery was showing signs of decay even in distant Texas. Southern masters had refugeed an estimated 150,000 slaves into the state by the end of 1864.99 The Union’s seizure of the Mississippi River in mid-1863 had isolated Texas from the bulk of the Confederacy and spared it most of the ravages of war since then. It had also redirected Texans’ trade from the rest of the South to Mexico—and especially to the city of Matamoros, which was both close to the Gulf coast and just a mile south of Brownsville.100 At the end of 1864, a Galveston newspaper noted that many Texas “planters and traders” regularly visited Matamoros, taking with them “their trusty negroes”—those slaves they considered “too faithful and trustworthy, too much attached to his master to quit him under any circumstances.”

But slavery was illegal in Mexico, a fact that made Matamoros a dangerous influence on the Texans’ human property, no matter how apparently loyal and trustworthy they appeared. Proof of that, said the editor, was the fact that Matamoros’s streets were today “overrunning” with such “trusty, now insolent, negroes.” Even the slave who did not use the visit to Matamoros simply to slip away from his owner still saw “too much, [heard] too much in Matamoros, and [talked] too much” when he returned to Confederate Texas and thereby sowed “the seeds of Matamoros freedom throughout the nigger neighborhood.”101

The accumulation of reports like these—and personal experience—compelled even Virginia planter and proslavery ideologue Edmund Ruffin to revise some of his most long-held views about that subject by the end of 1864. “I had before believed in the general prevalence of much attachment & affection of negro slaves for the families of their masters,” he wrote in his diary, “& especially in the more usual circumstances of careful & kind treatment of the slaves.” But the war experience had shattered that assumption. “Though some few cases of great attachment & fidelity have been exhibited,” he now confessed, “there have been many more of signal ingratitude & treachery of slaves to the most considerate & kind of masters—& the far greater number have merely shown indifference & entire disregard of all such supposed ties of attachment & loyalty.”102

Plantation mistresses Mary Jones and Mary Chesnut bemoaned more succinctly the advancing collapse of their society amid this second American revolution. “Clouds and darkness are round about us,” Jones sighed, and “the hand of the Almighty is laid in sore judgment upon us; we are a desolate and smitten people.… At present the foundations of society are broken up; what hereafter is to be our social and civil status we cannot see.”103 An image that filled Mary Chesnut’s thoughts seemed to have been plucked from the end of Poe’s “House of Usher”—she felt “the deep waters closing over us.”104

While Confederate slave owners grieved over their loss of mastery, Confederate soldiers were leaving the ranks in greater numbers than ever. During his fall 1864 visit to Georgia, Jefferson Davis publicly complained that “two thirds of our men are absent, some sick, some wounded, but most of them absent without leave.”105 He probably exaggerated a bit, but only a bit. The proportion absent from the Army of Tennessee was about one-half; from Lee’s army, perhaps three-fifths.106

Like nearly everyone else in the Confederacy, Lee’s soldiers in 1864 had one eye on Atlanta and the other on the Union presidential elections in November. Setbacks in both dropped morale to previously unplumbed depths, and desertion rates shot upward.107 Far more men than ever before, moreover, were deserting the ranks in the conviction that the war was already lost. And a growing number were individually surrendering to Union soldiers. General Meade estimated that, by the middle of September, men abandoning Lee’s army were entering his lines at the rate of ten per night.108

Things were no better once again even in the faraway, relatively pacific Trans-Mississippi Department. Desertion there had reached dangerous proportions by the summer of 1864 and grew only worse during the fall and winter that followed. In November, department commander E. Kirby Smith began to conduct daily executions of deserters, but even that failed to stem the exodus.109

Some deserters surrendered to Union forces. Others managed to return to their own homes unmolested. Still others joined the armed bands that continued to bedevil Confederate officials in a number of states. In North Carolina, the secretive Heroes of America suffered a blow in the summer of 1864 when newspapers published the names of a number of individual members and accused them of treason. That frightened many into confessions and public repudiations of the group.110 But the failure of William W. Holden’s gubernatorial campaign in late July and early August, dashing hopes for a negotiated early end to the war, apparently pushed new recruits and injected new life into the guerrillas.111 So did the fact, as Governor Vance learned, that “Holdenite” North Carolina troops were deserting from Lee’s army and returning to the state’s central piedmont region.112

In response to the renewed insurgent threat, Vance mobilized eighteen home guard battalions against the armed deserters.113 He again employed severe tactics to suppress the insurgents, including making hostages of women and children until husbands and fathers turned themselves in. And such tactics once more chalked up successes. By the end of September 1864, perhaps a thousand guerrillas had been caught or induced to surrender.114 But the popular sentiments that sustained the dissidents remained as strong and widespread as ever. “I can hardly give you an adequate conception,” Vance told fellow governor Joseph E. Brown in mid-January 1865, “of the general despondency and gloom which prevails among us.”115 A North Carolinian who signed her letter simply as “A Poor Woman” appealed to her governor in that month to bring a cruel and hopeless war to an end. “You know as well as you have a head that it is impossible to whip they Yankees,” she told Vance, and “there fore I beg you for God sake to try to make peace on some terms.… I believe slavery is doomed to dy out that god is agoing to liberate niggers and fighting any longer is agoing against God.”116

Brown was wrestling with even bigger problems in Georgia. Even as Sherman’s army cut through that state, “robber bands of deserters” from southern armies were looting plantations, and Confederate cavalrymen were stealing horses and generally wreaking havoc among pro-Confederate citizens.117 “The time appears rapidly approaching,” plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas wrote in her diary, “when we have almost as much to dread from our own demoralized mob as from the public enemy.”118

The fall of 1864 found Jefferson Davis’s home state also overrun with deserters. “At a time when the wants of the country require every man to be at his post,” his secretary of war fumed, “the highest military crime, desertion, is committed almost with impunity” in Mississippi. Deserters seemed to have no “difficulty in obtaining shelter in any section” of the state, even from other Confederate army units operating there.119 The pattern of desertion, moreover, revealed definite class cleavages in Lee’s army. Men from families with the weakest economic ties to slavery were leaving much more often than were slaveholders.120

For many Confederate soldiers, the burden of defending the South’s peculiar institution had simply grown too heavy, especially because they believed that the burden was being borne inequitably. Early in September 1864, “many soldiers” in “the ditches” of Georgia told Jefferson Davis that they were “ask[ing] ourselves what we are fighting for.” They were “tired of fighting for this negro aristockracy,” tired of fighting “for them that wont fight for themselves.”121 Another man told the war department that “the poor” had “nothing to fight for,” and that “the poor will not Stand it much longer nor neither will I.” “For my part,” he added, “I would not Give my life for all the Blame negroes in the Confederacy.”122 A self-described “mechanic” objected that “Slavery is the cause of the war,” and “a poor man with nothing but his trade to live on” had “no interest at stake” in that conflict.123

Such words revealed a pattern that the Virginia war widow Cornelia McDonald discerned in 1865. Those who remained most “enthusiastic” about the Confederacy and its war generally came from “the higher classes.” But “those who had but their poor homes and little pieces of ground by which they managed to provide little more than bread for their families” manifested a very different attitude. For them “it was oppression to be forced into the army, and not ever to be free from the apprehension that their families were suffering.” Especially because they had come to believe that “they would be as well off under one government as another.”124

But for whatever reasons soldiers deserted, the effect was the same—to weaken southern armies even further. By the end of 1864, the Confederacy had only a quarter as many soldiers in the field as the Union and no sources of reinforcements in sight. Jefferson Davis’s chief of conscription had already reported many months earlier that the country no longer contained any potential “fresh material for the armies” and suggested that his bureau simply close down by the end of the year. Robert Garlick Hill Kean, the staunch Virginia secessionist who headed the War Bureau, could not imagine how the South could match the Union armies’ next levy of conscripts.125

The second American revolution had by now become a seemingly irresistible juggernaut, crushing and rolling over whatever stood in its way. Confederate hopes that the Union might repudiate Lincoln in 1864 and place a more malleable man in the White House had died when Atlanta surrendered. A Republican Party standing on a platform of nationwide emancipation had scored a convincing triumph at the polls. More and more black southerners were gaining their freedom each day, while southern soldiers abandoned their armies in ever-growing numbers.

As the position of the counterrevolutionary Confederacy grew desperate, some of its leaders began to reconsider options that they had previously dismissed as unthinkable.

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