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This Hallowed Ground
AN EXCERPT FROM A NEW BOOK WHICH TELLS HOW THE CIVIL WAR CAME TO ITS TERRIBLE, HAUNTING CONCLUSION
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
The Confederacy had passed the last of the great might-have-beens of the war. Its supreme attempt to restore the lost balance had failed. By making the greatest effort it could make—pulling together a large army even at the cost (never risked before or afterward) of taking men from Lee’s army—it had made its final bid for victory at Chickamauga. It could not again make such an effort, and it would not again have a chance to make the tide flow in the other direction. The Army of the Cumberland might have been destroyed at Chickamauga but was not destroyed; it might have been starved into surrender at Chattanooga, but that had not happened; and now Bragg’s wrecked army was recuperating in north Georgia, Bragg himself replaced by cautious little Joe Johnston, and from this time on the Confederacy could hope to do no more than parry the blows that would be leveled against it. The dream that had been born in spring light and fire was flickering out now and nothing lay ahead but a downhill road.
Eighteen hundred and sixty-four came in, and it would be the worst year of all—the year of victory made certain, the year of smoke and destruction and death, with an old dream going down in flames and an unfathomable new one taking form in the minds of men who hardly knew what they dreamed. Steadily and inescapably a new rhythm was being felt. Visibly drawing nearer to its end, the war had paradoxically become a thing which could not be stopped.
Thoughtful Southerners saw the narrowing circle and the rising shadows, and cried that the fight must continue to the final limits of endurance. The Confederate Congress, adopting a resolution addressed to constituents back home, touched the edge of hysteria in its fervor. If the Washington government (said this resolution) called for restoration of the old Union it was merely setting a cruel trap for the deluded; there could be no reunion because the only possible relation between the reunited sections would be that between conqueror and conquered, and “nothing short of your utter subjugation, the destruction of your state governments, the overthrow of your social and political fabric, your personal and public degradation and ruin, will satisfy the demands of the North.”
If there was in this the desperate overstatement common to wartime propaganda, there was nevertheless reason for thoughtful Southerners to feel this way. The attempt to make an independent Confederacy had been, in a sense, nothing more than a despairing effort to do something about the problem of slavery. The war was a great forced draft applied to a longsmoldering flame, and under its white heat the problem was changing. Not for nothing was slavery called “the peculiar institution”; and its chief peculiarity seemed to be that it would not stay put.
Secession had been an attempt to perpetuate the past: to enable a society based on slavery to live on, as an archaic survival in the modern world. Slavery was above all else a primitive mechanism, and the society which relied on it could survive, in the long run, only if the outside world propped it up. But the Southern society was not itself primitive at all. It needed all of the things the rest of the world needed—railroad iron, rolling mills, machine tools, textile machinery, chemicals, industrial knowledge, and an industrial labor force—yet it clung to the peculiar institution which prevented it from producing these things itself, and it relied on the rest of the world to make its deficiencies good. Now the rest of the world had ceased to contribute, except for the trickle that came in through the blockade. Instead, that part of the outside world which lay nearest—the North—was doing everything it could to destroy such industrial strength as the South possessed, and what it destroyed could not be replaced. As cotton gins and clothing factories went up in smoke the peculiar institution itself would crumble, dim human aspirations seeping down into a submerged layer and undermining all of the foundations.
The Southern Congress was quite right; an overturn was coming, and it was precisely the sort of overturn which the men who had created the Confederacy could not at any price accept. No peace based on reunion (the only sort of peace that was really conceivable) could be contemplated, because reunion, by now, inevitably meant the end of slavery. The more hopeless the military outlook became the more bitterly would Southern leaders insist on fighting to the last ditch.
In this winter of 1864 there was a singular little meeting one evening in the headquarters tent of General Joe Johnston, commanding what had been Bragg’s hard-luck army, at Dalton, Georgia. All corps and division commanders, with one exception, were present; among them, Irish General Pat Cleburne, who had fought so stoutly against Sherman’s troops at Chattanooga. General Cleburne had been considering the plight of the South, and he had a paper to present. With Joe Johnston’s permission (although not, it would appear, with his outright approval) he read it to the other officers.
The Confederacy, said Cleburne, was fighting a hopeless struggle. It had lost more than a third of its territory; it had lost many men, and had “lost, consumed or thrown to the flames an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world.” It was badly outnumbered and the disparity was getting worse instead of better, and the Confederate soldier was “sinking into a fatal apathy” and was coming more and more to “a growing belief that some black catastrophe is not far ahead of us.” Worst of all, at the beginning of the war slavery was one of the Confederacy’s chief sources of strength; now, from a military point of view, it had become “one of our chief sources of weakness.”