This Hallowed Ground

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In any area which had been touched by Northern armies, said Cleburne, slavery was fatally weakened, and with this weakness came a corresponding weakness in the civilian economy. The Confederacy thus had an infinite number of vulnerable spots: there was “one of these in every point where there is a slave to set free.” The burden could not be carried any longer. Therefore—said Cleburne, reaching the unthinkable conclusion—the South must boldly and immediately recruit Negro troops, guaranteeing in return freedom to every slave who gave his support to the Confederacy. In substance, what Cleburne was asking for was emancipation and black armies. If the peculiar institution was a source of weakness, Cleburne would abolish the institution and turn its human material into a source of strength.

The war, said Cleburne, was killing slavery anyway. From one source or another, the Negro was going to get his freedom. Make a virtue of necessity, then (said this foreign-born general), “and we change the race from a dreaded weakness to a position of strength.”

Cleburne’s proposal had certain support. It was signed by two brigadiers and a number of field officers from his own division, as well as by a stray cavalry general; and the first signature on the list, of course, was that of Cleburne himself. But the net effect of this modest proposal, dropped thus into a meeting of the commanding generals of the Confederacy’s western army, was about the effect that would be produced in a convention of devout churchmen by the unexpected recital of a grossly improper joke. It was received with a shocked, stunned, and utterly incredulous silence. Cleburne had mentioned the unmentionable.

Secretary of War James Seddon wrote earnestly to General Johnston, expressing Jefferson Davis’ conviction that “the dissemination or even promulgation of such opinions under the present circumstances of the Confederacy … can be productive only of discouragement, distraction and dissension.” General Johnston passed the word down the line, Cleburne put his paper away and agreed not to press it any further, and the matter was buried.

It had to be buried, for what Cleburne had quite unintentionally done was to force his fellow officers to gaze upon the race problem which lay beneath the institution of slavery, and that problem seemed to be literally insoluble. It did not, in that generation, seem possible to most men that white and black folk could dwell together in one community in simple amity. There had to be a barrier between them—some tangible thing that would compel everyone to act on the assumption that one race was superior and the other inferior. Slavery was the only barrier imaginable. If it were removed society would be up against something monstrous and horrifying. To make human brotherhood a working reality in everyday life seemed too big a contract for frail human beings. The privilege of belonging to an admittedly superior race—the deep conviction that there actually were superior and inferior races—could not be wrenched out of human society without a revolutionary convulsion. The convulsion was unthinkable, yet it was beginning to take place, even though hardly anyone had consciously willed it; it was coming down the country roads with the swaggering destructive columns in weathered blue, lying across the landscape behind the haze of smoke that came down from the ridges around Gettysburg and Chattanooga, and there was no stopping it.

[ Early in the spring of 1864 U. S. Grant was made lieutenant general and given top command of the Federal armies, and a summer of desperate fighting quickly followed .

In Virginia, Grant accompanied Meade’s Army of the Potomac in a drive toward Richmond. Continuous battle resulted, with fearful Federal losses and no apparent advantage; but after such struggles as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor, Grant at last forced Lee into his lines at Petersburg, Virginia, and pinned him down to a defensive warfare which the South could not win.

As a countermove, Lee sent Jubal Early north with a small army, but although Early reached the suburbs of Washington and had a brisk fight there, he finally had to retreat and Grant’s hold at Petersburg was not shaken.

At the same time, Sherman marched into Georgia, and after an involved campaign and a series of vigorous battles captured Atlanta. The Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who had been opposing him, was relieved of his command by the Richmond government and was replaced by General John B. Hood.

As the summer wore away, other signs of approaching Federal victory became manifest. Admiral David Farragut broke into Mobile Bay, sealing off one of the Confederacy’s few remaining seaports, and General Philip Sheridan broke Confederate power in the Shenandoah Valley, devastating that area relentlessly so that it could no longer provide supplies for Confederate armies. As election day approached, it became more and more clear that the war must eventually end in Union victory .]

On November 8 the people of the North re-elected Abraham Lincoln and endorsed a war to the finish. One week later General Sherman and 60,000 veterans left Atlanta on the march that was to make that finish certain—the wild, cruel, rollicking march from Atlanta to the sea.