This Hallowed Ground

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It had been going on for nearly four years, and there would be about four more months of it. Winter lay on the hills and fields that had been unheard-of four years earlier but that would live on forever now in tradition and national memory—Shiloh, Antietam, the Wilderness, Chickamauga, and all the rest. Here and there, all over the country, were the mounded graves of half a million young men who had been alive and unsuspecting when all of this began. There would be more graves to dig, and when there was time there would be thin bugle calls to lie in the still air while a handful of dust drifted down on a blanketed form, but most of this was over. A little more killing, a little more marching and burning and breaking and smashing, and then it would be ended.

Ended; yet, in a haunting way, forever unended. It had laid an infinity of loss and grief on the land, it had created a shadowed purple twilight streaked with undying fire which would live on, deep in the mind and heart of the nation, as long as any memory of the past retained meaning. Whatever the American people might hereafter do would in one way or another take form and color from this experience. Under every dream and under every doubt there would be the tragic knowledge bought by this war, the awareness that triumph and disaster are the two aspects of something lying beyond victory, the remembrance of heartbreak and suffering, and the moment of vision bought by people who had bargained for no vision but simply wanted to live at peace. A new dimension had been added to the national existence and the exploration of it would take many generations. The Civil War, with its lights and its shadows, its unendurable pathos, and its charred and stained splendor, would be the American people’s permanent possession.

At the time, it was possible to see only the approaching end and the hard times that had to be lived through before the end could finally be reached. In the North men nerved themselves for the ruthless blows that must be struck against a dying foe; in the South men nerved themselves to endure the blows; and as the year opened the blows began to fall.

The first one struck Fort Fisher, a sprawling sanddune fortification at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, in North Carolina. Upstream a few miles was Wilmington, the Confederacy’s last seaport. Here, and here only, the blockade runners could slip in from the mist with the cargoes without which the Confederacy could not live. While Fort Fisher stood the South still touched the outside world. Just before Christmas in 1864 the Federal government had moved in to smash Fort Fisher.

Unfortunately, the job was entrusted to General Ben Butler, who was not up to smashing anything. He had the assistance of a first-class fleet under Admiral David Porter, but even the help of the United States Navy could not make a successful soldier out of Butler. Butler filled a ship with powder, sent it in under the walls of Fort Fisher, and exploded it, fancying that the blast would level the fort and make the work of his troops easy. The explosion took place on schedule, but it had so little effect on the fort that the Confederates merely assumed that a Yankee boiler had blown up. Butler got troops ashore, considered taking the place by storm, then changed his mind, reembarked his soldiers, and sailed back to Hampton Roads, reporting that the fort was too strong to be taken.

Butler had tried his luck one notch too far. He possessed much political influence and it had always been necessary to treat him with extreme consideration. But the Lincoln Administration had just won a presidential election and Butler was no longer an untouchable. Admiral Porter wrote Grant that Fort Fisher would fall whenever the army cared to send a competent general down to attend to the job. Butler went back to Massachusetts, a general without an army; a new amphibious expedition was mounted; the army gave Butler’s old command to tough Major General Alfred H. Terry—and on January 15, after a prodigious bombardment by the fleet and a smart charge by the sailors and the infantry, Fort Fisher was captured. The South had lost its last seaport. The dwindling armies which were the Confederacy’s only hold on life would get no more equipment than that which the South itself could provide, and the South’s own resources were coming down close to the vanishing point.

And in Savannah, General Sherman was starting north with his 60,000 veterans, heading for nothing less than Richmond itself.

The men would make a tough campaign. They had long since come to look on themselves as the appointed agents through which the country would take vengeance on those who had tried to destroy it. To a man, they felt that South Carolina, above all other places, was the spot where vengeance was most called for. Until now, these soldiers had performed the act of devastation casually, without animus; in South Carolina they would act with genuine venom. They would go through South Carolina, if General Sherman led them there, like the wrath of an outraged God.

General Sherman would lead them there. This lean, red-bearded, nervous general saw that to break everything loose in South Carolina was to crush the Confederacy’s last hope to fragments. He led his army north from Savannah shortly after the first of the new year with “the settled determination of each individual to let the people know there was war in the land.”