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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
In the summer of 1863 General Grant wanted to get on with the war! Counting prisoners of war and casualties in the preliminary fighting, the Confederates had lost more than 40,000 men in the Mississippi Valley campaign—the equivalent of the army that fought at Shiloh. Although many of the Vicksburg parolees would presently show up in Confederate armies again without benefit of formal exchange, this represented a loss which the Confederacy could not possibly make good. Grant had 75,000 men with nobody much to fight. It seemed to him that he ought to go marching across the South, knocking all of the underpinnings out from under General Braxton Bragg’s army in Tennessee; he could take Mobile, cross Georgia, and in general pull the Confederacy apart without serious opposition. He wanted to move.
General John Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, had no more than signed the surrender papers before Grant was striking at Joe Johnston, who had a Confederate force in northeast Mississippi.
On July 5 General William T. Sherman marched for Jackson again, with elements of three army corps in his command. The weather was blistering hot, and the men had been standing in trenches for weeks and were not used to long hikes; water was scarce, shoes and uniforms were in bad shape, and some of the soldiers were sore because they had never so much as set foot inside the fortress they had just captured. No matter: they marched east, Johnston faded back before them, and Sherman was a driver—regiments would slog the dusty roads all day and make camp after dark, with stragglers hobbling in until midnight.
But although Grant had no trouble in driving Joe Johnston away, he got nowhere with his plan to keep the war moving. General Henry Wager Halleck, the U.S. Army’s top commander, in Washington, had other ideas.
Grant’s army was split up. He must hold the ground he had conquered, with detachments here, there, and elsewhere to symbolize Federal occupancy. Also, he must send help to others; so part of Grant’s army went to Arkansas to quell Rebel armies which, having been amputated from Richmond by the victory at Vicksburg, could no longer be of real concern. Another part had to go down to the Federal General Nathaniel Banks, in New Orleans, who was nursing some plan for seizing Texas—another amputated area, outside of the main stream of the war. Still more had to go to Missouri, and there were forts and outposts in Mississippi and along the river to be manned. As a result, a Confederacy which was off balance and helpless in mid-July was given the rest of the summer to recover. That the rest of the summer was not time enough was more or less incidental; the breathing spell was granted, and instead of invading Alabama and sweeping up the Gulf Coast Grant found himself visiting New Orleans to help Banks stage an elaborate review of troops. Wherever this war might be won, it was not going to be won in the Deep South in the summer of 1863.
The Administration was not cashing in on its victories. It was trying, this summer, to break its way into Charleston, South Carolina, in a combined army-navy operation. Charleston was not especially important, but it was a symbol; it was where secession began; to take the place and make it feel the final rigor of war looked like a worthy goal, and so an immense effort was under way. It had been supposed that the new monitors were shot-proof, and so a flotilla of these dumpy ironclads led the way in the first bombardment of Fort Sumter; they proved to be a good deal less than shot-proof and were so badly hammered that the naval commander, Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont, halted operations and announced that the navy alone could never in the world open Charleston Harbor. The ironclads went into dry dock and Admiral Dupont went into retirement; but although Admiral John Dahlgren, who replaced him, was a sturdier sort, he had no better luck than Dupont had had, and as the summer grew old a dreary amphibious operation was under way, with the navy firing thousands of shells while it risked valuable ships, and with the army landing on sandy beaches and painfully trying to storm Confederate forts which turned out to be all but literally impregnable. Men and energy were consumed freely, but nothing in particular was accomplished.
In Virginia nothing much was happening. It was as if the two great armies there were still exhausted by Gettysburg; they moved back and forth, from the Rapidan almost to the Potomac, sparring constantly, occasionally stirring up a minor fight, but accomplishing nothing of importance. It seemed certain that there would be no major offensive in Virginia until the next year.
But in Tennessee, toward the end of June, the armies at last began to move.
General William S. Rosecrans’ Federal Army of the Cumberland had been enjoying a rather pleasant war these last six months. It had been inactive ever since Stone’s River, and the camps around Murfreesboro began to look permanent. Every evening the regimental bands played while the soldiers lounged about, smoked, played cards, and told tall tales. Even the men on picket duty felt that they had it easy; in Tennessee, they said, the mockingbirds sang all night long and made a man feel that he had company.