This Hallowed Ground

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Sherman himself had not willed the fire. In the end, he and his generals began to regain control over their men and made a real effort to stop the blaze. This did not help very much. Most of Columbia was destroyed. Almost universally, the soldiers shrugged it off—they approved of the fire, and they said that if they had not found the city ablaze they would have left it that way. General Henry W. Slocum, a proper man who never wanted to be cast in the part of destroying angel, wrote later that he believed simple drunkenness was the real trouble, and he added: “A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night, particularly when for a series of years you have urged him to come so that you might have an opportunity of performing a surgical operation on him.”

The army stayed in Columbia’s ruins for two days and then marched on. The country was swampy and the winter rains had been falling steadily—though not steadily enough to save Columbia—and more than half of the time the soldiers had to corduroy the roads so that the wagons and artillery could move. They met little opposition. General Johnston commanded such troops as the Confederacy had been able to get together—a remnant from the broken army Hood had brought back from Tennessee, the men Hardee had pulled out of Savannah, and a scattering of other levies—but he was too weak by far to meet Sherman in open combat, and to Lee he wrote despairingly: “I can do no more than annoy him.” To make things even more one-sided Sherman was marching now toward strong reinforcements. General Schofield had brought troops east from Tennessee, had taken WiImington, and was marching toward Goldsboro, North Carolina, to join hands with Sherman.

On March 7 Sherman’s army crossed over into North Carolina. Nearing Goldsboro, the army began to run into resistance. There was a sharp little fight at Averasboro, and on March 19 Johnston moved in and struck the exposed left wing of the army, under Slocum, at Bentonville. But Johnston just was not strong enough to win a victory, even when he hit only half of Sherman’s army. Sherman sent in reinforcements, Johnston was driven off, and on March 23 Sherman marched into Goldsboro and joined Schofield. Thus reinforced, Sherman now commanded 80,000 veterans, men as cocky and as sure of themselves as any Americans who ever marched. Johnston could be an annoyance but nothing more. This army could go wherever it wanted to go and the Confederacy was powerless to stop it.

At Goldsboro the soldiers learned that the old days were over. Foraging parties were ordered to give up their horses, and the bummers and stragglers were quietly warned that they had better rejoin their own regiments and be good. With its own supply line established, the army would no longer support itself by living on the country. It was in North Carolina now, and in a matter of weeks it would rub elbows with the better-behaved Army of the Potomac, and everyone now would mind his manners. The protracted Halloween spree had come to an end. There would be no more fire.

On March 22 the youthful General James H. Wilson, commanding 12,500 cavalrymen armed with repeating carbines, crossed the Tennessee River and moved down toward the heart of Alabama. General Wilson was heading for Selma, a munitions center of considerable importance—just about the last one, aside from Richmond, which the Confederacy still possessed—and he moved with full confidence that he had the strength to go wherever he might be told to go.

In the upper Shenandoah Sheridan was crunching in on Waynesboro, where the pathetic remnant of Jubal Early’s army held a cheerless winter camp; Sheridan’s tough troopers would attack it, scatter it for keeps, and then move east to join Grant’s army in front of Richmond, leaving behind them a valley that had been gutted as thoroughly as any place Sherman’s army had visited. Down by the Gulf Coast, General Edward R. Canby was leading a Union army in to besiege and capture Mobile. Mobile was no longer a real seaport, what with Union warships anchored in the bay, but it was fortified and it held Confederate troops; Canby would take it, and there would be one less Confederate flag on the map.

Behind the lines, men looked ahead to the end of the war and reflected on what the war had meant, reaching various conclusions. In Washington, General Jacob Cox stopped off to meet with friends on his way to join Schofield in North Carolina, and he found the die-hard Republicans bitter at Lincoln for his approaching victory. When Lincoln went down to Hampton Roads to talk with peace commissioners sent across Grant’s lines by Jefferson Davis, these Republican leaders denounced him as being a weak compromiser.

This meeting with the peace commissioners resulted in nothing, as it was bound to do. Led by wizened little Alexander Stephens of Georgia, vice president of the Confederacy, the Southerners came to see Lincoln about some means of bringing peace to “the two countries”; the very phrase (written into their instructions by Davis) was testimony to the Confederate authorities’ final flight from reality. There were not two countries now, and there never could be; the Confederacy was a pinched-off triangle of land in southern Virginia and upper North Carolina, beset by overwhelming power; nothing could be more certain than that it would be ground to fragments as soon as spring made the roads dry enough for army movements. Peace for one united country was the only thing Lincoln would consider, and the commissioners were not even allowed to talk about it. The commissioners returned to Richmond, where Davis valiantly addressed a mass meeting and called for war to the bitter end.