This Hallowed Ground

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In Richmond men seemed to be in a queer, trancelike state, where the real and the unreal danced slowly in and out before minds which could no longer make sober meaning out of the things their eyes saw. The Congress was laboring mightily with the very proposal which had got General Cleburne so cold a snubbing a year earlier—the proposal that certain Negro slaves be enrolled as soldiers for the Confederacy.

This idea, born of final desperation, was examined and whittled down and solemnly weighed and assessed precisely as if there were still some question about what finally would happen to slavery. On March 23 the Confederate War Department published for the information of all concerned the text of a law just passed by Congress bearing on this subject.

Under this law the president was authorized to ask for, and to accept from their owners, the services of such numbers of Negroes as soldiers as he might consider necessary in order to win the war. These Negroes, once put into service, would be paid, fed, and clad on an equality with white troops, and if the president did not get enough of them just by asking for them he could call on the separate states to supply their proper quotas, provided that no more than 25 per cent of the male slaves of military age, in any state, could be called into service. As a final rider, Congress stipulated that nothing in this law should call for any change “in the relation which the said slaves shall bear to their owners” except by the con sent of the owners and of the states in which they lived.

And thus, with Cleburne in his grave, a fragment of his idea was resurrected, as well as might be, and galvanized into a show of life. Nothing in particular would come of it (the sands had just about run out: when the War Department published this interesting law, the Confederate government had just ten more days in which it might occupy Richmond) and the enactment comes down the years as an oddity, significant in a way that nobody involved in it ever quite intended.

They never did understand, really, about slavery. Implicit in this deathbed conversion (halting, partial, and hedged with provisos, like many deathbed conversions—for the dying man suspects that he may yet recover) was the real explanation of the reason why the Confederacy had in fact come to its deathbed. Beyond the superior resources of the North there was the supreme moral issue of slavery itself. Slavery, from first to last, had exerted its own force, working through men who would have preferred to ignore it. Its mere existence had lifted the war to a dimension which the Confederacy could not grasp. Beyond all of the orators and the armies, beyond the gun smoke in the valleys and the flashing of cannon on the hills, there always remained the peculiar institution itself —the one institution in all the earth which could not be defended by force of arms.

While the Southern leaders strove mightily with phantoms, Lincoln stayed close to Grant’s army; and early in the spring Sherman left his own army safely moored in North Carolina and came up to City Point to see the lieutenant general and the President.

All three of these men knew that before very long the two generals would be called on to state the terms on which they would accept the surrender of the Confederate armies facing them; and Lincoln’s counsel to them could be summed up in his own expression: “Let ’em up easy.” Congress would not be in session this spring. If peace could soon be restored, Lincoln might perhaps be able to get the reconstruction of the Union so far advanced that by December, when the legislators did assemble, measures of vengeance and repression would be impossible. This he greatly wanted. He would destroy the Confederate nation forever, and he would also destroy slavery, but the South itself he would not destroy, nor would he inflict any punishment beyond the fearful punishment which the war itself had already inflicted.

Sherman went back to North Carolina, and Grant made ready for the final drive.

The Petersburg lines were more than fifty miles long, running from the south of Petersburg clear around to the northeast of Richmond. Lee’s army now was not half the size of the army Grant commanded. The realities of trench warfare, to be sure, were such that men vastly outnumbered could hold their ground against almost any direct assault, but the stretching process could not go on forever. Sooner or later, Lee could be made to pull his line so taut that it would break.

No one knew this any better than Lee himself. His only hope (if it could really be called a hope) was to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond, get his army down to North Carolina, join forces with Johnston, and beat Sherman. After that (assuming that the combined armies could in fact defeat Sherman’s mighty host) Lee and Johnston might, just conceivably, turn north again and defeat Grant … or move off somewhere, form a continuing knot of resistance, and keep the war going a few months longer. But if Lee went south he would have to get some sort of advantage. He could get it only by making a sharp, punishing offensive thrust that would knock the Army of the Potomac back on its heels. Such a thrust, late in March, the Confederate commander undertook to make.