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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
It was over; and yet in this fearful convulsion of the i86o’s each ending was always a new beginning. From first to last, nothing had gone as rational men had planned. The nation had put itself at the mercy of emotional explosions, whether these were shared by everyone or afflicted only individuals. Now, with an end in sight, there came a new explosion, terrible, incalculable, monstrous, and reasonless. The knowledge of this explosion—though not a full realization of its grim consequences—was with General Sherman when he journeyed out from Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 17, to meet with General Johnston.
It was a strange meeting, in a way, even without the overtone that went with Sherman’s secret knowledge. Here was Sherman, whose very name had come to mean unrelenting wrath and destruction. In his own person he seemed to embody everything that a defeated South had to dread from a triumphant, allpowerful North. Yet as he went to see Johnston—they met in a little farmhouse, between the lines—he was oddly gentle. He had talked with Lincoln at City Point and he believed he knew the sort of peace Lincoln wanted: a peace of harmony and reconciliation, with no indemnities and no proscription lists. He and Johnston, who had fought against each other so long, sat down now, not quite as friends, but certainly as men who had come to understand and to respect each other.
And over the table where the two soldiers conferred there was the knowledge of the new and fearful thing that had happened.
Just before Sherman left Raleigh, an army telegrapher notified him that a cipher dispatch from Washington was just coming over the wire: would the General care to wait for it? Sherman had waited. Deciphered, at last, the message was given to him. It came from Secretary Stanton, and it began:
“President Lincoln was murdered about 10 o’clock last night in his private box in Ford’s Theater in this city …”
Sherman collared the telegrapher: had he told anyone what was in this message? The man said that he had not. Sherman warned him to say nothing about it to anybody—Sherman’s warnings could be pretty effective, when the black mood was on him—and then Sherman went off to see Johnston, fearful that if the Federal soldiers learned what had happened they might break all restraints and visit the helpless city of Raleigh with a vengeance that would make what had happened in Columbia look gentle and mild. There was among the men in his army, Sherman confessed, a very high regard for Mr. Lincoln.
At the conference table Sherman showed the dispatch to Johnston, and saw the beads of sweat come out on the Southerner’s forehead. Neither man knew what this insane news would finally mean, although each was perfectly aware that it would bring much evil. But they would proceed with their business as if it had not happened, and their business was to arrange for the surrender of Johnston’s army.
As they got down to it, the scope of the meeting unexpectedly broadened. Sherman said that he would give Johnston the same terms Grant had given Lee. Johnston was willing enough; but he was a gray little man who had seen enough of warring, and he unexpectedly proposed that they finish everything at one stroke—draft broad terms that would embrace all existing Confederate armies, from North Carolina to the Rio Grande, so that what they finally signed would put the last Southern soldier back into civilian life and restore the Union.
It was just the sort of suggestion that would appeal to Sherman, who thought in continental terms anyway. But he could see two problems. To begin with, he himself had no authority to do anything but accept the surrender of Johnston’s army. Even if he signed the sort of document Johnston was talking about it would not be binding until it had been ratified in Washington. In addition, Johnston’s authority was no broader than his own; how could he offer the surrender of distant armies that were not under his control? Johnston was unworried. The Confederate secretary of war, John C. Breckinridge, was not far away; he could sign the document, and his signature would be valid for all Confederates everywhere.
The two generals parted, at last, agreeing to meet again the next day and finish what they had begun. Sherman hurried back to Raleigh and ordered all the soldiers to their camps. Then, with everyone under control and no stragglers or off-duty men roaming the streets, he published a carefully worded bulletin announcing the assassination of the President, and expressly stating that the Confederate army had had no part in the crime.
The men took the news quietly, but they smoldered. One private wrote that “the army is crazy for vengeance,” and promised that “if we make another campaign it will be an awful one.” Most of the soldiers, he said, eager to vent their wrath in action, actually hoped now that Johnston would not surrender, and he added: “God pity this country if he retreats or fights us.”