- Historic Sites
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
These were the Radicals—the Stantons, the Ben Wades, the Thaddeus Stevenses, the Charles Sumners, and the rest; the party leaders, who had fought Lincoln as often as they had helped him, who distrusted his belief in reconciliation, who had opposed his plan for restoring the Southern states to the Union, and who saw the beaten Confederacy as a conquered province which they could rebuild any way they chose. Their way would be a harsh one, and its most pathetic victim would be the recently freed Negro. Swearing now that they meant to protect him and help him walk erect as a man, they would make the race problem harder to solve. By the reaction they provoked they would finally help Jim Crow to come in and (for a time) take the place of Uncle Tom.
So they gave Lincoln a great funeral, inviting the people to look on the clay of the great leader slain in his hour of triumph. With this, and with the public denunciation of Sherman for his overgenerous offer of peace, they could whip up a state of mind in which charity and forbearance could be made to look like a betrayal. The light that had lit the room when Grant and Lee sat down together, and that had gleamed brightly between Sherman and Johnston, began to grow dimmer and dimmer. Dusk began to steal across the land, with long shadows to cloud men’s vision.
In Washington there would be two grand reviews to wind everything up; one for the Army of the Potomac, and another next day for the Army of the Tennessee, with President and Cabinet in a reviewing stand by the White House and with jubilant thousands lining the streets to cheer. The armies had marched up from Virginia and Carolina for this final ceremony, crossing many old battlefields as they came. In due time they reached Washington and went into camp.
These Federal volunteer armies had existed for four years. For many thousands of young men, army life embraced all that they had even seen of manhood. Now—suddenly, although there had been much forewarning—there came to all of these the realization that this tremendous experience was over. Never again would they rise to bugle call or drum beat, make slogging marches in dust or mud, sleep tentless in the rain, or nerve themselves for the racking shock of battle; nor would they ever again go rioting across whole states with a torch for every empty house and a loaded wagon to carry away hams and turkeys and hives full of stolen honey for a campfire feast in the cool evening. They would be cut off, now and forever, from everything they had become used to; the most profound experience life could bring had come to them almost before boyhood had ended, and now it was all over and they would go back to farm or village or city, to the uneventful round of prosaic tasks and small pleasures which are the lot of stay-at-home civilians.
They had hated the war and the army, and they had wanted passionately to be rid of both forever; yet now they began to see that the war and the army had brought them one thing which it might be hard to find, back home—comradeship, the sharing of great things by men set apart from society’s ordinary routine. They had grown used to it. They wanted to go home, they were delighted that they would presently take off their uniforms forever, and yet …
In Nashville, Pap Thomas held a farewell review for the stout old Army of the Cumberland, and as the men prepared to disband they found themselves feeling lost, almost sad.
“None of us,” wrote a survivor, “were fond of war; but there had grown up between the boys an attachment for each other they never had nor ever will have for any other body of men.” An Iowa cavalryman, awaiting the muster out ceremony he had so long wanted, wrote moodily in his diary: “I do feel so idle and lost to all business that I wonder what will become of me. Can I ever be contented again? Can I work? Ah! How doubtful—it’s raining tonight.”
In Washington the great reviews were held as scheduled, toward the end of May. Thousands of men tramped down Pennsylvania Avenue, battle flags fluttering in the spring wind for the last time, field artillery trundling heavily along with unshotted guns, and great multitudes lined the streets and cheered until they could cheer no more as the banners went by inscribed with the terrible names—Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg, Atlanta—and President Johnson took the salute in his box by the White House. It was noticed that Sherman’s army, unaccountably, managed to spruce up and march as if parade-ground maneuvers were its favorite diversion. Sherman had apologized to Meade, in advance, for the poor showing he expected his boys to make; when he looked back, leading the parade, and saw his regiments faultlessly aligned, keeping step and going along like so many grenadier guards, he confessed that he knew the happiest moment of his life.
And finally the parades were over, and the menwaited in their camps for the papers that would send them home and transform them into civilians again.
… There was a quiet, cloudless May evening in Washington, with no touch of breeze stirring. In the camp of the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac men lounged in front of their tents, feeling the familiar monotony of camp life for the last time. Here and there, impromptu male quartets were singing. On some impulse, a few soldiers got out candles, stuck them in the muzzles of their muskets, lighted them, and began to march down a company street; in the windless twilight the moving flames hardly flickered.