AN EXCERPT FROM A NEW BOOK WHICH TELLS HOW THE CIVIL WAR CAME TO ITS TERRIBLE, HAUNTING CONCLUSION
“The man who really fought the Civil War, whether he tame from the North or from the South, was pretty largely a sweaty private in a somewhat heterogeneous uniform, a man who could get by on parade when he had to hut who spent most of his time slogging it out in mud. dust, rain, sleet, blistering sunshine, or other uncomfortable conditions. He rarely bothered to strike an attitude, and although artists forever tried to giorify him he mostly was an unglamourous individual who did the best he could, kept his mouth shut, and paid the price lor what lias since become known as a very romantic and picturesque war.
However, there were also the generals: and these could be (and almost always were) shown as highly picturesque individuals who galloped about on blooded horses across scenic battlefields on which no one really got urt very badly. Depining these, artists were often able to reach rare heights ol unreality: among them. Ole Peter Hanseu Hailing, who rendered a famous painting of Grant and His Generals . That all of these individuals were never gathered together in one cavalcade mattered not at all. What mattered was to give the people of the North a solid group picture of the men who had taken the headlines A A and who. presumably, had won the war.”
AMERICAN HERITAGE herewith presents selected portions of the final chapters of This Hallowed Ground , a history of the Civil War from the Northern viewpoint, by Bruce Cation. The book will be published in November by Doubleday and Company, in the “Mainstream of America” series.
The portion here presented picks up the story of the war in the summer of 1863 and carries it to the end in the spring of 1865 when, with the Confederacy crushed and Abraham Lincoln in his grave, the old soldiers prepared to be mustered out and resume their old lives as civilians.
The war began with the firing on Fort Sumter (some months after a number of cotton belt states had announced their secession from the Union); with Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down what the North considered a rebellion, and with the secession of additional Southern states—like Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—which had refused to join in what they regarded as the coercion of their sister states.
In the east, there followed a series of bloody but indecisive campaigns—Bull Run, the Seven Days, second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the involved maneuverings between the armies led by Generals George Gordon Meade and Robert E. Lee which resulted in a virtual stalemate by mid-1863. In the west, the North had had better success. The Fort Donelson-Shiloh campaign had opened the way to the South; a Confederate counter-blow, in the fall of 1862, led by General Braxton Bragg, had come to nothing after the indecisive battle of Perryville, Kentucky, and had been followed at the end of the year by the bloody but almost equally indecisive battle of Stone’s River, in mid-Tennessee. In the spring General Ulysses S. Grant—somewhat hampered by the cautious policies enforced by the Union general in chief, Henry Wager Halleck—had launched his campaign against the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi, capturing the place on July 4, 1863—the same day on which Washington learned that Meade had rebuffed Lee in the great battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
With these decisive triumphs, the North had virtually ensured its final victory—except that the Confederates, being very doughty fighters, refused to admit it, and continued to struggle for a victory of their own, which they might very conceivably have won.
The excerpt from This Hallowed Ground here presented picks up the story in the summer of 1863, when the long shadows were rising about the Southern Confederacy but when the war was still fluid and there was yet chance for a final, successful division of the country.
It was believed that the Middle West now was back where it had been in 1860. The Mississippi Valley was open again, and it was an article of faith that this river was the all-important highway to the markets of the world. The West was free; the terrible threat of isolation posed by secession was ended, and the farmers and traders of the continental interior no longer had to see a closed door at the mouth of the great river. They could also (however mistakenly) count themselves relieved from economic bondage to the merchants and bankers of the East.
Yet war is fought in a fog, and men are not always able to understand just what they have done. The Mississippi would never again be what it had been before. The road to the outer world would run east and west now, river or no river, war or no war. Not again would there be the lazy life of drifting downstream with the tide, high-pressure engines swinging paddle wheels in slow, splashing rhythms, corn and wheat and pork and mules and lumber borne away by the Father of Waters to the great ships waiting at the New Orleans levee. The dike which had obstructed the river was broken, but the old flow would never quite be resumed. The West had won the most significant campaign of the war, but it had not brought back the past. That was gone forever. Now the West must face east, not south. And the entire country must look to the future rather than to the past.
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.
Both Grant and Halleck had long been urging Rosecrans to move, but he had found reasons for delay. He argued that by staying where he was he was keeping Bragg and Bragg’s Confederate army up in central Tennessee, too far from Mississippi to send help to Joe Johnston; if he moved forward, he said, Bragg would retreat, and every mile of retreat would make it easier for him to interfere with Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. Besides, said Rosecrans, it would be bad strategy for him to fight while Grant was fighting; it was a military axiom that no nation should fight two great battles at the same time. With this point Grant took issue. He was not familiar with the axiom, he said, but now that it was stated he did not think much of it. It would be bad, he admitted, to lose two great battles at one time, but it would not be at all bad to win two.
In any event, the final week in June made it clear that Grant would presently have Vicksburg, and on the twenty-third of the month Rosecrans pulled his army out of camp and started south, heading toward Bragg and the 45,000 Confederates who were between him and Chattanooga.
Rosecrans began his campaign with a good deal of skill. He had approximately 60,000 men with him, and he had no intention of driving them against Bragg’s defensive system. Instead, feinting as if he meant to make such an attack, he shifted his main strength to the east, sliding clear around the Confederate right flank and threatening to cut the railroad in Bragg’s rear. Taken by surprise, Bragg retreated; by July 4 he had abandoned central Tennessee entirely, and a gloomy cabinet in Richmond learned that he had retreated all the way to Chattanooga.
All of this Rosecrans had done expertly and—except for a few minor skirmishes—without fighting. But it had not been easy. During nine days of continuous marching, what Rosecrans described as “one of the most extraordinary rains ever known to Tennessee at that period of the year” came down to turn the soil into a spongy quagmire and to make unpaved roads nearly impassable. The rain kept on, hour after hour and day after day, with no letup: “No Presbyterian rain, either, but a genuine Baptist downpour,” an Illinois soldier called it. Men in the 6th Indiana remembered making a night march on a mountain road beside which flowed a little stream, swollen now to a torrent that covered the roadway so that the men marched sometimes in water thigh-deep, everything dark as the pit, rain pelting down mercilessly, men tripping over submerged boulders or stepping into invisible potholes. When Bragg finally retreated, and the Federals settled down in his old camping ground at Tullahoma, the men were able to get their boots off for the first time since they had left Murfreesboro, and one soldier confessed that “it would be hard to find a worse set of used-up boys.”
The army waited in Tullahoma for nearly two weeks, while Rosecrans carried on another longdistance argument with Washington. He was well aware that Bragg would be reinforced, as he retreated, and he reasoned that since the Federal army which had just captured Vicksburg had nothing in particular to do it might as well move east and cover his own right flank when he resumed the advance. (Grant was arguing in much the same vein; if he should march on Mobile, he believed, Bragg could not conceivably stay around Chattanooga to fight Rosecrans, and all of the Deep South could be overrun before autumn.) But Halleck had other ideas, and Rosecrans was ordered to keep going. Only one concession was made and it did not prove very valuable: General Ambrose E. Burnside was getting together an army of 15,000 men with which he would move down through eastern Tennessee and attack Knoxville, where the Confederates had troops under the same General Simon Bolivar Buckner who had surrendered to Grant at Fort Donelson.
On August 16 Rosecrans put his men on the road again. The rains had stopped and the roads were passable, there was an abundance of blackberries and ripe peaches which marching men could get without much trouble, and there seemed to be plenty of good spring water. Some of the men looked back on the hike down to the Tennessee River as actually almost enjoyable.
Bragg evacuated Chattanooga and withdrew into northern Georgia, waiting for the reinforcements which an aroused government at Richmond was at last ordering to him. On September 9 Rosecrans sent Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps into Chattanooga and ordered the other two to fan out far to the south, to get across the mountains as quickly as possible and cut off Bragg’s retreat. Men in the marching columns whooped and yelled when they learned that Chattanooga had been taken. Bragg was in full retreat, perhaps in a panic; all that mattered now was to push on after him, destroy his army, and win the war.
In the four years of its life the Southern Confederacy strove heroically to overtake a will-o’-the-wisp, and this phantom took many forms. Sometimes it was the dream of European intervention, and at other times it was the dream of a sympathetic revolt in the North; and always it seemed that if the evasive unreality could just be caught it would confer enduring life on an archaic society trying to become valid in a modern world. Of all of these dreams, none was more constantly and deceptively alluring than the belief that one hard blow might finally knock the North out of the war and bring victory.
There could be, in the fall of 1863, one more hard blow. The fabric of the Confederacy was beginning to wear very thin—Mississippi Valley gone forever, everything west of the river cut off, most of Tennessee lost, blockade tighter than ever, drain on manpower and material resources getting progressively greater; it was hardly possible now to keep from seeing what the final verdict was going to be. But it was not yet settled. Strength remained, and hope, and the determination that could command a final supreme effort. That effort would be made now, and it would be entrusted to that fate-haunted soldier, General Braxton Bragg.
Bragg was concentrating his army near Lafayette, Georgia, two or three days’ march south of Chattanooga. He was being strongly reinforced. Buckner was coming down from Knoxville with 6,000 men. This left eastern Tennessee undefended—Burnside marched into Knoxville with a small army before August was over—but there was no help for it. Other reinforcements were coming up from Mississippi. Most important of all, James Longstreet and a good part of his army corps were coming down from Virginia.
When all of these troops reached him, Bragg would command close to 70,000 men. For once in the war, the Confederacy would go into battle with the numerical odds in its favor. Furthermore, Rosecrans was playing directly into Bragg’s hands just now. He was coming over the mountains into Georgia with his troops widely scattered, fairly inviting a ruinous counterblow.
Up to the moment when he occupied Chattanooga Rosecrans had done extremely well. He had maneuvered Bragg clear out of Tennessee with very little fighting, his Army of the Cumberland was exultant, and if he had pulled it all together and caught his breath before trying to go on all would have been well. But old Rosy had suddenly lost his caution. Perhaps his advance had been too successful. He seems to have become convinced that the Confederates were in a panicky retreat that would go on and on for many days, and all he could think of now was a headlong chase that would cut them off.
Part of his trouble was due to geography. The mountains that slant southwest from the Tennessee River near Chattanooga are immense ridges which run down across the northwest corner of Georgia and continue far into Alabama, and there are not many places where an army can cross them. The most substantial of the lot, Lookout Mountain, is 100 miles long, and in 1863 its feasible crossings were widely separated. The road to Chattanooga from the west followed the valley of the Tennessee, clinging to a narrow shelf between river and mountain just before it reached the city; the next pass was twenty miles south, and the next one was twenty miles south of that. To bring all of his army up around the tip of Lookout Mountain would delay Rosecrans much more than his optimistic ardor would permit. It seemed better to have General George Thomas and General Alexander McCook take their corps across the mountain by the more distant passes and fall on such Confederate troops as they might find after they had crossed. Crittenden, meanwhile, could march down from Chattanooga east of the mountains, following the valley of Chickamauga Creek, and the whole army could reassemble at its convenience somewhere in northern Georgia.
Bragg had concentrated, and he was waiting east of the mountains. Now the game was going his way. The pieces of the Army of the Cumberland were moving straight toward him, so widely separated that no Union corps could come to the rescue of another in case of trouble.
Bragg’s plan—when it finally took shape—was simple. He proposed to strike the Union left flank, driving the Army of the Cumberland away from Chattanooga—which was its only possible base of supplies and means of contact with the North—and penning it up in a tangle of dead-end mountain valleys where it could be destroyed. It was a perfectly good plan, and if it had been put into operation 24 hours earlier there would have been a Union disaster of the first magnitude. As it was, Bragg’s troops did not open their offensive until September 18, and it was the next morning before the battle actually began. Rosecrans had been given just time enough to escape annihilation.
He had brought the Army of the Cumberland together in a stretch of comparatively level, heavily wooded country a dozen miles south of Chattanooga. To the east ran Chickamauga Creek, with the Rebels somewhere on the far side of it, and with blue and gray skirmishers contending for possession of the fords and bridges. Off to the west loomed the endless blue mass of Lookout Mountain; and to the north, cutting the army off from the city, was the steep rampart of Missionary Ridge, a somewhat lower height which ran parallel to Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga in the valley between. There was a gap in Missionary Ridge, at Rossville, and the road from Chattanooga came down through this gap and ran through the center of the army’s area of concentration. This road and the Rossville Gap the army must hold at all costs; to lose it would be to invite outright destruction.
The army occupied a line nearly six miles long, facing to the east. Thomas held the left, looking toward the river crossings from which the main Confederate attack was likely to come, and the fighting began a little after dawn on September 19.
It was a bitter, confused fight, waged gallantly by armies whose commanders were not quite sure where their opponents really were. Bragg sent troops in on what he thought was the Federal left, but Thomas had posted his corps farther north than the Confederates supposed, and as the Southern advance came groping up through the dark woodland, feeling for the exposed flank, he sent a division in and flanked this advance and broke it. More Confederates came up, and the victorious Federal division was flanked and routed in its turn. As the day wore on this fight for the Union left became the battle, drawing in more and more elements from both armies.
As the pressure increased, more and more of the Army of the Cumberland was sent to help Thomas—a full division from Crittenden’s corps, and another from McCook’s—and although the Confederates gained ground step by step they took a fearful mauling while they were doing it. When night came, every unit in the Federal army had been in action. They had given ground, but they still held a great crescent covering the Chattanooga road. Most of the fighting had been on Thomas’ front, and by dusk he had nearly two thirds of the Army of the Cumberland under his control.
The night was unspeakably gloomy—a fever-ridden dream, with lost regiments and brigades moving in and out under the thick of the woodland shadows, hunting new positions as the sluggish mechanism of the high command tried to pull the troops back to a stronger line. By turns the forest was silent with midnight blackness, and aflame with the flaring lights of the guns, and confused with shattering sound; men felt an unutterable gloom, as they tramped along overgrown lanes in the wood, moving from blinding darkness into a dancing play of lights caused by “a display of fireworks that one does not care to see more than once in a lifetime.” Nothing had been settled; tomorrow would be worse than today had been; the Rebels were in full strength, and somewhere, somehow, in this vast area of woodland and lost pastures, the showdown would come with the dawn.
Dawn came in foggy, and through the mist and smoke the sun looked red and ominous. Bragg still clung to his original idea: knock loose the Federal left, and drive the Union army back into the blind valleys from which it cannot escape. Rosecrans had caught on, and he visited Thomas that night and told him to hang on at all costs; and when morning came and the Rebels’ attacks were renewed, all of the reserves of the Army of the Cumberland shifted over to meet the assault. The Confederates drove their charge home, and stolid old Pap Thomas—born and made for moments of defensive crisis like this—notified Rosecrans that he would need help. Rosecrans detached a division from his right, where it did not seem that anything especial was going to happen; the division managed to go astray, en route to Thomas, and went wandering off in the back area somewhere, and Thomas sent word again for help. Nobody knew that the lost division had not reached him, and nervous Rosecrans concluded that he had all of the Confederacy crowding in on his left, and sent more troops.
This led to disaster. Bragg had received one enormous asset; James Longstreet, in person, had arrived on the scene, had been given full command of the whole left wing of the Confederate army, and had been instructed to strike Rosecrans’ right as soon as the fight at the other end of the line was well under way. Longstreet was a man who liked to take his own time getting everything ready before he fought, and he had had precious little time here; but he adapted himself, this once, and while Rosecrans was shifting force to the left, Longstreet was lining up half of the Confederate army to hit him on the right. Somewhere around noon, just as the battle on Thomas’ front was flaming and crashing through all the woods and ravines, Longstreet massed his brigades and sent them in with a massive, all-out punch.
Luck took a hand here: pure, unadulterated chance, which steps in now and then to make a fine hash out of the careful plans of harassed generals.
A little to the right of the center of his line, Rosecrans had a solid division under the command of Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood—an old regular from Kentucky, solid and dependable, with a first-rate combat record. Wood had his men in an open field covering one of the lower stretches of the Chattanooga road, half a mile to the south of the sector where Thomas was fighting. The skirmishers along his front were active enough, but nothing of any importance seemed to be happening, and the dense woods a few hundred yards in his front concealed the fact that Longstreet had piled up an avalanche which was just beginning to slide forward. Far back at headquarters, Rosecrans got word that a division on Thomas’ right needed help. Through some mix-up, he got the idea that Wood was the next man in line; and off to Wood, pelting through the underbrush with the dispatch gripped in his teeth, went a blameless staff officer, carrying to Wood instructions to “close up on Reynolds [the commander of the division which was in trouble] and support him.”
Headquarters had been having its problems. Thomas had been calling for help, help had been sent, the calls were still coming in, and nobody quite knew where everybody was. The order to Wood was pure routine: he should edge over to his left (as headquarters saw it) and lend a hand to the nearest division. What headquarters had failed to notice, however, was the fact that another division of troops held the line between Wood and Reynolds. When Wood got his orders, therefore, it seemed to him that headquarters was telling him to pull his men out of the fighting line, march several hundred yards to the rear, pass behind the division which was immediately on his left, and move up to help General Reynolds half a mile farther north. Figuring that headquarters knew what it was about, Wood gave the order; and his division wheeled about and marched off to the rear at the precise moment when Longstreet’s thunderbolt was starting to crash forward through the underbrush and make its strike. As a result, Longstreet’s men charged into a gaping hole in the Union line.
Then everything came unstitched, and all the lower half of the battlefield was a wild swirl of smoke, exploding shells, running men, wild cheers, and desperately galloping generals who were suddenly compelled to realize that the men they were supposed to be commanding had gone completely out of control.
The Army of the Cumberland was cut in half. Everything south of the break-through point—including General Rosecrans himself and two of his three corps commanders, McCook and Crittenden—was driven off, generals and enlisted men and guns and wagons all streaming away from the battle, scrambling for a back road that would get them to the Rossville Gap and safety. Coolly taking everything in, Longstreet let them go, and swung his victorious column sharply to the right to come in behind Thomas and break the Union Army into panicky shreds.
Pap Thomas, to be sure, was imperturbable. When things were going badly the only visible sign he ever gave was to indulge in a quaint habit of running his fingers through his patrician gray Virginia whiskers. These whiskers now got a furious going-over, but there was nothing else to show that he was disturbed. He methodically set to work to patch up a new line that would hold off the swarming Confederates long enough to avert complete disaster.
What a general could do, Thomas did; no more dependable soldier for a moment of crisis existed on the North American continent, or ever did exist. His own line was a wide horseshoe, bulging toward the east, a great shallow semicircle of fire and smoke and rocketing noise. Running west from the southern end of this horseshoe there was a chain of hills, drawing a name from a log farmhouse owned by one Snodgrass, and this Thomas chose as the place for a rally.
All along these rolling hills a new Federal line began to take shape. An Indiana regiment came running up, its German colonel carrying his old slouch hat in his hand, rolled up like a club; he was hitting his men on the shoulders with it, shouting, “Go in, boys, and give ’em hell!” and cursing in undefiled high Dutch. An Ohio colonel had his men form in lee of the hill, marched them twenty yards forward to fire, had them return to shelter to reload, and then moved them forward for a fresh volley. In a little hollow just behind the firing line was Thomas himself. A staff officer noted that even in the heat of this furious battle Thomas sent an orderly into a nearby corn field to collect a few ears of corn for his horse, and stood watching the fight while the beast ate. His whiskers were a tangle, by now, but otherwise he was cool and controlled.
This new Federal line along the hills was not, strictly speaking, a military formation at all. It consisted of fragments of men from any number of commands, a squad here and a platoon there, formal organization completely lost, nobody in particular in general command of anything—except that Thomas was always there, moving back and forth unhurried, holding this mixed-up line in place by sheer force of his own personality. The Confederates charged in, were driven back, realigned themselves, and moved up again; Federal ammunition ran low, and men went about the field collecting cartridges from the bodies of men who had fallen; and somehow, in spite of everything, the chain of hills was held. Late in the afternoon, help came. Rosecrans had kept a few brigades in what he called his “reserve corps” far off to his left and rear, watching a road from which he feared the Southerners might make a stab behind his flank. This outfit, marooned out of sight, came over, finally, without orders; its commander, General Gordon Granger—a profane, bearded, roughhewn regular-army type from the old days—had heard the tremendous crash of the battle action, had figured somebody needed him, and brought his men in just when Thomas needed them the most. They stiffened the patchwork line, and the last Rebel assaults were beaten off.
Far to the rear, that part of the army that had been routed war, piling back through Rossville Gap for Chattanooga. It was in complete confusion, a hopelessly disorganized mob. Rosecrans and his officers had ridden about, waving swords and shouting, trying to restore order, but nothing had worked. The formless column was simply streaming north toward safety, and nothing could be done with it. Old Rosy himself gave up, at last, and rode along with the column, silent, abstracted, seeming to hear and see nothing. As far as he could tell, the entire battle was lost; Thomas was out of sight, to the east, probably undergoing destruction, and the only thing that mattered now was to get the survivors into Chattanooga and prepare for a last desperate stand. Once again the Confederates had completely defeated a Union general.
But they had not quite beaten Pap Thomas, or Pap Thomas’ men, and—in a measure—these saved the day. They hung on until close to sunset, saving the army; and when Thomas finally ordered a withdrawal, and his exhausted brigades began to pull out of line and move back toward the Gap and Chattanooga, the Confederates were too fought-out to pursue. Bragg himself was not much more alert than Rosecrans was. Commanders like Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest urged a smashing pursuit—these Yanks are on the run; pile in after them and never give them a chance for a breather; we can crush the whole army if we keep at it—but Bragg had grown listless. His losses had been appalling, the day had been too much for him—and he went to bed, at last, not quite certain whether he had won a great victory or narrowly avoided a humiliating defeat.
In the haunted woodland full night came down on. a gloomy timberland where lay more than 30,000 dead or wounded men. And on the winding road through the Rossville Gap the rear guard of the Army of the Cumberland gloomily plodded on toward Chattanooga. The last stand along Thomas’ line had been very fine, and in later years the men would take enormous pride in it, but right now they felt shame and disgrace; they had held on gallantly and they had prevented complete disaster but still they had been licked and now they were in full retreat. They marched in silence, and one soldier remembered: “While not a word was said, all knew that we were whipped and were retreating from the field. This was new medicine to us … it was bitter, and did not go down well.”
There was no way out and there was no way in. Chattanooga lay at the end of the passage. Eastward there was nothing at all, except for General Burnside and the 15,000 men with whom he had occupied Knoxville, and these people were 150 miles away, utterly unable to do anything except collect cattle and forage from the east Tennessee countryside and wonder how long the Confederates would let them stay there. To the north there was a barren wasteland of mountains which neither man nor beast could cross unless somebody carried food for the journey. To the south there was Bragg’s army, its campfires glittering at night all along the high rampart of Missionary Ridge, crossing the open plain and extending across to Lookout Mountain. And to the west——
To the west ran the road to the outer world, the road to food and reinforcements and the infinite strength of the Federal government, a road which might have wound across the mountains of the moon for all the use the Army of the Cumberland could make of it.
Lookout Mountain shouldered its way clear to the bank of the Tennessee River, with a highway and a railroad clinging to the slopes of its northern extremity; and armed Confederates lived on top of this mountain, so close that if they chose they might almost have tossed rocks in the river and on the highway and the railroad. Not so much as a case of hardtack, a side of bacon, or a bale of hay could get into Chattanooga for the use of the Army of the Cumberland unless these Confederates consented, and they had drawn their lines on top of Lookout Mountain for the express purpose of withholding their consent. Rosecrans’ army was besieged, and if it had escaped destruction at Chickamauga the chances now seemed quite good that it would presently die of simple starvation in Chattanooga.
Downstream from Chattanooga, 25 or 30 miles away, there was the town of Bridgeport. The Memphis and Charleston railway ran through Bridgeport, and from their great supply base at Nashville the Federals could bring any quantity of supplies to Bridgeport. The trouble was that the Confederates controlled the Chattanooga end of the route. If an army quartermaster at Bridgeport tried to get around this roadblock he would have to make a sixty-mile detour, sending his wagon trains north of the river through the almost impassable mountain country. This had been tried, over and over, and the northern road was marked every rod of the way by the bodies of dead horses and the wreckage of broken wagons, but it did not do any good; no wagon train that went this way could carry very much except the forage which its own animals had to eat in order to make the trip.
Yet there was no serious grumbling. The men were depressed because they had lost a battle, but they seem to have accepted the scarcity of food without complaint, confident that sooner or later somebody would do something about it. The Confederates made no hostile moves; felt, apparently, that none were called for, since these Yankees would inevitably be starved into submission before much longer.
The soldiers’ confidence that somebody was going to come to the rescue was not misplaced. Washington reacted to the news from Tennessee with almost feverish vigor. Two army corps were detached from the Army of the Potomac, sent west by train and river boat, and hurried down across Kentucky and central Tennessee to Bridgeport; in command was Joe Hooker, recalled from semiretirement for a job which looked as if it would call for a headlong fighter. Most of the Army of the Tennessee, with Sherman in command, was ordered east from the Mississippi, and it was marching along the line of the Memphis and Charleston, repairing damaged track as it came. And U. S. Grant, still nursing a leg he had injured in a fall from the saddle at New Orleans, was ordered north posthaste. He met Secretary of War Stanton at Indianapolis and was given command of all Federal operations between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, except for Banks’ enclave in Louisiana; from Indianapolis he went straight to Chattanooga, pausing just long enough to send a telegram on ahead announcing that Rosecrans was relieved from command and that Thomas now would lead the Army of the Cumberland.
Just before he reached Chattanooga Grant met Rosecrans on his way north and the two had a talk. Rosecrans had laid plans for relieving the pressure, and the plans were good; looking back afterward, Grant mused that the only thing he could not understand was why these plans had not been put into operation. When he finally reached the beleaguered town, after a miserable ride across the barren mountains north of the river—a very hard ride for a man with a damaged leg, who could hardly stick in the saddle and who could walk only with crutches—he found that things were being done. Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland was a General William F. Smith, universally known as Baldy, and Baldy Smith was an operator. He had put together a sawmill at Bridgeport, the motive power a steam engine rifled from some local machine shop, and he was sawing out a large number of planks; and with these planks he was building a river steamer, which would be powered by still another steam engine taken from some other local factory, and before long he would be able to move supplies up the river. Meanwhile he had discovered a route by which, with the aid of a few combat troops, a new supply line into Chattanooga could be opened. Grant quickly saw that his own job was not so much to devise new plans as to put drive and energy into the execution of plans already made.
Chattanooga lies on the south bank of the Tennessee, and along its water front the river flows straight west. Just below the city the river cuts sharply to the south, runs down to the foot of Lookout Mountain, and then makes a i8o-degree turn and comes back north for several miles, turning west at last to curve around the northern end of Raccoon Mountain and continue past Bridgeport. As it makes the Lookout Mountain turn it encloses a long finger of hilly land no more than a mile wide, and along the base of this finger, in 1863, there was a little country road which started opposite Chattanooga and came out on the north-and-south stretch of the river at a place called Brown’s Ferry. This road was hardly more than two miles long, and it bypassed the Lookout Mountain bottleneck completely. If the river could be crossed at Brown’s Ferry, another passable road led across Raccoon Mountain to Bridgeport, no more than twenty miles away. Here, potentially, was a fine supply route, the only trouble being that the Confederates who held Lookout Mountain had troops in the valley between Lookout and Raccoon Mountains and so made the Brown’s Ferry-Bridgeport road unusable.
These troops could be handled, because Bragg had not put enough of them in the valley to hold the place against a real attack. Hooker was in Bridgeport with 12,000 tough soldiers from the Army of the Potomac, and Thomas was in Chattanooga with a great many equally tough characters from the Army of the Cumberland; and one night, not long after Grant had arrived, Hooker sent men east over Raccoon Mountain while a brigade of Cumberlands got into flatboats and drifted quietly down the Tennessee, and between them these troops seized Brown’s Ferry and drove the Confederates out of the valley between Raccoon and Lookout Mountains. The Confederates still held Lookout, but that no longer mattered. A pontoon bridge was laid at Brown’s Ferry and the Federals finally had an adequate, unobstructed road leading in and out of Chattanooga.
Hooker had brought plenty of horses and wagons, and now his trains came creaking along the new route with rations and forage for the Army of the Cumberland. The soldiers lined the roads and cheered, dubbed the new route “the cracker line,” and spoke admiringly of the ramshackle little steamboat Baldy Smith had built, which helped mightily by carrying bacon and hardtack upstream from Bridgeport to a point within easy reach of Brown’s Ferry. The danger of starvation was gone forever. Grant had a breathing space in which to devise a plan for driving the Confederates out of their mountain strongholds.
The breathing space was not comfortable, because Washington was nervous and impatient. Burnside was in Knoxville, and from all the Administration could find out his men there were in as bad a fix as Thomas’ men had been in before Grant’s arrival. It was believed that if Grant did not smash Bragg very quickly Burnside’s little army would be lost, en bloc, and Grant was getting almost daily messages—from Halleek, from Stanton, and from Lincoln himself—urging him to move fast.
Then, in a misguided moment, Bragg detached Longstreet and sent him off with 15,000 veterans to take Knoxville and capture Burnside’s army.
Of all the mistakes Bragg made in this fall of 1863- and he made quite a number—this was probably the worst. The move did not do Burnside any particular harm, and it fatally weakened the Confederate army for the battle that was about to be fought. But in the early days of November, when news of the move got abroad, it did give Grant some bad moments. The tone of the daily telegrams he was getting from Washington began to be very shrill.
While Grant waited for Sherman, he began to find that the situation at Chattanooga was in some respects unusual. The Confederates had been holding their dominant position for so long that they seemed to look on all of the Yankees in Chattanooga as their ultimate prisoners; regarding them so, they found little reason to make a tough war out of it. Grant went out one day to inspect the Federal lines, and he reached a point where Federal and Confederate picket posts were not far apart. As he approached the Federal post the sentry turned out the guard; Grant dismissed it, and rode on—only to hear, before he had gone fifty yards, another cry: “Turn out the guard for the commanding general!” Immediately a snappy set of Confederates came swarming out, formed a neat military rank, came to attention, and presented arms. Grant returned the salute and rode away. … A little later he got to a spring which soldiers of both armies sometimes used. On a log by the spring was a soldier in blue, his musket at his side. Grant asked him what corps he belonged to and the man, getting up and saluting respectfully, replied that he was one of Longstreet’s men. Before they went their separate ways, Union commander and Confederate private had quite a chat.
There were times, indeed, when it seemed that the Union soldiers disliked each other more than they disliked the Confederates. Here at Chattanooga there were elements from three armies—Hooker’s two corps from the Army of the Potomac, Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee (when it finally arrived; the head of the column reached Brown’s Ferry on November 20), and the Army of the Cumberland; and these armies had distinct characteristics. Each was locked in by its own pride and clannish spirit, and each looked on the others as strange and rather outlandish groups. The easterners gaped at the westerners, especially at Sherman’s men, considered them undisciplined and abominably unmilitary in appearance, and remarked that except for the color of their uniforms they looked exactly like the Rebels. Sherman’s men, in turn, whooping and yelling as they marched through camp, slouching along with shapeless black hats jammed any which way on their heads, hooted and jeered at the men from the Army of the Potomac and made remarks about “kid gloves and paper collars”—to which the easterners replied with disdainful comments about “backwoodsmen.”
It was the Army of the Cumberland that was unhappiest in all of this. The men still carried the memory of their defeat at Chickamauga as a stain on their record; they had been whipped in fair fight, they would not be at peace with themselves until they had made up for that whipping—and here were two other armies brought in to rescue them. The plain implication was that they could not get out of their difficulties without help, and the men bitterly resented it; nor did the remarks which Potomac and Tennessee men kept on dropping make the load any easier to bear. Far down underneath, their pride in themselves as soldiers had been deeply, grievously damaged.
… Under everything, the men had become soldiers. What the war itself was all about had been lost in the shuffle somewhere. All that mattered now was the army itself, the regiment or the corps or the army to which a man gave his loyalty; it was Pap Thomas or Joe Hooker or Uncle Billy Sherman, with the grim stooped figure of Grant somewhere in the background; and in the queer way of soldiers the men could be stirred by an appeal to the badge they wore on their shoulders, or the address that home folk scrawled on an envelope, rather than by the tremendous issues for which, by the books and in theory, they were risking their lives. They could be cynical about everything but their own manhood, and that was somehow wrapped up in the army itself. They were about to go into a great fight, and their pride as soldiers might be the decisive factor in it.
Maybe the real trouble was that the battle was too theatrical. People could see too much; most particularly, the Confederates could see too much. They were up in the balconies and all of the Federals were down in the orchestra pit, and when the fighting began every move down on the plain was clearly visible to the Southerners on the heights. Perhaps just watching it did something to them.
Or it may be that everybody had been waiting too long. The armies had been in position for two months, or nearly that, with nothing much to do but look at each other. Day after day and week after week the Confederates had lounged in their trenches, looking down on men who could not conceivably do them any harm, and during all of that time the Federals had lounged in their own trenches, looking up at foes who seemed to be beyond all reach. What would happen when the men finally went into action might be strangely and powerfully affected, in a quite unpredictable way, by those long weeks of waiting.
Missionary Ridge rose 500 feet above the plain, sparse trees and underbrush littering its steep rocky slope; it ran for more than five miles, from southwest to northeast, and the Confederates had all of it. At its base, fronting the plain, they had a stout line of trenches, and on the crest they had another line, studded with cannon. Halfway up, at the proper places, there were other trenches and rifle pits, manned by soldiers who knew what to do with their rifles when they got a Yankee in the sights. To the west, a detachment held Lookout Mountain—not the crest, which rose in a straight palisade no army could scale, but the steep sides which ran down from the foot of the palisade to the edges of the Tennessee. The detachment was not large, but the mountainside was steep and the Yankees were not up to anything menacing, and it was believed that this detachment ought to be able to hold its ground. Across the flat country between Lookout and the southwestern end of Missionary Ridge, there was a good line of field works held by infantry and artillery. And at the upper end of Missionary Ridge, where the high country came down to the river a few miles upstream from Chattanooga, there was broken, hilly ground held by some of the best soldiers in all the Confederacy—the division of Irish-born Pat Cleburne, a tremendous soldier who had trained his men to the precise pattern which had been glimpsed by his pugnacious Irish eyes.
On November 23 Thomas moved his army forward. It drove Confederate skirmishers and advance guards off the plain and seized a little detached hill, named Orchard Knob, which came up out of the flat ground a little outside of Chattanooga. If Thomas wanted to order an assault on Bragg’s position he had an excellent place to take off from, but there was little reason to think that this would help very much. Missionary Ridge was still 500 feet high, and it was studded with Rebels from top to bottom.
This was the nut which U. S. Grant was expected to crack, and as he made his plans he did just what Thomas’ grumpy men had thought he would do. He gave the big assignments to Sherman and to Hooker, and to the outlanders whom these officers had brought in with them. The Army of the Cumberland would have the inglorious job of looking menacing and helping to pick up the pieces, while the men from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Potomac had the starring parts.
Grant proposed to hit the two ends of the Confederate line at once. Hooker would strike at Lookout Mountain, and Sherman—moving his army upstream, across the river from Chattanooga, and crossing over by pontoons—would hit the upper end of Missionary Ridge. While they were breaking in the Confederate flanks, Thomas’ men could attack the center. The latter attack would not accomplish anything in particular, for it would be suicide to expect troops to take that tremendous height, but if they could apply enough pressure to keep Bragg from reinforcing his flanks their job would be done. Sherman and Hooker would win the battle.
It began on November 24, after a good many delays, when Hooker sent his easterners forward from Lookout Valley to seize the mountain that looked down on the road and the river and the city of Chattanooga. At the same moment, Sherman got his army across the Tennessee, above Chattanooga, and sent it driving in on the northern end of Missionary Ridge.
Hooker’s men found their job unexpectedly easy. They outnumbered the Confederates on Lookout Mountain by a fantastic margin—five or six to one, as far as a good estimate is possible—and they clambered up the rocks and steep meadows and drove the defenders out of there with a minimum of effort and a maximum of spectacular effect. The Cumberlands (and the newspaper correspondents) were all down in the valley, watching. They saw the high ground sparkling with musket fire, and wreathed in smoke, and a mist came in and veiled the top of the mountain from sight; and then at last the mist lifted, and the Union flag was flying from the crest of the mountain, the Confederates had all retreated, and the newspapers blossomed out with great stories about “the battle above the clouds.” The left end of Bragg’s line had been knocked loose from its moorings, although actually the achievement was not as solid as it seemed. Hooker’s men still had to come down the eastern slope and crack the battle line in the plain, and that would take a little more doing.
While Hooker was at it, Sherman’s rowdies from the Army of the Tennessee attacked Pat Cleburne’s men and found that they had taken on more than they could handle.
Missionary Ridge did not run in a straight line to the edge of the Tennessee River, as Grant and everyone else on the Federal side supposed. It broke up, before it reached the river, into a complex of separated hills with very steep sides, and Sherman’s men no sooner took one hill than they found themselves obliged to go down into a valley and climb another one, with cold-eyed Rebel marksmen shooting at them every step of the way—and, occasionally, rolling huge rocks down on them. By the end of the day the Army of the Tennessee had had some very hard fighting and had not yet gained a foothold on the end of the ridge. Sherman believed (apparently mistakenly) that Bragg was drawing men from his center to reinforce CIeburne, and he called for help.
When the battle was resumed the next morning, nothing went right. Sherman’s men hammered at the northern end of Missionary Ridge and got nowhere. Hooker took his troops down from the slope of Lookout Mountain and headed south, to strike the other end of the Confederate line, but he went astray somewhere in the wooded plain; there was a stream that needed bridging, the pontoons were missing, and this blow at the Confederate left missed fire completely.
On Orchard Knob, Grant and Thomas watched the imperfect progress of this unsatisfactory battle. Sherman continued to have trouble. By mid-afternoon his attack had definitely stalled, with severe losses, and Hooker’s push had not materialized. If anything was to be done the Army of the Cumberland would have to do it.
What was planned and what finally happened were two different things. Grant told Thomas to have his men attack the Confederate line at the base of Missionary Ridge, occupy it and await further orders; the move seems to have been regarded as a diversion that might lead Bragg to withdraw some of the men who were confronting Sherman. No one had any notion that the Army of the Cumberland could take the ridge itself. Thomas apparently was dubious about the prospect of taking even the first line of trenches; he was slow about ordering the men forward, and Grant had to prod him before they finally began to move.
The battle line was two miles wide, 18,000” men in four solid infantry divisions, moving toward an impregnable mountain wall that blotted out half the sky. Flags snapped in the wind, and Thomas’ carefully drilled men kept a parade-ground alignment, and the Confederate guns high above them opened with salvos that covered the crest with a ragged dirtywhite cloud; from some atmospheric quirk, each shot they fired could be seen from the moment it left the gun’s muzzle. The Cumberlands kept on going, and from Orchard Knob Federal artillery opened in support. General Gordon Granger, who had done so much to save the day at Chickamauga, was on Orchard Knob, and he was so excited that he forgot he was commander of an army corps and went down into the gun pits to help the cannoneers. Thomas stood on the hill, majestic as ever, running his fingers through his whiskers. Beside him, Grant chewed a cigar and looked on unemotionally.
The plain was an open stage which everybody watched—the generals back on Orchard Knob, and the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. Crest and sides of the ridge were all ablaze with fire now, and the Army of the Cumberland took heavy losses, but it kept on moving. Up to the first line of trenches at the base of the mountain it went, the men swarmed over the parapet, and in a moment the Confederate defenders were scampering back up the hillside to their second and third lines. The Cumberlands moved into the vacated trenches, paused for breath, and kept looking up at the crest, 500 feet above them.
The rising slope was an obvious death trap, but these men had a score to settle—with the Rebels who had whipped them at Chickamauga, with the other Federal armies who had derided them, with Grant who had treated them as second-class troops—and now was the time to settle it. From the crest of the ridge the Confederates were sending down a sharp plunging fire, against which the captured trenches offered little protection. The Federals had seized the first line, but they could not stay where they were. It seemed out of the question to go forward but the only other course was to go back, and for these soldiers who had been suffering a slow burn for weeks, to go back was unthinkable.
The officers felt exactly as the men felt. Phil Sheridan was there, conspicuous in dress uniform—he was field officer of the day, togged out in his best—and he sat on his horse, looked up the forbidding slope, and drew a silver flask from his pocket to take a drink. Far above him, a Confederate artillery commander standing amid his guns looked down at him, and Sheridan airily waved the flask to offer a toast as he drank. The Confederate signaled to his gun crews, and his battery fired a salvo in reply; it was a near miss, the missiles kicking up dirt and gravel and spattering Sheridan’s gay uniform. Sheridan’s face darkened, he growled, “I’ll take those guns for that!” Shortly after, as if it moved in response to one command, the whole army surged forward, scrambled up out of the captured trenches, and began to move up the slope of Missionary Ridge.
Back on Orchard Knob the generals watched in stunned disbelief. Grant turned to Thomas and asked sharply who had told these men to go on to the top of the ridge. Thomas replied that he did not know; he himself had certainly given no such order. Grant then swung on Granger: was he responsible? Granger replied that he was not, but the battle excitement was on him and he added that when the men of the Army of the Cumberland once got started it was very hard to stop them. Grant bit hard on his cigar and muttered something to the effect that somebody was going to sweat for it if this charge ended in disaster; then he faced to the front again to watch the incredible thing that was happening.
Up the side of the ridge went the great line of battle. It was a parade-ground line no longer. The regimental flags led, men trailing out behind each flag in a V-shaped mass, struggling over rocks and logs as they kept on climbing. Confederate pockets of resistance on the slope were wiped out. Now and then the groups of attackers would stop for breath—the slope was steep, and it was easy to get winded—but after a moment or so they would go on again.
Looking down from the crest, the Confederates kept on firing, but the foreknowledge of defeat was beginning to grip them. The crest was uneven, and no defender could see more than a small part of his own line; but each defender could see all of the charging Federal army, and it suddenly looked irresistible. The defensive fire slackened, here and there, men began to fade back from the firing line, irresolute; and finally the Federals were covering the final yards in a frantic competitive run, each regiment trying to outdo the others, each man trying to beat his fellows. A company commander, running ahead of his colors, grabbed the coat tails of one of his men, to hold him back so that he might reach the crest first.
No one could ever determine afterward what unit or what men won the race, and the business was argued at old soldiers’ reunions for half a century. Apparently, the crest was reached at half a dozen places simultaneously, and when it was reached, Bragg’s line—the center of his whole army, the hard core of his entire defensive position—suddenly and inexplicably went to pieces. By ones and twos and then by companies and battalions, gray-clad soldiers who had proved their valor in any number of desperate fights turned and took to their heels. Something about that incredible scaling of the mountain side had just been too much for them. Perfectly typical was the case of a Confederate officer who, scorning to run, stood with drawn sword waiting to fight it out with the first Yankee who approached him. An Indiana private, bayoneted rifle in his grip, started toward him—and then, amazingly, laid down his weapon and came on in a crouch, bare hands extended. There was a primeval menace in him, more terrifying than bayonet or musket, and the officer blinked at him for a moment and then fled.
As resistance dissolved, the victorious Federals were too breathless to cheer. They tossed their caps in the air, and some of them crossed the narrow ridge to peer down the far side, where they saw what they had not previously seen—whole brigades of Confederates, running downhill in wild panicky rout. The Federals turned and beckoned their comrades with jubilant shouts: “My Godl Come and see them runl”
The Battle of Chattanooga was over, now, no matter what Sherman or Hooker did. With a two-mile hole punched in the center of his line, Bragg could do nothing but retreat, and as his army began to reassemble on the low ground beyond the mountain it took off for Georgia, with Cleburne’s men putting up a stout rearguard resistance. Phil Sheridan got his division into shape and took off in pursuit, figuring that it might be possible to cut in behind Cleburne and capture his whole outfit, but his pursuit was little more than a token. The Army of the Cumberland was temporarily immobilized by the sheer surprise of its incredible victory. Nobody wanted to do anything but ramble around, yell, and let his chest expand with unrestrained pride.
Oddly enough, it was a long time before the soldiers realized that they themselves were responsible for the victory. They tended to ascribe it to Grant and to his good management, and they told one another that all they had ever needed was a good leader. One officer who had shared in all of this army’s battles wrote that during the uproar of this conflict “I thought I detected in the management what I had never discovered before on the battlefield—a little common sense.” When Grant and Thomas came to the top of the ridge the men crowded about them, capering and yelling. Sherman himself was thoroughly convinced that the battle had gone exactly as Grant had planned it; to him the whole victory was simply one more testimonial to the General’s genius.
Washington felt much the same way; but Washington also remembered that Burnside was still beleaguered in Knoxville, and when Lincoln sent a wire of congratulations to Grant he added the words: “Remember Burnside.” Grant started Granger off to the rescue, with an army corps; then, figuring that Sherman would make a faster march—and feeling apparently a little disillusioned about Granger, after noticing the man’s unrestrained excitement during the battle—he canceled the order and sent the Army of the Tennessee.
Burnside, as it turned out, was in no serious trouble. Longstreet had made a night attack on his lines and had been repulsed, after which he drew his troops off and menaced the Union garrison from a distance. Sherman’s men relieved the Knoxville situation without difficulty, except that the pace at which Sherman drove them marched them practically out of their shoes. They found the Federals in Knoxville ragged and hungry—the food allowance had been reduced to a daily issue of salt pork and bran bread, so unappetizing that it took a half-starved man to eat it—but things had not been as bad in Knoxville as they had been in Chattanooga before Grant’s arrival. Sherman fumed privately over what he considered the military folly of trying to occupy Knoxville at all, and the effort to nudge Longstreet off to a safer distance involved a good deal of highly uncomfortable winter campaigning, but the danger was over. Before too long, full military communication with the Federal supply bases was opened, which meant that plenty of food and clothing could come in.
Back in Chattanooga the soldiers prepared for winter and for the spring campaign that would follow. Grant was turning Nashville into one of the greatest supply bases on the continent, and the railway connection with Chattanooga was being restored and strengthened; in the spring Grant would take Atlanta and Mobile, and he wanted everything ready.
The Confederacy had passed the last of the great might-have-beens of the war. Its supreme attempt to restore the lost balance had failed. By making the greatest effort it could make—pulling together a large army even at the cost (never risked before or afterward) of taking men from Lee’s army—it had made its final bid for victory at Chickamauga. It could not again make such an effort, and it would not again have a chance to make the tide flow in the other direction. The Army of the Cumberland might have been destroyed at Chickamauga but was not destroyed; it might have been starved into surrender at Chattanooga, but that had not happened; and now Bragg’s wrecked army was recuperating in north Georgia, Bragg himself replaced by cautious little Joe Johnston, and from this time on the Confederacy could hope to do no more than parry the blows that would be leveled against it. The dream that had been born in spring light and fire was flickering out now and nothing lay ahead but a downhill road.
Eighteen hundred and sixty-four came in, and it would be the worst year of all—the year of victory made certain, the year of smoke and destruction and death, with an old dream going down in flames and an unfathomable new one taking form in the minds of men who hardly knew what they dreamed. Steadily and inescapably a new rhythm was being felt. Visibly drawing nearer to its end, the war had paradoxically become a thing which could not be stopped.
Thoughtful Southerners saw the narrowing circle and the rising shadows, and cried that the fight must continue to the final limits of endurance. The Confederate Congress, adopting a resolution addressed to constituents back home, touched the edge of hysteria in its fervor. If the Washington government (said this resolution) called for restoration of the old Union it was merely setting a cruel trap for the deluded; there could be no reunion because the only possible relation between the reunited sections would be that between conqueror and conquered, and “nothing short of your utter subjugation, the destruction of your state governments, the overthrow of your social and political fabric, your personal and public degradation and ruin, will satisfy the demands of the North.”
If there was in this the desperate overstatement common to wartime propaganda, there was nevertheless reason for thoughtful Southerners to feel this way. The attempt to make an independent Confederacy had been, in a sense, nothing more than a despairing effort to do something about the problem of slavery. The war was a great forced draft applied to a longsmoldering flame, and under its white heat the problem was changing. Not for nothing was slavery called “the peculiar institution”; and its chief peculiarity seemed to be that it would not stay put.
Secession had been an attempt to perpetuate the past: to enable a society based on slavery to live on, as an archaic survival in the modern world. Slavery was above all else a primitive mechanism, and the society which relied on it could survive, in the long run, only if the outside world propped it up. But the Southern society was not itself primitive at all. It needed all of the things the rest of the world needed—railroad iron, rolling mills, machine tools, textile machinery, chemicals, industrial knowledge, and an industrial labor force—yet it clung to the peculiar institution which prevented it from producing these things itself, and it relied on the rest of the world to make its deficiencies good. Now the rest of the world had ceased to contribute, except for the trickle that came in through the blockade. Instead, that part of the outside world which lay nearest—the North—was doing everything it could to destroy such industrial strength as the South possessed, and what it destroyed could not be replaced. As cotton gins and clothing factories went up in smoke the peculiar institution itself would crumble, dim human aspirations seeping down into a submerged layer and undermining all of the foundations.
The Southern Congress was quite right; an overturn was coming, and it was precisely the sort of overturn which the men who had created the Confederacy could not at any price accept. No peace based on reunion (the only sort of peace that was really conceivable) could be contemplated, because reunion, by now, inevitably meant the end of slavery. The more hopeless the military outlook became the more bitterly would Southern leaders insist on fighting to the last ditch.
In this winter of 1864 there was a singular little meeting one evening in the headquarters tent of General Joe Johnston, commanding what had been Bragg’s hard-luck army, at Dalton, Georgia. All corps and division commanders, with one exception, were present; among them, Irish General Pat Cleburne, who had fought so stoutly against Sherman’s troops at Chattanooga. General Cleburne had been considering the plight of the South, and he had a paper to present. With Joe Johnston’s permission (although not, it would appear, with his outright approval) he read it to the other officers.
The Confederacy, said Cleburne, was fighting a hopeless struggle. It had lost more than a third of its territory; it had lost many men, and had “lost, consumed or thrown to the flames an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world.” It was badly outnumbered and the disparity was getting worse instead of better, and the Confederate soldier was “sinking into a fatal apathy” and was coming more and more to “a growing belief that some black catastrophe is not far ahead of us.” Worst of all, at the beginning of the war slavery was one of the Confederacy’s chief sources of strength; now, from a military point of view, it had become “one of our chief sources of weakness.”
In any area which had been touched by Northern armies, said Cleburne, slavery was fatally weakened, and with this weakness came a corresponding weakness in the civilian economy. The Confederacy thus had an infinite number of vulnerable spots: there was “one of these in every point where there is a slave to set free.” The burden could not be carried any longer. Therefore—said Cleburne, reaching the unthinkable conclusion—the South must boldly and immediately recruit Negro troops, guaranteeing in return freedom to every slave who gave his support to the Confederacy. In substance, what Cleburne was asking for was emancipation and black armies. If the peculiar institution was a source of weakness, Cleburne would abolish the institution and turn its human material into a source of strength.
The war, said Cleburne, was killing slavery anyway. From one source or another, the Negro was going to get his freedom. Make a virtue of necessity, then (said this foreign-born general), “and we change the race from a dreaded weakness to a position of strength.”
Cleburne’s proposal had certain support. It was signed by two brigadiers and a number of field officers from his own division, as well as by a stray cavalry general; and the first signature on the list, of course, was that of Cleburne himself. But the net effect of this modest proposal, dropped thus into a meeting of the commanding generals of the Confederacy’s western army, was about the effect that would be produced in a convention of devout churchmen by the unexpected recital of a grossly improper joke. It was received with a shocked, stunned, and utterly incredulous silence. Cleburne had mentioned the unmentionable.
Secretary of War James Seddon wrote earnestly to General Johnston, expressing Jefferson Davis’ conviction that “the dissemination or even promulgation of such opinions under the present circumstances of the Confederacy … can be productive only of discouragement, distraction and dissension.” General Johnston passed the word down the line, Cleburne put his paper away and agreed not to press it any further, and the matter was buried.
It had to be buried, for what Cleburne had quite unintentionally done was to force his fellow officers to gaze upon the race problem which lay beneath the institution of slavery, and that problem seemed to be literally insoluble. It did not, in that generation, seem possible to most men that white and black folk could dwell together in one community in simple amity. There had to be a barrier between them—some tangible thing that would compel everyone to act on the assumption that one race was superior and the other inferior. Slavery was the only barrier imaginable. If it were removed society would be up against something monstrous and horrifying. To make human brotherhood a working reality in everyday life seemed too big a contract for frail human beings. The privilege of belonging to an admittedly superior race—the deep conviction that there actually were superior and inferior races—could not be wrenched out of human society without a revolutionary convulsion. The convulsion was unthinkable, yet it was beginning to take place, even though hardly anyone had consciously willed it; it was coming down the country roads with the swaggering destructive columns in weathered blue, lying across the landscape behind the haze of smoke that came down from the ridges around Gettysburg and Chattanooga, and there was no stopping it.
[ Early in the spring of 1864 U. S. Grant was made lieutenant general and given top command of the Federal armies, and a summer of desperate fighting quickly followed .
In Virginia, Grant accompanied Meade’s Army of the Potomac in a drive toward Richmond. Continuous battle resulted, with fearful Federal losses and no apparent advantage; but after such struggles as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor, Grant at last forced Lee into his lines at Petersburg, Virginia, and pinned him down to a defensive warfare which the South could not win.
As a countermove, Lee sent Jubal Early north with a small army, but although Early reached the suburbs of Washington and had a brisk fight there, he finally had to retreat and Grant’s hold at Petersburg was not shaken.
At the same time, Sherman marched into Georgia, and after an involved campaign and a series of vigorous battles captured Atlanta. The Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who had been opposing him, was relieved of his command by the Richmond government and was replaced by General John B. Hood.
As the summer wore away, other signs of approaching Federal victory became manifest. Admiral David Farragut broke into Mobile Bay, sealing off one of the Confederacy’s few remaining seaports, and General Philip Sheridan broke Confederate power in the Shenandoah Valley, devastating that area relentlessly so that it could no longer provide supplies for Confederate armies. As election day approached, it became more and more clear that the war must eventually end in Union victory .]
On November 8 the people of the North re-elected Abraham Lincoln and endorsed a war to the finish. One week later General Sherman and 60,000 veterans left Atlanta on the march that was to make that finish certain—the wild, cruel, rollicking march from Atlanta to the sea.
Two months had passed since the capture of Atlanta. A part of this time had been spent in resting and refitting the army. Several weeks more had been consumed in a fruitless chase of John B. Hood, who still commanded 40,000 good men and who circled off to the northwest, molesting Sherman’s supply line and hoping to draw the invaders off in retreat. Sherman had tried to catch and destroy this Confederate army, but he had not had much luck, and in mid-October he gave up the pursuit entirely and made his plans for the next campaign. Back to Tennessee went Thomas and Schofield, with something fewer than half of the men who had occupied Atlanta. They would see to it that Hood’s Confederates did nothing to upset the military balance; with the rest of his men Sherman would drive for the seacoast.
Grant’s consent was won, at last. Thomas moved his Cumberlands back to Tennessee—the men tended to be a little sullen, feeling that they would have to do any fighting that remained while the men with Sherman would have all of the fun—and the Army of the Tennessee went to work to ruin Atlanta before beginning the march to the coast.
Atlanta was pretty tattered already. The repeated bombardments during the siege had destroyed many houses, and when Sherman occupied the place about half of its normal population of 13,000 had fled. Sherman ordered the rest of the civilians out of town, and managed to deport some 1,600 of them; to Halleck he wrote that “if the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.” During the long Federal occupancy of the town the deserted buildings got rough treatment from the soldiers, who never had any qualms about destroying dwellings that were not currently inhabited. And finally, when it was time to leave, Sherman ordered complete destruction of all factories, railroad installations, and other buildings which might be of any use to the Confederacy.
Smoke filled the sky like a gigantic ominous signal as Sherman’s army pulled clear of the city and started for the sea. The army was moving in four columns, widely spread out-15th and 17th Corps, under General O. O. Howard, on the right, and 14th and 20th, under General Henry W. Slocum, on the left. Orders were that there should be an average pace of fifteen miles a day. Transportation was cut to a minimum and there was no supply line. The army would feed itself with what it found in Georgia along the way.
And so began the strangest, most fateful campaign of the entire war, like nothing that happened before or afterward. These Federals were not moving out to find and destroy an armed enemy; the only foe that could give them a fight, Hood’s army, was hundreds of miles off to the rear, and everybody knew it. They were not being asked to hurry; fifteen miles a day was much less than these long-legged marchers could easily make, and everybody knew that too. Their mission was to wreck an economy and to destroy a faith—the economy that supported the thin fading fabric of the Confederacy, the faith that believed the Confederacy to be an enduring creation and trusted in its power to protect and avenge. As they moved down the red roads of Georgia, cutting a swath sixty miles wide from flank to flank, they were the conscious agents of this destruction; men who trampled out the terrible vintage of the grapes of wrath, led by an implacable general who was more and more coming to see a monstrous but logical destiny in his mission.
Every morning each brigade would send out a detail of foragers—from twenty to fifty men, led by an officer and followed by a wagon to bring back what was seized—and this detail, whose members knew the route the army was following, was not expected to return to camp until evening. The foragers were ordered to stay out of inhabited dwellings and to seize no more food than was actually needed, but they were under the loosest sort of control and in any case they were joined, followed, and aided by a steadily growing riffraff of armed stragglers, who were known contemptuously as “bummers” and who knew very little restraint of any kind. Between the regular foraging parties and the lawless bummers, plantations that lay in this army’s path were bound to have a very rough time.
As the Army of the Tennessee moved, the great march to the sea began to resemble nothing so much as one gigantic middle western Halloween saturnalia, a whole month deep and 250 miles long. Typical was one veteran’s comment: “Our men are clear discouraged with foraging; they can’t carry half the hogs and potatoes they find right along the road.” In spite of the strict orders that no man not assigned to one of the regular foraging parties should leave the ranks to take any civilian property, it was admitted that “there is scarcely a one that does not forage from morning to night if he gets a chance,” and the army reveled in elaborate menus—“we live on sweet potatoes, turnips, flour, meal, beef, pork, mutton, chickens, and anything else found on the plantations.”
Eight days after it had left Atlanta the army reached Milledgeville, then the capital of Georgia, and one man recorded that “the army had lived high on the products of Georgia and were growing fatter and stronger every day.” Perhaps unnecessarily, he added that “they had come to look on the trip as a grand picnic, and were not getting tired but more anxious to prolong it if anything.” Plantations were looted outright, men who had set out to take no more than hams and chickens began carrying away heirlooms, silver, watches—anything that struck their fancy. Here and there, Southern patriots felled trees to obstruct roads, or burned bridges; there was never enough of this to delay the army seriously, but there was just enough to provoke reprisals, and barns and houses went up in smoke as a result. A general remarked that “as the habit of measuring right by might goes on, pillage becomes wanton.”
Day after day, crowds of fugitive slaves fell in on the roads to follow the army. Sherman did his utmost to keep these fugitives from following, but there was no way to keep them from trailing after the soldiers if they chose, and many of them did choose. What became of most of them, no one ever knew.
It was believed that some of the fugitives met death by starvation, yet those who were able to stay with the troops usually got enough to eat. Foragers brought in vast wagonloads of material that was abandoned to rot. Usually, the surplus was given to the Negroes.
So much food was taken, indeed, that the soldiers themselves were almost appalled when they stopped to think about it. In one regiment, the men made a rough rule-of-thumb estimate of the requisitions that had been made and concluded that the army must have accounted for 100,000 hogs, 20,000 head of cattle, 15,000 horses and mules, 500,000 bushels of corn, and 100,000 bushels of sweet potatoes. Sherman himself later estimated that his army had caused one hundred million dollars’ worth of damage in Georgia. Of this, he believed, perhaps twenty million dollars represented material that the army actually used; the rest was “simple waste and destruction.”
The effect of all this was prodigious. The fact that any army of 60,000 men could march straight through the Southern heartland, moving leisurely and taking all the time it needed to destroy the land’s resources, without meeting enough resistance to cause even a day’s delay, was an unmistakable portent of the approaching end. No one could remain in much doubt about how the war was going to result when this could be done. Furthermore, the march was both revealing and contributing to the Confederacy’s inability to use the resources that remained to it. Around Richmond, Lee’s army was underfed, short of animals, perceptibly losing strength from simple lack of food and forage; yet here in Georgia there was a prodigious wealth of the things it needed, and it could not get them—primarily because the land’s transportation and distribution system was all but in a state of total collapse, but also because this invading army was smashing straight through the source of supply. The morale of Confederate soldiers in Virginia and in Tennessee sank lower and lower as letters from home told how this army was wrecking everything and putting wives and children in danger of starvation.
Sherman came out where he had intended to, at Savannah, on December 10. Sherman led his army around to the right, striking for the Ogeechee River and Ossabaw Sound, where he could get in touch with the navy, receive supplies, and regain contact with Grant and with Washington. The Union soldiers found Savannah unlike any town they had ever been in before. They entered the place on December 21, marching formally for a change, with bands playing and flags flying, Sherman himself taking a salute as they marched past. Savannah had a tropical air; the yards were filled with blooming flowers; palm trees and orange trees were to be seen; the houses looked old and inviting; and war seemed not to have touched the city. The men looked about them, reflecting that they had finished one of the great marches of history, and they suddenly went on their good behavior; Savannah was spared the devastation and pillage so many other places in Georgia had endured.
Sherman sent off a whimsical wire to Abraham Lincoln, offering him the city of Savannah, with much war equipment and 25,000 bales of priceless cotton, as a Christmas gift. To Grant and Halleck he wrote urging that as soon as his army had caught its breath it should be allowed to march straight north across the Carolina country. To Halleck he wrote: “I think our campaign of the last month, as well as every step I take from this point northward, is as much a direct attack upon Lee’s army as though we were operating within the sound of his artillery.”
Everything was working. Lee’s lines at Petersburg still held, but now his rear was unsafe. Sherman’s army was nearer to Richmond now than it was to Vicksburg, and there was no conceivable way to keep it from coming up. As the year came to an end, the Confederacy had just under four months to live.
It is possible that the Confederate General Hood made a very serious error in judgment.
When Sherman stopped chasing him in the middle of October and took his men back to Atlanta to prepare to march to the sea, Hood concluded that his own cue was to invade Tennessee from northern Alabama. Hood let Sherman go, pulled his army together below the southernmost loop of the Tennessee River, and at last—late in November, heavy rains and a scarcity of supplies having imposed delay—he took off, crossing the river and moving up toward Nashville.
With hindsight, it can be argued that this was a strategic error of the first magnitude. Hood’s offensive was doomed. Thomas had enough strength to stop him, and although the expedition caused uneasy moments in Washington it ended in sheer Confederate disaster. But the simple fact is that Hood had no good choice to make. The Confederate armies were coming to the end of the tether. There was a good deal of killing still to be done—deaths on battlefield and in hospital, men slain in meaningless little crossroads skirmishes, typhoid and dysentery and scurvy doing their stealthy work behind the lines—but the verdict was just about in. Confederate armies now could do little more than play out the string.
Thomas was in Nashville, trying to reassemble his army. Some of his stout Cumberland soldiers had gone off to Savannah with Sherman, and he did not have all of his old command. Reinforcements were on their way, and he would presently have a first-rate cavalry corps—young James H. Wilson was putting together a mighty force of mounted men, all of them to be armed with repeating carbines—but Thomas was not quite ready yet and he wanted time. He had sent John Schofield with approximately 22,000 men down near the Tennessee-Alabama border, to delay Hood and gain a little of this time for him, and for 24 hours it looked as if Hood might eat Schofield at one bite.
Schofield let Hood steal a march on him, and by a fast flank movement Hood brought his troops around to a place called Spring Hill, on the Nashville Turnpike, squarely in Schofield’s rear. Alerted just in time, Schofield turned back in retreat. Hood’s men were where they could have broken up this retreat and compelled the Federals to fight an uphill battle for their lives, but Hood’s command arrangements got fouled up most atrociously, and in some unaccountable way he let Schofield’s army march straight across his front, wagon trains and all, without molesting it.
The Federals tramped wearily up to the town of Franklin, on the south bank of the Harpeth River. The bridge had been burned, and Schofield could not get his guns or his wagons across the river until his engineers had built a new one; so he put his infantry in line in a wide semicircle on a rising ground just south of town and got them dug in while the engineers went to work.
Hood’s army was moving fast in pursuit—Hood was furious because of the chance that had been missed at Spring Hill, and he was blaming everyone but himself for it, complaining that his soldiers were unwilling to fight unless they could have the protection of trenches. His army came up into contact with Schofield’s outpost a little after noon, and Hood immediately decided to attack.
It was November 30; a pleasant Indian summer day with a broad open field rolling gently up to the Union trenches. General Schofield, who was on the far side of the river seeing to the bridge-building job, looked across and saw one of the great tragic sights of the war. Here were 18,000 Confederate infantrymen, more men than had charged with Pickett at Gettysburg, coming forward in perfect order, battle flags flying, sunlight glinting on polished rifle barrels. On came the moving ranks, looking irresistible, battalions perfectly aligned; then the Federal infantry and artillery opened, a dense cloud of smoke tumbled down the slope, and the moment of pageantry was over.
No fight in all the war was more desperate than this one at Franklin. Hood’s men charged with a stubborn fury that should have proved to the angry general, once and for all, that they were not in the least afraid to fight out in the open. They came to close quarters and—incredibly, for the charge was just about as hopeless as Burnside’s assaults on the stone wall at Fredericksburg had been—cracked the center of the Union line and went pouring through, raising the Rebel yell. But the break was quickly mended. Ohio and Wisconsin and Kentucky troops came in with a prompt counterattack. There was terrible hand-to-hand fighting in a farmyard and around a cotton gin; a gunner in one Union battery brained an assailant with an axe, and young Colonel Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin was crying to his men: “Give ’em hell, boys, give ’em hell, 24th!” The Confederates who had broken the line were killed or driven out, and all along the front the firing reached a fearful intensity; some of the Confederates, utterly beaten out, facing this fire at the closest range, were heard calling: “Don’t shoot, Yanks —for God Almighty’s sake, don’t shoot!”
The autumn day ended, at last, and the battle ended with it, the shattered Confederate brigades drawing back in defeat. Their losses had been 6,000 men killed or wounded, five general officers killed—among them the Pat Cleburne who had mentioned the unmentionable in that officers’ meeting the previous winter—and seven more generals wounded, one mortally. Nothing whatever had been gained. Late that night Schofield’s bridge was finished and his army marched off to Nashville, eighteen miles away, saving its guns and wagons.
The Federal army had held Nashville for the better part of three years, and had surrounded it with powerful fortifications. When Hood’s army came up and ranged itself on the hills facing the Union works, the Federals looked out at them and reflected that it was good to “occupy the favorable side of the fortifications.”
Hood came to a standstill, here before Nashville. He had already shot his bolt, although he did not seem to realize it. Thomas outnumbered him by a substantial margin, and there was no longer anything of much consequence that he could do. Lacking a better course, he dug trenches here facing the strong Yankee line and put up a hollow pretense of besieging the place.
It worried Pap Thomas very little, but it very seriously worried General Grant. Sherman once said, admiringly, that Grant never cared in the least what the opposing army might be doing off out of his sight, but Grant was worrying now; for once in his life he had the jitters. From his headquarters hut at Petersburg it looked as if Hood might be making a wild, desperate thrust that could wholly upset all of the Federal war plans. Grant bombarded Thomas with daily messages demanding that he attack at once.
Thomas replied that it would take a few days to get everything ready and that he would attack as soon as possible; Grant retorted that there must be no more delay, and went so far once as to write out an order relieving Thomas of his command and turning the whole army over to Schofield. The order was not sent, finally, but the fact that it was drafted was significant. Thomas sensed what was in the wind, and when Halleek wired that Grant was highly unhappy about his delay he calmly replied that he had done his best and that “if General Grant should order me to be relieved, I will submit without a murmur.” Then, just as he was ready to attack, a great sleet storm came down, fields and roads were coated with an inch of slick ice, and troop movements became utterly impossible.
The ice lasted for four days, during which time both armies were immobilized. Grant fretted and worried and at last he got hold of General John Logan, who was north at the time, gave him orders relieving Thomas from command, and sent him west.
Logan never quite made it. On December 14—at last—the weather turned warm. There was a steady rain, mud took the place of ice, and Thomas sent off a wire to Halleck: “The ice having melted away today, the enemy will be attacked tomorrow morning.” Then he called in his corps commanders, gave them written orders for the next day’s attack, went over the orders with them in detail—and, finally, went to bed, in the Nashville hotel room he was occupying, leaving word at the desk for a five o’clock call next morning.
Morning came, and Thomas packed his bag, checked out, and rode off to field headquarters. There was a fog on the ground, but it drifted away not long after sunrise and the troops were ready to go. Thomas ordered them forward, sending in two brigades of colored troops to hold Hood’s right, and attacking at the other end of the line with a solid corps of infantry and all of Wilson’s cavalry.
Everything worked. Hood’s line was stretched thin, and the infantry smashed through, the cavalry curled around behind his left flank, and Hood was driven back for two miles, to take a new, last-hope position on a little chain of hills. Thomas renewed the attack the next morning, and although the Confederates put up a stout fight their case was hopeless. Thomas’ 4th Corps swarmed up a hill, crumpling the skirmish line, and driving on for the trenches. Wilson’s cavalry came up on the right, dismounted and acting as infantry—the men had thrown their sabers by the roadside and were working their repeaters like foot soldiers—and, finally, the whole defensive position caved in and Hood’s army fled, leaving most of its artillery behind, while the Yankee cavalry scurried back to reclaim its horses and get off in pursuit.
The victory had been complete. Hood’s army was shattered beyond repair, and there was no refuge for it north of Alabama. Young General Wilson drove his cavalry after the retreating army, in the pitch darkness of a windy, rainy night. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was guarding the Confederate rear, and his men fought savage delaying actions in the bewildering dark, crouched behind fence-rail barricades while the Union cavalry charged in across inky-black fields, nothing visible except the sputtering flames from the carbines—and, at intervals, black tree trunks gleaming in the wet, and dark figures moving in and out, when flashes of lightning lit the night. After midnight Wilson called a halt and put his troopers into bivouac.
At this point Thomas himself rode up at a gallop, and his customary dignity and self-control had evaporated. He greeted Wilson with a whoop.
“Dang it to hell, Wilson, didn’t I tell you we could lick ’em?” he demanded. “Didn’t I tell you we could lick ’em?”
In Louisville, Kentucky, General Logan got news of the victory, put his orders away, and turned around to go back to Washington. And in Washington General Grant himself got the tidings. He had left Petersburg and was on his way to Nashville to come out and see to things personally, and he was stopping overnight in Willard’s Hotel when the telegram reached him. It told the news of the sweeping victory that removed the last possible doubt that the war would be won on schedule. Grant read the telegram, handed it to an aide with the remark, “Well, I guess we will not go to Nashville,” and then dictated a wire to Thomas offering his hearty congratulations.
Wilson’s cavalry kept up the pursuit for ten days, but with the men who remained to him Hood at last got away to the south side of the Tennessee River, at Muscle Shoals. Of the 40,000 with whom he had set out on his invasion he had 21,000 left, most of them in a high degree of disorganization. His army had been practically destroyed. Fragments of it would be used in other fields, later on, but as an army it had ceased to exist. Pap Thomas had shattered it.
It had been going on for nearly four years, and there would be about four more months of it. Winter lay on the hills and fields that had been unheard-of four years earlier but that would live on forever now in tradition and national memory—Shiloh, Antietam, the Wilderness, Chickamauga, and all the rest. Here and there, all over the country, were the mounded graves of half a million young men who had been alive and unsuspecting when all of this began. There would be more graves to dig, and when there was time there would be thin bugle calls to lie in the still air while a handful of dust drifted down on a blanketed form, but most of this was over. A little more killing, a little more marching and burning and breaking and smashing, and then it would be ended.
Ended; yet, in a haunting way, forever unended. It had laid an infinity of loss and grief on the land, it had created a shadowed purple twilight streaked with undying fire which would live on, deep in the mind and heart of the nation, as long as any memory of the past retained meaning. Whatever the American people might hereafter do would in one way or another take form and color from this experience. Under every dream and under every doubt there would be the tragic knowledge bought by this war, the awareness that triumph and disaster are the two aspects of something lying beyond victory, the remembrance of heartbreak and suffering, and the moment of vision bought by people who had bargained for no vision but simply wanted to live at peace. A new dimension had been added to the national existence and the exploration of it would take many generations. The Civil War, with its lights and its shadows, its unendurable pathos, and its charred and stained splendor, would be the American people’s permanent possession.
At the time, it was possible to see only the approaching end and the hard times that had to be lived through before the end could finally be reached. In the North men nerved themselves for the ruthless blows that must be struck against a dying foe; in the South men nerved themselves to endure the blows; and as the year opened the blows began to fall.
The first one struck Fort Fisher, a sprawling sanddune fortification at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, in North Carolina. Upstream a few miles was Wilmington, the Confederacy’s last seaport. Here, and here only, the blockade runners could slip in from the mist with the cargoes without which the Confederacy could not live. While Fort Fisher stood the South still touched the outside world. Just before Christmas in 1864 the Federal government had moved in to smash Fort Fisher.
Unfortunately, the job was entrusted to General Ben Butler, who was not up to smashing anything. He had the assistance of a first-class fleet under Admiral David Porter, but even the help of the United States Navy could not make a successful soldier out of Butler. Butler filled a ship with powder, sent it in under the walls of Fort Fisher, and exploded it, fancying that the blast would level the fort and make the work of his troops easy. The explosion took place on schedule, but it had so little effect on the fort that the Confederates merely assumed that a Yankee boiler had blown up. Butler got troops ashore, considered taking the place by storm, then changed his mind, reembarked his soldiers, and sailed back to Hampton Roads, reporting that the fort was too strong to be taken.
Butler had tried his luck one notch too far. He possessed much political influence and it had always been necessary to treat him with extreme consideration. But the Lincoln Administration had just won a presidential election and Butler was no longer an untouchable. Admiral Porter wrote Grant that Fort Fisher would fall whenever the army cared to send a competent general down to attend to the job. Butler went back to Massachusetts, a general without an army; a new amphibious expedition was mounted; the army gave Butler’s old command to tough Major General Alfred H. Terry—and on January 15, after a prodigious bombardment by the fleet and a smart charge by the sailors and the infantry, Fort Fisher was captured. The South had lost its last seaport. The dwindling armies which were the Confederacy’s only hold on life would get no more equipment than that which the South itself could provide, and the South’s own resources were coming down close to the vanishing point.
And in Savannah, General Sherman was starting north with his 60,000 veterans, heading for nothing less than Richmond itself.
The men would make a tough campaign. They had long since come to look on themselves as the appointed agents through which the country would take vengeance on those who had tried to destroy it. To a man, they felt that South Carolina, above all other places, was the spot where vengeance was most called for. Until now, these soldiers had performed the act of devastation casually, without animus; in South Carolina they would act with genuine venom. They would go through South Carolina, if General Sherman led them there, like the wrath of an outraged God.
General Sherman would lead them there. This lean, red-bearded, nervous general saw that to break everything loose in South Carolina was to crush the Confederacy’s last hope to fragments. He led his army north from Savannah shortly after the first of the new year with “the settled determination of each individual to let the people know there was war in the land.”
This was not the picnic hike that had prevailed in Georgia. To go north across the lowlands, Sherman had to cross a flat swampy country crossed by many rivers, most of which were in flood. Joe Johnston, that canny little soldier who was at last being restored to command (now that there was nothing much for a Confederate to command) believed that no army could cross this land in winter with any success. From afar Johnston watched Sherman’s progress, unbelieving; and when he saw Sherman’s army bridging rivers, building roads across swamps and wading through flooded backwaters, making just as much time as it had made on the dry roads of Georgia, he wrote that “I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.”
Johnston was right, in a way. This was not, actually, an army: it was just a collection of western pioneers on the march—men with axes, who could cut down a forest and corduroy a road without breaking step, men who would flounder for miles through flood waters armpit deep, making nothing of it except for casual high-private remarks to the effect that “Uncle Billy seems to have struck this river end-ways.” They plowed across the bottom lands as if they were on parade; they built bridges, cut roads, marched in icecold water as if they were on dry ground, casually burned towns and looted plantations and set fire to pine forests just for the fun of seeing the big trees burn—and came up north, mile after endless mile, laughing and frolicking and making a devastation to mark their passage. An Indiana soldier remarked that the men set fire to so much that “some days the sun was almost entirely obscured by the smoke of the consuming buildings, cotton gins, etc.”
Mile by mile, the army moved north. Every evening the mounted foragers would come in to camp, trailed by hundreds of wagons, buggies, and carriages which they had seized at different plantations and had loaded with foodstuffs; in the morning, when the army moved on, these would be set on fire and abandoned, symbols of the offhand hatred which the rank and file nourished for the state where secession had been born. Going through the town of McPhersonville, Ohio soldiers realized that every house in the place was burning, reflected that “this state was largely responsible for the rebellion,” and thoughtfully noted: “Our line of march throughout this state was marked by smoke in the day and the glare of fire by night.” All along this line of march, few buildings escaped the flames; one soldier commented drily that “where a family remains at home they save their house but lose their stock and eatables.”
All across the state, the army collected much more in the way of food and forage than it could possibly use. When it broke camp in the morning, officers would order the surplus to be piled up so that it could be brought along later by wagon; doubting that any of it would ever be seen again, the skeptical privates would stuff all they could carry in their haversacks. It was generally understood that the piles of surplus were simply abandoned, purposely, so that the Negroes and poor whites could have something to eat.
A “most unnoticed, Charleston fell. Sherman’s men did not go near it. They simply marched across all of its lines of communications, knifing them so that the storied city dropped into Yankee hands like a ripe peach falling from a tree; the Confederate defenders left the place, and the army-and-navy people who had tried so long to break a way in entered unopposed. Meanwhile, Sherman’s army came tramping up to Columbia, capital of the state.
Columbia got the full fury of the storm. Confederate cavalry held the place, made just enough resistance to force the Federals to prepare for a regular assault, and then left. Union troops marched in. Here and there, little fires started. A great wind came up, the fires spread—and presently most of Columbia was on fire, in a senseless, meaningless conflagration that brought the final measure of ruin and despair to the Palmetto state which had led the South out of the Union.
Concerning the origin of this fire there is still great argument. Sherman held that retreating Confederate cavalry had set fire to baled cotton and that this had caused the great fire; Confederates retorted furiously that Union troops had started the flames and that Columbia was burned wantonly, for sport, by soldiers who had thrown off all restraint. An Illinois soldier denied that Unionists had caused the fire, but he wrote that the soldiers “smiled and felt glad in their hearts” to see the city burning, and another man from the same state confessed that his whole division was drunk and added: “I think the city should be burned out, but would like to see it done decently.” Wisconsin soldiers went whooping and yelling past blazing buildings, shouting: “This is the nest where the first secession egg was hatched—let her burn!” An lowan felt that most of the trouble came because the soldiers looted stores and saloons and got drunk, and wrote sorrowfully that “the splendid discipline so rigidly maintained throughout the rank and file of the army, which had preserved the city and protected the people of Savannah … was viciously and recklessly destroyed at Columbia.”
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.
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.
He struck on March 25, in the dark hour just before dawn, driving a column of infantry in on a strong point in the Union line known as Fort Stedman, due east of Petersburg. His men attacked without warning, seized Fort Stedman, went running out along the trenches on either side, and sent a spearhead on through to take secondary Union positions in the rear. If they succeeded they would break the Union army in half, Grant would have to pull his left wing back to repair the break, and the Army of Northern Virginia would have a clear road to North Carolina.
They could not succeed. A Federal counterattack was launched, the men who had taken Fort Stedman found themselves under heavy fire, Union artillery plastered the Confederate front—and by eight o’clock it was clear that the attack had been a failure. Remnants of the Confederate force got back to their own lines, the Union repossessed Fort Stedman, and Lee had lost nearly 5,000 men. Now it would be Grant’s turn.
Heavy rains slowed all movement, and for a few days the armies marked time. Then Grant struck, crowding a full corps of infantry in on the farthest extremity of the Confederate line; and at the same time Phil Sheridan moved out with his cavalry, leaving the trenches behind and moving up through Dinwiddie Courthouse to a rain-swept crossroads known as Five Forks. Lee sent his own cavalry, plus an infantry division under George Pickett, to halt this thrust, and on April i Sheridan got infantry reinforcements of his own, overwhelmed Pickett by sheer drive and force of numbers, capturing most of his force and shattering the rest beyond repair—and Lee’s flank had been turned at last, once and for all. The next day Grant ordered an assault all along the main lines. General Horatio Wright and his 6th Corps found a place where Lee’s force had been stretched too thin, and broke it—losing 2,000 men in the assault, for even when they were woefully undermanned these Petersburg lines were all but invulnerable—punching a wide hole that could not be repaired. On the evening and night of April 2, Lee evacuated Petersburg and Richmond and began his final retreat, with the Federals in hot pursuit.
It was a forced march for both armies, lit with jubilant hope for one, darkened by gloom for the other. One army had wagon trains filled with food, the other had few wagons and no rations; yet the soldiers of both armies drove on, marching away from mealtimes, knowing only that after four years of it they were at last coming to the end, with tomorrow and all that tomorrow might mean lying somewhere over the next horizon.
It came to an end, at last, on Palm Sunday—April 9, 1865—when Sheridan and his cavalry and a whole corps of infantry got squarely across the road in Lee’s front. The nearest town was the village of Appomattox Courthouse, and the last long mile had been paced off. Lee had armed Yankees in his front, in his rear, and on his flank. There was a spatter of fighting, as his advance guard tried the Yankee line, to see if it could be broken. It could not. The firing died down, and Lee sent a courier with a white flag through the lines carrying a letter to U. S. Grant.
Until this Palm Sunday of 1865 the word Appomattox had no meaning. It was a harsh name left over from Indian days, it belonged to a river and to a county town, and it had no overtones. But after this day it would be one of the haunted possessions of the American people, a great and unique word that would echo in the national memory with infinite tragedy and infinite promise, recalling a moment in which sunset and sunrise came together in a streaked glow that was half twilight and half dawn.
The business might almost have been stage-managed, for effect. No detail had been overlooked. There was even the case of Wilmer McLean, the Virginian who once owned a place by a stream named Bull Run and who found his farm overrun by soldiers in the first battle of the war. He sold out and moved to southern Virginia, to get away from the war, and he bought a modest house in Appomattox Courthouse; and the war caught up with him, finally, so that Lee and Grant chose his front parlor—of all the rooms in America—as the place where they would sit down together and bring the fighting to an end. Grant and Lee sat at two separate tables, the central figures in one of the greatest tableaux of American history.
It was a great tableau not merely because of what these two men did but also because of what they were. No two Americans could have been in greater contrast. Lee was legend incarnate—tall, gray, one of the handsomest and most imposing men who ever lived, dressed today in his best uniform with a sword belted at his waist. Grant was—well, he was U. S. Grant, rather scrubby and undersized, wearing his working clothes, with mud-spattered boots and trousers, and a private’s rumpled blue coat with his lieutenant general’s stars tacked to the shoulders. He wore no sword. The men who were with them noticed the contrast, and remembered it. Grant himself seems to have felt it; years afterward, when he wrote his memoirs, he mentioned it, and went to some lengths to explain why he did not go to this meeting togged out in dress uniform. (In effect, his explanation was that he was just too busy.)
Yet the contrast went far beyond the matter of personal appearance. Two separate versions of America met in this room, each perfectly embodied by its chosen representative.
There was an American aristocracy, and it had had a great day. It came from the past and it looked to the past; it had brought the country to its birth and had provided many of its beliefs; it had given courage and leadership, a sense of order and learning, and if there had been any way by which the Eighteenth Century could possibly have been carried forward into the future this class would have provided the perfect vehicle. Of all the things that went to make up the war, none had more importance than the desperate fight to preserve these disappearing values. The fight had been made and it had been lost, and everything that had been dreamed and tried and fought for was personified in the gray man who sat at the little table in the parlor at Appomattox and waited for the other man to start writing out the terms of surrender.
The other man was wholly representative, too. Behind him there was a new society, not dreamed of by the Founding Fathers: a society with the lid taken off, western man standing up to assert that what lay back of a person mattered nothing in comparison to what lay ahead of him. It was the land of the mudsills, the temporarily dispossessed, the people who had nothing to lose but the future; behind it were hard times, humiliation, and failure, and ahead of it was all the world and a chance to lift one’s self by one’s bootStraps. It was rough and uncultivated, and it came to important meetings wearing muddy boots and no sword, and it had to be listened to.
Grant seems to have been almost embarrassed when he and Lee came together in this parlor; yet it was definitely not the embarrassment of an underling, ill at ease in a superior’s presence. Rather, it was simply the diffidence of a sensitive man who had another man in his power and wished to hurt him as little as possible. Perhaps the oddest thing about this meeting at Appomattox was that it was Grant, the nobody from nowhere, who played the part of gracious host, trying to put the aristocrat at his ease and, as far as might be, to soften the weight of the blow that was about to come down.
At last, Grant opened his orderly book and wrote out the terms. Lee’s army was to be surrendered, from commanding general down to humblest private. All public property would be turned over to the United States Army—battle flags, guns, muskets, wagons, everything. Officers might keep their side arms and their horses, but the army and everything it owned was to go out of existence.
It was not, however, to go off to a prison camp. Officers and men, having disarmed themselves, would simply give their paroles. Then they could go to their homes … and here Grant wrote one of the greatest sentences in American history, the sentence that, more than any other thing, would finally make it impossible for any vengeful government in Washington to proceed against Confederate veterans as traitors. Having gone home, he wrote, officers and men could stay there, “not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” When the powerful signature, “U. S. Grant,” was signed under that sentence, the chance that Confederate soldiers might be hanged or imprisoned for treason went out the window.
The business was finally signed and settled. Lee went out on the porch, looked off over the hills, and smote his hands together absently while Traveller was being bridled, and then mounted and started to ride away. Grant and his officers saluted, Lee returned the salute, and there was a little silence while the man in gray rode off to join the pathetic remnant of an army which had just gone out of existence—rode off into mist and legend, to take his place at last in the folklore and the cherished memories of the nation which had been too big for him.
Grant stayed in character. He heard a banging of guns; Union artillerists were firing salutes to celebrate the victory, and Grant sent word to have all that racket stopped—those men in gray were enemies no longer but simply fellow countrymen (which, as Grant saw it, was what the war had all been about) and nothing would be done to humiliate them. Instead, wagonloads of Federal hardtack and bacon would start moving at once for the Confederate camp, so that Lee’s hungry men might have a square meal. Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac was alerted to be ready to move on, if necessary. It was just possible it might have to march down into North Carolina and help Sherman take care of Joe Johnston.
But this would not be needed. Lee was the keystone of the arch, and when he was removed the long process of collapse moved swiftly to its end. Johnston himself had no illusions. Now he was ready to do as Lee had done. What remained of the Confederate government—Jefferson Davis and his iron determination, cabinet ministers, odds and ends of government papers and funds—was flitting south, looking in vain for some refuge where it could start all over again, but there was no place where it could go. Far down in Alabama General Wilson’s cavalry had taken Selma, the last remaining munitions center, and had gone on to occupy Montgomery. Mobile had been surrendered, and the Confederate troops in Mississippi and Alabama would lay down their arms as soon as the Federals could catch up with them. Beyond the Mississippi there still existed a Confederate army, but it might as well have been in Siberia. As an obvious matter of inescapable fact, the war was over.
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.”
Johnston would neither retreat nor fight. He and Sherman met again the next day, Secretary Breckinridge joined the meeting, and what came out of it all was more like an outright treaty of peace than a simple surrender document. Going far beyond any imaginable authority that had ever been given him, Sherman stipulated that all Confederate troops should march to their state capitals and deposit their arms there; that the Federal government would recognize Southern state governments as soon as the state officials took the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States; that political rights and franchises of the Southern people be guaranteed, and that the Federal government would not “disturb any of the people by reason of the late war.” Pending ratification of these terms in Washington a general armistice was to prevail.
When Sherman’s terms reached Washington the government almost blew up. It seems very likely that Lincoln would have disapproved of Sherman’s treaty, if he had still been alive, but his disapproval would have been quiet and orderly. Now Lincoln was gone and the government for the moment was, to all intents and purposes, Secretary Stanton, and Stanton issued a statement, denouncing Sherman and all but openly accusing him of disloyalty, and completely repudiating the proposed treaty. The newspapers suddenly were filled with articles bitterly criticizing Sherman and accusing him of everything from insanity to the desire to make himself a proslavery dictator. Grant was sent down to Raleigh to make certain that Sherman should give Johnston terms precisely like those that had been given Lee—no more and no less—and from being one of the idols of the North Sherman almost overnight became the object of a large amount of the bitterest sort of criticism.
… In the course of time it would all wash off. The South would forget that Sherman had nearly ruined himself by his effort to befriend it, and the North would forget it also, and after a few years he would be complete villain to one section and unstained hero to the other. Meanwhile, however, the wild uproar over the way in which Sherman had tried to end the war was lengthening the odds against the kind of peace Lincoln would have wanted. By discrediting Sherman for trying to let the South off too easily, the Radical Republicans (with whom Stanton was firmly allied) were beginning to build up their case for a peace that would need to be nailed down with bayonets.
Through four desperate years, Abraham Lincoln had been groping his way toward a full understanding of the values that lay beneath the war. He had seen a profound moral issue at stake, and more than any other man he had worked to make that issue dominant. Amid the confusing uproar of battle, the struggle of the place-hunters, and the clamor of the men who were simply on the make, he had listened for the still small voice; beyond hatred and fear and the greed for profit and advantage, he had sought to appeal to the basic aspirations of the human race. Taking final victory for granted, he had worked to give the victory an undying meaning.
Over and over, throughout the war, Lincoln had tried to put his vision into words. There was a right and a wrong in the war; of that much he was certain. Yet it was beyond human wisdom to make a just appraisal of the extent to which individual men or groups of men ought to receive the praise or shoulder the blame. The loss and the victory were common property now. The blame also was perhaps a common property. The whole war was a national possession, the end result a thing fated by the clouded stars, a great moment of opportunity, of sorrow and of eternal hope, brought to a people who had touched elbows with destiny. Here was the supreme mystery; apparently an entire nation, wishing much less, had been compelled to help work out the will of Providence.
Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Lincoln had grappled with this through the years of bloodshed and loss and grief. Out of it all he had grasped a vision. A whole nation could atone for a wrong; atonement made, it could then go on, with charity and without malice, to create a new right. It would be hard to do, of course. An intricate web of hot passions and whipped-up emotions would have to be broken, and many ties of self-interest would have to be severed. But it could be done, and the most adroit and skillful political leader in American history would be responsible for it. The spring of 1865 might be the time for it.
But there was John Wilkes Booth who longed to strike a blow of vengeance. He struck, and left his own heritage. Lincoln’s words spiraled off in the starless darkness, and it would be a long time before anyone could invoke the spirit of charity and call for a peace made without hate.
Lincoln’s casket lay beneath the echoing dome of the Capitol, and then it was taken all across the country, to be seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans; a great procession of sorrow, skillfully stage-managed by men who wanted to do precisely what Lincoln himself would not have done.
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.
Other soldiers saw, liked the looks of it, got out their own candles, and joined in the parade, until presently the whole camp was astir. Privates were appointed temporary lieutenants, captains, and colonels; whole regiments began to form, spur-of-the-moment brigadiers were commissioned, bands turned out to make music—and by the time full darkness had come the whole army corps was on the parade ground, swinging in and out, nothing visible but thousands upon thousands of candle flames.
Watching from a distance, a reporter for the New York Herald thought the sight beautiful beyond description. No torchlight procession Broadway ever saw, he said, could compare with it. Here there seemed to be infinite room; this army corps had the night itself for its drill field and as the little lights moved in and out it was “as though the gaslights of a great city had suddenly become animated and had taken to dancing.” The parade went on and on; the dancing flames narrowed into endless moving columns, broke out into broad wheeling lines, swung back into columns again, fanned out across the darkness with music floating down the still air.
As they paraded the men began to cheer. They had marched many weary miles in the last four years, into battle and out of battle, through forests and across rivers, uphill and downhill and over the fields, moving always because they had to go where they were told to go. Now they were marching just for the fun of it. It was the last march of all, and when the candles burned out the night would swallow soldiers and music and the great army itself; but while the candles still burned the men cheered.
The night would swallow everything—the war and its echoes, the graves that had been dug and the tears that had been shed because of them, the hatreds that had been raised, the wrongs that had been endured, and the inexpressible hopes that had been kindled—and in the end the last little flame would flicker out, leaving no more than a wisp of gray smoke to curl away unseen. The night would take all of this, as it had already taken so many men and so many idealsLincoln and McPherson, old Stonewall and Pat CIeburne, the chance for a peace made in friendship and understanding, the hour of vision that saw fair dealing for men just released from bondage. But for the moment the lights still twinkled, infinitely fragile, flames that bent to the weight of their own advance, as insubstantial as the dream of a better world in the hearts of men; and they moved to the far-off sound of music and laughter. The final end would not be darkness. Somewhere, far beyond the night, there would be a brighter and a stronger light.
“After the hard work and the dying are clone with, army life can become attractive—in retrospect. When the Civil War ended, the young men who had made up the Union armies were very glad that it was all over. Yet they found that the end of army life somehow left a queer gap in their own existences; they were cut off, now and forever, from everything they had been used to. Still in their teens (for the most part) they had had the most profound experience life could bring. There would never be anything like it again; and as the years went on the old soldiers wistfully looked back at army life and endowed it with a spurious, heart-warming glamour that had not been there when they were actually a part of it.
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 anil 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 …
‘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.’ And so, to the end of their days, the veterans of the Civil War marched in parades, and met in annual convention, and lived out their lives as members of a closed corporation dedicated to loneliness, to memories, and to thoughts of a titanic experience which could never be understood by anyone who had not himself been a part of it.”