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One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
3min read

General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant was unique among Union commanders in that he conducted the war with only one goal: to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee. Grant’s plan was simply, as he wrote, “to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources until by mere attrition, if by nothing else, there should be nothing left.” Grant sent Gen. William T. Sherman against Johnston in Georgia and went after Lee himself, beginning with the Battle of the Wilderness of May 5 and 6.

Grant began the campaign with 11#,000 troops that were as well fed and well equipped as Lee’s 62,000 were not. Anticipating Grant’s move on Richmond, Lee maneuvered his army so that the Federals would have to attack in the Wilderness, a dense, eerie forest in northeastern Virginia. Lee hoped to repeat the whipping he had given Joseph Hooker under similar conditions at nearby Chancellorsville the year before, and for a while it looked as though he might. Grant’s advantages in artillery and manpower were all but useless in the junglelike conditions of the Wilderness, but he decided to fight anyway, and for two days the armies clashed blindly among the forest’s undergrowth. Since it was impossible, in the murky haze of combat, to see an enemy even yards away, wounded men were usually left where they fell to die in one of the battle’s many fires. The advantage turned back and forth several times, but the battle had ended in a virtual stalemate by the time both sides decided nothing more could be gained there.

The Confederates lost eight thousand men in the two days; the Army of the Potomac lost about eighteen thousand and looked beaten again. Troops on both sides expected Grant to fall back for regrouping in the pattern of McClellan and Hooker. But Grant, in the strategic turning point of the war, instead ordered his men around the Confederates’ right flank, continuing the drive to Richmond and leaving his reinforcements to catch up. Despite the hammering they had taken, when they learned that for once they were advancing instead of retreating after a fight, Grant’s men cheered their general.

Lee intercepted Grant’s army about eight miles away at Spotsylvania Courthouse and threw up fortifications with lightning speed. Grant again forced the issue, and the twelve-day battle that followed was perhaps the fiercest of the war. The Federals broke through the center of the Confederate line on May 12, but their disorganization and Confederate reinforcements saved Lee’s forces from a disastrous splitting. As Grant and Lee poured men into this “Bloody Angle,” the fighting grew so intense that musket balls completely cut through a twenty-two-inch-thick oak tree. The Union colonel Horace Porter described the battle as “chiefly a savage hand-to-hand fight across the breastworks. Rank after rank was riddled by shot and shell and bayonet thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of torn and mutilated corpses; then fresh troops rushed madly forward to replace the dead; and so the murderous work went on.”

On May 18 Grant again drove south around Lee’s flank. The war continued along these lines through the month, Grant prodding his army south and Lee keeping his between Grant and Richmond. In the month after beginning the campaign, the Union army lost fifty thousand men, almost double the Confederate losses. But while Grant’s resources were seemingly limitless, Lee was down to the last men and supplies the Confederacy could give him. Lee knew his arithmetic; when he saw that Grant would no longer allow the Union army to let up the pressure on him, he knew he would need a miracle. For the rest of the war his strategy would be to fight defensively in the hope that a political upheaval in Washington would call Grant off. When the Republican party renominated Lincoln on June 7, and Union advances through the summer in Georgia and Virginia boosted the President’s popularity, it became clear that the Confederacy would get no miracles.

∗Two New York journalists earned a prominent place in the annals of wartime profiteers on May 18. Joseph Howard, city editor of the Brooklyn Eagle , had noticed that bad war news caused New York’s financial markets to sag and the price of gold to rise; if he could anticipate bad news, he could make a quick fortune. Howard hatched a plan with a reporter named Francis Mallison to forge an Associated Press dispatch reporting dire news from the White House. President Lincoln, the dispatch said, was calling for a national day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” on May 26 and compounding the nation’s trauma by drafting four hundred thousand more men. In preparation for Wall Street’s reaction, Howard bought as much gold as he could on margin, under several different names.

Most of the newspapers that received the bogus AP dispatch checked the story with Washington and, finding it false, discarded it. Two papers, however, the New York World and the Journal of Commerce , yielded to deadline pressure and ran the news. The stock market collapsed as expected, and the price of gold jumped by 10 percent.

The scheme, according to one observer, “angered Lincoln more than almost any other occurrence of the war period,” and he moved with uncharacteristic rashness, ordering both newspapers seized. He regretted this overreaction two days later, when the trail of evidence implicated Howard and Mallison, clearing the newspapers. The swindlers spent nearly three months in prison before Lincoln himself ordered their release. Though Henry Ward Beecher had petitioned the President on behalf of the prisoners, Lincoln was acting in his own interest as well. When the hoax broke, Lincoln had on his desk a genuine proclamation ordering the draft of three hundred thousand men; he delayed its release for two months after seeing the public’s reaction to similar news.

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