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1865 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

March 4 was Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C., for Abraham Lincoln and his new Vice President, Andrew Johnson. Precisely at noon Johnson entered the Senate to take his oath of office and to make an unscheduled address. “I am made the presiding officer of this body,” Johnson told the Senators assembled before him. “I therefore present myself here in obedience to the high behests of the American people to discharge a constitutional duty, and not presumptuously to thrust myself in a position so exalted. … Deem me not vain or arrogant; yet I should be less than man if under such circumstances I were not proud of being an American citizen… .”

“All this is in wretched bad taste,” said Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. “Johnson is either drunk or crazy,” Welles whispered back. “I hope it is sickness.” Grasping the Bible as he took his oath, Johnson bellowed, “I kiss this Book in the face of my nation of the United States.”

Lincoln “looked badly and felt badly” that day, according to Speed, “apparently more depressed than I have seen him since he became President.” His brief inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol was philosophical rather than political in tone. “With malice toward none,” Lincoln said, “with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan— to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

∗“His name might be Audacity,” said an admiring Confederate soldier of Robert E. Lee. “He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker, than any other general in the country, North or South.” With Federal armies closing the vise around the sagging Confederacy, desperate chances were all Lee had left when he launched his final long-shot counterpunch on March 25.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was pinned down at Petersburg, while Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was struggling to halt Sherman’s steamroller in North Carolina. Lee’s only hope was to combine the two Confederate armies and take on Sherman and Grant one at a time at something like equal strength. Lee decided to strike the Federal center at Fort Stedman, only 150 yards from his own trenches, hoping to blast a hole through which his cavalry could escape. The young Georgia general John B. Gordon attacked at dawn with twelve thousand men, took the fort, and sent columns of his men forward to capture a number of smaller forts and seize Federal trenches. “He’s the most prettiest thing you ever did see on a field of fight,” said one of Gordon’s men. “It would put heart in a whipped chicken just to look at him.”

Gordon probably was looking for forts that didn’t exist; the advance units wandered in futility until Gen. John Hartranft’s Union division counter-attacked. By eight that morning the Federals had recovered the fort and sent the Rebels back to their original lines in disarray. “The slope between Stedman and the Confederate salient [was] a place of fearful slaughter,” wrote a New York artilleryman. “My mind sickens at the memory of it.” The Confederates lost thirty-five hundred troops, almost two thousand of whom surrendered under the crossfire that cut off their lines of retreat.

Lee was trapped. Federal infantry would continue to prod his right wing through the end of the month, but the Army of Northern Virginia had made its last offensive surge.

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