James Ford Rhodes (18481927). History of the Civil War, 18611865. 1917.
WE left the Army of the Potomac on the James river. Grant had hoped to destroy or inflict a decisive defeat on Lees army north of Richmond and, having failed to do either, he now decided to transfer his troops to the south side of the James with a view to besieging the Confederates in their capital. This movement, which began on June 12 and ended on the 16th, was very successfully accomplished. The precision of the march, the skilful work of the engineers in bridging the river, the orderly crossing showed how like a fine machine the Army of the Potomac, even in its crippled state, responded to efficient direction. Lee divined Grants movement but did nothing to impede it.1 Yet the capture of Petersburg, the possession of which would undoubtedly within a brief period compel the fall of the Confederate capital, was included in the Union generals plan and was within his grasp; and if everything had been properly ordered and carried out, the city might have been taken and the Appomattox river reached.
But this golden opportunity was allowed to slip. When Grant and Meade arrived upon the ground the Confederate works were pretty well manned. They ordered successive assaults2 which failed to take Petersburg and resulted in a loss of about 10,000 men. The sequel of this rebuff is told in Grants and Danas despatches. Dana: General Grant has directed that no more assaults shall be made. He will now manuvre. Grant: I shall try to give the army a few days rest, which they now stand much in need of.3
The Army of the Potomac was worn out. The continual fighting for forty-five days at a disadvantage and without success, and the frequent marches by night had exhausted and disheartened the men. Gallant and skilful officers by the score, brave veterans by the thousands, had fallen. The morale of the troops was distinctly lower even than the day after Cold Harbor. Reënforcements were constantly sent to Grant but they were for the most part mercenaries, many of whom were diseased, immoral or cowardly. Such men were now in too large a proportion to insure efficient work. They needed months of drill and discipline to make good soldiers. Indeed a reconstitution and reorganization of the army had become necessary; this was effected during the many weeks of inaction from June 18 to the spring of 1865, a period covered by the siege of Petersburg, which now commenced.
At this time the President paid a visit to the army. The impression that I have tried to convey of the failure of Grants costly operations and of the armys demoralization might lead the readers imagination to construct a private interview between Lincoln and Grant, in which the President entreated the general to be more careful of his soldiers lives and warned him that the country could not or would not repair the waste of another such campaign of attrition. So far, however, as I know, there is no evidence of such an entreaty or warning. It is unlikely that the thought of either entered Lincolns head, inconsistent as it would have been with his despatch of six days earlier;4 and nothing had since occurred to change his view except the unsuccessful assaults on the intrenchments of Petersburg; moreover, the failure to capture this stronghold was not at this time regarded as so serious a mishap as later it came to be. Kindness of heart and humanity rather than disappointment in his general were shown in his words when contemplated battles were spoken of. I cannot pretend to advise, he said, but I do sincerely hope that all may be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible.5
Horace Porter has given an interesting account of this visit, which one loves to dwell upon for a moment in the midst of the gloom which had settled down on the Army of the Potomac and was soon to spread over the country. The President on horseback, wearing a high silk hat, a frock coat and black trousers, rode with Grant along the line. A civilian mounted was always an odd sight amid the crowd of uniformed and epauletted officers; and Lincoln, although a good horseman, was always awkward and, being now covered with dust, presented the appearance of a country farmer riding into town, wearing his Sunday clothes. But the character of the man disarmed the American soldiers keen sense of the ridiculous and as the word was passed along the line that Uncle Abe is with us he was greeted with cheers and shouts that came from the heart. He visited a division of colored soldiers who had won distinction by their bravery in an assault on the works of Petersburg. They flocked around the liberator of their race, kissing his hands, touching his clothes for the virtue they conceived to be in them, cheering, laughing, singing hymns of praise, shouting, God bress Massa Lincoln. De Lord sabe Fader Abraham. De day of jubilee am come, shuah. His head was bare, his eyes were full of tears, his voice broke with emotion. As no picture of Lincoln would be complete without humor atop of pathos, we may see him the same evening, with a group of staff officers before the generals tent, a willing raconteur, plying his wit to teach them truth,pleased by their appreciation, egged on by their hearty laughs.
There is little or no evidence, so far as I know, of Grant being dejected over the failure of those high hopes which he had entertained on crossing the Rapidan. His sturdy disposition, his strong will and determination to succeed probably prevented any admission of failure even to himself; or if they did not, his stolid countenance concealed the fact. It is nevertheless true that the bitterness of disappointment drove him for a while to drink. Rawlins told Wilson soon after their first meeting that they must do all in their power to stay Grant from falling6 and, in the period of tedious waiting before Petersburg, this faithful mentor and sturdy patriot served his country as no one else could have done. Rawlinss familiar letters to his wife exhibit his anxiety and his good influence on the general whom the North needed to bring the war to an end. Twice (on June 29 and on one of the last days of July) Grant, to use Rawlinss words, digressed from his true path;7 but, after the last deviation, he pulled himself together and did not again falter. It was an unclouded brain that carried on the siege of Petersburg to its capture, forced the evacuation of Richmond and effected the final discomfiture of Lee and the ruin of the Southern Confederacy.
For the moment, however, Lee was making a resolute fight. Encouraged by his victories over Grant and confident that with a diminished force, he could hold his ground against the crippled Army of the Potomac, he detached Early and his corps to drive the Union troops out of the Shenandoah Valley: this Early succeeded in doing and gained thereby an easy route to Maryland and the rear of the Federal capital. On July 9 he reached Frederick City, defeated the Union force opposed to him, and next day, at the head of 20,000 veterans, flushed with victory and spoils, advanced rapidly toward the capital itself. Washington and its fortifications had been denuded of troops for the purpose of reënforcing Grant and was now defended only by invalids, state militia and District of Columbia volunteers, a total of 20,400, of whom nearly all were raw troops and a considerable portion unavailable. On the morning of July 11, Early, with his infantry and artillery, appeared on the Seventh street road north of Washington before the fortifications of the city and in sight of the dome of the Capitol. Communication between Washington and the Northern cities was cut; the general excitement and alarm were intense. On the night before the President, unmindful of personal danger, had ridden out as usual to his summer residence, the Soldiers Home, which was directly in the line of the enemys advance, but he was now brought back to the city upon the earnest insistence of the Secretary of War; also, unknown to Lincoln, Gustavus V. Fox, Assistant-Secretary of the Navy, had a vessel ready to transport him from the capital, should its fall become absolutely certain. If Early had profited by the moment of consternation, he could have gone into Washington on July 11, seized the money in the Treasury, the large stores of clothing, arms and ammunition, destroyed a large amount of Government property and, though he might not have been able to hold the place, he could have escaped without harm from the veteran troops now hastening to the rescue; he would thus have struck the prestige of the Union a staggering blow.
The veterans of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac and of the Nineteenth Corps from New Orleans saved the country from the capture of its capital. It was, however, little to Grants credit that Washington should be in so imminent danger, while Richmond was in none, and that the measures for its safety should have been so tardily taken. During these days, the commander seemed to be stunned. Although his frequent despatches bear witness to his diligence, they show, at the same time, that he did not realize the danger. He was not the man of prompt decision and ready purpose who commanded at Donelson, Vicksburg and Chattanooga; rather was he the remiss and lethargic general of Shiloh. At the very time when Earlys troops were marching down the Shenandoah Valley he refused to believe that the self-same Confederate corps had left Petersburg. It was not until July 5 that he became convinced of the truth, and even then he failed to show a complete mastery of the situation. He displays little strategy or invention,8 wrote Welles.
Yet in the result Grant had acted with sufficient promptness to save the capital, inasmuch as Early, by delay, let slip a great opportunity. The Confederate commander probably suspected that the veterans had already arrived, for he did not seize Fort Stevens, which guarded the entrance to Washington by the Seventh street road and which he might have had by simply saying the word. At noon of this day (July 11) two divisions of the Sixth Corps from City Point, with General Wright in command, arrived at the wharf in Washington and soon after four oclock in the afternoon were in the neighborhood of Fort Stevens. The capital was saved. Next day a sharp skirmish took place, which was watched from the fort by the President, who was apparently oblivious of the sharpshooters flying bullets, until the fall of a wounded officer near him caused General Wright to ask him peremptorily to retire to a safer spot. In the night of July 12 the Confederates withdrew. The rebs, so wrote Gustavus V. Fox, have just made off with more plunder than has entered all the blockaded ports since the war commenced. It was an attempt with 20,000 men to break up Grant; but he was too calm and persistent to be caught. It is rather humiliating but does not affect the campaign at all, the result of which is sure.9 Not everyone had the same confidence in Grant. It is a tradition that, because of the failure and great loss of life in his campaign, over which the feeling of the country was intensified by the Confederate invasion of Maryland and the imminent danger of Washington, the question of his removal from command was mooted; but of this I have found no evidence, nor do I believe that such a thought ever occurred to the President. Indeed there was no one to take his place. Extenuation of his faults is unnecessary for arriving at the conviction that, so far as any military ability had been developed, Grant was the fittest of all the generals to command the armies of the United States. That the President had confidence in him is plainly manifest. During July and August, the usual pressure in time of disaster was exercised for the restoration of McClellan to command, but it is idle to suppose that Lincoln entertained the idea of displacing Grant in favor of McClellan or that such a change would have redounded to the benefit of the Union cause.10
On July 18, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 500,000 volunteers, by virtue of the Act of Congress of July 4, 1864,11 the passage of which had been largely influenced by the great losses in the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania and at Cold Harbor; he further ordered a draft to take place immediately after September 5 for any unfilled quotas.
During July the North was plunged in gloom. Everybody was asking, Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed on the opening of Grants campaign? And the most despondent were those who possessed the fullest information.
A resolution of Congress adopted July 2 was worthy of the Hebrews of the Old Testament or of the Puritans of the English Civil War. It requested the President to appoint a day for humiliation and prayer and to ask the people to convene at their usual places of worship in order that they may confess and repent of their manifold sins, implore the compassion and forgiveness of the Almighty, that, if consistent with his will the existing rebellion may be speedily suppressed and implore him as the supreme ruler of the world not to destroy us as a people. The President, cordially concurring in the penitential and pious sentiments expressed in that resolution, appointed the first Thursday of August to be observed by the people of the United States as a day of national humiliation and prayer.
Thomas A. Scott, who was always ready with efficient help for the Government in its times of trouble and who now offered the services of himself and the Pennsylvania railroad, telegraphed to Stanton from Philadelphia, The apathy in the public mind is fearful.12 It might well be doubted if men in sufficient number and money in sufficient amount would be forthcoming to complete the work of conquering the South. The deplorable financial condition of the country may be measured by the fluctuations of the price of gold. On January 2 gold sold in New York at 152 and, when in April it reached 175, the Secretary of the Treasury endeavored to depress the price by the sale of about eleven millions; but the effect was only temporary. It soon resumed its advance and by June 17 had passed 197. On this day the President approved an act of Congress which aimed to prevent speculative sales of gold and proved about as effectual as human efforts to stay the flood. After this enactment the speculation became wilder than before and, owing to the military failures and Chases resignation as Secretary of the Treasury, gold touched on the last day of June 250. On July 2 the act intended to prevent speculation in gold was repealed. On July 11, when Early was before Washington and communication with that city had been cut, gold fetched 285, its highest price during the war; next day, the day of the skirmish near Fort Stevens and of the rumor in Philadelphia that the capital had fallen, it sold at 282. Such prices meant that the paper money in circulation was worth less than forty cents on the dollar. As the Government bonds were sold for this money, the United States were paying, with gold at 250 (at which price or higher it sold during the greater part of July and August), fifteen per cent on their loans. Nevertheless money could be had. The continued issue of legal tender notes had inflated the currency. Business, though feverish, was good; and many fortunes of our day had their origin in these excited business years of 1863 and 1864; when sales were easily made, most transactions were for cash, and nearly everyone engaged in trade or manufactures seemed to be getting rich. There must have been still considerable financial strength in reserve and, as the value of property depended largely on a stable government, ample funds for its maintenance would have been forthcoming in a supreme crisis. Even now, an element of confidence was to be seen in the large and constant purchases of our bonds by the Germans.
But the question of men was of far greater seriousness. In spite of the large immigration, labor was scarce and, in spite of the high cost of living, seemed to be well paid. The class of men who enlisted in 1861 and 1862 no longer came forward; the ranks were filled by mercenaries, part of whom were obtained from the steady influx of European immigrants and from robust sons of Canada, who contracted their service for a stipulated sum.13 Notwithstanding these sources of supply, able-bodied men in sufficient number were difficult to obtain. Many of the veterans, men of all ranks in Shermans army, the officers generally in all the armies; the militia from the Western States, originally organized as home guards, and now taking part in the defence of Washington, were from the best classes of their several communities; and sorrow now hanging over nearly every household from the casualties among these contingents, augmented the discouragement and gloom.14
Nor did Shermans operations lift the country out of its despondency. Successful though they were, they lacked a striking character, and while steadily making for the destruction of Johnstons army and the capture of Atlanta, had as yet accomplished neither of these objects. On July 17, Sherman crossed the Chattahoochee river and began his movement directly against Atlanta. On the same day, Jefferson Davis materially assisted him by relieving Johnston from the command for the reason, in the words of the order, that you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him.15 So masterly had been Johnstons strategy in retreat that his displacement was thoroughly relished by Sherman and by his officers and men. J. B. Hood, the new commander, had been personally known at West Point by McPherson, Schofield and Howard, and these three, together with Sherman, accurately took his measure, deciding that the change meant fight.16 The logic of Johnstons removal was indeed that the Confederates must take the offensive, and Hood lost no time in carrying Daviss purpose into effect. Thrice he attacked and brought on a battle; thrice he was repulsed with severe loss. The chief feature of the second battle, that of Atlanta, which was fought within two and one-half miles of the city, was a vigorous and skilful Confederate attack which struck a portion of the Union line in the rear and would have caused a panic among any but sturdy veterans; but the soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee leaped over their breastworks and fought from the reverse side. McPherson, however, their commander, was killed. He had just left Sherman to investigate the unexplained firing in the rear and to make the necessary dispositions to meet it; he had already given a number of orders, when he rode into a wood and encountered there a line of Confederate skirmishers. By these he was summoned to surrender, but he wheeled his horse and tried to ride off: there was a volley of musketry and one of the noblest soldiers of the war fell dead. His sudden loss, telegraphed Sherman, was a heavy blow to me.17 This misfortune, together with the Confederate claims of victory, undoubtedly accounted in some measure for the lack of comprehension of what had really been gained during the month of July; at all events a general impression seemed to prevail that Sherman had been checked before Atlanta. In point of fact Hoods army had been crippled and, after the third battle, he did not again attack Sherman for more than a month.
The general apathy and discouragement took form in certain quarters of a yearning for peace. The mercantile classes are longing for it, wrote Lowell. During July Horace Greeley thought that negotiations for peace should be opened and, commissioned by the President, made an effort in that direction. Lincoln was willing to make peace on the basis of the restoration of the Union and abandonment of slavery. Two self-constituted envoys, hoping to stop the war, went on an irregular mission to Richmond and had an interview with Jefferson Davis. Both of these attempts were barren of result.18
Though the military situation was already sufficiently depressing, the North had not yet come to the end of its misfortunes. A promising attempt to capture Petersburg through blowing up a portion of the Confederate works, by a huge mine charged with powder, failed through the inefficiency of a corps commander and the incompetence and cowardice of a division general, who were unequal to their opportunity after the mine had properly done its work. The casualties were great, the blundering was indisputable. This affair intensified the dejection in the Army of the Potomac and in the country at large. I feel rather down in the mouth, wrote Lowell to Norton on August 1. The war and its constant expectation and anxiety oppress me. I cannot think.19
Another manifestation of the general despondency was seen in the growing dissatisfaction with Lincoln. I beg you, implore you, wrote Greeley to Lincoln on August 9, to inaugurate or invite proposals for peace forthwith. And in case peace cannot now be made consent to an armistice for one year. In this private letter Greeley expressed the thoughts of very many men. Nine days later he wrote: Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow. Influential men of affairs in New York, Boston and the West were earnest in their belief that Lincoln should withdraw and make way for another candidate. This belief infected the Republican National Executive Committee, whose chairman, Henry J. Raymond, wrote to the President on August 22: The tide is setting strongly against us Nothing but the most resolute and decided action on the part of the Government and its friends can save the country from falling into hostile hands. This great reaction in public sentiment was due to the want of military successes and to the impression that Lincoln would not make peace save on the condition of the abandonment of slavery. So perturbed were the Committee that they went to Washington to plead with him. In a private letter of August 25 to Hay, Nicolay gave an account of their visit: The New York politicians have got a stampede on that is about to swamp everything. Raymond and the National Committee are here to-day. R. thinks a commission to Richmond is about the only salt to save us; while the Tycoon [Lincoln] sees and says it would be utter ruination. The matter is now undergoing consultation. Weak-kneed fools are in the movement for a new candidate to supplant the Tycoon. Everything is darkness and doubt and discouragement.20 Lincoln himself thought it exceedingly probable that he would not be reëlected,21 but he signified no intention of withdrawing and intimated that he would modify his policy in but one direction. He would undoubtedly have made peace on the basis of reunion, saying nothing about slavery, for he was convinced that slavery could never exist in the same form as before the War and that gradual emancipation was certain.22
Hay, on a visit to the West, had found some cheer, and in a private letter to Nicolay from Illinois set down the following accurate estimate of public sentiment in that region: There is throughout the country, I mean the rural districts, a good healthy Union feeling and an intention to succeed in the military and the political contests; but everywhere in the towns the copperheads23 are exultant and our own people either growling and despondent or sneakingly apologetic.24
Nicolay showed penetration when he wrote, Our men see giants in the airy and unsubstantial shadows of the opposition and are about to surrender without a fight.25 As the Democrats had nominated no candidate there was in fact nothing to contend against. We are waiting with the greatest interest, Hay wrote, for the hatching of the big peace snake at Chicago.26 Hay referred to the approaching Democratic convention which, when it met,27 nominated McClellan for President and adopted a resolution that an earnest effort be made for peace. The nomination evoked a momentary burst of enthusiasm from the Democrats which corresponded to momentary disquietude among Republicans. Lincolns yearning for military success betrayed itself in his vernacular of the prairie. Hold on with a bull dog grip, he telegraphed to Grant, and chew and choke.28 His ardent desire was fulfilled. Better than any stump-speakers were two of his commanders on sea and on land.
On August 5, Farragut fought the battle of Mobile Bay. In making his entrance into the bay he must pass through a channel said to be mined with torpedoes, must run by the powerful Fort Morgan and then fight the iron-clad Tennessee. As his fleet advanced, a torpedo exploded under one of his monitors. She disappeared almost instantaneously beneath the waves carrying with her her gallant commander and nearly all her crew. A terrible disaster, Farragut called it.29 Ahead were torpedoes, behind was retreat. O God, he prayed, who created man and gave him reason, direct me what to do. Shall I go on? And it seemed, he said, as if in answer a voice commanded, Go on!30 On he went, steering clear of the torpedoes, past Fort Morgan. The Tennessee attacked his fleet and, after a desperate battle, was beaten. She struck her flag and surrendered. One of the hardest earned victories of his life, as Farragut termed it, the crowing achievement of his naval career, as Mahan wrote, made him master of Mobile Bay. The surrender of Forts Gaines and Morgan (August 823) followed.31
Mobile, now the most important port in the Gulf of Mexico remaining to the Confederates, was no longer available for blockade-running. Another door to the outside world was shut. The persistent work of the navy by the blockade and the capture of ports was reducing the South to a state of isolation.
The North in its general despondency failed at first to appreciate the magnitude of this victory; but the news received on September 3 that Sherman had captured Atlanta seemed to give Farraguts achievement a cumulative force. The taking of Atlanta was the culmination of the campaign from Chattanooga and was all the more glorious in that a victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers. The army which entered Atlanta was substantially the same as the army which Sherman had led out of Chattanooga.
The President, on September 3, issued a proclamation asking the people, when they assembled in their churches on next Sunday, to make a devout acknowledgment to the Supreme Being for the success of the fleet in Mobile harbor and the glorious achievements of the army in the State of Georgia; he issued orders of thanks to Farragut and Sherman, and ordered salutes of rejoicing to be fired from the navy-yards and arsenals of the country. On the Sunday appointed by the President, the people, with one accord, thanked God and took courage.
With epigrammatic brevity they had reduced the peace plank of the Democratic platform to the words, Resolved that the war is a failure,32 and they now rejoiced that Farragut and Sherman had knocked out the underpinning of this platform.33 On September 9, a letter of Grants was made public in which he said: The rebels have now in their ranks their last man. They have robbed the cradle and the grave equally to get their present force. Besides what they lose in frequent skirmishes and battles, they are now losing from desertions and other causes, at least one regiment per day. With this drain upon them, the end is not far distant, if we will only be true to ourselves.
On September 15 Grant paid a visit to Sheridan, who had the command in the Shenandoah Valley, and gave him the order, Go in. Within a week Sheridan gained two brilliant victories over Early. These achievements appealed to the popular imagination as Stonewall Jacksons had done in 1862; but now it was the Northerners turn to rejoice in a commander who, uniting dash and prudence, was giving them the long-wished-for but unexpected victories in the Shenandoah Valleythat famous graveyard of Northern hopes with its open gateway for invasion from the South. Better than any campaign speeches were Sheridans despatches telling the story of Confederate defeats. While such victories are gained, said one citizen to another as they shook hands and rejoiced, the war is not a failure; and victors in such battles do not ask for an armistice.
On October 11 State and congressional elections took place in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Ohio went Union by a majority of 54,751; Indiana gave Morton for governor 20,883 more votes than were received by his Democratic opponent and all three States made material gains in Union members of Congress. These elections manifested a tendency of public opinion which pointed almost conclusively to Lincolns election in November. The tide had turned and now it was again accelerated by Sheridan, who infused a considerable enthusiasm into the last weeks of the canvass by gaining a further and spectacular victory on the nineteenth of October. Sheridans Ride, a poem written by Thomas Buchanan Read and read by Murdoch at many gatherings, not only won votes but made a lasting impression on the minds of men. With great pleasure, telegraphed Lincoln to Sheridan, I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the months operations in the Shenandoah Valley; and especially for the splendid work of October 19, 1864.34
On November 8 the Presidential election took place. Lincoln carried States sufficient to give him 212 electoral votes, while McClellan would receive only 21, those of New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky. In but one large State, New York, was there a close contest. Lincoln had a majority of the popular vote of 494,567. Moreover, the Lincoln party chose two-thirds of the House of Representatives.
I give you joy of the election, wrote Emerson to a friend. Seldom in history was so much staked on a popular vote. I suppose never in history.35 Grant was deeply impressed with the vast importance and significance of the Presidential electionthe quiet and orderly character of the whole affair. There was, added Hay, no bloodshed or riot. It proves our worthiness of free institutions and our capability of preserving them without running into anarchy or despotism.36
In Lincolns first election the people of the North had spoken, declaring their antagonism to slavery; if they were to remain true to their highest aspirations, they could not now turn back but must go resolutely forward. In spite of burdensome taxation, weariness of the war and mourning in every household, they decided on this election day of 1864 to finish the work they had begun.
Note 10. O. R., XXXVII; IV; Welless Diary, II; General Meade, II; Early. [back]
Note 11. This act repealed the $300 exemption clause which had been a large factor in the incitement of the New York draft riots; if a man were drafted now, he must go into the service or furnish a substitute. [back]