Tightening the Cordon

By the end of 1864—with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman having cut his way through Georgia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant having confined Confederate General Robert E. Lee to a defensive position in Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln having won his bid for re-election—the Confederacy was desperate for any sign of encouragement. While the rhetoric from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens had remained buoyant, and despite newspaper headlines throughout the South continuing to cheer for the cause, the Confederacy was nowhere near the crest it had enjoyed in 1863. Having lost the chance to put the Union on the defensive that year, the rebels now found their western and southern borders closing in on them. If ever there was going to be a negotiated peace, the chances of it occurring were rapidly diminishing as 1865 dawned.

Battle of Franklin. By: Kurz and Allison.

Sherman’s raid through Georgia in 1864 had illustrated what an effective Union advance could accomplish, and Union General George Thomas—the Rock of Chickamauga—hoped to replicate in the West, in Tennessee, the success that Sherman had in the South. Thomas’ adversary was General John Bell Hood and his 40,000 rebels, which Hood hoped would match his opponent’s 60,000 soldiers after he took them to campaign in Tennessee and Kentucky for recruiting into the ranks Confederate sympathizers.[i] With equal forces, Hood believed, he could crush Thomas’ army then move into Virginia to support Lee and, in turn, destroy Grant and Sherman’s men.[ii] At the end of November, Hood moved into Tennessee and found that Thomas had 30,000 men in Nashville with the other 30,000 separated and under the command of General John Schofield; seeing his advantage, Hood sent two infantry corps and General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry to get behind Schofield’s line.[iii] But Schofield’s men were wise to the attack: horsemen had spotted the maneuver, and two divisions mobilized to thwart the attack.[iv] Hood, frustrated with the lost opportunity, blamed his men for still possessing the overly defensive mindset that embodied their previous commander, Joseph Johnston, and Schofield found refuge in Franklin—just fifteen miles south of Thomas’ soldiers stationed in Nashville.[v] Hood followed Schofield to Franklin and heard protests from his officers that attacking the fortified federals would lead to disaster not only because the “head-on assault” was likely to fail but also because the rebel artillery and part of the infantry remained in the rear and would be unable to participate in the attack.[vi] Johnston, not dissuaded, ordered the assault. Twenty-two thousand Confederates charged on the federals during “an Indian Summer afternoon,” and fought in conditions as deadly as “anything at the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania.”[vii] With nightfall came a Union retreat back to Nashville, but the result could be no more than a Pyrrhic victory for Hood as his 7,000 casualties were more than triple his adversary’s, and of those casualties were twelve rebel generals and no fewer than fifty-four regimental commanders.[viii] Hood had ordered an attack that “shattered” the army “beyond the possibility” of ever assaulting breastworks again.[ix] While the rebels attempted to hold their line, Thomas had the Confederates on their heels and pushed them further back; many Confederates submitted: they threw down their arms and surrendered.[x] Others were fleeing and the subject of their officers’ calls to rally and stop the federal advance, but, as one private recalled, “the line they formed was like trying to stop the current of the Duck River with a fish net.”[xi] Hood and his men, including Forrest, fled the Union pursuers not just through Tennessee but even into Alabama and Mississippi, and by the time Hood found himself in Tupelo, Mississippi, he had barely half the men with which he started his campaign.[xii] None of the men could have known that they were fleeing the “war’s last great battle,” but nor would they have cared; not at that moment.[xiii] General Hood broke down under the crushing disappointment of defeat. A Tennessee private recalled him looking “feeble and decrepit” with his arm in a sling and struggling to guide his horse, and later—at night—heard him “crying like his heart would break.”[xiv] On January 13, a Friday, Hood resigned his command.[xv]

John Bell Hood.

Hopeful as rebel newspapers had been that the Union intrusions into the West and South could be reversed, Hood’s defeat and the loss of Savannah to Sherman caused southerners to feel dejected and demoralized. While some called it “irretrievable disaster,” diarist Mary Chesnut wrote that “the deep waters are closing over us,” and a Confederate War Department clerk lamented it as “the darkest and most dismal day . . . a crisis such as not been experienced before.”[xvi]

It was not only journalists, a diarist, and a clerk who felt that the rebel cause was fading: the head of the Confederate War Department noted that “things are getting worse very rapidly. . . . Ten days ago the last meat ration was issued [to Lee’s army] and not a pound remained in Richmond. . . . The truth is we are prostrated in all our energies and resources.”[xvii] With the Confederate dollar being less than two percent its value in 1861—and widespread approval of a proposal for southern women to cut their hair for sale in Europe to raise an estimated $40,000,000—even rebel stalwarts like General Josiah Gorgas would be left to wonder by January 1865, “Where is this to end? No money in the Treasury—no food to feed Gen. Lee’s army—no troops to oppose Gen. Sherman. . . . Is the cause really hopeless? Is it to be lost and abandoned in this way? . . . Wife and I sit talking of going to Mexico to live out there the remnant of our days.”[xviii]

As hopeless as General Gorgas and his compatriots may have been, the converse was true in the North. Lincoln’s annual message to Congress proclaimed that “material resources are now more complete and abundant than ever” and that the Union had “more men now than we had when the war began. . . . We are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely.”[xix] Although Gorgas wrote in his diary that “Lincoln’s message spawns nothing but subjugation,” there were objective facts that tended to support Lincoln’s rhetoric. The Union’s 671 warships made it the biggest navy in the world; its million-soldier army “was larger and better equipped than ever”; and the Union economy had come to thrive: production of iron, coal, and firearms as well as stocks of wheat, corn, pork, and beef had surged to record levels, and the railroads and Erie Canal were reaching capacity as the stimulus of war production spread throughout the northern states.[xx] In the South, a full one-quarter of white men of military age would be dead by war’s end, and two-fifths of all livestock would be gone.[xxi] In total, “two-thirds of assessed southern wealth vanished in the war,” and that which remained would count by 1870 for only twelve percent of the country’s wealth whereas ten years prior, it had stood at 30 percent.[xxii]

Unfavorable statistics were not the only negative indicators for the rebels; news of lost territory continued to make headlines: the Confederates had lost Fort Fisher, a fort on the Carolina coast which had protected the route that blockade runners had been using to bring in desperately needed supplies. This development not only was the culmination of the Anaconda Plan that the federals had been steadily implementing over the previous four years; it was also cause for panic amongst Lee’s entrenched soldiers in Petersburg.[xxiii] The men knew that without those blockade runners, supplies would soon run even shorter. Facing the prospect of reduced rations in addition to the many other pressures a soldier faced—such as that brought by a letter from his family begging him to return home and support them—many men deserted. In fact, hundreds of Lee’s men were deserting nightly, Lee reported by February.[xxiv] The Confederate Congress began criticizing the Davis administration, and there was no escaping the magnitude of the calamity: Vice President Alexander Stephens called the loss of Fort Fisher “one of the greatest disasters that had befallen our Cause from the beginning of the war.”[xxv] Talk of a negotiated peace spread and momentum built for it but only until the dialog began: while Lincoln would have pardoned the rebels and their generals and leaders—and even potentially compensated them for the value of losing their slaves—he would accept nothing less than complete and total surrender; no armistice would suffice.[xxvi] With that, the negotiation concluded, and out came “professions of shock and betrayal” from the rebels and their newspapers at the North’s insistence for the “degrading submission” of surrender.[xxvii] Thus, the war continued, and Davis’ public statements would leave one with the impression that the Union had played into the rebels’ hands as he predicted the Confederates would “compel the Yankees, in less than twelve months, to petition us for peace on our own terms.”[xxviii]

The war did continue; this time in South Carolina. Georgians had asked Sherman, while he was ravaging the Georgian countryside, “Why don’t you go over to South Carolina and serve them this way? They started it.”[xxix] With Grant’s approval, in February, Sherman and 60,000 soldiers left Savannah and brought their flavor of campaigning into South Carolina with the goals of destroying war resources and ending up on Lee’s flank in Virginia—a move that would effectively end the war.[xxx] Sherman knew that his “whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina,” and indeed, the men did destroy the land.[xxxi] They cut through the state in a narrower line than that cut through Georgia, but this time, the soldiers left nearly nothing but ruins in their wake.[xxxii] One Union officer noted that while in Georgia few houses burned, in South Carolina, “here few escaped.”[xxxiii] Throughout the march, even “the middle of the finest day looked black and gloomy” as a result of the smoke rising in every direction.[xxxiv] But, as intense as the pillage and burning became when the soldiers entered South Carolina, it stopped completely when they came into North Carolina—and, in fact, one officer wrote, the army did not burn a single home and “gave to the people more than it took from them.”[xxxv]

From the rebel perspective, it was assumed that Sherman would not be capable of traversing South Carolina—and certainly not with any rapidity given the swampy conditions and the distance that his men would have to travel during winter with no chance of resupplying until they reached Wilmington, North Carolina. In fact, Joseph Johnston had received reports from his engineers stating “that it was absolutely impossible for an army to march across the lower portions of the State in Winter.”[xxxvi] Sherman himself called the March to the Sea “child’s play” as compared to the march through South Carolina—which required his men to cross “nine substantial rivers and scores of their tributaries during what turned out to be the wettest Winter in twenty years.”[xxxvii] Johnston later recalled, in light of Sherman not only crossing the swamps but doing it at the rate of a dozen miles a day, “I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.”[xxxviii] Johnston, then commanding all rebel troops in the Carolinas, had the unenviable task put upon him to stop Sherman’s march north to Lee. He posted his 20,000 Confederates in Charleston and Augusta, and while Sherman made a feint toward each city, in fact, he kept his men on a straight line toward North Carolina.[xxxix] Johnston faced the disadvantage of inferior numbers, but perhaps more concerning for him was that he and his men lacked reliable intelligence to outmaneuver Sherman—until the middle of March.[xl] About thirty miles south of Raleigh, Johnston’s men took their shot: 17,000 rebels faced roughly even numbers, and after some early success in the fighting, the Confederates were repulsed and had failed to displace the federals.[xli] Sherman reinforced his men, sent a counterattack onto Johnston’s left flank, and then called off the incisive move—allowing Johnston and his men to “slip away during the night.”[xlii] Sherman, instead of pursuing Johnston, brought his men to Goldsboro where the army enjoyed the first fresh supplies they had had for seven weeks.[xliii] Then, measuring Johnston’s force as too insignificant to warrant any further attention, he planned his move into Virginia to help Grant “wipe out Lee.”[xliv]

These movements by Sherman, combined with the news from the past several months, caused northerners and southerners alike to realize that the war must be coming to an end. No longer would the fighting continue; no longer would families have to check their newspapers’ lists of the fallen for the names of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. But—if the war were to truly end—the rebel general who had yet to suffer a complete defeat and its accompanying humiliation, Robert E. Lee, would have to be beaten. And his reputation, built long before the war and reinforced by the valor he had shown during the war, foretold that—close as victory seemed—it would be difficult to obtain.

Robert E. Lee.

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 811.

[ii] See id.

[iii] Id. at 812.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] See id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id. at 812-13.

[ix] Id. at 813.

[x] See id. at 815.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 706.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 815.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id. at 816.

[xviii] Id. (quoting Vandiver, ed., Civil War Diary of Josiah Gorgas, 163-64, 166).

[xix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 816 (quoting Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), VIII, 149-51.

[xx] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 816-17.

[xxi] Id. at 818.

[xxii] Id. at 819.

[xxiii] See id. at 820.

[xxiv] Id. at 820-21.

[xxv] Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the War Between the States, (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1868-70), II, 619.

[xxvi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 822.

[xxvii] Id. at 824.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id. at 825.

[xxx] Id. at 826.

[xxxi] Id.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] Id.

[xxxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 788.

[xxxv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 826.

[xxxvi] Id. at 827.

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] Id. at 828.

[xxxix] Id.

[xl] Id. at 829-30.

[xli] Id. at 830.

[xlii] Id.

[xliii] Id.

[xliv] Id.

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