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Last Best Hope of Earth

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Abraham Lincoln

Tightening the Cordon

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Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and His Staff. By: Mathew Brady.

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. Continue reading “Tightening the Cordon”

The March to the Sea

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William Tecumseh Sherman on Horseback.

Throughout the Civil War, soldiers and citizens alike could view the events unfolding before them and question whether there was a better alternative than to prosecute the war to its bitter end. What had started as a spectator’s war—with men and women gathering near the battlefields to picnic and take in the action—had morphed, by mid-1864, into slaughter with the only variables being where the slaughter may occur and what magnitude it may reach. One veteran lieutenant recalled after the war, “As we lay there watching the bright stars, many a soldier asked himself the question: What is this all about? Why is it that 200,000 men of one blood and one tongue, believing as one man in the fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man, should in the nineteenth century of the Christian era be thus armed with all the improved appliances of modern warfare and seeking one another’s lives? We could settle our differences by compromising, and all be at home in ten days.”[i] Of all the soldiers that gazed at the bright stars and asked themselves these questions, the men under the command of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman were not a part of that group when they left Atlanta burning and began a campaign through the heart of Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean. Continue reading “The March to the Sea”

The Election of 1864

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Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

The summer of 1864 was one of dismay for President Abraham Lincoln and his administration: throughout the Union, the appetite for war had rapidly shrunk; particularly as compared to the heady days of 1860 that ushered Lincoln into the White House. While some voters in the North saw the continued prosecution of the war as nothing more than an attempt to manifest Lincoln’s wish to abolish slavery—and therefore a war not worth fighting—others had naturally, in view of the mounting casualties, developed a fatigue for war and, if they had a choice in the matter, would have opted for a negotiated peace. If Lincoln were to lose the election—so the argument ran—then families could be reunited and the violence could come to an end. For Confederates, northern voter despair was precisely the ingredient that was needed in the giant pot that was political discourse in the Union, but it was not all that was needed: the rebels had dreamt of forcing a negotiated peace, and now, with the election in sight, they had hope that Lincoln would be voted out and the war could be brought to a favorable end. Continue reading “The Election of 1864”

The Battle of the Crater

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“Recapturing the Crater.” By: Henry Kidd.

Although the Battle of Petersburg had ended with the Confederates retaining control of the city, the Union had started its siege; a strategy that had been effective at Vicksburg but required months to succeed. Prolonged trench warfare was virtually certain, and, despite federal efforts to disrupt Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s supply lines, many of the northern troops lacked the energy that they possessed during the early part of the war and were unable to destroy the railroads surrounding Petersburg so completely that the rebels could not repair them. While the beginning of 1864 had shown the Union’s ability to take rebel territory, from June to the end of July, the momentum of the war took on a pendular quality as both sides seemed to come ever closer to victory. Continue reading “The Battle of the Crater”

The Atlanta Campaign

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Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. By: Thure de Thulstrup. Courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior.

After over four years of fighting, the North and the South had become increasingly fatigued with the war and anxious for its resolution. Throughout the Confederacy, hope was growing that the Union, rather than continue to tighten its grip at the expense of casualties on both sides, would agree to a negotiated peace. Standing in the way of that result was President Abraham Lincoln who had expected nothing less than a total victory. While the Union generals led by Ulysses S. Grant had achieved progress by taking territory in the west and cutting off resources to the Confederate capital, for each of the past four years, momentum had stalled whenever any general, including Grant, had come within earshot of Richmond. With the election of 1864 approaching, the rebels saw the potential for the northern electorate to oust Lincoln and bring a president to Washington that would negotiate an end to the war. Continue reading “The Atlanta Campaign”

The Battle of Petersburg

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Union Soldiers Gathered at Petersburg.

Consistent with every other battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s career that left him with a discouraging result, he had drawn up a plan to avenge the disaster at Cold Harbor and put the Confederates on their heels. Continue reading “The Battle of Petersburg”

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

At Spotsylvania, Virginia, within miles of the Confederate capital, the rebels had constructed the strongest defensive position yet in the war. Robert E. Lee, despite any evidence of a Union movement in that direction, presciently ordered his men to the town as it was the “best strategic point” for the federals.[i] Ulysses S. Grant, continuing his offensive into southern territory, opted to divide his men for both a flank maneuver around the fieldworks and a direct attack on them. Continue reading “The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House”

The Battle of the Wilderness

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Robert E. Lee Leading the Texans. By: Don Troiani.

By the spring of 1864, changes were abound on the Union side. Three generals—Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan—had become the preeminent leaders of the northern army. With Congress having revived the rank of lieutenant general, a rank last held by George Washington, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to that rank and bestowed on him the title of general in chief.[i] While the North was in the ascendancy, the Confederate army had suffered through the winter. The Confederate Congress had eliminated substitution, which had allowed wealthy southerners to avoid conscription, and “required soldiers whose three-year enlistments were about to expire to remain in the army.”[ii] Even with Congress taking the extraordinary step of adjusting the draft age range to seventeen years old through fifty years old, the rebels still numbered fewer than half their opponents.[iii] Nonetheless, hope was not lost: a camaraderie pervaded the Southern army—particularly amongst the many veteran soldiers—which was perhaps best encapsulated in General Robert E. Lee’s saying that if their campaign was successful, “we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for.”[iv] Continue reading “The Battle of the Wilderness”

The Battle of Chickamauga

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The Site of the Outbreak of the Battle of Chickamauga. Courtesy: Library Photograph Collection.

Near the end of September 1863, Union General William Rosecrans had gathered his men in the valley of West Chickamauga Creek in Georgia, and Confederate General Braxton Bragg was preparing to attack the Union left flank and force a reversal into a nearby valley from which Rosecrans could not escape.[i] The maneuver would be the ideal Confederate response to the federal successes at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Fortunately for the federal troops, September 18 brought Confederate inaction and allowed General George Thomas, known as “Old Slow Trot” or “Pap” to his men, to reinforce Rosecrans’ left line.[ii] The next morning dawned what would become the “bloodiest battle in the western theater of the war.”[iii] Continue reading “The Battle of Chickamauga”

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