A Nation Reborn

President Andrew Johnson. By: Mathew Brady.

In the same way that the Second World War would reshape the globe in the Twentieth Century, the Civil War reshaped America for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. Veterans of both wars came to define their respective generations and rise to positions of power: just as Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s meteoric rise culminated in him becoming President three years after the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower would find himself being elected President seven years after the war of his generation. Lesser generals also worked their way into office—some of those offices being elected and others being executive offices of companies in the emerging industries following the wars—but that would occur over the course of decades: the last Civil War veteran to reach the presidency, William McKinley, occupied the White House as the Nineteenth Century faded into the Twentieth. As ever, those who held power determined the direction of the country’s future. In the weeks and months following the end of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, people in power would be sketching out the contours of a post-war America; and it was then, at that nascent stage of the newly reborn nation’s life, that new factions emerged—factions that would vie for weeks, months, and even years to cast the die of America in their own image and either keep, or make, the nation they wished to have.

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The Second Father

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Abraham Lincoln.

In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln traveled to the Western Railroad Depot carrying his trunk tied with a rope and with the inscription, “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” Friends and family prepared him for the train ride from Illinois to Washington which would take twelve days and bring the President-elect into contact with tens of thousands of citizens. Lincoln had been “unusually grave and reflective” as he lamented “parting with this scene of joys and sorrows during the last thirty years and the large circle of old and faithful friends,” and when he went to his law partner for sixteen years, Billy Herndon, he assured him that his election to the presidency merely placed a hold on his partnership role: “If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened.” As he stood on his private train car and addressed the crowd of well-wishers, the sentiment was no less heartfelt: “My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. . . . I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.” And so, with the crowd moved to tears, Lincoln would leave Springfield for the last time in his life with the train slowly moving “out of the sight of the silent gathering.” Within the train car, furnished with dark furniture, “crimson curtains, and a rich tapestry carpet,” Lincoln “sat alone and depressed” without his usual “hilarious good spirits.” Read more

Appomattox

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A Victory Parade in New York. Harper’s Weekly.

Conceptualizing the Civil War’s end, even during the opening months of 1865, was nearly impossible: who could imagine Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering himself and his men to the custody of the Union army? How many members of the Confederate government would be taken prisoner and be tried for treason and any number of other crimes for defying the United States federal government? What would come from an Abraham Lincoln presidency that was not entirely consumed with prosecuting the war? And perhaps the most troubling question of all: how, after all the fratricidal blood shed and destruction wrought against one another, could the Confederate states be readmitted and the country continue to exist? On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, when General Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the contours of a post-war America were beginning to be defined—and for the Confederates, it appeared, with Lee’s surrender, that the future would be one of subjugation to the northern states. Read more

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. Read more

Andersonville Prison

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The Prisoners in Andersonville.

Throughout the Civil War, there was no shortage of suffering on the battlefield, but even the newest soldier knew that being taken prisoner was likely to lead to more suffering. While a Confederate prisoner may have reasonably expected that he could obtain improved rations in a northern prison—particularly as the war progressed and rebel supplies had become increasingly stretched—a Union soldier could precisely expect the converse: that if he were taken prisoner, he would receive fewer and poorer rations than that of his starving adversary. While any rebel military prison was expected to be an unwelcome place because of smaller rations and numerous other factors, none has had the enduring reputation of being the site of vileness as the prison situated in Andersonville, Georgia, which operated from the Winter of 1864 to the Spring of 1865. Read more

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. Read more

The Taking of Atlanta

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A Scene Outside Atlanta in 1864.

According to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the fall of Atlanta into Union hands would “open the way for the Federal Army to the Gulf on the one hand, and to Charleston on the other, and close up those rich granaries from which Lee’s armies are supplied. It would give them control of our network of railways and thus paralyze our efforts.”[i] The strategic location of the city was only one of several reasons for the Confederates to hold it: Atlanta had seen tremendous growth during the war with “foundries, factories, munitions plants, and supply depots” having sprung up on account of the city becoming a railroad hub.[ii] Capturing the city became the primary goal of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, but, because the rebels had come to see the city as being second only to Richmond as a “symbol of resistance and nationality,” the campaign to Atlanta was almost certain to be easier than taking Atlanta.[iii] Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more