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

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

The Battle of Cold Harbor

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The Battle of Cold Harbor. By: Don Troiani.

Within a dozen miles of Richmond sat the dusty crossroads of Cold Harbor. The town, with its tavern and “triangular grove of trees at the intersection of five roads,” would be the next stop in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia to defeat Robert E. Lee. There, approximately 109,000 Union troops sat ready to take on around 59,000 entrenched rebels.[i] The battle was likely to only be a continuation of the “relentless, ceaseless warfare” that had characterized Grant’s campaign into Virginia throughout 1864, and in Grant’s mind, he felt that “success over Lee’s army” was “already assured.”[ii] Read more

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. Read more

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] Read more