A History of the Civil War, 1861-1865/Chapter XIII
OUR story left William T. Sherman in camp at Atlanta during September, 1864. Mentally and bodily in his prime of forty-four, he had added to an ample book-knowledge of his profession three years of fruitful experience in the field, whilst his warm friendship with Grant had proved of great advantage to each and to their country. Now his “busy brain” planned an extraordinary movement, a march to the sea. He proposed to leave Thomas to cope with Hood while, to use his own words, he should make “Georgia howl.” But the President felt much solicitude at his leaving Hood in his rear, believing that “a misstep might be fatal to his army.” Meanwhile Hood crossed the Tennessee river and invaded Tennessee: this movement made Grant doubt the wisdom of the plan and he asked Sherman whether he had not better destroy Hood’s army before starting southward. But Sherman, anticipating this objection, had already sent a despatch to Grant allaying his misgivings and drawing from him the word, “Go as you propose.”
The march to the sea, the march northward from Savannah and Thomas’s operations in Tennessee are a combination of bold and effective strategy, possible only after the Chattanooga-Atlanta campaign and a fit sequel to it. A hundred persons may have conceived the design of advancing to the ocean but the genius of the general lay in foreseeing the possible moves of his adversary, in guarding against them and in his estimate of the physical and moral results of cutting the Confederacy in twain. Wise in precaution and fully conscious of the difficulties of the venture, Sherman showed the same boldness and tenacity in sticking to his purpose when others shook their heads as Grant had shown in his Vicksburg campaign. No general who lacked daring and resolution would have persisted in his determination to advance through Georgia after Hood had crossed the Tennessee river, especially when Grant himself for a while doubted the wisdom of the movement. Sherman was the commander and, even as he knew his men and comprehended the conditions, he knew he could expect no success unless Thomas should defeat Hood. Therein, as the affair turned out, lay the risk. But Sherman knew Thomas through and through. Classmates at West Point, they had ever since been friends and had been drawn closer together by the vicissitudes of the Civil War despite differences of opinion arising from their diverse temperaments. Sherman had implicit confidence in Thomas, thought that he had furnished him a force sufficient for all emergencies and that the defence of Tennessee was not left to chance. “If I had Schofield,” Thomas telegraphed, “I should feel perfectly safe.” Sherman had already detached Schofield’s corps from his army and sent it northward with instructions to report to Thomas for orders. On the day that Sherman started for the sea, Thomas sent this word: “I have no fear that Beauregard [Hood] can do us any harm now, and if he attempts to follow you, I will follow him as far as possible. If he does not follow you I will then thoroughly organize my troops and I believe I shall have men enough to ruin him unless he gets out of the way very rapidly.”
At this time the Union commanders were uncertain whether Hood would follow Sherman or move north toward Nashville. The army that marched to the sea proved unnecessarily large and 10,000 men more with Schofield would have saved some trial of soul, yet, as the problem appeared at the time, Sherman must be sufficiently strong to defeat Hood and the scattered forces of uncertain number which would gather to protect Georgia. Moreover, as his ultimate aim was to “re-enforce our armies in Virginia” he must have troops enough to oppose Lee until Grant should be at his heels. He reckoned that the force left in Tennessee was “numerically greater” than Hood’s. Considering everything that could have been known between November 1 and 12, it seems clear beyond dispute that he made a fair division of his army between himself and Thomas.
Sherman reviewed his decision with deliberation, care and foresight; until within six days of his start southward, he held himself ready, if need were, to coöperate with Thomas in the pursuit of Hood, the one moving directly against the Confederates and the other endeavoring to cut off their retreat, for he admitted that “the first object should be the destruction of that army;” but, as the days wore on, he came to believe that the advantages of the march to the sea outweighed those of any other plan and he took the irrevocable step. Stopping at Cartersville on November 12 on his progress southward he received Thomas’s last despatch and replied “all right”: a bridge was burned, severing the telegraph wire and all communication with Thomas and his government. As was the case with Julian, who “plunged into the recesses of the Marcian or Black forest,” so was Sherman’s fate for many days “unknown to the world.” No direct intelligence from him reached the North from November 12 to December 14. “I will not attempt to send carriers back,” he had written to Grant, “but trust to the Richmond papers to keep you well advised.” For these thirty-two days, Lincoln and Grant had no other information of this important movement than what they could glean from the Southern journals.
Sherman’s imagination was vividly impressed with the strangeness of the situation: “two hostile armies were marching in opposite directions, each in the full belief that it was achieving a final and conclusive result in the great war.” It would be impossible to show an entire consistency in the utterances of this great general; a single aspect of the campaign often claimed his attention to the exclusion of all others and he was so fertile in thought and fluent in expression that the idea uppermost in his brain was apt to burst forth without regard for what else remained behind. As with almost all men of action, the speculation of to-day might supersede that of yesterday only to disappear under that of to-morrow, yet this did not impair his capacity for making a correct decision nor his steadfastness in the execution of a plan. Grant, more reticent and not at all expansive, is not chargeable in the same degree with inconsistency in his written words. He lacked imagination and did not worry. A remark of Sherman’s provides an acute estimate of their different temperaments: Grant does not care “for what the enemy does out of his sight but it scares me.”
While the army was concentrating at Atlanta, the railway station, machine shops and other buildings of that city which might be useful to the enemy in his military operations were destroyed. The right wing and one corps of the left wing having started the day before, Sherman rode out of Atlanta on November 16 with the Fourteenth Corps: he had in all 62,000 “able-bodied, experienced soldiers, well armed, well equipped and provided, as far as human foresight could, with all the essentials of life, strength and vigorous action.” One of the bands happening to play “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” the men sang the well-known song, giving to the chorus, “Glory, glory hallelujah, his soul is marching on,” a force full of meaning, as their minds reverted to the events which had taken place since that December day in 1859 when he who was now a saint in their calendar had suffered death on the scaffold. When the march to the sea began, the weather was fine, the air bracing and the movement to the south and east exhilarated the men. Many of the common soldiers called out to their general, “Uncle Billy, I guess Grant is waiting for us at Richmond.” “There was a ‘devil-may-care’ feeling pervading officers and men,” related Sherman, “that made me feel the full load of responsibility.” The tale of the march is not one of battle and inch-by-inch progress as was the campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta. “As to the ‘lion’ in our path,” wrote Sherman after he had reached Savannah, “we never met him.” Officers and men looked upon the march as a “picnic,” “a vast holiday frolic.” The burden was on the general in command. He was in the enemy’s country; he must show his skill by keeping this large army supplied. When the army set out it had approximately supplies of bread for twenty days, sugar, coffee and salt for forty and about three days’ forage in grain; it had also a sufficient quantity of ammunition; all this was carried in 2500 wagons with a team of six mules to each. Droves of cattle, enough to insure fresh meat for more than a month, were part of the commissariat. The ambulances were 600 in number; the artillery had been reduced to 65 guns. Pontoon trains were carried along, as the invading host had many rivers to cross. The right wing was composed of the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps, the left, of the Fourteenth and Twentieth; each corps marched on a separate road. The division of the wagon trains gave each corps about 800 wagons, which occupied on the march five miles or more of road. The artillery and wagons with their advance and rear guards had the right of way, the men taking improvised paths at their side. The troops began their daily march at dawn and pitched their camp soon after noon, having covered ordinarily ten to fifteen miles. Milledgeville, the capital of the State, was reached by the left wing in seven days. This march through the heart of Georgia so alarmed the Confederates lest either Macon or Augusta or both might be attacked that they divided their forces; and, when it finally became clear that Savannah was the point aimed at, they found it impossible for various reasons to concentrate a large number of troops for defence. By December 10, the enemy was driven within his lines at Savannah, the march of 300 miles was over and the siege began.
The special field order of November 9 said, “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march.” As the State was sparsely settled and the plan of making requisitions on the civil authorities therefore impracticable, this was the only possible mode of supplying the troops. The arrangements for the foraging were made and carried out with military precision. Each brigade sent out a party of about fifty men on foot who would return mounted, driving cattle and mules and hauling wagons or family carriages loaded with fresh mutton, smoked bacon, turkeys, chickens, ducks, corn meal, jugs of molasses and sweet potatoes. As the crop was large, and had just been gathered and laid by for the winter, and as the region had never before been visited by a hostile army, the land was rich in provisions and forage. While Sherman and his officers sincerely endeavored to have the foraging done in an orderly way, the men were often riotous in seizing food on their own account. “A soldier passed me,” so related the General, “with a ham on his musket, a jug of sorghum—molasses—under his arm and a big piece of honey in his hand, from which he was eating and, catching my eye he remarked in a low voice to a comrade, ‘Forage liberally on the country.’” Sherman reproved the man as he did others when similar acts of lawlessness fell under his observation, explaining that “foraging must be limited to the regular parties properly detailed.” Full of pride in his soldiers and elated at their manifestations of confidence in him, he had for them after the completion of the march only this mild censure, “A little loose in foraging they ‘did some things they ought not to have done.’” A spirit of fun pervaded the army which exhibited itself in innocent frolics, typical of which was the meeting of some officers in the Hall of Representatives at Milledgeville where they constituted themselves the Legislature of the State of Georgia, elected a speaker and after a formal debate repealed by a fair vote the Ordinance of Secession.
Destruction was a part of the business of the march, especially as Lee’s army drew its supplies of provisions largely from Georgia. “The State of Georgia alone,” said Jefferson Davis in a speech at Augusta, “produces food enough not only for her own people and the army within it but feeds too the Army of Virginia.” It became of the utmost importance to sever the railroad communication between the Gulf States and Richmond and to this Sherman gave his personal attention. The bridges and trestles were burned, the masonry of the culverts blown up. In the destruction of the iron rails mechanical skill vied with native ingenuity in doing the most effective work. The chief engineer designed a machine for twisting the rails after heating them in the fires made by burning the ties: this was used by Michigan and Missouri engineers. But the infantry with the mania for destruction which pervaded the army joined in the work, carrying the rails when they came to a red heat to the nearest trees and twisting them about the trunks or warping them in some fantastic way so that they were useless except as old iron and, even as such, in unmanageable shape for working in a mill. About 265 miles of railroad were thus destroyed. This in the heart of Jeff. Davis’s empire, as Sherman called it, effected a damage almost irreparable owing to the scarcity of factories which could make rails for renewals and to the embargo on imports by the blockade of the Southern ports. Stations and machine shops along the lines were burned. Many thousand bales of cotton and a large number of cotton gins and presses were destroyed. At Milledgeville, Sherman reported, “I burned the railroad buildings and the arsenals; the state-house and Governor’s mansion I left unharmed.” The penitentiary had been burned by the convicts before the arrival of the army. A negro, from whom Sherman asked information regarding the operations of the right wing, thus described what he had seen, “First there come along some cavalrymen and they burned the depot; then come along some infantry men and they tore up the track and burned it; and just before I left they sot fire to the well.” In the main, the General forebore destroying private property but, in nearly all his despatches after he had reached the sea, he gloated over the destruction along the line of his march, writing from Savannah: “We have consumed the corn and fodder in the region of country thirty miles on either side of a line from Atlanta to Savannah as also the sweet potatoes, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry and have carried away more than 10,000 horses and mules as well as a countless number of their slaves. I estimate the damage done to the State of Georgia and its military resources at $100,000,000; at least $20,000,000 of which has inured to our advantage and the remainder is simple waste and destruction. This may seem a hard species of warfare but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.” Well might he say afterwards, “War is hell.”
Various orders given from time to time show that there was not only lawless foraging but that there was an unwarranted burning of buildings. A more serious charge against these men of the western army is pillage. Sherman admitted the truth of it as did likewise General Cox. After the campaign, Sherman heard of jewelry being taken from women and was of the opinion that these depredations were committed by parties of foragers usually called “bummers.” Cox dubbed with that name the habitual stragglers to whom he ascribed a large part of the irregular acts. Some of the pilfering was undoubtedly due to the uncontrollable American desire for mementos of places connected with great events. Moreover, while three and one-half years of civil war had built up an effective fighting machine, they had caused a relaxation in the rules of orderly conduct among its members so that it had come to be considered proper to despoil anyone living in the enemy’s country; but the commander and his officers sincerely desired to restrain the soldiers within the limits of civilized usage. The lofty personal character of most of the men in high command and the severity of the punishment threatened for breaches of discipline are evidence of this; nor should it be overlooked that much of the plundering charged to Sherman’s men was actually done by Confederate bands. From my general characterization of the Union officers one notable exception must be made. Kilpatrick, the commander of the cavalry, was notorious for his immorality and rapacity, and his escapades, winked at by Sherman on account of his military efficiency, were demoralizing to the army at the time, and have since tended to give it a bad name. With no purpose of extenuation it is pleasant to record some of Sherman’s words which should be read in the light of his honesty of soul and truthfulness of statement. “I never heard,” he wrote, “of any cases of murder or rape.”
Sherman’s campaign struck slavery a staggering blow. Everywhere the negroes received the Northern soldiers with joy. Near Covington an old gray-haired negro said to Sherman that he “had been looking for the angel of the Lord ever since he was knee-high” and he supposed that the success of the Northern army would bring him freedom. Another who was spokesman for a large number of fellow-slaves said to an aide-de-camp of the General’s, “Ise hope de Lord will prosper you Yankees and Mr. Sherman because I tinks and we’se all tinks dat you’se down here in our interests.” At Milledgeville the negroes in their ecstasy shouted, “Bress de Lord! tanks be to Almighty God, the Yanks is come! de day ob jubilee hab arribed.” “Negro men, women and children joined the column at every mile of our march,” reported the commander of the left wing. The desire to realize their freedom at once was keen and the number would have been far greater had not Sherman discouraged the negroes from following the army, as all but the young and able-bodied, who were put to use, were a serious drawback, increasing the number of mouths to be fed and causing constant apprehension lest they should hamper the movement of the troops in the event that the enemy were encountered in formidable array. But the tidings that President Lincoln had proclaimed them all free was spread far and wide.
The moral effect of the march to the sea was very great. “Sherman’s campaign has produced bad effect on our people,” wrote Jefferson Davis. At first it was popularly supposed at the South that the operation was hazardous and that the Union Army might be checked or even destroyed. The Union force was underrated; the Confederate means of defence were estimated too high, especially as they were so disposed as to be ineffective. The marching columns met with little resistance. The victorious progress of “this modern Attila,” as Sherman was called, brought out indications that many people in the South were tired of the war.
During the thirty-two days when the world lost sight of Sherman, the only news of him was from the Richmond newspapers which came through Grant’s lines and from other Southern journals, copious extracts from which were printed in the Northern dailies. The President was apprehensive for his safety; and, if Grant’s recollection be correct, there was for a time considerable anxiety among people at the North who had husbands, sons or brothers in the invading army. The first word of his security was received in Washington on the evening of December 14; four days later came a despatch from Sherman himself, saying that he had opened communication with the fleet. On the night of December 20 the Confederates evacuated Savannah. Sherman took possession of the city and sent his celebrated despatch to President Lincoln, who received it opportunely on the evening of Christmas Day. “I beg to present you,” the General said, “as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
When the balance of probabilities seemed to indicate that Hood would invade Tennessee, Sherman, on parting with General J. D. Cox, whom he was sending northward, said, “If there’s to be any hard fighting you will have it to do.” This turned out to be the case. Tempted by the division of the Union Army and aiming to “distract Sherman’s advance into Georgia,” Hood on November 21 took the offensive and began his movement upon Nashville. His energy and alertness secured for him the advantage of superior numbers over General John M. Schofield, who endeavored to retard the Confederate advance so that Thomas might gain time for a concentration of the Union troops. Aware of his inferiority, Schofield executed a masterly retreat and, through strenuous exertions of officers and men, arrived safely at Franklin, where the impetuous Hood forced him to fight with a river at his back. Hood made a desperate frontal attack and was repulsed with terrible slaughter. General J. D. Cox shared with Schofield the “credit for the brilliant victory.” The Union troops, under orders from Thomas, marched to Nashville.
Hood followed Schofield to Nashville and sat down before the city with an army now reduced to 26,000, inviting his doom. The reason he gave for continuing his advance northward was stated in his report of December 11, “to force the enemy to take the initiative.” Thomas had now at Nashville 49,000 men.
Thomas understood the position of affairs and knew that he should attack Hood. Feeling pretty sure that Hood would not attempt an advance to the Ohio river, or retreat southward, he was making his preparations complete with the aim of striking the Confederates a crushing blow. Meanwhile Grant was growing impatient—the more so as personally he did not like Thomas. The two were unsympathetic and their view of military movements was diverse. Grant loved Sherman and Sheridan and was always ready to overlook their short-comings, but his attitude toward Thomas during these December days was that of an unrelenting fault-finder. Knowing that Hood’s defeat was necessary for the success of Sherman’s campaign he could not control his annoyance at the delay. “Attack Hood at once” was his order of December 6. As no attack was made, he purposed relieving Thomas and placing Schofield in command; but suspending, for a space, the issuance of an order to this effect he telegraphed to Thomas on December 11, “Let there be no further delay.” Meanwhile a storm of sleet had converted the hills about Nashville into slopes of slippery ice rendering any movement impossible until there should be a thaw: this was reported to Grant, who appeared to see in the intelligence only a further excuse for delay. In his unreasonable mood, he ordered General Logan to proceed to Nashville for the purpose of superseding Thomas in command of the Army of the Cumberland; then, growing still more anxious, he decided to go thither himself and had reached Washington on the way when he received word that Thomas had made the attack.
Grant had been unjust to Thomas, looking at only one side of his character. While Thomas was deliberate unto slowness he had the situation well in hand after the battle of Franklin and was admirably fitted to cope with an impetuous general like Hood. This Sherman had divined when placing upon him such a weight of responsibility. Moreover, he had the confidence and devotion of his soldiers. In whatever way the circumstances may be regarded there was no justification for superseding him by Schofield or Logan; and the sequel showed that he was abundantly equal to the demands made upon him.
On December 15 Thomas attacked Hood and in the course of that day and the next struck him a crushing blow.
When in the spring of 1864, Grant took command of all the armies of the United States, the two salient features of his plan were the destruction or capture of Lee’s army and the crushing of the Confederate force in the Southwest. Before the close of the year one-half of the work had been accomplished. Hood’s army was disintegrated. Not all, to be sure, of that compact and well-disciplined force of 53,000 with which Johnston had begun to resist Sherman’s advance in May had been killed, wounded or made prisoners, but through casualties, desertions and forced furloughs, practically none of it was left as a fighting body. As an army it is no longer known in the annals of the war, although two detachments of it appear to recall to us its wrecked fortunes. Nine thousand of these discouraged and partially equipped soldiers turned up under Johnston in North Carolina and 1692 went to Mobile
Jefferson Davis had unwittingly helped to bring about the destruction of the Confederate force in the Southwest by removing Joseph E. Johnston and placing Hood in command. Sherman began the ruin of Hood’s army about Atlanta; Schofield gave it a severe blow at Franklin; Thomas completed the work at Nashville. There was good generalship; there were brave, devoted and energetic officers and men. Of course Sherman’s successful march to the sea would have been a bitter disappointment to the North without Thomas’s victory at Nashville; but the two together formed an important part of the grand scheme which broke down the military resistance of the South. The great achievement, the capture of Lee’s army, still remained. While the people were rejoicing in the merriest season of the year over the success of Sherman and of Thomas, the President, Grant and Sherman were evolving the plan which should end the Civil War.The President earnestly desired the adoption of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the United States forever. Such an amendment had passed the Senate at the previous session but it had failed to secure the requisite two-thirds vote in the House. It was still the same House of Representatives but the President pointed out that the voice of the people as manifested in the national election was for the amendment and that the House, which should come into being on March 4, 1865, would certainly pass it: therefore, as it is certain to go to the States for their action, “may we not agree that the sooner the better.” He recommended the reconsideration and passage of the amendment. On January 31, 1865, his ardent wish was gratified. When the Speaker announced that the constitutional majority of two-thirds had voted in the affirmative, there was great enthusiasm. “In honor of the immortal and sublime event,” the House adjourned. This amendment, which is now known as the Thirteenth, was in due time ratified by three-fourths of the States. To contrast the amendment, which Congress intended in March, 1861, to have numbered XIII, with the existing addition to our organic act is to comprehend the mighty revolution of four years. That of 1861 reads: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere within any State with the domestic institutions thereof including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” That of 1865, which is a part of our Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”The South was approaching exhaustion. Sherman’s march through Georgia and Hood’s defeat at Nashville had bred a feeling of despondency far and wide. Lee called attention to the “alarming frequency of desertions” from his army which were due mainly to the “insufficiency of food and non-payment of the troops.” Even the Confederate paper money was not to be had, although this was fast losing value. Sixty dollars of it were needed to buy one dollar in gold. Beef sold for $6 a pound and flour for $1000 a barrel. The weather was cold and fuel scarce. Jones makes a record of the mercury at zero and wood selling at $5 a stick. In the midst of this distress came the news that Fort Fisher had fallen. This closed Wilmington, North Carolina, the last open port of the Confederacy. Blockade-running was now at an end. The trade with Europe of cotton and tobacco for needed supplies, on which the South had lived and carried on the war, must now cease. As the existence of the Confederacy depended on Lee’s army, the most serious feature of a very grave situation was the lack of food for his soldiers. Sherman’s march had cut off the supplies from Georgia, but meat and corn could be obtained from southwest Virginia and the Carolinas. The permanent way, however, of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, on which the transportation of this food depended, had not been kept up; the locomotives, cars and machinery generally were out of repair so that the daily wants of the commissariat could hardly be met. Lee reported that the whole country within reach of his army had been “swept clear.” The Commissary-General wrote that for several months the Army of Northern Virginia had been “living literally from hand to mouth.” The overpowering difficulty was the lack of money. In North Carolina producers refused to sell, as they feared the Government would not pay. In a number of Virginia counties along the Potomac the people, who had formerly held that patriotism required them to take Confederate money and refuse greenbacks, would now sell their cattle and hogs only for United States currency, cotton or gold. In Virginia generally gold or greenbacks were necessary to obtain horses. The value of the paper currency of a nation is a symptom of the nation’s stability, and men had it thus brought home to them in the common operations of life, that the financial system of the Confederacy had broken down while the enemy’s money was eagerly sought for within its borders. A natural step in reasoning led to a distrust of the whole Southern enterprise. Traffic across the lines with country under control of the Union forces was an important source of supply for Lee’s army. This traffic, which consisted in the exchange of cotton for subsistence stores, was carried on largely by agents of the Confederate government.
Despondency and discontent filled the public mind. President Davis was discontented with his Congress and Congress was equally discontented with him; and many people were dissatisfied with both. The General Assembly of Virginia by a unanimous vote expressed the opinion that Lee’s appointment to the command of all the armies “would promote their efficiency” and “reanimate the spirit” of both soldiers and people. This was communicated deferentially and in confidence to Davis who, with ready sympathy, replied that he fully agreed with the Assembly; shortly afterwards he appointed Lee General-in-chief. It is significant that all men, no matter how they might differ in other respects, turned with one accord to Lee as their saviour if indeed salvation were to be had. His personal influence is illustrated by a circumstance occurring at this time. Heavy rains had destroyed a part of the Richmond and Danville railroad, which was the main source of supply for his army, so that food could not be transported over it for a number of days. On a suggestion from the War Department, Lee made a personal appeal to the farmers, millers and other citizens to give him food, and although it was probable that nothing could have been impressed in that section, these men willingly brought in supplies sufficient to tide the army over its difficulty.
Far below Lee in the public estimation came Jefferson Davis, yet next to Lee he was the strongest individual influence in this time of distress. The power which he exercised by virtue of his office, together with the fact that his opponents lacked a leader, make it difficult to discern what was public opinion. All yearned for peace and everybody would have been willing to give the North liberal conditions if she would grant independence to the Confederacy. This view was shared by Davis who, however, “did not fully comprehend the widespread demoralization of the South.” His hopefulness gave him strength to rise above illness and a constant debility. He was inflexible and lacked tact in a eminent degree. Criticism was rife and various plans were proposed but, with rare exceptions, men failed to grasp the actual situation: that by superior resources and more efficient management the North had beaten the South. But it is impossible to tell how many saw the inevitable, that there could be no peace except by reunion and the abolition of slavery, and were willing to submit to these conditions. Thus matters were allowed to drift. The only feasible plan from a military point of view was to confer freedom on all slaves who would take up arms for the Confederacy.
During the year 1864 the enlistment of slaves began to be mooted; and, on January 11, 1865, this policy received the sanction of General Lee, who proposed immediate freedom to all who should enlist and at the same time recommended “a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.” Congress did not act promptly on Lee’s recommendation and, if there was any virtue in such a policy, it was now too late to avail anything. The enlistment of the slaves was strongly opposed and Howell Cobb, who at the commencement of the war owned a thousand negroes, argued against it with force. “The day you make soldiers of them” [the negroes], he wrote, “is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” In truth it might have been asked, if we are voluntarily going to free our slaves, wherefore did we secede and go to war? But in January, 1865, nearly all Southerners, if asked, What are you fighting for? would have answered, For our independence and against subjugation.
Through the officious interference of Francis P. Blair, Sr., a conference was brought about between Lincoln and Seward on the one side and Vice-President Stephens, Judge Campbell and Senator Hunter on the other. Known as the Hampton Roads Conference, it took place on board a United States steamer anchored near Fort Monroe [February 3]. When personal courtesies had been passed and Whig memories revived between Lincoln and Stephens, Stephens asked, “Mr. President, is there no way of putting an end to the present trouble?” Lincoln replied in substance that “there is but one way I know of an that is for those who are resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance.… The restoration of the Union is a sine qua non with me.” Judge Campbell inquired how restoration was to take place supposing that the Confederate States consented to it. Lincoln replied, “by disbanding their armies and permitting the national authorities to resume their functions.” Slavery was discussed; the President said that “he never would change or modify the terms of the Proclamation in the slightest particular” and Seward told the Southerners that the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had just been passed by Congress.
If the Confederate States were to abandon the war, asked Stephens, “would they be admitted to representation in Congress?” Lincoln replied that he thought that “they ought to be but he could not enter into any stipulation upon the subject.” When Stephens pressed the point that there should be some understanding, Lincoln said that he could not treat “with parties in arms against the government.” Hunter said that “this had been often done, especially by Charles I when at civil war with the British Parliament.” Lincoln replied: “I do not profess to be posted in history. On all such matters I will turn you over to Seward. All I distinctly recollect about the case of Charles I is that he lost his head in the end.” After further discussion Lincoln burst out: “Stephens, if I resided in Georgia with my present sentiments, I’ll tell you what I would do if I were in your place: I would go home and get the Governor of the State to call the Legislature together and get them to recall all the State troops from the war; elect Senators and members to Congress and ratify this Constitutional Amendment [the Thirteenth] prospectively, so as to take effect—say in five years.… Whatever may have been the views of your people before the war, they must be convinced now that slavery is doomed. It cannot last long in any event and the best course it seems to me, for your public men to pursue, would be to adopt such a policy as will avoid, as far as possible, the evils of immediate emancipation. This would be my course if I were in your place.”
Hunter summed up the talk, saying that nothing had been offered them “but unconditional submission to the mercy of the conquerors.” This Seward disclaimed in courteous terms and Lincoln “said that as far as the Confiscation Acts and other penal acts were concerned, their enforcement was left entirely with him and on that point he was perfectly willing to be full and explicit and on his assurance perfect reliance might be placed. He should exercise the power of the Executive with the utmost liberality. He went on to say that he would be willing to be taxed to remunerate the Southern people for their slaves. He believed the people of the North were as responsible for slavery as people of the South, and if the war should then cease, with the voluntary abolition of slavery by the States, he should be in favor, individually, of the Government paying a fair indemnity for the loss to their owners. He said he believed this feeling had an extensive existence at the North. He knew some who were in favor of an appropriation as high as four hundred million dollars for this purpose.… But on this subject he said he could give no assurance—enter into no stipulation. He barely expressed his own feelings and views and what he believed to be the views of others on the subject.” In the President’s report to the House of Representatives he said, “The Conference ended without result.”
Two men, Lee and Davis, acting together, could have led the Confederate Congress and the South. Lee’s caution, his deference to his superior and his aversion to assuming a responsibility that was not clearly his, probably prevented him from urging his President to negotiate a peace; but, if the memories of private conversation may be believed, he had lost all hope of success. It was Jefferson Davis who in this matter imposed his will on all his subordinates and it was he more than anybody else who stood in the way of an attempt to secure favorable terms for the South in a reconstruction of the Union.
If Davis, Lee and the Confederate Congress could have made up their minds to sue for peace, the contemporaneous occurrences in Washington reveal the magnanimous spirit in which they would have been met by Abraham Lincoln.
Two days after the Hampton Roads Conference, on Sunday evening, February 5, the President called his Cabinet together to consult them in regard to a message he proposed to send recommending that Congress empower him to pay to the eleven slave States of the Southern Confederacy then in arms against the Union and to the five Union slave States four hundred million dollars as compensation for their slaves provided that all resistance to the national authority should cease on April first next. The Cabinet unanimously disapproved this project and Lincoln with a deep sigh said, “You are all opposed to me and I will not send the message.” Such a proposal to the Southern Confederacy, tottering to her fall, only sixty-three days before Lee’s surrender to Grant would have shown magnanimous foresight. Had the Confederate States accepted it, there would have been an immediate fraternal union after the Civil War. Had they rejected it, the President and Congress would have made a noble record. The offer, however, was too wise and too generous to be widely approved of men; Lincoln of all those in authority had reached a moral height where he must dwell alone and impotent. But when reflecting on the events from 1865 to 1877, men may well wish that the offer had been made. A month later, in the spirit of this Sunday, Lincoln uttered the sublime words of his second inaugural address, the greatest of presidential inaugurals, one of the noblest of State papers.
- Nov. 1, O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3, 582.
- Beauregard had been placed in command of the Department and was Hood’s superior.
- Nov. 12, O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3, 756.
- O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3, 659, 660.
- Ibid., 659.
- That of Nov. 12, ante.
- O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3, 757.
- Gibbon, Chap. XXII.
- O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3, 661.
- W. Sherman, II, 170.
- Wilson’s Under the Old Flag, II, 17.
- W. Sherman, II, 172.
- Ibid., II, 179.
- O. R., XLIV, 793.
- J. D. Cox, 42.
- O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3, 713. “We give express charge, that in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.” Henry V, Act III, sc. VI.
- W. Sherman, II, 181.
- Jan. 1, 1865, O. R., XLIV, 14.
- O. R., XLIV, 789.
- W. Sherman, II, 191.
- O. R., XLIV, 13. These are undoubtedly exaggerated estimates. The assessed value of real estate and personal property in Georgia in 1860 was $618,232,387.
- W. Sherman, II, 183.
- Nichols, 56, 60.
- O. R., XLV, Pt. 2, 778.
- Authorities: O. R., XXXIX, Pts. 1, 2, 3; XLIV; XLV, Pt. 2; V; W. Sherman; J. D. Cox; Force; Nichols; Whitelaw Reid, I.
- J. D. Cox, 21; do. Reminiscences, II, 326.
- O. R., XLV, Pt. 1, 1215.
- O. R., XLV, Pt. 1, 343.
- Van Horne’s Thomas, 316.
- O. R., XLV, Pt. 1, 658.
- This and the Army of the Ohio (Schofield’s) made up Thomas’s command.
- Authorities: O. R., XXXIX, Pt. 3; XLIV; XLV, Pts. 1, 2; V; Wilson’s Under the Old Flag.
- Lincoln, C. W., II, 613.
- Globe, 531.
- Jan. 27, O. R., XLVI, Pt. 2, 1143.
- Jan. 11, 13, 14, 27. Jones, II, 383, 384, 386, 400.
- Jan. 16.
- Jan. 11, Feb. 9, O. R., XLVI, Pt. 2, 1035, 1211.
- Jan. 17, 18, O. R., XLVI, Pt. 2, 1084, 1091.
- Alfriend, 597.
- Jan. 11, O. R., IV, III, 1013.
- Jan. 8, O. R., IV, III, 1009.
- V, 68–71.
- V; N. & H., X; Lincoln, C. W., II; Welles’s Dairy, II.