The Final Months of the Civil War
The Civil War was one of momentous proportion. It was disastrous in terms of human life, because more Americans died in this war that any other war in history. This paper is mainly about and around those involved on the battlefield in the final months of the civil war. It will also refer to the leading men behind the Union and Confederate forces.
The war was coming to an end by January of 1865. At that time, Federal, Union, armies were spread throughout the Confederacy and the Confederate Army had greatly shrunk in size. The year before the North had suffered a huge loss of lives, but had more than enough to lose in comparison to the South. General Ulysses S. Grant became known as the “Butcher” and many wanted him removed. (Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1894.) The war continued as Lincoln stood firm with his General. This paper will cover the events between the winter of 1864-1865 and the surrender of the Confederate States of America and will show that April 9, 1865 was indeed the end of a great tragedy.
General William T. Sherman and his army cleared the civilian population of the city of Atlanta in September of 1864, then took a brief rest. It was from Atlanta that General Sherman and his army began the famous “march to the sea”. The great march was 400 miles long and 60 miles wide. No news was heard of Sherman for 32 days. His men lived on whatever they could get from the area of the country through which they passed, as Sherman had cut himself off from his base and any supplies. Although, the army destroyed anything and everything that was in their path, they were not seen as the enemy. In view of this destruction, it is understandable that Sherman quoted, “War is hell!” (Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.) Sherman’s men reached the city of Savannah on December 20, and from there Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” (Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972.)
Grant’s decision that the only way to win and finish the war was to crunch with numbers. He knew that the federal forces held more than a modest advantage in terms of men and supplies. Grant directed Sherman to turn around and head back toward Virginia with this in mind. He immediately began making preparations to provide assistance to Sherman on the journey. General John M. Schofield and his men had just defeated the Confederates in Nashville and were to disengage from the Army of the Cumberland and then proceed toward North Carolina. His final destination was to be Goldsboro which was roughly half the distance between Savannah and Richmond. He was to meet Sherman and his troops of 50,000 there with his troop of 20,000.
Sherman began moving north in mid January of 1865. The only hope of Confederate resistance would be supplied by General P. G. T. Beauregard. He was putting together an army with every means possible but was only able to assemble about 30,000 men. This would be no challenge to the combined forces of Schofield and Sherman. Sherman’s plan was to march through South Carolina while confusing the opponent the entire time. His men would march in two ranks. One would travel northwest to give the impression of a press against Augusta, and the other would march northeast toward Charleston.
Sherman’s force arrived in Columbia on February 16. Great controversary arose as the city was burned to the ground. The Confederates claimed that Sherman’s men had set the fires “deliberately, systematically, and atrociously”. Sherman claimed that the fires were already burning when they had arrived. Cotton bales were set on fire by the Confederate Calvary to prevent the Federal Army from getting to them and the high winds quickly spread the fire. The controversary was short lived as no proof was ever presented. After Columbia, Charleston and Augusta had fallen, Sherman continued his move north toward Goldsboro. His progress was delayed not by the Confederate army but by the runaway slaves. The slaves joined the Union columns. They numbered in the thousands by the time they had reached North Carolina. (Barrett, John G., Sherman’s March through the Carolinas. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1956.) Sherman’s force pushed on and finally met up with Schofield in Goldsboro on March 23rd.
Immediately leaving Goldsboro, Sherman was to travel to City Point to meet Grant and discuss plans of an attack. Upon arriving, not only did he find Grant, but Admiral David Porter as well. They would all wait to meet with President Lincoln. The three soldiers met with Lincoln on the morning of March 28th on the river boat “River Queen” to discuss a strategy against General Lee and General Johnston of the Confederate Army. Lincoln asked several times, “Can’t this last battle be avoided?” (Angle and Miers. Tragic Years, II.) However, both Generals expected the Rebels, Confederate Soldiers, to put up at least one more fight. All were sure of a surrender, it was to be decided how to handle the Rebels in regard to the upcoming surrender. Lincoln made his intentions very clear: “I am full of bloodshed. You need to defeat the opposing armies and get the men composing those armies back to their homes to work on their farms and in their shops.” (Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.) The meeting lasted for a number of hours. Near the end of the meeting Lincoln made his orders clear, “Let them once surrender and reach their homes, they won’t take up arms again. They will at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country. I want no one punished, treat them liberally all around. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.” (Porter, David D., Campaigning with Grant. New York: The Century Co., 1897.) The Generals and Admirals now knew what had to be done. Sherman returned to Goldsboro by steamer and Grant and Porter left by train to go back up north. Sherman’s course would be to continue north with Schofield’s men and meet Grant in Richmond. This would not happen as Lee would surrender to Grant before Sherman could ever get there.
General Grant returned to his troops which were in the process of besieging Petersburg and Richmond. These battles had been going on for months. Before the meeting with President Lincoln, on March 24, Grant drew up a new plan for a flanking movement against the Confederates right below Petersburg. This would be the first large scale operation to take place and would begin five days later. Two days after Grant had made preparations to move again, Lee had assessed the situation and informed President Davis that Richmond and Petersburg were doomed. Lee’s only chance wold be to move his troops out of Richmond down a southwestern path. They were to meet with General Johnston’s forces. Johnston had been dispatched to Virginia after being ordered not to resist the advance of Sherman’s Army. Lee chose a meeting point to the west, in the small town of Amelia Court House. He made a narrow escape. The soldiers could see Richmond burning as they made their way across the James River and to the west. Grant had finally broken through. Richmond and Petersburg were finished on the second day of April.
President Lincoln visited the fallen city of Richmond after a brief visit to Petersburg on April 4th. He arrived by boat with his son, Tad, and was led ashore by no more than twelve armed sailors. The city had not yet been secured by Federal forces. Lincoln had barely stepped out of the boat as former slaves began crowding around him singing praises. Lincoln proceeded to join with General Godfrey Weitzel, who had been placed in charge of the occupation of Richmond, and took his headquarters in Jefferson Davis’ old residence. When he arrived there, he and Tad took an extensive tour of the residence and discovered Weitzel was not there. Some of the soldiers remarked that Lincoln had a boyish expression and no one was sure what he was thinking as he sat in Davis’ office. When Weitzel arrived he asked the President what to do with the conquered people. Lincoln replied that he no longer gave direction in military manners, but went on to say, “If I were in your place, I’d let ‘em up easy, let ‘em up easy.” (Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Vol. 4. New York: The Century Co.,1887.)
With the Federals hot on their rears, Lee’s forces were headed west toward Amelia. Lee had asked the Commissary Department of the Confederacy to store food in Amelia before leaving Richmond. The troops rushed there in anticipation, but were very disappointed in what they found. There was an abundance of ammnuition and ordinance, but not a single bite of food. Lee had to move his nearly starving troops out immediately because he could not afford to give up his lead over the advancing Federals. Headed for Farmville, where Lee had been informed there was an abundance of bacon and cornmeal, they continued westward hoping to join with Johnston eventually. The Confederate forces reached Farmville but several skirmishes took place along the way as some Federal regiments would catch up and attack. The men had no more begun to eat their bacon and cornmeal when General Sheridan arrived and initiated a fight. Luckily, it was nearly nightfall and the Confederate force slipped out under a cover of darkness, but not before General Lee received General Grant’s first request for surrender.
Rushing to leave Farmville in the night, on April 7th, the Confederates did not get the rations they so desperately needed and they were forced to forage for food. Many chose to desert and leave for home. General Lee saw two men leaving for home and said, “Stop young men, and get together you are straggling.” One of the soldiers replied, “General, we are just going over here to get some water.” Lee replied, “Strike for your home and fireside.” (Freeman, Douglas Southall, R.E. Lee: A Biography. Vol 3. New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.) The soldiers did as General Lee suggested. Rebel forces reached their objective which was Appomattox Court House, around 3:00 pm on April 8th. Lee had received word that supplies had arrived to the south by train at the Appomattox Station. The pursuing Union forces also knew about these supplies and took a faster southern route to the station. The Federals had taken the supplies by 8:00 pm and would wait at the station for the evening while preparing to attack the Confederates at Appomattox Court House the following morning. Lee meanwhile scribbled out a brave response to Grant’s inquiry asking for an explanation of the terms to be involved in the surrender.
The final battle began when the Confederate battle line was formed to the west of Appomattox at daybreak. The Union soldiers were in position in front of the line with cannons. When the Federal cannons commenced to fire, the Confederate signal for attack was sounded and the troops charged. One soldier later remarked, “ It was my fortune to witness several charges during the war, but never one so magnificently executed as this one.” (McCarthy, Carlton, Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia 1861-1865. Richmond: Carlton McCarthy, 1882.) This Confederate advance only lasted from about 7:00 am to 9:00 am, at which time the Rebels were forced back. The Confederates could no longer hold their lines and Lee sent word to Grant to meet at 1:00 pm to discuss surrender. The two men met at the now famous McLean House and a surrender was agreed upon. It was
2:00 pm on April 9, 1865. Johnston’s army surrendered to General Sherman on April 26, in North Carolina. General Taylor of Mississippi/Alabama and General Smith of the trans Mississippi/Texas surrrendered in May ending the war completely.
The Civil War was a tragic event. A war in which thousands died in their home country over nothing more than a difference in opinion. Although slavery was the cause of the Civil War half of the country thought it was wrong and the other half just couldn’t free them. The war was fought in probably 10,000 different places and the monetary and property loss cannot be calculated. The Union soldiers that died numbered 360,222 and only 110,000 of them died in battle. Confederate dead were estimated at 258,000 including 94,000 that actually died on the battlefield. The Civil War was a waste in terms of human lives and possible accomplishment. Tragedy had struck a new country and tarnished it for eternity. The Civil War will never be forgotten and will live on in the hearts and minds of Americans forever.
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