1. Reap the Whirlwind
IT had been going on for nearly four years, and there would be about four more months of it. It had started at Fort Sumter, with officers on a parapet looking into darkness for the first red flash of the guns; now Fort Sumter was a mass of rubble and broken masonry, pounded to fragments by the hammering of repeated bombardments, but it still flew the Confederate flag, a bright spot of color to take the morning light that came slanting in from the sea — symbolic, a flag flying over wreckage and the collapse of a dream. Elsewhere, in many states, winter lay on the hills and fields that had been unheard of four years earlier but that would live on forever now in tradition and national memory — Shiloh, Antietam, the Wilderness, Chickamauga, and all the rest. Here and there all over the country were the mounded graves of half a million young men who had been alive and unsuspecting when all of this began. There would be more graves to dig, and when there was time there would be thin bugle calls to lie in the still air while a handful of dust drifted down on a blanketed form, but most of this was over. A little more killing, a little more marching and burning and breaking and smashing, and then it would be ended.
Ended; yet, in a haunting way, forever unended. It had laid an infinity of loss and grief on the land; it had created a shadowed purple twilight streaked with undying fire which would live on, deep in the mind and heart of the nation, as long as any memory of the past retained meaning. Whatever the American people might hereafter do would in one way or another take form and color from this experience. Under every dream and under every doubt there would be the tragic knowledge bought by this war, the awareness that triumph and disaster are the two aspects of something lying beyond victory, the remembrance of heartbreak and suffering, and the moment of vision bought by people who had bargained for no vision but simply wanted to live at peace. A new dimension had been added to the national existence, and the exploration of it would take many generations. The Civil War, with its lights and its shadows, its unendurable pathos and its charred and stained splendor, would be the American people’s permanent possession.
At the time it was possible to see only the approaching end and the hard times that had to be lived through before the end could finally be reached. In the North men nerved themselves for the ruthless blows that must be struck against a dying foe; in the South men nerved themselves to endure the blows; and as the year opened, the blows began to fall.
The first one struck Fort Fisher, a sprawling sand-dune fortification at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Upstream a few miles was Wilmington, the Confederacy’s last seaport. Here, and here only, the blockade-runners could slip in from the mist with the cargoes without which the Confederacy could not live. The sullen guns that looked out of the mounded embrasures would keep pursuing cruisers at a distance, and while Fort Fisher stood the South still touched the outside world — still existed, that is, as a potential member of the community of nations rather than as an isolated area in which there was a smoldering revolt to be suppressed. Just before Christmas in 1864 the Federal government had moved in to smash Fort Fisher.
Unfortunately the job was entrusted to Ben Butler, who was not up to smashing anything. He had the assistance of a first-class fleet under Admiral David Porter — brought east from the Mississippi and Red River valleys for a job that seemed to need the attention of a top-flight fighting man — but even the help of the United States Navy could not make a successful soldier out of Butler. Butler filled a ship with powder, sent it in under the walls of Fort Fisher, and exploded it, fancying that the blast would level the fort and make the work of his troops easy. The explosion took place on schedule, but it had so little effect on the fort that the Confederates merely assumed that a Yankee boiler had blown up. Butler got troops ashore, considered taking the place by storm, then changed his mind, re-embarked his soldiers, and sailed back to Hampton Roads, reporting that the fort was too strong to be taken.
Butler had tried his luck one notch too far. He was a strange and devious character, a one-time Democrat who possessed much political influence and whom it had always been necessary to treat with extreme consideration. But the Lincoln administration had just won a presidential election and it was clearly winning the war as well, and suddenly both Grant and Lincoln realized that Butler was no longer an untouchable. Admiral Porter, good friend of Grant since the Vicksburg campaign, wrote the lieutenant general that Fort Fisher would fall when ever the army cared to send a competent general down to attend to the job. Butler went back to Massachusetts, a general without an army; a new amphibious expedition was mounted, the army gave Butler’s old command to tough Major General Alfred H. Terry — and on January 15, after a prodigious bombardment by the fleet and a smart charge by the sailors and the infantry, Fort Fisher was captured. The South had lost its last seaport. The dwindling armies which were the Confederacy’s only hold on life would get no more equipment than that which the South itself could provide, and the South’s own resources were coming down close to the vanishing point. In Tennessee youthful General Wilson was putting together a vast mounted army — twelve thousand, five hundred men, all armed with repeating carbines, trained to fight on foot, using their horses only as means of getting from place to place swiftly … true mechanized infantry, in the modern sense, except that their means of locomotion consumed hay and grain rather than gasoline. It would be two months before this mounted army was ready to move, but by spring it would go plunging down into Alabama to break up anything it found that had not already collapsed, and there was no conceivable way in which it could be headed off.
And in Savannah, General Sherman was starting north with his sixty thousand veterans, heading for nothing less than Richmond itself.
The men would make a tough campaign. They had long since come to look on themselves as the appointed agents through which the country would take vengeance on those who had tried to destroy it. To a man, they felt that South Carolina, above all other places, was the spot where vengeance was most called for. (This idea was not unknown, even in the South; many of Sherman’s men, despoiling a Georgia town or plantation, had heard their victims express the hope that when they got to South Carolina they would give the people there a full measure of what they were giving Georgia.) Until now these soldiers had performed the act of devastation casually, without animus; in South Carolina they would act with genuine venom. They could march anywhere, over any ground and in any weather; they believed that they could whip any enemies they would ever meet — a belief that had especial justification in the fact that they were certain to meet no enemy whom they did not greatly outnumber — and the rowdy spirit that lies near the surface all across America never found a more complete fulfillment than it found in them. They would go through South Carolina, if General Sherman led them there, like the wrath of an outraged God.
General Sherman would lead them there. This lean, red-bearded, passionate general had come to see himself as an instrument of justice. He could justify brutality in terms of morality; he had a clouded but authentic vision of what America someday would be, and he saw himself and his army as the instruments by which punishment would descend on the unfaithful. An army surgeon who had seen much of him in Savannah wrote that Sherman “differs from most men by being more plain. He dresses plainly, talks plainly, fights plainly, and reaches results so plainly that after they are reached they look as simple as setting an egg on end, which all could do after seeing Columbus do it.” What Sherman saw now — saw with terrible clarity, saw it as the private soldiers in his army saw it — was that to break everything loose in South Carolina was to crush the Confederacy’s last hope to fragments. He led his army north from Savannah shortly after the first of the new year with “the settled determination of each individual to let the people know there was war in the land.”1
This was not the picnic hike that had prevailed in Georgia. To go north across the lowlands, Sherman had to cross a flat swampy country crossed by many rivers, most of which were in flood. Joe Johnston, that canny little soldier who was at last being restored to command (now that there was nothing much for a Confederate to command, now that the last hope was evaporating like the mist from damp fields under the morning sun), believed that no army could cross this land in winter with any success. From afar Johnston watched Sherman’s progress, unbelieving; and when he saw Sherman’s army bridging rivers, building roads across swamps, and wading through flooded backwaters, making just as much time as it had made on the dry roads of Georgia, he wrote that “I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.”2
Johnston was right, in a way. This was not actually an army: it was just a collection of western pioneers on the march — men with axes who could cut down a forest and corduroy a road without breaking step, men who would flounder for miles through floodwaters armpit-deep, making nothing of it except for casual high-private remarks to the effect that “Uncle Billy seems to have struck this river end-ways.” They plowed across the bottom lands as if they were on parade; they built bridges, cut roads, marched in ice-cold water as if they were on dry ground, casually burned towns and looted plantations and set fire to pine forests just for the fun of seeing the big trees burn — and came up north, mile after endless mile, carrying the future on their shoulders without realizing it laughing and frolicking and making a devastation to mark their passage, An Indiana soldier remarked that the men set fire to so much that “some days the sun was almost entirely obscured by the smoke of the consuming buildings, cotton gins, etc.” When deep mud bogged down everything that went on wheels, whole regiments were detailed to take hold of drag ropes and haul wagons and guns out of the mire. It was said that when a staff officer complimented one such detail for its effective work a corporal spoke up in reply: “Yes, we got the mules and wagons out, but we lost a driver and a damn good whip down in that hole.”3
Mile by mile the army moved north. Every evening the mounted foragers would come in to camp, trailed by hundreds of wagons, buggies, and carriages which they had seized at different plantations and had loaded with foodstuffs; in the morning, when the army moved on, these would be set on fire and abandoned, symbols of the offhand hatred which the rank and file nourished for the state where secession had been born. Going through the town of McPhersonville, Ohio soldiers realized that every house in the place was burning, reflected that “this state was largely responsible for the rebellion,” and thoughtfully noted: “Our line of march throughout this state was marked by smoke in the day and the glare of fire by night.” All along this line of march few buildings escaped the flames; one soldier commented dryly that “where a family remains at home they save their house but lose their stock and eatables.” Another Ohioan remarked that “our men had the idea that South Carolina was the cause of all our troubles” and felt that the state itself was hardly worth the effort it took to conquer it: “The soil was sandy and poor. The houses used for habitation were small and built of logs, rough split staves were used for shingles, wooden pegs for nails, there were no doors, neither sash nor glass in the windows, and there were no plastered inside walls.” An Illinois soldier estimated that perhaps one house in ten escaped destruction, and noted exultantly: “The rich were put in the cabins of the Negroes; their cattle and corn were used for rations, their fences for corduroy and camp fires, and their barns and cotton gins for bonfires. It seemed to be decreed that South Carolina, having sown the wind, should reap the whirlwind.”4
There were Negroes in South Carolina, as elsewhere in the South, and here as always the northern soldiers felt that the man with a dark skin was their friend. A Wisconsin soldier drew a moral from the slaves’ attitude and wrote: “Their mute countenances in South Carolina were the best arguments in favor of abolition. If this war is a great drama, the slave in the scene has been the star actor and has acted his part well. The volunteer army, so far as I know, are all abolitionists. Men whom the arguments of Phillips, Sumner and Beecher hardened into pro-slavery advocates, by the simple protestations and silent evidences of the cruelty of slavery of the poor demented negroes have been made practical abolitionists.… The slaves have furnished us with information of the movements of the enemy, of the roads, of the treatment accorded our men as prisoners. They furnished our men food, shelter, clothing, and piloted escaped prisoners to our lines, all at the risk of their lives.”5
Men in camp at night would watch foragers come in with vast loads of food and forage, which, they agreed, was evidence that “something besides hell could be raised in South Carolina”; and they added that “from the numerous conflagrations along the way, that much-talked-of place might be supposed to have its location here.” Passing through the town of Barnwell, which the cavalry had set on fire — the troopers jested that the name of the place should be changed to Burnwell — the infantry tramped past one blazing house whose despairing owner was trying frantically and ineffectively to check the blaze. A private innocently called out to ask him how on earth his house had ever caught fire.6
All across the state the army collected much more in the way of food and forage than it could possibly use. When it broke camp in the morning, officers would order the surplus to be piled up so that it could be brought along later by wagon; doubting that any of it would ever be seen again, the skeptical privates would stuff all they could carry in their haversacks. It was generally understood that the piles of surplus were simply abandoned purposely so that the Negroes and poor whites could have something to eat. Clouds of smoke hung over the line of march every day, and one soldier recalled: “In our march through South Carolina every man seemed to think that he had a free hand to burn any kind of property he could put the torch to. South Carolina paid the dearest penalty of any state in the Confederacy, considering the short time the Union army was in the state; and it was well that she should, for if South Carolina had not been so persistent in going to war, there would have been no war for years to come.”7
Almost unnoticed, Charleston fell. Sherman’s men did not go near it. They simply marched across all of its lines of communications, knifing them so that the storied city dropped into Yankee hands like a ripe peach falling from a tree; the Confederate defenders left the place and the army and navy people who had tried so long to break a way in entered unopposed. (In Washington the War Department made plans for a great ceremony, to hoist the flag over what remained of Fort Sumter on the fourth anniversary of the day the fort had been surrendered to Beauregard. Invalided Robert Anderson, a major general now, would be on hand for the occasion.) Meanwhile Sherman’s army came tramping up to Columbia, capital of the state.
Columbia got the full fury of the storm. Confederate cavalry held the place, made just enough resistance to force the Federals to prepare for a regular assault, and then left. Union troops marched in. Here and there little fires started. A great wind came up, the fires spread — and presently most of Columbia was on fire in a senseless, meaningless conflagration that brought the final measure of ruin and despair to the Palmetto State, which had led the South out of the Union.
Concerning the origin of this fire there is still great argument. Sherman held that retreating Confederate cavalry had set fire to baled cotton and that this had caused the great fire; Confederates retorted furiously that Union troops had started the flames and that Columbia was burned wantonly, for sport, by soldiers who had thrown off all restraint. An Illinois soldier denied that Unionists had caused the fire, but he wrote that the soldiers “smiled and felt glad in their hearts” to see the city burning, and another man from the same state confessed that his whole division was drunk and added: “I think the city should be burned out, but would like to see it done decently.” Wisconsin soldiers went whooping and yelling past blazing buildings, shouting: “This is the nest where the first secession egg was hatched — let her burn!” An Iowan felt that most of the trouble came because the soldiers looted stores and saloons and got drunk, and wrote sorrowfully that “the splendid discipline so rigidly maintained throughout the rank and file of the army, which had preserved the city and protected the people of Savannah … was viciously and recklessly destroyed at Columbia.” He insisted that the fires were not started by the troops who first marched into the city but were the work of individuals and groups from other contingents who had simply wandered in to have fun, and he left a picture of it: “Straggling soldiers, singly and in squads, from the adjacent camps continued to congregate in town, where all joined indiscriminately in the general confusion, wanton plunder and pillage of the stricken city and helpless people. The scene as witnessed at sundown beggared description, for men, women and children, white and black, soldiers and citizens, many of whom were crazed with drink, were all rushing frantically and aimlessly through the streets, shouting and yelling like mad people. The efforts of Colonel Stone and his Iowa brigade as provost guards in the city to preserve order and protect persons and property seemed to be entirely futile.”8
However it happened, it happened, and Columbia was burned, and there is very little point in arguing over the responsibility for it. Years afterward General Sherman was on the witness stand, being questioned about the business; he insisted that retreating Confederate troopers had ignited baled cotton, and at last he burst out that “God Almighty sent wind” and that flecks of fire had gone streaming across the city, licking down to bring homes and churches and business blocks to ashes.9 It may have been that way, and it may have been some other way. The one certainty is that if Sherman’s soldiers had not found fire in Columbia they would have started fire of their own. God Almighty send wind … or heedless men sowed the wind, in the days when the time of payment seemed remote and unreal, and in the end there was a whirlwind to reap. This, finally, along with much death and heartache, was what came out of pride and anger and general stiffness of the neck, and the smoke of the torment of the people who stood in the whirlwind’s path went up without ceasing.
Sherman himself had not willed the fire. In the end he and his generals began to regain control over their men and made a real effort to stop the blaze. This did not help very much. Most of Columbia was destroyed. Almost universally the soldiers shrugged it off — they approved of the fire, and they said that if they had not found the city ablaze they would have left it that way. General Slocum, a proper man who never wanted to be cast in the part of destroying angel, wrote later that he believed simple drunkenness was the real trouble, and he added: “A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night, particularly when for a series of years you have urged him to come so that you might have an opportunity of performing a surgical operation on him.”10
The army stayed in Columbia’s ruins for two days and then marched on. The country was swampy and the winter rains had been falling steadily — though not steadily enough to save Columbia — and more than half of the time the soldiers had to corduroy the roads so that the wagons and artillery could move. They met little opposition. General Johnston commanded such troops as the Confederacy had been able to get together — a remnant from the broken army Hood had brought back from Tennessee, the men Hardee had pulled out of Savannah, and a scattering of other levies — but he was too weak by far to meet Sherman in open combat, and to Lee he wrote despairingly: “I can do no more than annoy him.” To make things even more one-sided, Sherman was marching now toward strong reinforcements. General Schofield had brought troops east from Tennessee, had taken Wilmington, and was marching toward Goldsboro, North Carolina, to join hands with Sherman.
On March 7 Sherman’s army crossed over into North Carolina. An immediate change in behavior took place. Sherman ordered his officers to “deal as moderately and fairly by North Carolinians as possible,” and the soldiers were informed that there would be no more burning of property; anyone caught starting a fire would be shot forthwith. But when they marched through the turpentine forests, the stragglers who continued to fringe the moving army set fire to the congealed resin in notches on the trees, and for mile after mile the army moved under a pall of odorous pine smoke. An officer wrote that the flames in the forest aisles “looked like a fire in a cathedral,” and one soldier remembered “the endless blue columns swaying with the long swinging step,” and said that above the crackle of the flames could be heard the massed singing of “John Brown’s Body.” When Fayetteville was reached, a Confederate arsenal and machine shop were burned, but nothing else was destroyed. The men apparently had exhausted their fury in South Carolina. They felt that this state was different, and even the bummers were more or less restrained.11
Nearing Goldsboro, the army began to run into resistance. There was a sharp little fight at Averysboro, and on March 19 Johnston moved in and struck the exposed left wing of the army, under Slocum, at Bentonville. But Johnston just was not strong enough to win a victory, even when he hit only half of Sherman’s army. Sherman sent in reinforcements, Johnston was driven off, and on March 23 Sherman marched into Goldsboro and joined Schofield. Thus reinforced, Sherman now commanded eighty thousand veterans, men as cocky and as sure of themselves as any Americans who ever marched. Johnston could be an annoyance but nothing more. This army could go wherever it wanted to go, and the Confederacy was powerless to stop it.
At Goldsboro the soldiers learned that the old days were over. Foraging parties were ordered to give up their horses, and the bummers and stragglers were quietly warned that they had better rejoin their own regiments and be good. With its own supply line established, the army would no longer support itself by living on the country. It was in North Carolina now, and in a matter of weeks it would rub elbows with the better-behaved Army of the Potomac, and everyone now would mind his manners. The protracted Halloween spree had come to an end. There would be no more fires.
Trailing back behind the army, from Savannah to the North Carolina line, there was a smoking path marked by charred timbers and cold ashes. Houses and towns and cities had been consumed, and South Carolina had been visited by the limitless wrath that had been turned loose by secession. Long ago, in December of 1860, the South Carolina convention had taken a vote, and great placards had put the word on the streets: The Union is Dissolved! Now the placards were gone, along with the gay spirit that had greeted them. Except for the details, the Union had been put back together again.
2. The Fire and the Night
On March 22 the youthful General Wilson, commanding twelve thousand and five hundred cavalrymen armed with repeating carbines, crossed the Tennessee River and moved down toward the heart of Alabama. To oppose him the Confederacy had nothing except Bedford Forrest — who, as a matter of fact, was quite a lot — and perhaps half as many troopers as Wilson was leading; troopers much less well equipped, driving east from Mississippi well aware that they were riding off on a forlorn hope. General Wilson was heading for Selma, a munitions center of considerable importance — just about the last one, aside from Richmond, which the Confederacy still possessed — and he moved with full confidence that he had the strength to go wherever he might be told to go.
His men were similarly confident. A young Iowa trooper in the command, who had been feeling poorly all winter, wrote that this expedition was good for him: “Nothing could be better for restoring my health than a campaign like this — the smoky dark pine woods and the color it adds with the splendid exercise of riding thirty miles or more a day will give health when all else fails. I am perfectly contented for the first time, and enjoy it fine.”1
This feeling of power, of having an irresistible energy that would quickly overcome all obstacles, was felt in all the Union armies. A New Englander in Meade’s army noted that increasing numbers of deserters from Lee’s troops were coming through the lines every night, and remarked that his comrades discussed this matter just as fishermen back home, in the spring, would discuss the way the fish were running in the rivers; sitting around the campfire in the evening, the men would talk things over and predict that “there will be a good run of Johnnies.”2 In the upper Shenandoah, Sheridan was crunching in on Waynesboro, where the pathetic remnant of Jubal Early’s army held a cheerless winter camp; Sheridan’s tough troopers would attack it, scatter it for keeps, and then move east to join Grant’s army in front of Richmond, leaving behind them a valley that had been gutted as thoroughly as any place Sherman’s army had visited. Down by the Gulf coast, General Edward R. S. Canby was leading a Union army in to besiege and capture Mobile. Mobile was no longer a real seaport, what with Union warships anchored in the bay, but it was fortified and it held Confederate troops; Canby would take it, and there would be one less Confederate flag on the map.
Behind the lines, men looked ahead to the end of the war and reflected on what the war had meant, reaching various conclusions. At City Point, the vast Union base supporting the siege of Petersburg, a Massachusetts agent for the Christian Commission looked on the military cemetery that had sprung into being there, and he could think only of the deaths that had come to so many thousands of young men, Union and Confederate alike.… “I though of the many homes made desolate by this war. All the way from the left, beyond Petersburg, to the right of Richmond, all through the Shenandoah Valley, on the banks of the Rappahannock, at Fredericksburg, in the Wilderness, our brave boys are sleeping, making it in truth one vast burial place. Here one grave, there another, ten, one hundred, one thousand, and more.… Truly all through coming time must the soil of Virginia be sacred, because moistened by the blood of so many heroes.” In Washington, General Jacob Cox stopped off to meet with friends on his way to join Schofield in North Carolina, and he found the die-hard Republicans bitter at Lincoln for his approaching victory. “Baboon,” he said, was the mildest epithet these men had for the President, and the politicians were openly vexed at the Union soldiers’ habit of yelling “Hurrah for Lincoln!” to taunt their Confederate foes. When Lincoln went down to Hampton Roads to talk with peace commissioners sent across Grant’s lines by Jefferson Davis, these Republican leaders denounced him as being a weak compromiser.3
This meeting with the peace commissioners resulted in nothing, as it was bound to do. Led by wizened little Alexander Stephens of Georgia, Vice-President of the Confederacy, the Southerners came to see Lincoln about some means of bringing peace to “the two countries”; the very phrase (written into their instructions by Davis) was testimony to the Confederate authorities’ final flight from reality. There were not two countries now, and there never could be; the Confederacy was a pinched-off triangle of land in southern Virginia and upper North Carolina, beset by overwhelming power; nothing could be more certain than that it would be ground to fragments as soon as spring made the roads dry enough for army movements. Peace for one united country was the only thing Lincoln would consider, and the commissioners were not even allowed to talk about it.… Lincoln was prepared to offer terms. He even suggested that if the South should lay down its arms now he would go to Congress and ask it to appropriate money to pay southern slave owners for the slaves who would very shortly be set free; at four hundred dollars a head this would be expensive, but he remarked that it would cost no more than going on with the war a few months longer would cost, and besides, it would not kill any young men. But the subject was inadmissible, and the commissioners returned to Richmond, where Davis valiantly addressed a mass meeting and called for war to the bitter end.
In Richmond men seemed to be in a queer, trance-like state, where the real and the unreal danced slowly in and out before minds that could no longer make sober meaning out of the things their eyes saw. On March 13 (Sherman was nearing Goldsboro, Sheridan was joining Grant, Wilson was beginning to invade Alabama with his mounted army) Jefferson Davis informed the Confederate Congress that “our country is now environed with perils which it is our duty calmly to contemplate”;4 and the Congress was laboring mightily with the very proposal that had got General Cleburne so cold a snubbing a year earlier — the proposal that certain Negro slaves be enrolled as soldiers for the Confederacy.
This idea, born of final desperation, was examined and whittled down and solemnly weighed and assessed precisely as if there was still some question about what finally would happen to slavery. A Virginia correspondent wrote to Davis in mid-February, saying that slavery was an institution “sanctioned, if not established, by the Almighty” as the most humane and salutary relationship that could exist between the white and colored races; nevertheless, he added, the military situation was getting desperate and it seemed undeniable that “the teachings of Providence as exhibited in this war dictate conclusively and imperatively that to secure and perpetuate our independence we must emancipate the Negro.”5 And on March 23 the Confederate War Department published for the information of all concerned the text of a law just passed by Congress bearing on this subject.
Under this law the President was authorized to ask for, and to accept from their owners, the services of such numbers of Negroes as soldiers as he might consider necessary in order to win the war. These Negroes, once put into service, would be paid, fed, and clad on an equality with white troops, and if the President did not get enough of them just by asking for them he could call on the separate states to supply their proper quotas, provided that no more than 25 per cent of the male slaves of military age in any state could be called into service. As a final rider Congress stipulated that nothing in this law should call for any change “in the relation which the said slaves shall bear to their owners” except by the consent of the owners and of the states in which they lived.6
And thus, with Cleburne in his grave, a fragment of his idea was resurrected, as well as might be, and galvanized into a show of life. Nothing in particular would come of it (the sands had just about run out; when the War Department published this interesting law the Confederate government had just ten more days in which it might occupy Richmond, functioning as a government with its own capitol, its own executive officers, the trimmings and trappings of an established bureaucracy), and the enactment comes down the years as an oddity, significant in a way that nobody involved in it ever quite intended.
They never did understand, really, about slavery. Implicit in this deathbed conversion (halting, partial, and hedged with provisos, like many deathbed conversions — for the dying man suspects that he may yet recover) was the real explanation of the reason why the Confederacy had in fact come to its deathbed. Beyond the superior resources of the North — the overwhelming armies, the favor of the outside world, the wealth of supplies, the industrial machine that could produce limitless quantities of anything a nation at war might need — there was the supreme moral issue of slavery itself. Slowly, painfully, and with many doubts, Lincoln had made this issue central in the war. He had been moved, perhaps, less by conscious determination than by fate itself; for slavery, from first to last, had exerted its own force, working through men who would have preferred to ignore it. Its mere existence had lifted the war to a dimension which the Confederacy could not grasp. Beyond all of the orators and the armies, beyond the gun smoke in the valleys and the flashing of cannon on the hills, there always remained the peculiar institution itself — the one institution on all the earth that could not be defended by force of arms. A nation dedicated to human freedom but cursed with this unconscionable barrier to freedom could not engage in a civil war without letting loose a force that would destroy the barrier forever. The war had begun in the flame and darkness of the Carolina marshes, and fire and night as a result had begun to rise around the notion that one kind of man may own another kind. Even at the final minute of the eleventh hour the men who dominated the Confederate government did not understand this, and it was their lack of understanding that had brought them to the end of the tether.
While the southern leaders strove mightily with phantoms, Lincoln stayed close to Grant’s army; and early in the spring Sherman left his own army safely moored in North Carolina and came up to City Point to see the lieutenant general and the President.
All three of these men knew that before very long the two generals would be called on to state the terms on which they would accept the surrender of the Confederate armies facing them; and Lincoln’s counsel to them could be summed up in his own expression: “Let ’em up easy.” Congress would not be in session this spring. If peace could soon be restored, Lincoln might perhaps be able to get the reconstruction of the Union so far advanced that by December, when the legislators did assemble, measures of vengeance and repression would be impossible. This he greatly wanted. He would destroy the Confederate nation forever, and he would also destroy slavery, but the South itself he would not destroy, nor would he inflict any punishment beyond the fearful punishment which the war itself had already inflicted. Under his direction much killing had been done, yet now Lincoln was repeatedly asking the generals: Cannot this thing somehow be ended without any more fighting? Must we go on with the killing? Grant and Sherman were of his mood, yet both of them told him the business was not yet over. There would be another battle, perhaps two, perhaps more; victory would come, but men still would have to fight for it, and the enormous graveyard that stretched from Minnesota to Florida must grow still more crowded before the last bugle call died on the wind.
Sherman went back to North Carolina, and Grant made ready for the final drive.
The Petersburg lines were more than fifty miles long, running from the south of Petersburg clear around to the northeast of Richmond. All through the previous fall Grant had been extending his lines to his left, reaching out to cut the railroads which the South must hold if it would hold the Confederate capital. It had not been easy going. Lee had foreseen each move and had countered it, and Union troops more than once had been defeated with heavy loss; yet the Union line had been drawn out a little farther each time, and to meet it Lee had been compelled — with constantly dwindling resources — to stretch his own line out in response. His army now was not half the size of the army Grant commanded. The realities of trench warfare, to be sure, were such that men vastly outnumbered could hold their ground against almost any direct assault, but the stretching process could not go on forever. Sooner or later Lee could be made to pull his line so taut that it would break.
No one knew this any better than Lee himself. His only hope (if it could really be called a hope) was to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond, get his army down to North Carolina, join forces with Johnston, and beat Sherman. After that (assuming that the combined armies could in fact defeat Sherman’s mighty host) Lee and Johnston might just conceivably turn north again and defeat Grant … or move off somewhere, form a continuing knot of resistance, and keep the war going a few months longer. This was the only move left on the board. The odds against it were long, but if Lee stayed where he was it was completely certain that in a very few weeks he would be overwhelmed.
Yet he could not move at once. The unpaved roads, wet with winter’s rains, were atrocious, and it was an open question whether Lee’s horses, worn down by scanty forage, disease, and the lack of replacements, could pull his wagon trains and his guns. If he went south he would have to get some sort of advantage. He could get it only by making a sharp, punishing offensive thrust that would knock the Army of the Potomac back on its heels. Such a thrust, late in March, the Confederate commander undertook to make.
He struck on March 25, in the dark hour just before dawn, driving a column of infantry in on a strong point in the Union line known as Fort Stedman, due east of Petersburg. His men attacked without warning, seized Fort Stedman, went running out along the trenches on either side, and sent a spearhead on through to take secondary Union positions in the rear. If they succeeded they would break the Union army in half, Grant would have to pull his left wing back to repair the break, and the Army of Northern Virginia would have a clear road to North Carolina.
They could not succeed. The forts to the right and left of Stedman held, with a sharp flurry of hand-to-hand fighting. The Confederate force that had gone on to the second line went astray and was overwhelmed by Union reserves. A Federal counterattack was launched, the men who had taken Fort Stedman found themselves under heavy fire, Union artillery plastered the Confederate front — and by eight o’clock it was clear that the attack had been a failure. Remnants of the Confederate force got back to their own lines, the Union repossessed Fort Stedman, and Lee had lost nearly five thousand men. Now it would be Grant’s turn.
Heavy rains slowed all movement, and for a few days the armies marked time. Then Grant struck, crowding a full corps of infantry in on the farthest extremity of the Confederate line; and at the same time Phil Sheridan moved out with his cavalry, leaving the trenches behind and moving up through Dinwiddie Court House to a rain-swept crossroads known as Five Forks — a place from which, if they held it firmly, his troops could quickly go storming north and cut the vital railway lines. Lee sent his own cavalry, plus an infantry division under George Pickett, to halt this thrust, and on April 1 Sheridan got infantry reinforcements of his own, overwhelmed Pickett by sheer drive and force of numbers, capturing most of his force and shattering the rest beyond repair — and Lee’s flank had been turned at last, once and for all. The next day Grant ordered an assault all along the main lines. General Horatio Wright and his VI Corps found a place where Lee’s force had been stretched too thin and broke it — losing two thousand men in the assault, for even when they were woefully undermanned these Petersburg lines were all but invulnerable — punching a wide hole that could not be repaired. On the evening and night of April 2 Lee evacuated Petersburg and Richmond and began his final retreat.
A great fire burned in Richmond when Union troops marched in. Retreating Confederates had fired various warehouses full of goods they could not take with them, and in the wild confusion of defeat these flames got out of hand; the victorious Unionists, coming at last into the capital city of the Confederacy, spent their first hours there as a fire brigade, putting out flames, checking looting, and bringing order back to the desolate town. Lincoln himself came up the James River in a gunboat — he had been at City Point, unable to tear himself away from the military nerve center while the climactic battle was being fought — and he walked up the streets of Richmond with a handful of sailors for an escort, dazed crowds looking on in silence; went to the Confederate White House, sat for a time at Jefferson Davis’s desk, and saw for himself the final collapse of the nation he had sworn to destroy.
Most of Grant’s army never got into Richmond, and neither did Grant himself. They were on the road, pushing along furiously to head Lee off and drive him into a pocket where he could be forced to surrender, Lee was making a good march of it — his Army of Northern Virginia always could cover the ground fast — but Confederate supply arrangements, never good, broke down completely, and the rations that were supposed to be delivered to him along the way never reached him. He lost a day while his details combed the countryside to impress provisions, and the loss of this day killed off whatever chance he may have had. Sheridan and his cavalry, followed by infantry, outraced him, curled around in front, and compelled him to drift west instead of following the roads that led to Joe Johnston.
It was a forced march for both armies, lit with jubilant hope for one, darkened by gloom for the other, a matter of hard trial for the foot soldiers of each one; a pressing on in the darkness, over bad roads, through a somber country where the fires of spring had not yet burned away winter’s brown, barren bleakness. One army had wagon trains filled with food, the other had few wagons and no rations; yet the soldiers of both armies drove on, marching away from mealtimes, knowing only that after four years of it they were at last coming to the end, with tomorrow and all that tomorrow might mean lying somewhere over the next horizon. Meade overtook a part of Lee’s army at Sayler’s Creek — a soggy little crossing in a bottomland ninety miles from nowhere — and destroyed nearly half of it, taking many prisoners, capturing among others the fabulous General Richard Ewell, who had been Stonewall Jackson’s trusted lieutenant back in the day when the future still was fluid. What was left of the Army of Northern Virginia slogged on over bad roads, taking the last lap on the march to extinction and a deathless legend: and the Army of the Potomac followed, pressing close behind, sending swift tentacles out on parallel roads to get in front and stop the march.
It came to an end at last on Palm Sunday — April 9, 1865 — when Sheridan and his cavalry and a whole corps of infantry got squarely across the road in Lee’s front. The nearest town was the village of Appomattox Court House, and the last long mile had been paced off. Lee had armed Yankees in his front, in his rear, and on his flank. There was a spatter of fighting as his advance guard tried the Yankee line to see if it could be broken. It could not. The firing died down, and Lee sent a courier with a white flag through the lines carrying a letter to U. S. Grant.
3. Telegram in Cipher
Until this Palm Sunday of 1865 the word Appomattox had no meaning. It was a harsh name left over from Indian days, it belonged to a river and to a country town, and it had no overtones. But after this day it would be one of the haunted possessions of the American people, a great and unique word that would echo in the national memory with infinite tragedy and infinite promise, recalling a moment in which sunset and sunrise came together in a streaked glow that was half twilight and half dawn.
The business might almost have been stage-managed for effect. No detail had been overlooked. There was even the case of Wilmer McLean, the Virginian who once owned a place by a stream named Bull Run and who found his farm overrun by soldiers in the first battle of the war. He sold out and moved to southern Virginia to get away from the war, and he bought a modest house in Appomattox Court House; and the war caught up with him finally, so that Lee and Grant chose his front parlor — of all the rooms in America — as the place where they would sit down together and bring the fighting to an end.
Lee had one staff officer with him, and in Mr. McLean’s front yard a Confederate orderly stood by while the war horse Traveler nibbled at the spring grass. Grant came with half a dozen officers of his own, including the famous Sheridan, and after he and Lee had shaken hands and taken their seats these trooped into the room to look and to listen. Grant and Lee sat at two separate tables, the central figures in one of the greatest tableaus of American history.
It was a great tableau not merely because of what these two men did but also because of what they were. No two Americans could have been in greater contrast. (Again, the staging was perfect.) Lee was legend incarnate — tall, gray, one of the handsomest and most imposing men who ever lived, dressed today in his best uniform, with a sword belted at his waist. Grant was — well, he was U. S. Grant, rather scrubby and undersized, wearing his working clothes, with mud-spattered boots and trousers and a private’s rumpled blue coat with his lieutenant general’s stars tacked to the shoulders. He wore no sword. The men who were with them noticed the contrast and remembered it. Grant himself seems to have felt it; years afterward, when he wrote his memoirs, he mentioned it and went to some lengths to explain why he did not go to this meeting togged out in dress uniform. (In effect, his explanation was that he was just too busy.)1
Yet the contrast went far beyond the matter of personal appearance. Two separate versions of America met in this room, each perfectly embodied by its chosen representative.
There was an American aristocracy, and it had had a great day. It came from the past and it looked to the past; it seemed almost deliberately archaic, with an air of knee breeches and buckled shoes and powdered wigs, with a leisured dignity and a rigid code in which privilege and duty were closely joined. It had brought the country to its birth and it had provided many of its beliefs; it had given courage and leadership, a sense of order and learning, and if there had been any way by which the eighteenth century could possibly have been carried forward into the future, this class would have provided the perfect vehicle. But from the day of its beginning America had been fated to be a land of unending change. The country in which this leisured class had its place was in powerful ferment, and the class itself had changed. It had been diluted. In the struggle for survival it had laid hands on the curious combination of modern machinery and slave labor, the old standards had been altered, dignity had begun to look like arrogance, and pride of purse had begun to elbow out pride of breeding. The single lifetime of Robert E. Lee had seen the change, although Lee himself had not been touched by it.
Yet the old values were real, and the effort to preserve them had nobility. Of all the things that went to make up the war, none had more poignance than the desperate fight to preserve these disappearing values, eroded by change from within as much as by change from without. The fight had been made and it had been lost, and everything that had been dreamed and tried and fought for was personified in the gray man who sat at the little table in the parlor at Appomattox and waited for the other man to start writing out the terms of surrender.
The other man was wholly representative too. Behind him there was a new society, not dreamed of by the founding fathers: a society with the lid taken off, western man standing up to assert that what lay back of a person mattered nothing in comparison to what lay ahead of him. It was the land of the mudsills, the temporarily dispossessed, the people who had nothing to lose but the future; behind it were hard times, humiliation and failure, and ahead of it was all the world and a chance to lift oneself by one’s bootstraps. It had few standards beyond a basic unformulated belief in the irrepressibility and ultimate value of the human spirit, and it could tramp with heavy boots down a ravaged Shenandoah Valley or through the embers of a burned Columbia without giving more than a casual thought to the things that were being destroyed. Yet it had its own nobility and its own standards; it had, in fact, the future of the race in its keeping, with all the immeasurable potential that might reside in a people who had decided that they would no longer be bound by the limitations of the past. It was rough and uncultivated and it came to important meetings wearing muddy boots and no sword, and it had to be listened to.
It could speak with a soft voice, and it could even be abashed by its own moment of triumph, as if that moment were not a thing to be savored and enjoyed. Grant seems to have been almost embarrassed when he and Lee came together in this parlor, yet it was definitely not the embarrassment of an underling ill at ease in a superior’s presence. Rather it was simply the diffidence of a sensitive man who had another man in his power and wished to hurt him as little as possible. So Grant made small talk and recalled the old days in the Mexican War, when Lee had been the polished staff officer in the commanding general’s tents and Grant had been an acting regimental quartermaster, slouching about like the hired man who looked after the teams. Perhaps the oddest thing about this meeting at Appomattox was that it was Grant, the nobody from nowhere, who played the part of gracious host, trying to put the aristocrat at his ease and, as far as might be, to soften the weight of the blow that was about to come down. In the end it was Lee who, so to speak, had to call the meeting to order, remarking (and the remark must have wrenched him almost beyond endurance) that they both knew what they were there for and that perhaps they had better get down to business. So Grant opened his orderly book and got out his pencil. He confessed afterward that when he did so he had no idea what words he was going to write.
He knew perfectly well what he was going to say, however, and with a few pauses he said it in straightforward words. Lee’s army was to be surrendered, from commanding general down to humblest private. All public property would be turned over to the United States Army — battle flags, guns, muskets, wagons, everything. Officers might keep their side arms (Grant wrote this after a speculative glance at the excellent sword Lee was wearing) and their horses, but the army and everything it owned was to go out of existence.
It was not, however, to go off to a prison camp. Throughout the war Lincoln had stressed one point: the people of the South might have peace whenever they chose just by laying down their arms and going home. Grant made this official. Officers and men, having disarmed themselves, would simply give their paroles. Then they could go to their homes … and here Grant wrote one of the greatest sentences in American history, the sentence that, more than any other thing, would finally make it impossible for any vengeful government in Washington to proceed against Confederate veterans as traitors. Having gone home, he wrote, officers and men could stay there, “not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” When the powerful signature, “U. S. Grant,” was signed under that sentence, the chance that Confederate soldiers might be hanged or imprisoned for treason went out the window.
Having written all of this, Grant handed it over for Lee to read.
Lee’s part was not easy. He made a business of getting out his glasses, polishing them carefully, crossing his legs, and adjusting himself. Once he borrowed a lead pencil to insert a word that Grant had omitted. When he had finished he raised a point. In the Confederate army, he said, horses for cavalry and artillery were not government issue; the soldiers themselves owned them. Did the terms as written permit these men to take their horses home with them? Grant shook his head. He had not realized that Confederate soldiers owned their steeds, and the terms he had written were explicit: all such animals must be turned in as captured property. Still — Grant went on to muse aloud; the last battle of the war was over, the war itself was over except for picking up the pieces, and what really mattered was for the men of the South to get back home and become civilians again. He would not change the written terms, but he supposed that most of Lee’s men were small farmers anxious to return to their acres and get a crop in, and he would instruct the officers in charge of the surrender ceremonies to give a horse or a mule to any Confederate soldier who claimed to own one, so that the men would have a chance “to work their little farms.” And in those homely words the great drama of Appomattox came to a close.
The draft of the terms having been agreed on, one of Grant’s staff officers took the document to make a fair copy. The United States Army, it appeared, lacked ink, and to write the copy the officer had to borrow a bottle of ink from Lee’s staff officer; a moment later, when the Confederate officer sat down to write Lee’s formal acceptance, it developed that the Confederate army lacked paper, and he had to borrow from one of Grant’s men. The business was finally signed and settled. Lee went out on the porch, looked off over the hills and smote his hands together absently while Traveler was being bridled, and then mounted and started to ride away. Grant and his officers saluted, Lee returned the salute, and there was a little silence while the man in gray rode off to join the pathetic remnant of an army that had just gone out of existence — rode off into mist and legend, to take his place at last in the folklore and the cherished memories of the nation that had been too big for him.
Grant stayed in character. He heard a banging of guns; Union artillerists were firing salutes to celebrate the victory, and Grant sent word to have all that racket stopped — those men in gray were enemies no longer but simply fellow countrymen (which, as Grant saw it, was what the war had all been about), and nothing would be done to humiliate them. Instead, wagonloads of Federal hardtack and bacon would start moving at once for the Confederate camp, so that Lee’s hungry men might have a square meal. Grant himself would return to Washington by the next train, without waiting to observe the actual laying down of arms. He was commanding general of the nation’s armies, the war was costing four million dollars a day, and it was high time to start cutting expenses. Back in the Federal camp, Grant sat down in front of his tent to wait for the moment of departure. He seemed relaxed and in a mood to talk, and his officers gathered around him to hear what he would say about the supreme moment he had just been through. Grant addressed one of them, who had served with him in the Mexican War … “Do you remember that white mule old so-and-so used to ride, down in Mexico?” The officer nodded, being just then, as he confessed later, in a mood to remember the exact number of hairs in the mule’s tail if that was what Grant wanted. So Grant chatted about the Mexican War, and if he had great thoughts about the piece of history he had just made he kept them to himself.2 Meanwhile the Army of the Potomac was alerted to be ready to move on if necessary. It was just possible it might have to march down into North Carolina and help Sherman take care of Joe Johnston.
But this would not be needed. Lee was the keystone of the arch, and when he was removed the long process of collapse moved swiftly to its end. Johnston himself had no illusions. Much earlier he had confessed himself unable to do more against Sherman than annoy him. Now he was ready to do as Lee had done. What remained of the Confederate government — Jefferson Davis and his iron determination, Cabinet ministers, odds and ends of government papers and funds — was flitting south, looking in vain for some refuge where it could start all over again, but there was no place where it could go. Far down in Alabama, General Wilson’s cavalry had taken Selma, the last remaining munitions center, had dismantled its productive apparatus with smooth, disciplined effectiveness, and had gone on to occupy Montgomery, where Davis once stood before a great crowd and heard an orator proclaim: “The man and the hour have met!” Mobile had been surrendered, and the Confederate troops in Mississippi and Alabama would lay down their arms as soon as the Federals could catch up with them. Beyond the Mississippi there still existed a Confederate army, but it might as well have been in Siberia. As an obvious matter of inescapable fact, the war was over.
It was over; and yet in this fearful convulsion of the 1860s each ending was always a new beginning, as if the journey that had been begun so heedlessly and with such high spirits must go on and on, consuming decades and generations, making the break with the past absolute. From first to last, nothing had gone as rational men had planned. The nation had put itself at the mercy of emotional explosions, whether these were shared by everyone or afflicted only individuals. Now, with an end in sight, there came a new explosion, a terrible incalculable, as monstrous and as reasonless as the one that had set swords flashing in the starlight above Pottawatomie Creek nearly ten years before. The knowledge of this explosion — though not a full realization of its grim consequences — was with General Sherman when he journeyed out from Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 17 to meet with General Johnston.
It was a strange meeting, in a way, even without the overtone that went with Sherman’s secret knowledge. Here was Sherman, whose very name had come to mean unrelenting wrath and destruction. In his own person he seemed to embody everything that a defeated South had to dread from a triumphant, all-powerful North. Yet as he went to see Johnston— they met in a little farmhouse between the lines — he was oddly gentle. He had talked with Lincoln at City Point and he believed he knew the sort of peace Lincoln wanted: a peace of harmony and reconciliation, with no indemnities and no proscription lists. It was the sort of peace Sherman himself wanted. Away back in Atlanta he had told Southerners that “when peace does come you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.” Now he was prepared to make these words good by an act of peace, just as he had made worse words good by acts of war: and he and Johnston, who had fought against each other so long, sat down now, not quite as friends, but certainly as men who had come to understand and to respect each other.
And over the table where the two soldiers conferred there was the knowledge of the new and fearful thing that had happened.
Just before Sherman left Raleigh, an army telegrapher notified him that a cipher dispatch from Washington was just coming over the wire: would the general care to wait for it? Sherman had waited. Deciphered at last, the message was given to him. It came from Secretary Stanton, and it began:
“President Lincoln was murdered about 10 o’clock last night in his private box in Ford’s Theater in this city …”
Sherman collared the telegrapher: had he told anyone what was in this message? The man said that he had not. Sherman warned him to say nothing about it to anybody — Sherman’s warnings could be pretty effective when the black mood was on him — and then he went off to see Johnston, fearful that if the Federal soldiers learned what had happened they might break all restraints and visit the helpless city of Raleigh with a vengeance that would make what had happened in Columbia look gentle and mild. There was among the men in his army, Sherman confessed, a very high regard for Mr. Lincoln.
At the conference table Sherman showed the dispatch to Johnston and saw the beads of sweat come out on the Southerner’s forehead. Neither man knew what this insane news would finally mean, although each was perfectly aware that it would bring much evil. But they would proceed with their business as if it had not happened, and their business was to arrange for the surrender of Johnston’s army.3
As they got down to it, the scope of the meeting unexpectedly broadened. Sherman said that he would give Johnston the same terms Grant had given Lee. Johnston was willing enough; but he was a gray little man who had seen enough of warring, and he unexpectedly proposed that they finish everything at one stroke — draft broad terms that would embrace all existing Confederate armies, from North Carolina to the Rio Grande, so that what they finally signed would put the last southern soldier back into civilian life and restore the Union.
It was just the sort of suggestion that would appeal to Sherman, who thought in continental terms anyway. But he could see two problems. To begin with, he himself had no authority to do anything but accept the surrender of Johnston’s army. Even if he signed the sort of document Johnston was talking about it would not be binding until it had been ratified in Washington. In addition, Johnston’s authority was no broader than his own; how could he offer the surrender of distant armies that were not under his control? Johnston was unworried. The Confederate Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge, was not far away; he could sign the document, and his signature would be valid for all Confederates everywhere.
The two generals parted at last, agreeing to meet again the next day and finish what they had begun. Sherman hurried back to Raleigh and ordered all the soldiers to their camps. Then, with everyone under control and no stragglers or off-duty men roaming the streets, he published a carefully worded bulletin announcing the assassination of the President and expressly stating that the Confederate army had had no part in the crime.
There was no outbreak, although what might easily have happened if the men had been at large in the city and had overheard some Southerner expressing satisfaction over Lincoln’s death is something to shudder at. The men took the news quietly, but they smoldered. One private wrote that “the army is crazy for vengeance,” and promised that “if we make another campaign it will be an awful one.” Most of the soldiers, he said, eager to vent their wrath in action, actually hoped now that Johnston would not surrender, and he added: “God pity this country if he retreats or fights us.”4
Johnston would neither retreat nor fight. He and Sherman met again the next day, Secretary Breckinridge joined the meeting, and what came out of it was more like an outright treaty of peace than a simple surrender document. Going far beyond any imaginable authority that had ever been given him, Sherman stipulated that all Confederate troops should march to their state capitals and deposit their arms there; that the Federal government would recognize southern state governments as soon as the state officials took the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States; that political rights and franchises of the southern people be guaranteed, and that the Federal government would not “disturb any of the people by reason of the late war.” Pending ratification of these terms in Washington, a general armistice was to prevail.5
Apparently Sherman believed that he was doing what Lincoln would have wanted done. Certainly he was moved by a warm feeling of sympathy for the South and by a determination to prevent, if he possibly could, any post-war reprisals. For a man who made very hard war he was surprisingly ready to make a soft peace.
But he had gone far beyond anything permissible to an army commander. In effect, he had disposed of the whole reconstruction issue — that dangerous block of political dynamite that had been getting Mr. Lincoln’s most delicate, patient handling for two years — and he had readmitted the Confederate states to the Union on (so to speak) their own recognizance. A man who disliked all politicians and who had an ingrained distrust of the democracy generally, he simply was not able to foresee the reaction that would inevitably follow on what he had done, nor could he understand that his government would unquestionably frown on the idea that Confederate armies should carry all of their weapons back home and put them in state arsenals where they could easily get at them again if they decided to fight some more.
When Sherman’s terms reached Washington the government almost blew up. It seems very likely that Lincoln would have disapproved of Sherman’s treaty if he had still been alive, but his disapproval would have been quiet and orderly. Now Lincoln was gone and the government for the moment was, to all intents and purposes, Secretary Stanton, and Stanton went into a public tantrum. He issued a statement denouncing Sherman and all but openly accusing him of disloyalty and completely repudiating the proposed treaty. The newspapers suddenly were filled with articles bitterly criticizing Sherman and accusing him of everything from insanity to the desire to make himself a pro-slavery dictator. Grant was sent down to Raleigh to make certain that Sherman should give Johnston terms precisely like those that had been given Lee — no more and no less — and from being one of the idols of the North, Sherman almost overnight became the object of a large amount of the bitterest sort of criticism.
… In the course of time it would all wash off. The South would forget that Sherman had nearly ruined himself by his effort to befriend it, and the North would forget it also, and after a few years he would be complete villain to one section and unstained hero to the other. Meanwhile, however, the wild uproar over the way in which Sherman had tried to end the war was lengthening the odds against the kind of peace Lincoln would have wanted. By discrediting Sherman for trying to let the South off too easily, the radical Republicans (with whom Stanton was firmly allied) were beginning to build up their case for a peace that would need to be nailed down with bayonets.
On a road a few miles north of Raleigh, General Slocum one day came upon a group of Sherman’s soldiers standing around a loaded wagon to which they had just set fire despite the desperate protests of its civilian driver. The wagon was loaded with New York newspapers, just arrived, full of criticism of General Sherman. Slocum remarked that this was the last property he ever saw Sherman’s men destroy, and he said that he watched the burning “with keener satisfaction than I had felt over the destruction of any property since the day we left Atlanta.”6
Through four desperate years Abraham Lincoln had been groping his way toward a full understanding of the values that lay beneath the war. He had seen a profound moral issue at stake, and more than any other man he had worked to make that issue dominant. Amid the confusing uproar of battle, the struggle of the place-hunters, and the clamor of the men who were simply on the make, he had listened for the still small voice; beyond hatred and fear and the greed for profit and advantage, he had sought to appeal to the basic aspirations of the human race. Taking final victory for granted, he had worked to give the victory an undying meaning.
Yet a fog of dust and smoke lay on the land, the horizon was forever ringed in murky flame, and wherever he turned — from the beginning of the war to its end — he kept touching a great mystery. Something bigger than men intended seemed to be at work; when he remarked half despairingly that he had not controlled events but had been controlled by them he was referring to the incomprehensible current which was moving down the century, compelling men to accomplish a thing greater than they had willed, moving toward a goal that was visible only at rare intervals. In the end it was not a party or a section that had triumphed but the entire nation, and the dreams and desires that would move the nation’s ultimate generations; and the terrible price that was paid was paid by all and not just by the losers.
Over and over throughout the war Lincoln had tried to put this into words. In the spring of 1864 he had written to a correspondent in Kentucky that after three years of warfare “the nation’s condition is not what either party or any man devised or expected. God alone can claim it … If God now wills the removal of a great wrong and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” And in the spring of 1865, when he came to take the presidential oath for the second time, and delivered his inaugural address to a crowd that huddled before the capitol under a lowering sky, he carried the thought farther.
“… Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”1
There were a right and a wrong in the war; of that much he was certain. Yet it was beyond human wisdom to make a just appraisal of the extent to which individual men or groups of men ought to receive the praise or shoulder the blame. The loss and the victory were common property now. The blame also was perhaps a common property. The whole war was a national possession, the end result a thing fated by the clouded stars, a great moment of opportunity, of sorrow, and of eternal hope, brought to a people who had touched elbows with destiny. Here was the supreme mystery; apparently an entire nation, wishing much less, had been compelled to help work out the will of Providence. So the President went on, to pose a majestic and unanswerable question:
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Lincoln had grappled with this question through the years of bloodshed and loss and grief. There had come to him, in his lonely office in the White House, the endless casualty lists, the hard decisions that would mean innumerable deaths, the streaming thousands of people who wanted understanding, or mercy, or power and money in the pocket; and out of all of this he had grasped a vision. A whole nation could atone for a wrong; atonement made, it could then go on, with charity and without malice, to create a new right. It would be hard to do, of course. An intricate network of hot passions and whipped-up emotions would have to be broken, and many ties of self-interest would have to be severed. But it could be done, and the most adroit and skillful political leader in American history would be responsible for it. The spring of 1865 might be the time for it.
But different men had different thoughts about the war and, like Lincoln, they put them in writing. There was old John Brown, who had looked ahead to the war from the shadow of the hangman’s noose … “the crimes of this land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” If he had hoped to prevent much bloodshed, old Brown had in fact brought much bloodshed on; and he had swung in the air and then vanished, leaving his own blighted heritage to the land. Now there was John Wilkes Booth, who also had thoughts. He jotted them down: “This country was formed for the white, not for the black man. And, looking upon African slavery from the same viewpoint held by the noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”2 The great blessing was gone now, and Booth would strike a blow of vengeance. He struck, and left his own heritage. Lincoln’s words spiraled off in the starless darkness, and it would be a long time before anyone could invoke the spirit of charity and call for a peace made without hate.
Lincoln’s casket lay beneath the echoing dome of the capitol, and then it was taken all across the country, to be seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans; a great procession of sorrow, skillfully arranged by men who wanted to do precisely what Lincoln himself would not have done.
These were the radicals — the Stantons, the Ben Wades, the Thaddeus Stevenses, the Charles Summers, and the rest; the party leaders who had fought Lincoln as often as they had helped him, who distrusted his belief in reconciliation, who had opposed his plan for restoring the southern states to the Union, and who saw the beaten Confederacy as a conquered province which they could rebuild any way they chose. Their way would be a harsh one, and its most pathetic victim would be the recently freed Negro. Swearing now that they meant to protect him and help him walk erect as a man, they would make the race problem harder to solve. By the reaction they provoked they would finally help Jim Crow to come in and (for a time) take the place of Uncle Tom.
They are usually pictured as bad men, but the term is too strong. Some of them were bad and some were good, and the most were a mixture of good and bad; the real trouble was that they were men fatally limited — limited and wholly determined, sure of their own rightness, not unlike the men who in 1860 had dreamed of creating a glittering slave empire that would have the future in its keeping. The blame for the chance that was missed after the war ended is like the blame for the war itself; a common national possession.
President Andrew Johnson, who felt as they felt until experience taught him to feel otherwise, had not yet begun to assert himself. When at last he did he would do it ineptly, a man cursed with a genius for making enemies and estranging friends. Right now these men were running the government. The controls were in their hands, and their first effort was to create an atmosphere in which their kind of peace would look just and natural.
So they gave Lincoln a great funeral, inviting the people to look on the clay of the great leader slain in his hour of triumph. With this, and with the public denunciation of Sherman for his overgenerous offer of peace, they could whip up a state of mind in which charity and forbearance could be made to look like a betrayal. The light that had lit the room when Grant and Lee sat down together and that had gleamed brightly between Sherman and Johnston began to grow dimmer and dimmer. Dusk began to steal across the land, with long shadows to cloud men’s vision.
Far to the south things went on to their appointed end. In Alabama, Wilson’s tough troopers sat by their campfires in awed silence when they were told that Lee and Johnston had surrendered and that the war was over. “They resisted belief,” one man recalled long afterword; “they dared not trust the story.” Later they learned that Lincoln had been killed, and they saw that the Negroes everywhere were overcome by fear. The laves had come to believe that it was Lincoln and Lincoln alone who had made them free; if he could be killed, would they not be returned to bondage? “For days the trembling creatures could not be induced to leave the camps, and it was only slowly and with difficulty that they could be made to realize that their former masters were finally deprived of power over them.”3
Making a last effort to break a way through to the land beyond the Mississippi, where it might just be possible to keep the war going, Jefferson Davis was captured and brought north to be imprisoned. It was said that when taken he was wearing his wife’s cloak and shawl, and the cruel story went abroad that he had tried to escape by disguising himself in woman’s clothing — just as, in the early spring of 1861, men had jibed that Lincoln came to Washington crudely disguised in a long robe and a grotesque Scotch tam o’shanter. The last Confederate troops in Alabama and Mississippi surrendered, and then finally the orphaned Confederate army beyond the Mississippi laid down its arms. The last embers of the southern republic had been stamped out. There would be no more shooting. Nothing was left now but the tragic and moving memories which would lie close to the bones of the American people forever.
In Washington there would be two grand reviews to wind everything up; one for the Army of the Potomac, and another next day for the Army of the Tennessee, with President and Cabinet in a reviewing stand by the White House and with jubilant thousands lining the streets to cheer. The armies had marched up from Virginia and Carolina for this final ceremony, crossing many old battlefields as they came. Wisconsin men in the Army of the Potomac remembered tramping past the desolate acres around Spotsylvania Court House and the Wilderness and seeing hundreds of bleached skeletons, still unburied; in one place army surgeons were collecting skulls in gunny sacks. An old man hoeing weeds in a corn patch as the soldiers passed saw what the men were looking at and shook his head sadly. “Ah, sir,” he said to one soldier, “there are thousands of both sides lying unburied in the Wilderness.”4
Sherman’s men crossed the Petersburg area, where the rival armies had faced each other in trenches for nine deadly months, and they looked at the fortifications with professional interest. The log huts which the Potomac soldiers had built for winter quarters struck the Westerners as excellent, but the Confederate works were not as imposing as they had expected them to be; out West (they insisted) the Rebs had built much tougher forts than these!5 Sherman’s XX Corps came up through Richmond and realized suddenly that it had made the most prodigious swing of any corps in the whole Union army. This corps was composed of the troops Joe Hooker had taken west from the Army of the Potomac in the fall of 1863, when Rosecrans needed rescuing after Chickamauga. Some of the men had come down across the Chickahominy with McClellan in the spring of 1862, getting so near the Confederate capital that they had seen its spires and on quiet mornings had heard the far-off tinkle of its church bells. Then they had retreated down the James, and after that they had fought in such battles as Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Finally they had gone to Tennessee, and they had hiked from Chattanooga to Atlanta and from there to Savannah, and from Savannah they had come north across the Carolinas — and now, at last, they were entering Richmond, three years after first seeing it, from the south instead of from the north.
In due time the armies reached Washington and went into camp. They gave the authorities a certain amount of trouble. To the very end the Potomac soldiers were trimmer, neater, better dressed, and better drilled; Sherman’s men had never been very distinguished for any of these virtues, and after their long winter campaign they tended now to be even more ragged and informal than ever. When men from one army met men from the other it usually took little more than a sidelong glance to touch off a fight. In addition, the Army of the Tennessee was bitter about the treatment the government had given Sherman, and in Washington saloons Sherman’s officers had a way of jumping on top of bars and calling for three groans for Secretary Stanton. With the ice thus broken, it would be only a question of time before some Westerner would remark that the Easterners were paper-collar soldiers who had never been anywhere or licked anybody. The riot would begin immediately afterward. Eventually Grant had to put the two armies in camps on opposite sides of the Potomac River. It was noted that farmers whose lands were near Sherman’s camping grounds began to complain that their chickens were not safe.
These Federal volunteer armies had existed for four years. For many thousands of young men, army life embraced all that they had ever seen of manhood. Now — suddenly, although there had been much forewarning — there came to all of these the realization that this tremendous experience was over. Never again would they rise to bugle call or drumbeat, make slogging marches in dust or mud, sleep tentless in the rain, or nerve themselves for the racking shock of battle; nor would they ever again go rioting across whole states with a torch for every empty house and a loaded wagon to carry away hams and turkeys and hives full of stolen honey for a campfire feast in the cool evening. They would be cut off, now and forever, from everything they had become used to; the most profound experience life could bring had come to them almost before boyhood had ended, and now it was all over and they would go back to farm or village or city, back to the quiet, uneventful round of prosaic tasks and small pleasures that are the lot of stay-at-home civilians.
They had hated the war and the army and they had wanted passionately to be rid of both forever; yet now they began to see that the war and the army had brought them one thing that might be hard to find back home — comradeship, the sharing of great things by men set apart from society’s ordinary routine. They had grown used to it. They wanted to go home, they were delighted that they would presently take off their uniforms forever, and yet …
In Nashville, Pap Thomas held a farewell review for the stout old Army of the Cumberland, and as the men prepared to disband they found themselves feeling lost, almost sad.
“None of us,” wrote a survivor, “were fond of war; but there had grown up between the boys an attachment for each other they never had nor ever will have for any other body of men.” An Iowa cavalryman, awaiting the muster-out ceremony he had so long wanted, wrote moodily in his diary: “I do feel so idle and lost to all business that I wonder what will become of me. Can I ever be contented again? Can I work? Ah! How doubtful — it’s raining tonight.”6
In Washington the great reviews were held as scheduled, toward the end of May. Thousands of men tramped down Pennsylvania Avenue, battle flags fluttering in the spring wind for the last time, field artillery trundling heavily along with unshotted guns, and great multitudes lined the streets and cheered until they could cheer no more as the banners went by inscribed with the terrible names — Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg, Atlanta — and President Johnson took the salute in his box by the White House. It was noticed that Sherman’s army unaccountably managed to spruce up and march as if parade-ground maneuvers were its favorite diversion. Sherman had apologized to Meade in advance for the poor showing he expected his boys to make; when he looked back, leading the parade, and saw his regiments faultlessly aligned, keeping step and going along like so many Grenadier Guards, he confessed that he knew the happiest moment of his life.
And finally the parades were over and the men waited in their camps for the papers that would send them home and transform them into civilians again.
… There was a quiet, cloudless May evening in Washington, with no touch of breeze stirring. In the camp of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac men lounged in front of their tents, feeling the familiar monotony of camp life for the last time. Here and there impromptu male quartets were singing. On some impulse a few soldiers got out candles, stuck them in the muzzles of their muskets, lighted them, and began to march down a company street; in the windless twilight the moving flames hardly so much as flickered.
Other soldiers saw, liked the looks of it, got out their own candles, and joined in the parade, until presently the whole camp was astir. Privates were appointed temporary lieutenants, captains, and colonels; whole regiments began to form, spur-of-the-moment brigadiers were commissioned, bands turned out to make music — and by the time full darkness had come the whole army corps was on the parade ground, swinging in and out, nothing visible but thousands upon thousands of candle flames.
Watching from a distance, a reporter for the New York Herald thought the sight beautiful beyond description. No torchlight procession Broadway ever saw, he said, could compare with it. Here there seemed to be infinite room; this army corps had the night itself for its drill field, and as the little lights moved in and out it was “as though the gaslights of a great city had suddenly become animated and had taken to dancing.” The parade went on and on; the dancing flames narrowed into endless moving columns, broke out into broad wheeling lines, swung back into columns again, fanned out across the darkness with music floating down the still air.7
As they paraded the men began to cheer. They had marched many weary miles in the last four years, into battle and out of battle, through forests and across rivers, uphill and downhill and over the fields, moving always because they had to go where they were told to go. Now they were marching just for the fun of it. It was the last march of all and, when the candles burned out, the night would swallow soldiers and music and the great army itself; but while the candles still burned, the men cheered.
The night would swallow everything — the war and its echoes, the graves that had been dug and the tears that had been shed because of them, the hatreds that had been raised, the wrongs that had been endured and the inexpressible hopes that had been kindled — and in the end the last little flame would flicker out, leaving no more than a wisp of gray smoke to curl away unseen. The night would take all of this, as it had already taken so many men and so many ideals — Lincoln and McPherson, old Stonewall and Pat Cleburne, the chance for a peace made in friendship and understanding, the hour of vision that saw fair dealing for men just released from bondage. But for the moment the lights still twinkled, infinitely fragile, flames that bent to the weight of their own advance, as insubstantial as the dream of a better world in the hearts of men; and they moved to the far-off sound of music and laughter. The final end would not be darkness. Somewhere, far beyond the night, there would be a brighter and a stronger light.