Bloody Road to Appomattox and beyond (1863-1876). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Bloody Road to Appomattox and beyond (1863-1876). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

Gettysburg and Vicksburg: turning point of the war.

Lincoln’s ultimate commander: U.S. Grant.

“Total war”: Sherman’s March to the Sea.

The assassination of Lincoln.

Reconstruction and bitterness in the South.

Andrew Johnson’s impeachment; election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

 No face in American history is more familiar, better loved, or more terrible than that of Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately for us, famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was there to photograph it. In the 16th president’s face, we see his character: the hard life of the backwoods, an infinite gentleness, an infinite sorrow. Lincoln’s burden is unimaginable; he had a mission to save the Union, even if doing so cost more than half a million lives.

Through the long, terrible summer of 1862, the president despaired. Lincoln was no military man, but he had a sound and simple grasp of strategy, and he saw that Generals Don Carlos Buell and George B. McClellan failed to press their gains toward decisive victories. Frustrated, Lincoln removed Buell from command of the Army of the Ohio and replaced him with William S. Rosecrans in late October 1862. The next month, be put Ambrose E. Burnside in McClellan’s place as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Rosecrans scored a very costly victory at Murfreesboro, Tennessee (December 31, 1862-January 3, 1863), forcing Braxton Bragg out of Tennessee, but Burnside suffered a terrible defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. He tried to regain the initiative for the Union forces by renewing a drive on Richmond, but faltered at the Rappahannock River and was checked by Lee’s army. On December 13, Burnside hurled a series of assaults against the Confederate trenches. He not only failed to penetrate the Confederate lines but lost more than 12,000 men in the process.

A month after Fredericksburg, Lincoln replaced Burnside with “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who led the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) in the wilderness of northern Virginia, again aiming to take Richmond. Hooker was defeated—brilliantly—by Stonewall Jackson (who, however, lost his life in the battle, accidentally shot by one of his own troops). Lincoln replaced Hooker with George Gordon Meade on June 29, 1863—just two days before Union and Confederate forces would clash at an obscure Pennsylvania hamlet called Gettysburg.

Four Score and Seven. Anxious to move the war into Union territory, Lee invaded Pennsylvania with an army of about 75,000. He did not aim to do battle with the forces of the North in the vicinity of Gettysburg, a village distinguished only in that it was positioned at important crossroads, but the fact is that Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps of Confederates needed shoes. Short of manufacturing capability, the South always had a difficult time keeping its soldiers shod. On June 30, while marching toward Gettysburg in search of shoes, Hill was engaged by cavalry under Union Brigadier General John Buford. The battle began in earnest on the next day, July 1.

The encounter did not go well for the Union. Hill’s troops killed Major General John F. Reynolds, commander of the Union I Corps, almost as soon as he came onto the field. Despite shock and confusion, his troops held their ground until reinforcements arrived. But in the afternoon, Hill and Lieutenant General R.S. Ewell joined forces in an attack that routed the Federals through the town of Gettysburg. The forces regrouped and rallied on Cemetery Ridge, where they were joined by fresh troops from the south and east. The Confederates arrayed their forces in an encircling position, encompassing Seminary Ridge, parallel to Cemetery Ridge.

Thus the field was set for the second day. Robert E. Lee attacked on July 2 but was unable to achieve a double envelopment of the Union forces—though he did inflict heavy casualties. On July 3, still holding the initiative, Lee committed what was for him a rare tactical error. Believing that a victory here and now, at Gettysburg, in Northern territory, might turn the war decisively in favor of the Confederacy, he ordered a direct attack—across open country—on the Union’s center.

Fifteen thousand Confederate troops advanced against the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Exploiting the advantages of high ground, the Union pounded the advancing rebels with heavy artillery and musket fire. Major General George Pickett’s division pressed the attack up to the Ridge. The division was decimated: two brigadiers fell, the third was severely wounded, and all 15 of Pickett’s regimental commanders were killed or wounded. Briefly, 1 SO men from the division, led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead (who perished in the effort), raised the Confederate banner above Cemetery Ridge—only to be cut down or captured. In the end, “Pickett’s Charge,” perhaps the single most famous military action in American history, resulted in the death or wounding of 10,000 of the 15,000 men in Pickett’s division.

Watching the survivors return from the failed assault that third awful day, Lee said to a subordinate: “it is all my fault.” Hoping, in effect, to win the war at Gettysburg, Lee had suffered a terrible defeat. Although the losses on both sides were staggering, they were hardest on the Confederates. One very simple fact was at the base of this very complex war: The North, with more men as well as more hardware than the South, could lose more of both and still go on fighting. Lee was right. The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point-but it did not turn the war in his favor. From here to the end, despite more Union defeats to come, it became increasingly clear that the North would ultimately prevail.

Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Northern attention focused most sharply on Gettysburg as the battle that foiled the Confederate invasion of the North. However, while that battle was being fought, Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant were bringing to a conclusion a long and frustrating campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Confederacy’s seemingly impregnable stronghold on the Mississippi River. The prize here was not just a fortress, but control of the great river. Once the South lost the Mississippi, the Confederacy was split in two, the western states unable to communicate with the East or to supply reinforcements to it. Grant had campaigned—in vain—against Vicksburg during the fall and winter of 1862-63, finally taking it on July 4, 1863.

Grant next turned his attention to Chattanooga, which occupied a critical position in a bend of the great Tennessee River. Union forces under William S. Rosecrans had ousted Braxton Bragg from Chattanooga in early September 1863, but, reinforced, Bragg returned to engage Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19-20. Bragg fielded 66,001) men against Rosecrans’s 58,000. By the second day of this bloody struggle along Chickamauga Creek in northwestern Georgia, the Confederates had driven much of the Union army from the field in disarray.

Complete disaster was averted by General George H. Thomas, in command of the Union left flank. Moreover, Bragg failed to press his advantage, laying incomplete siege around Chattanooga while also detaching troops to attack Knoxville. By failing to act with greater focus, Bragg allowed Grant sufficient time to arrive, on October 23, and reinforce the Army of the Cumberland (now under Thomas’s command). Sixty thousand Union troops now faced Bragg’s reduced forces—about 40,000 men—in two battles set in the rugged terrain overlooking Chattanooga. The Battle of Lookout Mountain (November 24) was called the “Battle Above the Clouds,” because it was fought at an elevation of 1,100 feet above the Tennessee River—and above a dense line of fog. The Battle of Missionary Ridge followed (November 25). In these two engagements, Thomas and Grant decisively defeated Bragg, with the result that Tennessee and the Tennessee River fell into Union hands.

Back to Richmond. To many Americans, George Meade was the hero of Gettysburg—the great turning-point battle of the war. However, President Lincoln observed that Meade, like so many of his other generals, failed to capitalize on victory. In contrast, Ulysses S. Grant had demonstrated a willingness to fight and then fight some more. Thus, with the war entering its fourth year, Lincoln finally found his general. In March 1864, the president named Grant general in chief of all the Union armies. Grant’s strategy was simple: exploit the North’s superiority in industrial strength and in population. This meant that Grant and his subordinate commanders could not afford to be fearful of sacrificing men and material. Grant was so single-minded in pursuing this strategy that some men within his own ranks cursed him as “The Butcher.”

Grant put the Union’s fiercest warrior, William Tecumseh Sherman, in command of the so-called western armies (which actually fought in the middle South). Meade retained command of the Army of the Potomac—albeit under Grant’s watchful eye. Using these two principal forces, he relentlessly kept pressure on the South’s Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Wilderness Campaign (May-June 1864) was the first test of the strategy of attrition. Grant directed Meade, leading a force of 100,000, to attack 70,000 men of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the tangled woodlands just 50 miles northwest of Richmond. The Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6) cost some 18,000 Union lives. Undaunted, “The Butcher” then ordered Meade southeast to Spotsylvania Court House, where more than 14,000 Union soldiers were killed between May 8 and 18. Still Grant pushed, attacking Lee’s right at Cold Harbor, just north of Richmond. Thirteen thousand Union troops fell between June 3 and June 12.

Following Cold Harbor, Grant marched south of the James River and began the Petersburg Campaign, laying siege to this important rail center just south of Richmond. The siege consumed nearly a year, from June 1864 to April 1865, and it succeeded in hemming in Lee, who was put on the defensive, trying to stave off the assault on Richmond.

In order to restore maneuverability to his army, Lee attempted to draw off some of Grant’s strength by detaching Jubal Early, with Stonewall Jackson’s old corps, in an assault against Washington in mid-June. Although the capital was briefly bombarded, Union General Philip Sheridan pursued Early into the Shenandoah Valley and defeated him at Cedar Creek on October 19.

Just three weeks later, Lincoln was elected to a second term by a comfortable margin. Clearly, the North was prepared to continue the fight, and the defenders of Petersburg, starving, sick, and exhausted, at last broke in March 1865. On April 2, Lee evacuated Richmond. Jefferson Davis and the entire Confederate government fled the Southern capital.

The March to the Sea. While Grant concentrated on taking Richmond, William Tecumseh Sherman, after leaving, Chattanooga in early May 1864, invaded Georgia with 100,000 men. Sherman was opposed by Joseph P. Johnston’s army of 60,000, which repeatedly fell back during the onslaught—although Johnston scored a victory at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27. By early July, Johnston had assumed a position defending the key rail center of Atlanta. However, President Jefferson Davis, enraged by Johnston’s many retreats, brashly replaced him with General John B. Hood. A heroic but utterly reckless commander, Hood attacked Sherman and lost. By September, Hood abandoned Atlanta, and the Northern army’s occupation of this major city greatly boosted Union morale.

After the fall of Atlanta, Hood played a desperate gambit by invading Tennessee, hoping that Sherman would pursue him. But Sherman had his own strategy. Later generations would call it “total war”—war waged against not only an enemy army, but against “enemy” civilians. Instead of pursuing Hood himself, Sherman detached General George H. Thomas to do that. With the main force of his army, Sherman then marched from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast. The “March to the Sea” burned a broad, bitter swath of destruction all the way to Savannah.

In the meantime, General Hood did win a battle at Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, but General Thomas triumphed at Nashville on December 15-16, 1864, sending the ragged remnants of Hood’s army back toward Georgia. Confederate General Joseph P. Johnston, now in command of the greatly reduced Army of Tennessee, engaged Sherman several times as the Union army stormed through the Carolinas in the spring of 1865. On April 13, 1865, Sherman occupied Raleigh, North Carolina, and on April 26 at Durham Station., Johnston formally surrendered his army.

The Country Courthouse. Although sporadic fighting would continue west of the Mississippi until the end of May, the principal land campaign of the Civil War ended at Durham Station on April 26. However, an earlier event is traditionally considered the symbolic end of the Civil War. Following the collapse of Petersburg and the evacuation of Richmond, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia desperately foraged for food and arrived at Appomattox Court House, about 25 miles east of Lynchburg, Virginia. Lee’s forces, which now stood at perhaps 9,000 effective troops, were surrounded by the Army of the Potomac under General George Meade.

After heavy skirmishing on the morning of April 9, Lee concluded that his was a lost cause. He met Ulysses S. Grant, who pressed him to surrender all the Confederate armies, which were nominally under his command. Lee refused to do that, but his surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, over which he had direct command, signaled the inevitable end of the war.

With Malice Toward Some. Confident of ultimate victory, President Lincoln delivered a gentle, healing message in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, calling for a consummation of the war with “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in an effort to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Weary, careworn beyond imagining, Lincoln nevertheless looked forward to the end of the war. On the evening of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, he and his wife, Mary Todd, sought a few hours’ diversion in a popular comedy called Our American Cousin. The play was being presented at Ford’s Theatre, a short distance from the White House.

An Evening at Ford’s Theatre

John Wilkes Booth was a popular young scion of America’s foremost theatrical family. While he had no part in Our American Cousin, Booth was desperate to play a role in the drama of the great Civil War, which was now rushing to conclusion. Back in 1864, the Maryland-born racist had concocted a plot to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war. That plan came to nothing, and now, with surrender in the air, there was no point in simply kidnapping Lincoln. Booth wanted raw vengeance. He conspired with a small band of followers, George A. Atzerodt, David Herold, and a former Confederate soldier called Lewis Paine (real name Louis Thornton Powell). They plotted to murder Lincoln and also kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

On April 14, Atzerodt backed out of his assignment to kill Johnson. In the meantime, Herold held Paine’s horse while Paine broke into Seward’s residence. He stabbed and clubbed Seward, an aged man who was recuperating from injuries suffered in a carriage accident. It was a bloody scene: Seward, his son Augustus, and his daughter Fanny were all injured, as were a State Department messenger and a male nurse. Yet none of them died.

Booth was more efficient. Booth simply walked into the theater, entered the president’s box, raised his derringer, and pointed it between Abraham Lincoln’s left ear and spine. fie squeezed off a single shot. Booth leaped from the box onto the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”—Thus ever to tyrants. But Booth’s right spur had caught on the Treasury Regiment banner festooning the box, and he landed, full force, on his left foot, which broke just above the instep. Booth limped across the stage and made a clean getaway into Maryland and then Virginia. He was not found until April 26, when he was cornered in a barn near Fredericksburg. Union soldiers set fire to the barn, then, seeing the actor’s form silhouetted by the flames, one of the soldiers (a sergeant named Boston Corbett claimed credit) fired a shot that fatally wounded Booth.

Reconstruction Abuses. The mortally wounded president had been carried to a house across the street from the theater. There Lincoln died at 7:22 the next morning. With him died any hope of “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Booth murdered Lincoln to avenge the South. In fact, the South became the most thoroughly brutalized victim of the assassination.

As the war was winding down, President Lincoln had formulated plans to set up loyal governments in the Southern states as quickly as possible. New governments were, in fact, formed in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, but Congress refused to recognize them. Radical Republicans, wishing to delay the restoration in part to keep Democrats out of Washington, passed the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill. This bill would have delayed the process of readmission to the Union pending the signature of loyalty oaths. Lincoln vetoed the measure.

After Lincoln was assassinated, his vice president, Andrew Johnson, modified the Wade-Davis plan by issuing amnesty to anyone who took an oath to be loyal to the Union in the future. Johnson required that the states ratify the 13th Amendment (which freed the slaves), abolish slavery in their own state constitutions, repudiate debts incurred while in rebellion, and declare secession null and void. By the end of 1865, all of the secessionist states, except for Texas, had complied.

Congress, however, was not satisfied with Johnson’s program, which, Congress feared, restored power to the very individuals who had brought rebellion. Moreover, the readmitted states persisted in keeping former slaves in subservience. To correct this problem, Congress passed in 1866 the Freedman’s Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act, both intended to ensure African-American equality before the law. When Johnson vetoed these acts, Republicans responded by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Southern states and overrode the veto.

Republicans also introduced the 14th Amendment, declaring African-Americans to be citizens and prohibiting states from discriminating against any class of citizen. When the Southern state governments created under Johnson’s plan refused to ratify the 14th Amendment, Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts in 1867, effectively placing the South under military occupation. African-Americans were quickly enfranchised, and Congress forced acceptance of the 14th Amendment by refusing to recognize new state governments until those governments had ratified it. Recognized Confederate leaders were specifically barred from participating in the creation of the new governments.

Articles of Impeachment. In defiance of Congress, Johnson deliberately interfered with the enforcement of the reconstruction laws. When, at last, in 1868, Johnson dismissed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in a bid to gain complete control of the army, House Republicans charged a violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Passed in 1867, this act barred a president from removing, without the Senate’s approval, any officeholder appointed with the Senate’s consent. The House impeached Johnson, but after a trial spanning March through May 1868, the Senate acquitted him by a single vote.

His Fraudulency. With Andrew Johnson neutralized, the radical Republicans visited a harsh reconstruction program on the South. African-Americans were given equal rights, state-supported free public school systems were established, labor laws were made fairer to employees, and tax laws were more generally equitable; however, radical reconstruction also exacted a heavy tax burden and led to widespread, ruinous corruption. In many places, uneducated former slaves were thrust into high-level government positions for which they were inadequately prepared. In response, whites set up shadow governments and established the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante-type groups.

Radical reconstruction was born of mixed motives—a desire to bring equality to African-Americans and to establish governments loyal to the Union, but also to keep Democrats out of Congress and punish the South. These efforts created much bitterness, crippled the Southern economy for generations, and ultimately deepened the gulf of understanding separating the races.

During the early 1870s, white resistance to reconstruction often turned violent. In this tumultuous atmosphere, the presidential election of 1876 resulted in a majority of popular votes going to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. However, the Republicans reversed the electoral vote tally in the three Southern states they still controlled under Reconstruction legislation. The Republicans effectively stole the election from Tilden and gave it to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. After months of wrangling, both sides agreed to send the votes to a special commission. It ruled Hayes the winner—though only after he secretly agreed to stop using federal troops to enforce Reconstruction. In effect, this agreement ended Reconstruction, in its positive as well as negative aspects. Dubbed “Your Fraudulency,” Hayes served a single term as best he could but remained one of the nation’s least popular presidents.

The Least You Need to Know

Victory in the Civil War was the result of numbers: The North had more men, money, and manufacturing capacity than the South.

 Lincoln’s assassination deprived the South—as well as the North—Of a wise and compassionate leader. Without Lincoln, the process of reconstruction was bitter, divisive, and deeply damaging to the nation.

Stats. Of 88,289 Union troops engaged at Gettysburg, 3,155 died oft the field, 14,529 were wounded (many of these subsequently died), and 5,365 were listed as “missing.” Confederate figures are less reliable. Of approximately 75,000 troops engaged, 3,903 were killed outright, 18,735 were wounded (a large percentage mortally), and 5,425 were missing.

Voice from the Past. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate a national cemetery on the battlefield. Some did not find his brief speech adequate to the solemn occasion. Others were moved by its straightforward eloquence as a definition of what was at stake in the Civil War. Today the speech is universally regarded as one the greatest public utterances in history:


“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these is rather for us honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Word for the Day. A war of attrition is waged by a numerically stronger force against one that is numerically weaker. The assumption is that, by the application of constant stress, the weaker force will crumble, while the stronger force, despite losses, will endure. This theory was the foundation of Grant’s strategy.

Voice from the Past. Shortly before he died, Grant described in his Personal Memoirs the scene in the McLean house, at Appomattox, where Lee surrendered to him:

 “What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face … his feelings… were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings … were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much…

General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value…In my rough traveling suit … I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form…


We soon fell into a conversation about old army times … Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting.”


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