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9-08-2015, 00:00

Where the Grapes of Wrath Are Stored

SUMMER SLID into fall, the apples reddened on the trees, and the grain ripened in the long fields of the Midwest. In spite of burgeoning industrialism, men and women still lived their lives in tune with the ageless rhythm of the seasons, more conscious of the flocking of birds and the habits of animals than the sound of train whistles. Cities rise and fall, but farms go on forever. On the blockade stations along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, sailors rigged for the hurricane season; down around Petersburg, the water standing in the trenches after a rain stayed colder; even in the hills near Atlanta, men thought of fall coming. And of what was to come with it. One of the things to come with it was the Northern presidential election, held this year on November 8. It was an anxious time; a week before the election, Secretary of State Seward warned the mayor of New York that Southern agents were gathered in Canada, preparing to come south and set fire to New York City on election day. On the 6th a hundred men were arrested in Chicago, many of them heavily armed; reports said they were planning to release Confederate prisoners held near the city, seize it, stuff ballot boxes and burn the place down. Why they would have wanted to stuff the ballot boxes and then burn the city was unanswered, but men were keyed to too high a pitch to think entirely rationally, and the wildest stories found willing believers. On a more practical level, the Republicans were determined to do all they could, legally and occasionally illegally, to win the election; both sides urged their followers, as the quip has it, to "vote early and vote often." The fall of Atlanta, though it was perceived as cutting a good deal of the ground from under the Democrats' "The war is a failure" campaign, still did not make the election a sure thing or even approach it. One measure the Republicans chose, wisely as it turned out, was to allow and encourage voting by the soldiers themselves. The government hoped that its righting men would support the war effort, rather than repudiate it. Soldiers from some states that required their physical presence were furloughed so they could go home to vote. Other states sent commissioners to their regiments in the field to record the soldiers' ballots there. The result was gratifying beyond the Republicans' wildest hopes. Here were the men doing the actual fighting and dying, asked to vote in support of a government, in effect a war, that would make them continue to fight and die—and they did so resoundingly. These men were not fooled by the Democrats' hedging on the great question of the day, and they knew better than any others that when Jeff Davis said independence was a precondition to peace, he and those who followed him meant exactly that. Of the soldier votes that were tabulated separately, 119,754 out of 154,045 were for Lincoln—78 percent for the war. There is no reason to believe those who went home voted any differently from those still in the field; thus Lincoln carried the army by three to one. The military vote may have made the difference between victory and defeat in New York and Connecticut, and possibly in Indiana as well, and it was far more favorable to the Republicans than was the vote in the country as a whole. Nonetheless, even without it, Lincoln still would have won the election, with 2,206,938 votes to McClellan's 1,803,787; he got roughly 55 percent of the popular vote, and the electoral college, when it got around to meeting, gave him a lopsided 212 votes to 21 for his opponent. The meaning of all this was simple enough: the Union would see it through. And by now few men could doubt that the Union, having expressed the will to fight on to victory, had sufficient strength to do so. In 1863 the visiting British officer, Colonel Freemantle, had concluded that the South was simply unconquerable. Now, a year later, the New York correspondent of the London Times reported exactly the opposite; it was the North that was invincible, with the strength and spirit of a free people quite unprecedented in human history. As one disgruntled Democrat put it, there was a revolution occurring in the United States, and no one knew where it might end, but it would have to run its course. Jefferson Davis put the best face he could on the news, but like most thinking men in the Confederacy, he knew what it all meant. Over the coming winter, Confederates would talk less of ultimate victory, and more of suffering God's will to be done, of fighting the good fight with honor, and of bearing that which must be borne. It was war to the knife now. Sheridan had torn the heart out of the Shenandoah Valley, and Grant and Meade held on to the siege of Petersburg with a death grip. The Union, knowing the Confederacy was short of bodies, had now refused to exchange prisoners, and in Southern camps Federal prisoners were practically starving to death; part of that was poor administration, part of it was criminal neglect — one third of the 32,000 Federal prisoners at Andersonville died in the last year of the war, and its commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was tried and executed. Many Southerners argued that as they themselves were being starved by the Union blockade, they could hardly be expected to feed their prisoners. For the Union, the policy was painful, but it was also another example of the intensification of the war, and another means of bringing yet greater pressure upon the enemy, even if unfortunate Federal soldiers bore some of the burden of it. How to bring it to an end? How to tighten the vise that much further until the Confederacy finally cracked? What would make those people give up? William T. Sherman, his forces concentrated in and around Atlanta, thought he had an answer. Though Sherman's advance to Atlanta had eventually succeeded in taking the city, it had still been only a partial success. Grant's initial orders had given Sherman the Army of Tennessee as his primary objective, and damage to Georgia as an only secondary aim. Sherman had actually failed to destroy the army facing him, and it now hovered in the wings, John Bell Hood waiting for the Federals to make a move and a mistake. The month of September went by quietly, while Sherman tried to decide what to do, and get Grant's permission to do it, and on the other side, Jefferson Davis came south to commiserate with Hood. The president and his general finally chose to operate against Sherman's communications. Hood's army would slide westward into Alabama, and from there move perhaps northeast against Chattanooga or even due north well into Kentucky, heading for Nashville. With a little luck, they might lever Sherman out of Atlanta; if he had to abandon that and move back the way he had come, Southern morale might well rebound as quickly as it had plummeted with Atlanta's fall. It was a long shot, a bit of a counsel of desperation, but these were desperate times. Sherman too was concerned about that tenuous supply line, and through the month he sent detachments back up the railroad, thinning out his field army but presenting a strong cordon facing southwest against Confederate raiders. But that was a half-baked response, and he was hatching a larger idea. Georgia was actually pretty good country, and past Atlanta it was largely untouched by the war. Sherman believed he could feed his army on the move; instead of chasing Hood about, a potentially futile effort, why not cut loose and march from Atlanta to the sea, perhaps to Savannah, tearing up rail lines and generally raising the devil as he went? By a process of trial and error, the Union leaders had learned that while they might not be able to destroy Confederate armies in open battle, they might, by a policy of destructive raids, weaken the entire infrastructure of the Confederate economy and society, make the Rebels feel the full brunt of the war, and perhaps ultimately cause them to collapse. It was what the British theorist of war Liddell Hart called "the indirect approach" carried to extremes, the mid-nineteenth century's equivalent of the strategic-bombing theory of World War II. If you can't beat the enemy in the field, perhaps you can beat him behind it. In total war, with the entirety of a society committed to its effort, perhaps the economy and civilian population, or at least civilians' determination to maintain the war, would prove the soft underbelly of the enemy. Even before he was committed to march through Georgia, Sherman began to dispose his troops in such a way as to make any option feasible. In late September he sent George Thomas back to Nashville, to take command of all the troops from there to Atlanta, while he himself stayed in the latter city, keeping 60,000 men with him ready to move. Grant dragged his feet; he would have preferred that Sherman destroy Hood rather than march off into the unknown, but Sherman's view was that Thomas had sufficient strength to handle the Confederate field army, and that he himself could do more good, and more damage, by operating independently. He summed up his view in a letter to Grant: "Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless for us to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources. I can make this march, and make Georgia howl." This was written in early September. Two weeks later the issue was still up in the air, when Hood made his move. Marching rapidly northeast, with cavalry raiding parties out, the Army of Tennessee hit Sherman's rail line around Allatoona. The line was held by John M. Corse's division, and when Samuel French's Confederates attacked, there was some of the hardest fighting seen by western soldiers in the entire war. It also inspired some highly dramatic mythologizing; Sherman, bringing up reliefs, could see the fighting from away back on Kennesaw Mountain, and managed to signal the Federals that help was on the way, in a terse message that was written into American hymnbooks as "Hold the fort for I am coming." There were 1,500 casualties out of the 4,000 men engaged, but French finally drew off, and Corse was able to signal to Sherman, "I am short a cheekbone and an ear, but am able to whip all hell yet." Nor did Hood's tearing up of track benefit him a great deal, what with Sherman's efficient railroad troops quickly rebuilding in Hood's wake. Indeed, the effect of Hood's moves was simply to make Sherman even more convinced that it was futile to chase a smaller and highly mobile army around the backwoods of Georgia. He simply could not catch Hood, and Thomas was perfectly capable of containing him. When Sherman had marched halfway back to Chattanooga, Hood simply skipped off into northern Alabama again by mid-October. At this point, however, Grant and the authorities in Washington finally agreed with Sherman, and gave permission for him to abandon his useless chase, and start instead for the sea. A bemused Hood was left hanging in mid-air in northern Alabama, while the Federal troops in front of him began mysteriously to thin out. Hood still intended to march north and invade Tennessee, and that was what he set about doing. It took him three weeks to gather sufficient supplies around a base at Florence, and to pull in his scattered cavalry, but on November 19 he started north. Thomas, who had let himself be somewhat lulled by the last couple of weeks of inactivity, had left his forward units under Schofield widely scattered, and now had to rush to concentrate. The result was a race for Columbia, Tennessee, and the crossings of the Duck River, Schofield moving north from Decatur, Alabama, while Hood marched slightly east of north from Florence. Schofield won, and concentrated his forces south of the river, holding the crossings around the town. But he could not fight there, as Hood's cavalry ranged up- and downstream, and levered him off his position. The next stage was quite peculiar, as both armies moved north, the Federals going up the road from Columbia toward Franklin, while the Confederates moved parallel to and past them, trying to get across their line of retreat. They actually succeeded in doing so; Benjamin F. Cheatham's Confederate corps got onto the Columbia Pike, and then gave it up and went into bivouac, not realizing they had the whole of Schofield's army trapped to the south of them. During a long, tense night, the Federals quietly moved past the weary, sleeping enemy, and got away to Franklin. The denouement of this particular mix-up was tragic. Hood was furious at his corps commanders, though he himself had not given them any real direction. Now he pushed his pursuit hard, and late on the afternoon of the 30th of November he caught the fleeing Federals. Or so he thought. In fact, Schofield's men had reached the little town of Franklin early on that morning, and though tired from their marching, they spent the day digging and entrenching. By the time Hood got there they had a firm position, both flanks anchored on the Harpeth River, all neatly dug in, fields of fire across open ground, and they wanted nothing more than for the Rebels to attack. Hood obliged them. He was sick and tired of complaining soldiers and corps commanders who did not do as he thought they should. He threw his corps into line, Cheatham on the left, A. P. Stewart on the right, and ordered an attack. There was no artillery preparation, no cover for two miles, and the Federals were well dug in. Even so, the Confederates nearly broke through. They overran two advanced Union brigades, and as these retreated to the main line, while their comrades held their fire to let them get in, the Confederates came on so quickly that they too broke over and through the main line of works. For a half an hour it was hard work, Confederates flooding into the gap, Union regiments, heads down and shoulders hunched, launching bayonet charges into the swirling mass. Slowly the breach contracted, and the Confederates went back. Still they refused to give way, and Hood flung charge after charge at the Union line. Not until dark at about nine in the evening did they finally give it up. By then the Army of Tennessee was ruined, a full quarter of those engaged casualties, thirtytwo colors lost and five generals dead, including States Rights Gist and that incomparable combat leader Patrick Cleburne. Except for that one break in the line, Franklin was little more than an execution, the Confederate losses proportionately three times those incurred by the Federals at Cold Harbor. During the night Schofield retreated across the Harpeth, and the next day his tired but happy troops marched into Nashville. Oddly enough, Hood followed them with his defeated army; he thought that if he retreated after Franklin, the troops would desert in droves and the army collapse. So he advanced instead, and on December 2 he laid Nashville under siege. This was a strange situation, Hood with some 30,000 starvelings blockading Thomas's 50,000 men. Hood knew he could not take the city, but he thought that Thomas would attack him, and he believed that if he chose good ground, and fought an effective defensive battle, the Federals might well be broken. Given Hood's, and most generals', penchant for the offensive, his reasoning is testimony to the power of the defensive in the later stages of the war. For two weeks, Slow Trot Thomas refused to oblige. In fact, Old Tom—he seemed to have more nicknames than most generals of his day—spent more time fighting with Washington than he did with Hood. Nashville under siege was a major embarrassment to Grant and the administration, and a whole series of telegrams urged Thomas to go out and fight. He steadfastly replied that he would, when he was ready, and please stop bothering him. Thomas never liked to be rushed, though unlike Buell or Rosecrans, when he did move he would do so effectively. Grant threatened to remove him from command, to which Thomas replied that he was free to do so. The two men, both phlegmatic in temperament, were in fact less sympathetic than they might have been; perhaps they were too much alike, for Grant seemed to get on better with the mercurial Sherman or the fiery Sheridan than he did with Thomas or the stolid Meade. Finally, Grant did order Thomas's relief, and he sent John A. Logan out to take command. Thomas attacked on December 15, before Logan arrived. The result was a two-day battle and the virtual destruction of the Army of Tennessee. The Confederates had lacked sufficient troops to match the Federal lines around Nashville, and Hood had thus been forced to settle for a position along a range of hills to the southeast of the city. He relied on Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry to cover the rest of his front, but early in December he sent Forrest off toward Murfreesboro, where he got into a fight and got whipped. When the time came for the battle, then, Hood had the three corps of A. P. Stewart on his left, S. D. Lee in the center, and Cheatham on his right, a position a little over four miles in length. Thomas moved out with a diversionary attack on Cheatham's right-flank end of the line, and then, when Hood's attention was fully engaged, he hit the other end, Stewart, with Wood's and A. J. Smith's two full corps, while maneuvering Schofield's corps around the Confederate flank. To extend the pressure farther, he had several thousand cavalry, often fighting dismounted, out beyond Schofield. For a while the Confederates held their own, but as the pressure built up, Stewart's men slowly bent back. With heavy Union infantry attacks on their front, and the horsemen lapping past their flanks, there was nothing they could do but retreat. About mid-afternoon, after several hours, they broke altogether, and went streaming off to the rear. Hood was not yet done, however, and he managed to stop the rout and cobble together a new line as an early dusk came on. At that point he should have given it up and thrown the whole army into retreat, but instead he decided to stay and see the matter through. He spent the night marching his troops back and forth, as if they were not sufficiently tired already, and rearranging his corps. By the next morning, he had slid Stewart and Lee sideways, and moved Cheatham's whole corps over to the left flank; his position now looked like a long C on its side, with both flanks refused and the open end facing to the south. Even more important, he was backed up against a feature called the Brentwood Hills, and he had but one road, the turnpike south to Franklin, open as a possible line of retreat. Thomas spent most of the morning of the 16th closing up to the new Confederate position, then he attacked shortly after noon, repeating exactly the tactics of yesterday. The result was exactly the same, too. For a while the Confederates held, but then they broke. Late in the afternoon, with Federal infantry hitting both their front and flank, and blue cavalry seeping around in back of them, Cheatham's corps collapsed. A horde, a herd, of broken Rebels fled for the hills and that one road south. To add to their misery, but to aid in their escape, the skies opened up and it began to pour. Wagons, guns, broken-down horses clogged the roads, Union cavalry was all over the hills and snapping at the stragglers, and the Army of Tennessee dissolved in defeat, disgust, and despair. Hood put the best face he could upon it. He reported that his losses were actually quite small, but in fact he had given up 4,500 men just as prisoners. No one knows how many killed or wounded there were, as many regiments never recovered, and never even submitted returns. The sad remnants of the once-proud Army of Tennessee limped back across their name state, and eventually took refuge in Mississippi. The soldiers knew full well what had happened to them, and one of their poets added a new verse to the famous "Yellow Rose of Texas" song: Oh, now I'm goin' southwards, for my heart is full of woe; I'm going back to Georgia, to see my Uncle Joe. You may talk about your Beauregard, and sing of Bobby Lee, But the Gallant Hood of Texas raised Hell in Tennessee. A month after the battle of Nashville, John Bell Hood submitted his resignation, and Jefferson Davis accepted it. As for George H. Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga was also henceforth known as the Hammer of Nashville. ". . . make Georgia howl . . ." What, while all this was going on in Tennessee, of William Tecumseh Sherman? While Thomas was ably performing his half of the task, and finally defeating Confederate forces in the field, what was the rest of Sherman's army doing? It was, in fact, validating his idea of waging destructive war, cutting a swath across the Confederacy that illustrated the hollowness of its claims to viability. "Sherman's March" became one of the standard pieces of the Civil War, one of the few things heard of even by those who know almost nothing about the war as a whole. When Grant had explained his concept of the war to President Lincoln, the latter had replied, in his homely way, "As I understand this, you propose to hold him by the leg while Sherman skins him." Though they did not yet know it, by late 1864 the Union commanders were embarking on the final stages of that process. The Army of the Potomac still held Robert E. Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia, Petersburg — and ultimately Richmond—in a vise-like hold that was substantially underappreciated but absolutely vital to the prosecution of Federal strategy. Lee could no longer move, and his ability to do so had been the factor discomfiting the Federal war effort for two years. With that factor removed from the equation, Union armies were now free to range through the Confederacy, and this was what they were doing, most spectacularly, at this particular juncture, in Georgia. By the middle of November, Sherman had collected an army of 62,000 men, 55,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 2,000 artillery with 64 guns. He organized the army into two wings, a right wing, composed of the Army of the Tennessee under Oliver O. Howard, and a left wing, which he himself usually accompanied, the Army of Georgia, under Henry Slocum. His cavalry was formed into a division under Judson Kilpatrick, the Lothario of the Union army, whom Sherman characterized as "a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man." Assured by Thomas that Hood was no real threat, Sherman had gathered twenty days' rations for his men and animals, and on the 15th he burned Atlanta, according to the Confederates and their subsequent partisans, or anything there of military value, according to Federal accounts. To protests of the mayor he had replied, "You might as well appeal against the thunderbolt as against these terrible hardships of war." He had, or the war in his mind had, taken on the magnitude of a force of nature. What was now happening was as if one of those destructive tornadoes were sweeping across Georgia. Sixty thousand strong, Sherman's army set out to make Georgia howl. There was not much to stop them. Joe Wheeler had some cavalry, and there was some militia, and a few Georgia state troops, and some scattered regiments of regulars here and there, but they were never more than about 15,000 men, and nothing near that in any one place. The Confederacy sent down a bevy of out-of-work generals, of which they had a surplus, but could not find many troops. If words could have stopped the Federals, they would never have set foot past Atlanta. In an age of high-blown oratory and prose, Southern editors wrote and Southern ministers preached about Union desperadoes with their boots on the throats of Southern womanhood, and screamed, "Men of the South, Arise!" But the men who might once have answered that call were bleaching their bones in the thickets of Chickamauga, or filling shallow graves in northern Virginia, and they would never rise on this earth again. The Union army marched across a country whose white inhabitants consisted of only women, old men, and children. The soldiers could be careless of their enemy, and ultimately almost contemptuous, but Sherman's strategy was careful. He advanced with his two wings, four corps, strung out, and cavalry on either flank, on a front from twenty to fifty miles wide, and he maneuvered so the Confederates could never be sure where he was going. It looked by times as if he might be heading for Macon to the south, or Augusta to the east, or Savannah to the southeast. And even if all the Confederate forces in the state had finally figured out what he was up to, and concentrated, they would still have been only the size of one of his four corps. There were a few little fights, mostly of cavalry out on the flanks or well in advance of the main body, but essentially the army rolled on unimpeded, practically on holiday. March discipline was loose, and got looser as they went. Sherman's original orders were that the troops should destroy any property of military use, and "forage liberally on the country." Each day each unit sent out a party of foragers to find food and destroy materiel, and the troops put an increasingly liberal interpretation on what was of military value. They tore up railroads wherever they found them, stacked the ties, set them afire, and laid the rails across the bonfire. When the iron softened, they grabbed the ends of the rails, and bent them into giant hairpins. They burned bridges and broke culverts. They burned public buildings and military stores, they carried off draft animals. They burned barns, and they burned crops; after all, in total war everything is of military value. Gradually, of course, as armies do, just like every other society, they spewed out a hard core of stragglers, "bummers," who liked burning and scaring, and they ravaged the land, robbing houses, insulting civilians, enjoying destruction for its own sake. Sherman and his officers rode with a loose rein, and Kilpatrick seems actually to have encouraged wanton wrecking. It all depended upon one's perspective, of course. To the Union soldiers, the war had been forced upon them by these people, and it served them right to find out what war was all about. Women who complained were told, "Call your men home and stop the war, if you don't like it." To the Georgian women and civilians, it was the worst kind of cowardly, backhanded way to win, making war on those helpless to resist. Yet to the slaves of Georgia, it was Liberation, the Jubilee, Kingdom Come, and black men whom Georgians thought were trusting, loving dependents, surprised their owners by showing the Yankee raiders where the stores were hidden. Many a little black child in later years would remember that Freedom was "blue shirts and brass buttons." In less than four weeks, Sherman's army marched 250 miles, and cut a path up to sixty miles wide across the heart of Georgia. They did an estimated hundred million dollars' worth of damage, and they wrecked the state's capacity to carry on the war. They had less than 2,200 casualties, and when they arrived outside Savannah on December 10, the Confederacy was cut in half yet again. At Savannah, General William Hardee of the Confederate army actually had some troops, 10,000 of them, and as the city was one of the few the South still had, he intended to fight for it, at least as long as he could do so. It was well fortified, and might stand a siege. Sherman summoned it to surrender and was refused. He then opened communications with the naval squadron blockading the port—"Have you taken Savannah yet?" "No, but we will in a minute"—got supplies that had been sent to it in expectation of his arrival, and set to work. Within a week he had taken one of the outer forts, and was moving to cut off Confederate retreat out of the city to the north. Hardee, seeing himself about to be trapped, and realizing his men were more important than his position, threw together a rickety pontoon bridge across the Savannah River, and on the night of December 20 he pulled out, escaping into South Carolina. The Union troops marched in the next day, and Sherman triumphantly reported to President Lincoln: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah with 150 guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton." South Carolina was next on his list. Thus ended 1864.

 

 

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