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9-08-2015, 00:03

The Collapse of the Confederacy

WHEN ULYSSES S. GRANT issued marching orders to the Army of the Potomac for March 29, 1865, and the armies lurched into motion, every man involved realized that this campaign would end the war. For the Federal army, it was a classic maneuver, carried out with a good degree of precision, and indeed, the events that led to Appomattox constitute one of the great examples of maneuver and pursuit. Fortunately for the Federals, and sadly for their foes, it was a maneuver carried out against second- or even third-class opposition, for the army commanded by Robert E. Lee was a pale, hollow ghost of what it had been in its glory days. But that, after all, was the nature of war; it was not a sporting contest, both sides equally matched and playing a good game to a satisfactory conclusion; it was a grim, deadly contest in which hundreds of thousands had already suffered, and no man who had watched his friends die in the Wilderness could now lament the sad state of the Confederacy. The sooner it was over, the better, for winner and loser alike. Such was certainly Grant's belief on the matter, and he was determined to press every advantage. In Philip Sheridan, just returned from the Shenandoah, he possessed a like-minded subordinate, and as Grant moved, he gave the little fighter command of what was basically his maneuver arm. As the campaign developed, this shunted George Meade off to the sidelines, and there was a degree of dissatisfaction among the commanders and their staffs over this. Meade, however, remained both a gentleman and a loyal subordinate, and what might have made for real difficulties in the chain of command was glossed over by the pace of events, the general good sense of the participants, and above all the knowledge that at last they were winning. There was one unfortunate casualty of this arrangement, but the important thing was getting the war over and done with. Grant now outnumbered his opponent by about two and a half to one, about 125,000 to 57,000. His command organization was complicated and his troops spread in a long arc from north of the James River all the way around to the southwest of Petersburg. Three corps, XXV under Weitzel, IX under Parke, and VI under Wright, were on the northern and eastern end of this line; then came the Army of the James, now commanded by Edward O. C. Ord, successor to Ben Butler, basically another corps-sized formation, and then extending southwestward were II Corps under Humphreys and V Corps under Warren. Officially, Sheridan commanded only the Cavalry Corps, but Grant soon enlarged his responsibility. As the Federal army moved out into the open, Sheridan took tactical control of the infantry moving along with his troopers. He would have preferred Wright to Warren as an associated infantry commander—both Grant and Sheridan seemed to find Warren a bit too punctilious for their taste—but Warren was there, and it did not seem worthwhile trying to shuffle the corps about for a personality preference. So, on the 27th and 28th of March Ord put his Army of the James into the line west of the Weldon Railroad, and that freed Humphreys and Warren for a strike. On the 29th the two corps moved out to the south and west, feeling their way along, Humphreys's men making a little loop across Hatcher's Run, Warren's people doing a larger leapfrog out past the Boydton Plank Road toward a little dirt track, the White Oak Road. While the foot soldiers marched carefully along through the wet and rainy weather, the cavalry swung wider yet, covering their flank to the south, where there was no anticipated danger anyway, and heading out even farther. For two days they all moved cautiously, and little happened. On the afternoon of the 31st, a couple of A. P. Hill's brigades put in a small counterattack against Warren's advance, but both sides stopped for the night without much accomplished. Sheridan's troopers, meanwhile, had swung up and moved toward Five Forks, where they bumped into Confederate infantry of Pickett's division. The horsemen were armed with Spencer repeating carbines, which could outfire an infantry rifle by about three or four rounds to one, but even so, infantry were generally much harder to displace than cavalry—hence the contempt with which the former had treated the latter for most of the war—and Sheridan's men made little progress. They bivouacked that night four miles south of Warren's lead troops, around Dinwiddie Court House. The next morning they saddled up and started northwest again, toward Five Forks. Sheridan ordered Warren to come to his support; Warren, already in contact with the enemy, a fact ofwhich Sheridan was ignorant, began to disengage and obey his orders, though it did not seem to him the right thing to do. On the other side, Lee was trying to organize his army to get it away from Petersburg and Richmond. After the failure of his attempt on Fort Stedman, he knew there was little chance of, and indeed little good to be gained by, retaining his position. His only hope now was to get out, take his army south into North Carolina, and link up with Joe Johnston; this would mean giving up the Confederate capital, but there was no help for it; indeed, he would have to be both skillful and lucky to manage as much as he now intended. The crucial line for him was the Southside Railroad; it ran more or less west to Lynchburg, and about halfway there it crossed the Danville Railroad, at Burke's Station, running southwest from Richmond to Danville. Lee needed these, especially the Southside, to get the government, his trains, and ultimately his army out of the trap that was now developing. And to keep these lines open, he had to hold Grant at arm's length off the rail line. So by April 1, the vital question was, Could he do it? That was in the minds of all the commanders as Sheridan's troopers moved once again toward Five Forks. The blue horsemen had three full cavalry divisions, plus a couple of independent brigades that joined in, 13,000 troopers in all, and Warren got his three infantry divisions into contact with them by dint of hard marching, stumbling about on the unfamiliar roads, and a great deal of cursing by noncoms and company officers. George Pickett, with two infantry divisions and the small cavalry corps of Fitzhugh Lee, all told about 19,000 men, wisely fell back on Five Forks and began taking up a defensive position, an L-shaped line in front of the junction with its left flank bent back. Pickett went off to get something to eat, and he and Fitzhugh Lee found a fellow general enjoying some baked shad. They settled down in anticipation of a good meal, the first in some time. As Sheridan developed the position, he came up with a simple plan: his cavalry would keep the Rebels pinned to their front, while Warren's infantry massed on their left flank and rolled them up. It almost worked, except that the Confederates were not just where the Federals thought they were, and the bad terrain made it very difficult for the infantry to get in position. When Warren's people did advance, they hit open country beyond Pickett's left. Of Warren's three divisions, only that on his left flank came into immediate contact, and while he was on his own right flank getting his men realigned, Sheridan galloped up, took over the left-flank division, and successfully drove the Confederates. Pickett, who had given up his meal and run a gauntlet of fire to get back to his troops, tried to shift units from one end of his line to the other, but the Federal pressure was too strong front, flank, and now rear, and the line finally caved in and collapsed. Those who could drew off, but the Confederates lost more than 5,000 men, a number of guns and standards, and, of course, their hold on the Southside Railroad. The whole was thus a major blow to Lee's slim remaining hopes. Sheridan celebrated his victory by unceremoniously, ungraciously, and quite unjustly relieving Warren of his command. As soon as the news of this success reached Grant, he realized the time was ripe for bigger things, and ordered a general assault on the Petersburg lines for the next day. As Grant was issuing his orders, Lee was pulling troops out of the works to send off to help Pickett rebuild. He also sent a message to Richmond, to inform President Davis that he could no longer hold his position, and that both Petersburg and the capital would have to be abandoned. It was April 2, Sunday morning, when this message reached the president. By that time, there was little of official Richmond left anyway; most of the government had left earlier, and Davis had sent his family off three days ago, giving his wife a small pistol and instructing her how to use it. He, and his cabinet, and his aides, were about all that was left. Davis was in St. Paul's Church when the sexton came down the aisle and gave him a message, just received from Lee. He read it impassively, then stood and quietly left the church. For the remainder of the service, cabinet members were summoned and left one by one, the saddest and undoubtedly the most dramatic service ever held in Richmond. Soon the churches were empty all over town, as men and women wandered anxiously and aimlessly back and forth, asking each other for news. Clerks in the War Department were burning papers, and the smell of disaster was in the air. At first light on that day the Federal troops, 60,000 strong, came surging up out of their trenches and began a general assault on the Petersburg lines. There were less than 20,000 Confederates left to try to stop them, and though the defenses were still formidable, the men left to man them were just too few to hold. Right in front of the city, Parke's IX Corps troops were stopped for a while, but to their west, Wright's people broke the long trench line, turned left, and began rolling the Confederates up. Then Ord's and Humphreys's troops took it up, and with the western end of the line thoroughly smashed, the Union troops about-faced and began moving back toward the city. By mid-afternoon the Confederates were completely done; by then so were the Union men, exhausted from hours of marching, righting, and storming. The time it took to carry two last bravely defended forts brought the day to an end, and the battle burned down. The Federals had lost nearly 4,000 men, and no one bothered to count the number of Confederates killed, wounded, or, in greater numbers, taken prisoner. Sadly, the dead included A. P. Hill, come back sick for his last fight, and shot through the heart. Lee wept when the news was brought to him. In the darkness, the wounded Confederate army took up its march to the westward. With Petersburg virtually in his grasp, Grant ordered a further attack upon it, and on Richmond as well, for the next morning. These proved unnecessary. Davis and the last of his government left the capital on the afternoon of the 2nd. That night in Richmond was one of horror, as the city mobs broke into warehouses, arsenals, and liquor stores, got drunk, set fires, and looted what little was left to steal. By the next morning, the good citizens were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their captors, almost their rescuers now, and Federal troops, including some proud black regiments, marched into the city, raised the flag of the United States, and began patrolling the streets to restore order. All this was now virtually a sideshow, unimportant except that this was the Confederate capital, for Grant was after the real prize now, Robert E. Lee's army, and with it Confederate ability to continue the war. Five Forks had drastically lengthened the odds against Lee getting away, for the Federal victory there levered him off the Southside Railroad as a line of retreat. He must now take his troops due west to Amelia Court House, Farmville, and ultimately Lynchburg. By the fifth, he had most of his army at Amelia Court House, thirty miles west of Petersburg. Davis and his government-in-flight had managed to reach Danville, to the south, but the line was cut behind them, when Union troops reached Burke's Station at the same time that Lee got to Amelia Court House. The hunt was up now. On the morning of the 6th, Lee's weary men shouldered their rifles and headed west, the long tired columns strung across the rolling hills, men hungry, animals breaking down, wagons gradually being abandoned, a tatterdemalion wreck of a great army. To the south and around the rear hung Union cavalry, snapping at their heels, picking up stragglers. And behind them came the Federal infantry, those long-suffering faithful regiments of the old Army of the Potomac, lengthening their stride now, hastily grabbing rations in the morning, a quick cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits, and On to the day! Gonna catch Bobby Lee at last! What Grant and Sheridan and Meade and all wanted was to get across the Confederate line of retreat, and to cut them off from the south and west. By mid-day of the 6th, the Confederates were strung out around Sayler's Creek, just east of Farmville, their long wagon train holding up the rear guard of Anderson's III Corps and Dick Ewell's grab bag of about 3,000 troops from the Richmond garrison. The two Confederate commanders halted their men and took up a position, giving the trains time to close up to the advance. But then they got cut off, Federal cavalry hitting their southern flank and infantry closing up from the east on their position. Nothing daunted, the Confederates launched counterattacks—first by garrison troops, later by the last men of the Confederate naval battalion—that temporarily halted the bluecoats. But the pressure kept on mounting, with George Custer's cavalry and their repeating carbines banging away and heavy infantry massing against them, and finally the Confederates broke. Surrounded and harassed from all sides, Ewell ended up surrendering nearly a third of Lee's army. They were getting close to the end now. An exultant Sheridan wired, "If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender," and Lincoln himself wired back, "Let the thing be pressed!" On the other side, one of Lee's aides asked where they should stop for the night, and Lee ruefully remarked, Somewhere over the North Carolina line. They reached Farmville on the 7th, and actually got some rations. Lee then crossed to the north side of the Appomattox River, burning most of the bridges behind him. Humphreys's troops got across at High Bridge, however, and he and Wright kept up the pressure, forcing Lee to deploy to hold them off. Meanwhile, Sheridan, with Ord and Griffin, Warren's successor, in tow, marched more directly west and got across the Confederate line of retreat near Appomattox Station, where they captured some trains. Lee came up against this on the late afternoon of the 8th, and ordered Gordon's division of infantry and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry to clear a way through the next morning, the 9th. Grant had already written to Lee, and over the last two days they had had a carefully courteous exchange of notes. On the 7th Grant had asked Lee to surrender, and Lee had written back asking what terms might be offered. The next day Grant had replied that his only condition would be that officers and men upon surrendering should agree not to fight again until properly exchanged, which both knew was a euphemism for "never." To this Lee had replied that he did not believe his situation as difficult as Grant seemed to think it was, and was therefore not yet prepared to give up. By then it was the morning of the 9th, and Gordon's troops were marching toward Appomattox Station. It was only when they took up the march that they found there were Federal troops in front of them, but there was no help for it; they had to have supplies. So one last time the shrunken regiments deployed, most of them so small now a whole regiment barely made a company front, and on they came with the morning sun catching the glorious old battle flags. They hit Sheridan's cavalry, and the carbines and rifles broke into a rattle. But then the cavalry gave way, wheeling right and left, and there ahead of them were masses of blue infantry, and there was only one meaning to that: it was all but over now. With Sheridan, and infantry, in front, and Meade pressing from behind, the Army of Northern Virginia was finished; it could either surrender or be killed where it stood. After some hesitation and discussion among the commanders, they raised a white flag—actually a towel—and reopened communications. It took a while to find Grant, who was in the process of moving forward to join Sheridan, but eventually notes were exchanged, and Grant went to meet Lee at the house of Wilbur McLean, the man who had moved from Bull Run, at Appomattox Court House. Lee, as always, was impeccably dressed, suffering terribly but armored in the self-possession that never deserted him. Grant, travelworn and just getting over a headache, was almost theatrically shabby. The two men shook hands and began reminiscing about their service in the Mexican War, in the old army. Finally, after a good deal of diffidence on both sides, they got down to business, and Grant wrote out his terms, a simple surrender and officers allowed to retain side arms, men to keep horses and baggage, and that was it. Lee thought the offer generous, and said so, and wrote out an acceptance, and then, with some embarrassment, asked for rations for his men. After some hesitant small talk, Lee left and Grant telegraphed the great news to Washington. The actual surrender of most of the troops did not come until the 12th, when Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, was detailed to receive the arms and colors of the various units of the Army of Northern Virginia. One by one the shrunken formations marched past the solid ranks of Federal infantry to lay down their arms. Chamberlain had already decided on his own how to handle this, and as each unit came in, he ordered the Carry Arms, the marching salute. The downhearted Southerners, most with tears in their eyes, responded gratefully to a gesture of honor from men who had endured and suffered as much as they had themselves. Many a regimental color was surrendered as merely a bare pole, as the men had cut the flags up into little pieces to be taken home and cherished for years, until they had rotted away and, like the army that carried them, become but a memory. All day the surrender went on, regiments, divisions, men who had fought through Gettysburg, and Fredericksburg, and Antietam, men who had stood together in the hour of danger and would now stand no more. When it was all over, the blue soldiers and the gray sat down and shared rations while the bands played "Auld Lang Syne." Appomattox Court House and the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army was the most dramatic of the several surrenders at the close of the war, but it was not the last; in fact, it was the first. There were still operations in progress all across the South, and these gradually came to an end, either as they reached a logical military conclusion, or as the news of the Confederacy's collapse reached the respective commanders. Unfortunately, some of these surrenders were more confused, and more colored by the evolving political scene, than Lee's surrender. While Grant had been so successfully pursuing his Petersburg operations, Sherman had returned to his own army in the Carolinas. Arriving, he divided it into essentially three armies, and made ready to resume his march northward; he had agreed with Grant that he would begin his advance on April 10. His enemy, Joe Johnston, was to the northwest, near Raleigh, his entire army less than the 26,000 or 28,000 in any one of Sherman's three. Before the march began, news came in of the fall of Richmond, and then, soon after the troops moved out, of Davis's flight and Lee's surrender. Davis, from Danville, had issued a proclamation calling upon the Confederacy to open a new phase of the war, essentially guerrilla warfare, but there was little taste for that among the men who had already fought so long and so well, and Lee's surrender put any thought of it out of most minds. On the 13th, as Federal troops entered Raleigh, Johnston wrote to Sherman asking for terms, and after the usual exchange, they agreed to meet between Raleigh and Durham's Station on the morning of the 17th. Sherman arrived late; as he was about to board the railroad train for the meeting, a coded message came in over the telegraph. He waited for it to be deciphered, and found that President Lincoln had been assassinated on the 14th, and an attempt had been made on Secretary of State Seward, and on other members of the government as well. This had happened on the night of the l4th-15th; the president, who had returned from a triumphal visit to Richmond, and who was contemplating the happy and successful conclusion of the war, was shot in Ford's Theater by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and ardent Confederate sympathizer. Thinking he was performing an act of patriotic vengeance, Booth probably did the Confederacy the worst service he could conceivably have done; his act threw the government of the United States into the hands of a weak president and a vindictive, Radical Republican Congress. The repercussions on Sherman were immediate, as an example of what would soon happen. He and Johnston met and soon agreed on wide-ranging terms, some of which transcended the immediate military situation; Sherman, having recently talked with President Lincoln and General Grant, believed he knew what was wanted, and the kind of terms, in a general sense, he thought himself authorized to offer. His position, after all, was substantially different from that of Grant; he was virtually in the middle of the Confederacy, and if he did not make some provision for the continuation of civil authority, the entire area around him might dissolve into some sort of anarchy. However, when he sent his dispatch north to Washington, his agreement was quickly denounced, and Secretary Stanton, riding high in the confused post-assassination capital, publicly chastised Sherman for exceeding his authority. The rebuke was open and stinging, and Sherman never forgave it. Eventually he and Johnston reached an amicable settlement, on April 26, but here was evidence that the Federal victors might well have more difficulty with their political masters than their former enemies. Other surrenders were slow, depending upon the communications of the country. Substantial cavalry operations were being conducted in Alabama, and it was the first week of May before a surrender was arranged there. On the 10th, President Davis and his few immediate supporters were captured at Irwinville, Georgia. Their makeshift camp was surprised by Federal cavalry, and there was a good deal of confusion; Davis sought to escape in the rush, and unfortunately, as he fled toward the swamp, grabbed the first piece of warm clothing to hand, which turned out to be a woman's shawl. This subsequently gave rise to the canard that he had been captured disguised as a woman. He would spend the next several months in close and unhealthy confinement while the government tried to decide what to do with him. It was all falling apart now. The worst of the Confederate irregulars, William C. Quantrill, was shot in Kentucky on the same day Davis was captured, the top and bottom of the rebellion going down simultaneously. Across the Mississippi, there was some talk of keeping on with the fight; these people were, after all, Texans and the men who still remembered Bleeding Kansas. It was late June before the last surrender west of the great river occurred. Some Confederates, unrepentant, crossed over into Mexico and vowed to continue the fight. Finally, it was in August that the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah, after destroying the American whaling fleet in the Bering Sea, heard of the end of the war. Thus it was done at last. The Union armies held their great review, marching through Washington, boots and brass polished, bayonets twinkling in the sun, bands playing and colors flying, the thin ranks of the old regiments bringing tears amid the cheers of the viewers. Then they held their last musters, ate ceremonial dinners, exchanged gifts and addresses, and struck their tents, heading for home and dear faces grown unfamiliar through terrible years of war. The Confederates straggled back by twos and threes, no parades and reviews for them, to try to find hungry wives and children, and to rebuild shattered lives. The dream, the nightmare, was over.

 

 

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