Defeatism infected many Southern people during the winter of 1863-1864. "I have never actually despaired of the cause," wrote a Confederate War Department official m November, but "steadfastness is yielding to a sense of hopelessness." Inflation galloped out of control. A Richmond diarist recorded this incident in October 1863: A merchant told a poor woman that the price of a barrel of flour was $70. "My God!" exclaimed she, "how can I pay such prices? I have seven children; whar shall I do?" "I don't know, madam," said he, coolly, "unless you eat your children."
The Davis administration, like the Lincoln administration a year earlier, had to face congressional elections during a time of public discontent, for the Confederate Constitution mandated such elections in odd-numbered years. Political parties had ceased to exist in the Confederacy after Democrats and former Whigs had tacitly declared a truce in 1861 to form a united front for the war effort. Many congressmen had been elected without opposition in 1861. By 1863, however, significant hositility to Davis had emerged. Though it was not channeled through an organized party, it took on partisan trappings. An inchoate anti-Davis faction appeared in Congress and in the election campaign of 1863.
Ominously, some anti-admmistration candidates ran on a quasi-peace platform (analogous to that of the Copperheads in the North) calling for an armistice and peace negotiations to end the killing. Left unresolved were the terms of such negotiations - reunion or independence. But any peace overture from a position of weakness was tantamount to conceding defeat. The peace movement was particularly strong in North Carolina, where for a time it appeared that the next governor would be elected on a peace platform (in the end, the peace candidate was defeated). Still, anti-administration candidates made significant gains in the 1863 Confederate elections, though they fell about 15 seats short of a majority in the House and two seats short in the Senate.
Shortages, inflation, political discontent, military defeat, high casualties, and the loss of thousands of slaves (some of them now m arms against the Confederacy) bent but did not break the Southern spirit. A religious revival in Confederate armies helped to sustain morale. As the spring of 1864 approached, a renewed determination infused both home front and battle front. No longer would Confederate armies be powerful enough to invade the North or try to win the war with a knockout blow, as they had tried to do m 1862 and 1863. But they were still strong enough to fight a war of attrition, as the patriots had done in the war of 1775-1783 against Britain. If they could hold out long enough, and
General Ulysses Simpson Grant, appointed by President Lincoln as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States on March 10, 1864
inflict sufficient casualties on Union armies, they might weaken the Northern will to continue fighting. In particular, if they could hold out until the Union presidential election in November, Northern voters might reject Lincoln and elect a Peace Democrat. "If we can break up the enemy's arrangements early and throw him back," wrote General James Longstreet, "he will not be able to recover his position or his morale until the Presidential election is over, and then we shall have a new President to deal with."
Northerners were vulnerable to this strategy of psychological attrition. Military success had created a mood of confidence in the North. The mood was fed by Grant's appointment as General-in-Chief. When Grant decided to remain in Virginia with the Army of the Potomac, leaving Sherman m command of the Union forces in Georgia, Northerners expected these two heavyweights to floor the Confederacy with a one-two punch. Lincoln was alarmed by this euphoria. "The people are too sanguine," he told a reporter. "They expect too much at once." Disappointment might trigger despair.
It almost happened that way. Grant started the military campaign of 1864 with a strategic plan, elegant in its simplicity. While smaller Union armies in peripheral theaters were to carry out auxiliary campaigns, the two principal armies in Virginia and Georgia would attack the main Confederate forces under Lee and Johnston. Convinced that in previous years the Union armies in various theaters had "acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together," Grant ordered simultaneous offensives on all fronts to prevent Confederates from shifting reinforcements from one theater to another.
Grant's offensives began the first week of May. The heaviest fighting occurred in Virginia. When the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, Lee decided to attack it in the flank while it was still in the Wilderness, a thick scrub forest where Lee had defeated Hooker a year earlier in the battle of Chanceliorsville. Lee's action precipitated two days (May 5-6) of the most confused and frenzied fighting the war had yet seen. Having apparently halted Grant's offensive, Confederates claimed a victory.
But Grant did not admit defeat. Instead, he moved to his left toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, a key crossroads hamlet ten miles closer to Richmond. Lee pulled back to cover the road junction and entrenched. Repeated Union assaults during the next twelve days achieved only minor Federal gams at a high cost in casualties. The Confederates fought from an elaborate network of trenches and log breastworks they had constructed virtually overnight. Civil War soldiers had learned the advantages of entrenchment, which gave the defense an enormous advantage and made frontal assaults almost suicidal. By the time the war was over, Virginia - and northern Georgia - would look as if giant moles had burrowed their way across the countryside.
Having achieved no better than stalemate around Spotsylvania, Grant again moved south around Lee's right flank in an effort to force the outnumbered Confederates into an open fight. But Lee anticipated Grant's moves, confronting him from behind formidable defenses at the North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek, and near the crossroads inn of Cold Harbor only ten miles northeast of Richmond. Presuming the Confederates to be exhausted and demoralized by their repeated retreats, Grant decided to attack at Cold Harbor on June 3 - a costly mistake, as it turned out.
On June 12, for the fifth time Grant shifted to the left in an attempt to circumvent Lee's flank. This time he moved all the way across the James River to strike at Petersburg, an industrial city 20 miles south of Richmond where several rail lines came together. If Petersburg fell, the Confederates could not hold Richmond. But once more Lee's troops raced southward on the mside track and blocked Grant's advance. Four days of Union assaults (June 15-18) against the Petersburg trenches produced no breakthrough.
During six weeks of marching and fighting, Union losses had been so high - some 65,000 killed, wounded, and captured compared with 37,000 Confederate casualties - that the Army of the Potomac had lost its fighting power. This was a new kind of war, unprecedented in its relentless intensity and duration. In previous years these two armies had fought each other in several big battles, each followed by the retreat of one or the other behind the nearest river. Both armies would then rest and recuperate for a month or more before resuming the fight (the sole exception was the two and a half week interval between Second Manassas and Antietam). In 1864, the armies were never out of contact with each other. Some form of fighting, plus a great deal of marching and digging, took place virtually every day and a great many nights as well. Mental and physical exhaustion began to take a toll; officers and men suffered from what in later wars would be called shell shock or combat fatigue. One Union officer noted that in three weeks men "had grown thin and haggard. The experience of those twenty days seemed to have added twenty years to their age." Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., observed that "many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind and body." Grant reluctantly settled down for a siege along the Petersburg-Richmond front that would last nine gruelling months, punctuated by frequent battles and skirmishes that would force Lee to lengthen his supply lines until they grew so thin that they would break.
Meanwhile, other Union operations in Virginia had achieved little success. General Benjamin Butler bungled an attack up the James River against Richmond and was stopped by a scraped-together army under General P.G.T. Beauregard. A Union thrust up the Shenandoah Valley was blocked at Lynchburg by Jubal Early, commanding Stonewall Jackson's old corps which Lee had detached from the Cold Harbor trenches. Early then led a raid on July 11-12 down the Valley, across the Potomac, and all the way to the outskirts of Washington, before being driven back to Virginia. Union cavalry raids, commanded by General Philip Sheridan, inflicted considerable damage on Confederate resources in Virginia - including the mortal wounding of Jeb Stuart in the battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11 - but they did not strike a crippling blow. In the North, frustration rose over the failure to win the quick, decisive victory the public had expected when the campaign began.
In Georgia, Sherman seemed to accomplish more at less cost than Grant did in Virginia. But there too, Union efforts bogged down m apparent stalemate by August. The strategy of both Sherman and Johnston in Georgia contrasted with that of Grant and Lee in Virginia. Grant repeatedly forced Lee back by flanking moves to the Union left, but only after bloody battles. Sherman forced Johnston south toward Atlanta by constantly flanking him to the Union right, generally without major battles. By the end of June, Sherman had advanced 80 miles at the cost of 17,000 casualties to Johnston's 14,000 - one-third the combined losses of Grant and Lee in Virginia.
The Davis administration grew alarmed by Johnston's apparent willingness to yield territory without much of a
General William Tecumseb Sherman directing the bombardment of Atlanta, from a painting by Thure de Thulstrup
General William Tecumseb Sherman directing the bombardment of Atlanta, from a painting by Thure de Thulstrup
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Johnston's much of a mta, from a fight. Sherman again flanked the Confederate defenses (after a failed attack) at Kennesaw Mountain in the first week of July. Crossing the Chattahoochee River, he drove Johnston back to Peachtree Creek less than five miles from Atlanta, a major rail and manufacturing center. Fearing that Johnston would abandon the city, Davis on July 17 replaced him with John Bell Hood.
A fighting general from Lee's army who had come south with Longstreet for the battle of Chickamauga (where he lost a leg), Hood immediately prepared to counterattack against the Yankees closing in on Atlanta. He did so three times, bringing on the battles of Peachtree Creek (July 20), Atlanta (July 22), and Ezra Church (July 28). Each time the Confederates reeled back m defeat, suffering a total of 15,000 casualties to Sherman's 6,000. At last, Hood retreated into the formidable earthworks ringing Atlanta, and launched no more attacks. But his army did manage to keep Sherman from taking the two railroads leading into Atlanta fronfthe south. Like Grant at Petersburg, Sherman seemed to settle down for a siege.
By August, the Confederate strategy of attrition - to hold out until the Union presidential election and to exhaust the Northern will to continue fighting - seemed to be working. "Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed at the opening of Grant's campaign?" asked Democratic newspapers. "STOP THE WAR! ... All are tired of this damnable tragedy. If nothing else would impress upon people the absolute necessity of stopping this war, its utter failure to accomplish any results would be sufficient."
Public pressure in both the North and South compelled Lincoln and Davis to explore the possibility of peace negotiations - or at least to appear to do so. Each president knew that his conditions for peace were unacceptable to the other: union and emancipation (Lincoln); Confederate independence with slavery (Davis). But in a flurry of peace moves during the summer, Democratic propagandists managed to convince many Northern voters that eventual reunion through negotiations would be possible if Lincoln would drop his insistence on emancipation. "Tens of thousands of white men must yet bite the dust to allay the negro mania of the President," ran a typical Democratic editorial. By August, even staunch Republicans, like party chairman Henry Raymond and his associate, Thurlow Weed, were convinced that "the desire for peace" and the impression that Lincoln "is fighting not for the Union but for the abolition of slavery" made his reelection "an impossibility." Lincoln thought so too. "I am going to be beaten," he told a friend in August, "and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten."
Lincoln nevertheless resisted pressures to drop emancipation as a condition of peace so the onus could be shifted to
Jefferson Davis's insistence on independence. Some 130,000 black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union, noted Lincoln in August 1864. They would not do so if they thought the North intended to betray them. If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive...the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept. ... There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the[se] black warriors. .. I should be damned in time and eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what will.
At the end of August the Democrats nominated none other than George B. McClellan for president on a platform which declared that "after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war., [we] demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hositilities." Southerners were jubilant. Democratic victory on that platform, said the Charleston Mercury, "must lead to peace and our independence" if "for the next two months we hold our own and prevent military success by our foes."
But three days after McClellan's nomination came news of Sherman's capture of Atlanta. It produced the biggest reversal of momentum in the war "VICTORY!" blazoned Republican headlines. "IS THE WAR A FAILURE? OLD ABE'S REPLY TO THE [DEMOCRATIC] CONVENTION." Confederates were stunned. The "disaster at Atlanta," lamented the Richmond Examiner, came "in the very nick of time" to "save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin. It will obscure the prospect of peace, late so bright. It will also diffuse gloom over the South."
If Atlanta was not enough to transform the prospects for Lincoln's reelection, events in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley were. During the month from September 19 to October 19, Philip Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah won three spectacular victories over Jubal Early's small Confederate army there. Northern opinion catapulted from the depths of despair in August to the heights of renewed confidence m November. Lincoln won reelection by a margin of 212 to 21 in the electoral college. Soldiers played a notable role in the balloting. Every Northern state except three, whose legislatures were controlled by Democrats, had passed laws allowing absentee voting by soldiers at the front. Despite the lingering affection of some soldiers for their old commander McClellan, 78% of the army vote went to Lincoln - compared with 54% of the civilian vote. The men who were doing the fighting sent a clear message that they meant to finish the job.
Many Southerners got the message. But not Jefferson Davis. The Confederacy remained "as erect and defiant as ever," he told his Congress in November 1864. "Nothing has
changed in the purpose of its Government, in the indomitable valor of its troops, or in the unquenchable spirit of its people." It was this last-ditch defiance that William T. Sherman set out to break in his famous march from Atlanta to the sea.
Sherman had long pondered the nature of the war. He had concluded that "we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people." Defeat of Confederate armies was not enough to win the war; the railroads, factories, and farms that supported those armies must be destroyed. The will of the civilian population that sustained the war must be crushed. Sherman was ahead of his time in his understanding of psychological warfare. "We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South," he said, "but we can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it."
Sherman urged Grant to let him cut loose from his base in Atlanta and march through the heart of Georgia, living off the land and destroying all the resources not needed by his army. Grant and Lincoln were reluctant to authorize such a risky move, especially with Hood's army of 40,000 men still intact and hovering in northern Alabama, ready to move into Tennessee if Sherman marched off in the opposite direction. But Sherman promised to send George Thomas - who would be more than a match for Hood - to take command of a force of 60,000 men in Tennessee. With another 60,000, Sherman could "move through Georgia, smashing things to the sea. ... I can make the march, and make Georgia howl!"
Lincoln and Grant finally consented. On November 16, Sherman's avengers marched out of Atlanta after burning a third of the city, including some non-military property. Sherman and his men cared little; in their view the rebels had sown the wind and deserved to reap the whirlwind. Southward they marched, 280 miles to Savannah, wrecking everything in their path that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered of military value. As they marched South, Hood marched north in a quixotic invasion of Tennessee that culminated in the crippling of his army at Franklin on November 30, and its destruction by Thomas's Union forces at Nashville on December 15-16.
The fourth Christmas season of the war was bleaker in the South than the first two had been in the North. "The deep waters are closing over us," wrote the Southern diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut on December 19. "We are going to be wiped off the earth."
The battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, fought on ]une 27, 1S64, from a lithograph by Kurz and Allison
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