The Turning of the Tide

Morale in the Union armies and on the home front reached a new low in the early months of 1863 Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a future Supreme Court Justice who was recovering from the second of three wounds he would receive in the war, wrote that "the army is tired with its hard and terrible experience. I've pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence." The staunchly patriotic editor of the Chicago Tribune vented his frustration and depression in a private letter on January 14: "An armistice is bound to come during the year '63. The rebs can't be conquered by the present machinery."

Military operations in the first three months of the year seemed only to confirm this pessimism. In mid-January, Burnside began a new campaign to cross the Rappahannock River above the Confederate defenses, and come in on their rear. The movement started promisingly, but then the heavens opened, releasing several inches of sleet and rain that trapped the army helplessly in the mud. In the aftermath of this notorious "Mud March," Tincoln removed Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with Joseph Hooker. A controversial general whose nickname was "Fighting Joe," Hooker at least seemed to promise an aggressive campaign once the warmer days of spring made operations possible.

A thousand miles to the west another aggressive general, Ulysses S. Grant, also seemed mired in the endless swamps and rivers that protected three sides of the Confederate "Gibraltar of the West" at Vicksburg. Only on the east, away from the river, was there high ground suitable for an assault on Vicksburg's defenses. Grant's problem was to move his army, supplies and transportation across the Mississippi to that high ground. For three months he floundered in the Mississippi-Yazoo bottomlands, while disease and exposure took a fearful toll of his troops. False rumors of excessive drinking, that had dogged Grant for years, broke out anew, but Lincoln resisted pressures to remove him from command. "What I want," Lincoln said, "is generals who will fight battles and win victories. Grant has done this, and I propose to stand by him." It was at this time that Lincoln reportedly said he would like to know Grant's brand of whiskey so that he could send some to his other generals.

Lincoln's own reputation reached a low point at this time. A visitor to Washington in February found that "the lack of respect for the President in all parties is unconcealed... If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would

Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan "Stoneivali" Jackson, mortally wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville not get the vote of a state." In this depressed climate, the anti-war wing of the Democratic party (called Peace Democrats by themselves and Copperheads by the Republicans) found a ready audience for their message that the war was a failure and should be abandoned. Having won control of the Illinois and Indiana legislatures the preceding fall, Democrats in those states called for an armistice and a peace conference. They also demanded retraction of the "wicked, inhuman, and unholy" Emancipation Proclamation, and threatened to withdraw Illinois and Indiana troops from the war. Republican governors of the two states blocked that action.

But in Ohio the foremost Peace Democrat, Clement L. Vallandigham, was planning to run for governor. What had this wicked war accomplished? he asked Northern audiences during the winter and spring of 1863. "Let the dead at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer." The Confederacy couid never be conquered; the only solution was to "stop the fighting. Make an armistice. Withdraw your army from the seceded states." Above all, give up the unconstitutional effort to abolish slavery. "I see more of barbarism and sin," said Vallandigham, "a thousand times more, in the continuance of this war and the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes than in the continuation of slavery."

Vallandigham and other Copperhead spokesmen had a dire effect on Northern morale. Alarmed by the wave of desertions, the army commander in Ohio had Vallandigham arrested in May 1863. A military court convicted him of treason for aiding and abetting the enemy by uttering disloyal sentiments. The court's action raised serious questions of civil liberties. Was the conviction a violation of Vallan-digham's First Amendment right of free speech? Could a military court try a civilian under martial law in a state like Ohio, where civil courts were functioning?

Lincoln was embarrassed by the swift arrest and trial of Vallandigham, which he learned about from the newspapers. To prevent Vallandigham from becoming a martyr, Lincoln commuted his sentence from imprisonment to banishment -to the Confederacy! He soon escaped from the South to Canada on a blockade runner, making his way to Windsor, Ontario, from where he ran his campaign for governor of Ohio.

Discouragement and defeatism in the North were a malaise of the spirit caused by military defeat. By contrast, Southerners were buoyed up by military success, but were suffering from hyperinflation and shortages. The tightening Union blockade, the weaknesses and imbalances of the Confederate economy, the escape of slaves to Union lines, and enemy occupation of some of the South's best agricultural areas, made it increasingly difficult for the Southern economy to produce both guns and butter. Despite the conversion of hundreds and thousands of acres from cotton to food crops, the deterioration of railroads and the priority given to army shipments made food scarce in some areas. A drought in the summer of 1862 had made matters worse. The price of salt -necessary to preserve meat in that pre-refrigeration age -shot out of sight. Even the middle class suffered, especially in Richmond, where the population had more than doubled since the start of the war. "The shadow of the gaunt form of famine is upon us," wrote a War Department clerk in March 1863. "I have lost twenty pounds, and my wife and children are emaciated." The rats in his kitchen were so hungry that they nibbled bread crumbs from his daughter's hand "as tame as kittens. Perhaps we shall have to eat them!"

Things were even worse for the poor, especially for the wives and children of non-slaveholding farmers and workers who had gone into the army. By the spring of 1863, food supplies were almost gone. Some women took matters into their own hands; denouncing "speculators" who allegedly hoarded goods to drive up prices, they would march in a body to stores, ask the price of bacon or cornmeal or salt, denounce such "extortion," take what they wanted, and march away. Bread riots broke out in several places. On

April 2, 1863, a mob of more than a thousand women and boys looted several shops in Richmond before the militia, under the personal command of Jefferson Davis, forced them to disperse. The government subsequently released some emergency food stocks to civilians, and state and country governments provided aid to families of soldiers. Better crops in 1863 helped to alleviate the worst shortages, but many problems persisted.

In both South and North, the draft intensified social unrest. The burst of patriotic enthusiasm that had caused a million men to don blue or gray uniforms in 1861 had cooled by the spring of 1862. The Confederacy enacted a conscription law in April 1862 that made all white men (with certain occupational exemptions) aged 18 to 35 liable to the draft. The law allowed a drafted man to hire a substitute, but the price of substitutes soon rose beyond the means of the average farmer or worker. This gave rise to a bitter cry that it was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

The cry grew louder in October 1862 when the Confederate Congress raised the draft age to 45, and added a clause

The "Mud marsh," a pencil sketch by Union artist Alfred R. Waud

The "Mud marsh," a pencil sketch by Union artist Alfred R. Waud

Paysage Printemps Dessiner

exempting from the draft one white man on every plantation with twenty or more slaves. The purpose of this "overseer exemption" was to maintain discipline over the slaves. It had been prompted by complaints from planters' wives that they had been left alone to manage the slaves after the departure of husbands, sons, and overseers for the army. But this so-called Twenty Negro Law seemed like blatant discrimination against non-slaveholding farm families whose men were also at the front. And raising the age limit to 45 meant that many fathers with large families of young children were eligible for the draft.

Similar discontent greeted the enactment of conscription in the North. In March 1863 the Union Congress decreed that all male citizens aged 20 to 45 must enroll for the draft. Not all of them would be called (married men over 35 were in effect exempted), but all would be liable. The purpose of this law was more to stimulate volunteering than to draft men directly into the army. In three of the President's four calls for trdops under the law, the War Department set a quota for each congressional district, and gave it 50 days to meet the quota with volunteers before resorting to a draft lottery to make up the deficiency. Some districts never had to hold a draft, but fulfil led their quotas by offering large bounties to volunteers - the reservoir of men who had enlisted from patriotic motives had been pretty well exhausted by 1863. The bounty system produced glaring abuses, including "bounty jumpers," who enlisted and then deserted as soon as they received their money - often to enlist elsewhere under another name.

Unlike the Confederate law, the Union draft law permitted the hiring of substitutes. To keep the price of substitutes from skyrocketing as it had in the Confederacy, the Northern law allowed a drafted man the alternative of paying a "commutation fee" of $300 that exempted him from the current draft call (but not necessarily the next one). That provision raised the cry of rich man's war/poor man's fight in the North as well. Indeed, the sense of grievance was more dangerous in the LTmon than in the Confederacy, because it was nurtured by the Democratic party and intensified by racism. Democrats opposed conscription just as they opposed emancipation. Their newspapers told white workers, especially the large Irish-American population, that the draft would force them to fight a war to free the slaves who would then come North to take their jobs. This volatile issue helped spark widespread violence when drafting began in the summer of 1863. The worst riot occurred in New York City, where huge mobs - consisting mainly of Irish-Americans -demolished draft offices, lynched several blacks, and destroyed huge areas of the city in four days of looting and burning (July 13-16).

Draft riots in the North and bread riots in the South exposed alarming class fissures that were widened by the strains of total war. Although inflation was much less serious in the North than in the South (about 80% over four years compared with 9,000%), wages in the North lagged behind price increases. Labor unions sprang up in several industries and went on strike for higher wages. In some areas, such as the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania, labor organizations - dominated by Irish-Americans - combined opposition to the draft and to emancipation with violent strikes against industries owned by Protestant Republicans. Troops sent into such areas to enforce the draft sometimes suppressed strikes as well. These crosscurrents of class, ethnic, and racial hostilities produced a dangerous mixture in several Northern communities.

But the perception that it was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight was greater than the reality in both North and South. The principal forms of taxation to sustain the war were property, excise, and income taxes, most of which bore down proportionately more heavily on the wealthy than on the poor. In the South, property of the rich - including plantations and slaves - suffered greater damage and confiscation than did the property of non-slaveholders. The war liberated four million slaves, the poorest class in America. Both the Union and Confederate armies contained men from all strata of society in proportion to their percentage of the population. The overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers were volunteers; among those who volunteered in 1861-1862 the planter class was over-represented in the Confederate army,

The battle of Gettysburg, section of a Cyclorama by Paul Philippoteaux

The battle of Gettysburg, section of a Cyclorama by Paul Philippoteaux

Paul Philippoteaux

and the Northern middle class in the Union army, for these groups believed they had more at stake in the war and joined up in larger numbers during the early months of enthusiasm. It was these volunteers - especially the officers, most of whom came from the middle and upper classes - who suffered the highest casualty rates.

Even conscription did not fall much more heavily on the poor than on the rich. Those who escaped the draft by decamping to the woods, the territories, or Canada, came mainly from the poor. The Confederacy abolished substitu tion m December 1863, and made men who had previously sent substitutes liable to the draft. In the North several city councils, political machines, and businesses contributed funds to pay the commutation fees of drafted men who could not pay out of their own pockets. In the end, it was neither a rich man's war nor a poor man's fight; it was an American war.

The battle of Gettysburg, painted by Thure de Thrulstrup

The battle of Gettysburg, painted by Thure de Thrulstrup

The Mine Gettysburg

General Hooker revived morale in the Army of the Potomac and instilled some of his own self-confidence into the troops. He increased unit pride by devising insignia badges for each corps. In the spring, Hooker resumed the offensive with hopes of redeeming the December disaster at Fredericksburg, and the January fiasco of the Mud March. On April 30, instead of charging straight across the Rappahannock River, Hooker crossed several miles upstream, and came in on Lee's rear. But instead of retreating, as Hooker expected him to do, Lee faced about most of his troops, and confronted the Federals in the dense woods known locally as the Wilderness - near the crossroads hostelry of Chancellors-ville - where Union superiority in numbers and artillery would count for less. Nonplussed by Lee's action, Hooker lost his nerve, lost the initiative, and lost the ensuing battle.

This outcome deepened the gloom in the north. "My God!" exclaimed Lincoln when he heard the news of Chan-cellorsville. "What will the country say?" Copperhead opposition^ the war intensified. Southern sympathizers in Britain renewed efforts for diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. Lee decided to exploit his tactical victory at Chan-cellorsville by again invading the North. He hoped that another victory, this time on Northern soil, would convince Northerners and foreigners alike that the Confederacy was invincible. Lee believed his own army invincible. "There never were such men in an army before," he wrote of his troops. "They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led." So he led them into Pennsylvania during those halcyon days of June 1863 - in retrospect a move that became known as the high tide of the Confederacy.

The Army of the Potomac was not as demoralized by its defeats as Lee believed. Nor was his own army invincible. After three days of desperate battle around the Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg, the crippled army of Northern Virginia limped back to its home state, shorn of a third of its strength by the approximately 25,000 casualties it had suffered. The news of Gettysburg electrified the North. Lincoln prodded General George G. Meade, who had replaced Hooker on the eve of the battle, to pursue the retreating Confederates with vigor, but the cautious Meade allowed Lee to escape across the Potomac. Lincoln was acutely depressed. He vented his frustration in a letter to Meade that, upon reflection, he never sent. "My dear general," wrote the President, "I do believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely."

Among the "other late successes" Lincoln had in mind was the capture of Vicksburg. In mid-April Grant had begun a move that would enclose Vicksburg in a vice. After the Union fleet ran downriver past the Confederate batteries, and the infantry slogged down the west bank - while Benjamin Grierson's Union cavalry brigade distracted Confederate defenders with a spectacular raid through the whole state of Mississippi - Grant crossed his army to the east bank 40 miles below Vicksburg on May 1. During the next three weeks the Federals marched 180 miles, won five battles, and penned up 32,000 Confederate troops and 3,000 civilians in Vicksburg between the Union army on land and the gunboats on the river. After a siege of almost seven weeks, the starving defenders surrendered to Grant on July 4. For the second time in his career (at Fort Donelson and now at Vicksburg), Grant captured an entire enemy army. Five days later, on receiving the news from Vicksburg, the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson 200 river miles south of Vicksburg also surrendered to a besieging Union army. Northern forces thenceforth controlled the whole length of the Mississippi River. "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea," said Lincoln. The Confederacy was rent in twain. Lincoln knew who deserved the credit: "Grant is my man," he said, "and I am his the rest of the war."

The twin victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg caused Northern spirits to soar. "Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least," wrote a jubilant New York Republican. "Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad." From the American legation in London the son of the American minister, Henry Adams, wrote that "the disasters of the rebels are unredeemed by even any hope of success. It is now conceded that all hope of [European] intervention is at an end."

As Northern morale rose, Southern spirits sank. "This is the darkest day of the war," wrote a Richmond diarist when he learned of the outcome at Gettysburg. Even the usually buoyant Josiah Gorgas, brilliant Chief of Ordnance for Confederate armies, wrote in his diary on July 28:

Events have succeeded one another with disastrous rapidity. One brief month ago we were apparently at the point of success. Lee was in Pennsylvania, threatening Harrisburg, and even Philadelphia.Vicksburg seemed to laugh all Grant's efforts to scorn. ...Now the picture is just as sombre as it was bright then. ...It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success - today absolute ruin seems to be our portion.

Northerners had scarcely finished celebrating Gettysburg and Vicksburg when they learned of an important - and almost bloodless - triumph in Tennessee. After the battle of

Stones River, the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee shadow-boxed for nearly six months as they recovered from the trauma of that battle. On June 23, Union commander William S. Rosecrans finally began an offensive to dislodge the Confederates from their defenses in the Cumberland foothills of east central Tennessee. He used cavalry and a mounted infantry brigade armed with new repeating rifles to circumvent the Confederate flanks, while his infantry threatened their front. In the first week of July, the Confederates retreated all the way to Chattanooga. After a pause for resupply, Rosecrans came on again, pushing across the Tennessee River below Chattanooga and compelling Bragg to evacuate the city on September 9. Meanwhile, another Union army captured Knoxville. Lincoln's cherished goal of liberating East Tennessee, whose inhabitants were almost as strongly Unionist as those of West Virginia, had been achieved.

But then Confederate commander Braxton Bragg counterattacked, precipitating the two-day battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20) in which the total casualties of 35,000

Siege of Vicksburg, from a lithograph by Kurz and Allison were second only to Gettysburg's 50,000 in the war as a whole. The Confederates' tactical victory at Chickamauga proved to be barren of strategic results. The Lincoln admin-stration transferred two small army corps from the Army of the Potomac to Chattanooga, and gave Grant command of the combined forces there, including two corps of the Army of the Tennessee under Sherman, which also moved to Chattanooga. For the first time in the war, troops from all three of the principal Union armies fought together, under the overall command of the North's best general. The combination was too much for Braxton Bragg. On November 25, in the most successful frontal assault of the war, Union forces broke Bragg's defensive line on Missionary Ridge east of Chattanooga, driving the routed Confederates all the way to Georgia.

The Union victory at Chattanooga had important consequences: it brought to a climax a string of Federal triumphs in the second half of 1863 which made that year one of "calamity...defeat...utter ruin," in the words of a Confederate official. The Southern diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, found "gloom and unspoken despondency hang[ing] like a pall everywhere." Jefferson removed the discredited Bragg from command of the Army of Tennessee, replacing him

Siege of Vicksburg, from a lithograph by Kurz and Allison

Ing Mine Bragg Creek

reluctantly with Joseph E. Johnston, in whom Davis had little confidence. In March 1864, Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington and appointed him General-in-Chief of all Union armies, signifying a relentless fight to the finish.

Events m 1863 also confirmed emancipation as a Union war aim. Many Northerners had not greeted the Emancipation Proclamation with enthusiasm. Democrats and bor-der-state Unionists denounced it, and many Union soldiers resented the idea that they would now be risking their lives for black freedom. The Democratic party hoped to capitalize on this opposition, and on Union military failures to win important off-year elections - especially for governor of Pennsylvania and governor of Ohio, where Vallandigham was the candidate, despite his exile in Canada. Northern military victories knocked one prop out from under the Democratic platform, and the performance of black soldiers fighting for the Union, and for their own freedom, knocked out another.

Thfe enlistment of black soldiers was a logical corollary of emancipation. One purpose of declaring the freedom of slaves was to deprive the Confederacy of black labor, and to use that labor for the Union cause. Putting some of those laborers in uniform was a compelling idea, especially as white enlistments lagged and the North had to enact conscription in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation announced an intention to enroll able-bodied male freedmen in new black regiments. They were to serve at first as labor battalions, supply troops, and garrison forces rather than as frontline combat troops. They were paid less than white soldiers, and their officers were white - in other words, black men in blue would be second-class soldiers, just as free blacks in the North were second-class citizens.

But pressure from abolitionists, as well as military necessity, eroded some of this discrimination. Congress enacted equal pay in 1864. Officers worked for better treatment of their men. Above all, they fought for their right to fight as combat soldiers. Even some previously hostile white soldiers came around to the notion that black men might just as well stop enemy bullets as white men. In May and June 1863, new black regiments in Louisiana fought well in an assault on Port Hudson, and m defense of a Union outpost at Milliken's Bend, near Vicksburg.

Even more significant was the action of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first black regiment raised in the North. Its officers, headed by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, came from prominent New England anti-slavery families. Two sons of the black leader Frederick Douglass were in the regiment. Shaw worked hard to win the right for the regiment to fight. On July 18, 1863, he won his point: the 54th was assigned "the post of honor" to lead an assault on Fort

Army Javan Pencil Sketch
Union winter uniform, pencil sketch by Edwhi Forbes

Wagner, part of the network of Confederate defenses protecting Charleston. Though the attack failed, the 54th fought courageously, suffering almost 50% casualties, including Colonel Shaw who was killed by a bullet through his heart. This battle "made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill had been for ninety years to the white Yankees," declared the New York Tribune.

The battle took place just after the draft riots in New York. Abolitionists and Republican commentators drew the moral: black men who fought for the Union deserved more respect than white men who rioted against it. Lincoln made this point eloquently in a widely published letter to a Union meeting in August 1863. "Some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes (he meant Grant), believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion," wrote the President. When final victory was won, he continued, "there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it."

Lincoln's letter set the tone for Republican campaigns in state elections that fall. The party swept them all - including Ohio - where they buried Vallandigham under a 100,000-vote margin swelled by the soldier vote, which went 94% against him. In effect, the elections were an endorsement of the administration's emancipation policy. If the Emancipation Proclamation had been submitted to a referendum a year earlier, observed an Illinois newspaper in December 1863, "the voice of a majority would have been against it. And yet not a year has passed before it is approved by an overwhelming majority."

But the final abolition of slavery would require Union victory in the war. Despite Northern success in the latter half of 1863, the war was far from won. Some of the heaviest fighting still lay ahead.

The storming of Fort Wagner and the death of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, from a lithograph by Kirz and Allison

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