The Last Days of War April 1865


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When Lee's attenuated lines around Petersburg finally snapped at the beginning of April, he hoped to slip west along the railroad, then turn south to join the Confederate army in North Carolina under General Joseph E. Johnston. Federal columns hounded the Southern remnants on all sides. At Appomattox Court House on 8 April, Lee found a substantial force of the enemy in front of him, eliminating his last hope of escape. He surrendered the next day. Johnston did likewise on 26 April at Durham Station. North Carolina, effectively ending the war in the Virginia Theater of institutions and culture in North America. The results of the war ensured prompt freedom for some 3.5 million black slaves, and also opened an entirely new chapter of restructuring American society and economy. Triumphant Northern politicians had the opportunity to remake the South in their own image, and for their own purposes, in what is usually styled the Reconstruction era.

Conclusion and consequences 91

Perhaps the most significant event in that process came just five days after Appomattox when pro-Confederate actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington. Lincoln's death removed his pragmatic, conciliatory influence and left control in the hands of radical politicians of vindictive temper. The President of Harvard University sounded a prevailing tone when he declared pompously, 'The task for the North is to spread knowledge and culture over the regions that sit in darkness.' On a more visceral level, anti-Confederate activists such as the Rev. James W. Hunnicutt advocated violence: 'The white men have houses and lands ... you can apply the torch to the dwellings of your enemies ... the boy of ten and the girl of twelve can apply the torch.' Considerable political and racial violence swept the desolated South.

With virtually every local citizen banned from office as a conquered rebel, Southern states fell under the control of venturesome Northerners who came south with little luggage but a carpetbag (a traveling bag made of carpeting), and who came to be known colloquially as 'carpetbaggers.' Some surely brought with them altruistic agendas; others surely came to loot from prostrate and powerless individuals and localities. General John M. Schofield, a veteran Union officer assigned to duty in postwar Virginia, called the eager immigrants 'ignorant or unprincipled' and summarized their behavior in a letter to U. S. Grant: 'They could only hope to obtain office by disqualifying everybody in the state who is capable of discharging official duties, and all else to them was of comparatively slight importance.'

The ruling political bloc in Washington welcomed the vacuum and operated gleefully within its embrace. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania summarized his goals succinctly: 'Unless the rebel States ... should be made republican in spirit, and placed under the guardianship of loyal men, all our blood and treasure will have been spent in vain.' A Federal soldier stationed in

Alabama expressed his view of the Southerners in his power: 'There is not 9 out of 10 of these so called "Whiped" traitors that I would trust until I saw the rope applied to their Necks, then 1 would only have Faith in the quality of the rope.' The carpetbag Governor of South Carolina (the last state returned to home rule) defended the record of his administration, insisting that he had observed 'steady progress toward good government, purity of administration, reform of abuses, and the choice of capable and honest public officers in those States in which the colored race had the most complete control'

Southerners powerless under carpetbag government faced concerns far more basic than political institutions. A quest for food and shelter and minimal financial security ruled their lives in a barren land reduced to ashes. A 28-year-old woman living in central Virginia described her feelings in a letter to her sister written in August 1865. The entire region had been 'reduced almost to indigence ... 1 sometimes feel as if it could not be reality, and that I have been the victim of some hideous nightmare.' Returning survivors from the army were so 'heart broken' that it 'wrung your very soul.' She hoped that somehow the fight might be renewed. Feeling against the North was 'intense ... It will never pass away.' The distraught woman closed her letter by expressing the hope that small children would be taught to 'Fear God, love the South, and live to avenge her. ' In 1867 a former Confederate colonel wrote with bitter nostalgia of 'that blissful time, for the return of which I most devoutly pray, when it was lawful to kill Yankees.'

Virginia completed 'Reconstruction' before most other ex-Confederate states, seating representatives in Washington in January 1870 who had been elected by broad popular vote. The North meanwhile enjoyed a fabulous explosion in wealth, fed by the war's profits and building upon industrialization generated by war contracts. As a direct consequence, hundreds of thousands of Southerners emigrated north for work or west for fresh opportunities on the frontier.

For the first time in United States history, veterans became a basic force in politics. Northern veterans touted their honorable service in what came to be known as 'waving the bloody shirt.' In Virginia, political pundits noticed that it was almost impossible to be elected governor without the stigmata of a visible war wound. Union veterans lobbied for National Cemeteries, the first in the country's history, and especially for pensions. Federals with any sort of disability drew pensions from Washington. As a byproduct, books full of memoirs of horrors suffered in Southern prisons began to appear. They soon blossomed into a virtual cottage industry. Most included significant exaggerations; some contained not even a kernel of truth.

Pensions for all veterans followed. Southern survivors, of course, had no access to benefits from the Federal government, so their states inaugurated local pension systems. Virginia pensions began under an Act dated 1888. Subsequent laws in 1900 and 1902 expanded coverage. Civil War pensions marked the first large-scale government welfare system in the country's history. By the 1920s and beyond, pensions had become so attractive during the Great Depression that fraudulent applications abounded. Recent scholarship that examined the stories of the final 10 self-announced survivors of the war (five from each side) discovered that every one of them was entirely bogus.

The war resulted in a revolution in North American medical practices.

European scientists such as Pasteur and Lister had been making strides in germ theory and antiseptic practice. Americans caring for their millions of soldiers gradually absorbed some of that important new technique. Hard experience produced other empirical changes in treatment.

Military art and science underwent an even more profound evolution. The Civil War was the first major conflict in which: most participants used rifled shoulder arms; percussion caps replaced less efficient ignition systems; railroads played a major role, both logistically and strategically, with dramatic increases in army mobility; field entrenchments became (by 1864) a routine but significant defensive mechanism; ironclad warships ruled naval affairs; general-staff functions began to receive adequate attention; telegraphy was used; standardization of production became effective (in the North); and some soldiers (almost exclusively Federals) employed repeating weapons and breechloaders. The contending armies began the war employing techniques akin to those of the Napoleonic Wars. By 1865, combat was being waged in a manner that foreshadowed the First World War. Only the following year, Prussia was employing a skilled general staff, the telegraph, rifled arms, and a thoroughly planned railroad network, together with the other new features of warfare, to crush the Austrians. The Civil War had initiated a wide array of changes in the conduct of war that was to dominate battlefields for the next 60 years.

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