The Triumph and the Tragedy

The year 1865 opened with the resolution of an issue that had generated bitter controversy - a bitterness that persisted for decades after the war - over the exchange of prisoners of war. In 1862, the Union and Confederate armed forces had signed a cartel for the exchange of prisoners cap tured in battle. The arrangement had worked reasonably well for a year, making large prison camps unnecessary. But when the Union army began to organize regiments of former slaves, the Confederate government announced that it would refuse to treat them as legitimate soldiers. If captured, they and their white officers would be put to death for the crime of inciting slave insurrections. In practice, however, the Confederate government did not enforce this policy, for Lincoln threatened retaliation against Confederate prisoners if it did so. But Confederate troops sometimes murdered black sol diers and their officers as they tried to surrender - most notably at Fort Pillow, a Union garrison on the Mississippi River north of Memphis, where cavalry commanded by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest slaughtered scores of black (and some white) prisoners on April 12, 1864.

In most cases, though, Confederate officials returned captured black soldiers to slavery, or put them to hard labor on Southern fortifications. Expressing outrage at this treatment of soldiers wearing the uniform of the United States army, the Lincoln administration in 1863 suspended the exchange of prisoners until the Confederacy agreed to treat white and black prisoners alike. The Confederacy refused. The South would "die in the last ditch," said the Confederate exchange agent, before "giving up the right to send slaves back to slavery as property recaptured."

There matters stood as the heavy fighting of 1864 poured scores of thousands of captured soldiers into hastily built prison compounds. Due to overcrowding, poor sanitation, contaminated water, scanty rations, mdadequate medical facilities, and the exposure of Northern prisoners to the heat of a deep South summer and of Southern prisoners to the cold of a Northern winter, these prisons rapidly became death camps. The suffering of Northern prisoners was especially acute because the deterioration of the Southern economy made it hard to feed and clothe even Confederate soldiers and civilians, let alone Yankee prisoners. Confederate prison officials did not provide any kind of shelter for captured enlisted men, who were forced to live in open stockades while Northern prisons housed captured Confederates in barracks or tents. Nearly 16% of all Union soldiers held in

General Robert E. Lee, Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate armies. From a photograph by Mathew Brady taken on the back porch of the Lee home.

Southern prison camps died, compared with 12% of Confederate soldiers in Northern camps.

The Southern prison at Andersonville, Georgia, became the most notorious hellhole: a stockade camp of 26 acres designed to accommodate 15,000 prisoners, it held 33,000 in August 1864. During the worst weeks of that terrible summer of 1864 they died at the rate of a hundred or more a day Altogether, 13,000 Northern soldiers died at Andersonville. For a generation after the war, many Northerners saw the graves of these soldiers as a symbol of Southern barbarism. As sectional passions cooled, they came to be seen as a symbol of the inhumanity of war.

The suffering of Union prisoners brought heavy pressure on the Lincoln administration to renew exchanges. Democrats made a political issue of this matter in the 1864 election. But the Confederates would not yield on the question o'f exchanging black soldiers. After the battles at New Market Heights, Fort Harrison, and Poplar Springs Church on the Richmond-Petersburg front in September 1864, General Lee proposed an informal exchange of prisoners. General Grant agreed, on condition that black soldiers captured in the fighting be included "the same as white soldiers." Lee replied that "negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition." No exchange, then, responded Grant; the Union government w.as "bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers." Lincoln backed this policy. Just as he would not recede from emancipation as a condition of peace, he would not sacrifice the principle of equal treatment of black prisoners, though Republican leaders warned that many Northerners "will work and vote against the President, because they think sympathy with a few negroes, also captured, is the cause of a refusal" to exchange prisoners.

Lincoln won reelection despite his political liabilities on this issue. Two months later, in January 1865, the Confederate government quietly abandoned its refusal to exchange black prisoners, and exchanges resumed. One reason for this reversal was a Confederate decision to recruit slaves to fight for the South. Two years earlier Jefferson Davis had denounced the North's arming of freed slaves as "the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man." But by the beginning of 1865, Southern armies were desperate for manpower, and the slaves constituted the only remaining reserve. Supported by the powerful influence of Robert E. Lee, the Davis administration pressed the Confederate Congress to enact a bill for recruitment of black soldiers. The assumption that any slaves who fought for the South would have to be granted freedom as a reward generated angry opposition to this measure. "What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?" asked a Virginia senator. By three votes in the House and one in the Senate, Congress finally passed the bill on March 13, 1865. Whether any slaves would actually have fought for the Confederacy must remain forever a moot point. Before any black regiments could be formed, the war was over.

It ended not by a negotiated peace, but by the unconditional surrender of Confederate armies because that was how Lincoln intended it should end. In his annual message to Congress in December 1864, Lincoln referred to the abortive peace overtures during the preceding summer. In his stated conditions for peace, said Lincoln, Jefferson Davis did "not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory." Lincoln was prepared to fight on until unconditional victory was achieved, for "the national resources ... are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible. We are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely." Lincoln's words expressed the mood of the Northern people, a mood described by the war correspondent of the London Daily News. The North, he wrote, was "silently, calmly, but desperately in earnest ... in a way the like of which the world never saw before. ... I am astonished the more I see and hear of the extent and depth of [this] determination ... to fight to the last."

By January 1865, it was clear to all but bitter-end Confed erates, who vowed to die in the last ditch, that the downfall of the Confederacy was near. In mid-January, the largest fleet yet assembled in the war - 58 Union warships carrying 627 guns - rendezvoused near Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River below Wilmington. This fort protected the Confederate blockade runners that had made Wilmington the Confederacy's major port and virtually its only lifeline to the outside world by the end of 1864. The Union navy had long wanted to attack Fort Fisher, but the diversion of ships and troops to the long, futile campaign against Charleston had delayed the effort. In January 1865, two days of naval bombardment, followed by an attack of infantry and marines, captured Fort Fisher, thus coiling the tentacles of the Union anaconda ever more tightly around the South. Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens pronounced the fall of Fort Fisher "one of the greatest disasters which had befallen our Cause."

This was perhaps an exaggeration. But the fall of Fort Fisher did generate another Confederate gesture toward peace negotiations. Jefferson Davis appointed Stephens and two other officials to meet Union representatives "with a view to secure peace to the two countries." Lincoln responded with an expression of willingness to receive commis sioners "with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country."

This crucial difference in wording should have alerted Southerners to the futility of expecting peace terms short of unconditional surrender. Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward met personally with the Confederate envoys on board a Union ship at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 3. To every proposal for an armistice or preliminary terms, Lincoln replied that the Confederates must lay down their arms, give up slavery, and rejoin the Union. But these terms mean "unconditional submission," gasped the Confederate commissioners. Precisely, said Lincoln The Southerners returned empty-handed to Richmond, where they reported glumly to Davis, who had expected this outcome. He used Lincoln's demands for "humiliating surrender" to stir up flagging Southern morale. Lincoln and Seward would soon find that "they had been speaking to their masters," Davis told a cheering crowd in Richmond. Confederate armies would yet "compel the Yankees, in less than twelve months, to petition us for peace on our own terms."

If William T Sherman read these words, he must have uttered a sigh of exasperation. It was to break the back of such last-ditch resistance that he had made Georgia howl on his march from Atlanta to the sea. Now his 60,000 soldiers were moving north from Savannah on a sequel to that march, which would prove even more destructive. His men were determined to take revenge on South Carolina, which in their view had started the war. As one soldier declared as he entered South Carolina: "Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end!" Sherman's avengers made

The fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, after a five month siege. From a lithograph by Kurz and Allison

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