Tag Archives: Jefferson Davis

Peace Talks: Lincoln Responds to Davis

January 18, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln met with statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. and responded to Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s offer to negotiate an end to the war.

Blair had been given a pass through the Federal lines to meet with Davis at Richmond and discuss a possible peace between North and South. After returning to Washington, Blair met with Lincoln on the night of the 16th and delivered Davis’s letter expressing his willingness to “secure peace to the two countries.”

Pres. Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lincoln remained silent as Blair described his visit to Richmond, writing on the back of Davis’s letter that he “had no intimation as to what Mr. Blair would say or do while beyond our military lines.” Blair described his plan of calling a ceasefire so that Federals and Confederates could join forces to oust the French from Mexico. He made it clear that he divulged his plan to Davis “with the express understanding by the other party that it was to be confined to you.”

Blair then sparked Lincoln’s interest by saying that nearly every Confederate official he had spoken with while in Richmond believed their cause to be lost. This meant that if peace negotiations were to take place, Lincoln would have the upper hand. The meeting ended, and, after consulting with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln met with Blair again on the 18th. Lincoln allowed Blair to return to Richmond to deliver a reply to Davis’s letter:

“You having shown me Mr. Davis’s letter to you of the 12th instant, you may say to him that I have constantly been, am now, and shall continue, ready to receive any agent whom he, or any influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me with a view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.”

Lincoln made it explicit that negotiations could only take place if they were based on reuniting North and South. He drove this point home by referring to the Confederate president as “Mr.” (not President) Davis, and by inviting “any influential person” to talk peace, which implicitly included any of Davis’s many political opponents in the South.

Meanwhile in the North, word that Lincoln allowed Blair to meet with Davis did not sit well with the Radical Republicans in Congress. The Radicals argued that there was no need to negotiate peace because total victory was at hand. They also distrusted Blair because of his former ties to Davis and the Democratic Party. With Blair’s influence, the Radicals feared that Lincoln might agree to grant amnesty to the Confederates and return their property, including slaves.

Leading Radical Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan said, “Blair is an old fool for going to Richmond upon a peace mission & the Administration is little better for permitting him to go… Nothing but evil can come of this nonsense.” For the Radicals, nothing less than the Confederates’ unconditional surrender would suffice.

Conservative Republicans generally supported Lincoln, but they questioned the legality of allowing a private citizen to negotiate on the nation’s behalf. An article in the New York Times read:

“None but national authorities can wage war or make for peace; and the moment we enter into negotiations with the rebel Government for terms of peace, that moment we have actually and legally conceded everything for which they have been making war.”

A writer for the Boston Advertiser stated that he had “unbounded confidence in the President,” but “the loyal masses revolt at the idea of treating with Jeff. Davis and his confederates in despotic government.” Confederate officials “are usurpers in their present position, having no right whatever to stand between our government and the people of the insurgent States… negotiation will mar the close of the war, and damage the future welfare of both sections of the country… Let our conquering generals be the only negotiators of peace.”

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton opposed Lincoln’s decision to send Blair back to Richmond. Stanton argued that since the Confederacy was on the brink of defeat, the Federals had no need to offer any terms besides unconditional surrender. He also feared that the idea of peace talks might hamper military recruiting and demoralize the troops in the field.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles also questioned Lincoln’s decision, writing in his diary: “The President, with much shrewdness and much good sense, has often strange and incomprehensible whims; takes sometimes singular and unaccountable freaks. It would hardly surprise me were he to undertake to arrange terms of peace without consulting anyone.”

Regardless of anybody’s opinion on the matter, Blair was soon on his way back to Richmond.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21804-09; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 518-19; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16133-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 544-45; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 690-91; Harris, William C., “The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership” (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2000), p. 30-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 625-26

The Fort Fisher Aftermath

January 16, 1865 – Federal troops occupied Fort Fisher, the gateway to the last Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina.

Interior of Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Confederate garrison defending Fisher had surrendered after enduring the heaviest naval bombardment in history. Colonel William Lamb, the Confederate fort commander who had been wounded and captured, later wrote:

“For the first time in the history of sieges the land defenses of the works were destroyed, not by any act of the besieging army, but by the concentrated fire, direct and enfilading, of an immense fleet poured into them without intermission, until torpedo wires were cut, palisades breached so they actually offered cover for assailants, and the slopes of the work were rendered practicable for assault.”

General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate department commander, remained with his troops at Sugar Loaf, a few miles north of Fort Fisher. Despite pleas from Lamb and his superior (Major General W.H.C. Whiting), Bragg did not send his men in until it was too late. After midnight on the 16th, Bragg wired General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, “I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher, with most of its garrison, at about 10 o’clock tonight. Particulars not known.”

Bragg complimented the “the courage and devotion of Major-General Whiting and Colonel Lamb,” but Whiting bitterly denounced Bragg for failing to try to rescue the Fisher garrison. Whiting stated, “I charge him with this loss; with neglect of duty in this, that he either refused or neglected to carry out every suggestion made to him in official communications by me for the disposition of the troops…” Whiting later added, “In all (Bragg’s) career of failure and defeat from Pensacola out, there has been no such chance missed, and no such stupendous disaster.”

President Jefferson Davis read Bragg’s dispatch and responded: “Yours of this morning received. The intelligence is sad as it was unexpected. Can you retake the fort? If anything is to be done you will appreciate the necessity of its being attempted without a moment’s delay.” Bragg wrote, “The enemy’s enormous fleet alone would destroy us in such an attempt were we unopposed by the land force. The most we can hope to do will be to hold this line. We are accordingly concentrating for that purpose.”

In the three-day battle, the Federals suffered 1,341 casualties (266 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 57 missing), while the Confederates lost nearly 2,000, most of which were captured. The Federals seized 169 guns, some 2,000 stands of arms, and large quantities of supplies and ammunition.

As Federals looted Fort Fisher, the main magazine exploded. Major General Alfred H. Terry, commanding the Federal army forces, informed his superiors: “I regret to report that shortly after sunrise on the 16th instant, the day following the assault, the magazine of reserve ammunition in the fort exploded, killing and wounding 130 men. The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained.”

Terry formed a commission to investigate the cause of the blast, but the stories among the witnesses varied so much that the true cause was never found. Those killed or wounded in the explosion included not only Federal troops but also Confederate prisoners not yet taken out of the fort.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval fleet, came ashore to survey Fort Fisher. He reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“I have since visited Fort Fisher and the adjoining works, and find their strength greatly beyond what I had conceived; an engineer might be excusable in saying they could not be captured except by regular siege. I wonder even now how it was done. The work… is really stronger than the Malakoff Tower, which defied so long the combined power of France and England, and yet it is captured by a handful of men under the fire of the guns of the fleet, and in seven hours after the attack commenced in earnest… And no Alabamas, Floridas, Chickamaugas or Tallahassees will ever fit out again from this port, and our merchant vessels very soon, I hope, will be enabled to pursue in safety their avocation.”

At Sugar Loaf, Bragg informed his superiors of his next move: “The fall of Fisher renders useless our forts below. I am accordingly concentrating on this point and at Fort Anderson, directly opposite, and will endeavor to hold this line. May not be able to save heavy guns from below; in which even a supply will be necessary.”

Bragg ordered the Confederates garrisoning Fort Caswell to destroy that fort and retreat to Fort Anderson. The troops complied as Porter’s fleet moved through New Inlet and up the Cape Fear River to pound them into submission. Porter noted, “… the death knell of another fort is booming in the distance. Ft. Caswell with its powerful batteries is in flames and being broken up, and thus is sealed the door through which this rebellion is fed.”

Porter assigned a squadron under Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing to man the Confederate signal lights on the Mound, a hill on which the Confederates signaled to blockade runners that it was safe to enter the inlet. Porter directed them to keep the lights “… properly trimmed and lighted, as has been the custom with the rebels during the blockade. Have the lights lighted to-night and see that no vessel inside displays a light, and be ready to grab anyone that enters.”

Three blockade runners followed the signal lights, unaware that Fort Fisher had fallen, and were instantly captured. Porter happily reported to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox:

“We are having a jolly time with the blockade runners, which come into our trap. We almost kill ourselves laughing at the discomfiture, when they find they have set out their champagne to no purpose, and they say it is ‘a damned Yankee trick’… This is the greatest lark I ever was on.”

The Federals had not yet captured Wilmington, but the fall of Fort Fisher closed that city to Confederate commerce. A plan to raise $40 million for the southern war effort from women selling their hair to European markets was canceled, and the Confederates could no longer trade cotton overseas for badly needed food and supplies. Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens described the significance of this defeat:

“The fall of this Fort was one of the greatest disasters which had befallen our cause from the beginning of the war–not excepting the loss of Vicksburg or Atlanta. Forts Fisher and Caswell guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear River, and prevented the complete blockade of the port of Wilmington, through which a limited Foreign Commerce had been carried on during the whole time. It was by means of what cotton could thus be carried out, that we had been enabled to get along financially, as well as we had; and at this point also, a considerable number of arms and various munitions of war, as well as large supplies of subsistence, had been introduced. All other ports… had long since been closed.”

General Terry turned his attention to the Confederates at Sugar Loaf and Fort Anderson, but he discovered that he could not defeat them without help. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, toured the area in late January and convinced Porter to cooperate with the army once more in a thrust up the Cape Fear River, with reinforcements on the way.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 518-19; 524; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15748-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 544-45, 548; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 625-26; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 831; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 219

Peace Talks: Blair Arrives in Richmond

January 12, 1865 – Prominent statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. visited Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Richmond and proposed a possible peace settlement between North and South.

Francis P. Blair, Sr. | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Blair had obtained a pass from President Abraham Lincoln in late December to go through the Federal military lines. Blair then wrote to Davis asking permission to come to Richmond to retrieve papers that Confederate troops had stolen from his Maryland home in July. But he added that his real reason for wanting to go there was to discuss the possibility of ending the war.

Davis received Blair’s letters on the 3rd and granted him permission to come to the Confederate capital. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles chartered the flagship of the Potomac River naval flotilla to transport Blair from Washington to Aiken’s Landing on the James River. From there, a flag-of-truce vessel brought him to Richmond.

When word spread that the navy helped Blair get into the Confederacy, many believed that Lincoln endorsed the statesman’s visit. This drew mixed reactions in the North, as some hoped for peace as soon as possible, regardless of who helped negotiate it, while others wanted the war to end only when the South was truly defeated. And still others wanted to keep fighting to ensure that slavery was permanently abolished.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Blair anonymously checked into Richmond’s Spotswood Hotel before visiting Davis and his wife Varina at the Executive Mansion on the night of the 12th. The attendees exchanged pleasantries, after which Varina left and the two men got down to business. Blair explained that he could not speak for the Lincoln administration, confessing that his ideas “were perhaps merely the dreams of an old man.” He then read from a paper he had written that outlined these ideas.

Blair proposed an armistice period, during which the Federals and Confederates would join forces to oust the French government from Mexico. France had violated the Monroe Doctrine by invading Mexico and installing a puppet regime led by Archduke Maximilian, a relative of Napoleon III. Blair intimated that perhaps Davis himself could lead the southern contingent of the united force.

According to Davis, “it was evident that he (Blair) counted on the disintegration of the Confederate States if the war continued, and that in any event he regarded the institution of slavery as doomed to extinction.” Noting that the Confederate Congress was likely to approve a bill recruiting slaves into the military (and ostensibly grant them freedom after service), Blair believed that slavery “no longer remains an insurmountible (sic) obstruction to pacification.”

Blair also asserted that Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction and his recent message to Congress showed that he would be willing to talk peace. Joining forces to oust the French from Mexico could unite Americans in a common cause, leading to reunion. Blair was confident that Federal troops would join the Confederates for this cause, and he even pledged to send his son, Frank, Jr., to command a portion of the force. Blair suggested that once the French were overthrown, Davis might install himself as Mexican ruler.

Regarding European colonization of the West, Davis replied that “no circumstances would have a greater effect… than to see the arms of our countrymen from the North and the South united in a war upon a foreign power assailing principles of government common to both sections and threatening their destruction.” However, Davis argued that the Mexicans had to topple the French regime on their own because “no one can foresee how things would shape themselves” in Mexico.

The president then said that reconciliation “depended upon well-founded confidence” in the good faith of both North and South. Before the war, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward had first suggested fighting the French in Mexico to keep North and South united. Davis, assuming that Seward would be the North’s chief negotiator, declared that he distrusted him.

Blair did not defend Seward, instead telling Davis that this would not be handled by the State Department. He said that “this matter, if entered upon at all, must be with Mr. Lincoln himself… The transaction is a military transaction, and depends entirely on the Commander-in-Chief of our armies,” and Lincoln could be trusted.

Davis wrote that Blair hoped to exchange “reason for passion, sense of justice for a desire to injure, and that if the people were subsequently engaged together to maintain a principle recognized by both, if together they should bear sacrifices, share dangers, and gather common renown, new memories would take the place of those now placed by the events of this war and might in the course of time restore the feelings which preexisted.”

Blair then stated that Lincoln was not as sympathetic with the Radical Republicans in Congress as the southern press believed. The Radicals demanded the South’s unconditional surrender, but Blair thought that Lincoln would be willing to negotiate a more lenient settlement. However, Blair warned that time was running out because the next Congress taking office later that year would be dominated by Radicals intent on stopping any negotiations with the South.

Davis noted:

“Throughout the conference, Mr. Blair appeared to be animated by a sincere desire to promote a pacific solution of existing difficulty, but claimed no other power than that of serving as a medium of communication between those who had thus far had no intercourse and were therefore without the co-intelligence which might secure an adjustment of their controversy.”

Davis remained skeptical, especially since the Lincoln administration had insisted on unconditional submission to the national authority since the war began. However, he believed that if he expressed a willingness to negotiate, and Lincoln did not reciprocate, it might show southerners that the Federals only wanted to subjugate them, and they would therefore fight even harder for independence. Thus, Davis wrote a letter for Blair to deliver to Lincoln:

“Sir: I have deemed it proper and probably desirable to you to give you in this form the substance of remarks made by me to be repeated by you to President Lincoln, etc., etc. I have no disposition to find obstacles in forms, and am willing now, as heretofore, to enter into negotiations for the restoration of peace, am ready to send a commission whenever I have reason to suppose it will be received, or to receive a commission if the United States Government shall choose to send one. That, notwithstanding the rejection of our former offers, I would, if you could promise that a commissioner, minister, or other agent would be received, appoint one immediately, and renew the effort to enter into conference with a view to secure peace to the two countries.”

The last two words in Davis’s letter ensured that a peace settlement could not be reached. Davis refused to discuss peace without southern independence, while Lincoln had insisted since the day he took office that North and South must be of one country. Nevertheless, Blair returned north to deliver the letter to the White House.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209-10; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21747-65, 21804; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11860; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16108-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 541; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 690-91; Harris, William C., “The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership” (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2000), p. 30-61; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616, 622-23; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 198; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 821; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition, 2012), Loc Q165

Sherman Looks to South Carolina

January 10, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman prepared for what promised to be another devastating Federal march through the southern heartland.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

After capturing Savannah late last year, Sherman began developing a plan to move his 60,000 men northward into South Carolina. The Federals were especially eager to lay waste to that state because both secession and the war had begun there.

Sherman planned to leave Major General John G. Foster’s Federals from the Department of the South to hold Savannah. Sherman’s Federals would feint toward the coveted port city of Charleston while truly heading for the South Carolina capital of Columbia. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron would divert Confederate attention by operating around Charleston. Sherman wrote Dahlgren:

“When we are known to be in the rear of Charleston, about Branchville and Orangeburg, it will be well to watch if the enemy lets go of Charleston, in which case Foster will occupy it, otherwise the feint should be about Bull’s Bay… I will instruct Foster, when he knows I have got near Branchville, to make a landing of a small force at Bull’s Bay, to threaten, and it may be occupy, the road from Mount Pleasant to Georgetown. This will make the enemy believe I design to turn down against Charleston and give me a good offing for Wilmington.”

As some of Dahlgren’s vessels cleared obstructions in Charleston harbor, the U.S.S. Patapsco struck a torpedo (i.e., a floating mine) and sank within 15 seconds. The blast killed 62 officers and men.

Confederate Lieut Gen William Hardee | Image Credit: Flickr.com

In South Carolina, the only real resistance in Sherman’s path was a small, makeshift Confederate force led by Lieutenant General William Hardee. The force included Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, which tried to find out where Sherman would go. Wheeler reported that some Federal prisoners said Sherman had “received some recruits at Savannah and some at Beaufort,” and “the talk in camp is that Charleston is their destination.”

Falling for Sherman’s ruse, Hardee posted the bulk of his force in and around Charleston. He notified President Jefferson Davis that he would post Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division near the Combahee River to try slowing Sherman down.

Hardee reported that he had about 7,600 infantry troops (3,500 regulars, 3,000 reserves, and 1,100 militia), 6,100 cavalry troopers, and 5,000 garrison troops. He wrote, “Of the force above mentioned, McLaws’ is the only command I regard as movable. The remainder is needed for the defense of Charleston. I am acting on the defensive, and unless heavily re-enforced must continue to do so.” Hardee requested 15,000 troops, but, “If this force cannot be furnished, 5,000 regular troops will still be required for the present defensive line.”

Besides Hardee’s force, the only other substantial force consisted of Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s militia. General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee barely numbered 18,000 effectives after being decimated at Franklin and Nashville late last year. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor had just a token force in his Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. And General Robert E. Lee could spare nobody as his Army of Northern Virginia remained under siege at Petersburg and Richmond.

Hardee wrote, “I have no reason to expect re-enforcements from Georgia other than Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith’s force of militia, now at Augusta, which is rapidly diminishing by desertion, and numbers less than 1,500 muskets. I have no information whatever from Hood, and have no reason to expect re-enforcements from that quarter.”

Hardee pinned high hopes on Wheeler’s cavalry, which had been the only force opposing Sherman’s march to the sea. He wrote:

“It is a well organized and efficient body. The reports of its disorganization and demoralization are without foundation, and the depredations ascribed to his command can generally be traced to bands of marauders claiming to belong to it.”

Davis replied, “Your plan seems to me judicious and I hope may, with Divine favor, prove successful… (I will) make every exertion to re-enforce you from that army as rapidly as possible.” Davis then contacted General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Western Theater, and directed him to send as much of the Army of Tennessee as he could to South Carolina. Despite reports that those men needed rest, Beauregard wrote, “President orders that whatever troops you can spare be sent forthwith to General Hardee’s assistance.”

Davis wrote to Taylor:

“Sherman’s campaign has produced bad effect on our people, success against his future operations is needful to reanimate public confidence. Hardee requires more aid… and Hood’s army is the only source to which we can now look.”

Davis suggested that Taylor keep some troops to defend the western states, while the main part of Hood’s army should be sent “to look after Sherman.”

Davis then wrote to Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown asking for all possible troops for defense. When South Carolina Governor A.G. Magrath wrote the president explaining the dire situation in his state, Davis replied, “I am fully alive to the importance of successful resistance to Sherman’s advance, and have called on the governor of Georgia to give all the aid he can furnish.”

But the Confederacy no longer had the manpower to stop Sherman’s onslaught, which promised to be even more relentless than it had been in Georgia.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 515, 518; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 541, 544; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 622-23; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703

The Blair Peace Initiative

December 30, 1864 – Francis P. Blair, Sr., a 74-year-old political advisor to every president since Andrew Jackson, wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis asking permission to come to Richmond and discuss the possibility of ending the war. This was the most notable of many efforts to negotiate peace between North and South.

Francis P. Blair, Sr. | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Blair had been a Jacksonian Democrat before helping form the Republican Party in the 1850s. One of his sons, Montgomery, had served in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as postmaster general, and another, Frank, Jr., was a Federal major general and former congressman. Blair had been good friends with Jefferson Davis before the war, and with the state of the conflict shifting decidedly in the Federals’ favor, he concluded that the time had come to use his friendship to persuade Davis to negotiate a peace.

Blair met with Lincoln on the 28th and requested a pass through Federal lines to Richmond. He explained that he wanted the pass to search for personal papers that Confederate troops had seized when they raided his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, last summer. Blair then tried explaining his real reason for wanting to go to Richmond, but Lincoln stopped him. The president would grant the pass, but he would not sanction any effort by an unofficial civilian to negotiate peace. The failed Niagara conference had taught Lincoln to be cautious on this issue.

Blair then wrote two letters to Davis. The first, which Blair intended to be made public, requested permission to come to Richmond to look for his missing papers. The second letter was private:

“The main purpose I have in seeing you (is) to submit to your consideration ideas which in my opinion you may turn to good and possibly bring to practical results, (repairing) all the ruin the war has brought upon the nation.”

Blair sought to “unbosom my heart frankly and without reserve” regarding the “state of affairs of our country.” He assured Davis that he would come “wholly unaccredited except in so far as I may be by having permission to pass our lines and to offer to you my own suggestions–suggestions which I have suggested to none in authority on this side (of) the lines.”

However, Blair gave no indication that Lincoln opposed the visit, which implied that Lincoln may have endorsed it. Since discussing peace might reveal that the Federals refused to recognize Confederate independence (the only term upon which Davis insisted), it could embolden wavering southerners to continue fighting. Davis would consider the matter and respond in the first week of January.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21742; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16108-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 537; Harris, William C., “The Hampton Roads Peace Conference: A Final Test of Lincoln’s Presidential Leadership” (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2000), p. 30-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616

The Tennessee Campaign Ends

December 28, 1864 – Major General George H. Thomas decided to end his pursuit of the beaten, demoralized Confederates as they left Tennessee for the last time.

Confederate General J.B. Hood | Image Credit: Flickr.com

It was a gloomy Christmas for General John Bell Hood’s once-powerful Confederate Army of Tennessee. When he began his campaign in November, Hood had envisioned reclaiming Tennessee and Kentucky, and possibly even invading the North. But since then, his army had suffered crushing defeats at Franklin and Nashville, and now the few remaining men struggled to get across the Tennessee River before the Federals destroyed them once and for all. Yet despite the army’s failures, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris urged President Jefferson Davis not to blame Hood:

“… I have been with General Hood from the beginning of this campaign, and beg to say, disastrous as it has ended, I am not able to see anything that General Hood has done that he should not, or neglected any thing that he should, have done… and regret to say that, if all had performed their parts as well as he, the results would have been very different.”

On the Federal side, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland had the advantage in numbers and momentum, but the troops were enduring hardships of their own. They had set out to finish off the Confederate army, but they got bogged down in rain, mud, snow, and ice. Nevertheless, Thomas wrote his superiors, “I have my troops well in hand, and well provided with provisions and ammunition, and close upon the heels of the enemy, and shall continue to press him as long as there is a chance of doing anything.”

Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s Federal cavalry probed forward to find a weak spot in Hood’s retreating column, but Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry held him off long enough for the rest of the Confederates to slip away. Forrest suffered heavy losses on Christmas Day while the Confederates destroyed anything they could not take with them out of Pulaski. Later that day, Hood’s vanguard reached the banks of the Tennessee River at Bainbridge.

A Federal gunboat squadron led by Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee moved up the Tennessee to try to block the Confederate river crossing. However, as Lee later reported:

“Foggy weather and a rapidly falling river prevented my reaching and destroying Hood’s pontoons at Bainbridge. Bainbridge was not a regular ferry, and my clever pilot thought the water was too swift there for a crossing. Hood must have been sorely pushed to have resorted to such a place on the shoals.”

Besides Thomas and Lee, a third Federal force under Major General James B. Steedman tried to cut Hood off. Steedman’s 5,000 Federals had been sent to Murfreesboro after the Battle of Nashville, and now they were ordered to take the railroad to Decatur, Alabama. The troops began boarding on the 22nd, but due to delays, they did not get there until the 26th, too late to block Hood’s line of retreat.

The Confederates began crossing the river on the 26th while Forrest, supported by some infantry, continued checking the Federal advance. Wilson’s cavalry came up again that day, and according to Forrest:

“Owing to the dense fog, he could not see the temporary fortifications which the infantry had thrown up and behind which they were secreted. The enemy therefore advanced to within 50 paces of these works, when a volley was opened upon him, causing the wildest confusion.”

Forrest then counterattacked with his entire force, forcing the Federals to retreat. This minor victory ended an otherwise disastrous campaign for the Army of Tennessee. Forrest’s men joined the rest of Hood’s demoralized force in crossing the Tennessee to safety. Lee’s gunboats tried getting to the Confederates again on the 27th, but they could only destroy two Confederate batteries at Florence, Alabama, before having to pull back to Eastport, Mississippi, due to rapidly falling waters.

Major General George H. Thomas | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Thomas’s Federals, led by Wilson’s cavalry and followed by Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps, reached Pulaski on the 28th. By that time, the Confederates had finished crossing the Tennessee, but Thomas did not yet know it. He therefore directed Wilson to ride ahead and destroy the Confederate pontoon bridges. Thomas reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I feel confident that he will make every exertion to carry out my orders.”

If Wilson found that the Confederates had already crossed, Thomas wrote that he would continue to “pursue him, if the roads are at all practicable.” Thomas reported that Hood’s army was in a “most deplorable condition,” so he was confident that he could “intercept him at Iuka, if he retreats that way.” But then the situation changed.

That night, Wilson reported that “the last of the enemy crossed the river yesterday evening… there is no necessity of going to the Tennessee River as a matter of pursuit.” When Thomas pressed Wood to lead his infantry in pursuit, Wood replied, “As I have already stated in previous dispatches, the road from Pulaski to the Tennessee River is exceedingly bad, and in my judgment, utterly impracticable as a route for the supply of troops.” Moreover, Thomas’s pontoon bridges were still on the Duck River, 70 miles north. Thomas therefore decided to end the pursuit.

Thomas sent Halleck a report on the campaign, stating that the Federals had virtually destroyed the Confederate army. Prisoners taken reported “that they had orders to scatter and care for themselves.” This indicated that Hood’s force “had become a disheartened and disorganized rabble of half-naked and barefooted men, who sought every opportunity to fall out by the wayside and desert their cause to put an end to their sufferings. The rear guard, however, was undaunted and firm, and did its work bravely to the last.” Thomas then explained why he decided not to continue forward and finish the Confederates off:

“In consequence of the terribly bad weather, almost impassible condition of the roads, and exhausted country, the troops and animals are so much worn down by the fatigues of the last two weeks that it becomes necessary to halt for a short time to reorganize and refit for a renewal of the campaign, if Hood should halt at Corinth. Should he continue his retreat to Meridian, as supposed by many of his officers who have been taken prisoners, I think it would be best for the troops to be allowed till early spring, when the roads will be in a condition to make a campaign into the heart of the enemy’s country.”

Thomas wrote Wood directing “that the pursuit cease, and that you march with your corps to Huntsville, Athens, and vicinity, and there go into camp for the winter.” Thomas directed Major General John Schofield’s XXIII Corps to set up winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia. Thomas told Halleck that he selected these points because “they can be easily supplied, and from which points they can be readily assembled to make a spring campaign.”

This did not sit well with Halleck or Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant replied, “I have no idea of keeping idle troops in any place,” and Halleck forwarded this message along with one of his own: “General Grant does not intend that your army shall go into winter quarters. It must be ready for active operations in the field.”

But as the year ended, what was left of Hood’s Army of Tennessee was temporarily safe at Tupelo, Mississippi. This was not necessarily the case for Hood himself: President Davis dispatched General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Western Theater, to go to Tupelo and decide whether Hood should be removed from command.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21190, 21207; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 509-10; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 14855-75, 14895-905, 15816-36; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 615-16; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 144; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 285-86

Sherman’s March: Savannah is Doomed

December 17, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies assumed attack positions outside Savannah, hoping to capture this vital port city on the Atlantic coast and complete their march to the sea.

Sherman Before Savannah | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol IX, No. 419, 17 Jan 1865

By the 17th, Sherman’s 60,000 Federals were poised to attack about four miles outside Savannah. Their line stretched from the Savannah River north of town to a link with the Federal navy via Ossabaw Sound to the south. This naval link ensured that the Federals would be well-supplied indefinitely. The Confederates defending Savannah, led by Lieutenant General William Hardee, numbered less than 20,000.

The Federals surrounded Savannah to the north, west, and south, but the Confederates were positioned behind strong fortifications, and they had flooded the approaches to make an assault as difficult as possible. Nevertheless, Sherman tried coaxing a surrender out of Hardee in a message he sent through the lines:

“General: You have doubtless observed from your station at Rosedew that sea-going vessels now come through Ossabaw Sound and up Ogeechee to the rear of my army, giving me abundant supplies of all kinds, and more especially heavy ordnance necessary to the reduction of Savannah. I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied; and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts, and shall await a reasonable time your answer before opening with heavy ordnance.

“Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, and the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army–burning to avenge a great national wrong they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.”

Hardee quickly responded, reminding Sherman that his Federals were still four miles away, held back by the Confederates’ outer defenses. Hardee also asserted that the Federals had not yet cut his army off from the rest of the Confederacy; “I am in free and constant communication with my department.” As such, “Your demand for the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts is refused.” Hardee then addressed Sherman’s threat of destruction:

“I have hitherto conducted the military operations intrusted to my direction in strict accordance with the rules of civilized warfare, and I should deeply regret the adoption of any course by you that may force me to deviate from them in the future. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, W.J. Hardee, Lieutenant General.”

Hardee’s strong words notwithstanding, he knew that the fall of Savannah was inevitable. His superior, General P.G.T. Beauregard, knew this too. He had instructed Hardee to abandon Savannah if it meant saving his army, and this had been endorsed by President Jefferson Davis. It was also endorsed by Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, who wrote Beauregard on the 18th: “It is hoped Savannah may be successfully defended. But the defense should not be too protracted, to the sacrifice of the garrison. The same remarks are applicable to Charleston.”

Beauregard came to Savannah and began transferring Hardee’s units out of the city. The troops defending Forts Jackson and Lee were to spike their guns and withdraw toward Charleston, and the few remaining Confederate naval vessels were to move up the Savannah River. Major General Joseph Wheeler, commanding the Confederate cavalry in Georgia, was to “guard the crossings of the Savannah and New Rivers, also the landings east of Sereven’s Ferry Causeway, until compelled by the enemy to retire.”

Beauregard then sent a message to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the besieged Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg:

“General Sherman demanded the surrender of Savannah yesterday of General Hardee, which was refused. The loss of Savannah will be followed by that of the railroad from Augusta to Charleston, and soon after of Charleston itself. Cannot (Robert) Hoke’s and (Bushrod) Johnson’s divisions be spared for the defense of South Carolina and Georgia until part or whole of (John Bell) Hood’s army could reach Georgia?”

President Davis forwarded this message to Lee, who replied on the 19th: “Beauregard and Hardee must judge of necessity of evacuating Savannah… If Hoke and Johnson are sent south, it will necessitate the abandonment of Richmond with the present opposing force.”

Meanwhile, Sherman’s Federals enjoyed an abundance of food, clothing, and equipment, courtesy of the Federal navy. Sherman arranged for troops from Major General John G. Foster’s Department of the South to try working their way around east of Savannah to completely surround the city. He also wrote Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, urging him to reconsider his order for Sherman to stop everything and send his army to Virginia by sea.

Sherman argued that it would be more devastating to the Confederacy to march his army overland, through the Carolinas, than to go to Virginia by sea. He wrote, “We can punish South Carolina as she deserves, and as thousands of people in Georgia hoped we would do. I do sincerely believe that the whole United States, North and South, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina, to devastate that state in the manner we have done in Georgia.” Such destruction “would have a direct and immediate bearing upon the campaign in Virginia.”

Sherman noted:

“I estimate $100 million, at least 20 millions of which has inured to our advantage, and the remainder is simple waste and destruction. This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.”

As Sherman waited for Grant’s response, he continued tightening his stranglehold on Savannah. And Hardee began arranging his evacuation.

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 505; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 14905-25, 14974-84; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 534; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 612; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 431