Tag Archives: Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis Vows to Fight On

April 13, 1865 – Despite the recent Confederate disasters, President Jefferson Davis was determined to continue the fight.

Davis refused to acknowledge that the cause was lost, despite the recent surrender of the largest Confederate army. He and his cabinet-in-transit met with Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard at the home of Colonel J. Taylor Wood in Greensboro, North Carolina, on the 12th. Johnston, with Beauregard second-in-command, led the largest Confederate army still in the field.

President Jefferson Davis and Gens J.E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Beauregard reiterated his earlier assertion that the cause was lost, but Davis maintained that the armies in the field still had the means to fight. And since the Federal government had refused to negotiate a peace unless the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally, Davis intended to fight to the last man.

Both Beauregard and Johnston balked at this idea. And when Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge arrived that night and confirmed that Robert E. Lee had surrendered the entire Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston told him that it “would be the greatest of crimes” to keep fighting when it would almost certainly destroy the South beyond repair. He resolved to explain this to Davis the next day.

Davis reassembled his cabinet on the morning of the 13th, and it was soon apparent that only he and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin supported continuing the fight. Johnston and Beauregard arrived at 10 a.m., and Davis repeated his announcement from yesterday. He said, “Our late disasters are terrible, but I do not think we should regard them as fatal. I think we can whip the enemy yet, if our people turn out.”

The men sat silent until Davis asked for their views. Johnston spoke first: “My views are, sir, that our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight.” The Confederacy was “without money, or credit, or arms, or ammunition, or means of procuring them.” Johnston continued:

“My men are, daily, deserting in large numbers, and are taking my artillery teams to aid their escape to their homes. Since Lee’s defeat, they regard the war as at an end. If I march out of North Carolina her people will all leave my ranks. It will be the same as I proceed south through South Carolina and Georgia, and I shall expect to retain no man beyond the by-road or cow-path that leads to his house. My small force is melting away like snow before the sun, and I am hopeless of recruiting it. We may, perhaps, obtain terms which we ought to accept.”

Davis turned to Beauregard, who declared, “I concur in all General Johnston has said.”

Johnston recommended meeting with Major General William T. Sherman to try negotiating a peace. Four of the five cabinet members agreed; only Benjamin dissented. Davis was reluctant to approve this, but he finally said, “Well, sir, you can adopt this course, though I am not sanguine as to ultimate results.” At Johnston’s insistence, Davis dictated a letter to Sherman for Johnston’s signature:

“The results of the recent campaign in Virginia have changed the relative military condition of the belligerents. I am, therefore, induced to address you in this form of inquiry whether, to stop the further effusion of blood and devastation of property, you are willing to make a temporary suspension of active operations… the object being to permit the civil authorities to enter into the needful arrangements to terminate the existing war.”

Johnston suggested confronting Sherman’s Federals at Charlotte, and if they proved too powerful, Johnston would then retreat southwest, “with Texas as a final goal.” Davis approved this plan, believing that Johnston would adopt it regardless of whether or not the Federals were willing to talk peace. But Johnston intended to adopt it only if Sherman refused to negotiate. Davis arranged for Commissary General I.M. St. John to have supplies ready for the Confederates on their line of retreat.

Davis and the cabinet spent the 14th planning their route out of Greensboro to the south. Outwardly, the president was still confident that the Confederacy could win its independence. But privately his confidence wavered, as he wrote to his wife Varina at Charlotte: “I will come to you if I can. Everything is dark. You should prepare for the worst by dividing your baggage so as to move in wagons… I have lingered on the road to little purpose…”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 222-23; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22814-29, 22847; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 558; 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 20323-43, 20353-402; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 583; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 155-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 673-75; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 736; 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), Q265

The Flight of Jefferson Davis

April 10, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government-in-exile left Danville, Virginia, for Greensboro, North Carolina, upon learning of General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

When the fall of Richmond was imminent, Davis and his cabinet ministers fled aboard a train bound for Danville, near the Virginia-North Carolina border. Although Danville was just 120 miles away, it took 20 hours to get there.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: gettysburgdaily.com

Citizens of Danville warmly received the Confederate officials when they arrived on the 3rd, and Davis took up residence in the home of Major W.T. Sutherlin. Davis wrote to his wife Varina, who had fled ahead of him and was now in Charlotte. The next day, he issued a proclamation “To the People of the Confederate States of America”:

“The General-in-Chief found it necessary to make such movements of his troops as to uncover the capital. It would be unwise to conceal the moral and material injury to our cause resulting from its occupation by the enemy. It is equally unwise and unworthy of us to allow our energies to falter and our efforts to become relaxed under reverses, however calamitous they may be… It is for us, my countrymen, to show by our bearing under reverses, how wretched has been the self-deception of those who have believed us less able to endure misfortune with fortitude than to encounter danger with courage.

“We have now entered upon a new phase of the struggle. Relieved from the necessity of guarding particular points, our army will be free to move from point to point, to strike the enemy in detail far from his base. Let us but will it, and we are free… Animated by that confidence in your spirit and fortitude which never yet failed me, I announce to you, fellow-countrymen, that it is my purpose to maintain your cause with my whole heart and soul; that I will never consent to abandon to the enemy one foot of the soil of any of the States of the Confederacy… Let us, then, not despond, my countrymen, but, relying on God, meet the foe with fresh defiance and with unconquered and unconquerable hearts.”

Davis hoped that Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would soon arrive at Danville, but by this time, the Federals were closer than Lee. While Davis and other officials made Danville the temporary Confederate capital, Navy Lieutenant William H. Parker and 50 midshipmen continued south with the government archives, records, and treasury assets.

On the afternoon of the 10th, word arrived in Danville that Lee had surrendered his army. But this did not weaken Davis’s resolve, and he directed that the government relocate ahead of the Federal cavalry. That night, Davis and his cabinet left Danville on a train bound for Greensboro, North Carolina, 45 miles south. He notified General Joseph E. Johnston that Lee had surrendered and requested a meeting when the train arrived. Johnston commanded the last real Confederate force east of the Mississippi River, and Davis wanted to ensure that Johnston did not share Lee’s fate.

Davis’s train arrived at Greensboro on the morning of the 11th to a lukewarm reception. Many citizens in this Piedmont region of North Carolina had long opposed the Confederate war effort, and many others feared that embracing the Confederate government would encourage vengeful Federals to destroy their town. Only Davis and Treasury Secretary George A. Trenholm found lodging in Greensboro; the remaining government officials slept in train cars.

Upon his arrival, Davis received word that the train carrying the Confederate archives and assets had left $39,000 at Greensboro for soldier pay before continuing on to Charlotte. Lieutenant Parker and his midshipmen collected Varina Davis and her children at Charlotte, and then continued southward.

Davis wrote to North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance: “We must redouble our efforts to meet present disasters. An army holding its position with determination to fight on, and manifest ability to maintain the struggle, will attract all the scattered soldiers and daily and rapidly gather strength.”

Davis also met with General P.G.T. Beauregard, serving under Johnston in this military department, whose headquarters were in boxcars at the railroad depot. Beauregard reported that Johnston had evacuated Smithfield, but Davis disagreed with the general’s assessment that the cause was lost. Davis believed that Johnston could continue the fight, even if it meant retreating west across the Mississippi River.

Davis summoned Johnston to Greensboro to discuss the situation. He wrote: “The important question first to be solved is, at what point shall concentration be made, in view of the present position of the two columns of the enemy, and the routes which they may adopt to engage your forces… Your more intimate knowledge of the data for the solution of the problem deters me from making a specific suggestion on that point.”

Before following the president’s orders, Johnston had been advised by Governor Vance: “(Davis), a man of imperfectly constituted genius… could absolutely blind himself to those things which his prejudices or hopes did not desire to see.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 219-21; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22766-81, 27796-814; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 554, 556-58; 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 18705-25, 20295-334; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 576-77, 581-83; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 665-66, 672-73; 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. 847; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 375; 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), Q265

The Appomattox Campaign

April 7, 1865 – After suffering his worst defeat, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee embarked on the final campaign of his military career.

The Confederates who survived yesterday’s Sayler’s Creek rout continued their agonizing march west to collect the rations waiting for them at Farmville. Many starving men had been living on dried corn intended for the horses. They crossed the Appomattox River and burned the bridges behind them, but Federals from II Corps seized a bridge downriver before it could be destroyed. This enabled the Federals to cross and continue their close pursuit.

As the Confederates stopped at Farmville to cook their rations, Lee learned that the Federals had gotten across the Appomattox. He would have to order another forced march to get away, this time to Appomattox Court House, 38 miles west. The exhausted troops were quickly put in motion once again; many had not even had time to eat when the ration train steamed off to safety. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the Confederate artillery chief, later wrote:

“It was very plain that the prospect of being surrendered had suddenly become a topic of general conversation. Indeed, no man who looked at our situation on a map, or who understood the geography of the country, could fail to see that General Grant now had us completely in a trap… We were now in a sort of jug shaped peninsula between the James River and the Appomattox, and there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Court House, and to that Grant had the shortest road!”

Federals from II Corps and Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry clashed with a Confederate holding force at Cumberland Church on the afternoon of the 7th. The Confederates repelled two charges, capturing Brigadier General John Irvin Gregg and mortally wounding Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth in the process. Smyth would become the last general to die in the war. Darkness ended the fighting, and the Confederates soon began another grueling night march.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

That night, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, rode into Farmville with Sheridan. Grant rode ahead of his baggage and had no clothes other than the mud-stained uniform he was wearing. Sheridan had written that Lee might surrender if pressed, and Grant forwarded this message to President Abraham Lincoln, who was still monitoring developments from the Federal supply base at City Point. Lincoln replied, “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”

Sheridan reported that his cavalry was riding hard for Appomattox Court House, where the Federals learned that supplies were being sent for Lee’s army. Sheridan also reported that Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, the Confederate corps commander who had been captured at Sayler’s Creek, had told his captors, “Our cause is lost. Lee should surrender before more lives are wasted.” Grant said, “I have a mind to summon Lee to surrender.” Grant went into the town hotel serving as his headquarters and wrote a letter to be sent to Lee under a flag of truce:

“The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Meanwhile, Lee’s troops continued heading west. Many dropped out due to hunger, sleep deprivation, or sheer hopelessness. Major General Henry Wise, the former Virginia governor, bluntly told Lee:

“This army is hopelessly whipped, and is fast becoming demoralized. These men have already endured more than I believed flesh and blood could stand, and I say to you, sir, emphatically, that to prolong the struggle is murder, and the blood of every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.”

Lee asked, “What would the country think of me, if I did what you suggest?” Wise snapped, “Country be damned! There is no country. There has been no country, General, for a year or more. You are the country to these men… You know the game is desperate beyond redemption, and that, if you so announce, no man, or government, or people, will gainsay your decision.”

A courier delivered Grant’s message to Lee around 10 p.m. Lee read the message and then handed it to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, his most trusted corps commander. Longstreet read it and said, “Not yet.” Lee responded to Grant:

“GENERAL:–I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va. I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 538; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 215-17; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 372-73; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 455-56; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555-56; 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 18973-83, 19355-65, 19531-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 580; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8653-65; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 550-51; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 281; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 119-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 668-69; 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. 847; 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), Q265

The Fall of Richmond

April 2, 1865 – As Federal forces entered Petersburg, the fall of the Confederate capital was imminent.

Richmond’s elite gathered for Communion Sunday services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Among them was President Jefferson Davis, seated in pew 63. The rector, Dr. Charles Minnigerode, delivered his invocation, and then the sexton delivered a telegram to the president. As Davis opened the envelope and read, witnesses noted “a sort of gray pallor creep over his face.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis quietly left with a few advisors, telling nobody about the situation so as to prevent a panic. But as more messengers came and went, word quickly spread that the capital would soon fall. At the nearby Second Presbyterian Church, Reverend Moses Hoge received the news during his sermon and announced to his congregation:

“Brethren, trying times are before us… but remember that God is with us in the storm as well as in the calm. We may never meet again. Go quietly to our homes, and whatever may be in store for us, let us not forget that we are Christian men and women, and may the protection of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost be with you all.”

Government clerks soon began stacking documents in the streets and burning them. That night, Davis assembled his cabinet, informed them that Richmond was lost, and made arrangements to abandon the city. Each cabinet member was to bring his department’s archives to the Richmond & Danville Railroad depot, where a special train would relocate the government to Danville, southwest of Richmond. Davis was determined to keep the government functioning no matter what.

Richmond’s imminent fall was announced to the public in late afternoon. Many were shocked by the news because the Richmond press had been discouraged from reporting Federal success, and therefore they did not know the city was in such danger. Residents wept as they either hurried to leave or resolved to stay and leave their fate to the Yankees.

Pandemonium reigned as every road and railroad station was quickly jammed with humanity. Government officials scrambled to get family members aboard packet boats on the James River Canal before fleeing to safety. At the rail depot, the boxcars attached to the special government train were hastily labeled “War Department,” “Quarter-Masters Department,” etc. The Treasury car contained all the gold and silver from its vaults and local banks, totaling some $528,000. These assets were guarded by 60 midshipmen from the Patrick Henry, the Confederacy’s naval academy training vessel.

The special train was ready to leave at 8 p.m. Davis collected effects from the Executive Mansion and organized what was left so the Federals would not think he rushed out too hastily. Davis also sent an armchair to Mrs. Robert E. Lee in hopes of easing her arthritis; she was too infirmed to leave Richmond. Davis then wrote to her husband, who was busy evacuating Petersburg: “To move to night will involve the loss of many valuables, both for the want of time to pack and of transportation. Arrangements are progressing, and unless you otherwise advise the start will be made.”

When Lee received this message, he tore it up and snapped, “I am sure I gave him sufficient notice!” He then calmly replied: “Your telegram received. I think it will be necessary to move tonight. I shall camp the troops here north of the Appomattox. The enemy is so strong that they will cross above us & close us in between the James & Appomattox Rivers, if we remain.”

Davis rode through the panicked crowds to get to the depot (his wife and children had already left town in late March). By 11 p.m., Davis and most other top officials had boarded the train. Only Lee’s orderly retreat from Petersburg enabled the train to escape before the Federals arrived. The trip to Danville took 20 hours despite being just 140 miles away.

The Richmond fires | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Back in Richmond, the chaos continued. Inmates walked out of the abandoned state prison, and the inevitable looting and pillaging began. The Local Defense Board fell apart as marauders plundered shops, stores, and homes. Richmond officials issued orders to destroy all whiskey to prevent a drunken riot, but the people gathered all the liquor they could find and even scooped it up after it was dumped in the streets. A resident wrote that this was “the saddest of many of the sad sights of the war–a city undergoing pillage at the hands of its own mob, while the standards of an empire were being taken from its capitol.” Another wrote that on this night, “the devil was loosed.”

Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory directed Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes to destroy the Patrick Henry and all other vessels on the James River before they fell into Federal hands. The exploding ships shattered windows in Richmond. Semmes later wrote, “The spectacle was grand beyond description.” All remaining sailors were formed into an infantry brigade and sent with the rest of the Confederate troops out of town.

On land, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell ordered the destruction of all military equipment and supplies that could not be evacuated. During the night, Confederates burned warehouses, and the fires quickly spread out of control. They burned most tobacco barns, flour mills, and public buildings, as well as the Richmond Examiner and Inquirer. The troops evacuated on the Mayo Bridge out of Richmond, and then destroyed that as well.

The fires destroyed much of the main part of Richmond, with the massive inferno engulfing homes, hotels, factories, and warehouses. Around 2 a.m., the fires reached the national arsenal holding gunpowder and nearly a million artillery shells. This set off massive explosions that rocked the city for hours. Streets quickly filled with “those silent awful fires,” and resident Mary Fontaine wrote, “All like myself were watching them, paralyzed and breathless.”

By dawn on the 3rd, the city that had defiantly served as the Confederate capital for nearly four years lay in ruins.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 525; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 219-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 553; 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 18539-59, 18578-637; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 574-76; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 715-17; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-101; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 663-64; 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. 845-46; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 490-92; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 368-69; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 630-32; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 102-05, 108, 110

The Deteriorating State of the Confederacy

March 13, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis submitted a contentious message to the Confederate Congress as a growing sense of defeat spread throughout the South.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

While Confederate officials became more vocal in their belief that independence could not be attained, Davis refused to publicly acknowledge such a possibility. His continued resistance was reflected in a letter he wrote to influential Virginian Willoughby Newton:

“In spite of the timidity and faithlessness of many who should give tone to the popular feeling and hope to the popular heart, I am satisfied that it is in the power of the good men and true patriots of the country to reanimate the wearied spirit of our people. The incredible sacrifices made by them in the cause will be surpassed by what they are still willing to endure in preference to abject submission, if they are not deserted by their leaders… I expect the hour of deliverance.”

But the future seemed increasingly bleak for Davis. In early March, he received a message from General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, in which Smith noted that he was under heavy criticism from the southern press for failing to send troops east to stop the Federal surge. Smith asked Davis to relieve him of command, but while Davis agreed with some of the criticism, he refused to fire Smith.

Davis then turned to Congress, which he believed was not doing enough to sustain the war effort. The members were scheduled to adjourn in mid-March, but Davis urged them to stay on in special session to consider “further and more energetic legislation.” He then accused the senators and congressmen of inaction in the face of emergency.

He requested the modification of laws governing impressments and raising revenue, as well as military recruiting. Specifically, Davis wanted all class exemptions removed from the Conscription Act, a new militia law to strengthen local defenses, and the same power that President Abraham Lincoln had to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

Congress responded by approving legislation allowing for the recruitment of black men into the military, which Davis signed into law. Members also revised the impressment law of March 6, 1863, by forbidding the Confederate government from taking breeding livestock from private farms. However, the members did not act upon any of the president’s other recommendations. Instead they issued a response to Davis’s message, which read in part:

“Nothing is more desirable then concord and cordial cooperation between all departments of Government. Hence your committee regret that the Executive deemed it necessary to transmit to Congress a message so well calculated to excite discord and dissension…”

The members approved a new national flag, which was a modified Stainless Banner, and they voted to give official thanks to Lieutenant General Wade Hampton for his defense of Richmond. Then they adjourned. Many senators and congressmen deeply resented Davis’s charges of obstructionism.

General Joseph E. Johnston, a longtime Davis opponent, wrote to his friend and fellow Davis opponent, Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, in response to Wigfall’s assertion that Davis was in intense anguish over the state of the Confederacy. Johnston wrote, “I have a most unchristian satisfaction in what you say of the state of mind of the leading occupants of the Presidential Mansion. For me, it is very sufficient revenge.”

Near month’s end, when the future appeared even bleaker than when the month began, Davis told a friend, “Faction has done much to cloud our prospects and impair my power to serve the country.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 262-63; 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 17256-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563, 567, 572; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-49, 651-54; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 379; 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), Q165

Confederate Slave Recruitment

March 13, 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed a bill into law authorizing the recruitment of slaves into the Confederate armies.

The bill had passed the Confederate House of Representatives last month but was defeated in the Senate by one vote. Both Virginia senators voted against the bill. The Virginia legislature then passed its own black military recruitment bill (without offering freedom to slaves who enlisted) and directed its senators to push a re-vote. In the re-vote on the 8th, the bill narrowly passed, 9 to 8. Several senators abstained.

Two days later, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee requested that Davis approve the measure as soon as Congress reconciled the final version, stating, “I attach great importance to the result of the first experiment with these troops…”

The law, officially titled “A Bill to Increase the Military Forces of the Confederate States,” contained five sections:

  1. The President be and is hereby authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves the services of such number of able bodied negro men as he may deem expedient for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.
  2. That the General-in-Chief be authorized to organize the said slaves into companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades, under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of War may prescribe, and to be commanded by such officers as the President may appoint.
  3. That while employed in the service the said troops shall receive the same rations, clothing, and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of the service.
  4. That if, under the previous section of this act, the President shall not be able to raise a sufficient number of troops to prosecute the war successfully and maintain the sovereignty of the States and the independence of the Confederate States, then he is hereby authorized to call on each State, whenever he thinks it expedient, for her quota of 300,000 troops in addition to those subject to military service under existing laws, or so many thereof as the President may deem necessary to be raised from such classes of the population, irrespective of color, in each State, as the proper authorities thereof may determine. Provided, that not more than 25 per cent of the male slaves between the ages of 18 and 45 in any State shall be called for under the provisions of this act.
  5. That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by the consent of their owners and of the states in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.

Adhering to the Confederate Constitution’s protection of states’ rights, Congress deferred to slaveholders and their state legislatures to decide whether to offer freedom to slaves for their service. This fell far short of what Major General Patrick R. Cleburne had proposed in January 1864, and it disappointed both Lee and Davis, who felt that any slave who fought for the Confederate cause should be automatically freed. Moreover, slaves would not be given the choice to volunteer; rather, their owners would hand them over upon request for mandatory service.

Despite these provisions, most officials acknowledged that freedom would most likely be granted to all who served, and therefore Davis ultimately approved the measure. In granting his endorsement, Davis took the opportunity to criticize Congress for taking so long to act on this matter. Davis then wrote to Lee:

“I am in receipt of your favor in regard to the bill for putting negroes in the army. The bill was received from the Congress to-day and was immediately signed. I shall be pleased to receive such suggestions from you as will aid me in carrying out the law, and I trust you will endeavor in every available mode to give promptitude to the requisite action.”

It remained unknown whether slaveholders would be willing to send their slaves into combat. It was also unknown whether slaves would be willing combatants. According to an article in a black newspaper:

“Secret associations were at once organized in Richmond, which rapidly spread throughout Virginia… it was decided with great unanimity, and finally ratified by all the auxiliary associations everywhere, that black men should promptly respond to the call of the Rebel chiefs, whenever it should be made, for them to take up arms… if they were placed in front as soon as the battle began the Negroes were to raise a shout about Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and, satisfied there would be plenty of supports from the Federal force, they were to turn like uncaged tigers upon the rebel hordes. Should they be placed in the rear, it was also understood, that as soon as firing began, they were to charge furiously upon the chivalry, which would place them between two fires; which would disastrously defeat the army of Lee, if not accomplish its entire annihilation.”

Within a week, a new battalion of white hospital convalescents and black hospital orderlies marched to Richmond’s Capitol Square to the strains of “Dixie” and began drilling. Confederate officials did not intend for these troops to see combat, but only to encourage other slaves to join the cause. However, as Davis noted, Congress had waited too long to enact the measure for it to help the Confederate war effort, as few slaves joined the Confederate armies before the war ended. A further measure authorizing the recruitment of teenagers and the elderly also accomplished little.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 208; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 545-46; 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 18003-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563, 565; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648-50; 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. 836-37; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 35; SonOfTheSouth.net; 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), Q165; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 363

Lee Proposes a Military Convention

March 2, 1865 – Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee proposed to meet with Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to discuss the possibility of “a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention…”

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

In late February, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of Lee’s First Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, met between the lines with Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding Grant’s Army of the James. Longstreet and Ord were meeting ostensibly to discuss the illicit trading that was going on between the lines. Having been friends before the war, other topics were brought up, among them the subject of peace. The two men agreed that since the political leaders had failed to reach a peace agreement, maybe the military leaders could negotiate a settlement. According to Longstreet:

“(Ord) thought the war had gone on long enough; that we should come together as former comrades and friends and talk a little. He suggested that the work as belligerents should be suspended; that General Grant and General Lee should meet and have a talk; that my wife, who was an old acquaintance and friend of Mrs. Grant in their girlhood days, should go into the Union lines and visit Mrs. Grant with as many Confederate officers as might choose to be with her. Then Mrs. Grant would return the call under escort of Union officers and visit Richmond; that while General Lee and General Grant were arranging for better feeling between the armies, they could be aided by intercourse between the ladies and officers until terms honorable to both sides could be found.”

Longstreet presented this idea to Lee, who forwarded it to President Jefferson Davis. Lee warned Davis that Grant “will consent to no terms unless coupled with the condition of our return to the Union. Whether this will be acceptable to our people yet awhile I cannot say.” Davis had consistently refused any peace agreement that meant reunion, but with the Army of Northern Virginia on the brink of collapse, Davis wrote:

“If you think the statements of General Ord render it probably useful that the Conference suggested should be had, you will proceed as you may prefer, and are clothed with all the supplemental authority you may need in the consideration of any proposition for a Military Convention, or the appointment of a Commissioner to enter into such an arrangement as will cause at least temporary suspension of hostilities.”

Lee wrote to Grant on the 2nd:

“Lieut. Gen. Longstreet has informed me that, in a recent conversation between himself and Maj. Gen. Ord, as to the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a Military Convention, General Ord stated that if I desired to have an interview with you on the subject, you would not decline, provided I had authority to act.

“Sincerely desirous to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of War, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that, upon an interchange of view, it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a Convention of the kind mentioned. In such event I am authorized to do whatever the result of the proposed interview may render necessary or advisable. Should you accede to the proposition I would suggest that, if agreeable to you, we meet at the place selected by Generals Ord and Longstreet for their interview at 11 a.m. on Monday next (the 6th).”

Grant received Lee’s letter during dinner on the night of the 3rd. He read it and then forwarded it to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with a covering note: “I have not returned any reply but promised to do so at noon tomorrow. I respectfully request instructions.”

Stanton brought the messages to President Abraham Lincoln, who was at the Capitol signing bills into law before Congress adjourned. Lincoln and Stanton concluded that allowing a military convention to take place would not only undermine the terms Lincoln had given for peace at Hampton Roads, but it would indirectly recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. Thus, Stanton responded:

“The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army, or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands; and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.”

Grant then responded to Lee:

“In regard to meeting you on the 6th instant, I would state that I have no authority to accede to your proposition for a conference on the subject proposed. Such authority is vested in the President of the United States alone. General Ord could only have meant that I would not refuse an interview on any subject on which I have a right to act, which, of course, would be such as are purely of a military character, and on the subject of exchanges which has been intrusted to me.”

Thus, neither political nor military leaders would negotiate an end to the war. The end would only come on the battlefield.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 500-01; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 423-24; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541; 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 16923-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560-61; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8191; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-27; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 645-47

Johnston Returns to Duty

February 25, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston reluctantly took command of the shattered Army of Tennessee and all other Confederates in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Most troops in this vast region had been under General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Division of the West. However, Beauregard had been in poor health, and now he was breaking down from the stress of trying to stop the Federal thrust through the Carolinas. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and 17 senators had petitioned General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee to put Johnston back in charge of his old Army of Tennessee, and Lee responded on the 13th:

“The three corps of that army have been ordered to South Carolina and are now under the command of Genl Beauregard. I entertain a high opinion of Genl Johnston’s capacity, but think a continual change of commanders is very injurious to any troops and tends greatly to their disorganization… Genl Beauregard is well known to the citizens of South Carolina, as well as to the troops of the Army of Tennessee, and I would recommend that it be certainly ascertained that a change was necessary before it was made. I do not consider that my appointment… confers the right which you assume belongs to it, nor is it proper that it should. I can only employ such troops and officers as may be placed at my disposal by the War Department.”

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Less than a week later, the Federals captured Columbia and Charleston. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals continued their relentless march toward North Carolina, and Major General John Schofield’s Federals threatened Wilmington. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge:

“I do not know where his (Beauregard’s) troops are, or on what lines they are moving… Should his strength give way, there is no one on duty in the department that could replace him, nor have I anyone to send there. Genl J.E. Johnston is the only officer whom I know who has the confidence of the army and the people, and if he was ordered to report to me I would place him there on duty…”

President Jefferson Davis had strongly disliked Johnston almost since the beginning of the war. However, Johnston had influential supporters such as Stephens and Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas. Therefore, Lee and the War Department issued orders recalling Johnston to duty on the 22nd. His command included the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the Department of Tennessee and Georgia.

The next day, Lee informed Davis that Johnston had been reinstated. Lee acknowledged that the Confederates in South Carolina were “much scattered,” but “by diligence & boldness they can be united.” Davis agreed to the appointment after assurances that Lee would oversee all of Johnston’s operations. Lee told Davis, “I shall do all in my power to strengthen him.”

Johnston was reluctant to accept the assignment. He had recently speculated to a friend that if Davis ever gave him another command, it would be one destined to fail so that Davis could blame him for the Confederacy’s downfall. Nevertheless, Johnston obeyed orders.

Lee instructed him to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Lee then notified Davis that he had “directed all the available troops in the Southern Dept to be concentrated, with a view to embarrass, if they can not arrest Sherman’s progress.” But before Johnston even left to take command, he replied to Lee, “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.”

Two days later, Johnston arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command. His jurisdiction included:

  • Lieutenant General William Hardee’s 8,000 Confederates at Cheraw, South Carolina (75 miles southeast of Charlotte)
  • General Braxton Bragg’s 5,000 Confederates retreating from Wilmington to Goldsborough
  • The once mighty Army of Tennessee, now numbering just a few thousand men at Newberry, South Carolina (about 100 miles south of Charlotte)

Johnston’s top priority was to unite these commands, but he reported that they numbered no more than 25,000 against Sherman’s estimated 40,000 (Sherman actually had closer to 60,000). Moreover, Sherman’s army could “prevent their concentration or compel them to unite in its rear by keeping on its way without loss of time.” Johnston wrote, “In my opinion, these troops form an army too weak to cope with Sherman.”

Johnston hoped that Sherman would move toward Fayetteville because this would allow Bragg to confront the Federals from the east while the rest of Johnston’s force came in from the west. However, as February ended, Johnston and the Confederates were still unaware whether Sherman planned to head for Fayetteville or Charlotte. Either way, it seemed that they could do little to stop him now.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22057; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 538, 540; 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 16696-706, 16715-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 557-58; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8179; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 400-01; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26, 61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 638, 642-44; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 704; 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. 828; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 457-58; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 747-48

Black Confederate Soldiers

February 20, 1865 – The Confederate House of Representatives approved a measure allowing for the recruitment of slaves into the military.

The “Negro Soldier Law” passed after long, intense debate by the slim margin of 40 to 37. Approving such a bill would have been virtually unthinkable a year ago, but now the Confederacy was on the verge of defeat, and desperation pushed the measure through.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser, had been urging the enactment of such a law for nearly a year and a half. He had recently written an editorial calling on President Jefferson Davis and Congress to impose “a permanent levy or draft of a certain proportion of the slave population.” According to Forsyth, since the “stragglers, skulkers and absentees” would never return to the Confederate ranks, and since the Federals now had “marshaled 200,000 of our slaves against us,” the time had come to draw from this large manpower reserve in the South.

Davis assured Forsyth that his article was “a substantial expression of my own views on the subject. It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantages or disadvantages of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of our enemy.”

However, many influential southerners were still vehemently opposed to such a move. The fire-eating Charleston Mercury declared: “The freemen of the Confederate States must work out their own redemption, or they must be the slaves of their own slaves.” Robert Toombs proclaimed: “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” And Howell Cobb stated:

“The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you. You can’t keep white and black soldiers together and you can’t trust Negroes by themselves. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

But many of the white soldiers who supposedly would not fight beside blacks had been urging their government to allow blacks into the ranks. The 56th Virginia submitted a petition stating that “slavery is the normal condition of the negro…as indispensable to (his) prosperity and happiness… as is liberty to the whites,” but even so, “if the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to (maintain) our Government, we are willing to make concessions to their false and unenlightened notions of the blessings of liberty.”

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

In the end, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee helped tipped the scales in favor of passage, as Lee had long supported slave recruitment and believed that blacks could serve as soldiers just as well as whites. Lee had privately written that “we should employ them without delay at the risk which may be produced upon our social institutions.” He then issued a public statement on the 18th, declaring that such a measure was “not only expedient but necessary. The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy… Those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise… to require them to serve as slaves.”

The anti-administration Richmond Examiner questioned whether Lee was “a ‘good Southerner’; that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.” However, it reluctantly acknowledged that “the country will not venture to deny to General Lee… anything he may ask for.”

The House bill did not specifically mandate that slaves who fought for the Confederacy would be freed, but it was generally understood that freedom would be given for service. Proponents of this bill asserted that it would encourage slaves to return to their southern homes after serving rather than go north to take homes and jobs assigned by Federal authorities. Moreover, offering slaves a chance for freedom could negate the Federals’ image as liberators among the world powers, and possibly even open a path to foreign recognition for the Confederacy.

Slaveholders comprised most of the bill’s opponents. They argued that slave recruitment could lead to universal abolition, thus forever ending their traditional way of life which they believed was entwined with the Confederate cause itself. However, considering that less than 250,000 people owned slaves, this “way of life” only existed for a very small minority of southerners. Other opponents doubted the loyalty and ability of slaves as soldiers.

Most southerners acknowledged that slavery was on the path to extinction, regardless of whether the Confederacy gained independence or not. Once this bill passed the House, it went to the Senate, where it failed by one vote. Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia (one of the Confederate envoys at the Hampton Roads conference) led the opposition, arguing:

“If we are right in passing this measure, we are wrong in denying to the old (U.S.) government the right to interfere with slavery and to emancipate the slaves. If we offer the slaves their freedom as a boon, we confess that we were insincere and hypocritical in saying slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves.”

Despite the Senate’s rejection, this bill would be reconsidered in March, when Confederates were becoming even more desperate.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 555-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 641-42; 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. 834-36; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 471-72

The Fall of Charleston

February 18, 1865 – City officials surrendered Charleston, South Carolina, to Federal forces this morning.

Charleston was the Confederacy’s prized port city, having defied a Federal naval siege for nearly two years. But the fall of Columbia, the destruction of the South Carolina Railroad, and the Federal threat to Wilmington had left Charleston isolated, so Lieutenant General William Hardee reluctantly ordered his Confederate troops to abandon the city that had symbolized their cause throughout the war.

Federal troops from Major General John G. Foster’s Department of the South began landing at Bull’s Bay on the 17th to divert Confederate attention from Major General William T. Sherman’s advance through central South Carolina. That night, the Confederates began moving north toward Florence and Cheraw to join forces with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s troops opposing Sherman’s march.

Before withdrawing, Commodore John R. Tucker directed his men to scuttle the ironclads in Charleston Harbor and nearby shipyards. The Confederates burned cotton in buildings and warehouses to avoid Federal confiscation. They also destroyed quartermasters’ stores, arsenals, and railroad bridges. Forts Moultrie, Johnson, Beauregard, and Castle Pinckney were evacuated. Confederates finally abandoned Fort Sumter, site of the engagement that had begun the war. Sumter had long symbolized Confederate defiance to Federal subjugation, having survived two years of heavy naval bombardment.

At 9 a.m. on the 18th (the fourth anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s presidential inauguration), Federal Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelfennig accepted Charleston’s surrender from the mayor. The 21st U.S. Colored Troops, made up mostly of former slaves from the Charleston area, proudly entered the city first. Lieutenant Colonel Augustus G. Bennett of the 21st reported:

“On the morning of February 18 I received information that led me to believe the defenses and lines guarding the city of Charleston had been deserted by the enemy. I immediately proceeded to Cumming’s Point, from whence I sent a small boat, in the direction of Fort Moultrie, which boat, when forty yards cast from Fort Sumter, was met by a boat from Sullivan’s Island containing a full corps of band musicians abandoned by the enemy. These confirmed my belief of an evacuation.”

Most white residents had already fled the city. According to a northern scribe, Charleston was a “city of ruins–silent, mournful, in deepest humiliation… The band was playing ‘Hail, Columbia,’ and the strains floated through the desolate city, awakening wild enthusiasm in the hearts of the colored people…” Reporter Charles C. Coffin later wrote that fleeing Confederates had set numerous fires as they hurried out of town that morning:

“The citizens sprang to the fire-engines and succeeded in extinguishing the flames in several places; but in other parts of the city the fire had its own way, burning till there was nothing more to devour… At the Northeastern Railroad depot there was an immense amount of cotton which was fired. The depot was full of commissary supplies and ammunition, powder in kegs, shells, and cartridges. The people rushed in to obtain the supplies. Several hundred men, women, and children were in the building when the flames reached the ammunition and the fearful explosion took place, lifting up the roof and bursting out the walls, and scattering bricks, timbers, tiles, beams, through the air; shells crashed through the panic-stricken crowd, followed by the shrieks and groans of the mangled victims lying helpless in the flames, burning to cinders in the all-devouring element.”

Colonel Bennett reported:

“While awaiting the arrival of my troops at Mills’ Wharf a number of explosions took place. The rebel commissary depot was blown up, and with it, it is estimated, that not less than 200 human beings, most of whom were women and children, were blown to atoms. These people were engaged in procuring food for themselves and families, by permission from the rebel military authorities. The rebel ram Charleston was blown up while lying at her anchorage opposite Mount Pleasant ferry wharf, in the Cooper River.”

According to a northern correspondent:

“Not a building for blocks here that is exempt from the marks of shot and shell… Ruin within and without, and its neighbor in no better plight. The churches, St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s, have not escaped the storms of our projectiles. Their roofs are perforated, their walls wounded, their pillars demolished, and with the pews filled with plastering. From Bay-street, studded with batteries, to Calhoun-street, our shells have carried destruction and desolation, and often death with them.”

The Fall of Charleston | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Since the Federals belonged to the Department of the South, they went to work extinguishing fires and restoring order more diligently than Sherman’s bummers may have done had they captured Charleston. The Federals seized 250 guns and salvaged the ironclad C.S.S. Columbia, which had been run aground but not destroyed. The Federals also captured several “David”-type semi-submersibles that had been used to attack Federal vessels in the harbor.

Federal naval crews left the signal lights burning in the harbor to lure in Confederate blockade-runners, and two were captured. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wrote, “You see by the date of this (the 18th) that the Navy’s occupation has given this pride of rebeldom to the Union flag, and thus the rebellion is shut out from the ocean and foreign sympathy.”

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered “a national salute” fired from “every fort arsenal and army headquarters of the United States, in honor of the restoration of the flag of the Union upon Fort Sumter.” Northerners especially rejoiced at the fall of this hated city. Most black residents welcomed the Federal occupation troops, especially the 55th Massachusetts, a black regiment.

The simultaneous falls of Columbia, Charleston, and Fort Sumter devastated the South. Lieutenant John Wilkinson, commanding the blockade runner C.S.S. Chameleon (formerly the Tallahassee), learned about the fall of Charleston while in the Bahamas and lamented, “This sad intelligence put an end to all our hopes…” President Davis acknowledged, “This disappointment to me is extremely bitter.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 141; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22024; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 535-36; 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 16560-79, 16755-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 555-56; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8168; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 696; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639-41; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131; 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. 828; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 446-47; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 360