George Eggleston.

The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2

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Then he began his movement upon Petersburg. Sending a large part of his force by water, he moved the rest across the James river by pontoon bridges, all his operations being beyond sight of the Confederates.

In his effort to take Petersburg by surprise he was very nearly successful. At the beginning of the movement he had Butler under his command and well placed south of the James river, with an army of 30,000 men. In anticipation of his own movement with the main army, he ordered Butler to advance at once upon Petersburg, capture that place, and hold it until the Army of the Potomac should come up.

This was a bold movement, and one altogether well planned. But Butler's advance was met at Petersburg with determination by the small force present there, aided by the home guards of elderly men, and men otherwise unfit for the regular service. These men, though unused to the work of the soldier, did that work well until they were slowly driven back and forced to fight in the streets of the city itself. But before Butler could bring up his main body to support the attack he had made with the head of his column, Beauregard arrived upon the scene with a small force of Confederate veterans from the south. That always active commander at once fell with fury upon the Federal advance, and drove it back to the hills outside the city, where, during the night a slender line of earthworks was hastily thrown up by the men with their bayonets, and such spades and shovels as could be found in the city.

In the meantime Lee had penetrated Grant's design, and as usual had met it with celerity and promptitude. Marching his men at a double quick which would speedily have killed off two thirds of them if they had been in less perfect training than they were, he pushed them into Petersburg, and out upon the hills that guard the city in time to meet Grant there in a strong position which diligent labor quickly rendered stronger with earthworks.

Thus began that historic siege of Petersburg which was destined to last for many months, and which was marked daily by that heroism of endurance on both sides which is after all, more admirable than the heroism of dash and daring.

The story of that siege will be told in a later chapter. Meanwhile other events had been occurring in other quarters, some account of which must first be given in order that the reader shall fully understand the course and progress of the war during that fighting summer of 1864.

The Confederate Cruisers

From the beginning of the war the Federals had enjoyed the very great advantage of having possession of a navy, and of shipyards in which that navy could be increased almost at will, while the Confederates had neither ships nor shipyards. On the Federal side it was easily possible to increase the naval force by drawing into the service available vessels of every kind – steamers, merchantmen, tugs, and even double-ender ferry boats from New York Harbor.

The guns with which to arm these vessels were at hand, and they were quickly made ready for service by slight alterations which the shipbuilders of the North were prepared to make at exceedingly short notice. On the Southern side there was next to nothing in this way. For a time the Norfolk navy yard was in the possession of the Confederates, and as we have seen in a former chapter they availed themselves of its working resources so far as to prepare the Merrimac or Virginia, and send her out into Hampton Roads, upon her mission of destruction. But presently a change in the military situation made it necessary for them to blow up that ironclad ship, and they had no means of providing another to take her place. At Charleston two or three ironclad gunboats were constructed, together with several torpedo boats that did more or less execution; but so inadequate were the means of construction on the southern side that these boats accomplished very little. On the Mississippi some rams were created out of old hulks, which did some execution, but which were speedily destroyed.

On the open sea the Confederacy had no ships of its own afloat, except the Sumter, a sailing craft heavily sparred, and commanded by Raphael Semmes, perhaps the most expert sailor and daring fighter among all the men who had resigned from the Federal navy to engage in the Confederate service. That ship, daringly commanded and daringly maneuvered, wrought havoc for a time in the early part of the war, but the days of her usefulness as against steam craft were easily numbered.

Somewhat later a steam vessel, the Alabama, was built at Birkenhead in England for the use of Captain Semmes and his daring crew. She was a little thing, only 220 feet long, and built of wood with no protection whatever against an enemy's fire. But she was fleeter than any ship in the American navy, and it was hoped by the Confederates that she might destroy the commerce of the United States upon the high seas without herself meeting with destruction. In spite of the protests of the American minister in London, this ship, all unarmed, was permitted to escape to sea, and at Fayal in the Azores her cannon and coal were put on board of her.

For nearly two years she made herself a terror to American merchantmen, and was the despair of the American navy, which had no ship capable of steaming one half so fast as she could do. In effect she swept American commerce from the seas, not so much by her captures of American merchantmen as by her perpetual threat of capture which rendered it a bad speculation for any American merchant to send a ship to sea, and thus subject her to the possibility of capture by the Alabama.

In June, 1864, the Alabama put into the harbor of Cherbourg, France. The Kearsarge, a United States war vessel under command of John A. Winslow, lay off the harbor, waiting for the Alabama to come out. The one vessel could not attack the other in a neutral port, or within three miles of the shore. But when the Alabama steamed out to a distance of perhaps eight miles, she was assailed by the Kearsarge, and a fierce battle ensued. The two ships were substantially the same in size, but the Kearsarge was a chain protected vessel, stronger in every way than her Confederate adversary, and on that Sunday morning of June nineteenth, 1864, she made short work of the Confederate cruiser. The Alabama was quickly riddled, and went down stern foremost. Many of her crew went down with her and perished in the sea. The remainder of them were picked up by a British yacht and carried in safety to England.

There were other Confederate cruisers like unto the Alabama, including the Shenandoah, the Florida, the Tallahassee, the Tacony, and the Georgia. These ships largely aided in that destruction of American commerce in which the Alabama had taken the lead. But none of them had so picturesque a career as was that of the Alabama, while the careers of all of them are fitly represented by that of Admiral Semmes's ship.

The destructive activities of these ships were afterwards made the subject of an international arbitration, and Great Britain was condemned to pay to the United States an indemnity of $15,500,000 for her neglect of international comity in permitting them to sail from her ports.

Sherman's Campaign against Atlanta

The plan by which General Grant hoped to crush the Confederacy during the summer of 1864 and to make an end of the resisting power of its armies has been set forth already. In that plan, as the reader will remember, an operation second in importance only to Grant's own campaign in Virginia was Sherman's southward march from Chattanooga, which was intended to defeat Johnston, seize upon Atlanta, and push forward thence through the heart of the Confederacy, either to Mobile or to Savannah, in either case cutting the Confederacy in two and leaving Lee with no substantial country behind him. Sherman had already in the spring swept through the country from Vicksburg to Chattanooga, paralyzing Confederate resistance there, breaking up all the railroad communications, and opening a wide path on the east of the Mississippi river for any military operations that the Federal Government might decide to institute in that quarter of the country. Then Grant in pursuance of his policy of putting his strongest lieutenants into the most important commands under himself, had ordered Sherman to take control of all the forces in the West, subject to no dictation whatsoever, except such as Grant himself might find occasion to exercise. And in giving Sherman his orders, Grant steadfastly bore in mind his conviction that Sherman was a general too capable and too energetic to need minute instruction or anything more than general orders. To Sherman he assigned a command and a duty. He left it to Sherman's own judgment so to handle the command as to execute the duty, and accomplish the purpose intended.

Many months earlier Grant had left affairs undirected in a part of the smaller area which he then controlled upon the avowed ground that "Sherman was there." Upon the same principle and in the same abounding confidence in his lieutenant, he thought it sufficient in 1864 to tell Sherman in a general way what he wanted him to do in aid of the general purposes of the campaign, and to leave him to do it in his own way. In scarcely any other act of his life did Grant better illustrate the breadth and strength of his own capacity than he did in thus appreciating and trusting Sherman, and in treating Meade in like manner in Virginia so far as his own presence with Meade's army permitted.

Sherman's problem was difficult of execution, but perfectly simple in its terms. It was his duty to assail Johnston, destroy him if possible, seize upon Atlanta, the great railroad center of the South, and push a column thence to the sea. For the accomplishment of this purpose Sherman had the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by General George H. Thomas, the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by General James B. McPherson, and the Army of the Ohio, commanded by General John M. Schofield. His total fighting force was about 100,000 men.

Opposed to him was Johnston, who lay at Dalton, Georgia, with about 43,000 men.

Sherman had hope of reinforcements sufficient at least to make good his losses on the march which he was about to undertake, while Johnston perfectly knew that he could hope for no reinforcement at all. Sherman had lines of communication over which he could bring to his army 130 carloads of provisions each day. Johnston's men sometimes had scanty rations, and sometimes none at all. He had no secure source of supply in any quarter, as was usually the case with Confederate armies at this period of the war. Lee's army had received a ration of three quarters of a pound of uncooked flour to each man at Spottsylvania just before the movement from that point, and it was three days later – three days of hard fighting and hard marching – before the majority of them received any other rations whatsoever. Johnston's army was similarly starved during the campaign of Atlanta.

On the fifth of May, 1864, at precisely the same time when Grant moved into the Wilderness, Sherman set out on his march to Atlanta. With the true instinct of a fighting commander, he had stripped himself and his army of all encumbering baggage and other superfluities. He had no tent, even for himself. And he boasted in after years that he changed his underclothes only once between Chattanooga and Atlanta. He required all his officers, high and low, except General Thomas, whose health was impaired, to follow his own example of unencumbered movement.

The distance from Chattanooga to Atlanta, as the crow flies, is almost exactly a hundred miles. Johnston's position at Dalton was about fifteen miles southeast of Chattanooga. The country is a hilly and broken one, traversed by many streams which afford good defensive positions to a retiring army, as do also the various gaps among the hills which must be crossed by an army advancing offensively. Johnston was strongly fortified at Dalton and Sherman, not venturing to assail him in his works there, sent McPherson to make a d?tour, and strike the Confederate lines of communication at Resaca, ten miles or so farther south.

There McPherson found Johnston's men behind earthworks, and wisely or unwisely shrank from attacking them in their defenses. If he could have carried the works at Resaca Johnston's position would have been one of extremest danger from which he could escape only by fighting on all sides at once, and forcing his way through opposing lines, strongly posted and well fortified. But in McPherson's judgment an attack at that point with such force as he had with him was unadvisable. He therefore refrained from attack, and fell back to a secure position in the hills to await the approach of reinforcements. Sherman promptly moved to McPherson's position, only to find that Johnston had also retired from Dalton to Resaca, and had concentrated his entire army there in a strong defensive position.

Even with all his army present Sherman, himself, hesitated to attack Johnston in his works – a fact which seems a sufficient answer to that criticism of McPherson which has been freely exploited in writings concerning this campaign.

Sherman, however, had so greatly the advantage of Johnston in numbers that he could afford to send large detachments against the Confederate general's communications, while still holding a threatening position of his own in front. This he did with consummate skill, forcing Johnston with his small army to retreat southward following the railroad, and destroying as he went.

Johnston left Resaca on the night of the fifteenth of May, and on the nineteenth took position at Cassville, where he seemed to offer battle to his enemy. But after some sharp skirmishing the Confederate general retreated again during the night of the twentieth to a point south of the Etowah river and to Alatoona.

After a few days of rest and reprovisioning, Sherman moved again, not directly against his antagonist, but by the flank, so as to threaten Marietta and Atlanta itself, which lies only a few miles south of Marietta. By this movement Sherman hoped to force Johnston to abandon his strong position at Alatoona Pass, where he securely held the railroad over which Sherman had need to bring his supplies in any further advance that he might make southward.

Promptly recognizing the purpose of this movement, Johnston marched westward to assail his enemy in flank. The two armies met at New Hope Church, a point a few miles west of Marietta, and a few miles northwest of Atlanta. Here for six days there was continuous and very bloody fighting, both armies doing their work in a fashion that rivaled even that of the contending forces in Virginia.

By virtue of his superior numbers, Sherman was able to make strong detachments to assail the communications and the flanks of Johnston's army, and thus to compel him to fall back again to a strong defensive position on the railroad above Marietta, on Kenesaw, Lost and Pine Mountains.

Against this position Sherman advanced with caution, strongly entrenching himself in its front. There the fighting was continuous and costly of human life on both sides. There it was that General Leonidas Polk, Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, who had been educated at West Point for the military service, but who had afterwards risen to the highest place of honor in his church as a Bishop, and had at the outbreak of the war entered the Confederate service in which he had risen to the rank of major general, was instantly killed by a cannon shot which Sherman himself had directed to be fired into a group of Confederate officers of whom he caught sight on a hill. This was on June 14.

If he had had anything like Sherman's force with which to contest Sherman's advance, Johnston's position at this time would have been one of peculiar strength and opportunity. But his line was ten miles long, and the ground was so broken that the reinforcement of one part of it by another was peculiarly difficult, while, on the other hand, Sherman's assailing position was geographically such that he might concentrate forces at will and without observation against any point in Johnston's line which he might select for assault.

Without further following the details of this struggle it is enough to say that day by day Johnston slowly retired toward Atlanta, obstinately fighting at every point and baffling all the efforts of his brilliant assailant to break through his lines, or to take him by surprise in the rear of either of his flanks.

On the morning of the twenty-seventh of June Sherman determined to end this struggle by a tremendous assault upon his enemy's entrenchments. At two points a mile apart he hurled his columns against them with all the fury that it was possible to infuse into the minds and the conduct of veteran soldiers. At the same time he ordered all other troops on all other parts of the line to maintain an incessant fire by way of preventing the removal of troops from the unassailed parts of Johnston's lines, for the reinforcement of those defending the points of special attack.

It was Sherman's hope to break through Johnston's lines, cut his army in twain, hold one half of it in position by stubborn fighting and crush the other half by a desperate rush. This plan was baffled only by the desperate courage and splendid obstinacy of the fighting on the Confederate side. The Federal columns advanced to the charge with all the determination that is possible even to the best of veteran troops. The Confederates resisted with a like determination, mowing down their adversaries by a withering fire from behind the breastworks, and so far depleting their strength as to render it impossible for them to force their way over or through the resisting lines. A very few of Sherman's men succeeded in reaching the Confederate works, and these were promptly shot down or made prisoners. Sherman's loss in this attempt was more than 2,500 men, while the Confederate loss was less than one third as great.

Thus defeated in his attempt to push his way to Atlanta, while holding on to his communications in rear, Sherman now determined upon a desperate move which violated all the traditions of war and all the teachings of the books on strategy, but which both Lee and Grant had boldly adopted and with success, on other and most notable occasions. Loading his wagons with ten days' supplies of food and ammunition he decided to abandon his communications altogether, move independently of them, and trust to the fortunes of war for a success which might justify the daring of his endeavor. He had tried and failed to force Johnston back to Atlanta. He now determined to maneuver him into such retreat and in the course of his maneuvering boldly to take the risk of the destruction or the capture of his own army.

His plan was to swing his entire army – foot loose from its communications – around Johnston's flank, and to strike the railroad in the Confederate general's rear, between Marietta and Atlanta. If he could succeed in doing this, he would easily compel Johnston to make a hasty retreat upon the defenses of Atlanta. But should he fail in doing it he would have on his hands an army in the field, destitute alike of provisions and ammunition so soon at least, as the supplies it carried with it should be consumed. In that event he must surrender to a foe vastly inferior to himself in numbers, for no army can long live without food and no army can fight after its ammunition is expended.

Thus Sherman undertook to accomplish certain great military operations within ten days' time, with the certainty present to his mind that should he fail he must fail disastrously, sacrifice all the achievement which he had set out to gain, and possibly even surrender an army that outnumbered its adversary far more than two to one.

Following the same plan which Grant was following in Virginia but by reverse process, Sherman on the night of July second made a movement by his right flank southward, withdrawing first the troops on his left, and passing them to the right, in rear of troops still holding the lines.

Johnston was quick to penetrate Sherman's purpose, and by way of defeating it he promptly abandoned his position, and fell back to the Chattahoochee river, which closely flanks Atlanta on the northwest. Sherman had hoped that Johnston would attempt the immediate crossing of that stream, and he therefore hurried forward his strongest divisions, in the hope of catching his enemy in the act, and assailing him at a disadvantage. But Johnston was too wily for that. He had prepared for himself in advance a line of fortifications along the Chattahoochee, which Sherman has described as one of the strongest pieces of field fortifications he ever saw.

Here Johnston briefly paused while Sherman prepared to turn his position by crossing the river both above and below. The works, however, gave Johnston the opportunity he desired to make his crossing unmolested, and with his little handful of men after his brilliant and sturdily fighting retreat, before an army heavily outnumbering his own Johnston retired to the defenses of Atlanta.

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