George Eggleston.

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

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Early lay at this time just south of the Potomac, a little way above Harper's Ferry, and was drawing his supplies from Maryland by cavalry operations in that quarter. Sheridan promptly pushed southward toward Winchester and Early retired to that point to await reinforcements from Lee. Early retreated as far as Fisher's Hill, east of Winchester, and there took up a strong position, offering battle to his adversary while waiting to be reinforced. There Sheridan attacked Early on the twenty-first of August and was beaten off by the Confederates with a loss of two or three hundred men. Sheridan thereupon retired to Hall Town, destroying as he went "everything eatable."

Then occurred one of the odd situations of the war. For three or four weeks, Early with less than 8,000 men was practically besieging Sheridan with more than 30,000, and in the meantime keeping Washington in a condition of chronic fright by threatening raids into Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, by breaking up the Baltimore and Ohio railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, and in other ways behaving himself precisely as he might have done had his force been four times that of Sheridan's, instead of being, as it was in fact, one fourth as great.

Why Sheridan with his enormously superior force did not at this time fall upon Early and crush him must always be a puzzling question to the historian and the military critic. Whatever the explanation may be, the fact is that during all these weeks Sheridan was standing at bay in the hope that Grant's operations before Petersburg might compel Lee to withdraw Early and his small force from the Valley. So far from driving Early out of that region Sheridan stood upon the defensive in order that Early might not drive him out instead.

At last Lee recalled to Petersburg the troops he had sent to Early's reinforcement, and about the same time Early divided his forces, sending a large part of them to Martinsburg, twenty miles or so north of Winchester. Here was a great opportunity and Grant promptly ordered Sheridan to take advantage of it. On the nineteenth of September Sheridan advanced with all his force upon Winchester, which place Early was defending east of the town. Promptly discovering the purpose of Sheridan's movement, Early recalled his troops from Martinsburg, and concentrated all the force he had in front of Winchester. A fierce and desperate battle ensued in which the Federal loss was about 5,000 men, and the Confederate loss about 4,000. In the end the enormous superiority of numbers on the Federal side prevailed, and Early was driven into retreat up the Valley. But the retreat was made in good order, and all the trains were saved.

Early retired again to Fisher's Hill, where the Valley is about four miles in width, and there took up a strong position for resistance. There on the twenty-second of September Sheridan again assailed him in overwhelming force, and after a stubborn fight drove him again into retreat up the Valley, but failed in a deliberately formed plan for capturing the meager Confederate force.

During the next three or four days Early continued his retreat until he reached Port Republic, and the fighting, though irregular, was continuous.

Grant had hoped that Sheridan would make his way as far south as Charlottesville, but in that he was disappointed. Finding it impossible to force his way further, Sheridan began a retrograde march northward down the Valley on the fifth of October. He destroyed as he went everything that might by any possibility have value to his enemy. In his report he said, "I have destroyed over 2,000 barns, filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep." After this march was over Sheridan picturesquely suggested the desolation he had wrought in one of the fairest of all God's countries by saying that "The crow that flies over the Valley of Virginia must henceforth carry his rations with him."

Here we have a suggestion of the barbarity and brutality and desolation of war! With their barns burned, their wheat and their corn and their flour destroyed, and their stock carried off by the enemy, the farmers of that rich valley were left by the decree of war to stare starvation in the face, and to suffer an extreme of poverty more severe even than that which wastefulness and debauchery bring to men. With jaunty indifference to human suffering war decrees starvation to women and children, the ruin of men's fortunes, the destruction of their means of subsistence, and their sudden reduction from affluence to poverty. In this particular case, in order that no Confederate army might thereafter secure supplies upon which to subsist in the Valley of Virginia, Sheridan decreed that all these farmer folk should be completely deprived of their substance, that their barns should be burned, their cattle slaughtered, their sheep driven off, their wheat stacks reduced to ashes, their smokehouses stripped of the last flitch of bacon that might be hanging there – in brief, that these people, men, women and children, should be deprived of all food supplies and left to starve in wretchedness for the sake of accomplishing a military purpose. How long, oh, Lord, how long will it be before the world shall advance to that point in civilization in which war will be justly regarded as the infamous crime that it is? How long will it be before civilization shall cease to be a mere veneer or varnish and become a matter of substance in human affairs?

As Sheridan retired northward down the Valley, Early received some meager reinforcements, and with that energy which characterized all his operations, he instantly set out in pursuit of his adversary.

Sheridan had taken a position at Cedar Creek, a little to the north of Strasburg, and there on the night of the eighteenth, Early, with every precaution of silence, moved around the Federal left, and at dawn of the nineteenth fell upon the Federal forces with all the vigor he could command. The rout of the Federals was quick and complete. Sheridan was absent at the time, and on his return he met his army in full flight. He instantly set cavalry to work against his own men, in order to stop the insensate retreat. Thus rallying his men he turned them back, entrenched them hastily, and repulsed Early's assault. Later in the day he took the offensive, and succeeded in breaking the Confederate line, and driving it into retreat, capturing 34 Confederate guns in the operation. On the Confederate side 3,100 men fell in this contest. On the Federal side the loss amounted to 5,764.

The result of these operations was to give Sheridan complete command of the Valley of the Shenandoah for the time being, at least, and to wipe that danger spot off the map.

The Presidential Campaign of 1864

At this time there was a presidential campaign in progress at the North. Throughout the war, the South had the advantage of a practically united people, while at the North there was division of sentiment, and a violent difference of opinion as to policy. At the North there was a political party bitterly opposing the administration which must carry on the war, and even opposing the war itself, as unconstitutional in its inception, blundering in its management and completely barren of results.

Here was a fire in the rear with which Mr. Lincoln's administration was forced to reckon, and the reckoning was a very serious one.

In 1864 the Democratic party at the North set itself resolutely against the Lincoln administration, and in opposition to all of its plans, to all of its policies and to all of its performances. In a national political platform, the Democratic party declared that the war was a failure, and in effect called for the abandonment of the Federal cause. For president that party nominated General George B. McClellan, a popular hero in the minds of many men, who was held by them as he held himself, to have been baffled in his military enterprises and robbed of his opportunities by the political antagonism of the Washington administration, and by the prejudice that existed in Congress against him as a Democrat.

Grant's failure to crush Lee in the field or so far to occupy him at Petersburg, as to prevent him from sending Early to threaten Washington, had proved to be a very great discouragement to the Northern people. The cost of the war in men, material and money had been enormous, and there was a widespread sentiment in the North to the effect that it was hopeless to continue the contest. The political feeling of Democrats in antagonism to the Republican party which was represented by the administration was intense and implacable.

There was also a party at the North which opposed Lincoln's re?lection upon quite other grounds than those on which the Democrats antagonized him. This party was radical in the extreme. In its convention, which was held at Cleveland, Ohio, at the end of May, it declared itself in favor of an anti-slavery amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and even urged that the lands of the Southerners should be confiscated and divided among the soldiers who were fighting the war. On a platform of this kind General John C. Fremont, who had resigned from the army because of what he regarded as ill treatment at the hand of the administration, was nominated for President. There was not the smallest chance, of course, that Fremont could be elected upon a platform such as this, but his candidacy seemed likely to withdraw from Lincoln a considerable vote, which would otherwise be his.

The Republican Convention met in Baltimore on the seventh of June and renominated Mr. Lincoln for President on a platform strongly approving his conduct of the war and reaffirming the views that he had expressed from time to time concerning it. At the same time Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, was nominated for Vice-President. Johnson was a Southerner and was at that time acting as military governor of Tennessee. He had always been a Democrat, but he had strongly favored the prosecution of the war for the Union, and at that critical time when Mr. Lincoln's re?lection seemed more than doubtful, it was deemed politic thus to put a war Democrat on the ticket with him, by way of holding to his support that large body of Democratic voters who favored the vigorous prosecution of the contest.

Although Johnson was himself a Southerner, it would have been difficult to find any man more antagonistic than he was to the ruling class of men at the South. He had been born a "poor white," – that is to say, a member of that class at the South which was everywhere held in contempt both by negroes and by white men. He had received no education in his childhood, and it is said, could neither read nor write until after his marriage, when his wife taught him. But he was a man of very considerable intellectual ability, and by diligent work he had come into prominence as a lawyer, before Mr. Lincoln selected him to exercise the functions of military governor over the practically recovered state of Tennessee. As every reader knows, this selection of Johnson for Vice-President proved in the end to be a thorn in the flesh to the Republican party. Their Democratic Vice-President was destined to succeed to the Presidency by Mr. Lincoln's assassination, almost at the beginning of his second term, and as President to do all that he could to thwart and baffle the policies of the party that had elected him.

When the Democratic Convention met in Chicago on the twenty-ninth of August, the situation in the field was such as greatly to discourage a large part of the population at the North. The demands of the Lincoln administration for more and more troops had been incessant and insistent. These demands had exhausted the willingness of the people to respond, and the administration had been compelled to resort to a forcible draft as a means of keeping up the armies in the field. This resort to the policy of enforced enlistment was everywhere bitterly resented. It was held to be un-American, un-Republican, despotic.

There was also the fact that Grant's great campaign from which so much had been expected seemed to a large part of the people to have been a failure. Grant had not crushed Lee, but on the contrary, Lee was so strong that he had pushed a column under Early up to the very gates of Washington. At the end of August Sherman had not yet succeeded in taking Atlanta, but had suffered some severe reverses in his effort to accomplish that object. At that time also, critical discontent at the North was encouraged by the spectacle of Sheridan standing on the defensive in the Valley of Virginia against a force scarcely more than one fourth as great as his own. There was despair in many minds, and weariness in many more.

The resources of the country had been strained well nigh to the point of breaking. Taxes of every kind had been multiplied almost to the limit of ingenuity. The credit of the country was so far impaired that its paper currency had become depreciated to less than one half its nominal value. The debt of the nation had been swelled to thousands of millions, while its productive capacity was being more and more impaired by the withdrawal of young men by hundreds of thousands from their farms and their workshops. The country had given to Mr. Lincoln soldiers by millions, and dollars by billions, and yet the war went on with no apparent prospect of being early brought to a successful end.

For to people uninstructed in military affairs, there was little in the situation in the field at the end of August, 1864, to encourage the hope of a speedy ending of the struggle. The people generally did not realize the great gain that had been made by Grant's insistent pounding of the Confederates, nor did they understand how surely his policy was weakening and destroying the capacity of resistance on the part of the South. Under these circumstances, there was widespread discontent with the administration and disgust over its seeming failure to accomplish the purpose aimed at in the lavish expenditure of money, and the enormous sacrifice of human life. A feeling of despair had come over a very great part of the Northern people, and to this feeling the Democratic party in its platform made a strongly persuasive appeal.

Among other things, the platform said, "that this Convention does explicitly declare, as the sense of the American people, that after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which under the pretense of military necessity, of a war power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired – justice, humanity, liberty and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities with a view to an ultimate Convention of all the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal union of the States.

"That the aim and object of the Democratic party is to preserve the Federal union, and the rights of the states unimpaired."

It is obvious enough to us now that the election of McClellan upon that platform would have meant the surrender by the United States of every contention on which the war had been prosecuted. It would have been, in effect, the triumph of the Confederacy. In any convention that might have been called to reconstruct the Union under such conditions, the South as the winning party in the war, would of course have dictated its own terms.

For a time there seemed to be a very strong prospect that precisely this would happen. The weariness of the people with the war, the discontent aroused by excessive taxation, and by the continued slaughter of the youth of the land, the despair of bankers and business men over the never ceasing depreciation of the currency, – all these and other influences tended very strongly to invite a favorable response from the people to this appeal of a political party.

It was the opinion of many shrewd observers of that time, and is the opinion to-day of many students of history who have closely considered the facts, that if the election had occurred at the beginning of September, 1864, there would have been a decisive majority of voters in favor of this policy of surrender. But the election did not occur until November, and in the meanwhile the military situation was vastly changed. Sherman had taken Atlanta before November came, the Confederate army under Hood had been put in the way of being crushed in Tennessee, Sheridan had made himself master of the Valley of Virginia, and Grant was steadily extending his lines southward and westward at Petersburg, in a way which even the unmilitary observer must recognize at last as a process foredooming Lee to destruction.

Under the influence of these changed conditions in the field, Mr. Lincoln was re?lected with a popular majority of about 400,000 and an electoral majority of 212 to 21. There was contention at the time that the votes of the soldiers in the field were juggled with and falsified. It is highly improbable that anything of that kind was done or attempted in any considerable measure. It is certain that the election, as it resulted, represented the determination of the North to prosecute the war to its end.

Sherman at Atlanta

Sherman occupied Atlanta on the second day of September, 1864, the Confederates retiring without a further struggle to a strong position east of the city.

Sherman almost immediately decided to depopulate the town and make of it a rigidly military stronghold. To that end he ordered all the inhabitants, old and young, sick and well, men, women and children alike, to leave the place. He gave to each the choice of fleeing northward or southward as each might elect, but all must go. All these helpless non-combatants must abandon their homes, surrender whatever they possessed of bread-winning employments and go forth among strangers helpless and forlorn objects of charity.

Even that "hellishness" which Sherman attributed to war, could scarcely have given birth to a crueller order than this. Sherman always justified it in apparent apology to his own conscience, upon the ground that his army was placed in a perilous position in the heart of an enemy's country with a long and exceedingly vulnerable line of communication by one single-track railroad, and that the presence of non-combatants in Atlanta, most of them hostile to his purposes, must be an additional source of danger.

The necessities of war have always been held to justify or at least excuse many things that would otherwise be deemed barbaric and even savage in their cruel inhumanity. That plea of military necessity rests upon the assumption that the purposes of war are of so supreme moment, and in themselves so clearly righteous, that they should be prosecuted to success regardless of human suffering and regardless of all other considerations; that they should be insisted upon in utter disregard of the suffering even of those non-combatant women and children upon whom such war-decrees as this fall with an excess of cruelty.

In every such case as this, the commander who issues the decree is himself sole and arbitrary judge of the extent of his necessity. What if he judges wrongly? What if he permits considerations of his own convenience to outweigh all other arguments, and, for the sake of his own repose in his headquarters wantonly condemns many innocent, helpless, and in no way offensive, women and little children and men sorely stricken with age, to a banishment which must mean to many of them a long period of suffering with lingering and painful death by the wayside as an incident? What if he is moved to the issue of such an order merely by way of saving himself and his army from the trouble of effectually guarding a position which due diligence might sufficiently protect?

At the beginning of the war and indeed throughout its progress, Washington City had multitudes of people in it whose sympathies were with the Southern cause, and who daily communicated by one means or another with the Confederates in Virginia. Would McClellan have been justified by the facts, in ordering the utter depopulation of the Federal city, and the sending into exile of every man, woman and child dwelling there and not enlisted in the military service? Did any commander on either side ever think of depopulating Harper's Ferry or Winchester or Martinsburg, although throughout the struggle those points of strategic importance were inhabited about equally by Northern and Southern sympathizers.

It is true that at Atlanta General Sherman was in a position of considerable danger and difficulty. But he had deliberately placed himself in that position, for the sake of the military advantages it might yield to him; and moreover, he had almost phenomenally overwhelming resources in men, money, food stuffs, and all the other appliances of war, with which to maintain himself there, in spite of anything and everything that the non-combatants of the town could have done to annoy him. Impartial history must therefore earnestly challenge his order for the depopulation of Atlanta, asking whether its cruelty was really a military necessity or whether it was merely a resort of convenience, intended to save an invading army and its commander from petty annoyance. Did not General Sherman by this order of depopulation needlessly add to the suffering of non-combatants? Was his military necessity at that time so great – when he had only a badly crippled army to contend against, and when he had three or four men to its one – was his military extremity so great, history will ask, as to justify this enormous cruelty?

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