The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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It was Sherman's plan in this northward march to keep the sea always at his back. He arranged for the fleet to co?perate with him from beginning to end, to bring supplies to the several points along the coast that were held by the Federals and to preserve to him at those points secure places of refuge to which he might retreat in the event of his encountering disaster in the field. His tactics were precisely those adopted by Cornwallis in his contest with Greene in 1780, but with the modern improvement of a navy driven by steam and therefore far more certain and precise in its operations than that which supported Cornwallis could be.
Sherman entered the city of Columbia on the seventeenth of February. Thus far he had encountered no opposition except such as the alert Confederate cavalry under Wade Hampton could offer. For as yet the uncertainty as to whither Sherman planned to go compelled Johnston to keep his own forces scattered over a line that stretched all the way from Augusta to Charleston.
It was in South Carolina, of which Columbia is the capital, that secession had been born. It was here that South Carolina had proclaimed her withdrawal from the Union and her independent sovereignty. It was here that the war which had cost so much of life and treasure and sacrifice and suffering had been born. There was very naturally, among the now victorious men of Sherman's command, a specially vengeful feeling toward South Carolina and still more against its capital city.
The cotton stored in that city was brought out and piled in the middle of the broad streets. Presently it was fired by some agency. The fire spread to the buildings of the town, and the greater part of the beautiful city was burned.
The Confederates have always insisted that Columbia was wantonly burned by General Sherman's order. General Sherman always denied the charge. The controversy over that point in newspapers, pamphlets and books, has filled space enough in print to constitute a library.
It would quite uselessly encumber these pages to present here, even in outline, the hopelessly conflicting testimony that has been given on either side. All of that testimony is accessible to every reader who cares to follow it in controversial publications, and it seems to lead to no safely definite conclusion.
Let us leave the matter here as one of the calamities of war concerning which the responsibility is so hopelessly involved in a mass of conflicting testimony that no historian mindful of fairness can feel himself safe in passing judgment with respect to it. Columbia has been rebuilt in all its beauty. The country in whose crown it is a jewel has grown to be the greatest and freest on earth. Surely we can leave the dead past to bury its dead, so far as such matters as this are concerned.
From Columbia northward Sherman's advance was contested at every step with all the vigor and determination that General Joseph E. Johnston could bring to bear.That able general was a grand master of the art of so retreating as to make his retreat more costly to his enemy than an advance would have been. His force was exceedingly small as compared with Sherman's columns, but it was made up of veteran troops, as good as ever stood up before an enemy, and it was perfectly responsive to any and every demand that its commanding general might make upon it either for daring or for endurance.
The country through which Sherman had to march was swampy, forest grown, and laced with watercourses difficult to pass. Its roads were mere tracks through woods and fields, which, when rain fell, quickly became quagmires. At every stream Johnston's ceaselessly active men burned the bridges and obstructed the fords. In every forest stretch they felled trees across the roads, and planting cannon in commanding positions, rendered the progress of their foes as dangerous as it was difficult. Wherever a vantage ground lay, the Confederates – war-educated as they were, and still determined – took position and inch by inch contested the difficult ground. Not in all the war was there an operation more gallant on either side than this advance and retreat.
Still keeping the protecting sea on his right flank which he could at any moment change into his rear, Sherman left the ashes of Columbia on the twentieth of February and advanced towards Fayetteville, where he arrived on the eleventh of March.
In the meanwhile the city of Wilmington, on the coast, had been captured by General Terry's Fort Fisher expedition, and communication was established between Terry and Sherman. Thus a way was opened by which both supplies and reinforcements might be sent without limit or molestation to the army that was for the third time cutting in twain what remained of the Confederacy.
From Fayetteville, Sherman pushed on to Goldsboro fighting with Johnston's desperate Confederates at every step. Thence he advanced toward Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina.
At Averysboro, a point between, the two armies came into direct collision on the sixteenth of March and each lost about half a thousand men in a severe conflict. Three days later on the nineteenth they met again at Bentonville and in a small, but bloody conflict, the Federals lost 1,600 men and the Confederates somewhat more than 2,000.
In the meanwhile, at Goldsboro, Sherman had been reinforced by the whole of Schofield's corps, withdrawn from Thomas's force at Nashville. This addition to his force rendered his army almost ridiculously superior in numbers to that of his adversary. That, under Grant's direction, was always the keynote of tactics and strategy. From beginning to end of his campaigns Grant held to the doctrine of "the most men." Seeing clearly that the North could put three or four men into the field to the South's one, he regarded it as very clearly his duty, as the commander in chief of the Federal forces, to see to it that wherever a fight was to occur, the three or four should be present to meet and overcome the one.
The fierce struggle at Bentonville which for a time seemed of very doubtful issue, was the last battle of consequence fought between Sherman and Johnston.
Let us go back now to Petersburg, where the hour of the final struggle drew near. The reader has already been told of Lee's effort to compel Grant to contract his lines south and west of Petersburg. That effort was made on the night of the twenty-fourth of March and the morning of the twenty-fifth.
The spring was advancing now. The roads were hardening. Grant had all the force that he could use and more. His army vastly outnumbered the remnant of Lee's. His equipment was as perfect as good organization and a lavish expenditure of money could make it. With an unseen railroad skirting his rear and a fleet at his base he could concentrate as heavy a force as he pleased at any point he might select on Lee's line. Moreover the extension of the Federal line to the left had placed the two armies in such position that if Grant could crush or break through Lee's right wing, Richmond would be completely cut off, and the successful retreat of Lee's army would be impossible.
It was Grant's plan to do precisely this. To that end he sent three strong divisions under General Ord to strengthen his extreme left, where General Sheridan commanded. Then he ordered Sheridan to push forward through Dinwiddie Court House to Five Forks and assail the enemy there.
Battle was joined on the thirty-first of March, but so great was the resisting power of the sadly depleted Confederate army, that Sheridan was hurled back and compelled to appeal to Grant for help. On the first of April, strongly reinforced, Sheridan again advanced to the attack, and after a bloody contest succeeded in carrying the position, taking about 5,000 prisoners, the very flower of the Confederate troops.
The work of ending the war was now on, and Grant prosecuted it vigorously. At daybreak on April the second he assaulted the center of Lee's line near Petersburg, broke through it at two points, and by pressing Lee hard on his right made a practical end of Confederate resistance in that quarter.
There was nothing left to Lee but to abandon Richmond and Petersburg and go into a retreat which was sure to be marked at every step by fierce fighting, but which was clearly hopeless from its beginning. His only chance was to fall back through Virginia, place himself behind the Roanoke river, form a junction there with Johnston's army and make one last, desperate stand against armies overwhelmingly superior to his own in all except courage and dogged determination. That chance was so slender, by reason of the situation, that only a high heroism would have regarded it even as a possibility.
Under Lee's instruction Richmond was evacuated. In the process some fool poured all the alcoholic liquor there was in the town into the gutters, at a time when the arsenals and public warehouses were being fired. The fire, of course, quickly set the rivers of whiskey aflame and from these the houses were ignited, so that within a brief while the entire heart of the city was burned.
Lee's only hope in retreat lay in marching south-westwardly. But Grant's forces under Sheridan had the advantage of him at the start and their activity was such as to keep them constantly not only upon the left flank of the retreating forces, but also in front of them at many points. From beginning to end of the retreat Grant hammered Lee's southern flank, turned and assailed his front, and continuously pressed him back toward James river on the north. That way there lay no thoroughfare for the Confederates. They must force their way to the southwest or they must surrender for lack of food. They simply could not force their way to the southwest, and so their surrender was inevitable from the very first hour of the retreat.
Moreover Lee's force, already depleted to a mere handful, was hourly losing strength in many ways. The constant fighting was depleting it. Starvation – not figurative but actual – was compelling many of the men to wander away from the line of march in search of food. Many filled their bellies with grass or leaves and marched on, determined to hold out to the end. Here and there one got possession of an ear of hard corn and accepted it as a three days' ration. Pasture fields in which wild onions had sprung up in response to the spring sunshine, were despoiled of their fruitage by famishing men. The bursting buds of forest trees were greedily eaten. Even haystacks – when they were infrequently found – were devoured as human food for lack of anything better.
All these things and others like unto them, were done by the steadily diminishing company of Confederates who were determined to hold out to the end even if the end should prove to be death by starvation. But hour by hour that small company of heroic souls was growing smaller and smaller. Many died by the roadside. Many were killed while delivering their own despairing fire. Many, seeing that further resistance was hopeless, and knowing how terribly their wives and children needed them in the homes which a farther march would leave behind, simply went home.
During the last days of his retreat Lee had at no time so many as 20,000 men, all starving, while his adversary was assailing him by day and by night, with a force numbering 150,000, or about eight to one. Surely even the story of the Confederate war presents no spectacle which better illustrates the high quality of American manhood than does this resistance through many days of starvation and discouragement, by a mere handful of men, assailed in flank, in rear and in front by seven or eight times their number of perfectly equipped and well fed men.
At Appomattox Court House Lee found himself completely surrounded. By good marching Grant had succeeded in pushing an infantry column of 80,000 men into Lee's front, in support of Sheridan's cavalry operations there.
There was only one course open to the great Confederate chieftain. He surrendered on the ninth and tenth of April all that remained of the Army of Northern Virginia. They numbered, all told, including teamsters, quartermaster's men and all, only 26,000 men, of whom no more than 7,800 carried muskets.
In effect this surrender made an end of the most stupendous war of modern times. As the army under Lee had been from the beginning the backbone of the Confederate cause, its destruction resulted in the surrender of all the other Confederate forces as soon as the news of the event at Appomattox could reach the detached commanders.
Here ends the story of the Confederate war. In these pages a conscientious effort has been made to tell it with the utmost impartiality and the most scrupulous regard for truth.
That war began about forty-nine years ago. It is now forty-five years since it ended in the restoration of the American Union. The American people are again completely one, and the great Republic has come to be the most potent as it is the freest nation that has ever existed on earth. The bitternesses and resentments to which the fierce struggle gave birth have been displaced by kindlier thoughts in all but the narrowest and most ungenerous minds. The two great commanders, Lee and Grant, have alike been assigned to honored places in all our Halls of Fame. The time has come when all Americans may fitly rejoice together in the story of the great deeds done on the one side and on the other in that Confederate war which did so much to give to the Republic its foremost place among the nations of the earth.
End of Vol. II
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