But in War opinion ripens fast. Men quickly learned, under that stern teacher, to reason that, as slavery had caused the rebellion, slavery should be extinguished. Congress met in December, with ideas which pointed decisively towards Abolition. Measures were passed which marked a great era in the history of slavery. The slaves of men who were in arms against the Government were declared to be free. Coloured men might be armed and employed as soldiers. Slavery was abolished within the District of Columbia. Slavery was prohibited for ever within all the Territories. Every slave escaping to the Union armies was to be free. Wherever the authority of Congress could reach, slavery was now at an end.
But something yet remained. Public sentiment in the North grew strong in favour of immediate and unconditional emancipation of all slaves within the revolted States. This view was pressed upon Lincoln. He hesitated long; not from reluctance, but because he wished the public mind to be thoroughly made up before he took this decisive step. At length his course was resolved upon. July, 1862 A.D. He drew up a Proclamation, which gave freedom to all the slaves in the rebel States. He called a meeting of his Cabinet, which cordially sanctioned the measure. After New Year’s Day of 1863 all persons held to slavery within the seceded territory were declared to be free. “And upon this act” – thus was the Proclamation closed – “sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favour of Almighty God.”
This – one of the most memorable of all State papers – gave freedom to over three million slaves. It did not touch slavery in the loyal States; for there the President had no authority to interfere. But all men knew that it involved the abolition of slavery in the loyal as well as in the rebellious States. Henceforth slavery became impossible on any portion of American territory.
The deep significance of this great measure was most fully recognized by the Northern people. The churches gave thanks to God for this fulfilment of their long-cherished desire. Congress expressed its cordial approval. Innumerable public meetings resolved that the President’s action deserved the support of the country. Bells pealed joyfully in the great cities and quiet villages of the east, and in the infant settlements of the distant west. Charles Sumner begged from the President the pen with which the Proclamation had been signed. The original draft of the document was afterwards sold for a large sum, at a fair held in Chicago for the benefit of the soldiers.
The South, too, understood this transaction perfectly. It was the triumphant and final expression of that Northern abhorrence to slavery which had provoked the slave-owners to rebel. It made reconciliation impossible. President Davis said to his Congress that it would calm the fears of those who apprehended a restoration of the old Union.
It is a painful reflection that the English Government utterly misunderstood this measure.
M’Clellan’s ignominious failure disappointed but did not dishearten the Northern people. While M’Clellan was hasting away from Richmond, the Governors of seventeen States assured the President of the readiness of their people to furnish troops. The President issued a call for an additional three hundred thousand men; and his call was promptly obeyed.
M’Clellan lay for two months, secure but inglorious, beside his gunboats on the James river. General Lee, rightly deeming that there was little to fear from an army so feebly led, ranged northwards with a strong force and threatened Washington. The Federal troops around the capital were greatly inferior in number. President Lincoln summoned M’Clellan northwards. M’Clellan was, as usual, unready; and a small Federal army under General Pope was left to cope unaided with the enemy. Pope received a severe defeat at Manassas, and retired to the fortifications of Washington.
Sept. 17, 1862 A.D. General Lee was strong enough now to carry the war into Northern territory. He captured Harper’s Ferry, and passed into Maryland. M’Clellan was at length stimulated to action, and having carried his troops northwards, he attacked Lee at Antietam. The Northern army far outnumbered the enemy. The battle was long and bloody. When darkness sank down upon the wearied combatants no decisive advantage had been gained. M’Clellan’s generals urged a renewal of the attack next morning. But this was not done, and General Lee crossed the Potomac and retired unmolested into Virginia. M’Clellan resumed his customary inactivity. The President ordered him to pursue the enemy and give battle. He even wished him to move on Richmond, which he was able to reach before Lee could possibly be there. In vain. M’Clellan could not move. His horses had sore tongues and sore backs; they were lame; they were broken down by fatigue. Lincoln had already been unduly patient. But the country would endure no more. Nov. 5, 1862 A.D. General M’Clellan was removed from command of that army whose power he had so long been able to neutralize; and his place was taken by General Burnside.
Burnside at once moved his army southwards, for it was not yet too late for a Virginian campaign. He reached the banks of the Rappahannock, beside the little town of Fredericksburg. He had to wait there for many weary days till he obtained means to cross the river. While he lay, impatient, General Lee concentrated all the forces under his command upon the heights which rose steeply from the opposite bank of the stream. He threw up earthworks and strongly intrenched his position. There he waited in calmness for the assault which he knew he could repel.
When Burnside was able to cross the Rappahannock, he lost no time in making his attack. One portion of his force would strike the enemy on his right flank; the rest would push straight up the heights and assault him in front. A slight success in the flanking movement cheered General Burnside. But in the centre his troops advanced to the attack under a heavy fire of artillery which laid many brave men low. The Northern soldiers fought their way with steady courage up the height. They were superior in numbers, but the rebels fought in safety within a position which was impregnable. The battle was no fair trial of skill and courage, but a useless waste of brave lives. Burnside drew off his troops and re-crossed the Rappahannock, with a loss of twelve thousand men – vainly sacrificed in the attempt to perform an impossibility.
In the west there had been no great success to counter-balance the long train of Confederate victories in the east. The year closed darkly upon the hopes of those who strove to preserve the Union. The South counted with certainty that her independence was secure. The prevailing opinion of Europe regarded the enterprise which the North pursued so resolutely, as a wild impossibility. But the Northern people and Government never despaired of the Commonwealth. At the gloomiest period of the contest a Bill was passed for the construction of a railroad to the Pacific. The Homestead Act offered a welcome to immigrants in the form of a free grant of one hundred and sixty acres of land to each. And the Government, as with a quiet and unburdened mind, began to enlarge and adorn its Capitol on a scale worthy of the expected greatness of the reunited country.
Hitherto the men who had fought for the North had been volunteers. They had come when the President called, willing to lay down their lives for their country. Already volunteers had been enrolled to the number of one million and a quarter. But that number had been sadly reduced by wounds, sickness, and captivity, and the Northern armies had not proved themselves strong enough to crush the rebellion. 1863 A.D. A Bill was now passed which subjected the entire male population, between eighteen and forty-five, to military duty when their service was required. Any man of suitable age could now be forced into the ranks.
The blockade of the Southern ports had effected for many months an almost complete isolation of the Confederates from the world outside. Now and then a ship, laden with arms and clothing and medicine, ran past the blockading squadron, and discharged her precious wares in a Southern port. Now and then a ship laden with cotton stole out and got safely to sea. But this perilous and scanty commerce afforded no appreciable relief to the want which had already begun to brood over this doomed people. The Government could find soldiers enough; but it could not find for them arms and clothing. The railroads could not be kept in working condition in the absence of foreign iron. Worst of all, a scarcity of food began to threaten. April 10, 1863 A.D. Jefferson Davis begged his people to lay aside all thought of gain, and devote themselves to the raising of supplies for the army. Even now the army was frequently on half supply of bread. The South could look back with just pride upon a long train of brilliant victories, gained with scanty means, by her own valour and genius. But, even in this hour of triumph, it was evident that her position was desperate.
The North had not yet completely established her supremacy upon the Mississippi. Two rebel strongholds – Vicksburg and Port Hudson – had successfully resisted Federal attack, and maintained communication between the revolted provinces on either side the great river. The reduction of these was indispensable. General Grant was charged with the important enterprise, and proceeded in February to begin his work.
Grant found himself with his army on the wrong side of the city. He was up stream from Vicksburg, and he could not hope to win the place by attacks on that side. Nor could he easily convey his army and siege appliances through the swamps and lakes which stretched away behind the city. It seemed too hazardous to run his transports past the guns of Vicksburg. He attempted to cut a new channel for the river, along which he might convey his army safely. Weeks were spent in the vain attempt, and the country, which had not yet learned to trust in Grant, became impatient of the unproductive toil. Grant, undismayed by the failure of his project, adopted a new and more hopeful scheme. He conveyed his soldiers across to the western bank of the Mississippi, and marched them southward till they were below Vicksburg. There they were ferried across the river; and then they stood within reach of the weakest side of the city. The transports were ordered to run the batteries of Vicksburg and take the chances of that enterprise.
When Grant reached the position he sought, he had a difficult task before him. One large army held Vicksburg; another large army was gathering for the relief of the endangered fortress. Soon Grant lay between two armies which, united, greatly outnumbered his. But he had no intention that they should unite. He attacked them in detail, and in every action he was successful. The Confederates were driven back upon the city, which was then closely invested.
For six weeks Grant pressed the siege with a fiery energy which allowed no rest to the besieged. General Johnston was not far off, mustering an army for the relief of Vicksburg, and there was not an hour to lose. Grant kept a strict blockade upon the scantily-provisioned city. From his gunboats and from his own lines he maintained an almost ceaseless bombardment. The inhabitants crept into caves in the hill to find shelter from the intolerable fire. They slaughtered their mules for food. They patiently endured the inevitable hardships of their position; and their daily newspaper, printed on scraps of such paper as men cover their walls with, continued to the end to make light of their sufferings, and to breathe defiance against General Grant. But all was vain. On the 4th of July – the anniversary of Independence – Vicksburg was surrendered with her garrison of twenty-three thousand men much enfeebled by hunger and fatigue.
The fall of Vicksburg was the heaviest blow which the Confederacy had yet sustained. Nearly one-half of the rebel territory lay beyond the Mississippi. That river was now firmly held by the Federals. The rebel States were cut in two, and no help could pass from one section to the other. There was deep joy in the Northern heart. The President thanked General Grant for “the almost inestimable service” which he had done to the country.
But long before Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg another humiliation had fallen upon the Federal arms in Virginia.
Soon after the disaster at Fredericksburg, the modest Burnside had asked to be relieved of his command. General Hooker took his place. The new chief was familiarly known to his countrymen as “fighting Joe Hooker,” – a title which sufficiently indicated his dashing, reckless character. Hooker entered on his command with high hopes. “By the blessing of God,” he said to the army, “we will contribute something to the renown of our arms and the success of our cause.”
After three months of preparation, General Hooker announced that his army was irresistible. The Northern cry was still, “On to Richmond;” the dearest wish of the Northern people was to possess the rebel capital. Hooker marched southward, nothing doubting that he was to fulfil the long frustrated desire of his countrymen. His confidence seemed not to be unwarranted; for he had under his command a magnificent army, which greatly outnumbered that opposed to him. But, unhappily for Hooker, the hostile forces were led by General Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
On the 1st of May, Hooker was in presence of the enemy on the line of the Rappahannock. Lee was too weak to give or accept battle; but he was able to occupy Hooker with a series of sham attacks. All the while Jackson was hasting to assail his flank. His march was through the Wilderness – a wild country thick with ill-grown oaks and a dense undergrowth – where surprise was easy. Towards evening, on the 2nd, Jackson’s soldiers burst upon the unexpectant Federals. The fury of the attack bore all before it. The Federal line fell back in confusion and with heavy loss.
In the twilight Jackson rode forward with his staff to examine the enemy’s position. As he returned, a North Carolina regiment, seeing a party of horsemen approach, presumed it was a charge of Federal cavalry. They fired, and Jackson fell from his horse, with two bullets in his left arm and one through his right hand. They placed him on a litter to carry him from the field. One of the bearers was shot down by the enemy, and the wounded general fell heavily to the ground. The sound of musketry wakened the Federal artillery, and for some time Jackson lay helpless on ground swept by the cannon of the enemy. When his men learned the situation of their beloved commander, they rushed in and carried him from the danger.
Jackson sunk under his wounds. He bore patiently his great suffering. “If I live, it will be for the best,” he said; “and if I die, it will be for the best. God knows and directs all things for the best.” He died eight days after the battle, to the deep sorrow of his countrymen. He was a great soldier; and although he died fighting for an evil cause, he was a true-hearted Christian man.
During two days after Jackson fell the battle continued at Chancellorsville. Lee’s superior skill in command more than compensated for his inferior numbers. He attacked Hooker, and always at the point of conflict he was found to be stronger. Hooker discovered that he must retreat, lest a worse thing should befall him. After three days’ fighting he crossed the river in a tempest of wind and rain, and along the muddy Virginian roads carried his disheartened troops back to their old positions. He had been baffled by a force certainly not more than one-half his own. The splendid military genius of Lee was perhaps never more conspicuous than in the defeat of that great army which General Hooker himself regarded as invincible.
The Confederate Government had always been eager to carry the contest into Northern territory. It was satisfying to the natural pride of the South, and it was thought that some experience of the evils of war might incline the Northern mind to peace. Lee was ordered to march into Pennsylvania. He gathered all the troops at his disposal, and with seventy-five thousand men he crossed the Potomac, and was once more prepared to face the enemy on his own soil. The rich cities of the North trembled. It was not unlikely that he should possess himself of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Could he once again defeat Hooker’s army, as he had often done before, no further resistance was possible. Pennsylvania and New York were at his mercy.
Lee advanced to the little Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg. Hooker, after marching his army northwards, had been relieved of the command. A battle was near; and in face of the enemy a new commander had to be chosen. Two days before the hostile armies met, General Meade was appointed. Meade was an experienced soldier, who had filled with honour the various positions assigned to him; but it was seemingly a hopeless task which he was now asked to perform. With an oft-defeated army of sixty thousand to seventy thousand men, to whom he was a stranger, he had to meet Lee with his victorious seventy-five thousand. Meade quietly undertook the work appointed to him, and did it, too, like a brave, prudent, unpretending man.
July 1, 1863 A.D. The battle lasted for three days. On the first day the Confederates had some advantage. Their attack broke and scattered a Federal division with considerable loss. But that night the careful Meade took up a strong position on a crescent-shaped line of heights near the little town. Here he would lie, and the Confederates might drive him from it if they could.
July 2. Next day Lee attempted to dislodge the enemy. The key of the Federal position was Cemetery Hill, and there the utmost strength of the Confederate attack was put forth. Nor was it in vain; for part of the Federal line was broken, and at one point an important position had been taken by the Confederates. Lee might fairly hope that another day’s fighting would complete his success and give him undisputed possession of the wealthiest Northern States. His loss had been small, while the Federals had been seriously weakened.
Perhaps no hours of deeper gloom were ever passed in the North than the hours of that summer evening when the telegraph flashed over the country the news of Lee’s success. The lavish sacrifice of blood and treasure seemed in vain. A million of men were in arms to defend the Union, and yet the northward progress of the rebels could not be withstood. Should Lee be victorious on the morrow, the most hopeful must despond.
July 3. The day on which so much of the destiny of America hung opened bright and warm and still. The morning was occupied by Lee in preparations for a crushing attack upon the centre of the Federal position; by Meade, in carefully strengthening his power of resistance at the point where he was to win or to lose this decisive battle. About noon all was completed. Over both armies there fell a marvellous stillness – the silence of anxious and awful expectation. It was broken by a solitary cannon-shot, and the shriek of a Whitworth shell as it rushed through the air. That was the signal at which one hundred and fifty Confederate guns opened their fire. The Federal artillery replied, and for three hours a prodigious hail of shells fell upon either army. No decisive supremacy was, however, established by the guns on either side, although heavy loss was sustained by both. While the cannonade still continued, Lee sent forth the columns whose errand it was to break the Federal centre. They marched down the low range of heights on which they had stood, and across the little intervening valley. As they moved up the opposite height the friendly shelter of Confederate fire ceased. Terrific discharges of grape and shell smote but did not shake their steady ranks. As the men fell, their comrades stepped into their places, and the undismayed lines moved swiftly on. Up to the low stone wall which sheltered the Federals, up to the very muzzles of guns whose rapid fire cut every instant deep lines in their ranks, the heroic advance was continued.
General Lee from the opposite height watched, as Napoleon did at Waterloo, the progress of his attack. Once the smoke of battle was for a moment blown aside, and the Confederate flag was seen to wave within the enemy’s position. Lee’s generals congratulate him that the victory is gained. Again the cloud gathers around the combatants. When it lifts next, the Confederates are seen broken and fleeing down that fatal slope, where a man can walk now without once putting his foot upon the grass, so thick lie the bodies of the slain. The attack had failed; the battle was lost; the Union was saved.