The War Continues
After Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Southern armies were incapable of winning the
war by a series of decisive blows. All they could do was fight a war of
attrition, holding on until the Union presidential election in November, 1864.
They hoped somehow that Lincoln would be defeated by a Peace Democrat willing
to negotiate an end to the slaughter, and an armistice that would leave slavery
and the Confederacy intact.
In the fall of 1863, this seemed highly unlikely. Union war morale was high
when Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, and it soared even higher when
Ulysses Grant was made General-in-Chief of all Union armies and was brought
East in 1864 to finish off Robert E. Lee. While Grant went after Lee in
Virginia, Sherman remained in the West and moved confidently toward Atlanta,
the Confederacy's largest city. But Lee put up a desperate fight in Virginia,
taking and delivering the heaviest blows of the war.
There was no denying Grant, however. The bulldog-like Grant pushed Lee all the
way to Richmond and Petersburg, a rail center just south of Richmond. Once
there, however, he couldn't punch through the ring of heavy fortifications Lee
had erected around the two cities.
So he settled down, as he did at Vicksburg, for a siege. Only this one would
last nine months, not 47 days. And it taxed heavily the patience of a public
anxious for a quick end to the war.
Sherman also ran into problems. That August, his advance stalled in front of
the earthen-works encircling Atlanta. And he, too, set up siege operations. It
began to look, as it did in the winter of 1863, like the Confederacy couldn't
And civilians in the North read of casualties that totaled a staggering 110,000
in three previous months. "Stop the war!" Northern newspapers demanded; and on
two separate occasions that summer, Lincoln agreed to secret peace negotiations
with Confederate agents. Both meetings broke down when the rebels learned that
Lincoln's uncompromising conditions were restoration of the Union and the
abolition of slavery. The South would accept neither.
A Re-Election, A March, and A Surrender
That August, the Democrats nominated former general George McClellan for
President, and passed a platform calling for the immediate end of hostilities.
A despondent Lincoln told his Cabinet he didn't expect to win the election.
"I'm going to be beaten... badly," he told an army official, "unless some great
change takes place."
Well, that great change took place on September 2nd, when Sherman broke through
and captured Atlanta. While Sherman occupied Atlanta, General Phil Sheridan,
"Little Phil," a pint-sized, ferociously aggressive fighter, smashed
Confederate forces in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln was saved. That
November he won a presidential election that had more riding on it than any
other one in American history.
After this, Grant and Sherman began finishing off the South. While Grant
continued to pin down Lee at Richmond and Petersburg, Sherman cut loose from
Atlanta and marched to the sea, destroying everything in his path in an effort
to terrorize the South and break its will and ability to fight. As Sherman
said before his march: "This war is different from European wars of the past.
We're fighting not only a hostile army, but a hostile people. And we must make
them, old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war."
But Sherman saved his most devastating blows for his next target--South
Carolina, the seat of secession. Early that April, after plundering South
Carolina and pushing northward toward Richmond, Sherman heard that Grant had
broken through Lee's Richmond defenses and cornered his fleeing armies near
Appomattox, Virginia. There, Grant had accepted Lee's surrender.
Lincoln's Assassination and the End of the Civil War
Back in Washington, a jubilant Lincoln spoke about his plans for bringing the South
back into the union. He had not settled on a final reconstruction policy, but
he hoped, he said, that the vote would be extended, at least, to literate
blacks and black army veterans. "That means nigger citizenship," said a man in
the crowd, a stage actor and Confederate supporter from Maryland named John
Wilkes Booth. "That's the last speech he'll ever make," Booth uttered.
When news of Lee's surrender went out on the telegraph wires, wild celebrations
broke out all over the North. But several days later, the mood turned somber
and angry when the nation learned that John Wilkes Booth had assassinated
Lincoln. Lincoln was first American President ever to be assassinated.
The next week, General Joseph Johnston, the commander of the Confederate army
that Sherman was pursuing in North Carolina, surrendered. The South had no more
armies. The war was over.
The martyred Lincoln achieved what he had called for in his Gettysburg Address:
secession was dead, and with it, slavery, at a terrible cost of 620,000 lives
and the utter destruction of the South. But two great questions remained: What
would be the place in the reconstructed nation of the almost four million newly
freed slaves, and of the defeated South?