Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Recently, I've been reading about the latter stages of the U.S. Civil War, from late 1863 on. What's amazing to me is how close, even toward the end, the North came to losing the war.

After the great victory at Chattanooga in November 1863, the South was in serious trouble. Grant, having been summoned to head the army, decided to station himself "in the field" with the Army of the Potomac, while Sherman headed the Western forces. In the Spring of 1864, Meade (supervised by Grant) began moving on Richmond, while Sherman headed for Atlanta. By mid-July, both cities were besieged, but much of the public saw only horrendous losses for little apparent gain -- after all, McClellan had been at the gates of Richmond in 1862, and that effort came to nought.

Although officially pro-Union, the Democrats were howling to end the war, claiming that the war was not militarily winnable and asserting (falsely) that the Southern states would rejoin the Union if emancipation were rejected. Conversely, the South was hoping to deprive the North of any victories though the Summer and Fall, hoping that Lincoln's defeat would result in victory for the South.

Having waited as long as possible, to minimize the possibility that there would be a significant Northern military gains between the convention and the elections, the Democrats held their convention at the end of August. On August 30, 1864, they nominated George McClellan as their candidate for President. The central paragraph of the Democrats' brief, four-paragraph platform urged a prompt "cessation of hostilities":

Resolved, 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 a military necessity of 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 of an ultimate convention of 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.

Once a truce was implemented, it would have been virtually impossible to resume active hostilities. Jefferson Davis had repeatedly made clear that, after four years of bitter war, the South would not rejoin the Union under any circumstances. In short, a Democratic victory -- which seemed increasingly likely -- would almost certainly have resulted in the destruction of the Union.

The Democrats did not wait long enough. On the day they concluded their convention, Sherman cut off the last railroad link between Atlanta and the outside world. On September 1, 1864, the Confederates evacuated Atlanta, and on September 2 Union forces occupied the city. The news hit the North like a thunderbolt. There was wild rejoicing, and Lincoln won reelection handily.

The rest, as they say, is history. Once Atlanta was taken and Lincoln's reelection assured, it was only a matter of time. Beginning in mid-November, Sherman marched east from Atlanta, reappearing and taking Savannah in time to give it to Lincoln as a Christmas present, and thence to the Carolinas. George Thomas's Army of the Cumberland destroyed the last Confederate Army of any significance, other than Lee's, on December 15. Lee, beseiged, held out until April 1865.

In retrospect, the South was on its last legs as of January 1, 1864. But it took the political perseverance of Lincoln and the military perseverance of Grant (and Sherman's victory) to translate that advantage into final victory.

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