The End of the Civil War
The Fall of Richmond
In the first days of April 1865 President Abraham Lincoln traveled to City Point, Virginia to be near General Grant as he launched his final offensive on the City of Petersburg. That offensive occurred on April 2nd and was a complete success. Not only had the Union Army achieved its’ breakthrough but twenty miles to the north news filtered through that Richmond was burning – the Confederate Capital was being abandoned.
Two days later Lincoln ordered Rear Admiral David Porter to escort him up the James River into the heart of the rebellion. Four years of Civil War had precluded the President from visiting the Capital of the Confederacy and he was anxious to see this moment come to fruition.
Richmond was hastily abandoned by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Government in the wake of the Union breakthrough at Petersburg. That day the Confederate Capital was a scene of desperation and lawlessness as Davis and some of his cabinet members boarded trains and hurriedly evacuated the city. Burning the rail bridge over the James River in their wake and fleeing south, now literally a government on wheels, the Confederate President would remain defiant urging his fellow southerners to fight on.
The City of Richmond, the crown of the Confederacy, was now a devastated heap of ruins. Four years of war plus two days of wholesale pandemonium had turned the city upside down. As Richmond was abandoned fires set to destroy military supplies soon spread and engulfed entire blocks. Widespread looting and drunkenness added to the apocalyptic scene as the rebel capital crumbled…
Into this scene walked Abraham Lincoln.
Richmond was still burning when Lincoln stepped onto the wharf at Rockett’s Landing and began his walk to the Confederate White House. The dangers still lurking in the smoldering center of the rebellion seemed to be far from the President’s mind as he made his way, accompanied by a small contingent of Marines, toward the former seat of his namesake.
“Thank God I have lived to see this,…It seems I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone.” *
Lincoln was greeted by throngs of former slaves, the “Great Emancipator” was among them, the Marines on hand fixed bayonets to hold back the crowd.
“Bless the Lord, the great Messiah!” they shouted, “Glory Hallelujah!”
Abraham responded to the liberated people, “You are free. Free as air.” *
Lincoln’s presence in Richmond was an important milestone for the President.
“Perhaps it was for this he had been willing to risk the danger — the likelihood, some would have said — of assassination in the just-fallen rebel capital: this moment of feeling, for the first time since his first inauguration, four years and one month ago today, that he now was President of the whole United States.” **
U.S.C.T.’s, United States Colored Troops, were among the thousands of Federal soldiers now policing the City and bringing order back to the Virginia Capital. The transformative moment was not lost on the residents of Richmond. Those with their homes still standing stared from their windows in disbelief as their southern society of old was up-ended in a day. “Bottom rail on top” said a ex-slave marching with his unit as he recognized his former master on the road to Richmond.
After a two-mile walk to Capital Square Lincoln entered the Confederate White House and toured the premises before taking a seat at Davis’ desk. After meeting with some Virginia delegates eager to save Richmond any further destruction the President was led on a tour of the ruined capital. Viewing the smoldering remains of massive Tredegar Iron Works the tour continued past Libby Prison where Union POWs had been held during the war.
The prison had been notorious for its treatment of Union soldiers but the President was overheard saying, “Let us judge not that we be judged…” Lincoln was thinking of reconciliation and already preparing his vision for the future of the United States of America.
“For one thing, the occupation of Richmond was not to be a repeat of Sherman’s march to the sea, nor of Sheridan in the Shenandoah. Here, in the heart of Virginia, the most important state in the Confederacy, Lincoln saw to it that restraint was the watchword.” *
Accompanying Lincoln that day was Union General Godfrey Weitzel. The general asked the President what should be done with the “conquered people?”
Lincoln replied “If I were in your place I’d let’em up easy – let’em up easy”
Boarding a steamer for his trip back to Washington the jubilant President asked the musicians on hand to perform the popular tune “Dixie”. The President had always liked the southern ditty and with the Fall of Richmond Lincoln declared, “That tune is now Federal property.”
Washington City 1865
Late in the evening of April 9th Lincoln was roused from his bed at the White House with a dispatch from Ulysses S. Grant. The message, long sought for by the President, told of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse.
Cannons boomed all over Washington the following day in celebration and the President was unusually animated,
“Everything is bright this morning. The war is over. It has been a tough time, but we have lived it out. Or some of us have.” His face darkened, then lightened again. “But it is over. We are going to have good times now, and a united country.” **
The surrender of Lee and the Confederates at Appomattox was a profound moment in the history of the civilized world. Lincoln was hopeful he could reunite the country but also understood that the history of civil wars through the ages and how they end told a very different story.
“Lincoln understood most poignantly, it is not merely how arms are taken up, and why, but equally how they are laid back down, and why.” *
General Grant’s magnanimous terms-of-surrender, encouraged by the President, and Lee’s stoic resignation and leadership in bringing the war to a close in Virginia inspired a nation. The meeting between Grant and Lee at Appomattox on April 9th 1865 gave birth to the United States of America.
President Lincoln’s sentiments of leniency toward the former Confederates were motivated by his appreciation of the difficulties in bringing the country back together after four-long-years of war.
Much of the Confederacy had been put to the torch during the conflict. The southern aristocracy was obliterated watching their investments walk away – its vast wealth in slave labor now forever free. The South was in shambles making Reconstruction and the Abolition of Slavery the two burning issues Lincoln would need to address. But in the early days of April 1865 along with the capitulation of the Confederates in Virginia came an additional helpful omen to the President.
The Congress would not meet again until much later in the year and Lincoln had it in mind to unite the people behind him to his lenient views by a series of public appeals.
Lincoln knew well that the sentiments in his 2nd Inaugural, “with malice toward none” or the message he would deliver that evening from the White House, suggesting that black soldiers who fought for the Union be given the right to vote, would not be completely embraced. The President in the months ahead planned on cajoling the public and gaining their support to complete his vision for Emancipation and Reconstruction.
With the war nearly over Lincoln was now eager for news of the capitulation of the few remaining Confederate armies in the field spread throughout the south.
On April 14 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina the Stars and Stripes were officially re-raised over what remained of Fort Sumter. The flag defiantly stretching out in the wind once it cleared the broken masonry of the fortress that had absorbed the first shots of the war and had been bombarded ever since. As the wind took hold of the fort’s enormous flag the gatherers spontaneously broke into a tear-flowing rendition of the National Anthem. Metaphorically it seemed together with Sumter’s flag it looked like Lincoln had the wind at his back now as well.
The previous evening the President had a reoccurring dream…
“I’m aboard some singular, indescribable vessel which seems to be floating, floating away on some vast and indistinct expanse, toward an unknown shore….The dream is not so strange in itself as in the fact that it was recurrent but that each of its previous occurrences has been followed by some important event or disaster.” *
The dream would portend good news from North Carolina he reasoned so Lincoln spent the day checking in at the telegraph office for word from General Sherman – and because it was advertised and he couldn’t “disappoint the people” he would take a break to attend a theater performance that evening at Ford’s Theater…
The Last Casualty
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14th 1865 and his death the following day was a shock and the devastating final blow to a country reeling from four years of war. Lincoln would be added to a list of over 700,000 and could be considered one of the last tragic casualties of the American Civil War.
The country was truly at a precipice in the hours and days after Lincoln’s death. Numerous Confederate armies were still active throughout the south and the real prospect of the conflict devolving into a protracted guerrilla war became a frightening possibility.
Robert E. Lee, with the help of Grant’s lenient terms, had stepped back from that precipice at Appomattox. Lee had disregarded the advise of some of his lieutenants and even Jefferson Davis himself who urged the general to take his soldiers into the mountains to continue the war.
But the seeds of magnanimity towards the South planted by Lincoln in the months and weeks before his death were shattered at Ford’s Theater.
“Booth pulled the trigger, and the mind that held somewhere in cloudy solution the elements that might some day have crystallized into an answer for the nation’s most profound riddle disintegrated under the impact of a one-ounce pellet of lead: the heaviest bullet, all things considered, ever fired in America.” ****
Those who had reluctantly sided with the President and would have worked to implement his future Reconstruction efforts now wanted revenge – a feeling of fierce vengeance toward the South began to take hold in the North.
Despite this in the days following Lincoln’s death the country witnessed the surrender of all the rest of the Confederate armies in the field starting with General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. William Tecumseh Sherman had offered Johnston the same terms of surrender offered to Lee at Appomattox. Again, despite the continued urging of Jefferson Davis who was calling for guerrilla war, Johnston, together with the other Confederate commanders in the field decided among themselves that the war should end. Even right down to the famed southern cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest was considered by his nemesis General Sherman to be the most accomplished soldier produced by the Civil War. Although not military trained Forrest and his cadre of mounted soldiers played havoc throughout the war with Union armies twice their size. When Grant and Sherman considered the devastating effects of what a guerrilla war would mean to the country, Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first person to come to mind. Although one of the last holdouts, Forrest wrote to his men,
“The terms manifest a spirit of magnanimity and liberality on the part of the Federal Authorities which should be met on our part by a faithful compliance with all the stipulations and conditions therein.” adding, “Any man who is in favor of further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum.” *
On May 10th 1865 Jefferson Davis, defiant to the end, was captured with his entourage in Georgia. Two days later the last skirmish of the Civil War was fought in Texas at a place called Palmito Ranch.
It would take another month for the last Confederate General to finally capitulate. Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee Chief and his assorted band of Confederate Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles and Osages, finally laid down their arms at Fort Towson, Oklahoma on June 23rd 1865.
19th century author George Cary Eggleston would write,
“Looking back on the aftermath of the surrenders it is difficult to comprehend, and impossible to describe, the state of uncertainty in which we lived at this time.”
The Grand Review
In May of 1865 with the war nearly over President Andrew Johnson ordered the government authorities to conduct a Grand Review of the Armies – a victorious military procession to honor the Union soldiers who fought the Civil War. Aside from honoring the veterans of the war the military parade was intended to lift the spirits and mood of the country in the wake of President Lincoln’s death.
The black banners that adorned Washington City since mid-April were replaced with bunting in Stars and Stripes. Citizens together with dignitaries from around the world gathered to witness the passing of the Grand Army of the Republic – the largest, most powerful veteran army on earth in 1865.
General Gordon Meade led 80,000 men of the Army of the Potomac through the streets of Washington the glittering spectacle of military power taking six hours to pass the reviewing stand.
The following day General William Tecumseh Sherman would ride past the review stand leading his 65,000 hardened veterans. The Army of Tennessee and the Army of Georgia, Sherman’s threadbare westerners, had literally marched from whence they came and presented a distinct contrast with the spit and polish of the Army of the Potomac.
Following each of Sherman’s armies, to the delight of the crowds, were his supply and support troops – herds of cattle, swine and poultry tended by former slaves and their families all of which had been liberated in Sherman’s crusade through the south.
It took two days for the one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers present in Washington to stand for review. This was just a fraction of the Grand Army of the Republic.
By May 1865 more than three million men had served in the four-year conflict on both sides and miraculously at it’s end the armies simply disbanded.
In a sense as the soldiers of the Republic passed the reviewing stand they marched back into the heart of the nation. The same could be said for the Confederates who walked home from Appomattox. The armies of the Union like their Confederate counterparts were drawn from the citizenry and when the war ended the veterans just melted back into the country…
In May of 2015 reenactors from around the nation gathered again in Washington to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review. Organized by the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum the event drew upwards of two thousand living historians who joined the procession marching past the Capital and up Pennsylvania Avenue along the original 1865 parade route.
Leading the march were companies of African American reenactors placed to rectify an omission that occurred in 1865.
Most of the USCT troops serving the Union at the end of the war were mustered into the armies in 1863 and were still serving out their terms of enlistment. The Federal authorities had placed many of these African American troops throughout the south to serve as a peace keeping force to calm the tensions erupting between the newly freed slaves and their former masters.
As the soldiers of the Republic were marching in the Grand Review the USCTs were busy enforcing emancipation in the south and securing the hard-won accomplishments of the war. In 2015 African-American reenactors in the impression of the United States Colored Troops were given the honor of leading the Grand Review.
Among the reenactors I met John Hooper a 78-year-old living historian from Pennsylvania who was present at the commemorations of the 100th, 125th and now the 150th anniversaries of the Grand Review. Dressed as a Union infantryman Mr. Hooper marched shoulder to shoulder with men one-quarter his age and despite his seniority has no intention of retiring his reenactors’ uniform. Old soldiers never die – it seems they just keep marching…
It was curious to see the US Capital enveloped in scaffolding. The Capital building was under construction for most of the Civil War the dome exterior only just completed in time for the Grand Review. The modern construction site, the 21st century rehab, coincides with the sesquicentennial as well and paradoxically would have looked familiar to the soldiers of the period. It was also somewhat curious to see two thousand armed men marching through Washington. After four years attending reenactments encountering men bearing rifles became ubiquitous – it never occurred to me that the Secret Service might think that could be a problem?
All the marchers in the 2015 Grand Review were required to meet at RFK Stadium where their rifles and cartridge boxes could be inspected. Reenactors portraying Union Cavalrymen would also have their horses inspected by the DC authorities before the living historians were loaded on buses and dropped off at 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to form up on the mall beside the United States Capital.
The reenactors felt privileged to march the one and a half mile parade route. Among the participants were many reenactors who, like myself, had followed the sesquicentennial timeline and four years ago marked May 2015 and the Grand Review as somehow the end of the journey. The end of the Sesquicentennial perhaps, but looking around I wonder, did the American Civil War ever really end?
The Civil War certainly haunted the country and its’ veterans but miraculously also brought the nation together. The soldiers both North and South knew they experienced something monumental and had participated in and were responsible for a new chapter in American History.
“You could not stand up day after day, in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought when beaten, without getting at last something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south, each working in an opposite sense to the other, but unable to get along without the other.” **
Mark Twain would write,
“The generation that carried on the war has been set aside by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”
One hundred and fifty years have passed since the official end of the Civil War. Even before the last shots were fired the battles of the war were already being reenacted by the veterans themselves. Descendants of the wars’ veterans have carried on this tradition every year since. The Civil War remains an integral part of the American experience and continues to haunt the nations’ consciousness to this day.
Walt Whitman would say, “Strange, (is it not?) that battle, martyrs, blood, even assassination should so condense— perhaps only really, lastingly condense— a Nationality.” *
The Legacy of the Civil War
“In formal as in common speech, abroad as well as on this side of its oceans, once the nation emerged from the crucible of that war, “the United States are” became “the United States is.” **
The Civil War irrevocably changed the country and the men that fought it.
“North-South the butcher’s bill thus came to no less than 1,094,453 for both sides, in and out of more than 10,000 military actions, including 76 full-scale battles, 310 engagements, 6337 skirmishes, and numerous sieges, raids, expeditions, and the like.”
“Approximately one out of ten able-bodied Northerners was dead or incapacitated, while for the South it was one out of four… Some notion of the drain this represented, as well as of the poverty the surrendered men came home to, was shown by the fact that during the first year of peace the state of Mississippi allotted a solid fifth of its revenues for the purchase of artificial arms and legs for its returning veterans.” **
The southern states would be under military rule for ten years following the Civil War. Despite the difficulties President Johnson and afterwards under President US Grant’s administration the country would witness the first African-Americans to serve in government. Lincoln’s ideas on emancipation, implemented through Johnson and Grant, made possible the election of African-Americans to seats in southern legislatures in the years just following the Civil War.
But the South would languish over the next decade and in 1877 southern states would begin to call for Home Rule. Home Rule was the first attempt at bringing the old order back to the South.
Want of the old order would also lead to the formation of anti-black terror organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and later the legislation of the Jim Crow laws design to disenfranchise black Americans in the south.
“Home rule, as both sides knew, meant white supremacy. The Negro, then, was bartered: or his gains were….in 1875 Blanche K. Bruce was the second Negro senator elected in Mississippi and the last for ninety years.” **
In the years following the Civil War dire conditions in the south would also lead southerners to propagate a myth about their “Second American Revolution”…that myth, known as the Lost Cause, was born the day Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox…
It is impossible to know what the country or the sesquicentennial would have been like if Lincoln had been able to serve out his second term. The President faced stiff opposition even within his own Republican Party to some of his plans for Reconstruction and Emancipation. Yet Lincoln inspired the miracle at Appomattox it’s tantalizing to think of what he could have achieved in the way of race relations or nullifying the idea of the Lost Cause, had he lived.
“Indeed, a lamentable conclusion is that much of the battle of postwar America would center around the unfulfilled promise of emancipation— and would be marred by terrible brutality, horrific violence, and often unspeakable racial repression on which, paradoxically, the strands of reconciliation frequently rested.” *
The actions of John Wilkes Booth, his desire to avenge the South, ironically predestined the South as the future battleground for the struggle for Civil Rights in America. It would not be until 1965, a hundred years after the Civil War, that African-Americans would finally get the right to vote.
Lee, Grant and Jefferson Davis
Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant have gone down in history as the generals who saved and in-turn created the United States of America. Grant’s magnanimous terms and Lee’s stoic resignation in defeat on April 9th 1865 set the tone for the unification of the country at the end of the Civil War.
But Lee and Grant both walked away from Appomattox with two different views about what that surrender symbolized.
“For Grant, the Union victory was one of right over wrong. He believed that his magnanimity, no less than his victory, vindicated free society and the Union’s way of war. Grant’s eyes were on the future— a future in which Southerners, chastened and repentant, would join their Northern brethren in the march towards moral and material progress.”
“Lee, by contrast, believed that the Union victory was one of might over right. In his view, Southerners had nothing to repent of and had survived the war with their honor and principles intact.” ***
Unfortunately these two great Americans would become estranged from each other in the years after the war and never got to reconcile these differences in view.
Lee died in 1870 and would be held aloft in the South as a lasting symbol of the Lost Cause. Ulysses S. Grant would be elected President that same year but only slightly longer than a decade would pass before he is destitute penning his famous memoirs while suffering from cancer to pay his family debts. Grant dies in 1885.
The former Confederate President Jefferson Davis would spend two years imprisoned at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. He was later given amnesty after being exonerated in a link to Lincoln’s assassination and formally charged with having committed treason. He lived out his days on a plantation in Louisiana and died in 1889. A diehard secessionist Davis near the end of his life addressed a group of young southerners saying,
“I feel no regret that I stand before you a man without a country, for my ambition lies buried in the grave of the Confederacy.”
But he concluded,
“The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations. Before you lies the future, a future full of golden promise, a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished — a reunited country.” **
I have come to believe that the Military Academy at West Point is largely responsible for the Civil War ending so miraculously. Nearly all the officers in the war, North and South, knew each other as alumni or classmates, but more importantly, were schooled in the same principles of life and love of the constitution. It was most notably the soldiers themselves who truly ended the war.
“April 1865 was incontestably one of America’s finest hours: for it was not the deranged spirit of an assassin that defined the country at war’s end, but the conciliatory spirit of leaders who led as much in peace as in war, warriors and politicians who, by their example, their exhortation, and their deeds, overcame their personal rancor, their heartache, and spoke as citizens of not two lands, but one, thereby bringing the country together.” *
If the veterans of the Civil War managed to reconcile their differences it’s the responsibility of Americans today to honor that reconciliation and celebrate their sacrifice.
Confederate veteran Sam Watkins said it best,
“America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north and a south. We are one and undivided.”
* April 1865 – Jay Winik
** Civil War A Narrative Vol 3 – Shelby Foote
*** Appomattox – Elizabeth Varon
**** A Stillness at Appomattox – Bruce Catton