Triumph of the North
Triumph of the North
Deadlock. The stalemates at Petersburg and Atlanta spread despair throughout the North. Many felt Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s strategies had turned the war into a draw. The high Union death rate in all theaters (110,000 in three months), coupled with reports that Northern prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia, were dying at a rate of one hundred a day, combined to revive antiwar sentiments. Even faithful Republicans became swept along by Northern discontent; some called for President Abraham Lincoln to drop emancipation as a war aim. Many Republicans became convinced that the president would lose in the upcoming November 1864 elections to his Democrat opponent, former Union general-in-chief George B. McClellan.
Atlanta. Nevertheless, the war still raged, and Northern morale continued to swing in response to reports from the battlefield. A glimmer of optimism first emerged in August when Adm. David Farragut’s wooden fleet maneuvered around underwater mines and took Mobile Bay, an important Confederate port located in the Gulf of Mexico on the Alabama coast. A month later the tide turned again. In September 1864 Northern sentiment swung back to the side of the president as Gen. William T. Sherman sent good news from Georgia. On 2 September Sherman’s men captured the last rail link into Atlanta, forcing Confederate general John Bell Hood to abandon the city to save his army. The victory restored Northern faith in Lincoln as a leader, while Democrat claims that the war was a failure fell on deaf ears. Additional reports from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, secured Lincoln’s reelection bid. There, in October, Union cavalry general Philip Sheridan swept Jubal Early and his Confederate horsemen from the area. Twice before, the valley had served as an invasion route north for the Confederate army, and its farms continued to supply the Army of Northern Virginia. Now, Union control of the area denied Southern forces precious foodstuffs. In the November elections, Lincoln easily beat McClellan; 80 percent of soldiers in the field voted to retain their commander-in-chief in office.
March to the Sea. In response to Lincoln’s reelection, Confederate president Jefferson Davis declared that his nation stood “defiant as ever” and would continue to persist wholeheartedly against Northern aggression. Determined to break Southern will, Sherman decided to march through the eastern Georgia countryside. Sending half his army to Tennessee to check Hood’s impending counterattack at Nashville, Sherman abandoned his supply lines in November to begin his famous “March to the Sea.” After three years of fighting Confederate soldiers, Sherman now turned his attention to the civilian will to fight. Moving unopposed and living off the land, Sherman had his men cut a sixty-mile swath across Georgia, demolishing everything in their path. Not only did Sherman want to hurt the Confederate army by destroying war matériel and railroads, but he also sought to make the Southern civilian population feel the war by burning towns, plantations, and anything else within his army’s reach. “We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South,” he said, “but we can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.” By 20 December he reached Savannah and presented the port to Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Moving with an air of invincibility, Sherman moved into South Carolina in February and took Columbia before finally stopping his destructive path in North Carolina. Sherman’s five-month crusade spread terror and despair throughout the South. “All is gloom, despondency, and inactivity,” wrote one South Carolinian. “Our army is demoralized and the people panic stricken. To fight longer seems to be madness.”
Conclusion. As Sherman conquered the Southern coastline, the war slowly moved to a close. In December 1864, Union general George H. Thomas defeated and nearly annihilated Hood’s forces at Nashville. By February, Sherman’s march and Grant’s suffocating siege at Petersburg convinced many Confederate soldiers to return home. On 1 April 1865 Gen. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry broke Robert E. Lee’s right flank and cut the last rail link into Petersburg. The next day, in a desperate attempt to join Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina, Lee’s army set fire to all military supplies in Richmond and retreated west. Sensing victory at hand, Grant pressed forward and blocked Lee’s escape route at Appomattox Court House, ninety miles from Petersburg on 8 April. The following morning, Palm Sunday, Lee formally surrendered to Grant in the parlor of a private residence. Nine days later, Johnston surrendered in North Carolina, officially ending hostilities between North and South.
Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953);