In the summer of 1864, the Union was winning the battles but losing the war. In the presidential race of 1864, war weariness was working against Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln, and his Democratic challenger George B McClellan was significantly ahead because he promised to make peace with the South and end the war. That changed in September when Sherman seized Atlanta, which greatly increased Lincoln’s popularity. But by October, Lincoln was still only tied in the polls with McClellan because Ulysses S Grant was stuck in a bloody stalemate besieging Robert E. Lee around Richmond, and the morale crushing casualties were high.
In order to break the stalemate around Richmond, Grant needed troops. The only troops available were those defending Washington DC from attack. Washington DC was constantly threatened over the years because of its proximity to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the gateway to the North and Breadbasket of the South. Because the Valley runs southwest to northeast, i.e. away from Richmond, it previously didn’t made sense for Grant to clear it.
In September 1864, Grant needed those troops and dispatched Major General Phil Sheridan with 20,000 men to clear the valley of Rebels, thereby removing the threat to Washington. Sheridan pinned down Confederate Major General Jubal Early, but could not destroy him. So in a prelude to Sherman’s March to the Sea, Sheridan began a scorched earth policy in the Shenandoah Valley to deny supplies to the Confederates. Thinking everything was going well, and that Early would be forced to leave the valley or starve, Sheridan left his army to attend a conference in Washington DC in mid-October.
On 18 October, Sheridan was on his way back from the conference and stayed the night in Winchester, Va, twenty miles from his army. Also that day Jubal Early decided not to retreat but to attack. He marched his army all night and surprised the Union troops encamped on Cedar Creek, just as Sheridan woke to the distant sound of guns. Like all good commanders, Sheridan mounted up and rode toward the sound of battle. To his astonishment, he encountered the shattered and routed remnants of his army retreating from Cedar Creek to Winchester.
Sheridan spurred his horse on and raced down the road towards the sounds of fighting, inspiring his troops and admonishing his officers, but never slowed below a gallop. Sheridan arrived at the still raging Battle of Cedar Creek within minutes of it being lost. His presence on the battlefield electrified the remaining defenders, and more importantly, behind him a came a steady stream of recently rallied reinforcements. That evening, Sheridan counterattacked and swept Early’s exhausted troops from the field.
The news of Sheridan’s Ride was exactly what Lincoln needed. Sheridan was an immediate national hero and Lincoln’s popularity soared. McClellan’s antiwar campaign collapsed and Lincoln would handily defeat him in November. There would be no peace treaty with an independent Confederate States of America.
In late September 1863, Union Major General William Roscrans’ Army of the Cumberland invaded Georgia from Tennessee and was decisively defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga. Only the personal leadership of MG George H Thomas, nicknamed the “Rock of Chickamauga” by Ulysses S Grant, prevented the Army of the Cumberland’s total destruction. Rosecrans retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee where Confederate General Braxton Bragg occupied the heights above the city and prepared to starve out the Union troops.
By November 1863, President Lincoln and General Grant realized that the war would only end with an invasion of the Deep South. The first step, and Gateway to the South, was the strategically vital rail hub of Chattanooga, then under siege by the Confederates. On 23 and 24 November, William Sherman’s Army of Tennessee maneuvered on Bragg’s positions but it was a disaster. The only successful action was Joe Hooker’s fight in Lookout Valley which nearly unhinged the Confederate line. However, Sherman’s troops could not capitalize on the near-success. At the end of the day, the entire army was divided and neither Hooker nor Sherman could support each other. The Union Army was in a terrible predicament the next morning. In desperation, Grant asked Thomas (who replaced Rosecrans as the commander of the previously discounted troops inside Chattanooga) for a supporting attack against the heavily entrenched Missionary Ridge in order to take some pressure off of Sherman. Grant wasn’t expected much from the “demoralized” and “defeated”, albeit fresh, Army of the Cumberland.
On Wednesday afternoon, 25 November 1863, Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland stepped out of the sleepy town of Chattanooga to attack Missionary Ridge. Assaulting the entrenched troops at the end of the long open slope was a tough, nearly suicidal, assignment and they knew it. But to the Army of the Cumberland, the entire Union Army was in this position because of their failure. Now they were given a nearly unheard of second chance.
Their Day of Redemption was at hand.
First at the quick step, then at a double, then in ones and twos they sped up and broke ranks toward the Confederate lines. Soon entire regiments were in a full sprint and fixing bayonets on the run. Thomas’ blue tide swept over the first line of trenches as if they weren’t there. Then it clawed its way up the steep slope toward the second, with soldiers shouting “Chickamauga!” at the top of their lungs. The unstoppable Army of the Cumberland soon took the second trenchline and broke the rebels. Not stopping, they continued over the top of Missionary Ridge and down the far slope. In full view of a flabbergasted Grant and Sherman, Thomas’ soldiers impossibly cleared the ridge of Confederates, which forced Bragg to retreat.
The news of the dramatic victory would reach Washington DC the next day, where President Lincoln was celebrating America’s newest national holiday, the first official Thanksgiving Day.
After the bloody Union victory at Antietam a few days before and the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s Army out of Maryland, President Lincoln felt he now had the political clout to transform the very nature of the American Civil War. On 22 Sep 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that all slaves held in Confederate territory would be freed if the state did not return to the Union by the end of the year. Although a bold step, the Proclamation did not end slavery in slave owning states that didn’t secede, nor did it give former slaves citizenship, nor did it even free very many slaves. It did however turn the war from a partisan political struggle of reunification to a moral crusade against slavery, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world. Although many in the North would be greatly angered by the Proclamation; Great Britain and France, both with anti-slavery laws, could no longer support the Confederate States. The South, with its small population and tiny industrial base, would have to defeat the North on its own.
By 1826, the American “Era of Good Feelings” that came about after its perceived victory in the War of 1812 was over a decade old. The underdog victory over the British, the collapse of the Federalist Party after the treasonous Hartford Convention, and the defeat of Native Americans at Tippecanoe, Fallen Timbers, and Horseshoe Bend, which opened up the West, led to an era when the people referred to themselves not as “Virginians” or “Pennsylvanians”, but as “Americans”. The American System survived the Panic of 1819, the worst of America’s early recessions, stronger than before. Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was being sung in taverns across the country to the tune of an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. But the Era of Good Feelings among Americans was not destined to last.
Some people in America still believed they were entitled to the fruits of other men and women’s labor and expertise without just compensation. Moreover, they believed that those same people were considered property and that their Natural and Unalienable Rights were the product of a man made government, not the Providence of God or whatever deity they worshiped. Ergo, these slaves did not benefit from the Rule of Law as promised in the US Declaration of Independence and codified in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The issue of Slavery (and to a lesser extent initially, the treatment of Native Americans in this vein) would dominate politics for the next thirty years.
By the mid-1820s, many of the American Founding Fathers had passed on. And most could not reconcile “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” with the institution of Slavery. The divisiveness was personified by two men, the best of friends and sometimes the worst of enemies, who were both on their deathbeds in July of 1826.
John Adams was America’s 2nd President and the product of strong independent rural Massachusetts’ farmers who saw human bondage as repugnant. John Adams never owned slaves, and he felt that slavery was economically inefficient (free men are always more productive than slaves) and would eventually cease. Nonetheless, he was not an abolitionist because he felt that abolitionism was antithetical to American unity.
His friend, Thomas Jefferson, the ironic author of the above passage in the Declaration of Independence and America’s 3rd President, was the product of an “enlightened” Virginia aristocratic class and a slave owner. A self-described racist, Jefferson felt that freed slaves had no place in American society, simply because of the cognitive dissonance of the passage of “all men are created equal” and the issue of Slavery. Jefferson believed that that inherent problem would cause freed slaves to become embittered with their masters and lead to the dissolution of the Union. He favored colonization of the inevitably freed slaves or their reparation back to Africa or the West Indies, as done by James Monroe and the creation of Liberia.
Both men wrestled with the issue of Slavery their entire lives. They led America through her most trying times, and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen despite overwhelming odds, not once but twice. But they could never agree on the issue of Slavery. For nearly six decades, they shepherded the nascent American state to the point where it could defend itself against any external threat. Unfortunately, they could not solve its most serious internal threat.
On 4 July 1826, two of America’s greatest proponents were near death, one 83 years old in Monticello Virginia, and the other 90 years old in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Exactly 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on the steps of Pennsylvania State House, and printed for distribution at John Dunlap’s printing shop, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other.
Despite all of their accomplishments, there was much work left to do. Care for the American experiment passed to a new generation. The children of the Revolution, epitomized by the Tennessean adventurer, politician and soldier Andrew Jackson, would have to tackle the issue of Slavery. The children of the War of 1812, personified by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant, would have to settle it.
On April 24, 1862 Union Admiral David Farragut, an aggressive Virginian in command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, boldly ran his ships past the Confederate forts and batteries protecting the approaches to New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. With the main defenses of Forts Jackson and St. Philip bypassed, the undefended city fell to Farragut without a fight on the 29th. It was one of the Union’s most important victories in the “Anaconda Plan” to economically strangle the Confederacy into surrender and a big step in controlling the Mississippi River which would split the Confederacy in half.
On 12 April 1862, Union civilian scout James Andrews and 22 Ohio infantry volunteers hijacked a Confederate locomotive “The General” in Kennesaw, Georgia. The plan was to stop periodically and destroy track, cut telegraph wire, and burn bridges behind them in order to cut supply from Atlanta to the strategically important Confederate town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although Andrews cut telegraph wire preventing anyone ahead from knowing of the train, the former conductor of The General, William Fuller, pursued on a hand car with some rebel soldiers (Andrews’ top speed was only 15mph). Fuller eventually commandeered another train and pursued Andrews. Fuller dogged and unrelenting pursuit prevented the raiders from damaging the vital supply route in any meaningful way. Andrews at one point tried to set a car on fire while on a covered bridge to thwart pursuit, but Fuller pushed through before the bridge was too damaged.
The Chase lasted almost all the way to Chattanooga when The General ran out of coal and had to be abandoned. Andrews and the Union soldiers split up but were all eventually captured. They were tried as spies and found guilty of being unlawful combatants and sentenced to hang. Seven, including Andrews, were hung but the rest escaped, six were recaptured but because of the outcry were not hung and later exchanged. Abraham Lincoln’s Sec. of War, Edwin Stanton, awarded the first Medals of Honor to the soldiers who participated in The Chase, the very first being Pvt Jacob W. Parrot of the 33rd Ohio Infantry, due to his particularly brutal time as a prisoner.
On 9 March 1862, during the American Civil War, the first clash of ironclad warships took place. After the CSS Virginia, a Confederate ironclad built from the remains of the USS Merrimac, easily sunk two Union ships blockading Richmond, the USS Monitor, a Union ironclad with a rotating turret, sortied to protect a third: the USS Minnesota which had run aground fleeing the Virginia. The Monitor and Virginia fought inconclusively off Hampton Roads, VA, for about three hours before darkness halted the fight. Navies around the world, including the two largest: France and Great Britain, immediately halted all construction on wooden ships. The Age of Sail was over.
Intra-service squabbling between Union generals Don Carlos Buell and Henry Halleck had brought the Western Theater of the American Civil War to screeching halt after successfully securing most of Kentucky in late 1861. This was despite the many readily available invasion corridors into the South defended by the under-strength armies of Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston who was given the unenviable task of securing a 300 mile front from the Cumberland Gap to the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, frustrated with the timidity of all his top commanders, issued an ultimatum in January 1862 that all Union armies must be on the move by Washington’s Birthday: 22 February.
At Paducah Kentucky, Commodore Andrew Foote and an unknown brigadier general, Ulysses S. Grant, seized upon Lincoln’s order, and convinced Halleck, their superior, that if he allowed them to attack it would fulfill the letter of Lincoln’s order, if not the spirit. Halleck, whom Lincoln once called a “damn fine clerk”, agreed. Not wasting time, the duo attacked on 3 February, three weeks earlier than Lincoln’s deadline.
Foote and Grant executed a joint Army/Navy plan to break into Tennessee by taking forts blocking access to the parallel Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys. From Paducah, Foote’s “iron and timber-clads” sailed down the river to bombard Fort Henry while Grant’s men marched. But the river was flooded, and Grant made slow progress in the boggy ground. Foote arrived on 6 February, well ahead of Grant. He was surprised to find Fort Henry poorly sited and nearly underwater; so much so that the Confederates were hastily attempting to build another fort, Fort Heiman, across the river on higher ground. Foote seized the moment, sailed his gunboats to within ¼ mile of Fort Henry, and pounded the Confederates point blank. They surrendered one hour later.
Grant arrived the next day and took advantage of the victory by moving on Ft Donelson, 12 miles away across the neck of land that separated the two rivers. On the 11th, he invested the fort. Foote attempted to do the same to Donelson as he had Henry and bombard the Confederates into surrender, but was fought off. Nonetheless, this small rebel victory couldn’t change the fact that Grant had them in a vise, and if they weren’t crushed, they’d surely starve.
After three days of fighting, the Confederate command began breaking down. The recently arrived cavalry commander, Lt Col Nathan Bedford Forrest, snuck out with his men on the night of the 15th. Along with Forrest, the top two overall fort commanders disappeared after abdicating their responsibilities to their third, Simon Bolivar Buckner, a friend of Grant’s from West Point. Buckner was convinced he could get good terms from Grant, a man he personally helped when Grant was deep into alcoholism and unemployment. He was mistaken.
On the 16th, after a failed breakout attempt by the rest of the cut off Confederates, Buckner asked for terms of surrender. Grant succinctly replied: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner surrendered immediately.
Brigadier General U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant gave America its first significant victory of the Civil War. Foote’s “Brown Water Navy” were masters of Tennessee’s waterways and even bombarded Confederate targets in Mississippi and Alabama. The large confederate base on the Mississippi at Columbus Ky was untenable and abandoned. Grant took Nashville a week later, the first rebel state capital to fall to Union armies during the war.