Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part XLIV: The End, Part One


"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war will speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

"With malice for none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

-- President Abraham Lincoln, March 4th, 1865

By his second Inauguration, Lincoln was at long last able to begin thinking about after. Grant had Lee bottled up in Petersburg and Richmond. Sherman was marching at will in the Carolinas with no effective opposition. Sure, Joseph E. Johnston led a force shadowing Sherman, but while it was a force that marched with good order and discipline, its military capability was more theoretical than actual. Johnston had actually said as much in a letter to Lee after the Battle of Bentonville -- "I can do no more than annoy him."

The Confederacy was falling apart.

Its legislature had already essentially given up. On the 18th of March, the Confederate Congress adjourned sine die -- meaning, the Speaker adjourned without specifying a date they would reconvene. The dread secret no one dared breathe, but that everyone nevertheless knew, was that there would never be another session. Most of the Confederacy's civilian leadership was taking the opportunity the get gone while they still could.

Its army had, and hadn't, given up. Lee should have had about ninety thousand men to resist Grant's hundred-fifty-thousand. Should have, except that about two-thirds of them had deserted. This left Lee with thirty thousand men to hold just over fifty miles of line. An assault at three-to-two odds is a bloodbath for the attacker. An assault at five-to-one ... not so much.

By mid-March, Lee had one chance and one chance only. He knew that Sheridan was on his way from the Shenandoah with fifty thousand men, and Sherman was marching north from the Carolinas with sixty thousand more. If he waited too long, Grant would have well over two hundred thousand men at his command, while he would never have any more men than he currently had. If he was going to stage a breakout, it would have to be now.

Initially, the battle at Fort Steadman went well for the Confederacy. The forces under Confederate General John B. Gordon captured the Union works, and began directing enfilading fire on the Union trenches. But the Union counterattack was swift, sure, and effective ... so much so that Grant, who was a few miles away conferring with Lincoln, didn't know about the affair until it was all over. There were so many Union troops essentially sitting around doing nothing that it was a trivial matter to concentrate enough force to drive the assault back.

While that wasn't the final blow, it was very close to it. The Confederate army couldn't hold out much longer. When the end came at Petersburg, it came quickly.

The Battle of Five Forks would come a few days later, on the first of April. It was here that the Union finally turned the Confederate flank, and the Confederates simply did not have the manpower to stretch their line any more. The line caved, in several places. The position was no longer tenable, so Lee ordered a general retreat. He would try to lead his army west and south, along the Appomattox River, towards what he hoped would be a refuge, where he could find supplies for his men and a place to regroup.

Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, had entered a truly delusional state:

"Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities ... with an army free to move from point to point ... nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve."

"Nothing is now needed" ... with the possible exceptions of food, munitions, and soldiers; all of which are conspicuously lacking at this point in the affair. I marvel at this passage. Davis cannot possibly have believed this drivel. And yet he committed it to paper as an exhortation to the people of the Confederacy ... at least, what was left of it. But on the other other hand, Davis wasn't a man known for lying ... leaving us with the inescapable conclusion that yes, he really did believe this bit of raving lunacy, meaning that yes, he has taken leave of his senses. Or equally possibly, his reputation for military acumen wasn't all that well-deserved after all.

A West Point man he was, but evidently, he slept through all of the lectures on logistics.

Lee hadn't. Which is why he was moving his army with all due speed to where he could resupply, with Grant and Sheridan dogging his steps the whole way ...

... one last roll of the dice.