As the Civil War came to an end, a big question remained for the North and eventually the reunited United States. What would become of its African-American residents? Would they be given full legal rights or only partial? This question was largely answered by the contributions of African-Americans in uniform.
Excursus: African-Americans in Uniform
- Calls for black troops began at the beginning of the war…mainly among abolitionists.
- Recruitment of black soldiers began in 1863 (it had been made legal by the Emancipation Proclamation, although attempts had been made earlier).
- Initially Black soldiers were paid less than white soldiers. This was corrected in 1864.
- Black troops were segregated into separate units. Most of their officers were white. (This was not true in the navy, where black and white sailors served side-by-side throughout the war.
- Originally, black soldiers were given menial tasks. They were only allowed combat roles later.
- The most famous black unit was the 54th Massachusetts, which attacked Fort Wagner near Charleston, SC. in July 1863.
- Black troops’ courageous performance in combat won them respect from many Northerners. Their valor helped to change public attitudes on emancipation.
- Nearly 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army and Navy.
- Confederate soldiers often killed black troops that surrendered. For example: Fort Pillow near Memphis, under Forrest’s orders (maybe)
- By 1865, the Confederate Congress even voted to allow slaves into their army but none actually ever fought.
- Grant, still stalled in front of Lee’s lines, was looking for some type of bold stroke to break the stalemate.
- One regiment under Burnside’s command contained several coal miners. The miners proposed that they dig a shaft from their position to the Confederate line and mine it.
- Burnside approved the idea. He asked Grant for permission, and Grant approved.
- Work on the shaft was begun on June 25. Within four weeks, the miners had dug a shaft that was 575 feet long that went under the Confederate lines. It ended in a 75 foot “T”
- in late July, the federals put 320 kegs of powder at the end of the shaft and ran a fuse back to the Union lines.
- On July 30, the fuse was lit. Nothing happened. Two volunteers went to fix the fuse. It was lit again, and at 4:45 AM, the powder went up in a tremendous explosion.
- “A fort and several hundred yards of earthwork with men and cannon was literally hurled 100 feet in the air.”
- A crater 175 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep was formed. A gap ¼ miles long was formed in the Confederate lines.
- Burnside had trained a fresh division of U. S. Colored Troops for this situation. Their job was to go around the hole and seal the break. At the last minute however, Grant and Meade decided that the black troops should be held in reserve. A white division would instead lead the attack.
- Three Union division commanders drew straws to decide which one would go into the gap. The commander of the division who won (lost) the drawing was drunk all throughout.
- The white division did the opposite of what they were supposed to do. Thousands of men went right into the crater. Before long the crater was packed with Union soldiers.
- By 8 AM, the Confederates had sealed the break. They poured fire into the crater and slaughtered the soldiers inside.
- By this time, the black soldiers had arrived. They ended up in the crater too. They were cut down by the rebels (many were killed after they surrendered). By 1 PM, the battle ended. More than 4000 Federals became casualties, while 1500 Rebels.
Stalemate at Petersburg / The Shenandoah Valley
- The two armies skirmished over the next few months, but there were no major engagements.
- Grant repeatedly tried to cut Confederate rail lines, mostly without success.
- The Confederates tried to find supplies, often succeeding (Hampton’s “Beefsteak run”)
- Lee heard that David Hunter (who had replaced Sigel as commander of Federal troops in the Valley) was moving toward Lynchburg. He ordered Jubal Early to take 14,000 men to stop him.
- Lee had several goals for Early:
- Save Lynchburg.
- March down the Valley (toward the Potomac) and clear it of Federals.
- Cross the Potomac and threaten Washington.
- Brief bio on Early: (West Point, lawyer, back in army in Mex. War, had voted against secession, then became staunch Confederate, bachelor but had many children, profane, sarcastic, had done well, Lee’s nickname).
- Early pushed Hunter back. Hunter retreated all the way into West Virginia (mention it was now a separate state). Early continued up the Valley and crossed the Potomac into Maryland.
- A federal force was thrown together under Lew Wallace to stop Early. They fought in the Battle of Monocacy (July 9, 1864) near Frederick, Maryland. The battle was a Confederate victory, but the Federals slowed Early down and bought time for the defenders of Washington to prepare.
- By July 11, Early’s army was just outside the defenses of Washington.
- Lincoln, nervous about Early’s threat, asked Grant to bring the Army of the Potomac back to Washington. Grant demurred but agreed to send a few troops.
- Reinforcements for Washington soon arrived from the Army of the Potomac.
- On the 12th, during a skirmish, a junior officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes saw a civilian standing up in the midst of incoming Confederate fire. He said “Get down, you damned fool, before you get shot!” The civilian was Abraham Lincoln, who had ridden out to see the fighting. (Lincoln got down.)
- Early, realizing he did not have the strength to attack Washington, retreated back to the Valley. He had accomplished all the goals Lee had set for him.
- Grant ordered Philip Sheridan to take a force to deal with Early and lay waste to the Valley.
- With 50,000 men, in September, Sheridan repeatedly defeated Early and pushed him back up the Valley. All the while, he burned crops and killed livestock. He said “A crow will have to carry its own rations if it flies across the Valley.” The Valley was no longer a source of supply for the Confederacy.
Petersburg and Richmond Abandoned
- Grant was continually trying to get between Lee and Richmond, to cut off his supplies, and prevent him from linking up with Joseph Johnston’s army in NC.
- Grant kept lengthening his lines, forcing Lee to do the same. Lee’s line reached 35 miles in length. making it very thin.
- Up to 100 Confederate soldiers were deserting per day during the winter of 1864-65.
- On March 25, Lee tried to break through the Federal lines. He attacked Fort Stedman (part of the Union line). The Confederate attack at first work, but after Grant sent reinforcements, the Federals drove back the rebels and even captured part of their line. Lee lost 5000 men.
- On April 1, Grant launched a major attack against Lee’s right flank. The attack, which was at Five Forks and led by Philip H. Sheridan, routed the Confederates and inflicted another 5000 casualties (to only 1000 Union ones).
- The next day, Grant attacked along the entire Confederate line. 5000 more rebels fell. Lee pulled out of Petersburg and retreated westward. He had only 35,000 troops and hoped to meet a supply train and then join his force with that of Johnston.
- Lee sent a message to Jefferson Davis telling him Richmond would have to be evacuated. Davis had been in church, and he left the service immediately upon receiving the note.
- The Confederates burned everything in Richmond of military value, and the members of the government boarded a train and left.
- Lincoln visited Richmond on April 4. He was mobbed by former slaves, who hailed him as their savior. At one point, he sat at Jefferson Davis’ desk.
- As Lee and his army moved west, the Federals followed them. Sheridan’s army was to the south, preventing Lee from turning that way.
- Hundreds of Confederate soldiers, famished and exhausted, fell by the wayside, while others threw away their weapons but continued.
- On April 6, parts of the armies collided at Sayler’s Creek, and 7000 Confederates were captured.
- Lee turned to a staff officer and exclaimed, “My God, has this army been dissolved.”
- By April 8, Sheridan got in front of Lee’s army and captured the Confederate rations.
Appomattox and the End of the War
- Grant wrote Lee, saying “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate Southern army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”
- Lee told an aide, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” He wrote Grant asking for terms of surrender.
- The two commanders met in the parlor of Wilmer McLean near Appomattox Court House.
- Lee was immaculately dressed in his best uniform with a sword. He thought he would be taken prisoner. Grant showed up in a shabby uniform covered with mud (he had hurried to get there so as to not make Lee wait).
- The two made small talk for a while. Grant mentioned that he remembered Lee from the Mexican War. Lee could not remember Grant.
- Grant allowed generous terms. The Southerners would get to keep their horses. Officers got to keep their side arms. He sent 25,000 rations to the Confederates. All of the Confederates would be paroled.
- Lee told his soldiers, ”Boys, I have done the best I could for you. Go home now. And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well,”
- Grant later wrote that he was “sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause, though the cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which people ever fought.”
- The formal surrender occurred on April 12. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, now a general, received the Confederate surrender. The Union troops offered a gesture of salute to their vanquished foes. The Army of Northern Virginia no longer existed.
- Joseph Johnston surrendered his 30,000 soldiers to Sherman on April 26.
- On May 4, General Richard Taylor surrendered the main western Confederate army.
- On May 11, Jefferson Davis and other high Confederate officials were captured in Georgia.
- On May 12, the last land battle of the Civil War (Palmito Ranch) occurred. Two weeks later. Two weeks later the Confederate army of the Trans-Mississippi surrendered.
- June 28: the last shots of the Civil War were fired by the Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah captured 11 U. S. whaling vessels near the Bering Sea. The Shenandoah’s captain learned of the Confederacy’s loss and sailed to Liverpool.
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