American Civil War: 1864

In March, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was named lieutenant general and the commander of the Union Army. Leaving the West under the control of General William Sherman, Grant decided to take control of the Army of the Potomac. With his able lieutenants, George Meade and Philip Sheridan the army crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness.

When Robert E. Lee heard the news he sent in his troops, hoping that the Union's superior artillery and cavalry would be offset by the heavy underbrush of the Wilderness. Fighting began on the 5th May and two days later smouldering paper cartridges set fire to dry leaves and around 200 wounded men were either suffocated or burned to death. Of the 88,892 men that Grant took into the Wilderness, 14,283 were casualties and 3,383 were reported missing. Lee lost 7,750 men during the fighting.

After the battle Ulysses S. Grant moved south and on May 26th sent Philip Sheridan and his cavalry ahead to capture Cold Harbor from the Confederate Army. Lee was forced to abandon Cold Harbor and his whole army well dug in and by the time the rest of the Union Army arrived. Grant's ordered a direct assault but afterwards admitted this was a mistake losing 12,000 men "without benefit to compensate".

Ulysses S. Grant also gave instructions to William Sherman to attack the Army of Tennessee under the control of Joseph E. Johnston. He told Sherman "to move against Johnson's army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources".

On 7th May, 1864, Sherman and his 100,000 men advanced towards Johnson's army that was attempting to defend the route to Atlanta, the South's important manufacturing and communications centre. Joseph E. Johnston and his army retreated and after some brief skirmishes the two sides fought at Resaca (14th May), Adairsvile (17th May), New Hope Church (25th May), Kennesaw Mountain (27th June) and Marietta (2nd July).

After leaving the Wilderness Grant moved his Army of the Potomac towards Richmond hoping he could arrive there before Robert E. Lee. However, Pierre T. Beauregard was able to protect the route to the city before the arrival of Lee's main army forced Grant to prepare for a siege.

Ambrose Burnside organized a regiment of Pennsylvania coalminers to construct tunnels and place dynamite under the Confederate Army front lines. It was exploded on the 30th June and US Colored troops were sent forward to take control of the craters that had been formed. However, these troops were not given adequate support and the Confederate troops were soon able to recover its positions. Thousands of captured black soldiers were now murdered by angry Southerners. The Union Army also suffered heavy losses at the end of July, 1864, trying to take the port of Petersburg but was eventually able to cut off Lee's supplies from the lower South.

President Jefferson Davis was unhappy about withdrawal policy being employed by Joseph E. Johnston and on 17th July replaced him with the more aggressive John Hood. He immediately went on the attack and hit George H. Thomas and his men at Peachtree Creek. Hood was badly beaten and lost 2,500 men. Two days later he took on William Sherman just outside Atlanta and lost another 8,000 men. By 31st August, Confederate forces began to evacuate Atlanta and by early September the city came under the control of the Union Army.

Attempts to clear out the Shenandoah Valley by Major General Franz Sigel in May and Major General David Hunter during the summer of 1864 ended in failure. Major General Jubal Early, who defeated Hunter, was sent north with 14,000 men in an attempt to draw off troops from Grant's army. Major General Lew Wallace encountered Early by the Monacacy River and although defeated was able to slow his advance to Washington. His attempts to breakthrough the ring forts around the city ended in failure. Abraham Lincoln, who witnessed the attack from Fort Stevens, became the first president in American history to see action while in office.

In August 1864 the Union Army made another attempt to take control of the Shenandoah Valley. General Philip Sheridan and 40,000 soldiers entered the valley and soon encountered troops led by Jubal Early who had just returned from Washington. After a series of minor defeats Sheridan eventually gained the upper hand. His men now burnt and destroyed anything of value in the area and after defeating Early in another large-scale battle on 19th October, the Union Army, for the first time, held the Shenandoah Valley.

With the Union Army now clearly wining the war, a growing number of politicians in the North began to criticize Abraham Lincoln for not negotiating a peace deal with Jefferson Davis. Even former supporters such as Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, accused him of prolonging the war to satisfy his personal ambition. Others on the right, such as Clement Vallandigham, claimed that Lincoln was waging a "wicked war in order to free the slaves". Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York, even suggested that if Lincoln did not change his policies the city should secede from the Union.

Leading members of the Republican Party began to suggest that Lincoln should replace Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate in the 1864 presidential election. Hamlin was a Radical Republican and it was felt that Lincoln was already sure to gain the support of this political group. It was argued that what Lincoln needed was the votes of those who had previously supported the Democratic Party in the North.

Lincoln's original choice as his vice-president was General Benjamin Butler. Butler, a war hero, had been a member of the Democratic Party, but his experiences during the American Civil War had made him increasingly radical. Simon Cameron was sent to talk to Butler at Fort Monroe about joining the campaign. However, Butler rejected the offer, jokingly saying that he would only accept if Lincoln promised "that within three months after his inauguration he would die".

The anti-war section of the Democratic Party nominated General George McClellan as their presidential candidate. Abraham Lincoln now decided that Andrew Johnson, the governor of Tennessee, would make the best candidate for vice president. By choosing the governor of Tennessee, Lincoln would emphasis that Southern states status were still part of the Union. He would also gain the support of the large War Democrat faction. At a convention of the Republican Party on 8th July, 1864, Johnson received 200 votes to Hamlin's 150 and became Lincoln's running mate. This upset Radical Republications as Johnson had previously made it clear that he was a supporter of slavery.

The victories of Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, George Meade, Philip Sheridan and George H. Thomas reinforced the idea that the Union Army was close to bringing the war to an end. This helped Lincoln's presidential campaign and with 2,216,067 votes, comfortably beat General George McClellan (1,808,725) in the election.

John Hood continued to adopt an aggressive policy in Tennessee and despite heavy losses surrounded George H. Thomas at Nashville. On 15th December, 1864, Thomas broke out of Nashville and hammered Hood's army. Thomas captured 4,462 soldiers and those still left alive fled into Mississippi and Alabama.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Boykin Chesnut, Richmond, Virginia, diary entry (1st January, 1864)

One more year of "Stonewall" would have saved us. Chickamauga is the only battle we have gained since "Stonewall" died, and no results follow as usual. "Stonewall" was not so much killed by a Yankee; he was shot by his own men; that is hard. General Lee can do no more than keep back Meade. "One of Meade's armies, you mean," said I, "for they have only to double on him when Lee whips one of them." If General Lee had had Grant's resources, he would have bagged the last Yankee or have had them all safe back in Massachusetts.

(2) Harper's Weekly, (30th April, 1864)

On the 12th April, the rebel General Forrest appeared before Fort Pillow, near Columbus, Kentucky, attacking it with considerable vehemence. This was followed up by frequent demands for its surrender, which were refused by Major Booth, who commanded the fort. The fight was then continued up until 3 p.m., when Major Booth was killed, and the rebels, in large numbers, swarmed over the intrenchments. Up to that time comparatively few of our men had been killed; but immediately upon occupying the place the rebels commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including the wounded. Both white and black were bayoneted, shot, or sabred; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years, and several negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens, who had joined our forces for protection, were killed or wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred only two hundred remained alive. Three hundred of those massacred were negroes; five were buried alive. Six guns were captured by the rebels, and carried off, including tow 10-pound Parrotts, and two 12-pound howitzers. A large amount of stores was destroyed or carried away.

(3) Frank Wilkeson wrote about the fighting in the Wilderness in May, 1864, in his book, Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier (1887)

During the first day's fighting in the Wilderness, I saw a youth of about twenty years skip and yell, stung by a bullet through his thigh. He turned to limp to the rear. After he had gone a few steps he stopped, then he kicked out his leg once or twice to see if it would work. Then he tore the clothing away from his leg so as to see the wound. He looked at it attentively for an instant, and kicked out his leg again, then turned and took his place in the ranks and resumed firing.

There was considerable disorder in the line, and the soldiers moved to and fro - now a few feet to the right, now a few feet to the left. One of these movements brought me directly behind this wounded soldier. I could see plainly from that position, and I pushed into the gaping line and began firing. In a minute or two the wounded soldier dropped his rifle and, clasping his left arm, exclaimed: "I am hit again!" He sat down behind the battle ranks and tore off the sleeve of his shirt. The wound was very slight - not much more than skin-deep.

He tied his handkerchief around it, picked up his rifle, and took position alongside of me. I said: "You are fighting in bad luck today. You had better get away from here." He turned his head to answer me. His head jerked, he staggered, then fell, then regained his feet. A tiny fountain of blood and teeth and bone and bits of tongue burst out of his mouth. He had been shot through the jaws; the lower one was broken and hung down. I looked directly into his open mouth, which was ragged and bloody and tongueless. He cast cast his rifle furiously on the ground and staggered off.

(4) John L. Ranson, Andersonville Diary (July, 1864)

6th July: Boiling hot, camp reeking with filth, and no sanitary privileges; men dying off over 140 per day. Stockade enlarged, taking in eight or ten more acres, giving us more room, and stumps to dig up for wood to cook with. Jimmy Devers has been a prisoner over a year and, poor boy, will probably die soon. Have more mementos than I can carry, from those who have died, to be given to their friends at home. At least a dozen have given me letters, pictures, etc., to take North. Hope I shan't have to turn them over to someone else.

7th July: Having formed a habit of going to sleep as soon as the air got cooled off and before fairly dark. I wake up at 2 or 3 o'clock and stay awake. I then take in all the horrors of the situation. Thousands are groaning, moaning, and crying, with no bustle of the daytime to drown it.

9th July: One-half the men here would get well if they only had something in the vegetable line to eat. Scurvy is about the most loathsome disease, and when dropsy takes hold with the scurvy, it is terrible. I have both diseases but keep them in check, and it only grows worse slowly. My legs are swollen, but the cords are not contracted much, and I can still walk very well.

10th July: Have bought (from a new prisoner) a large blank book so as to continue my diary. Although it is a tedious and tiresome task, am determined to keep it up. Don't know of another man in prison who is doing likewise. Wish I had the gift of description that I might describe this place.

Nothing can be worse kind of water. Nothing can be worse or nastier than the stream drizzling its way through this camp. And for air to breathe, it is what arises from this foul place. On al four sides of us are high walls and tall tress, and there is apparently no wind or breeze to blow away the stench, and we are obliged to breathe and live in it. Dead bodies lay around all day in the broiling sun, by the dozen and even hundreds, and we must suffer and live in this atmosphere.

12th July: I keep thinking our situation can get no worse, but it does get worse every day, and not less than 160 die each twenty-four hours. Probably one-forth or one-third of these die inside the stockade, the balance in the hospital outside. All day and up to 4 o'clock p.m., the dead are being gathered up and carried to the south gate and placed in a row inside the dead line. As the bodies are stripped of their clothing, in most cases as soon as the breath leaves and in some cases before, the row of dead presents a sickening appearance.

At 4 o'clock, a four or six mule wagon comes up to the gate, and twenty or thirty bodies are loaded onto the wagon and they are carried off to be put in trenches, one hundred in each trench, in the cemetery. It is the orders to attach the name, company, and regiment to each body, but it is not always done. My digging days are over. It is with difficulty now that I can walk, and only with the help of two canes.

(5) Benjamin Wade and Henry Winter Davis issued a joint statement in the New York Tribune after Abraham Lincoln vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill (5th August, 1864)

The bill directed the appointment of provisional government by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The President, after defeating the law, proposes to appoint, without law and without the advice and consent of the Senate, military governors for the rebel States!

Whatever is done will be at his will and pleasure, by persons responsible to no law, and more interested to secure the interests and execute the will of the President than of the people; and the will of Congress is to be "held for naught unless the loyal people of the rebel States choose to adopt it."

The President must realize that our support is of a cause and not of a man and that the authority of Congress is paramount and must be respected; and if he wishes our support, he must confine himself to his executive duties - to obey and execute, not make the laws - to suppress by armed rebellion, and leave political reorganization to Congress.

(6) Mary Boykin Chesnut, Columbia, South Carolina, diary entry (24th September, 1864)

These stories of our defeats in the valley fall like blows upon a dead body. Since Atlanta fell, I have felt as if all were dead within me forever. The reserves, as somebody said, have been secured only by robbing the cradle and the grave - the men too old, the boys too young.

(7) Orders issued by William Sherman before his Atlanta Campaign (9th November, 1864)

The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten days' provisions for his command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten days' provisions for his command, and three days' forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock in sight of their camp.

To corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, etc.; and for them the general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested, no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bush-whackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless, according to the measure of such hostility. As for horses, mules, wagons, etc., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit; discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor and industrious, usually neutral or friendly.

(8) William Sherman wrote about his Atlanta Campaign in his Memoirs published in 1875.

The skill and success of the men in collecting forage was one of the features of this march. Each brigade commander had authority to detail a company of foragers, usually about fifty men, with one or two commissioned officers selected for their boldness and enterprise. This party would be dispatched before daylight with a knowledge of the intended day's march and camp; would proceed on foot five or six miles from the route traveled by their brigade, and then visit every plantation and farm within range. They would usually procure a wagon or family carriage, load it with bacon, corn-meal, turkeys, chickens, ducks, and every thing that could be used as food or forage, and would then regain the main road, usually in advance of their train. No doubt, many acts of pillage, robbery, and violence, were committed by these parties of foragers, for I have since heard of jewelry taken from women, and the plunder of articles that never reached the commissary; but these acts were exceptional and incidental. I never heard of any cases of murder or rape; and no army could have carried along sufficient food and forage for a march of three hundred miles; so that foraging in some shape was necessary.

(9) Statement issued by the members of the Georgia Congress (19th November, 1864)

We have had a special conference with President Davis and the Secretary of War, and are able to assure you that they have done and are still doing all that can be done to meet the emergency that presses upon you. Let every man fly to arms! Remove your negroes, horses, cattle, and provisions from Sherman's army, and burn what you cannot carry. Burn all bridges, and block up the roads in his route. Assail the invader in front, flank, and rear, by night and by day. Let him have no rest.

(10) Frank Wilkeson, Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier (1887)

Wounded soldiers almost always tore their clothing away from their wounds so as to see them and to judge of their character. Many of them would smile and their faces would brighten as they realized that they were not hard hit and they would go home for a few months. Others would give a quick glance at their wounds and then shrink back as from a blow, and turn pale as they realized the truth that they were mortally wounded. The enlisted men were exceedingly accurate judges of the probable result which would ensue from any wound they saw. They had seen hundreds of soldiers wounded, and they had noticed that certain wounds always resulted in death. After the shock of discovery had passed, they generally braced themselves and died in a manly manner.

(11) Frank Wilkeson, Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier (1887)

Near Spotsylvania I saw, as my battery was moving into action, a group of wounded men lying in the shade cast by some large oak trees. All of these men's faces were gray. They silently looked at us as we marched past them. One wounded man, a blond giant of about forty years, was smoking a short briarwood pipe. He had a firm grip on the pipestem. I asked him what he was doing. "Having my last smoke, young fellow," he replied. His dauntless blue eyes met mine, and he bravely tried to smile. I saw he was dying fast. Another of these wounded men was trying to read a letter. He was too weak to hold it, or maybe his sight was clouded. He thrust it unread into the breast pocket of his blouse and lay back with a moan.

This group of wounded men numbered fifteen or twenty. At the time, I thought that all of them were fatally wounded and that there was no use in the surgeons wasting time on them, when men who could be saved were clamoring for their skillful attention. None of these soldiers cried aloud, none called on wife, or mother, or father. They lay on the ground, palefaced, and with set jaws, waiting for their end. When my battery returned from the front, five or six hours afterward, almost all of these men were dead.

Long before the campaign was over I concluded that dying soldiers seldom called on those who were dearest to them, seldom conjured their Northern or Southern homes, until they became delirious. Then, when their minds wandered and fluttered at the approach of freedom, they babbled of their homes. Some were boys again and were fishing in Northern trout streams. Some were generals leading their men to victory. Some were with their wives and children. Some wandered over the family's homestead; but all, with rare exceptions, were delirious.

(12) In his book, Specimen Days, Walt Whitman described fighting during the American Civil War (1881).

What history, I say, can ever give - for who can know - the mad, determined tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and little squads. Who know the conflict, hand-to-hand, the writhing groups and squads, the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols, the distant cannon, the cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths, the indescribable mix - the officers' orders, persuasions, encouragements - the strong shout, "Charge, men, charge", the flash of the naked sword, and rolling flame and smoke? Of scenes like this, I say, who writes the story. Of thousands, north and south, of unwritten heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations - who tells? No formal general's report, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west. Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers.