Collapse of the Confederacy

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 469-471:

EARLY 1865 WITNESSED the slow-motion unraveling of the Army of Northern Virginia, which was gradually thinned out by massive desertions amounting to about a regiment per day. Tattered men in large groups appeared in Grant’s camps, surrendering their weapons. “Hundreds of men are deserting nightly,” Lee confessed to Jefferson Davis as such departures shaved off 8 percent of his army in January, followed by a further 8 percent in February. Driven by poor food, withheld pay, and rapidly depreciating Confederate currency, rebel soldiers were rendering their own bleak verdict on the war’s future course. In early February, Grant obtained a poster showing Lee reduced to begging from local farmers, pleading with them “to sell or loan as much Corn Meal & Molasses as they Can spare.” Southern conscription covered boys as young as fourteen and men as old as sixty.

Grant believed the southern people, once ardent to fight, had shed their taste for bloodshed. “Everything looks to me to be very favorable for a speedy termination of the war,” he predicted in mid-February, wondering whether rebel leaders would flee or be ousted by their citizens. Inside the Confederate cabinet, Secretary of State Judah Benjamin argued strenuously that blacks must be recruited or Lee would have to abandon Richmond. The Confederate legislature approved a bill to enlist slaves in the army, sidestepping the explosive question of whether to emancipate them. Its most eloquent proponent was Lee, who urgently needed fresh troops. “I think those who are employed [as soldiers] should be freed,” he argued. “It would be neither just nor wise, in my opinion, to require them to serve as slaves.” The Charleston Mercury noted the absurdity of the whole enterprise: “Assert the right in the Confederate Government to emancipate slaves, and it is stone dead.” After the Virginia legislature endorsed the bill for recruiting black soldiers, one or two black companies were assembled and briefly paraded in the Richmond streets, but they came too late to prop up the beleaguered cause. Grant tracked with consuming interest this controversy in Richmond newspapers. Slavery was slowly crumbling, as evidenced by a precipitous drop in the market price for slaves. As the Richmond war clerk John Jones indicated in his diary, “Here the price of slaves, men, is about $5000 Confederate State notes, or $100 in specie. A great depreciation. Before the war they commanded ten times that price.”

All the while, plowing remorselessly through the Deep South, Sherman eradicated supply bases and transportation networks that kept Lee’s army alive. By early January, with Savannah secure, Sherman was ready to “sally forth again,” telling Grant of his plans to carve a path of destruction through Columbia and Camden, South Carolina, followed by Wilmington and Raleigh in North Carolina. “The game is then up with Lee,” Sherman stated, “unless he comes out of Richmond, avoids you, and fights me: in which event, I should reckon on your being on his heels.” His options vanishing, Lee would soon face an unpalatable choice: either stay in Richmond and sacrifice the rest of the South, or head southward, fight in the open, and be squeezed between Sherman’s and Grant’s converging armies. Lincoln allegedly gave humorous expression to this by saying, “Grant has the bear by the hind leg while Sherman takes off the hide.”

Rolling through Georgia, Sherman’s army had collected fugitive slaves at every turn…. Sherman still complained that jubilant blacks flocking to his army hampered its progress. To deal with this surplus population, he devised one of the war’s most innovative measures. The federal government had confiscated four hundred thousand acres of land. In mid-January, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a large strip of territory along the Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida coasts for settlement by landless black families. They would be offered forty-acre plots in self-governing communities. By June, this remarkable experiment in reconstruction offered new life to forty thousand former slaves, although the land titles given out had not yet acquired lasting legal power. Sherman was an improbable author for this most progressive order and later explained that he had done it as a temporary wartime measure at the behest of [Secretary of War] Stanton.

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Filed under economics, migration, military, slavery, U.S., war

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