(This essay was originally published as “Tide of war turns at last,” in the Newport Daily News on August 16, 2014.)
After the stunning Northern victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, Northern hopes were high that the war would soon be concluded. The invincibility of the South’s pre-eminent general, Robert E. Lee, had been shattered and his redoubtable Army of Northern Virginia had sustained heavy casualties. With General Ulysses S. Grant’s seizure of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, the Confederacy had been torn in two. Historian James McPherson calls these two events the war’s “crucial turning point.”
But in the following year victory proved elusive. The South rebounded and won battles. The North also won some victories; however, none were decisive. And then there were battles with heavy casualties on both sides and no clear victors. In September 1863, Confederate General Braxton Bragg tactically defeated Union forces led by Gen. William S. Rosecrans at Chickamauga, Georgia; however, losses were heavy on both sides, the second highest in the war after the Battle of Gettysburg. In October-November, Gen. Grant had a stunning victory over Gen. Bragg at Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the spring of 1864, Gen. Grant faced Gen. Lee in numerous, horrific battles, including the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and the Battle of Cold Harbor. This was relentless war with heavy casualties on both sides. During the summer, Gen. Grant was unable to make any significant progress in his siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
Southern hopes were raised in July when Confederate Gen. Jubal Early threatened Washington, DC. Rebel forces came within five miles of the White House. President Lincoln visited the front lines, stovepipe hat and all, and could not resist peering over the parapet as bullets whizzed by him. A Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., not knowing his identity, shouted: “get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!”
Gloom descended over the North during the summer of 1864, reflected in the popular songs of the day. The more robust, hopeful songs of the earlier years gave way to more melancholy refrains. The most popular was “When This Cruel War is Over.”
Dearest Love, do you remember, when we last did meet,
How you told me that you loved me, kneeling at my feet?
Oh! How proud you stood before me, in your suit of blue,
When you vow’d to me and country, ever to be true.
CHORUS: Weeping, sad and lonely, hopes and fears how vain!
When this cruel war is over, praying that we meet again.
There were also: “I Would the War Were Over,” “Brother, Will You Come Back?” and “Tell Me, Is My Father Coming Back.”
At this point Southern grand strategy was clear. The South had to stifle Union armies enough so that the Northern will to fight would weaken. This would increase the political power of the Northern “peace Democrats” and increase the chances of Lincoln losing the November election to a man who would be prepared to end the war on terms favorable to the South. For Confederate President Jefferson Davis the essentials were independence for the Confederacy and the retention of slavery.
Northern grand strategy was also clear. Lincoln was adamant that the Union must be maintained. Secondly, despite tremendous political pressure to reverse Emancipation, Lincoln’s commitment to it did not falter. Happily Lincoln had found generals who understood how the war had to be fought: Generals Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan. Once Jefferson Davis’ views were clarified, Lincoln said in a message to Congress: “[Davis cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war and decided by victory.”
In that summer, with decisive victories elusive and with Southern will manifesting remarkable endurance, Lincoln was clear-eyed about his chances at being re-elected in November. He told an Army officer: “I am going to be beaten and, unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.”
A great change did come: the fall of Atlanta on September 2. Next to Richmond, Atlanta was politically the most important city in the South. Gen. Sherman finally succeeded in dislodging Confederate Gen. John B. Hood, who withdrew his forces from the city. Sherman raised the American flag over city hall and sent a wire to Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”
An attentive follower of events, New York lawyer George Templeton Strong was elated. He wrote in his diary: “Glorious news this morning—Atlanta taken at last!!! . . . It is (coming at this political crisis) the greatest event of the war.”
George Templeton Strong
Mary Boykin Chesnut
In South Carolina Mary Boykin Chesnut was shaken and wrote in her diary: “Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me, forever.” “We are going to be wiped off the earth.”