Sunday, February 15, 2015

The War in 1865: Part Three

One of the many additional features to The Civil War Today app is a daily scan of some newspaper from the period.  In this case it is the Richmond Daily Dispatch, showing that, even though Southern society was highly disrupted, there was a "business as usual" aspect to it even at this late date in the war.  This issue optimistically reports on General Lee being named Command-in-Chief of all Confederate armies, the appointment of General Breckinridge to Secretary of War, the possibility of Britain still intervening on behalf of the South, and the hope of delivering General Sherman a defeat in the Carolinas.
A close-up of the section of the front page detailing (left to right) General Lee's appointment, General Breckinridge's appointment, the hope that General Sherman will meet the fate of his name-sake, and various correspondences between the Confederacy and Mexico.  It is of interest to compare the prices for newspapers in the North with those in the South during this part of the war.  Confederate newspapers were offering six-month subscriptions for $15 Confederate dollars "in advance." This reflects the near-ruinous inflation with the Southern economy late in the war.   Meanwhile, Northern newspapers were selling for one cent (in gold) or two cents (in coin) per issue, reflecting a stronger economy and more stable currency.
Note: This is the third part of my continuing series on the end of the American Civil War at it happened 150 years ago according to my iPad app, The Civil War Today.

As February began, General Robert E. Lee was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all Confederate forces by Jefferson Davis.  The appointment was quickly ratified by the Confederate senate in Richmond.  Lee took command of a dismal situation.  His Army of Northern Virginia, entrenched around Petersburg, was the only legitimate Southern military force remaining in the field.  Other forces scattered across the South were low in number and supplies, currently capable of offering only skirmishing or small battles in resistance of superior Union armies. Simultaneously with Lee's appointment, Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, resigned amidst calls for Davis and his cabinet to step down in view of the war situation.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment so that it could be put to a vote by the states.  Moving very rapidly, Lincoln's home state of Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment, doing so within hours of the President's signature.  Rhode Island and Michigan ratified it the next day.  Meanwhile, Lincoln traveled by ship to Fort Monroe in order to confer with the Confederate peace commission on the possibility of ending the war.

Heavy skirmishing continued at every point of General William T. Sherman's advance into South Carolina.  Though this considerably slowed the Union advance the Rebel forces were too weak to halt the Yankees and they were pushed back by superior Northern firepower at every instance of resistance.  As this advance proceeded, President Lincoln met with the Confederate peace commission for four hours at Hampton Roads, Virginia.  The meeting did not go well as there was little agreement upon anything involving protection of Southern property and rights in exchange for peace and Union.  The war would continue.

After weeks of random skirmishing in the trenches around Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant launched an attack upon Robert E. Lee's troops at Dabney's Mill.  The battle lasted three days and led to a combined total of about 2,600 casualties, comparatively few by the standards of previous battles, reflecting the tedious nature of this pioneering trench warfare.  Confederate General John Pegram was killed in action leading a Rebel counterattack against a Yankee advance.   The battle ended as most action around Petersburg had ended up to that point in the war - a stalemate. The Union forces failed to outflank or hold any breach in the Confederate entrenchments.  The lines of supply to Lee's besieged army remained open.  The one Northern consolation was that the battle extended the Confederate lines further to the west, thereby thinning the ranks of the Southern forces even more in order to protect their fragile flanks.

In political maneuvering, former Vice-President of the United States John C. Breckinridge was appointed as the new Confederate Secretary of War.  Breckinridge has much experience as a commander in the war, most recently servicing under General Jubal Early in the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign.  He also ran for president in 1860 as a Congressmen from Kentucky.  Meanwhile, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Maine all ratified the 13th Amendment. Delaware did not ratify it, however. Delaware remained a slave state within the Union, hoping for compensated emancipation.  The state would continue to recognize slavery until December 1865 and would not officially ratify the amendment until 1901.

In South Carolina, General Joseph Wheeler, alarmed at the behavior by some Union troops under General Sherman's command, sent a letter of entreaty to Sherman promising to cease the Confederate practice of burning all cotton prior to retreating under the condition that Sherman rein in his troops and stop burning some of the homes of the Southern population as the Yankees advance into that state.  To which Sherman shot back the prompt reply: "I hope you will burn all cotton and save us the trouble. We don't want it; and it has proven to be a curse to our country.  All you don't burn I will."

Unlike Sherman's March through Georgia where Union troops destroyed only constructions of material value such as manufacturing, cotton gins, or transportation, in South Carolina, the heart of secession, they burned everything from plantation estates down to small groups of simple family dwellings.  The Carolinian population were being driven from their homes and very little remained as the Northerners advanced, practicing a form of scorched earth policy.

General Lee continued to complain to Richmond about all manner for shortages within his beleaguered army.  Some of his troops went several days without any meat ration at all. Lack of sufficient clothing is also an issue in the wet, cold weather.  Lee wrote: "If some change is not made and the commissary department not reorganized, I apprehend dire results.  The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment."

General William Hardee, commanding at Charleston, SC, reported to Richmond that Federal troops were advancing against that city.  Union force under General Q. A. Gilmore landed upon James Island in the vicinity of Charleston. Hardee also warned of larger Northern movements by General Sherman's forces toward Columbia, SC and Augusta, Georgia. General Wheeler set a trap at Aiken, SC for General H. Judson Kilpatrick as the Union cavalry approached Augusta, Georgia.  The Confederates cut off a brigade of Federal cavalry inside the small town forcing the Northern troops to fight their way out.  There were dozens of causalities on each side and the Union advance toward Augusta was halted.

Meanwhile, separate Union commands proceeded to advance upon Charleston, SC and Wilmington, NC.  At Charleston heavy skirmishing continued on James Island with the Confederates holding on to their defensive positions. Jefferson Davis wrote General Hardee expressing hope that he would hold Charleston. This contradicted correspondence between Hardee and General P.G.T. Beauregard, now headquartered at Columbia, SC, who feared that Hardee would be isolated and recommended that he withdraw from the city and unite with Southern troops forming to oppose General Sherman further inland.  Also, Union troops and naval forces met slight resistance as they inched their way inland toward Wilmington.

Even though General Wheeler was effective in his actions against General Sherman's advance into South Carolina, General Beauregard realized that the area required for cavalry operations was beyond his capability, stretching from near Augusta, Georgia all the way to Charleston, SC. For that reason, he recommended to General Lee that General Wade Hampton be promoted to overall command of cavalry in South Carolina, Hampton's home state. Permission was granted for this on February 14.

In view of conflicting orders and requests, Hardee maintained his positions around Charleston. Rebel troops began arriving near Columbia from John Bell Hood's former command as the South attempted to organize effective resistance against both Sherman's large vengeful army and Yankee forces threatening Wilmington, NC. Sherman ordered both wings of his army to concentrate toward Columbia.

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