* As the war ground towards its end, the Union kept up the political pressure on the Confederacy by passing the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, banning slavery. Whatever slight hope Southerners might have had to preserve the institution was now snuffed out. In desperation, the Confederate government began to consider arming black men, while dissatisfaction with the leadership of Jefferson Davis began to overflow.
The Confederacy's military hopes were all but gone as well. Grant was planning a big push on all major fronts that would crush the rebel armies once and for all. Even the minor glory of the repulse of the Yankees in front of Fort Fisher in December was erased in January, when the Federals came back and overran the place.
* As the new year began, the US Congress hotly debated the major issue before the body: the proposed 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery forever, finishing the job that the Emancipation Proclamation started. Although Lincoln had originally pushed it as a measure that would help bring the war to a close, now that Confederate resistance obviously falling apart, it was clearly now focused on what would happen after the war ended.
Despite the great enthusiasm for ending slavery, the shadowy ambivalence towards the notion of black equality remained. Montgomery Blair tried to persuade Samuel Barlow to support the amendment, reasoning that by giving in to the popular tide to ban slavery, the Democrats could then conspire with conservative Republicans to keep the freed blacks in their place as second-class citizens. Barlow was as unmoved by this logic as he had been before the elections the previous fall. Congressman Fernando Wood of New York, previously mayor of New York City, made the contemptuous attitude plain on the floor of the House:
We may amend the Constitution; we may by superior military force overrun and conquer the South; we may lay waste their lands and destroy their property; we may free their slaves. But there is one thing we cannot do: we cannot violate with impunity or alter the laws of God. The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and sir, by no legislation, by no partisan success, by no revolution, by no military power, can you wipe out this distinction. You may make the black man free, but when you have done that, what have you done?
Having passed the Senate, the amendment went up before the House for a vote on 31 January 1865. After intense lobbying and deal-making by the Lincoln Administration, three Democrats crossed party lines and voted with the Republicans, while eight other Democrats made themselves scarce. The final vote was 119 to 56, giving the required two-thirds majority, and the measure was passed. There was wild cheering on the floor of the House that went on until everyone was hoarse -- with the excited audience including black folk, who hadn't even been allowed in the halls of government until 1864. There was cheering in the streets as well, and cannons were fired in salutes.
Lincoln gladly accepted the 13th Amendment. It was indeed something to cheer about, but it wasn't quite enough. However mad Fernando Wood's rantings might sound to the modern ear, they still carried a lot of weight then. Freeing the slave was half a revolution; the other half of the revolution would be postponed for almost a century.BACK_TO_TOP
* As the South caved in, Jefferson Davis was in full-blown denial, operating as if he could continue the struggle by sheer willpower alone. Since the situation was becoming desperate, the Confederacy was still being forced to confront unfortunate realities. The collapse of prisoner exchanges hurt the South worse than it did the North, and so in January the Confederate government finally agreed to give the same treatment to black Union soldiers as given to white Union soldiers, instead of returning the black soldiers to slavery. It might have been galling to have to give the Yankees back the "property" they had stolen, but practicalities outweighed such considerations of principle. In response, Grant agreeably authorized prisoner exchanges again.
The Confederate government had finally been pressured to make a concession over race and slavery. Jefferson Davis was considering a far bigger one. The Confederacy had passed laws allowing the government to requisition slaves from slaveholders for military use, but these laws were very unpopular and had little effect. In November 1864, a stiffer law had been passed allowing the government to requisition 40,000 slaves.
The next step was to make soldiers out of slaves. Pat Cleburne's proposals along such lines had been hastily suppressed, and Jefferson Davis had sent the November bill to the Confederate Congress saying such a measure was not being considered -- but he left open the possibility that, if push came to shove, it might need to be done. Now push had in fact come to shove, and the idea was revived. The Confederate Congress was presented with a bill to make slaves into soldiers. Although the bill carefully tiptoed around the issue of freeing the soldier-slaves, the reaction was still loud and outraged. Howell Cobb wrote from Georgia, speaking for many others: "Use all the Negroes you can get, for the purposes for which you need them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong."
Virginia Senator R.M.T. Hunter, president pro-tempore of the Confederate Senate and one of the biggest slaveowners in the South, was even more blunt: "What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?" Of course, he meant the two-legged sort of property; at least he wasn't playing word games about State's Rights.
Davis was committed to the Confederacy to the bone, but he had no such deep commitment to slavery -- indeed, under directions from Richmond, Confederate representatives in Britain would sound the waters to see if Britain would recognize the Confederacy if the South abolished slavery. British officials contemptuously ignored the proposal, recognizing it as an act of desperation by a lost cause, with a faint flavor of extortion.
It is unclear if those officials realized how little enthusiasm there was in the South for the idea. Davis certainly realized it as he lobbied earnestly for the measure, only to encounter stubborn resistance. When one senator balked, Davis replied: "If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone: DIED OF A THEORY."
Jefferson Davis was not a man with much of a sense of irony, and it seems unlikely that he paused to think that the Confederacy had been born from that same tunnel-vision commitment to theory. He also had little ability to sell an idea, instead taking a confrontational attitude that simply bred antagonism: the Confederate Congress was not going to buy the idea of arming slaves.
* The fury against Davis, not merely for trying to make soldiers out of slaves but for his entire management of government and conduct of the war, drove some Confederate politicians off the deep end, if they weren't there already. A group of Virginia congressmen went to Davis in mid-January to demand a clean sweep of his cabinet. Davis, who wouldn't give in to threats if a pistol was held to his head, refused, though War Secretary Seddon took offense at the whole farce and submitted his resignation. Davis tried to talk him into staying on, but Seddon was sick of the squabbling and his thankless job. He agreed to stay on for a month until his replacement, General John C. Breckinridge, could tidy up his military affairs in southwest Virginia and come to Richmond.
Another clique of politicians even went to Robert E. Lee with a cautiously-worded proposal that subtly suggested that he establish a dictatorship over the Confederacy. It was a completely lunatic idea in the first place -- what was the point of the Confederacy as a dictatorship? -- made even madder by thinking for a second that Lee might agree. Lee was no Napoleon and, to absolutely no surprise, found the suggestion entirely dishonorable. He replied, in hindsight with perfect accuracy, that "if the President could not save the country, no one could."
Some Confederate politicians took a more individual approach in their protests. Mississippi Senator Henry Foote, an antagonistic and noisy opponent of Davis from well before the war, went across the Potomac in early January on a personal peace offensive. The Federals arrested him and then, possibly on the assumption that he would do the Union cause more good if he went back South again, let him go. The Confederate House of Representatives tried to expel him on his return, but the motion failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. Foote then tried to go North once more, this time by the Canada route, but Federal authorities had recognized him for the loose cannon he was and ignored him. Foote, unwanted in both the North and the South, then went to London, where he issued a call for his constituents to abandon the Confederacy and rejoin the Union.
If Jefferson Davis breathed a sigh of relief at the exit of Senator Foote, it was short-lived, since Alexander Stephens showed up in Richmond to damn the government for all its failings, past and present, and then call for the Confederate Congress to open peace negotiations with the Union, bypassing the executive branch of government.
The critics did manage to extract one concession from Jefferson Davis. On 16 January, the Confederate Senate passed a resolution that stated Robert E. Lee should be elevated to "General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies", in principle allowing him to take greater control of the war effort, adding that Beauregard should be given command in South Carolina and that Johnston return to the head of the Army of the Tennessee.
Davis saw fit to be flexible about the resolution. The items about Beauregard and Johnston were unsurprisingly ignored, since Beauregard was already coming back East anyway, and Davis wasn't inclined to put Joe Johnston back in charge of anything. However, Davis had no trouble with the main clause, and on 26 January, he signed an act that had just come through the Confederate Congress, specifying the appointment of an unnamed General-in-Chief. Davis recommended Lee's appointment on 31 January, and the Senate immediately confirmed it.
Lee received the news on 6 February and replied with a letter thanking the politicians for the honor, but the last sentence read: "As I have received no instructions as to my duties [from Davis], I do not know what he desires for me to undertake." Those expecting that General-in-Chief Lee would rise to the occasion and take control of the war found that Lee had a far more limited view of his new authority. That was exactly what Jefferson Davis had foreseen, and why he had not bothered to fight over the matter. In the end, all the intrigues came to nothing. Jefferson Davis remained president, his powers intact.
* As far as the use of black men as soldiers went, Robert E. Lee was for the idea. Desertions were thinning Lee's ranks as the futility of carrying on the fight became more and more apparent to weary rebel soldiers. In fact, under the miserable circumstances, it was much less remarkable that men left than that so many had the guts to stay. Lee was determined to carry on the fight by any means available to him. A government official named Andrew Hunter had sent Lee a letter asking him for his thoughts, and on 11 January Lee replied:
We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves as the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions. My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay. I believe that with proper regulations they can be made efficient soldiers.
Lee knew perfectly well that a soldier that had to be forced to fight wasn't much of a soldier, and made no effort to conceal the logical, disagreeable conclusion:
Such an interest we can give our Negroes by giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing in the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service.
Lee then elaborated on the point, completely apparent to all but the most blindly fanatical, that slavery was all but dead anyway:
The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of Negro troops at all render the effect of the measures I have suggested upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation. As that will be the result of the continuation of the war, and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause.
Lee might have been talking sense, but it wasn't sense that everyone wanted to hear. Another Confederate general liked the idea of arming slaves but said that such soldiers should remain slaves. After all, he reasoned, wasn't being a soldier just another job, not different in concept from being, say, a cook? Who would promise freedom to a slave cook just to get "good dinners"? The fact that a black soldier carried weapons and could easily surrender to adversaries -- who would immediately accept him into their ranks -- didn't seem to factor into the calculation. Not everyone was so blind, one editor observing that Southerners "have not gotten over the vicious habit of not believing what they don't want to believe."BACK_TO_TOP
* By the beginning of 1865, the fact that the Union Army had the upper hand was obvious to anyone with sense. Grant had 600,000 men under arms, while the Confederacy had only about 160,000 ragged and hungry troops left. With the coming of the new year, Grant adjusted the chessboard to exploit his advantage and crush the rebellion once and for all. The only major force left that could oppose the Federal cause was Lee's army, and so most of the movements of the pieces on the board were towards the destruction of that force, directly or indirectly.
Pap Thomas was no longer confronted by any serious threat to Tennessee, and Grant, who had no great confidence in Thomas, decided to loot his command for troops. In mid-January Schofield and his XXIII Corps were brought east by steamboat and railroad to assemble near Washington. Once Fort Fisher fell, Grant thought, they could be moved by sea to Wilmington, where they would establish an advance base for Sherman, or seize New Berne and then link up with Sherman at Goldsboro. In the meantime, Thomas was to send George Stoneman with 4,000 troopers from Knoxville into North Carolina, where the raiders would raise hell in the rear to simplify matters for Sherman and Schofield. Sheridan was also bringing his men east from the Shenandoah Valley, and in the end Grant hoped to have two overwhelming forces, one in front of Petersburg and the other driving up from the South, ensuring that Lee could neither remain where he was nor have any place to escape to.
Grant did not neglect other objectives. He detached A.J. Smith's corps and one of James Wilson's cavalry divisions, under Brigadier General Joseph Knipe, from Thomas's command and sent it to New Orleans, where Smith would join up with Canby to form up a force of 45,000 that would finally capture Mobile. Once that was done, Canby would take a hard-riding column of 20,000 men into the heart of Alabama and lay waste to Selma, a center of munitions production.
The drive on Selma would be half of a two-pronged effort. Even with the subtraction of Knipe's 5,000 cavalry, Wilson had 17,000 troopers left, and they would fall on Selma from the north. These troopers were not the old flashy adventurers with sabers and plumed hats; they were all business, armed with the latest repeater carbines and capable of slugging it out with infantry on at least even terms. Forrest would very likely try to interfere with this movement, but Grant left it up to Wilson's discretion on whether to avoid or take on the Wizard of the Saddle. Wilson, who had sent Forrest packing once, was honestly looking forward to meeting him again. Once Selma was subjugated, the combined Union force would move on Montgomery, and then into Georgia to fall on Columbus and Macon.
* Robert E. Lee was perfectly aware that once weather improved, the Union would press the Confederacy. There wasn't much he could do about it, since he barely had the manpower, supplies, or food to hang on where he was. He wrote a series of letters to Richmond indicating the severity of the situation and asking for greater action on the part of the Confederate Congress, but there was simply nothing available. It seemed like an echo of the desperate letters Lee's relative George Washington had written the Continental Congress, and the letters did Lee even less good than they had done Washington.
Lee's forces were also being drained by threats elsewhere. He had sent a brigade from Kershaw's division south in early January in anticipation of Sherman's push north from Savannah, and was forced to send a cavalry division under Wade Hampton in the mid-month. It wasn't enough to make much difference in the face of Sherman's powerful army, but it was all that could be spared.
There was a little encouraging news at that time, however. Jubal Early's command on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley was no longer much of a force, but his people proved they could still be troublesome. Early's cavalry chief, Thomas Rosser, rode into the Alleghenies in West Virginia with 300 men to fall on a supply depot at Beverly. The depot was guarded by two Ohio regiments. Rosser inflicted 30 casualties on the defenders, captured 580 men, and seized a good stock of rations. The Union commander of the department, George Crook, immediately sacked the two unfortunate regimental commanders.
The fiasco at Beverly was no great Union defeat, just an embarrassment and an annoyance -- still, Sheridan was annoyed enough to want to do something about it. He was chafing to go east and rejoin the Army of the Potomac, but it was still clear to him that a final score needed to be settled with Early before that happened.
* If things were going badly for the Confederacy in the East, they were as bad or worse in the West. Beauregard left Charleston in early January to visit Hood's command in Tupelo, Mississippi, in hopes of finding reinforcements to fight Sherman. Hood's telegrams had been terse but basically reassured Beauregard that all was well. However, when Beauregard got to Tupelo on 15 January, he was shocked by the ragged and starved condition of the troops: "If not, in the strictest sense of the word, a disorganized mob, it was no longer an army."
Beauregard was furious with Hood for deceiving him, but when the two generals met, Beauregard's anger faded. Though Hood tried to conceal it, he was in great distress, and Beauregard had to pity him. Hood still had to go, but the unhappy general understood that himself, and in fact he had already submitted his resignation to the Confederate War Department on 13 January. A reply soon arrived from War Secretary Seddon that it had been accepted.
Hood went to Richmond at the end of the month, reduced in rank to lieutenant general, with a proposal to the War Department that he go to back to his native Texas and raise an army of 25,000 men. He had either not heard or was oblivious to reports that Union control of the Mississippi made getting such a force across the river an impossibility, rendering such a force irrelevant to the course of the war even if it could be raised. Richmond blessed the scheme, but nothing could come of it. Those who met him during the trip east found him distant, very dark in spirit, staring into a fireplace at night silently, with sweat beading up on his face.
Richard Taylor took over command of Hood's army on 23 January, and in consequence Forrest was raised to the command of the Department of Mississippi, East Louisiana, and West Tennessee. Such troops as could be spared, a few thousand, were sent back East along with Beauregard to help fight Sherman's march north, expected any day now. That left about 30,000 Confederate States Army troops to hold down the West against vastly superior Union forces.
While Union troops moved against Lee in the East and raised hell in the West, other Federal forces would hold the fort. Yankee gunboats would ensure that the Transmississippi remained isolated. The Union would expend no more resources in the sideshow war there than absolutely necessary.BACK_TO_TOP
* Colonel William Lamb, the commander of Fort Fisher, had been overjoyed at the collapse of the Federal attack on his installation in late December. However, the Yankees hadn't been so much driven off as they'd just been caught up by their own bumbling; once they got properly organized, they'd be back. In fact, the "defeat" of the Yankees worked against Lamb. His commander, Braxton Bragg, believed that the Federals were unlikely to return any time soon, and refused to release any of the 6,000 troops that General Hoke had brought to Wilmington to reinforce the fortress. That left Lamb with no more than 800 men.
In the meantime, the Federals were preparing to try it again. Porter and his fleet were at the Union forward naval base at Beaufort, South Carolina, waiting for the Army to add their contingent for a second assault on Fort Fisher. The contingent arrived on 8 January 1865, in the form of 8,000 Union troops under the command of 37-year-old Major General Alfred H. Terry. The troops had been picked up by steamships from Bermuda Hundred on the James and brought south.
Terry was a volunteer, a Yale-educated lawyer, an outstanding officer. Grant had faith in him and assigned him to work with Porter to take Fort Fisher. Terry was tactful and industrious, and he and Porter hit it off very well. Three days of bad weather held up further action, but the storms cleared, and on the evening of 12 January 1865, the combined fleet anchored in the ocean off of Fort Fisher.
Two hours before dawn on Friday, 13 January, Porter sent all five of the ironclads in his fleet to pound the fort at close range. The Confederates returned fire, and observers on warships out of range made careful notes on the location of muzzle flashes, mapping out the precise locations of guns. Once the sun came up, the rest of the fleet moved in and opened fire. Porter had learned from his previous, ineffective bombardment, and assigned different elements of his fleet individual targets for concentrated fire. The shells were delivered with great and destructive accuracy, killing or wounding scores of rebels. Lamb later wrote: "The scene was indescribably horrible. Great cannon broken in two, their carriages wrecked, and among the ruins the mutilated bodies of my dead and dying comrades."
At 8:00 AM, Terry began landing men well north of the fort, with the landing completed by mid-afternoon. Terry set up two black brigades in a defensive line across the peninsula, blocking the entry of any Confederate reinforcements from the north. The rebel district commander, Major General W.H.C. Whiting, did manage to make it in with his staff, but all he was able to tell Colonel Lamb was that Bragg was preparing to withdraw Hoke's division, on the assumption that Fort Fisher would quickly fall.
The bombardment went on all day until dark, and the ironclads continued to lob shells into the fort all night in order to suppress repair parties. The pounding started back up again in earnest at dawn on 14 January. About 750 Confederate reinforcements managed to get in by the river route, but all Lamb could do was prepare for a desperate, backs-to-the-wall struggle against a Federal assault, expected at any moment.
It didn't come that day. Although Terry had led a probing attack on the north face of Fort Fisher that morning, he concluded that he would attack the following afternoon, with a three-brigade, 3,300 man division under Brigadier General Adelbert Ames. Terry conferred with Porter on the admiral's flagship late in the day, and Porter, always full of smoke and fire, suggested that the Navy commit 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines to simultaneously assault the "Crescent Battery", which linked the north and sea faces of the fort. They would be led by Lieutenant Commander K.R. Breese.
Porter's ships continued their sharpshooting until dark, when the ironclads moved in again for a repeat of the previous night's harassment. The punishment began again with sunrise and continued into mid-afternoon, with glass-calm seas improving accuracy, until almost all the rebel guns were knocked out. A ship sent by Bragg with a thousand South Carolina troops came downstream and docked at the fort about 2:00, but only a third of the soldiers got off before Federal cannon fire forced the vessel to withdraw.
Porter's men had landed on the morning of 15 January and set up for the attack. The assault began at 3:00 PM, just as the naval gunfire abruptly ceased. However, planning went wrong, and the sailors and marines had little training for this type of operation in any case. Breese's men charged forward in a packed-up mass, to be thrown back with losses of 300 men. The marines and sailors broke and ran; there was nothing their officers could do that would slow them down.
The rebels were delighted, but not for long; the sacrifice of Porter's men had accomplished something for the Federals. Although their attack was supposed to been performed in parallel with an attack by Ames' soldiers, the soldiers had been taken under fire by a Confederate gunboat steaming on the Cape Fear River, and had suffered other delays. The delays actually turned out to be good luck, since when Ames' troops finally went forward, the defenders of Fort Fisher were focused on Breese's men.
The Federals managed to overwhelm the western end of the northern line of defense, and then methodically worked their way east, if at great effort. Each of the mounds that protected the batteries made a good strong point, the fighting was mean and hand-to-hand, and the Federals suffered badly. All three of Ames' brigade commanders were wounded, one of them mortally. Both of the surviving brigade commanders, Colonel Newton M. Curtis and 20-year-old Colonel Galusha Pennypacker, were promoted to brigadier generals for their gallantry, making Pennypacker the youngest general in the Union Army.
The bloodletting was far from one-sided, however. Whiting was wounded twice and would linger painfully for eight weeks -- bitterly complaining of the way Bragg had abandoned the garrison of the fort -- until he finally faded out and died. Colonel Lamb tried to organize a counterattack to drive the Yankees out, but he was shot in the hip and put out of action. He would walk on crutches for seven years.
The Federals reduced the batteries one by one, greatly helped by pinpoint fire from Union warships that closed in to blast away pockets of Confederate resistance. Once the north face of the fort fell, the ocean face, exposed to fire from the front and rear, quickly fell in turn.
Confederate Major James Reilly, who had taken command after Lamb was wounded, had hoped to continue the struggle from Battery Buchanan to the south, but when he got there with his men, he found it abandoned and its guns spiked. At 10:00 PM, he went over to the Federals under a flag of truce and said: "We surrender."
The fight had been brutal, though given the strength of Fort Fisher many Federals thought they'd got off lightly. The Union Army had lost 955 men, while the Navy had lost 383. Confederate casualties were 500 killed and wounded, and about 1,000 taken prisoner. Although Porter's ships lit themselves up with lanterns and calcium lights that evening and shot off rockets and fireworks to celebrate, those who were ashore to witness the wreckage in the fort were appalled by what they saw. One sailor wrote:
If hell is what it is said to be, then the interior of Fort Fisher is a fair comparison. Here and there you see great heaps of human beings laying just as they fell, one upon the other. Some groaning piteously, and asking for water. Others whose mortal career is over, still grasping the weapon they used to so good effect in life.
The carnage was not quite over, either. That night, a group of New York soldiers set up camp over the top of the fort's underground main powder magazine. Sometime around dawn, two drunken sailors decided to go down into the magazine with torches and see what was there. The result was a tremendous explosion and 104 more Union casualties. The Navy also took a serious loss that day elsewhere, when the monitor PATAPSCO hit a torpedo outside of Charleston harbor, and went down with about half of her hundred officers and sailors.
Even such misfortunes couldn't dim Federal satisfaction with the victory at Fort Fisher. There was now no port of any consequence open to the Confederacy. The Anaconda had finally wrapped its coils around the South to squeeze the last breaths out of the Confederacy. It was a ghastly blow to Southern morale, since few could fail to realize that the clock was now very close to midnight.
* The fall of Fort Fisher had a secondary consequence. Ben Butler's political clout ensured that he would get a proper hearing over his dismissal, and he went before the Joint Congressional Committee for the Conduct of the War to plead his case. He blamed his failure to take Fort Fisher on Porter and on the fact that, in his judgement, the fort was impregnable.
While he was making his case on the matter, there was a commotion outside the meeting room, with cannons firing salutes and cheering in the street. Committee members checked to see what was going on, and found paperboys announcing that Fort Fisher had fallen. Butler claimed it had to be a mistake, but dispatches that had just arrived from Porter confirmed the news. The committee burst into roars of laughter, and Butler, who was far too good a cardsharp to not know when to fold, joined in himself, if not with such spontaneity. As the laughter died down, he motioned for silence and sanctimoniously proclaimed: "Thank God for victory!"
The committee eventually exonerated Butler, more or less clearing his military record, which was about as good as he might get under the circumstances. He remained out of the army in any case, returning to politics -- as a Radical Republic, not a Democrat -- to continue making devious back-room deals for the rest of his career. Whatever else might be said about Benjamin Franklin Butler, he was a hard man to keep down.BACK_TO_TOP