Longstreet had made a night attack on his lines and had been repulsed, after which he drew his troops off and menaced the Union garrison from a distance. Sherman fumed privately over what he considered the military folly of trying to occupy Knoxville at all, and the effort to nudge Longstreet off to a safer distance involved a good deal of highly uncomfortable winter campaigning, but the danger was over. Before too long, full military communication with the Federal supply bases was opened, which meant that plenty of food and clothing could come in.
Back in Chattanooga the soldiers prepared for winter and for the spring campaign that would follow. Grant was turning Nashville into one of the greatest supply bases on the continent, and the railway connection with Chattanooga was being restored and strengthened; in the spring Grant would take Atlanta and Mobile, and he wanted everything ready. The Confederacy had passed the last of the great might-have-beens of the war.
Its supreme attempt to restore the lost balance had failed. It could not again make such an effort, and it would not again have a chance to make the tide flow in the other direction. The dream that had been born in spring light and fire was flickering out now and nothing lay ahead but a downhill road. Eighteen hundred and sixty-four came in, and it would be the worst year of all—the year of victory made certain, the year of smoke and destruction and death, with an old dream going down in flames and an unfathomable new one taking form in the minds of men who hardly knew what they dreamed.
Steadily and inescapably a new rhythm was being felt. Visibly drawing nearer to its end, the war had paradoxically become a thing which could not be stopped. Thoughtful Southerners saw the narrowing circle and the rising shadows, and cried that the fight must continue to the final limits of endurance. The Confederate Congress, adopting a resolution addressed to constituents back home, touched the edge of hysteria in its fervor. If there was in this the desperate overstatement common to wartime propaganda, there was nevertheless reason for thoughtful Southerners to feel this way.
The attempt to make an independent Confederacy had been, in a sense, nothing more than a despairing effort to do something about the problem of slavery. The war was a great forced draft applied to a longsmoldering flame, and under its white heat the problem was changing. Secession had been an attempt to perpetuate the past: to enable a society based on slavery to live on, as an archaic survival in the modern world. Slavery was above all else a primitive mechanism, and the society which relied on it could survive, in the long run, only if the outside world propped it up.
But the Southern society was not itself primitive at all. It needed all of the things the rest of the world needed—railroad iron, rolling mills, machine tools, textile machinery, chemicals, industrial knowledge, and an industrial labor force—yet it clung to the peculiar institution which prevented it from producing these things itself, and it relied on the rest of the world to make its deficiencies good.
Now the rest of the world had ceased to contribute, except for the trickle that came in through the blockade. Instead, that part of the outside world which lay nearest—the North—was doing everything it could to destroy such industrial strength as the South possessed, and what it destroyed could not be replaced.
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As cotton gins and clothing factories went up in smoke the peculiar institution itself would crumble, dim human aspirations seeping down into a submerged layer and undermining all of the foundations. The Southern Congress was quite right; an overturn was coming, and it was precisely the sort of overturn which the men who had created the Confederacy could not at any price accept. No peace based on reunion the only sort of peace that was really conceivable could be contemplated, because reunion, by now, inevitably meant the end of slavery.
The more hopeless the military outlook became the more bitterly would Southern leaders insist on fighting to the last ditch. General Cleburne had been considering the plight of the South, and he had a paper to present. The Confederacy, said Cleburne, was fighting a hopeless struggle. In any area which had been touched by Northern armies, said Cleburne, slavery was fatally weakened, and with this weakness came a corresponding weakness in the civilian economy. Therefore—said Cleburne, reaching the unthinkable conclusion—the South must boldly and immediately recruit Negro troops, guaranteeing in return freedom to every slave who gave his support to the Confederacy.
In substance, what Cleburne was asking for was emancipation and black armies. If the peculiar institution was a source of weakness, Cleburne would abolish the institution and turn its human material into a source of strength. The war, said Cleburne, was killing slavery anyway. From one source or another, the Negro was going to get his freedom.
It was signed by two brigadiers and a number of field officers from his own division, as well as by a stray cavalry general; and the first signature on the list, of course, was that of Cleburne himself. It was received with a shocked, stunned, and utterly incredulous silence.
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Cleburne had mentioned the unmentionable. It had to be buried, for what Cleburne had quite unintentionally done was to force his fellow officers to gaze upon the race problem which lay beneath the institution of slavery, and that problem seemed to be literally insoluble. It did not, in that generation, seem possible to most men that white and black folk could dwell together in one community in simple amity.
There had to be a barrier between them—some tangible thing that would compel everyone to act on the assumption that one race was superior and the other inferior. Slavery was the only barrier imaginable. If it were removed society would be up against something monstrous and horrifying. To make human brotherhood a working reality in everyday life seemed too big a contract for frail human beings. The privilege of belonging to an admittedly superior race—the deep conviction that there actually were superior and inferior races—could not be wrenched out of human society without a revolutionary convulsion.
The convulsion was unthinkable, yet it was beginning to take place, even though hardly anyone had consciously willed it; it was coming down the country roads with the swaggering destructive columns in weathered blue, lying across the landscape behind the haze of smoke that came down from the ridges around Gettysburg and Chattanooga, and there was no stopping it.
Grant was made lieutenant general and given top command of the Federal armies, and a summer of desperate fighting quickly followed. Continuous battle resulted, with fearful Federal losses and no apparent advantage; but after such struggles as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor, Grant at last forced Lee into his lines at Petersburg, Virginia, and pinned him down to a defensive warfare which the South could not win.
At the same time, Sherman marched into Georgia, and after an involved campaign and a series of vigorous battles captured Atlanta. The Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who had been opposing him, was relieved of his command by the Richmond government and was replaced by General John B. As the summer wore away, other signs of approaching Federal victory became manifest. As election day approached, it became more and more clear that the war must eventually end in Union victory.
On November 8 the people of the North re-elected Abraham Lincoln and endorsed a war to the finish. One week later General Sherman and 60, veterans left Atlanta on the march that was to make that finish certain—the wild, cruel, rollicking march from Atlanta to the sea. Two months had passed since the capture of Atlanta. A part of this time had been spent in resting and refitting the army. Several weeks more had been consumed in a fruitless chase of John B.
Sherman had tried to catch and destroy this Confederate army, but he had not had much luck, and in mid-October he gave up the pursuit entirely and made his plans for the next campaign. Back to Tennessee went Thomas and Schofield, with something fewer than half of the men who had occupied Atlanta. Thomas moved his Cumberlands back to Tennessee—the men tended to be a little sullen, feeling that they would have to do any fighting that remained while the men with Sherman would have all of the fun—and the Army of the Tennessee went to work to ruin Atlanta before beginning the march to the coast.
Atlanta was pretty tattered already. The repeated bombardments during the siege had destroyed many houses, and when Sherman occupied the place about half of its normal population of 13, had fled. And finally, when it was time to leave, Sherman ordered complete destruction of all factories, railroad installations, and other buildings which might be of any use to the Confederacy.
The army was moving in four columns, widely spread outth and 17th Corps, under General O. Howard, on the right, and 14th and 20th, under General Henry W. Slocum, on the left. Orders were that there should be an average pace of fifteen miles a day. Transportation was cut to a minimum and there was no supply line.
The army would feed itself with what it found in Georgia along the way.
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And so began the strangest, most fateful campaign of the entire war, like nothing that happened before or afterward. They were not being asked to hurry; fifteen miles a day was much less than these long-legged marchers could easily make, and everybody knew that too. Their mission was to wreck an economy and to destroy a faith—the economy that supported the thin fading fabric of the Confederacy, the faith that believed the Confederacy to be an enduring creation and trusted in its power to protect and avenge.
As they moved down the red roads of Georgia, cutting a swath sixty miles wide from flank to flank, they were the conscious agents of this destruction; men who trampled out the terrible vintage of the grapes of wrath, led by an implacable general who was more and more coming to see a monstrous but logical destiny in his mission. Every morning each brigade would send out a detail of foragers—from twenty to fifty men, led by an officer and followed by a wagon to bring back what was seized—and this detail, whose members knew the route the army was following, was not expected to return to camp until evening.
As the Army of the Tennessee moved, the great march to the sea began to resemble nothing so much as one gigantic middle western Halloween saturnalia, a whole month deep and miles long. Here and there, Southern patriots felled trees to obstruct roads, or burned bridges; there was never enough of this to delay the army seriously, but there was just enough to provoke reprisals, and barns and houses went up in smoke as a result. Day after day, crowds of fugitive slaves fell in on the roads to follow the army. Sherman did his utmost to keep these fugitives from following, but there was no way to keep them from trailing after the soldiers if they chose, and many of them did choose.
What became of most of them, no one ever knew. It was believed that some of the fugitives met death by starvation, yet those who were able to stay with the troops usually got enough to eat.
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Foragers brought in vast wagonloads of material that was abandoned to rot. Usually, the surplus was given to the Negroes. So much food was taken, indeed, that the soldiers themselves were almost appalled when they stopped to think about it. In one regiment, the men made a rough rule-of-thumb estimate of the requisitions that had been made and concluded that the army must have accounted for , hogs, 20, head of cattle, 15, horses and mules, , bushels of corn, and , bushels of sweet potatoes. The effect of all this was prodigious.
No one could remain in much doubt about how the war was going to result when this could be done. The morale of Confederate soldiers in Virginia and in Tennessee sank lower and lower as letters from home told how this army was wrecking everything and putting wives and children in danger of starvation.
Sherman came out where he had intended to, at Savannah, on December Sherman led his army around to the right, striking for the Ogeechee River and Ossabaw Sound, where he could get in touch with the navy, receive supplies, and regain contact with Grant and with Washington. The Union soldiers found Savannah unlike any town they had ever been in before.
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They entered the place on December 21, marching formally for a change, with bands playing and flags flying, Sherman himself taking a salute as they marched past. Savannah had a tropical air; the yards were filled with blooming flowers; palm trees and orange trees were to be seen; the houses looked old and inviting; and war seemed not to have touched the city. The men looked about them, reflecting that they had finished one of the great marches of history, and they suddenly went on their good behavior; Savannah was spared the devastation and pillage so many other places in Georgia had endured.
Sherman sent off a whimsical wire to Abraham Lincoln, offering him the city of Savannah, with much war equipment and 25, bales of priceless cotton, as a Christmas gift. To Grant and Halleck he wrote urging that as soon as his army had caught its breath it should be allowed to march straight north across the Carolina country.
Everything was working. As the year came to an end, the Confederacy had just under four months to live. It is possible that the Confederate General Hood made a very serious error in judgment.