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Chapter 34: the beginning of the end.

  • Gradual Weakening of the South
  • -- the wearing-out process -- Sequelae of Vicksburg and Gettysburg -- Congress vs. President -- Mr. Foote and his following -- drain of men and material -- home guards -- the “speculator squad” -- dire straits in camp and home -- carpet blankets -- raids and their results -- breaking down of cavalry Mounts -- echoes of Morgan's Ohio dash -- his bold escape -- Cumberland Gap -- a glance at Chickamauga -- “the might have been” once more -- popular discontent -- General Grant judged by his compeers -- Longstreet at Knoxville -- Missionary Ridge -- President's views and people's -- again the Virginia lines -- skirmish depletion -- desertions -- “Kirby-Smithdom.”
    While neither in itself-perhaps not the combination of the twowas final and conclusive, the beginning of the end of the Confederacy may be dated from the loss of Vicksburg and the simultaneous retreat from Gettysburg. For these two disasters made all classes consider more deeply, both their inducing causes and the final results that must follow a succession of such crushing blows.

    There can be little doubt that a complete victory at Gettysburg, vigorously followed up, would have ended the war; and the generally-accepted belief in the South was that the exhaustive defeat was proportionately bad. The war had been going on two years and a half. Every device had been used to put the whole numerical strength of the country into the field and to utilize its every resource. The South had succeeded to a degree that stupefied the outside world and astonished even herself. But the effort had exhausted, and left her unfit to renew it. Over and again the armies of the East and West had been re-enforced, reorganized and re-equipped-and ever came the heavy, relentless blows of the seemingly-exhaustless power, stluggled against so vainly. The South had inflicted heavy loss in men, material and prestige; but she wasted her strength in these blows, while unhappily she could not make them effective by quick repetition.

    The people, too, had lost their early faith in the Government. They had submitted to the most stringent levy of conscription and impressment ever imposed upon a nation. They had willingly left their fields to grow weeds, their children to run wild and perhaps to starve; they had cheerfully divided their last supplies of food with the Government, and had gone to the front steadily and hopefully. But now they could not fail to see that, in some points at least, there had been gross mismanagement. The food for which their families were pinched and almost starved, did not come to the armies. Vast stores of provision and supplies were blocked on the roads, while [317] speculators' Ventures passed over them. This, the soldiers in the trench and the laborer at the anvil saw equally.

    They saw, too, that the Government was divided against itself; for the worse than weak Congress — which had formerly been as a nose of wax in Mr. Davis' fingers-had now turned dead against him. With the stolid obstinacy of stupidity it now refused to see any good in any measure, or in any man, approved by the Executive.

    Under the leadership of Mr. Foote--who wasted the precious time of Congress in windy personal diatribes against Mr. Davis and his “pets” --nothing was done to combine and strengthen the rapidly sundering elements of Confederate strength; Long debates on General Pemberton; weighty disquisitions on such grave subjects as the nulmber of pounds of pork on hand when Vicksburg was surrendered; and violent attacks on the whole past course of the administration, occupied the minds of those lawgivers. But at this time there was no single measure originated that proposed to stop the troubles in thefuture.

    Therefore, the people lost confidence in the divided Government;. and losing it began to distrust themselves. Suffering so for it, they could not fail to know the terrible strain to which the country had been subjected. They knew that her resources in men and material had been taxed to the limit; that there was no fresh supply of either upon which to draw. This was the forlorn view that greeted them when they looked within. And outside, fresh armies faced and threatened them on every side-increased rather than diminished, and better armed and provided than ever before.

    This state of things was too patent not to be seen by the plainest men; and seeing it, those became dispirited who never had doubted before. And this time, the gloom did not lift; it became a settled and dogged conviction that we were fighting the good fight almost against hope. Not that this prevented the army and the people from working still, with every nerve strained to its utmost tension; but they worked without the cheery hopefulness of the past.

    Fate seemed against them. Had they been Turks they would have said: “It is kismet! Allah is great!” As they were only staunch patriots, they reasoned: “It is fearful odds-but we may win.” And so solemnly, gloomily-but none the less determinedthe South again prepared for the scarcely doubtful strife.

    The stringent addenda to the Conscription law — that had come too late — were put into force. All men that could possibly be sparedand [318] whom the trickery of influence could not relieve — were sent to the front; and their places in the Government were filled by the aged, the disabled, and by women. In the Government departments of Richmond-and in their branches further South--the first ladies of the land took position as clerks-driven to it by stress of circumstances. And now as ever-whether in the arsenals, the factories, or the accountant's desk — the women of the South performed their labor faithfully, earnestly and well. Those men who could not, possibly be spared, were formed into companies for local defense; were regularly drilled, mustered into service, and became in fact regular soldiers, simply detailed to perform other work. When the wild notes of the alarm bell sent their frequent peals over Richmond, and warned of an approaching raid-armorer, butcher and clerk threw down hammer and knife and pen, and seized their muskets to hasten to the rendezvous. Even the shopkeepers and speculators, who seemed conscription-proof, were mustered into some sort of form; driven to make at least a show of resistance to the raid, by which they would suffer more than any others. But it was only a show; and so much more attention was paid in these organizations to filling of the commissary wagon than of the cartridge-box, that the camps of such “melish,” in the woods around Richmond, were converted more into a picnic than a defense.

    Supplies of war material, of clothing, and of arms, had now become as scarce as men. The constant drain had to be supplied from manufactories, worked under great difficulties; and these now were almost paralyzed by the necessity for their operatives at the front. Old supplies of iron, coal and ore had been worked up; and obtaining and utilizing fresh ones demanded an amount of labor that could not be spared. The blockade had now become thoroughly effective; and, except a rare venture at some unlooked — for spot upon the coast, no vessel was expected to come safely through the network of ships. Blankets and shoes had almost completely given out; and a large proportion of the army went barefoot and wrapped in rugs given by the ladies of the cities, who cut up their carpets for that purpose.

    Yet, in view of all this privation; with a keen sense of their own sacrifices and a growing conviction that they were made in vain, the army kept up in tone and spirits. There was no intention or desire to yield, as long as a blow could be struck for the cause; and the veteran and the “new issue” --as the new conscripts were called in [319] derision of the currency-alike determined to work on as steadily, if not so cheerily, as before.

    And still Congress wrangled on with Government and within itself; still Mr. Foote blew clouds of vituperative gas at President and Cabinet; still Mr. Davis retained, in council and field, the men he had chosen. And daily he grew more unpopular with the people, who, disagreeing with him, still held him in awe, while they despised the Congress. Even in this strait, the old delusion about the collapse of Federal finance occasionally came up for hopeful discussion; and, from time to time, Mr. Benjamin would put out a feeler about recognition from governments that remembered us less than had we really been behind the great wall of China.

    After Gettysburg and Vicksburg, came a lull in the heavier operations of the war. But raids of the enemy's cavalry were organized and sent to penetrate the interior South, in every direction. To meet them were only home guards and the militia; with sometimes a detachment of cavalry, hastily brought up from a distant point. This latter branch of service, as well as light artillery, now began to give way. The fearful strain upon both, in forced and distant marches, added to the wearing campaigns over the Potomac, had used up the breed of horses in the South. Those remaining were broken down by hard work and half feed; so that one-half the cavalry was dismounted-belonging to Company Q the men called it-and the rest was scarcely available for a rapid march, or a very heavy shock.

    But the cavalry of the enemy had increased wonderfully in drill, discipline and general efficiency. Armed with the best weapons, mounted upon choice horses, composed of picked men and officered by the boldest spirits in the North, Federal cavalry now began tp be the most potent arm of their service. Men sadly recalled the pleasant days when the brilliant squadrons of Hampton, or Fitz Leethe flower of the South, mounted on its best blood stock-dashed laughingly down upon three times their force, only to see them break and scatter; while many of their number rolled over the plain, by the acts of their own steeds rather than of hostile sabers. Even much later, when the men were ragged and badly armed, and the horses were gaunt from famine, they still could meet the improving horsemen of the enemy and come off victors — as witness the battles of the Fords. But now the Yankees had learned to fight-and more incomprehensible still to the Reb, they had learned to ride! [320] They were superior in numbers, equipment, and — to be honest-in discipline; and could no longer be met with any certainty of success. It was a bitter thing for the Golden Horse Shoe Knights; but like many ugly things about this time, it was true. So the Yankee raids-aimed as a finality for Richmond, but ever failing approach to their object-still managed to do incalculable mischief. They drove off the few remaining cattle, stole and destroyed the hoarded mite of the widowed and unprotected-burned barns-destroyed farming utensils; and, worse than all, they demoralized the people and kept them in constant dread.

    As a counter-irritant, and to teach the enemy a lesson, General Morgan, early in July, started on a raid into the Northwest. With 2,000 men and a light battery, he passed through Kentucky and on to the river, leaving a line of conquest and destruction behind himhere scattering a regiment of the enemy — there demoralizing a home guard; and, at the river, fighting infantry and a gunboat, and forcing his way across into Indiana. Great was the scare in the West, at this first taste the fine fruits of raiding. Troops were telegraphed, engines flew up and down the roads as if possessed; and in short, home guards, and other troops, were collected to the number of nearly 30,000 men.

    Evading pursuit, and scattering the detached bands he met, Morgan crossed the Ohio line-tearing up roads, cutting telegraphs, and inflicting much damage and inconceivable panic-until he reached within five miles of Cincinnati. Of course, with his merely nominal force, he could make no attempt on the city; so, after fourteen days of unresting raiding-his command pressed, worn out and broken down-he headed for the river once more. A small portion of the command had already crossed, when the pursuing force came up. Morgan made heavy fight, but his men were outnumbered and exhausted. A few, following him, cut their way through the enemy and fled along the north bank of the Ohio. The pursuit was fierce and hot; the flight determined, fertile in expedients, but hopeless in an enemy's country, raised to follow the cry. He was captured, with most of his staff and all of his command that was left-save the few hundred who had crossed the river and escaped into the mountains of Virginia.

    Then for four months-until he dug his way out of his dungeon with a small knife-John Morgan was locked up as a common felon, [321] starved, insulted and treated with brutality, the recital of which sickens-even having his head shave! There was no excuse ever attempted; no pretense that he was a guerrilla. It was done simply to glut spite and to make a dreaded enemy feel his captors' power.

    Meantime General Bragg, at Tullahoma, faced by Rosecrans and flanked by Burnside's “Army of the Cumberland,” was forced to fall back to Chattanooga. Rosecrans pressed him hard, with the intent of carrying out that pet scheme of the North, forcing his army down through Georgia and riddling the Cotton States. It is inessential here to recount the details of these movements. Rosecrans had a heavy and compact force; ours was weak and scattered, and Bragg's urgent appeal for men met the invariable answer, there were none. to send. For the same reason-insufficient force-Buckner was forced to abandon Knoxville; and a few weeks later Cumberland Gap, the key-position to East Tennessee and Georgia, was surrendered!

    At this critical juncture the loss of that position could scarcely be exaggerated; and the public indignantly demanded of Government why it had been lost. The War Department shifted the responsibility, and declared that no reason existed; that the place was provisioned and impregnable, and that the responsibility rested alone with the officer in command, who was now a prisoner with his whole force.

    This hardly satisfied the public clamor; and so ill-omened a commencement augured badly for the success of the campaign for position, in which both armies were now manoeuvring. The real details of these preliminary movements are scarcely clear to this day. General Bragg's friends declare that he forced Rosecrans to the position; his enemies, that Rosecrans first out-generaled him and then laid himself open to destruction, while Bragg took no advantage of the situation.

    However this may be, we know that on the morning of the 19th September, 1863, the battle of Chickamauga was commenced by the enemy in a series of obstinate division engagements, rather than in a general battle; Bragg's object being to gain the Chattanooga road in the enemy's rear, and his to prevent it. The fighting was heavy, stubborn and fierce, and its brunt was borne by Walker, Hood and Cleburne. Night fell on an undecided field, where neither had advantage; and the enemy perhaps had suffered more heavily than we.

    All that night he worked hard to strengthen his position; and our attack — which was to have commenced just at dawn — was delayed from some misapprehension of orders. At length Breckinridge and [322] Cleburne opened the fight,, and then it raged with desperate, bloody obstinacy, until late afternoon. At that time the Confederate right had been repulsed; but Longstreet's left had driven the enemy before it. Then the whole southern line reformed; moving with steady, resistless sweep upon the confident enemy. He fought obstinatelywavered-rallied-then broke again and fled toward Chattanooga. The rout was complete and the enemy so demoralized that Longstreet --feeling that he could be crushed while panic-struck-ordered Wheeler to intercept his flight. It was stated that Longstreet's order was countermanded by General Bragg; but-whatever the reasonthere was no pursuit!

    The fruits of the hard-won victory were 8,000 prisoners, 50 pieces of artillery, near 20,000 muskets-plus a loss of life barren of results. For, instead of crushing the enemy and completely relieving the state and the Georgia frontier, the failure to press Rosecrans at the moment left him free communication with his rear and full time to recuperate. Instead of pressing on, General Bragg took position on Missionary Ridge; and criticism of the hour declared that he thus invested the Federals in the town, which-by a rapid advance-might already have been his, without a fight.

    It is neither the intent, nor within the scope of these papers-even did their author possess the ability for it — to enter into detailed criticism of military events; far less to reopen those acrimonious partisanships, so bootless at the time and worse than useless now. But, to comprehend the state of public feeling at the South, it is essential to have the plain data, upon which it was based; and to have plainly stated the causes to which popular opinion ascribed certain results.

    After Chickamauga, there was very general-and seemingly not causeless-discontent. The eternal policy of massing great armies, at any sacrifice; fighting terrible battles; and then failing to close the grasp upon their fruits-apparently already in hand-had worn public patience so threadbare, that it refused to regard Chickamauga as anything more than another of those aimless killings, which had so often drenched the West, to no avail.

    Strong and open expression was made of the popular wish for General Bragg's removal; but Mr. Davis refused — as ever — to hear the people's voice, in a matter of policy. He retained General Bragg, and the people held him responsible for what they claimed was the result-Lookout Mountain! [323]

    Fas est ab hoste doceri. Public clamor at the North declared that loss of command should reward Rosecrans for loss of the battle; and, in mid-October, he was superseded by General Grant.

    Like all popular heroes of the war, Grant had become noted, rather through hard-hitting than strategic combination. His zenith was mounted on the capture of Vicksburg; a project which northern generals denounced as bad soldiership and possible of success, only through an enemy's weakness. At this time, he was certainly not in high estimation of his own army, because of dogged disregard of loss in useless assaults; and it will be recalled that General McClernand was court-martialed for his declaration that he “could not be expected to furnish brains for the whole army!” The estimate of Grant's compeers is not refuted by any evidence in the War Department that, from Shiloh to Appomattox, he ever made one combination stamped by mark of any soldiership, higher than courage and bull-dog tenacity. Even scouting the generally-accepted idea, in the army of Vicksburg and later in that of Chattanooga — that McPherson provided plans and details of his campaigns; and dismissing McClernand's costly taunt as mere epigram-this was the accepted estimate of General Grant's tactical power.

    But he inaugurated his command at Chattanooga with boldness and vigor. He concentrated 25,000 troops in the town; opened his communications; and then — to prevent any possible movement flanking him out of them-boldly took the initiative.

    Meantime, Longstreet had been detached by General Bragg, for that badly-provided, badly-digested and. wholly ill-starred expedition to Knoxville; one which seemed to prove that the history of misfortune was ever to repeat itself, in impracticable diversions at precisely the wrong time. For, even had this corps not been badly equipped and rationed, while almost wholly lacking in transportation, it certainly depleted a daily-weakening army, in the face of one already double its numbers and daily increasing.

    On November 18th-spite of management that forced him to subsist on precarious captures-Longstreet reached the enemy's advanced lines, at Knoxville; drove him into the city and completely isolated him from communication. Capitulation was a mere matter of time; but disastrous news from the main army drove the Confederate to the alternative of assault, or retreat. Choosing the former, he made it with the same desperate gallantry displayed at Gettysburg, or Corinth; [324] illustrated by brilliant, but unavailing, personal prowess. The strength of the enemy's works-and openness of approach, with wire netting interlaced among the stumps of the new clearing, was too much for the southern soldiers. Several times they reached the works, fighting hand-to-hand; but finally Longstreet fell back, in good order and carrying his subsistence. He chose his own line of retreat, too; and with such good judgment as to be within reach of any new combination of Bragg — from whom he was now cut off-or, failing that, to keep his rear open through Virginia, to Lee's army.

    Meantime, Grant massed troops in Chattanooga, sufficient in his judgment to crush Bragg; and, learning of the latter's detachment of Longstreet's corps, determined to strike early and hard. On the 25th he attacked with his whole force, in two grand columns under Thomas, Sherman and Hooker. The little southern army of less than forty thousand was judiciously posted; having advantage of being attacked. The terrible shock of the double attack was successfully repulsed on the right by Hardee, on the left by Buckner. Broken, reeling-shattered-he was hurled back, only to form again with splendid courage. Once more checked and driven back, after desperate fighting on both sides, the Federals made a third advance with steady, dogged valor. Then constancy was rewarded; they broke the Confederate center; swung it in disorder upon the wings; and, holding the ground so hotly won, had the key to the position.

    Still the day was not wholly lost to the South, had her men not given way to causeless panic. Left and right followed center-lost all order and fell back almost in flight. Then the scattered and demoralized army was saved from utter ruin, only by the admirable manner in which Cleburne covered that rout-like retreat, day after day; finally beating back Thomas' advance so heavily that pursuit was abandoned.

    Missionary Ridge cost the South near 8,000 men; all the Chickamauga artillery and more; and the coveted key-position to the situation. But it cost, besides, what could even less be spared; some slight abatement in the popular confidence in our troops, under all trials heretofore. Reasoning from their dislike to General Bragg, people and press declared that the men had been badly handled through the whole campaign; yet-so inured were they to the rag ged boys fighting successfully both the enemy and our own errorsthere came general bad augury from the panic of Missionary Ridge [325]

    Mr. Davis had visited Bragg's army, after the howl that went up on his failure to press Rosecrans. On his return, the President appeared satisfied and hopeful; he authorized statement that the delay after Chickamauga was simply strategic; and the impression went abroad that Bragg and he had affected combinations now, which would leave Grant only the choice between retreat and destruction.

    If these tactics meant the detaching of Longstreet-said thoughtful critics-then are combination and suicide convertible terms!

    Neither was public feeling much cheered by the aspect of the war in Virginia. Lee and Meade coquetted for position, without definite result; the former-weakened by Longstreet's absence-striving to slip between Meade and Washington; the latter aiming to flank and mass behind Lee, on one of the three favorite routes to Richmond. The fall and winter wore away with these desultory movements; producing many a sharp skirmish, but nothing more resultful. These offered motif for display of dash and military tact on both sides; that at Kelly's Ford, on the Rapidan — where the Federals caught the Confederates unprepared-showing the hardest hitting with advantage on the Union side. The compliment was exchanged, by a decisive southern success at Germania Ford; but the resultless fighting dispirited and demoralized the people, while it only harassed and weakened the army. Both looked to the great shock to come; forces for which were gathering, perhaps unseen and unheard, yet felt by that morbid prescience which comes in the supreme crises of life.

    The trans-Mississippi was now absolutely cut off from participation in the action of the eastern Confederacy; almost equally so from communication with it. Still that section held its own, in the warfare peculiar to her people and their situation. Quick concentrations; sharp, bloody fights-skirmishes in extent, but battles in exhibition of pluck and endurance — were of constant occurrence. Kirby Smith --become almost a dictator through failure of communicationadministered his department with skill, judgment and moderation. Husbanding his internal resources, he even established — in the few accessible ports, defiant of blockade — a system of foreign supply; and “Kirby Smithdom” --as it came to be called-was, at this time, the best provisioned and prepared of the torn and stricken sections of the Confederacy.

    Note has been made of the improvement of Federal cavalry; and of their raids, that struck terror and dismay among the people. [326] During the winter of 1863-64, Averill penetrated the heart of Virginia, scattering destruction in his path; and, though he retired before cavalry sent to pursue him-he even shot his horses as they gave out, in the forced flight-his expedition had accomplished its object. It had proved that no point of harassed territory was safe from Federal devastation; that the overtaxed and waning strength of the South was insufficient to protect them now!

    Gradually-very gradually-this blight of doubt and dissatisfaction began to affect the army; and-while it was no longer possible to fill their places by new levies — some of the men already at the front began to skulk, and even to desert.

    Though still uncondoned, the crime of these was roughly urged upon them; for imagination brought to the ears of all, the shriek of the distant wife, insulted by the light of her burning roof and turned starving and half-clothed, into the snowy midnight! And all the more honor was it to the steadfast that they held out-dogged but willing — to the bitter end; fighting as man had not fought before --not only against their enemy — not only against their own natural impulses-but against hope, as well!

    For the mass of that grand, tattered and worn army never faltered; and only their enduring patriotism-backed as it was by selfless energy of their home-people-availed to make up for the lost opportunities of the Government!

    In Congress was vacillation, discord, vacuity; while the people were goaded to the absurd charge, that some of its members were traitors! But the great diplomat has graven the truth, that an error may be worse than a crime; and the errors of the Confederate Congress--from alpha to omega-were born of weakness and feeble grasp on the prompt occasions of a great strife, like this which so submerged their littleness.

    It is in some sort at the door of Congress that the head of the government, harassed by overwork, distracted by diverse trifleseach one too vital to entrust to feeble subordinates; buffeted by the gathering surge without and dragged down by the angry undertow within, lost his influence, and with it his power to save!

    The beginning of the end had come upon the South. Her stoutest and bravest hearts still,

    Like muffled drums, were beating
    Funeral marches to the grave!

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