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Chapter 23: the fall of 1864

Gen. Humphreys writes of the situation in Aug., soon after the fiasco of the Mine, as follows: 1
‘Between this time and the month of March, 1865, several movements of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James were made to the right and to the left, which resulted in the extension of our line of intrenchments in both directions, and caused a corresponding extension of the Confederate intrenchments on our left, and their occupation in stronger force of their intrenchments on the north bank of the James. By this process their lines finally became so thinly manned, when the last movement to our left was made in March, 1865, as to be vulnerable at one or two points, where some of the obstructions in their front had been in a great measure destroyed by the exigencies of the winter.’

In other words, attacks upon our lines were now abandoned for a succession of feints, first upon one flank and then upon the other, by which our lines were extended at both ends to the point of breaking. This point was reached in eight months at one or two places, where the Confederates had been tempted by the severity of the winter to burn the abattis in front of their breastworks. We will not attempt to follow either these efforts of the enemy, or Lee's aggressive counter-movements, of which [575] there was no lack, though all were attended with much hard fighting.

Besides the heavy casualties of these incessant affairs, which followed each other at short intervals from Aug. 1 to Nov. 1, there was daily sharpshooting and much mortar and artillery practice, which helped swell the totals. Confederate reports are entirely lacking, but losses were fully as heavy in proportion to the numbers engaged, as were the Federal losses; for on several occasions Lee was the aggressor and lost heavily. On one, Oct. 7, on the Darbytown road, Field's division was sent to charge two brigades in breastworks, which proved to be armed with the Spencer magazine-guns. He was quickly repulsed with severe loss, which included Gregg of Texas killed, and Bratton of S. C. wounded. The total Federal casualties for this period, Aug. 1 to Dec. 31, are given as: killed, 2172; wounded, 11,138; missing, 11,311; total, 24,621. The corresponding Confederate losses were probably between 12,000 and 14,000.

It will afford a better view of the situation as a whole to glance at those events referred to by Swinton, where he says: —

‘Had not success elsewhere come to brighten the horizon, it would have been difficult to raise new forces to recruit the Army of the Potomac.’

The first and most important of the events resulting in ‘success elsewhere’ was President Davis relieving Joseph E. Johnston of the command of the army opposing Sherman at Atlanta, and appointing Hood to succeed him. This step was taken with great reluctance, and under great popular and political pressure brought by Gov. Brown and Sen. Hill of Ga., who claimed that Johnston intended to surrender Atlanta without giving battle. After many reiterations of such charges, Davis was at length led to give a promise to relieve Johnston if, on being asked for some assurance of his intention to fight, he failed to give it. Gen. Bragg was sent to interview him, and after spending two days with him, wired: —

‘He has not sought my advice, and it was not volunteered. I cannot learn that he has any more plan in the future than he has had in the past.’

Davis then wired to Johnston a direct inquiry, as follows: — [576]

‘I wish to hear from you as to present situation, and your plan of operations, so specifically as will enable me to anticipate events.’

This was sent July 16, and Johnston replied the same day:—

‘. . . As the enemy has double our number, we must be on the defensive. My plan of operations must, therefore, depend upon that of the enemy. It is mainly to watch for an opportunity to fight to advantage. We are trying to put Atlanta into condition to be held for a day or two by the Ga. militia, that army movements may be freer and wider.’

This reply was certainly not specific, and was considered evasive. It will be remembered that, in April, 1862, the relations between the President and Johnston had been strained to the verge of breaking by the general's reticence as to his plans, and avoidance of interviews, even by galloping to the front on seeing the President approach near the field of Seven Pines. There a crisis was avoided by Johnston's wound and loss of the command of the army.

Now, a very similar issue had arisen, and with it the old and bitter feelings on each side. On the 17th Adjt.-Gen. Cooper wired Johnson: —

‘I am directed by the Sec. of War to inform you that as you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of the Tenn., which you will immediately turn over to Gen. Hood.’

To this Johnston replied that the order had been received and obeyed, and added:—

‘As to the alleged cause of my removal I assert that Sherman's army is much stronger, compared with that of Tenn., than Grant's compared with that of northern Va. Yet the enemy has been compelled to advance much more slowly to the vicinity of Atlanta than to that of Richmond and Petersburg, and penetrated much deeper into Va. than into Ga. Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competence.’

It is vain to speculate on what might have happened had Johnston been left in command. Had Lee been commanderin-chief, he would not have been relieved, as was indicated by his restoring Johnston to command on his taking that position in [577] February. But it is a fact that Johnston had never fought but one aggressive battle, the battle of Seven Pines, which was phenomenally mismanaged.

On the 20th and 21st, Hood attacked Sherman, but was defeated, and after a month of minor operations was finally, on Sept. 1, compelled to evacuate Atlanta. Meanwhile, a naval expedition, sent under Farragut against Mobile, had captured the forts commanding the harbor of that city on Aug. 23. These two events, the capture of Mobile and Atlanta, following each other within a few days, came at perhaps the period of the greatest political depression of the administration. On Aug. 23, Mr. Lincoln had written on a slip of paper: —

‘This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterward.’

This paper he folded and had the Cabinet put their names on its back.

The victories came like an interposition of

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