OVERVIEW / U.S. History I
The Civil War
Part 3: Triumph of The Union
Despite his victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, General Lee realized that the Confederacy's only hope of victory was to bring the war to the North. In June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Pennsylvania and confronted the Union forces at Gettysburg on July 1. The three‐day battle ended in the South's worst defeat. Half of the fifteen thousand men under the command of General George Pickett, who charged the entrenched Union positions, were either killed, wounded, or captured. Lee had little choice but to retreat. At the same time, the Confederate troops under siege at Vicksburg surrendered and gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River. The two engagements were the key turning points of the war; the Confederacy was effectively split and its armies never penetrated the North again.
GRANT IN COMMAND
In March 1864, following his victories in the West and his taking of Chattanooga (November 1863), Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union forces. Lincoln had finally found his general after three years of war. The two main theaters of operation in 1864 were Virginia and Georgia. Grant fought a war of attrition, constantly attacking, regardless of the cost. Against Lee in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor and during the siege of Petersburg, the Union forces suffered extremely heavy casualties, but they continued to drive Lee's army deeper into Virginia.
In May, Grant ordered General William T. Sherman from Tennessee into Georgia. Union troops occupied Atlanta on September 1 and staged their infamous “March to the Sea” in the late fall. Sherman had all possible war materiel in Atlanta confiscated or destroyed, and he set fire to a large part of the city in the process. As his army moved through the state, crops were burned, livestock killed, and plantations and factories destroyed. Sherman's campaign of “total war” continued after he took Savannah in December and moved north into South Carolina.
THE ELECTION OF 1864
Despite a challenge from the Radical Republicans, the president was easily nominated for a second term with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a Unionist War Democrat, as his running mate. The platform called for the Confederacy's unconditional surrender and a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Democrats chose General George McClellan as their candidate on an extreme peace platform that urged an immediate armistice, attacked Lincoln's handling of the war, and criticized emancipation. Public support for the war was uncertain as casualties mounted in 1864, but the president's campaign received a boost from Farragut's victory in Mobile (August 1864) and the fall of Atlanta. Lincoln won reelection with fifty‐five percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College. Most of the states allowed soldiers to vote in the field, and eighty percent of them cast their ballots for Lincoln.
THE END OF THE CONFEDERACY
With about half the number of troops as the Army of the Potomac, Lee was unable to break the siege at Petersburg. He broke off the engagement and tried to swing west and south to link up with what was left of his troops in North Carolina under General Johnston. Jefferson Davis abandoned Richmond and was eventually captured in Georgia in May. With the Confederate capital in Union hands, Lee found himself penned in by Grant's troops and those of General Philip Sheridan, and he asked for surrender terms on April 7, 1865. The formal surrender took place two days later in the town of Appomattox Court House. In the meantime, Sherman's army was moving into North Carolina to confront Johnston. Although Davis urged the general to fight on, Johnston surrendered his thirty‐seven thousand men on April 26. By the end of May, all Confederate resistance throughout the South had come to an end. President Lincoln did not live to see the end of the war. He was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth while watching a play in Washington's Ford's Theater on April 14,1865.
Between 1861 and 1865, nearly three million men served in the Union and Confederate armies; more than 600,000 were killed, and an additional 275,000 were seriously wounded. Civil War casualties were almost as many as the combined losses in all other American wars through the Vietnam War. Although the fighting ended in the spring of 1865, the sectional divisions that led to the conflict continued to fester for generations. The immediate question was how the defeated states of the Confederacy would be treated. Although Lincoln had sounded a conciliatory note in his Second Inaugural Address a few days before his death, many others felt that the South must pay dearly for the war.