Civil War Sesquicentennial and Memorial Day, Honoring our War Dead

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 30th, 2011

Union Armies Advance along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers into the Confederacy

While General Robert E. Lee and his right hand, General Stonewall Jackson, won battle after battle in the east, the Union Army won the war in the west.  A West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War was an unemployed failure at the beginning of the war.  In need of commanders, the Union Army gave Ulysses S. Grant a command.  He jumped off from Cairo, Illinois, nervous and lacking self-confidence.  As his army advanced to Fort Henry, protecting the Tennessee River, he found the fort already had surrendered after a naval bombardment.  His counterpart was just as nervous as he was.  Filled with a new sense of confidence, he advanced to Fort Donnellson, protecting the Cumberland River.  Assaulted it.  And took it.  Opening the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers to Union navigation.  Grant then took the Tennessee to a place called Pittsburg Landing.  Near a one-room church at a little crossroads.  Shiloh.

The Confederate’s finest general would meet Grant in the 2-day Battle of ShilohAlbert Sidney Johnston.  Who won the first day of battle.  But did not live to see the second day.  With Johnston dying the night of the first day, the attack was not pressed.  A mistake.  For the Army of the Ohio reinforced Grant that night.  And turned defeat into victory.  It was the first of the bloody, big battles that would define the Civil War.  Over 23,000 dead and wounded, stunning a nation that expected some Napoleonic battle charges, one army retiring from the field of battle and a victory parade.  Not four years of battles where they count the dead and wounded by the tens of thousands.

The Union armies advanced in the west.  General William Rosecrans won a bloody battle near Murfreesboro (called the Battle of Stones River in the North).  And then went on to take Chattanooga without a fight with some well executed marches, leaving the enemy on unwinnable ground.  So they abandoned Chattanooga.  Rosecrans followed.  To a career-ending battle called Chickamauga in northern Georgia, the Gettysburg of the West.  The Confederates exploited a hole in the Union line and sent the Union Army running all the way back to Chattanooga.  The only thing saving the army from annihilation was the great stand at Horseshoe Ridge on Snodgrass Hill by General George Thomas, keeping the door open to Chattanooga long enough to save the army.  With the Union army back in Chattanooga, the Confederates laid siege.  This time, they had the high ground.  If you ever traveled on I-75 near Chattanooga, you probably saw billboards for Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls.  This is the high ground the Confederates held during the siege.

Lincoln Promotes Grant Commander of all Union Armies after his Successes in the West

Meanwhile, Grant was making progress down the Mississippi River, trying to cut the Confederacy in half.  And the biggest obstacle on the river was the impregnable Fort Vicksburg.  Sitting high on a bluff on a hairpin turn of the river.  It commanded the river.  As traffic slowed to negotiate the turn Vicksburg cannon could plink them out of the water.  Grant tried numerous ways to best Vicksburg.  Even building a ship canal through the bayou on the west side of the river.  Nothing worked.  So with the help of Admiral David Porter and the Union Navy, some gunboats ran the Vicksburg gauntlet while the army marched through the bayou.  They got south of Vicksburg.  Crossed the river.  And attacked.  First took Jackson, Mississippi.  Then marched back towards the river and laid siege to Vicksburg.  The fort fell on the Fourth of July.  A day after Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg.  And the day Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg.  With the fall of Vicksburg, Grant had cut the Confederacy in half.

They promoted Grant.  Grant promoted William Tecumseh Sherman in his place.  And left to lift the siege of Chattanooga.  Which he did.  And then the Union Army drove the Confederates from Lookout Mountain.  And sent them in a retreat that never ended.  Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to commander of all Union armies.  Grant then left for the Eastern Theater.  While Sherman and Thomas took over in the west.  Sherman advanced and took Atlanta.  A vital rail junction.  Then marched unopposed through Georgia to the sea.  Shrinking the size of the Confederacy into an island of Union-held territory.  He made the South “howl.”  And he made it hungry and in want of the necessities of life.  The war wasn’t over.  But the outcome was now inevitable.

Meanwhile, Grant now advanced with General George Meade who commanded the Army of the Potomac.  And followed Lee.  Looking to outflank Lee and force him onto some favorable ground for one last battle to end the war.  For his forces outnumbered Lee’s.  He just needed one open battle to end it all.  They soon squared off in battle.  Not on open ground.  But in a tangle of forest.  The Battle of the Wilderness.  Both sides suffered heavy losses.  But Lee no doubt sensed impending doom.  Where all the previous commanders retreated after suffering such losses, Grant didn’t.   He was relentless.  He took a lot of casualties.  But he inflicted more.  Worse, Lee had run out of replacements.  It was a battle of attrition in the bloodiest sense. 

Grant, Sherman, Lee and Johnston Win the Peace

This kicked off the Overland Campaign.  A series of bloody battles that pushed the Confederates back towards Richmond.  But it was a costly campaign.  Losses were high.  On both sides.  Lee, having been an engineer during the Mexican War, used his engineering skills in building defensive fortifications.  To even the odds against a numerically superior attacking force.  And did.  Grant’s bloodiest days were at Cold Harbor.  Veterans by then were writing their names on scraps of paper and pinning them inside their uniforms.  So if they fell in battle someone could identify their bodies and send them home for burial.  After the last assault, days passed before they called a truce to tend to the dead and wounded between their lines.  Most of the wounded by then had died.  One wrote in his diary presumably as he lay dying from a mortal wound.  When they found his diary, the last entry read, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”

Though paying a high price for every inch of ground, Grant did what no other commander had done.  Push Robert E. Lee back.  All the way to Richmond and Petersburg.  Where his army was besieged by Grant’s.  The Confederacy had nothing left to give Lee.  Sherman had emerged from Georgia and was now attacking up the coast.  Lee broke from the besieged lines and made it as far as Appomattox Courthouse.  Grant had him surrounded.  They met.  Grant’s terms were so favorable that Lee accepted them.  Surrendered his army.  Ending the specter of a protracted guerilla war.  Sherman later met with General Joseph Johnston.  Who surrendered his forces after receiving favorable terms, too.  Lee and Johnston’s actions were followed by other commanders who laid down their arms and gave up the fight.  Even the feared General Nathan Bedford Forest.  Whose cavalry still ran at will within Union controlled territory. 

The war was over.  And the easy peace Abraham Lincoln wanted and discussed with Grant and Sherman before his assassination prevailed.  Not without a few hiccups.  But it prevailed.  Thanks to Grant, Sherman, Lee and Johnston.  There would be no guerilla war.  Instead, there would be reunification.  But still soldiers died.  The last being a Union soldier.  John Jefferson Williams, a private in Company B of the 34th Regiment Indiana Infantry.  Killed on May 13, 1865.  In a battle occurring after the official end of the Civil War.  The Battle of Palmito Ranch.  Ironically, a Confederate victory.  On the banks of the Rio Grande.  Near Brownsville Station in Texas.  Little over a month after Lee’s surrender.

The Civil War changed the United States from an ‘Are’ to an ‘Is’

Over 620,000 died during the Civil War.  It was America’s deadliest war.  A war that started with the cessation of the South over the issue of slavery.  That was the political reason for the war.  But that wasn’t why most fought.  To free the slaves.  Or keep them enslaved.  For those fighting the battles had other reasons. 

Some started out with thoughts of military glory.  But those thoughts soon vanished after their first battle.  Instead, what kept them fighting after that first battle was one simple thing.  They wanted to go home.  To the family they left.  To the life they left.  And the way home was through one bloody battle after another.  Which they fought with grim determination.  Accepting that the odds were not in their favor of ever going home.  But the war would end one day.  It had to.  After they fought enough battles.  And those still standing could then go home.  Of course, what that home would be like depended on the outcome of the war.

Before the war people identified their country by their home state.  Especially in the South.  People were Virginians.  Georgians.  South Carolinians.  They weren’t Americans.  We were a nation of united states (small ‘u’ and small ‘s’).  Foreign nations, when addressing the United States would ask, “Are the United States…”  After the war, they would start asking, “Is the United States…”  As the historian Shelby Foote said, the Civil War changed the nation from an ‘are’ to an ‘is’.  Singular.  Which is more the way the North felt.  The South preferred the ‘are’ interpretation.  So that’s another reason why they fought.  To keep the country like it was before the war.  The way their homes were.  So they could go home.  To the way it was.  For the North it meant keeping it an ‘is’.  For the South, it meant keeping it an ‘are’.

I want to go Home

Home is the most powerful force in the world.  When those soldiers pinned their names inside their uniforms before those ill-fated assaults at Cold Harbor, they were thinking of home.  Some would make it.  Many would not.  It’s what made them form ranks and charge into that withering fire.  Because that was the way home.

For every Grant, Sherman, Lee and Johnston, there are thousands of names we will never know.  Like the men who fell at Cold Harbor.  And all those who died in Civil War battles few will ever know the name of.  Or battles since.  Leyte GulfOmaha Beach.  The Hürtgen Forest.  The Battle of the BulgeOkinawa.  The Chosin ReservoirKhe SanhHuếFallujahKandahar.  And the list goes on.  So many battles.  And so many dead.  Whose last thoughts were probably a single word.  Home.

Many of us are fortunate enough to be home this Memorial Day.  Be thankful for that.  And think of those who never made it back home.  Think of them.  If you drink, raise a toast in their honor.  The bravest of the brave.  Who knew the way home was through yet another battle.  They may not have survived that last battle, but their spirit lived on.  And returned home.  Where it lives on.  Forever part of the home they once left.

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