HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 19 - To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings
Chapter 1. Introduction: Melville’s “On the Slain Collegians” [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: It used to be said that in the old wars fought by the Irish clans that they had an agreement. I don’t know if this is true, but I love the idea, that no matter how much they slaughter themselves with broadswords and knives and whatever else those maniacs used, that they should always spare the poets. Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story. Most great poets don’t go to war, they write. This week you’re reading a great poet, E.L. Doctorow, a poet in prose, a poet in fiction. Doctorow, as some of you must know, is a famous American writer for his historical fiction. Much of his fiction is often very historical and you’ll find, if anyone takes the time some day, that large chunks of the monologue you hear from William Tecumseh Sherman in this novel is directly out of his famous memoirs, and then every now and then Doctorow will embellish or add a few lines. Most of the people in this book were real people, but there are some invented. In some ways, possibly the most brilliant inventions in this book are the slave characters, or the freedman characters, and what Doctorow does with them through this sort of anguished crucible of all out war. Look especially for those journeys into Sherman’s own mind, Sherman’s psyche, those meditations of Sherman’s on death. Page 88 and 89 to be exact is, I think, an unforgettable mediation by Sherman on the meaning of death and just what it means and why he in some ways enjoys it.
Herman Melville wrote a whole bunch of poems during the Civil War. He was one of the poets spared. He wasn’t very famous yet, as you know, for Moby Dick; that was to come later. Maybe our greatest writer of the nineteenth century; also wrote a lot of poetry, and he wrote almost all of his poetry during the Civil War, as did, by the way, Emily Dickinson. Don’t know if any of you are Emily Dickinson fans, but Emily, the Belle of Amherst, wrote between 900 and 1000 poems in her life, and fully two-thirds of them in the four years of the war. She became obsessed with the idea of the war, and if you read her closely enough it’s all over her wartime poetry. She became obsessed with death. Our greatest death poet was, of course, Whitman; more from him later.
But one little piece by Melville, because it’s about you. This was Melville’s meditation in poetry on the death of college students in the war. It’s called “On the Slain Collegians.” It’s timeless, it could be about any war, although collegians don’t go to war anymore very much in America. “Youth is the time when hearts are large and stirring wars appeal to the spirit which appeals in turn to the blade it draws. If woman in sight and duties show, though made the mask of Cane, or whether it be truth, sacred cause, who can aloof remain that shares youth’s ardor, uncooled by the snow of wisdom or sordid gain? Woe for the homes of the North and woe for the seats of the South, all who felt life spring in prime and were swept by the wind of their place in time. Oh lavish hearts on whichever side of birth or bane or courage high, arm them for the stirring wars, arm them some to die, Apollo-like in pride. Each slay his python caught, the maxims in his temple taught. The anguish of maternal hearts must search for balm divine. But well the striplings bore their faded parts, the heaven all parts must assign. Never felt life’s care or cloy. Each bloomed and died an abated boy, nor dreamed what death was, thought it mere sliding into some vernal sphere. They knew the joy but leaped the grief. Like plants that flower ‘ere comes the leaf which storms lay low in kindly doom and kill them in the flush of their bloom.”
Chapter 2. Grant’s Strategic Changes from the West to the East [00:05:21]
The casualties in the Union Army alone, the Army of the Potomac, Grant’s army, from the first of May through the end of July 1864, in this horrible war of attrition and the stalemate it produced in Virginia, the casualties in that one army in about two to two-and-a-half months was 66,000 men. It is the largest loss of life in the shortest period of time in all of American military history. How did it get to that? Why did the war go on, and on and on? Well let’s begin with Grant and Lee, these two great warriors around whose names, symbols, actions, decisions a good deal of the war would hinge in the final year. Grant, from his successes in the West — fall of Vicksburg, siege and fall of Chattanooga, the victory at Chickamauga — came East, appointed by Abraham Lincoln as General of the Army. Congress actually revived a special rank that it hadn’t used in years called Lieutenant-General, just for Grant. He came East and was appointed head of all Union Armies, on any front anywhere, in March of 1864, winter ‘64. He was wined and dined at the White House and wined and dined in Congress. They had to keep telling him to put on a decent uniform.
There’s a lot of truth to this idea of Grant the kind of humble plebian. He had after all been doing nothing but work in his brother’s leather shop in Galena, Illinois when the war broke out. But, boy, did he have a nose for war. He was a great horseman. They said he could canter like nobody else and gallop like nobody else, and he loved his horses. Been to West Point. About the only thing he really got good grades in at West Point were painting and drawing. He nearly failed some of the military science courses. Some of his biographers have actually made a big deal out of that, that because he hadn’t studied hard in Jomini’s Manuals, those manuals of combat tactics and strategy, that he was therefore freer to simply invent as he went. I don’t know. This war made Grant at the same time he made the war. He may have been, as many of his — and by the way there’s been an industry of Grant biographies in the past 10 to 15 years; he’s been rediscovered after a long period in our history when he just vanished and the country forgot that “oh, by the way, the Union won the war and there was that guy Grant.” There are far, far, far more monuments to Robert E. Lee on the American landscape than there are to Ulysses Grant. I’ll try to explain that at the end of the course.
His casualty rates in this last year of the war were ghastly and horrible, and it nearly led to a sufficient level of war weariness across the North and disgust and just an overwhelmed kind of spirit that it was entirely possible by July and August of ‘64, if certain events hadn’t quickly followed, that the North collectively would’ve given up the war and sued for peace. But Grant developed essentially a strategy of victory, and here’s what it was. He did it in conjunction with William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, the previous General of the Army, Henry Halleck, and most importantly with Lincoln himself, and that strategy was basically this. It was first to determine that Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was not to be the objective of the war in the East; taking an enemy’s capital not that important. Secondly, Grant grasped, as did Sherman, the political character of this war, that this was now a war to be won or lost in public opinion. Because it had become all-out, because it was now a war upon people, upon resources, it depended deeply upon morale and the will of either side to somehow see it through. Third, Grant, and Sherman especially, determined that this would now be a war on Southern resources. The destruction of slavery, of course, becomes a major part of that. And one of the great ironies of the war is that Sherman never, ever, for a day, wanted to free a slave. As he told his officers, “ain’t gonna be no niggers in Uncle Billy’s army.” Sorry, that’s what he said. He wasn’t into having black soldiers; in fact there were no black soldiers who actually served in Sherman’s army in Georgia. There will be thousands upon thousands of freedman following his army, and it will force him to a situation of a recognition that will it or not, he’s crushing the spirit of the South to destroy slavery, and ultimately kind of admits it. Look for that in Doctorow.
In the East the object of the war now was to be Lee’s army, to fight Lee’s army anywhere, on ground especially, that the Northern troops could somehow choose to try to spring Lee out of his trench works, that he would build everywhere they would stop, and to simply kill as many Confederates as possible to force the South to quit. It was to be a war on an army, not for a strategic capital. Now strategic crossroads and rivers and so on would be important, but the object now was to destroy the fighting force of the South and its fighting will. And in the Western part of the war — and there were actually five major armies now that Grant was to try to coordinate; an army under Nathaniel Banks out in the far west that Lincoln wanted to go into Texas with, and they never really got into Texas. What Grant wanted eventually — excuse me one second — what Grant wanted was the army under Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana to move east, to take Mobile, the last remaining great southern port and then come smashing right through the Deep South across Alabama into Georgia, as Sherman’s army, as we’ll see in a minute, was invading northern Georgia, toward Atlanta, and sort of just invade the whole middle heartland of the South until the South would give up. And in Virginia, Grant took battlefield command. He didn’t have to, he could’ve stayed at his desk in Washington, but it was quite decidedly not his style; he went into the field as the Commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Chapter 3. The Psyche of Robert E. Lee [00:13:26]
Now, on the other side, in Robert E. Lee, the South had without a question — we’ve said this before and there’s so much been written on this you can’t count it all — the South had a great general in Lee, a daring general. In spite of his tremendous defeat at Gettysburg, where he actually did tender his resignation that Davis didn’t accept and couldn’t accept, Lee was already a legend. His men saw him as almost God-like. He was beautiful, they said, he was gorgeous, he was handsome. No one ever looked quite like Lee in a uniform with that curly white hair. There’s a brand new biography out that I recently reviewed by a woman named Elizabeth Pryor; it’s just won the Abraham Lincoln Prize. There’s another lovely irony, a book on Lee wins the Lincoln Prize; that’s reconciliation. [Laughter] It’s called Reading the Man. Sounds like a title of a porn movie or something but — [Laughter] Sorry, scratch that Jude. [Laughter] But she did the book from Lee’s voluminous letters. He was a tremendous letter writer, throughout his life.
Lifetime officer, son of Light Horse Harry Lee of the American Revolution fame. His father had been a total scoundrel. He had a brother that was an even greater scoundrel. His brother, and probably his father, had fathered children by slave women, had abandoned their homes, their wives, their families. He came from a very, very difficult, sordid but aristocratic, famous Virginia family, and he went to West Point just like his daddy, and he became an officer in his early twenties. He spent his twenties, his thirties, and his forties spread all over the United States, largely as an engineer. He was a great engineer. He helped build the first bridge across the Mississippi. He helped redirect rivers in the lower Mississippi, and on and on. He spent probably two-thirds of his life, up until the Civil War, away from home, away from that mansion that sits today in Arlington Cemetery. Arlington House was Lee’s home. He inherited it by marrying into it. He married a Custis; he married into the family of George Washington, the extended family of George Washington. And, of course, it is Lee’s own home, Arlington, that before the war even ended the United States Government confiscated. Lee’s wife, to say the least, never got over this. They confiscated Lee’s home and converted it into the largest national cemetery in the country. If you ever go to Arlington, go to Arlington House, or at least remember that that was founded to bury the thousands and thousands of Union dead killed by Lee’s army.
At any rate, he may have hated war in the abstract but his biographers have taken us into Lee’s psyche in some useful ways. I won’t cite all these many biographies but some of them have really shown us a complicated man of great daring and audacity and aggressiveness. He always wanted to be on the offensive. He hated being entrenched. He hated being on the defensive and he clearly saw war as an emotional or psychological release. “I think a little lead properly taken is good for a man,” he said. That was in the Mexican War. He didn’t say that during the Civil War. Surveying the field of slaughter at Fredericksburg in December of ‘62 he said, famously, “It is well that war is so terrible so that we do not grow too fond of it.” He appeared to change in battle. His eyes would be like fire, people said. An English journalist observer in the Battle of the Wilderness, a horrible battle fought in dense woods, observed this of Lee. “No man who at the terrible moment saw his flashing eyes and sternly set lips is ever likely to forget them, the light of battle still flaming in his eyes.” And there are lots of people who said that about him. The debate about Lee is essentially, among historians at least, is essentially whether he bled the South to death, so to speak, with his aggressiveness, his two major invasions of the North and the cost that meant to the Confederacy, or whether he was the true military genius of American history and only through that offensive daring did the Confederacy survive as long as it did. Or, only through his devotion and his maneuverability of huge numbers of men across difficult landscapes did the Confederacy survive as long as it did through 1864 in his struggle against Grant’s Army, which outnumbered him at times two to one, in 1864 and 1865. But he hated being on the defensive now in 1864. “I will strike that man a blow in the morning, I will strike that man a blow in the morning,” he would say sometimes at night in his camp, even if he wasn’t planning to do it.
Chapter 4. Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Crater: Grant and Lee in 1864 [00:19:17]
Now, the Campaign of 1864, the pivotal — in so many ways, decisive, despite the fact that it becomes a horrible stalemate — the decisive campaign of the Civil War in everyone’s hopes in the North, a campaign once again that would only be one summer, was launched in April and May of ‘64. But it wasn’t going to end that summer. It would end in a horrible stalemate and a siege of the city of Petersburg, just south of Richmond. And the war, of course, would not end until the following spring, four Aprils into the war. But here’s roughly what happened — and by the way I refer you here to the Ken Burns film series, and there’s of course a very good reason that Burns decided in this nine-part film series to give two whole parts to the year 1864. I have my own little criticisms of that film series which I’ll be happy to share with you at some point, but I thought it was actually quite brilliant the way he just makes you agonize to get out of 1864; I mean, God how long must 1864 last? Because that’s actually the way the country felt.
In the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, the two armies basically collided just west of Fredericksburg in a densely, densely wooded area that was known at that time as the Wilderness. They essentially just bumped into one another because there were only two roads that went North, South or East or West through this area. And they fought it out in woods for two days. It was a totally disorganized battle. Often men would only fire at what they saw other weapons firing, because they could really never see their enemies, and hence sometimes killed their own men. And the most horrible thing about the Wilderness, of course, as you perhaps have heard, is that hundreds, if not thousands, of wounded ended up being burned to death in the woods because the woods caught on fire in several places and the wounded could not be retrieved. Soldiers on both sides laid down at night in makeshift trench works along roadways and listened to their comrades scream as they were burning to death in the woods and could not save them. In two days of a really thoroughly disorganized slugfest in woods, Grant’s Army lost 18,400 casualties, dead and wounded. Lee lost about 11,000, dead and wounded. And it appeared that Lee had once again — for what, the fourth time now? — stopped a Union Army invading into Virginia, and that that Union Army would probably have to retreat back out of this densely wooded wilderness, get up north of the Rappahannock, regroup again, again, again, as the Army of the Potomac always had. And yet what happened was, of course, Grant never intended to stop no matter what happened. He had the obvious advantage of manpower. He had tremendous resources behind him.
Although that manpower was risky, because that very summer the three-year enlist — they weren’t up by May but they were going to be up in June — the three-year enlistments, from ‘61 to ‘64, the great mass of the Army of the Potomac had been in — those who had survived, the veterans, the real soldiers — had been in for three years and their terms would be up. How in the hell to get these men to re-enlist when they were enduring this? And the government came up with three and four-hundred dollar bounties, they came up with thirty day furloughs here and there, percentages of regiments sent home. They’d do anything to get these guys to re-enlist. And Lincoln called for 500,000 more volunteers, a half a million. Now they will actually eventually get almost that half million men, but the problem, as the Union armies realized that summer, is that these new soldiers, brought in by being paid bounties and all sort of other things, were terrible soldiers. And Grant counted by July and August of these new recruits that about three of every four became deserters the first time they faced combat. So that manpower was not a certain thing, but Grant just kept moving.
And there’s a famous story. It’s the night of the second day, it’s the 6th of May ‘64, and most of the Union Army is camped along a roadway, a North/South roadway. They’ve just fought the two worst days of the war, if they’ve survived. They’re depleted. Woods are burning. They expect any moment to all have to retreat north. And there came Grant with just a few members of his staff cantering down the road, heading south. He didn’t stop to say anything to anybody. He didn’t even tip his hat; probably spit from his cigar. And as they saw him moving South, they began to realize they weren’t retreating. And for about a mile and a half along this roadway these scarred soldiers started to get up and scream and holler, at the top of their lungs, for Grant, for Grant; they were going South. And they did.
The rest of this terrible campaign would be an attempt by Grant now to outmaneuver Lee, to try to keep moving left, Grant’s left, to try to get around Lee’s army, to move faster than Lee, if possible, and ultimately to cut off Lee’s supply line, either to Richmond or further south from Richmond, and if possible — forget about taking Richmond — but to try to cut off Lee’s army from the rest of the South, and if possible with Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley cut him off from the West. So when Grant gets accused of being a butcher that summer, there’s some truth to that. But it really was a war of maneuver, maneuver, maneuver. They collided — actually the first attempt was to see who could get first to this crossroads called Spotsylvania Courthouse, and at Spotsylvania they fought for about six, seven consecutive days. This was the rehearsal for World War One. Everywhere the army stopped they dug the deepest possible trenches they could. And at Spotsylvania, indeed, Lee’s army got there just before Grant’s army and they built this incredible trench work that was in a U-shape, and for about six days Grant’s army just made one frontal assault on this after another, and it produced these horrifying scenes of the dead and wounded, three and four deep, in these trenches, day after day after day, most of it fought in rainstorms. At Spotsylvania, when you add it all up — they first encountered each other on the 8th of May and they didn’t really stop fighting there until about the 19th of May — Grant’s army lost almost 30,000 casualties; Lee’s army almost 20,000 casualties. And yet Grant just kept moving and kept moving, left and south, left and south.
And then Grant, the first week of June, would make his greatest mistake of the war, and he admitted it. It’s the only place in his great two-volume memoir when he used the word regret, and he really regretted Cold Harbor. At Cold Harbor, Grant had misinformation. He somehow did not understand how much of Lee’s army had actually concentrated in front of him and somehow he mis-saw the landscape. He didn’t realize that Lee’s army on each flank had a river, and those rivers were pretty high, it was May/June, and there was no way to flank him. So he just made, on the 3rd of June, the largest frontal assault attack of the war. There were 50,000 Union troops engaged in this, and Grant’s army took 7000 casualties in a half-hour. And many of the men — and they’d been fighting now day after day after day, and God only knows what fatalists soldiers become in that circumstance. They were asked before the attack at Cold Harbor to pin their names and home addresses on their shirts, at least much of the Union Army was. And they did. They had no dog tags in that war. They were told to pin their names on themselves so they could be identified when dead. And I believe Burns uses this story in the film. There was one Union soldier who etched into his diary, “Morning, June 3rd, I died today at Cold Harbor.” And he did.
This stopped Grant’s movement. It protected Richmond. It meant that the war would now go on and on through that summer. Rather than attempting any more assaults on Lee’s forces, which were now constantly digging trenches, digging trenches, digging trenches, all around the eastern side of Richmond, Grant kept moving south. And this time he got to Petersburg faster than Lee, or at least most of Lee’s army, and by mid to late June they put the city of Petersburg, just some twenty-five miles south of Richmond, under siege. And Petersburg would — and you can see many of these great photographs in Burns’ film series. Photographers went crazy in ‘64 and ‘65 photographing these giant trench works, these trench cities that were built around Petersburg. There would be a quick attempt to break the siege at Petersburg in what is known as the Battle of the Crater — quick in the sense of about a month after. Grant’s army concentrated all around the east side and the south side of Petersburg. They were always trying to cut Lee’s supply lines off, either west or south, and never managed to completely do it until the next spring.
But you may know the story of the Battle of the Crater. Some coalminers in the 48th Pennsylvania went to their Colonel, who went to his General, who went to General Burnside, who went to Grant and said, “We can dig a tunnel, 500 yards, under the Confederate line, and we’ll fill it with tons of dynamite, and we can do it with ventilation slats, we know how to do these things, and we’ll blow the Confederate line to smithereens. Let us do it.” And at first Grant and his staff said, “No, no, no, no, this is too crazy.” They sat down with him, they convinced him they could do it, and they did it. Five hundred yards of a tunnel, they ventilated it, the Confederates on the other side. And the lines in some areas here were never more than 150 to 200 yards apart. They actually did hear some digging, we’re told later, but they didn’t know what the hell it was. And then they dug a counter-trench at the end, inside, or a tunnel. They put in four tons of dynamite, fuses. You to this day can see the openings of that tunnel and you can still see the suppression in the landscape where the crater was. And on July 30,1864 they blew it up, and they blew up an area of the Confederate line about 200 yards long. Men’s bodies were simply exploded into the air. It’s the opening scene of Cold Mountain, if you’ve seen the movie. Not bad, it’s one of the best parts of that movie actually. I thought Nicole Kidman was badly cast; I don’t know about you. [Laughter] When you’re suffering and you haven’t got enough to eat and you’re laying in the snow you can’t look like Nicole Kidman, I’m sorry. [Laughter] It ain’t right. But the problem was the Battle of the Crater became a Union disaster. Instead of exploiting this as they should have, and been far, far more organized — they should’ve managed to get around this crater — actually they didn’t even understand how big this gigantic hole in the ground would be — a huge hole in the Confederate line had been exploded, hundreds of yards wide. But Union troops started marching into the hole — I’m not kidding — and within an hour or two, as Confederates regrouped, in sheer shock, they said it was just like picking out fish in a bowl, and they stood all around this giant hole in the ground. And 4,000 Union troops were killed in the Battle of the Crater, which turned out to be a Union disaster.
Chapter 5. Sherman’s March to the Sea [00:33:21]
Now, out West. Where’s Sherman? There he is. Can we see this? Now, the other major campaign of the war that of course will ultimately lead to Union victory — and I won’t get us quite to the dead-end of the war today by any means — but it is, of course, William Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign through northern Georgia, the fall of Atlanta by September of ‘64. The campaign lasted all that summer. At the same time this stalemate sets in in Virginia, around Petersburg, with these thousands of casualties. And you must try to, if you can imagine Northerners standing in post offices and telegraph offices all over the towns of the Midwest, New England, waiting for casualty reports, and the adjutants of regiments writing the lists. Standing in a small town post office and a telegraph comes through with a list of the dead; a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, men, from a town that only had 1000 people. It was beginning to destroy Northern morale.
And things weren’t that much better in Georgia, or so it seemed, throughout that summer. Sherman finally outmaneuvered General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army, toward Atlanta, won at Kennesaw Mountain in two days in June, late June of ‘64, and essentially put Atlanta under siege in July and August, and kept trying to get around, around, around — especially to the left, to the east and south — Atlanta to cut off the supply lines to this biggest city in the heartland of the South. He finally succeeded, at great cost, when Atlanta fell on the 4th of September in ‘64. And the fall of Atlanta is in some ways, both strategically and in terms of morale, one of the most important little turning points of the war, that has a huge impact on the political situation and the Election of ‘64 about to occur — more on that in a second.
It was then that Sherman, based on this strategy of conquest, destruction of resources and war upon people, made the decision, really quite quickly, to launch his march to the sea. It took him a couple of months to organize it but from November 15th to Christmas Eve — that’s about five weeks — Sherman’s army marched 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah with 62,000 troops. They were almost unopposed. General John B. Hood’s Confederate Army, that had surrendered — in effect given up — Atlanta, had retreated south to fight again. And Hood’s idea, but actually without Jefferson Davis’s approval — well if Sherman was going to invade toward the East, toward the sea and destroy Georgia, Hood took an army of about 30,000 men and invaded back up into Tennessee, hoping that Sherman would stop and come after him. Sherman said, “Let him go.” It was a kind of a game now, of time, resources, destruction, and who would give up. “We are not fighting a hostile army anymore,” Sherman said, I’m quoting him, “we are fighting a hostile people. His aim and objective now was the civilian population, and Americans had never made war on civilians quite like Sherman would in Georgia. “We cannot change the hearts of those people,” Sherman wrote of the South, “but we can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations will pass before they will ever again appeal to it.” Now up in the Shenandoah Valley, Philip Sheridan’s Union Army, under similar orders, to make war on society, gave a simple order to his officers; and most of that army was cavalry. His order was put in the starkest of total war terms. He said, quote, “Leave them only their eyes with which to weep.” This was now savage war.
To win the war with fear was Sherman’s goal, to win it with destruction and to win it with maneuvers. Freed slaves swarmed behind Sherman’s army. He hated it, he didn’t want them to be there, he didn’t know what to do with them — what the hell am I going to do with this people? First it was 5,000; 10,000; 15. He had 25 to 30,000 refugee slaves tailing right behind his army; it was about half the size of his whole army. Follow that in Doctorow. Sherman didn’t always play kindness or niceness with them. At one point his troops lifted up the pontoon bridge across a river and scores of freedmen trying to get across with him drowned in the river. Sherman’s attitude was “the way it goes.” They made it by Christmas Eve to Savannah; just before that into Liberty County, just south of Savannah. And to this day in Liberty County, Georgia, there are plenty of people around — I have a former student who lives there and runs a historic site — who will tell you, “This is where Sherman turned left.” Okay. And you think, well okay, there must’ve been a left turn sign or something, this is where Sherman turned left. I’ll also never forget the time I was doing research in the Caroliniana Collections in Columbia, South Carolina, and I don’t remember exactly what I asked for in the Archives — I spent a good week there — I don’t remember. Oh, it was records about the state capital and the buildings. I wanted to know about the ruins and destruction, and I asked for this stuff, and the archivist, who was a woman, looked up from the desk at me and she said, “Don’t have it. Sherman burnt it.” [Laughter] Okay, thank you very much, I won’t be able to look at that stuff apparently.
Now, if you follow the purple line here, of course, you realize that this is the destined, this is the route of Sherman’s — this is about 280 miles from Atlanta to the sea. It would give us some of the best songs of the war, marching through Georgia. It also gave the Civil War its anti-hero, its principal villain, of Union victory, some say the architect of total war — that’s a little too much to lay on Sherman. But it was now a war of conquest and destruction. He did not destroy Savannah but when he got to Charleston — well actually much of Charleston he didn’t have to destroy because it was being destroyed already by Union gunboats and artillery from around the harbor. But the city he did destroy was Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, which was burned to the ground, as, by the way, was Atlanta. Now, Sherman would always say these were just fires that broke out because of extensive shelling. That was not the case in Columbia. They burned about everything that was standing in Columbia, and then they kept moving north; north, north into North Carolina. And I’ll come back to that later because the final, final surrender of the Civil War, of course, came in North Carolina, not in Virginia. Now —
Chapter 6. The Beginning of Memorial Day and Conclusion [00:42:23]
Before we get to Appomattox — I’m going to save the Siege of Petersburg, the lifting of the siege and the march to Appomattox and the surrender for Thursday, because it makes a perfect segway back into wartime reconstruction plans, because the nature of that surrender at Appomattox has a great deal to do with the kind of reconstruction ideas and plans that were boiling as early as 1863 really, out of Congress and from Lincoln himself. And let me just end with this little story. I mentioned that Sherman made it to the sea at Savannah, marched part of his troops up to Charleston, took Charleston, the seedbed of Secession and all of that, although actually Charleston didn’t fully fall to Union hands until February of ‘65. It had been bombarded throughout the last eight to nine months, as I said, from Union ships and guns all around the harbor. And if you’ve ever been to Charleston, that glorious, beautiful colonial city, that Caribbean city, as it looks, with all those mansions about fifteen to twenty blocks up from the harbor, you must imagine it almost completely in ruin by early 1865. All the white people evacuated and abandoned the city, and the only people left principally were slaves, freedmen, thousands of them, and they in effect took over the city.
The first Union regiment that marched up Meeting Street in Charleston was the 21st USCT, a colored infantry, a black regiment, and they accepted the surrender of the city from its mayor. And then they began to hold ceremonies, the black folks of Charleston, they began to hold ceremonies all around the city. They held a parade in late March — or was it early April — of ‘65. They had this huge parade where they had two floats and they had, on one float, they had a little slave auction occurring, a mock slave auction with a woman with her baby being sold away, and on the next float they had a coffin labeled “Slavery,” and it said “Fort Sumter Dug its Grave, April 12th, 1861.” And then they planned one more ceremony, and — oh and by the way, the war, when it finally, finally, finally ended, they held an extraordinary ceremony on Fort Sumter. They crammed about 3000 people onto the little island. All kinds of dignitaries came. Now General Anderson — not the Colonel who had surrendered the fort four years ago — came and raised the U.S. flag, four years almost to the day that they had taken it down. William Lloyd Garrison was there from the North, the great abolitionist who wept uncontrollably when he heard a small black children’s choir sing John Brown’s Body.
And the very night of that ceremony, which was the 14th of April, they held a banquet of a sort in a building that had a roof on it, back in Charleston, and that was the very night, of course, that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter’s horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.
Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fity, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown’s Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.
African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a second American Revolution. That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century. And when I discovered it, I started calling people in Charleston that I knew in archives and libraries, including the Avery Institute, the black research center in Charleston — “Has anybody, have you ever heard of this story?” And no one had ever heard it. It showed the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war to erase a story. But I started looking for other sources, and lo and behold there were lots of sources. Harper’s Weekly even had a drawing of the cemetery in an 1867 issue. The old oval of that racetrack is still there today. If you ever go to Charleston go up to Hampton Park. Hampton Park is today what the racecourse was then. It’s named for Wade Hampton, the white supremacist, redeemer, and governor of South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction and a Confederate General during the Civil War. And that park sits immediately adjacent to the Citadel, the Military Academy of Charleston. On any given day you can see at any given time about 100 or 200 Citadel cadets jogging on the track of the old racecourse. There is no marker, there’s no memento, there’s only a little bit of a memory. Although a few years ago a friend of mine in Charleston organized a mock ceremony where we re-enacted that event, including the children’s choir, and they made me dress up in a top hat and a funny old nineteenth century suit and made me get up on a podium and make a stupid speech. But there is an effort, at least today, to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark. See you Thursday.
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