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Civil War Series

A Concise History of The Civil War


by William Marvel

In the years following the war, former prisoners from both sides wrote voluminously about their experiences in captivity. Almost without exception they exaggerated their suffering, though there was really no need for such amplification, and most of them tried to implicate their captors in schemes of deliberate attrition. North and South, though, the majority of prison-keepers attempted to meet their obligations.

Early in the conflict, when many hoped for a short war, prisoners could look forward to long incarcerations. Men captured at First Bull Run were sent to warehouses and forts from Richmond to Charleston, and some were transferred to the Deep South, where they spent as long as a year awaiting release. As the war dragged on, however, authorities sought a means of repatriating prisoners on a regular basis. Opposing officers negotiated various proposals, but not until July 22, 1862, did the two sides agree on a formula for prisoner exchange.

The Dix-Hill cartel, named for the Union and Confederate generals who devised it, required that, within ten days after they were captured, all prisoners would be paroled—that is, they would take an oath not to fight again until they had been exchanged for an enemy soldier of equal rank. The captors would then transport the prisoner to an agreed-upon point of exchange and release him to his own officers. Sometimes the exchange was made right at the steamboat landing where the prisoner was delivered; if one side turned over more men than the other, the unexchanged prisoners went free anyway, though they were still bound not to fight until their government had exchanged an equivalent enemy soldier.

This arrangement continued in force for about a year without serious interruption. Whole regiments, divisions, and even armies were released under its provisions, including the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry and the Confederate army captured at Vicksburg. Confederate and Union exchange agents began to dispute their tallies in the summer of 1863, particularly when Confederates announced the questionable exchange of troops captured at Vicksburg, but late that year an even greater impediment arose in the form of black Union soldiers. Confederates had threatened to try U.S. Colored Troops and their officers for inciting a slave revolt, which meant the noose, and they steadfastly refused to exchange black prisoners suspected of having fled from bondage. That proved unacceptable to the North, and by the end of 1863 prisoner exchanges had all but ceased.

Prison populations grew quickly from there, particularly after the campaigns of 1864 began. In January of that year Confederates began building an open stockade pen in Sumter County, Georgia, that came to be known as Andersonville and four months later Northern carpenters began raising a board fence around some empty barracks at Elmira, New York. Existing prisons from Chesapeake Bay to Texas began to swell with inmates, and as the months passed the health of those prisoners grew progressively worse.

Andersonville was the worst, by far. By August of 1864, 33,000 undernourished Yankee prisoners lay within its twenty-seven acres, and before the war ended over 41,000 had been confined there at one time or another: just under 13,000 of them lie buried in the prison cemetery, and hundreds more died before they reached home. Nearly a quarter of the 12,000 Confederates held at Elmira also perished.

In the cold, damp climate of the North, respiratory ailments carried away the greatest number of prisoners. In the South, dietary deficiencies and dysentery accounted for the worst mortality. Perishable produce could not be obtained in sufficient quantities to accommodate imprisoned Federals, especially the masses at Andersonville, and scurvy probably caused or contributed to more deaths than any other single factor. The postwar complaints of former Union prisoners notwithstanding, their prison rations did not fall so short in quantity as they did in quality and variety. Scurvy also affected Confederate soldiers, both those in the field and those in Union prisons.

Confederate authorities faced depleted provisions and an abysmal transportation system in their quest feed not only their own troops but their unwilling guests.

Confederate authorities faced depleted provisions and an abysmal transportation system in their quest to feed not only their own troops but their unwilling guests. Ironically, it was the better-supplied government of the United States that deliberately withheld food from its prisoners: after listening to bitter tales brought back by Union soldiers who had escaped from places like Andersonville, Lincoln's secretary of war ordered rations in Northern prisons reduced in retaliation.

With the end of the war in sight, the Federal government agreed to resume general exchanges in the first weeks of 1865. By spring the trains and steamships had begun returning thousands of frail, filthy survivors to receiving stations where attendants shook their heads in pity. The last of nearly half a million wartime prisoners had come home by the end of June, but decades of recriminations had only begun.


While the conflict chiefly offered the men in blue and gray an opportunity to lose their lives in a host of ways, or else to spend the rest of life as invalids, the war did actually broaden the horizons of opportunity for others. Most notable, of course, were the several million blacks in America, free and slave. A successful maintenance of the Union meant for all slaves, after the war's end, freedom at last. But for the blacks of the North, it meant something more immediate even while the war raged. Almost from the outset abolitionists and others raised a cry that black men should be allowed to become soldiers in order that they, too, could fight for the Union. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the cry became even more to the point when now these men would also be fighting for the freedom of their brothers in bonds.

And blacks wanted to fight. It would be the first time they would be recognized as almost the equals of whites, for even if they remained at the bottom of the class ladder in civilian life, a soldier on the battlefield carried the same weapon, wore the same uniform, fought under the same flag, and shared the same risks, white or black. Although efforts to enlist them began as early as 1861, Lincoln prudently waited until after the Proclamation for fear that putting blacks in uniform would stampede the slave states like Kentucky and Missouri that still remained in the Union. In September 1862, however, the first tentative recruiting began, and blacks showed themselves eager to enlist. By the end of the war more than 175,000 wore the Union blue, and that did not include thousands more who served as civilian teamsters, cooks, and laborers. They formed at least 166 regiments of what were designated United States Colored Troops, as well as in some of the state services, and when they got the opportunity to go into battle, they acquitted themselves as soldiers. In spite of an early reluctance to use them in battle, their commanders found them reliable and valorous, especially when they went into action knowing that Confederates had vowed no quarter for captured ex-slaves. In fact, in a few engagements, chiefly at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and Saltville, Virginia, both in 1864, Confederates did shoot down wounded and surrendered blacks after the fighting had ceased, but especially at the latter the Richmond government did not countenance such actions and instituted its own investigation to punish perpetrators. Before the war's end, blacks won the coveted Medal of Honor and saw the first of their number rise to officer rank. Even the Confederacy considered enlisting blacks early in the war, but of course could not without undermining its own foundation on the inequality of the races. But by 1865 Davis and the Congress, desperate for manpower, authorized the raising of black troops from among slaves volunteered by their masters, with the conditional promise of emancipation for their services after the war. In the end, of course, all Confederate blacks got their freedom.

Women, too, came into a bit more of their own during the conflict. In fact, some wanted as much as their husbands and brothers to share in the excitement. Perhaps as many as 400 of them posed as men to enlist and fight in the armies. Some did so to be close to their husbands. Others simply sought adventure, and a few kept up the masquerade even after the war ended. Jenny Hodgers served throughout the war as Private Albert Cashier with no one ever suspecting her secret until decades later.


Such women were the exception, of course. Tens of thousands contributed in other ways. Most worked as volunteer nurses in the hospitals, and in the Confederacy some were actually given military rank. Others organized and ran soldiers' relief organizations. Clara Barton established the forerunner of the Red Cross in her efforts to aid the sick and wounded, while in Richmond Phoebe Pember acted as chief matron of the massive Chimborazo Hospital, the largest of the war. And with so many of the men gone to war, and especially in the Confederacy, the women left behind ran the farms and managed the small businesses and took over the schoolrooms abandoned by their husbands. Women ran newspapers and factories, acted as spies and scouts, and performed every other task that the men would allow—or that they could take on themselves. Never before in American society had women so boldly stepped out from behind their aprons to participate in the life of the nation.


The war also saw the involvement of a number of others on the fringes of traditional white American society. Indians fought on both sides in the war, chiefly in the Trans-Mississippi. For some it was merely a continuation of old intertribal rivalries, but others sensed that in helping the white man they might help their own lot. Most were doomed to disappointment, of course, yet one of them, the Cherokee Stand Watie, rose to become a brigadier general in the Confederate army, while Ely S. Parker, a Seneca, became Grant's military secretary and gained a brevet—or honorary—promotion to brigadier. Mexican-Americans also served in a few units from Texas for the Confederates, and Colorado for the Yankees, again chiefly in the Trans-Mississippi. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants went into the Northern armies, constituting whole regiments like the famous "Fighting 69th" New York. Germans from the several Prussian states also gave their unwavering support to the Union, especially when urged on by men like Sigel. In all, half a million foreign-born men enlisted to constitute more than a fourth of the Union army, leading Confederates derisively to call them mercenaries. In fact, having fled the Old World with its chaos and autocracy, they embraced wholeheartedly the ideals of the Union and fought for it unreservedly.

Indeed, both sides fought without reservation, which is why the war proved so costly. By the spring of 1865, after almost four years of it, Americans North and South were exhausted, continuing the fight out of grim determination. Inevitably it had to end, and perhaps it was inevitable that it end as it did. Grant, who had been a Confederate nemesis since Fort Donelson, precipitated the final collapse. He continued his gradual encirclement of the Richmond and Petersburg defenses until April 1, when at last he stood within striking distance of the last railroad leading out of the Confederate capital. Lee and Davis had no choice but to move their army and evacuate the city the next day, or else be completely surrounded and cut off. On April 2 the government burned what records and supplies it could not take with it and began the sad march west.


Lee's retreat was a daily tale of sorrow. Dogged at every step by Grant, and especially by his relentless cavalry under Sheridan, the Confederates staggered onward. On April 6, as they lay stretched out for miles along the road, the column became badly divided and the Yankees swooped in upon them. More than 8,000 Rebels fell captive, leaving Lee with fewer than 30,000 soldiers. The next day Lee fought them at Farmville and delayed Grant's pursuit for several hours. He crossed the Appomattox River and pressed onward, hoping somehow to reach North Carolina to join with the other Confederate army there. Unfortunately, while he fought at Farmville, Lee gave Sheridan time to move on south and west, poised to cut off his line of march. This same day Grant sent Lee a message suggesting that now was the time to surrender. Lee responded saying not yet, not yet, but he did ask what Grant's terms would be.


The next day it happened. Sheridan's cavalry got ahead of Lee and captured vital supplies that were awaiting him at Appomattox Station. Infantry soon joined him, and by that evening, when Lee was near Appomattox Court House, he learned that he had nowhere to go unless he could attack Sheridan and push him aside. His senior commanders suggested that it was time to surrender. Grant sent another note offering the most generous of terms. Still Lee said not yet. The great fighter could not yield until he felt convinced that he could fight no more.

The next morning he launched an attack that startled but could not budge the Yankees. Now at last Lee knew that he had fought his last. Further fighting would be murder. He sent a message to Grant asking for a meeting. Soon thereafter they both rode into Appomattox Court House, a small village between the armies, to the home of Wilmer McLean. Ironically, McLean's earlier home on Bull Run had been Beauregard's headquarters during the first battle of the war, and now one of its last acts was to take place in his parlor. The two commanding generals were uncomfortable at first, Lee feeling humiliation in defeat and Grant overwhelmed with sympathy for a gallant foe. They made brief small talk of earlier days, and then Grant made good on his promised generosity. Lee's army must surrender only its arms and give its parole to go home and fight no more. He even allowed any Confederate claiming to own one of its army's horses to take it with him, to use in his spring planting when he got home. And Grant opened his commissaries to the hungry Confederates. Lee accepted, and it was over. Within hours old friends in blue and gray began to mingle in each other's camps to renew acquaintances and bind their emotional wounds. Three days later the formal surrender ceremony took place, and the Army of Northern Virginia passed into history.


But the war was not over. President Davis and his cabinet had moved to Danville, Virginia, but on learning of Lee's surrender, they had to continue their flight south into North Carolina. The only other remaining army in the East was there, a remnant of the once mighty Army of Tennessee combined with other commands, and since February once more commanded by Davis's old foe Joseph E. Johnston. Only Lee's specific request persuaded the president to give the post to Johnston once more. Meanwhile, on February 1 Sherman had begun his drive north from Savannah. He moved behind Charleston, cutting it off and virtually forcing its surrender without a fight, and moved on toward the South Carolina capital at Columbia. Some 60,000 men marched with Sherman, and facing them were only scratch forces totaling less than 25,000, though more small commands joined the Confederates throughout the following campaign.

As soon as he took command, Johnston concentrated all of these scattered commands in the vicinity of Fayetteville, North Carolina, knowing that his only hope of stopping Sherman was to use every man at his disposal. But Johnston had to withdraw before he could accomplish his objective and continued to retreat through North Carolina until he turned and struck at Sherman at Averasborough on March 16. Still he had to retreat once more, but three days later he turned at Bentonville and, in an unusual act for Johnston, launched a concerted attack that achieved some success until the weight of the Yankee numbers forced him to withdraw. Johnston would not fight again. He took position not far from the capital at Raleigh, where he hoped Lee would be able to join him. But when he learned of Lee's surrender, he believed that his own must follow. By April 12 Davis and his cabinet were in Greensborough, and there Johnston told them he thought it was useless to continue. Davis disagreed but allowed Johnston to meet with Sherman to discuss a temporary armistice. Instead, five days later Johnston and Sherman reached an agreement calling for the disbanding of all remaining Confederate forces in the field, something Johnston had not the power to order. A week later Washington rejected the terms because Sherman did not have the authority to make such an agreement either. Johnston then immediately surrendered his own army without seeking Davis's permission. The war in the East was over.



It remained now to stop resistance in the West. On May 4 the last remaining Rebel army east of the Mississippi surrendered to General E. R. S. Canby at Citronelle, Alabama. Three weeks later Kirby Smith's representatives met with Canby's officers in New Orleans and agreed on the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi army. Now all of the armies had laid down their arms, with only a few scattered Confederate commands still either holding out or else simply going home without formal surrender. A month later, on June 23, in faraway Doaksville in the Indian Territory, Stand Watie made the last formal surrender of a Confederate military command. It was all over, all, that is, except for one ship. The CSS Shenandoah, a commerce raider plying the Pacific, did not get word of the surrenders until August 2 and meanwhile kept taking Yankee prizes. She finally steamed halfway around the world, at last turning herself over to British authorities in Liverpool, England, on November 6, seven months after Lee's surrender. The last guns, at last, had been fired.

Even as the surrenders were taking place, one shot rang out that would be heard throughout the ages. On April 14, flush with victory, President Lincoln fell to an assassin's bullet at Ford's Theater in Washington. The shock of the act stunned even the South. The Union went into deep and lasting mourning. Confederates, who had nothing to do with the lone act of the assassin, realized that Lincoln had been their best hope for reconciliation without reprisal. Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln in the White House and bravely tried to carry out Lincoln's moderate policy, but he would come increasingly into conflict with the radical element in the Republican Party who wanted to impose a more punitive reconstruction on the South. The seeds for the acrimony and excesses on both sides that would follow during the era of Reconstruction had been sown.

Many blamed Davis, who had no knowledge of the assassination plot and would not have countenanced it. After Johnston's surrender, he and his cabinet continued their flight, but one by one his advisers left him, and by early May he was almost on his own with a small escort. He still hoped to reach the Trans-Mississippi, there to continue the fight, but on May 10, near Irwinville, Georgia, Yankee cavalry finally caught up with him. He would be sent to Fort Monroe and kept there as a prisoner for two years before the government finally decided not to prosecute him for treason.




Indeed, despite all the anger and hatred generated by the war, the Union authorities showed incredible magnanimity. No one was tried for treason. Davis and a few others were imprisoned for a time, but by 1867 all were released, and many eventually recovered their citizenship and even held public office once more. Only one Confederate lost his life to justice after the war, and that was Henry Wirz, commandant of the prison camp at Andersonville. Even he probably did not deserve his fate, but the emotionalism over Andersonville was so great that someone had to pay, and the unlucky Wirz was the most visible object. Nevertheless, after four years of war, after the loss of more than 600,000 lives, with hundreds of thousands of others carrying the mental and physical scars of their war, the empty sleeves and the broken lives, the speed with which North embraced the South once more, and with which the veterans tried to put their war behind them, stands perhaps unique in the annals of history.



And as they went back to their fields, their schoolrooms, and their clerks' desks, the men of North and South pondered what it had all been about and what they had accomplished. Two questions they settled irrevocably for all time. Slavery was at an end in America. The blacks may have gotten nothing else from the war, but they got their freedom. That counted for a lot, but it was all they got, and even as the day of trial for whites came to an end, the century of black struggle was just beginning. And the war also settled once and for all that the Union was greater than its component parts, that it was eternal and indivisible. Never again would state or section countenance or even talk of secession.

Win or lose, living and dead, soldier and civilian, they had participated in something that set America apart, that renewed a nation and set it on the path to world power.

Yet other questions remained. It all came at such a terrible price. Would not slavery have come to a natural end in a few more decades anyway, as the scorn of the rest of the Western world made it an increasing embarrassment to the South? Would not the inevitable coming of industrialization and mechanization have rendered slave labor too expensive and therefore encouraged voluntary emancipation? And if Southerners manumitted their slaves on their own at some future day, what other issue could ever arise that could foment the kind of rancor and division that led them to try to break away in 1861? No one could know the answers. All they knew, North and South, were the answers the war gave them, and each man had to decide for himself if the result justified the sacrifice. Yet on one thing they could all unite. Win or lose, living and dead, soldier and civilian, they had participated in something that set America apart, that renewed a nation and set it on the path to world power. In the process, they had spent their blood and their youth and experienced the greatest adventure of their generation and left their mark upon the defining moment of their century.

Back cover: "Fourth Minnesota Regiment Entering Vicksburg," painting by Frances Millet, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.
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