Table of Contents
The outlook from Washington during the first half of the year 1863 was as discouraging as could well be borne. There had been no real advance since the beginning of the war. Young men, loyal and enthusiastic, had gone into the army by hundreds of thousands. Large numbers of these, the flower of the northern youth, had been slain or wounded, and far larger numbers had died of exposure in the swamps of Virginia. There was still no progress. Washington had been defended, but there was hardly a day when the Confederates were not within menacing distance of the capital.
After the bloody disaster at Chancellorsville matters grew even worse. Lee first defeated Hooker in battle and then he out-maneuvered him. He cleverly eluded him, and before Hooker was aware of what was going on, he was on his way, with eighty thousand men, towards Philadelphia and had nearly a week’s start of the Union army. The Confederates had always thought that if they could carry the war into the northern states they would fight to better advantage. Jeff Davis had threatened the torch, but it is not likely that such subordinates as General Lee shared his destructive and barbarous ambition. Still, Lee had a magnificent army, and its presence in Pennsylvania was fitted to inspire terror. It was also fitted to rouse the martial spirit of the northern soldiers, as afterwards appeared.
As soon as the situation was known, Hooker started in hot pursuit. After he had crossed the Potomac going north, he made certain requests of the War Department which were refused, and he, angry at the refusal, promptly sent in his resignation. Whether his requests were reasonable is one question; whether it was patriotic in him to resign on the eve of what was certain to be a great and decisive battle is another question. But his resignation was accepted and Meade was appointed to the command. He accepted the responsibility with a modest and soldierly spirit and quit himself like a man. It is one of the rare cases in all history in which an army has on the eve of battle made a change of generals without disaster. That is surely highly to the credit of General Meade. Lee’s objective point was not known. He might capture Harrisburg or Philadelphia, or both. He would probably desire to cut off all communication with Washington. The only thing to do was to overtake him and force a battle. He himself realized this and was fully decided not to give battle but fight only on the defensive. Curiously enough, Meade also decided not to attack, but to fight on the defensive. Nevertheless, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”
The result was Gettysburg, and the battle was not fought in accordance with the plan of either commander. Uncontrollable events forced the battle then and there. This battle-field was some distance to the north, that is to say, in advance of Pipe Creek, the location selected by Meade. But a conflict between a considerable force on each side opened the famous battle on July 1st. A retreat, or withdrawal, to Pipe Creek would have been disastrous. The first clash was between Heth’s division on the Confederate side, and Buford and Reynolds on the Union side. Rarely have soldiers been more eager for the fray than were those of the Union army at this time, especially the sons of Pennsylvania. "Up and at ’em” was the universal feeling. It was hardly possible to hold them back. The generals felt that it was not wise to hold them back. Thus, as one division after another, on both sides, came up to the help of their comrades, Gettysburg was accepted as the battle- field. It was selected by neither commander, it was thrust upon them by the fortunes of war, it was selected by the God of battles.
Almost the first victim on the Union side was that talented and brave soldier, the general in command, Reynolds. His place was later in the day,–that is, about four o’clock in the afternoon,–filled, and well filled, by General Hancock.
The scope of this volume does not permit the description of this great battle, and only some of the results may be given. The evening of July 1st closed in with the Union army holding out, but with the advantages, such as they were, on the Confederate side. The second day the fight was fiercely renewed and closed with no special advantage on either side. On the third day it was still undecided until in the afternoon when the climax came in Pickett’s famous charge. This was the very flower of the Confederate army, and the hazard of the charge was taken by General Lee against the earnest advice of Longstreet. They were repulsed and routed, and that decided the battle. Lee’s army was turned back, the attempted invasion was a failure, and it became manifest that even Lee could not fight to advantage on northern soil.
Gettysburg was the greatest battle ever fought on the western hemisphere, and it will easily rank as one of the great battles of either hemisphere. The number of troops was about 80,000 on each side. In the beginning the Confederates decidedly outnumbered the Federals, because the latter were more scattered and it took time to bring them up. In the latter part, the numbers were more nearly evenly divided, though nearly one-fourth of Meade’s men were not in the battle at any time.
The total loss of killed, wounded, and missing, was on the Confederate side over 31,000; on the Union side, about 23,000. The Confederates lost seventeen generals, and the Federals twenty. When we consider this loss of generals, bearing in mind that on the Union side they were mostly those on whom Meade would naturally lean, it is hardly to be wondered at that he so far lost his nerve as to be unwilling to pursue the retreating enemy or hazard another battle. He could not realize that the enemy had suffered much more than he had, and that, despite his losses, he was in a condition to destroy that army. Not all that Lincoln could say availed to persuade him to renew the attack upon the retreating foe. When Lee reached the Potomac he found the river so swollen as to be impassable. He could only wait for the waters to subside or for time to improvise a pontoon bridge.
When, after waiting for ten days, Meade was aroused to make the attack, he was just one day too late. Lee had got his army safely into Virginia, and the war was not over. Lincoln could only say, “Providence has twice [the other reference is to Antietam] delivered the Army of Northern Virginia into our hands, and with such opportunities lost we ought scarcely to hope for a third chance.”
Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade. He also wrote him a second letter–or was it the first?–which he did not send. We quote from this because it really expressed the President’s mind, and because the fact that he did not send it only shows how reluctant he was to wound another’s feelings even when deserved.
“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect, that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it. I beg you will not consider this a prosecution or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I thought it best to kindly tell you why.”
While not overlooking Meade’s omission, as this letter shows, he appreciated the full value of the victory that checked Lee’s advance, and thanked the general heartily for that.
On the same afternoon of July 3d, almost at the very minute that Pickett was making his charge, there was in progress, a thousand miles to the west, an event of almost equal importance. Just outside the fortifications of Vicksburg, under an oak tree, General Grant had met the Confederate General, Pemberton, to negotiate terms of surrender. The siege of Vicksburg was a great triumph, and its capitulation was of scarcely less importance than the victory at Gettysburg. Vicksburg commanded the Mississippi River and was supposed to be impregnable. Surely few cities were situated more favorably to resist either attack or siege. But Admiral Porter got his gunboats below the city, running the batteries in the night, and Grant’s investment was complete. The Confederate cause was hopeless, their men nearly starved.
Grant’s plan was to make a final attack (if necessary) on the 6th or 7th day of July; but some time previous to this he had predicted that the garrison would surrender on the fourth. General Pemberton tried his utmost to avoid this very thing. When it became apparent that he could not hold out much longer, he opened negotiations on the morning of July 3d for the specific purpose of forestalling the possibility of surrender on the next day, Independence Day. In his report to the Confederate government he claims to have chosen the 4th of July for surrender, because he thought that he could secure better terms on that day. But his pompous word has little weight, and all the evidence points the other way. When on the morning of the 3d of July he opened negotiations, he could not possibly have foreseen that it would take twenty-four hours to arrange the terms.
It was, then, on the 4th of July that Grant occupied Vicksburg. The account by Nicolay and Hay ends with the following beautiful reflection: “It is not the least of the glories gained by the Army of the Tennessee in this wonderful campaign that not a single cheer went up from the Union ranks, not a single word [was spoken] that could offend their beaten foes.”
The loss to the Union army in killed, wounded, and missing, was about 9,000. The Confederate loss was nearly 50,000. To be sure many of the paroled were compelled to reenlist according to the policy of the Confederate government. But even so their parole was a good thing for the cause of the Union. They were so thoroughly disaffected that their release did, for the time, more harm than good to the southern cause. Then it left Grant’s army free.
The sequel to this victory came ten months later in Sherman’s march to the sea: not less thrilling in its conception and dramatic in its execution than any battle or siege. Much fighting, skilful generalship, long patience were required before this crowning act could be done, but it came in due time and was one of the finishing blows to the Confederacy, and it came as a logical result of the colossal victory at Vicksburg.
There were some eddies and counter currents to the main drift of affairs. About the time that Lee and his beaten army were making good their escape, terrific riots broke out in New York City in resisting the draft. As is usual in mob rule the very worst elements of human or devilish depravity came to the top and were most in evidence. For several days there was indeed a reign of terror. The fury of the mob was directed particularly against the negroes. They were murdered. Their orphan asylum was burnt. But the government quickly suppressed the riot with a firm hand. The feeling was general throughout the country that we were now on the way to a successful issue of the war. The end was almost in sight. Gettysburg and Vicksburg, July 3 and 4, 1863, had inspired new hopes never to be quenched.
On the 15th day of July the President issued a thanksgiving proclamation, designating August 6th as the day. Later in the year he issued another thanksgiving proclamation, designating the last Thursday in November. Previous to that time, certain states, and not a few individuals, were in the habit of observing a thanksgiving day in November. Indeed the custom, in a desultory way, dates back to Plymouth Colony. But these irregular and uncertain observances never took on the semblance of a national holiday. That dates from the proclamation issued October 3d, 1863. From that day to this, every President has every year followed that example.
Lincoln was invited to attend a public meeting appointed for August 26th at his own city of Springfield, the object of which was to concert measures for the maintenance of the Union. The pressure of public duties did not permit him to leave Washington, but he wrote a characteristic letter, a part of which refers to some of the events touched on in this chapter. A few sentences of this letter are here given:
“The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea. Thanks to the great Northwest for it; nor yet wholly to them. Three hundred miles tip they met New England, Empire, Keystone, and Jersey, hewing their way right and left. The sunny South, too, in more colors than one, also lent a helping hand. On the spot, their part of the history was jotted down in black and white. The job was a great national one, and let none be slighted who bore an honorable part in it. And while those who have cleared the great river may well be proud, even that is not all. It is hard to say that anything has been more bravely and well done than at Antietam, Murfreesboro, Gettysburg, and on many fields of less note. Nor must Uncle Sam’s web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present, not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow, muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks. Thanks to all. For the great republic–for the principle it lives by and keeps alive–for man’s vast future–thanks to all.
“Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that among freemen there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost. And there will be some black men who can remember that with silent tongue and clenched teeth and steady eye and well-poised bayonet they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while I fear there will be some white ones unable to forget that with malignant heart and deceitful speech they have striven to hinder it.”
It is plain that after July 4, 1863, the final result was no longer doubtful. So Lincoln felt it. There were indeed some who continued to cry that the war was a failure, but in such cases the wish was only father to the thought.