May 1988 The Civil War

Toward Appomattox

Reliving the war’s final battles
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General Ulysses S. Grant, photographed by Mathew Brady at City Point in Virginia, June 1864. Brady gained permission to travel among the Union troops only after his wife reached out to Grant’s wife, petitioning on his behalf. (Mathew Brady/National Portrait Gallery)


In 1988, Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty— now a commentator for NPR’ s On Point and a Guggenheim Fellowship and American Book Award recipient—traveled to Virginia to retrace the final movements of the Union and Confederate armies. From Grant’ s personal breakdown during the Battle of the Wilderness to the grueling night marches by Lee’ s half-starved troops toward North Carolina, from the Union soldiers’ morbid practice of pinning “Here lies the body of ...” notes on their clothing in case of death to the famous meeting in the city of Petersburg between Grant and Lincoln (during which word arrived that Richmond had fallen), Beatty reconstructed the harrowing details of what he called “the last great campaign ever fought in the United States.”

—Sage Stossel

In May of 1864, [the final campaign of the Civil War opened] when Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, twenty miles west of Fredericksburg, to seek out Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; it closed with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a hundred and fifty miles to the southwest, one month short of a year later …

Grant was small and slight and famously unprepossessing. At forty-one he was a taciturn yet passionate man, who, just a few years before the war began, had been reduced to selling wood on a St. Louis street corner. The war was his big chance; an ordinary man rising to the occasion of his life, he made the most of it, becoming on the strength of his victories at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg the general-in-chief of all the Union armies. Lee, in Grant’s own words, was “six feet high and of faultless form,” aristocratic where Grant was plebeian, successful where Grant, in everything but war, had been a failure. At fifty-seven Lee was already suffering from the heart condition that would kill him six years later (his last words would be “Strike the tent”). Grant would live twenty-one more years, dying in agony from cancer of the throat, but not before he had secured his family’s future by finishing his last campaign, the writing of his two-volume Memoirs. Grant and Lee met three times: once in 1847, during the war against Mexico, once at Appomattox, and once at the White House, when Grant was President.

Grant was new to the Virginia theater of the war in 1864, and he brought with him a new idea of how to fight there. The Union commanders before him—McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade—had tried to capture Richmond; he would try to destroy Lee’s army. Lee, outnumbered (61,953 men to Grant’s 122,146), sought not to destroy Grant’s army but to punish it so badly that the northern public, three years into our most horrific war, would vote President Abraham Lincoln out of office in November in favor of a Peace Democrat, who would call a halt to Grant’s offensive (and Sherman’s matching drive in Georgia) if Lee had not already stopped it himself.

The first battle of the campaign came just a few miles southeast of the Germanna Ford of the Rapidan, in a thickly wooded district called the Wilderness. Ending the winter’s long “mud truce” between the armies, Grant crossed the Rapidan on May 4; Lee attacked on the fifth. The ensuing battle lasted two days. It was fought in dense woods, for the most part, and was, in the words of one veteran, “simply bushwhacking on a grand scale.” The gunfire ignited the trees, and wounded men caught between the lines were burned to death, their shrieks carrying back to unnerve their comrades. Grant went to pieces at one point—retired to his tent to have a good cry—and Lee’s ablest general, James Longstreet, was seriously wounded by his own men. Lee himself barely escaped a bullet when he tried to lead a charge. “Lee to the rear! Go back, General Lee, go back!” a company of Texans pleaded with him. He agreed to retire if they would make a seemingly impossible attack. They did, and it worked. His men loved Robert E. Lee, and he regularly put their love to the test by asking them to die for him …

The battle ended in a stalemate, with neither side able to break the other’s entrenched line. Yet for all its futility, the Wilderness decided something. The veteran soldiers of the Army of the Potomac expected that Grant would do what all their generals had done after tangling with Lee—scoot back over the nearest river. But retreat was not in Grant’s nature. South, deeper into Rebel territory, was where he aimed to go. When the first columns of troops reached a crossroads in the middle of the Wilderness and their officers ordered them to march south, the men cheered. Grant had given them back their self-respect. It was a turning point in the Civil War.

Lee, moving on longer lines, turned south too; and when Grant neared the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House, twelve miles beyond the Wilderness, Lee was there, blocking his path. From May 8 to 20 Grant assaulted Lee’s trenches in attack after attack. The result was inhuman slaughter. Battered, bled, Grant finally gave it up, moving off to his left, always heading south …

Grant and Lee, at the close of Spotsylvania, were about halfway through “the forty days”—the period when their armies were engaged some part of every day, Grant losing an average of 2,000 men a day and Lee, who could spare them less, losing fewer. Grant sidling to the left, Lee following …

The next full-scale battle came at Cold Harbor, a crossroads northeast of Richmond, which was named after a colonial inn that had provided its guests with a cold hospitality—room but no board. In front of Cold Harbor, on June 3, 1864, Grant attacked Lee’s entrenchments straight on, across a seven-mile front. It was one of the greatest infantry charges of the war. It lasted less than a half hour and took more than 7,000 lives. The night before the attack an aide to Grant noticed Federal soldiers pinning notes on the backs of their coats—notes that said, “here lies the body of …” They knew what to expect …

Facing another stalemate, Grant shifted his troops out of the trenches at Cold Harbor and, for all that the baffled Confederates knew, into thin air. Lee was in the dark for several vital days as the Army of the Potomac moved not against Richmond but against Petersburg, below Richmond. If Petersburg fell, the supply line to Richmond would be cut. Starved of supplies, Lee would have no choice but to quit his entrenchments and fight it out with Grant in the open.

In the event, Grant managed to get his whole army across the James River (by a 2,100-foot pontoon bridge) and to the gates of Petersburg before Lee knew where he was. But dithering by the Union generals charged with making the initial assault on the lightly held Petersburg trenches cost irreplaceable time. Taking advantage of it, Lee was just able to get enough men into Petersburg to cheat Grant of his victory and prolong the war by ten months.

The siege of Petersburg and Richmond that now commenced was a vast undertaking, with the opposing trenches covering nearly thirty-five miles. Grant’s strategy was to exploit his advantage in numbers by slowly extending his lines to the southwest of Petersburg. Lee would be forced to follow suit, and eventually his lines would thin out to the breaking point. To fill those stretched lines, Lee would in time contemplate the desperate step of drafting Negroes to fight in the cause of slavery …

Many houses [in Petersburg from that time] are still standing, among them the house where Grant and Lincoln met on April 3, 1865, just after Lee had pulled out of Petersburg. The owner invited the men into the parlor, but Grant said, “Thank you sir, but I am smoking,” and he and Lincoln stayed on the porch. While they were sitting there, a courier rode up and Grant was handed a telegram announcing that Richmond had fallen.

The house where this historic event took place is today deserted, run down; it borders a tobacco factory, also deserted. Yet it was here that Abraham Lincoln knew what might have been the greatest happiness of his life. Think of it; picture it. Grant opens the envelope and says, “Mr. President, Richmond is ours …” and Lincoln, delivered from his years-long nightmare—how would he react to such news? He had only days to live; this was his blessed moment …

When Grant’s sidling to the southwest of Petersburg finally menaced the railroad connecting the city to the remaining Rebel supply depots in western Virginia and North Carolina, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. On forced night marches that left the roads littered with his exhausted men—scarecrows by now—he drove his dwindling army southwestward, hoping to link up with Joe Johnston in North Carolina, and then to turn on Sherman, coming up from the south, before dealing with Grant, coming down from the north. As everybody knows, he didn’t make it. Surrounded at the village of Appomattox Court House, he surrendered the remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865 …

Five days after the surrender, on Good Friday, several hundred miles to the south of Appomattox, a ceremony was held at Fort Sumter to mark the fourth anniversary of its surrender by Union forces under Major Robert Anderson. Lincoln was invited, but he chose to stay in Washington instead—he and Mrs. Lincoln planned to go to the theater. Several thousand people, including many notables, did come to Charleston Harbor for the ceremony, and at the strike of noon they gasped as a sergeant handed Anderson, looking much older than his sixty years, the shot-ripped flag that had flown over Sumter throughout the bombardment that had set off the great war. A young woman from Philadelphia left this picture of the scene as Anderson prepared to run the old flag up over Sumter:

General Anderson stood up, bare-headed, took the halyards in his hands, and began to speak. At first I could not hear him, for his voice came thickly, but in a moment he said clearly, “I thank God I have lived to see this day,” and after a few more words he began to hoist the flag. It went up slowly and hung limp against the staff, a weather-beaten, frayed, and shell-torn old flag, not fit for much more work, but when it had crept clear of the shelter of the walls a sudden breath of wind caught it, and it shook its folds and flew straight out above us, while every soldier and sailor instinctively saluted.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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