Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fall of Columbia

Sherman and his staff
Upon the completion of Sherman's march to the sea, Ulysses Grant planned to embark that Union army on ships and take them from Georgia up to Virginia, to deal with the army of Robert E. Lee, the last major Confederate force. But Sherman had a different idea. He got Grant's approval of a plan to march to Virginia overland through North and South Carolina and destroying along the way anything of use to the Confederacy, like he had done to Georgia. In January Sherman set out with over 60,000 men. There were few Confederates to resist him – the remnants of the Army of the Tennessee were down below 10,000 men.

The first major target on Sherman's path was Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina. This was a particularly important goal for the Federals, as South Carolina had been the first state to secede from the Union. In their path were around 1,200 Confederates under Lafayette McLaws. His men were guarding the crossing of the Salkehatchie River, but Sherman's men just built a bridge and outflanked the rebel force.

Columbia burning
On February 17, Columbia surrendered to Sherman's advancing men, and the Confederate cavalry abandoned the city. That night chaos broke out among the freed slaves and Union soldiers and freed prisoners, fueled with plentiful supplies of alcohol. A hard wind was blowing, and when fires broke out much of the city was destroyed. It is unlikely that these were lit under orders of the Federal high command, but Sherman certainly was not sorry it happened. The next day the Union troops destroyed anything left in the city of military value.

Ruins of Columbia

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Hampton Roads Peace Conference

Francis Blair
As the bloody Civil War raged on into 1865, nearly everyone on both sides longed for peace. There were some who believed that peace could be reached through negotiation, without one side winning a complete victory. One of these was Fancis Preston Blair, a northern politician and journalist who had close personal relations with many in the Confederate government. With Lincoln's permission, he traveled to Richmond in January, 1865 to propose a peace conference. Jefferson Davis was interested, if only to harden the Confederacy's resolve by showing that a negotiated peace was not possible. However, a major issue soon surface. Davis wrote to Lincoln that he was ready to receive a c omission “with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Lincoln told Blair that he would receive any agent that Jefferson Davis “may informally send to me with a view to securing peace to the people of our one common country.” For Davis, the Confederacy's independence was non-negotiable, but Lincoln would only consider a proposal that resulted in a unified country.

Alexander Stephens
Blair, with help from Grant, was able to smooth over this difference, and a Peace Conference met. It was held on February 3rd, 150 years today, on the Union steamer River Queen off Fort Monroe, Virginia. Representing the Union was Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. From the Confederacy was vice-president Andrew Stephens, who had broken with Davis and pushed for a speedy peace, Senator Robert Hunter of Virginia and John Campbell, former US Supreme Court Justice and Confederate Assistant Secretary of War.

John Campbell
Stephens opened the meeting by discussing the French invasion of Mexico. One of Blair's suggestions was the country could be reunified if the Civil War was halted with an armistice, and north and south united in sending an expedition to repel Napoleon III's invasion of Mexico. Lincoln, however, quickly cut him off, and turned to the question of sovereignty. Would there be one country or two? It was instantly apparent that the conference was useless. As John Campbell wrote, “We learned in five minutes that [Blair's] assurances to Mr. Davis were a delusion, and that union was the condition of peace.” Neither side would yield upon this crucial point.

The conference continued some time longer, with a discussion of slavery, a proposal from Lincoln to compensate to the south for their slaves, and whether if the southern states immediately surrendered they could reject the 13th Amendment. The one result of the convention was that Lincoln promised to recommend that Grant reopen prisoner exchanges.

The River Queen
The main product of the meeting was propaganda material for both sides. Jefferson Davis could tell the South that he had tried his best to arrange a peace with the North, but they only terms they offered was absolute surrender. The Confederacy's only hope was to fight to the end. Abraham Lincoln could say that the south still remained unwilling to compromise on their independence, and the Yankee troops needed to fight the war to the finishing, reaping the complete fruits of victory with the abolition of slavery.

Lincoln on the River Queen several weeks later