Attempt On Washington

American Civil War

Edited by: Robert Guisepi


Warren W. Hassler, Jr.: Emeritus Professor of American History, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac and others.

Attempt on Washington, D.C

While Sherman faced Atlanta, waiting for a chance to pierce the lines of the defenders, and while Grant besieged Petersburg, the Confederate high command made a desperate move. Lee sent one of his corps commanders, General Jubal A. Early, to threaten the Union capital. Early went down the Shenandoah Valley, crossed the Potomac River, and took supplies and money from the communities through which he passed. On July 9, at a point on the Monocacy River, 48 km (30 mi) from Washington, Union General Lew Wallace faced Early with a small force. The federal commander courted certain defeat, but he delayed Early long enough to permit troops from Grant’s army to reach Washington and defend the city. Although Early took up a position within sight of the Capitol on July 11, he realized that an assault was hopeless and returned to the valley.

Fall of Mobile

As the summer advanced, the war took a new and decisive turn. On August 5 a federal fleet commanded by Admiral Farragut forced its way into Mobile Bay, in Alabama. Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, which defended the city, surrendered on August 8 and August 23, and Mobile was closed to blockade-runners and lost to the Confederacy.

Fall of Atlanta
The pace of the war continued to quicken, bringing fresh Union victories. On September 1 Hood evacuated Atlanta. The next day, Sherman’s troops marched into the city, flags flying and bands playing. The fall of Atlanta was extremely important to the Union because of its strategic position and its impact on Southern morale.

Shenandoah Valley

Other Union victories followed. After Early’s threat to Washington, Lee gave him a free hand to operate in the Shenandoah Valley. Lee hoped that Grant would be forced to weaken his grip on Petersburg to meet the new threat. Grant acted as Lee anticipated, but the federal commander sent a general who proved to be more than a match for Early. In three battles, at Winchester on September 19, at Fishers Hill on September 22, and at Cedar Creek on October 19, Philip H. Sheridan not only drove Early’s troops from the valley but also devastated the area so thoroughly that its rich farms could no longer send food and supplies to Lee’s troops.

Political Conventions

While the armies went about their deadly business in the spring and summer of 1864, Northern politicians started the machinery for another presidential election. Many people in the North were dissatisfied with Lincoln. Battle losses in the East had been staggering, and Grant had neither destroyed Lee’s army nor taken Richmond. Many Republicans complained that Lincoln was too moderate on the slavery question or was too easygoing in the prosecution of the war. A great many Democrats had come to believe that the South could not be defeated and wanted peace at almost any price.

The Republican National Convention met in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 7. To attract War Democrats, the name of the party was changed to the National Union Party. Although many delegates would have been happy to replace Lincoln, the administration’s control of the party machinery secured his renomination with ease. His running mate was Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee who had remained loyal to the Union. The platform called for the unconditional restoration of the Union.

On August 29 the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago, Illinois. The delegates hoped to elect their candidate by playing up the war situation as it was at that moment, with Grant’s having failed to take Richmond and Sherman stalled outside Atlanta. The Democratic platform declared the war a failure and demanded that immediate efforts be made to bring the fighting to an end. The delegates nominated George B. McClellan for president and George H. Pendleton, senator from Ohio, for vice president. Ten days later, McClellan accepted the nomination but he refused to support the platform plank that called for peace without the restoration of the Union, thinking that it was an affront to the troops he had commanded.

Election of 1864

The election in the North took place on November 8. As late as August 23, 1864, Lincoln had commented to his Cabinet that it seemed "exceedingly probable" that he would not be reelected. However, he had not foreseen the steady succession of Northern victories. Before November the mood of the people changed. On election day the popular vote was 2,218,388 for Lincoln and 1,812,807 for McClellan. The popular margin was not nearly so large as that in the electoral college, where Lincoln polled 212 to McClellan’s 21.

There was no 1864 presidential election in the South. Under the Confederate constitution, the president was elected for six years, and thus no election was held after 1861.

Sherman’s March to the Sea
One week after the election, Sherman’s troops, numbering about 60,000 men, marched out of Atlanta toward the east. They did not know their destination, but following parallel routes, they marched across Georgia along a 97-km (60-mi) front. Although under strict orders not to destroy private property, they burned and looted plantations and public buildings. Slaves by the thousands left their masters and followed the Union troops to freedom. Neither the Confederacy nor Georgia could offer much resistance. In his 1864 march across Georgia, Sherman applied the military concept of war against civilian property. He made a desert of the land through which he passed, destroying major Confederate sources of supply for Southern armies. He also brought home the war to the Southern people behind the lines in the hope that, by breaking their morale, he would weaken the will to fight. In short, he fulfilled his grim boast: "I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!"

On December 10 Sherman deployed his men around Savannah, Georgia. Fort McAllister, the principal defense of the city, fell on December 13. On December 20 General William J. Hardee, who commanded the small force that the Confederate government could spare for the defense of the city, withdrew his men to positions north of the Savannah River. Two days later, Sherman telegraphed to Lincoln: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton."

While holding Atlanta, Sherman had tried time after time to corner the Confederate army that Hood had withdrawn from that city. Hood kept out of reach. Sherman assumed that when Hood left Atlanta, he would strike north into Tennessee. To defend the state and prevent an invasion of the North, Sherman placed Thomas in command of all the troops left behind on the western front.


Thomas concentrated his forces in Nashville, Tennessee. General John M. Schofield, following the Confederates with part of the Union troops, clashed with Hood on November 30 in the bloody Battle of Franklin. Although victorious, Schofield withdrew his troops to Nashville. Hood followed and took up positions on the high ground south of the city.

Thomas made his plans deliberately, so deliberately that Grant, impatient at the delay, almost removed him from his command. On December 15 Thomas struck. The Confederates fought stubbornly but lost ground. The next day, Thomas renewed the attack. The result was a smashing Union victory. Hood’s army was so disastrously defeated that it fell apart. Many of the Confederates drifted back to their homes, the war over so far as they were concerned.

CIVIL WAR, 1865 An Overview

The Union moved toward victory during the first four months of 1865. In mid-January, the capture of Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, North Carolina, closed the final significant Confederate port. On the political front, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery on January 31, and a last-ditch effort at negotiating an end to the war failed at the Hampton Roads conference in early February. In February and March, the siege of Petersburg and Richmond continued, while Sherman’s army worked its way northward through South Carolina and into North Carolina. Union success at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1 signaled the end of the long defense of Richmond, after which Lee’s army retreated westward until forced to surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9. With Lee’s surrender, the war was clearly drawing to a close. However, Northern celebrations were quickly silenced when Lincoln was shot on April 14 and died the next day. Large-scale Union raids into Alabama and Northern successes elsewhere further weakened an already reeling Confederacy, and in late April Sherman accepted surrender of the South’s last major field army at Durham Station, North Carolina.

Eastern Front

With Hood no longer a threat, Grant planned to have Sherman march north and join the Army of the Potomac in a joint campaign to crush Lee. To clear the way, an expedition was sent against Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The fort fell on January 15, 1865. The loss deprived the Confederacy of its last strongpoint along the Atlantic Coast and tightened the Union blockade. It also sealed the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, leaving only Galveston, Texas, open to blockade-runners.


Sherman had expected to start north soon after January 1, 1865, but bad weather delayed him until February 1. On that date he moved out with 60,000 men, 2500 wagons, and 600 ambulances. As in the march through Georgia, his men would live off the country. He could expect some fighting but no dangerous opposition, for the Confederates had only 25,000 troops in the Carolinas. Sherman fought only one sharp battle in the campaign. On March 19 at Bentonville, North Carolina, Johnston, restored to command by Lee, attacked one of the advancing Union columns. Sherman quickly concentrated his forces, and Johnston retreated. On March 23 Sherman reached Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he halted.

Yet the campaign through the Carolinas was not easy. Throughout the campaign the troops fought the weather if not the enemy. Heavy rains had made the roads soggy, but the guns and wagons came through with the foot soldiers. In 50 days, 10 of which were devoted to rest, the troops covered 684 km (425 mi). The march was notable because it proved that the South stood at the very edge of defeat. It could no longer defend itself against an invading army.

Burning of Columbia

Sherman’s conduct of the campaign made his name hated throughout the South and left lasting scars. Troops living off the resources of an area were a hardship on civilians. In South Carolina, destruction went far beyond military needs. Northerners believed that the state had started the war and that its people should be made to pay for their sins. Many Union officers tried to restrain their men, but pillaging was common, and the smoking ruins of houses and barns all too often marked the Federals’ path. Fifteen towns were burned in whole or in part, but no act of destruction compared with or caused more controversy than the burning of Columbia, the state capital. Sherman denied that he gave orders to burn the city. The fires in Columbia were most likely begun both by retreating Confederate forces, who wanted to deny supplies to the Northern troops, and by invading Federal soldiers.

Sherman Joins Grant

At the end of March, Sherman left General Schofield in charge and hurried to Petersburg for a conference with Grant. On March 27 and 28, the two met with Lincoln and Admiral Porter to make plans for the final campaign. At this time, Lincoln made his policy clear: He wanted the war brought to an end with no more bloodshed than necessary, and he had no desire to take harsh measures against the Confederates after they had laid down their arms. Grant warned the president that Lee could not be expected to surrender without a last-ditch effort.

Fall of Richmond

Grant planned to extend his lines westward around Petersburg and Richmond to cut the two railroads that still supplied the hemmed-in Confederates. On March 29 the federal commander started his columns. Lee moved troops to counter the threat. On April 1 at Five Forks, 24 km (15 mi) west of Petersburg, Sheridan defeated a Confederate force led by Pickett, capturing much artillery and many prisoners. Fearful of being completely encircled, Lee sent three brigades to Pickett’s support and decided to evacuate Richmond. Learning that Lee had weakened his defenses, Grant ordered a general assault on April 2. The defenders resisted staunchly, giving Lee time to make an orderly withdrawal. Federal troops entered the abandoned city the next day.

Appomattox Court House
By taking his army out of Richmond and Petersburg, Lee hoped to join Johnston who had been in North Carolina, and at least to prolong the struggle. Grant’s goal was clear: to prevent the two armies from uniting. From April 3 to April 7, Union and Confederate forces engaged in a series of running fights. On April 7 Sheridan managed to place his brigades across the line of Lee’s retreat at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, 96 km (60 mi) west of Petersburg. Mindful of Lincoln’s wish to avoid needless bloodshed, Grant sent Lee a note pointing out his hopeless condition and inviting surrender. Lee, who was keenly aware of his desperate situation, asked for terms. On the morning of April 9 the two commanders met at a private home in Appomattox Court House. Grant asked only that the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia surrender and give their word not to take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged. Lee accepted the terms. The war was over in Virginia.

President Lincoln lived to learn of Lee’s surrender and to rejoice that the war was almost at an end. A few days later, on April 14, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a crazed actor and defender of the Confederacy. The North, overwhelmed with grief, was not disposed to be generous to the conquered Confederacy.

Meanwhile, news of Lee’s surrender slowly made its way to Johnston and Sherman in North Carolina. Johnston made peace overtures to Sherman, and on April 17 the two commanders met in Durham Station, North Carolina, to discuss terms. Sherman thought he was carrying out Lincoln’s wish to heal the wounds of war by offering more generous terms than Grant had offered Lee. However, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, embittered by Lincoln’s murder, which he suspected had been inspired by the Confederate government, refused to approve the terms. On April 26 Johnston had to surrender his 37,000 men on the same conditions as those agreed on by Lee when he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Only two sizable Confederate armies remained. One was in Louisiana, led by General Richard Taylor. The other, commanded by General Edmund Kirby Smith, was in Texas. Taylor surrendered on May 4, and Smith surrendered on May 26, both of them to General E. R. S. Canby. On May 10 Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia.

Looking backward, anyone must marvel at the fact that the war lasted four years. All the advantages seemed to favor the North. In 1860 the 22 states that would remain in the Union (three more would come in before 1865) had a combined population of 22 million. The 11 states that made up the Confederacy could count only 9 million inhabitants, including almost 4 million black slaves. Most of the factories capable of producing war materials were located in the North, and the section was well equipped with railroads. It had a merchant marine and could maintain worldwide commerce. The South, on the other hand, was a region of farms. Although these farms produced products that Europe wanted, particularly cotton, the South had few ships, and its principal ports were soon closed.

Much has been made of the superiority of Southern commanders. Although Lee was more than a match for every opponent except Grant, Grant overcame the Confederate general by force of numbers and determination of will. Neither side had another corps commander equal to Stonewall Jackson, but Jackson was killed before the war was half over. In the West, the Union commanders clearly outmatched their opposites. No Confederate leader could stand comparison with Grant, Sherman, or Thomas. In naval operations, Foote, Farragut, and Porter had no Confederate rivals.

Little distinction can be made between Northern and Southern morale. Desertion was common on both sides. The North had its Copperheads, its bounty jumpers, and its draft rioters, and millions of Northerners were weary of the war long before its end. In the South, draft dodging and tax evasion were common, and fortunes were made by profiteers who preferred to run luxuries, instead of war supplies, through the blockade.

The South had two important advantages. First, it did not need to conquer the North. It could win the war simply by defending its soil and by waiting for the North to become so discouraged by repeated failures that it would grant independence. Second, the South could operate with shorter interior lines, thus making better use of its fewer men.

In the long run, Northern superiority in supplies and men was decisive. That Southern armies remained in the field and took a toll from their opponents until the spring of 1865 is a remarkable achievement in determination and fortitude. Lincoln’s position on slavery and democracy was equally important in the outcome of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation put an end to Southern hopes of foreign intervention. In the North the majority of the people remained firmly resolved that the Union must be restored.

A Costs of the War, Human
The human cost of the war far exceeded what anyone had imagined in 1861. The North placed roughly 2.2 million men in uniform (180,000 of them blacks), of whom about 640,000 were killed, wounded in battle, or died of disease. Of the 360,000 Northern soldiers who died, two-thirds perished from illnesses such as dysentery, diarrhea, measles, malaria, and typhoid. Casualties in Confederate forces are more difficult to estimate, but they probably approached 450,000 out of approximately 750,000 to 850,000 Confederate soldiers. Of these, it is estimated that more than 250,000 died. The proportion of battlefield deaths to deaths by disease was probably the same as in the Northern armies. Total deaths thus exceeded 600,000, and the dead and wounded combined totaled about 1.1 million. More Americans were killed in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined from the colonial period through the later phase of the Vietnam War (1959-1975).

Human suffering also extended beyond the military sphere and continued long after fighting ceased. During the conflict, thousands of black and white Southerners became refugees, losing many of their possessions and facing an uncertain future in strange surroundings. Far fewer Northern civilians experienced the war so directly, although the citizens of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, saw their town burned by Confederate cavalry in 1864. An unknown number of civilians perished at the hands of guerrillas, deserters, and, less frequently, regular soldiers in both armies. After the war, many thousands of veterans struggled to cope with lost limbs and other wounds. Thousands of families faced difficult financial circumstances due to the death of husbands and fathers. The United States government made available small pensions for disabled veterans and widows of soldiers, and southern states did the same for former Confederate soldiers and their widows. In neither instance, however, were the funds sufficient to provide for all the needs of a family.


The war generated spending on a scale dwarfing that of any earlier period in American history. In 1860, the federal budget was $63 million; in 1865, federal government expenditures totaled nearly $1.3 billion—a 200-fold increase that did not include the money spent by the Confederate government. An estimate in 1879 placed war-related costs to that date for the United States at $6.1 billion, including pension payments that would continue for many years. Figures for the Confederacy are very unreliable, but one estimate places expenditures through 1863 at $2 billion. After 1863, records for Confederate expenditures are not available. Whatever the total figure, there is no doubt that expenditures and indebtedness grew to a size that were not imaginable before the war.

The war also caused wide-scale economic destruction to the South. The Confederate states lost two-thirds of their wealth during the war. The loss of slave property through emancipation accounted for much of this, but the economic infrastructure in the South was also severely damaged in other ways. Railroads and industries in the South were in shambles, more than one-half of all farm machinery was destroyed, and 40 percent of all livestock had been killed. In contrast, the Northern economy thrived during the war. Two numbers convey a sense of the economic cost to the respective sections: between 1860 and 1870, Northern wealth increased by 50 percent; during that same decade, Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent.

Effects of the War, Soldiers
The Civil War was the central event in the lives of most of the men who served in the armed forces. Many of them had never traveled more than a few miles beyond their homes, and the war took them to places they otherwise would not have seen, made them participants in great events, and often left them with scars that constantly reminded them of how much they had sacrificed. During the postwar years, thousands of men joined veterans’ organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic in the North and the United Confederate Veterans in the South. They revisited the sites of their battles, raised monuments to commemorate their service, and, in large numbers, wrote reminiscences about their part in the war. For black men who fought for the Union, the war provided the strongest possible claim for full citizenship. They had risked their lives, along with their white comrades in the military, and they argued that they should have the right to vote and otherwise live as full members of American society.


The war touched the lives of almost every person in the United States. Women assumed larger responsibilities in the workplace because so many men were absent in the armies. In the North, they labored as nurses (previously a male occupation), government clerks, and factory workers and contributed to the war effort in other ways. Southern white women also worked as clerks and nurses and in factories, and thousands took responsibility for running family farms. Several hundred women disguised themselves as men and served in the military, a few of whom were wounded in battle. Although the war opened opportunities for work outside the household, its end brought a general return to old patterns of employment. Still, the war remained a major event in the lives of women as it did for the men in uniform.

Slave men and women in the South shouldered a major part of the labor burden, as they always had, and made it possible for the Confederacy to put nearly 80 percent of its military-age white men in uniform, a level of mobilization unequaled in American history. No group was more directly affected by the outcome of the war than the almost 4 million black people who were slaves in 1861. They emerged from the conflict with their freedom, which was confirmed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. However, blacks did not have equal rights until long after the war.

The war also touched children in profound ways. Fathers and brothers left home to fight, and thousands of boys 17 years old or younger entered military service as drummers, musicians, or soldiers in the ranks. Children behind the lines followed the progress of the war, pretending to be soldiers or nurses. All too often, they were affected by the loss of parents or siblings. Many grew to adulthood with a sense that whatever they might face in life, it would be less important than the great national crisis in which their fathers fought.

Long-Term Effects of the War

The war was followed by twelve years of Reconstruction, during which the North and South debated the future of black Americans and waged bitter political battles. In 1877, the white South tacitly conceded national power to the Republican Party in return for the right to rule their own states with minimal interference from the North. Republican domination of presidential politics and a solidly Democratic white South were two legacies of the war and Reconstruction. Despite ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, black Americans failed to win equal rights during the acrimonious postwar political debates. As the 19th century closed, they faced a rigidly segregated life in the South and hostility across most of the North.

Despite the destruction, the war did settle the question of secession. Since 1861 no state has seriously considered withdrawing from the Union. In addition, the war brought slavery to an end. After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was widespread acceptance of the fact that Union victory would mean general emancipation. Since the proclamation was a war measure that might be held unconstitutional after the war, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, was passed by both houses of Congress early in 1865. It was ratified by three-fourths of the states and was formally proclaimed in effect on December 18, 1865.

The war also set the South back at least a generation in industry and agriculture. Factories and farms were devastated by the invading armies. The labor system fell into chaos. Not until the 20th century did the South recover fully from the economic effects of the war. In contrast, the North forged ahead with the building of a modern industrial state.

In conclusion, it must be remarked that the Civil War did not raise blacks to a position of equality with whites. Nor did the war bring about that emotional reunion that Lincoln hoped for when he spoke in his first inaugural address of "the bonds of affection" that had formerly held the two sections together

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