“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” Lenin
What’s going on?
Before we start, I should probably introduce a couple of key characters.
Abraham ‘One of the Greats’ Lincoln. He just won his presidential re-election in 1864. He started this war mainly to save the Union, but by 1865, he was an ardent abolitionist. Sometimes haunted by depression, but then wouldn’t you be if you were the President of the United States, but instead of glory, you have to deal with a Civil War? Excellent orator, 6’4″, likes to tell jokes.
U S Grant It took a while for Grant to get into gear (he started the Civil War as a mere Colonel (aka a nobody)) but fought his way up the military command until he was made General. By 1865, he turned the tide for the Union, made up for initial defeats by the Confederacy, and is ready to bring the war to the South. Grant’s the man.
Robert E Lee. Grant’s equivalent on the Confederacy Side. Was initially offered the Command of the Union Army, but turned it down to fight for the South. Has made his choice.
Jefferson Davis. Confederate President, but not as great at being President as Lincoln was. Doesn’t deserve a pic because who cares about him anyways.
Okay. These four are our main characters. Let’s look at where the Civil War stood by April 1865 (which, by the way, is not something the book does – instead, it opens with a biography of Jefferson, which is only one of many bewildering editing choices.)
By 1865, the American Civil War had been raging for four years. After initial wins, the Confederacy was now in dire straits – Vicksburg had fallen, they lost at Gettysburg and were on the defense. However, they still had four armies in the field and a high level of morale. The Union had won the last major battles, but by moving south, they were in enemy territory, which made their supply lines more susceptible to sabotage. Lee had a home field advantage, which he desperately needed.
… which brings us to April 1865. And now everything happens at once.
Everything happens so much
1 April: Grant catches up with Lee, and The ‘Battle of Five Forks’ ends in a decisive Union Victory. Lee flees South in hopes of joining up Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Once reunited, Lee hopes, they would have the necessary might to strike back. For this, they need to evacuate Richmond, their capital.
2 April: Richmond, the Confederate Capital, is abandoned, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet flee by train.
4 April: Lincoln visits Richmond and sits at Davis’ desk, barely 40 hrs after the Confederate President had been there last (Davis straightened the desk before he left the room, so that the Union forces wouldn’t think him ‘sloppy’).
6 April: Grant, after a wild chase, catches up with Lee at Sayler’s Creek. Again, Grant kicks Lee’s ass (metaphorically speaking.)
9 April: Lee finally surrenders at Appomatox Court House to Grant. Grant’s peace terms were magnanimous: all soldiers had to lay down their weapons, and all arms & ammunition would get confiscated. That’s it. They even get to keep their horses.
12 April: Lee’s army surrenders formally. The war isn’t over, though – Johnston’s army hasn’t surrendered yet, the Confederate Government is still on the lose, and there are no peace terms yet.
14 April: Lincoln had a really busy day.
- AM: Cabinet meeting. Lincoln insists on establishing normal relationship with the South as quickly as possible, and refuses to prosecute Confederate Leaders as traitors. Lincoln needs not just any peace, but a good peace that both sides can live with. After all, he wants the Nation to grow back together.
- PM: Meeting with his VP Andrew “Racist” Johnson for the first time since their inauguration. Lincoln didn’t like Johnson much – the VP was mostly chosen to bring in Democratic Votes in the South. Johnson also didn’t do himself a favor by showing up completely drunk at his inauguration and – I kid you not – slobbering on the bible during his oath. (Remember this the next time you think you embarrassed yourself at work.)
- Evening: Lincoln goes to see a play at Ford Theater and gets assassinated by the most famous actor of the age. Kind of like if The Rock killed Trump.
15 April: Lincoln dies, less than a week after the surrender of Lee. Talk about a whiplash.
26 April: Johnston, the remaining commander of a Confederate Army surrenders to Sherman. The Civil War is finally over.
In four years, the war has destroyed 2/3 of the wealth of the South. Moreover, their entire social system was abolished. But then, it was based on slavery, so cry me a river.
(I must say this – sometimes this book tries to get sympathy for the poor Southern Slave Owner who lost it all. It comes up several times, and it always bewilders me. THEY OWNED OTHER PEOPLE, JAY. THEY WEREN’T GOOD PEOPLE. Most strikingly, this comes out when the author talks about Lee and how great he was and what a ‘good slave owner’ he was and – NO. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A GOOD SLAVE OWNER.)
The Civil War also strengthened federal powers, most importantly by introducing new taxes (see: Prohibition) and the draft. Before the war, the ‘government’ was not something the average American would come in contact with. It took a war for America to develop a working federal power structure.
The end of the War also marked the beginning of America’s ascent to power – Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller were all kids / young adults when the war ended, and the world changed.
But – and this is one of the central messages of the book – what didn’t happen is as important as what actually happened.
What didn’t happen:
Lee could have decided to fight to total destruction instead of surrendering at Appomatox.
In many regards, the Civil War is the first ‘modern’ war in the scope of its destruction and the introduction of the concept of ‘total warfare’. This means that the enemy wasn’t just the enemy army; the enemy’s population was also fair game because they supported the army.
Essentially, in modern total war, everything is fair game. That’s why large parts of the South got completely devastated. To fight the enemy, you don’t just have to fight him in the field – you have to fight his supply lines, too.
By the way, the Civil War was the first war to use trench warfare, the kind of thing we now associate with WWI. The writing was on the wall. Industrialization allowed society to come up with a much larger capacity for destruction, and war reflected that.
Anyway. So Lee didn’t have to surrender to Grant. He could have fought on until every last man in is army was dead. He wouldn’t have won, but he would have made reconciliation much, much harder.
Lee could have resorted to guerrilla warfare
In fact, that’s what Davis wanted – he told Lee to order his men to take to the mountains and start an insurgency. Which tells you just what kind of a loser Davis was.
Thing is, this made sense – the Southern troops could have lived off the land and terrorized the Northern Army occupying the territory for years.
We’ve seen it over and over, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan – guerrilla warfare works. But at what price? Civil Society would have been completely torn apart.
The North would have to invest a lot more time and money and troops to pacify the South, and the Civil War would have dragged out for decades.
Grant could have imposed harsher terms
As mentioned above, the peace terms set by Grant were surprisingly lenient. No punishment, no public sentencing, no death penalty for the leaders of the South. These conditions made it possible for the Confederates to surrender and save face. Laying down their arms was not a shameful thing to do. They were assured that they had fought bravely.
Lincoln needed a peace that everyone agreed to, and Grant gave him the terms.
The Assassination plot could have succeeded completely
Little known fact: Lincoln was only one of three targets that night. The conspirators originally planned to kill the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Only Lincoln’s murder was successful.
Had all three men been assassinated, the United States would have been completely leaderless at a crucial moment. There was enough chaos just with Lincoln dying – one can only imagine what would have happened if the three most powerful men would have died all at once.
The Transition process could have failed.
Lincoln’s murder was the first assassination of a US President. Quite simply put, the Constitution didn’t account for this possibility. During the first hours, while Lincoln lay dying, the Secretary of War was the de-facto government of the US. He led the search for the murderer, imposed martial law on DC, and communicated with the Cabinet and Grant.
However, the next morning, the Cabinet met and Johnson was sworn in. The striking thing is that nothing happened. No grab for power, no military coup, nothing. It all worked beautifully. This shows just how crucial democratic institutions and norms are.
So yes. We might look back on history and think ‘Of course it happened like that!’. But in reality, it was never set in stone. There’s a million crossroads in this story where things could have gone differently. We would probably be living in a very different world right now.
And don’t forget!
- The national cemetery at Arlington was originally Lee’s family estate until it got confiscated. Ooups.
- You never heard of Wilmer McLean, but you should have. His house in Virginia was located right in the battlefield of the first major battle in the war – a cannon ball dropped through the kitchen fireplace. Wilmer moved to Appomatox, considering it safer. Which it was, until Lee picked it as the location for his surrender. Wilmer later joked that the “war started in my front yard and ended in my parlor“. Which is amazing and I can’t get over it.
- One thing I cannot let go – in preparation for his surrender, Lee dressed up to the nines. We are talking sashes and swords and new uniform and polished boots. Grant showed up in a crumpled private’s uniform with mud on it. (I love Grant so much, okay.)
- “The peculiar case of Lee’s idolization” deserves its own post, but suffice to say that the author has a serious crush on Lee, which I don’t share. See, after the war, the South was trying to save face. One way of doing that was to say that they were fighting the war for State’s Rights, against the Federal Government. This ‘Just Cause’ Theory shows up all over the place – not just in this book, but in Civil War Literature generally. Don’t be fooled. The war was started over slavery. This re-definition of history can be traced by the idolization of Lee – he is built up as this Southern Gentleman Who Loved His Country But Loved Virginia More. Next time you come across this, just remember that nobody forced Lee to fight for the slavery-defending party in this conflict.
Books that are better than this book:
- ‘Memoirs of U.S. Grant‘ – This is, by all accounts, the best biography ever written by any US President. Much like in giving orders to his army, Grant’s style of writing is clear, to the point, and sometimes full of unexpected humor. The story behind this book is rather sad – After his presidency, Grant fell into poverty and was diagnosed with throat cancer, probably a consequence of his fondness for cigars. In a race against time, he started writing his memoir so that his family would be financially secure after his death. He finished his biography only about a week before his death. Extra points for Trivia Nights: Grant’s editor was Mark Twain. It’s a small world!
- ‘Grant‘ by Ron Chernov – Okay, you might think it weird that I am putting two biographies of the same guy up here, but listen. Grant’s life has more than enough material to fill at least a dozen books. Chernov doesn’t do short books (this one comes in at about 900 pages) but it is clear, concise, and it does the man justice.
- ‘Battlecry of Freedom‘ by James McPherson- This is the book you want to read if you want to read more about the Civil War. It’s a great introduction to the conflict. Also a brick, but a great read for your next vacation!
And next week…
Is it just me, or are my posts getting longer and longer? Anyway. Next week, we’ll look at another proxy war gone wrong! Bring your notebooks, it’s going to be quite the ride.