By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
While the victories in 1864 foreshadowed eventual United States’ victory in the Civil War, there still remained two major sets of campaigns: William Sherman’s destruction of the logistical capacity of the Confederates and Ulysses Grant’s victory against Robert Lee’s army. Lee and his army had become such a national rallying point that it was their surrender in 1865 that finally marked the end of the war.
Destruction by Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman left Atlanta in November and struck out across Georgia. U.S. Grant’s orders were very explicit. Grant said, “Clean the country of railroad tracks and supplies—every wagon, horse, mule, and hoof of stock, as well as the Negroes.” Sherman did just that, moving in a 60-mile-wide swath through the state, and leaving destruction behind him.
He went from Atlanta to Savannah, averaging about 10 miles a day. Once he got to the coast, he presented the president with Savannah as a Christmas gift. His damage to the state of Georgia was immense—about a $100 million worth, in mid-19th century dollars. One northern soldier wrote that there had been essentially no opposition to Sherman. There was no big army in front of him there.
Sherman had done what he and Grant hoped he would do. He had showed that a United States army could march right through the heartland of the Confederacy, and there was nothing the Confederates could do about it. In the process, he destroyed a good deal of the logistical capacity of that part of the Confederacy.
Sherman later turned north, marched through South Carolina and into North Carolina, laid an even heavier hand on South Carolina, incidentally, which the Union soldiers blamed for starting the war, and ended up outside what is now Durham, North Carolina, in March of 1865.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Lee and Grant
Robert E. Lee and Grant remained mired in siege warfare outside Petersburg and Richmond during all of this marching on Sherman’s part. It was a grinding ordeal of nine months, with Grant relentlessly extending his lines ever farther to the west, stretching Lee more and more thinly as he did so.
On April 1, 1865, a massive United States assault on Lee’s far right flank broke through. Once that happened, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg. That left Richmond uncovered, and the Confederate government abandoned its capital on April 2, 1865. That was the end of Richmond.
Lee’s Army Forced to Flee
Grant had accomplished what he had set out to do. He had pinned Lee’s army down to such an extent and bled it to such an extent that in the end, it was forced to flee, and the Confederate capital fell.
Lee tried to escape to the west. He was hoping to get far enough west so that he could then turn south and unite with Confederate forces in North Carolina, but Grant wouldn’t let him. Grant paralleled Lee’s movements to the west. He stayed south of Lee, and moved west as rapidly as Lee did. Lee could not find a place to turn south.
Army of Northern Virginia Surrenders
Finally, by April 9, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was utterly exhausted. Federal troops had gotten in front of it as well as to the south of it, and Lee asked Grant for terms. The two met in the parlor of a man named Wilmer McLean, on April 9, 1865, and there, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.
Grant offered very generous terms. He later remembered that he was, “Sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though the cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which people ever fought.”
The official surrender and actual laying-down of arms came on April 12, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse. The Army of Northern Virginia, and with it, the Confederacy, had ceased to exist. There would be other Confederate surrenders over the next several weeks, but this was the end of the war.
Everybody in the North treated it as such; foreign observers treated it as such. Lee’s army had been the key. Lee and his army had become such an important national institution in the Confederacy, that their surrender marked the end of the war, for all practical purposes, in the view of almost everyone.
Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Sadly, Abraham Lincoln had very little time to savor this enormous victory for his armies, the armies of the United States. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, he and Mrs. Lincoln attended a performance of the comedy, ‘Our American Cousin’, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
They’d been there awhile when John Wilkes Booth, of the famous Booth acting family, the most famous acting family in the United States, and a southern sympathizer, sneaked into the back of the box where Lincoln was, and shot him in the back of the head with a derringer, then leaped down from the box, caught his spur on some bunting or a flag as he jumped down, broke his leg, and then hobbled off across the stage having shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” “Thus ever to tyrants!” which was the Virginia state motto.
Lincoln was carried across the street to a little house called the Peterson House, which is still there, owned by the National Park Service, and there he lingered through the night, never regaining consciousness. He died on the morning of April 15, at about 7:30 a.m.
Common Questions about the Victory of the Union
The Confederate government abandoned Richmond, its capital, on April 2, 1865.
Grant said that he was, “Sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though the cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which people ever fought.”
Lee and Grant met in the parlor of a man named Wilmer McLean on April 9, 1865, and there, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant. The official surrender and actual laying-down of arms came on April 12, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse.