By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
During the Civil War, between May of 1864 and late August of 1864, there was an enormous doubt developing in the United States as to whether the rebels could be suppressed. It was not a question of whether the United States had the power to do it; it was a question of whether the northern people were willing to continue to make the sacrifices necessary to do it.
William Tecumseh Sherman had planned to take 100,000 men and move southward out of Chattanooga toward Atlanta. Sherman’s campaign got off to a good start. He moved out of Chattanooga, and he moved steadily toward Atlanta, maneuvering across north Georgia, not fighting a lot of big battles, and making pretty good headway as he marched toward this important Confederate city. He left in early May, and he laid siege to Atlanta by mid-July.
He had cornered the Confederate army in Atlanta, but he hadn’t captured Atlanta yet, and what the northern people wanted was an unequivocal victory. They wanted to hear that Atlanta had fallen, but they hadn’t heard that. They didn’t see enormous success for Sherman. They saw that there hadn’t been a big battle. The rebel army was still intact, and Atlanta hadn’t fallen yet by mid-July, so it was not an occasion for great rejoicing by any means in the North.
Nor was there occasion in Virginia for great rejoicing.
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U.S. Grant had planned to take the 120,000 men of the Army of the Potomac and confront Robert E. Lee’s 650,000-man Army of Northern Virginia head on, along the Rappahannock River line, in north central Virginia.
Lee and Grant came to grips beginning the first week of May 1864, in what came to be called the ‘Overland campaign’, and over the next six weeks, as the army moved from the Rappahannock River southward, eventually to the James River and to Petersburg, about 20 miles south of Richmond, there was a series of enormously bloody battlefields. This section of Virginia and this period of the war were the bloodiest of the entire conflict. It exceeded anything that had come before, and that would be difficult for the northern people to come to terms with as well.
By 1864, both the northern and southern people had become somewhat used to large casualty figures. They knew that there would be huge battles, but Lee and Grant fought in such a way that the people were forced to confront a seemingly endless single battle. There were casualties every day, punctuated by enormous bloodlettings and occasional huge battles, but always the armies were in contact.
The average was 3,000 casualties a day for most of this period. By the time the armies got to Petersburg, they had lost 100,000 men between them: 65,000 casualties in Grant’s army; 3,500 casualties in Lee’s army.
Grant had pushed Lee all the way back to Richmond and beyond, but he hadn’t captured Richmond. As in the case of Atlanta, the northern people looked at the map. The rebel army was still intact, the rebel capital was still safe, and they had these endless casualty lists to deal with. They became quite disappointed.
Change in Attitude
There was, however, an enormous change in attitude between May and the middle of June, when the armies settled into the siege of Petersburg. Much of the luster had gone off of Grant’s star by that time, in the minds of many in the North. Grant was doing what he wanted to do. He wanted to bleed Lee’s army and pin it down. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do, but he was not winning unequivocal battlefield victories over Lee. He was fighting these bloody battles that didn’t really seem to have a winner or a loser, and that was hurting behind the lines. It added to the failure of Sherman to take Atlanta.
These events in Virginia brought northern morale to its lowest point of the entire war. Lincoln fully expected to lose the election of 1864. Confederate morale—in contrast—was edging up higher and higher, always with an eye on the elections, always with the hope that there would be no defeat before those elections, and an expectation that just not losing was enough. The tide turned decisively in favor of the United States between late August and early November, though.
With northern fortunes at lowest ebb, a series of victories turned things around, and began in August, when the important port of Mobile, Alabama, was closed to Confederate use as a blockade running port by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s fleet.
Within less than two weeks, Sherman captured Atlanta. That was the really critical victory. That sent a thrill of victory through the North, and shudders of defeat through the Confederacy. Finally, in September and October, a Union general named Philip Henry Sheridan won a series of smashing victories in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
These things together, Mobile and Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley, ensured Republican victory in November. Lincoln had a second term. The United States clearly was going to pursue the war vigorously, and a good deal of gloom spread through the Confederacy as a result of this.
Common Questions about the Civil War
Lee and Grant came to grips beginning the first week of May 1864, in what came to be called the ‘Overland campaign’. Over the next six weeks, there was a series of enormously bloody battlefields. This period of the war was the bloodiest of the entire conflict.
By the time Grant’s and Lee’s armies got to Petersburg, they had lost 100,000 men between them: 65,000 casualties in Grant’s army; 3,500 casualties in Lee’s army.
In August, the important port of Mobile, Alabama, was closed to Confederate use as a blockade running port by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s fleet. Within less than two weeks, Sherman captured Atlanta. Finally, in September and October, a Union general named Philip Henry Sheridan won a series of smashing victories in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. These things together, Mobile and Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley, ensured Republican victory in November.