Comic History of the United States - Bill Nye

Last Year of the Disagreeable War

General Grant was now in command of all the Union troops, and in 1864-5 the plan of operation was to prevent the junction of the Confederates,—General Grant seeking to interest the army in Virginia under General Lee, and General Sherman the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in Georgia.

Sherman started at once, and came upon Johnston located on almost impregnable hills all the way to Atlanta. The battles of Dalton, Resaca, Dallas, Lost Mountain, and Kenesaw Mountain preceded Johnston's retreat to the intrenchments of Atlanta, July 10, Sherman having been on the move since early in May, 1864.

Jefferson Davis, disgusted with Johnston, placed Hood in command, who made three heroic attacks upon the Union troops, but was repulsed. Sherman now gathered fifteen days' rations from the neighbors, and, throwing his forces across Hood's line of supplies, compelled him to evacuate the city.

The historian says that Sherman was entirely supplied from Nashville via railroad during this trip, but the author knows of his own personal knowledge that there were times when he got his fresh provisions along the road.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


This expedition cost the Union army thirty thousand men and the Confederates thirty-five thousand. Besides, Georgia was the Confederacy, so far as arms, grain, etc., were concerned. Sherman attributed much of his success to the fact that he could repair and operate the railroad so rapidly. Among his men were Yankee machinists and engineers, who were as necessary as courageous fighters.

"We are held here during many priceless hours," said the general, "because the enemy has spoiled this passenger engine. Who knows any thing about repairing an engine?"

"I do," said a dusty tramp in blue. "I can repair this one in an hour."

"What makes you think so?"

"Well, I made it."

This was one of the strong features of Sherman's army. Among the hundred thousand who composed it there were so many active brains and skilled hands that the toot of the engine caught the heels of the last echoing shout of the battle.

Learning that Hood proposed to invade Tennessee, Sherman prepared to march across Georgia to the sea, and if necessary to tramp through the Atlantic States.

Hood was sorry afterwards that he invaded Tennessee. He shut Thomas up in Nashville after a battle with Schofield, and kept the former in-doors for two weeks, when all of a sudden Thomas exclaimed, "Air! air! give me air!" and came out, throwing Hood into headlong flight, when the Union cavalry fell on his rear, followed by the infantry, and the forty thousand Confederates became a scattered and discouraged mob spread out over several counties.

The burning of Atlanta preceded Sherman's march, and, though one of the saddest features of the war, was believed to be a military necessity. Those who declare war hoping to have a summer's outing thereby may live to regret it for many bitter years.

On November 16, Sherman started, his army moving in four columns, constituting altogether a column of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud and dust by day. Kilpatrick's cavalry scoured the country like a mass meeting of ubiquitous little black Tennessee hornets.

In five weeks Sherman had marched three hundred miles, had destroyed two railroads, had stormed Fort McAllister, and had captured Savannah.

On the 5th and 6th of May, 1864, occurred the battle of the Wilderness, near the old battleground of Chancellorsville. No one could describe it, for it was fought in the dense woods, and the two days of useless butchery with not the slightest signs of civilized warfare sickened both armies, and, with no victory for either, they retired to their intrenchments.

Grant, instead of retreating, however, quietly passed the flank of the Confederates and started for Spottsylvania Court-House, where a battle occurred May 8-12.

Here the two armies fought five days without any advantage to either. It was at this time that Grant sent his celebrated despatch stating that he "proposed to fight it out on this line if it took all summer."

Finally he sought to turn Lee's right flank. June 8, the battle of Cold Harbor followed this movement. The Union forces were shot down in the mire and brush by Lee's troops, now snugly in out of the wet, behind the Cold Harbor defences. One historian says that in twenty minutes ten thousand Yankee troops were killed; though Badeau, whose accuracy in counting dead has always been perfectly marvellous, admits only seven thousand in all.

Grant now turned his attention towards Petersburg, but Lee was there before him and intrenched, so the Union army had to intrench. This only postponed the evil day, however.

Things now shaped themselves into a siege of Richmond, with Petersburg as the first outpost of the besieged capital.

On the 30th of July, eight thousand pounds of powder were carefully inserted under a Confederate fort and the entire thing hoisted in the air, leaving a huge hole, in which, a few hours afterwards, many a boy in blue met his death, for in the assault which followed the explosion the Union soldiers were mowed down by the concentrated fire of the Confederates. The Federals threw away four thousand lives here.

On the 18th of August the Weldon Railroad was captured, which was a great advantage to Grant, and, though several efforts were made to recapture it, they were unsuccessful.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


General Early was delegated to threaten Washington and scare the able officers of the army who were stopping there at that time talking politics and abusing Grant. He defeated General Wallace at Monocacy River, and appeared before Fort Stevens, one of the defences of Washington, July 11. Had he whooped right along instead of pausing a day somewhere to get laundry-work done before entering Washington, he would easily have captured the city.

Reinforcements, however, got there ahead of him, and he had to go back. He sent a force of cavalry into Pennsylvania, where they captured Chambersburg and burned it on failure of the town trustees to pay five hundred thousand dollars ransom.

General Sheridan was placed in charge of the troops here, and defeated Early at Winchester, riding twenty miles in twenty minutes, as per poem. At Fisher's Hill he was also victorious. He devastated the Valley of the Shenandoah to such a degree that a crow passing the entire length of the valley had to carry his dinner with him.

It was, however, at the battle of Cedar Creek that Sheridan was twenty miles away, according to historical prose. Why he was twenty miles away, various and conflicting reasons are given, but on his good horse Rienzi he arrived in time to turn defeat and rout into victory and hilarity.

Rienzi, after the war, died in eleven States. He was a black horse, with a saddle-gall and a flashing eye.

He passed away at his home in Chicago at last in poverty while waiting for a pension applied for on the grounds of founder and lampers brought on by eating too heartily after the battle and while warm, but in the line of duty.

The Red River campaign under General Banks was a joint naval and land expedition, resulting in the capture of Fort de Russy, March 14, after which, April 8, the troops marching towards Shreveport in very open order, single file or holding one another's hands and singing "John Brown's Body," were attacked by General Dick Taylor, and if Washington had not been so far away and through a hostile country, Bull Run would have had another rival. But the boys rallied, and next day repulsed the Confederates, after which they returned to New Orleans, where board was more reasonable. General Banks obtained quite a relief at this time: he was relieved of his command.

August 5, Commodore Farragut captured Mobile, after a neat and attractive naval fight, and on the 24th and 25th of December Commodore Porter and General Butler started out to take Fort Fisher. After two days' bombardment, Butler decided that there were other forts to be had on better terms, and returned. Afterwards General Terry commanded the second expedition, Porter having remained on hand with his vessels to assist. January 15, 1865, the most heroic fighting on both sides resulted, and at last, completely hemmed in, the brave and battered garrison surrendered; but no one who was there need blush to say so, even to-day.

At the South at this time coffee was fifty dollars a pound and gloves were one hundred and fifty dollars a pair. Flour was forty dollars a barrel; but you could get a barrel of currency for less than that.

Money was plenty, but what was needed seemed to be confidence. Running the blockade was not profitable at that time, since over fifteen hundred head of Confederate vessels were captured during the war.

The capture of Fort Fisher closed the last port of the South, and left the Confederacy no show with foreign Powers or markets.

The Alabama was an armed steam-ship, and the most unpleasant feature of the war to the Federal government, especially as she had more sympathy and aid in England than was asked for or expected by the Unionists. However, England has since repaid all this loss in various ways. She has put from five to eight million dollars into cattle on the plains of the Northwest, where the skeletons of same may be found bleaching in the summer sun; and I am personally acquainted with six Americans now visiting England who can borrow enough in a year to make up all the losses sustained through the Alabama and other neutral vessels.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


Captain Semmes commanded the Alabama, and off Cherbourg he sent a challenge to the Kearsarge, commanded by Captain Winslow, who accepted it, and so worked his vessel that the Alabama had to move round him in a circle, while he filled her up with iron, lead, copper, tin, German silver, glass, nails, putty, paint, varnishes, and dye-stuff. At the seventh rotation the Alabama ran up the white flag and sunk with a low mellow plunk. The crew was rescued by Captain Winslow and the English yacht Deerhound, the latter taking Semmes and starting for England.

This matter, however, was settled in after-years.

The care of the sick, the dying, and the dead in the Union armies was almost entirely under the eye of the merciful and charitable, loyal and loving members of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, whose work and its memory kept green in the hearts of the survivors and their children will be monument enough for the coming centuries.

In July, 1864, the debt of the country was two billion dollars and twenty cents. Two dollars and ninety cents in greenbacks would buy a reluctant gold dollar.

Still, Abraham Lincoln was re-elected against George B. McClellan, the Democratic candidate, who carried only three States. This was endorsement enough for the policy of President Lincoln.

Sherman's army of sixty thousand, after a month's rest at Savannah, started north to unite with Grant in the final blow. "Before it was terror, behind it ashes."

Columbia was captured February 17, and burned, without Sherman's authority, the night following. Charleston was evacuated the next day. Johnston was recalled to take command, and opposed the march of Sherman, but was driven back after fierce engagements at Bentonville and Averysboro. On March 25 Lee decided to attack Grant, and, while the latter was busy, get out of Richmond and join Johnston, but when this battle, known as the attack on Fort Steadman, was over, Grant's hold was tighter than ever.

Sheridan attacked Lee's rear with a heavy force, and at Five Forks, April 1, the surprised garrison was defeated with five thousand captured. The next day the entire Union army advanced, and the line of Confederate intrenchments was broken. On the following day Petersburg and Richmond were evacuated, but Mr. Davis was not there. He had gone away. Rather than meet General Grant and entertain him when there was no pie in the house, he and the Treasury had escaped from the haunts of man, wishing to commune with nature for a while. He was captured at Irwinsville, Georgia, under peculiar and rather amusing circumstances.

He was never punished, with the exception perhaps that he published a book and did not realize anything from it.

Lee fled to the westward, but was pursued by the triumphant Federals, especially by Sheridan, whose cavalry hung on his flanks day and night. Food failed the fleeing foe, and the young shoots of trees for food and the larger shoots of the artillery between meals were too much for that proud army, once so strong and confident.

Let us not dwell on the particulars.

As Sheridan planted his cavalry squarely across Lee's path of retreat, the worn but heroic tatters of a proud army prepared to sell themselves for a bloody ransom and go down fighting, but Grant had demanded their surrender, and, seeing back of the galling, skirmishing cavalry solid walls of confident infantry, the terms of surrender were accepted by General Lee, and April 9 the Confederate army stacked its arms near Appomattox Court-House.

The Confederate war debt was never paid, for some reason or other, but the Federal debt when it was feeling the best amounted to two billion eight hundred and forty-four million dollars. One million men lost their lives.

Was it worth while?

In the midst of the general rejoicing, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre, April 14. The assassin was captured in a dying condition in a burning barn, through a crack in the boarding of which he had been shot by a soldier named Boston Corbett. He died with no sympathetic applause to soothe the dull, cold ear of death.

West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863, and Nevada in 1864.

The following chapters will be devoted to more peaceful details, while we cheerfully close the sorrowful pages in which we have confessed that, with all our greatness as a nation, we could not stay the tide of war.