For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the third installment of the series. 

March 2-4, 1865: “With Malice Toward None” 

As March 1865 began the final outcome of the Civil War was all but certain, as the South faced overwhelming Northern numbers and firepower, supported by a much larger population and industrial base. And yet the war dragged on, with the main Confederate Army of Northern Virginia putting up a fierce last-ditch defense at the siege of Petersburg, protecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, while a smaller rebel force attempted to distract and delay the Union army in the Carolinas.

Seeing the writing on the wall, in early March Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee extended a tentative peace feeler to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, but was firmly rebuffed, as President Lincoln continued to demand unconditional surrender. Meanwhile Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to grapple with the enormous problems facing millions of freed slaves, and Lincoln looked ahead to an era of national reconciliation in his stirring Second Inaugural Address. 

Lee Proposes Ceasefire 

With spring approaching the military situation was looking increasingly hopeless for the Confederacy. In the main theater the Army of Northern Virginia, numbering around 50,000 men, was pinned down by the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, 125,000 strong, at the Siege of Petersburg around 20 miles south of Richmond. In North Carolina Joe Johnston’s new Army of the South, a composite force of around 25,000 men scraped together from various sources, was preparing to confront William Tecumseh Sherman’s swiftly advancing Union force, soon boosted to 90,000 men by reinforcements from the coast under John Schofield.

The news from peripheral theaters was hardly any better: on March 2 Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry destroyed what was left of Jubal Early’s small Army of the Valley in the Battle of Waynesboro, effectively ending rebel resistance in the Shenandoah Valley and freeing Sheridan to add his forces to Grant’s at Petersburg. In the second half of the month Union cavalry under George Stoneman would begin a raid into western North Carolina, basically unopposed, while another Union force under James Wilson raided Alabama, brushing aside a much smaller force under Nathan Bedford Forrest and destroying Confederate arsenals and industry. 

Robert E. Lee was keenly aware of the effect physical privations and collapsing morale were having on his troops, as around 6,000 soldiers deserted from January to March 1865, further weakening the already outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. Lee tried to reverse the manpower decline by offering an amnesty to deserters, but there was little hope of luring exhausted, hungry men back to a losing cause. Following the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in February, he wrote to Confederate Secretary of War John Breckinridge: “Some of my men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet… Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.” 

Pinning his hopes on the Northern public’s desire for peace, with typical Southern grandiloquence on March 2, 1865 Lee wrote a letter to Grant suggesting a ceasefire to be followed by peace negotiations: 

Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that upon an interchange of views it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned. 

Grant immediately conveyed Lee’s message to Washington via telegraph, asking for guidance. But Lincoln had already made his stance clear in his meeting with the Confederate peace commissioners: the only way to end the war was unconditional surrender. The next day Grant received an emphatic telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton conveying his unambiguous orders: 

The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen. Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages. 

Grant in turn responded: “I can assure you that no act of the enemy will prevent me pressing all advantages gained to the utmost of my ability.” Another month of death and destruction lay ahead, largely needless judging by Lee’s own judgment. On March 9 the Confederate commander again wrote Breckinridge, warning that it was now “almost impossible to maintain our present position.”  

Congress Establishes Freedmen’s Bureau 

Following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, the arrival of Union troops meant freedom for millions of slaves across the Confederacy, extending to the entire country with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. In February and March 1865 Sherman’s march north spread emancipation to two of the last remaining bastions of slavery, in North and South Carolina.

As might be expected the process was often chaotic, and unsurprisingly many Southern whites were scared and angry. Charlotte St. Julien Ravenel, a white female diarist in North Carolina, wrote in March 1865: “The field negroes are in a dreadful state; they will not work, but either roam the country, or sit in their houses…. I do not see how we are to live in this country without any rule or regulation. We are afraid now to walk outside of the gate.” As always the social upheaval was even harder for older people: Ravenel noted that her grandfather “seems completely broken down,” adding it “must be hard for one of his age to have everything so changed from what he has been accustomed to all of his life.” 

As Union troops approached some masters clung to the old ways to the bitter end, using threats of violence to keep slaves subservient, as later recalled by W.L. Bost, freed during this period: “Most of the people get everything jes ready to run when the Yankee sojers come through the town. This was toward the las’ of the war. Cose the niggers knew what all the fightin’ was about, but they didn’t dare say anything. The man who owned the slaves was too mad as it was, and if the niggers say anything they get shot right then and thar.” However other whites resigned themselves to the end of their old way of life and tried to part with their former slaves on good terms. Mary Anderson, who was freed as a young girl in North Carolina, remembered the arrival of Union troops:

In a day or two everybody on the plantation seemed to be disturbed and marster and missus were crying. Marster ordered all the slaves to come to the great house at nine o’clock… marster and missus came out on the porch and stood side by side. You could hear a pin drop everything was so quiet… They were both crying. Then marster said, “Men, women and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.” Marster and missus then went into the house, got two large arm chairs, put them on the porch facing the avenue, and sat down side by side and remained there watching. In about an hour there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road. It was the Yankee soldiers… They called the slaves, saying “You are free.” Slaves were whooping and laughing and acting like they were crazy. Yankee soldiers were shaking hands with the Negroes and… asking them questions. They busted the door to the smoke house and got all the hams. They went to the icehouse and got several barrels of brandy, and such a time. The Negroes and Yankees were cooking and eating together… Marster and missus sat on the porch and they were so humble no Yankee bothered anything in the great house. 

After the initial euphoria of freedom, however, freed slaves faced daunting challenges, including finding work, food, and shelter in the midst of general chaos and economic paralysis. Thousands of displaced and dispossessed slaves trailed behind Sherman’s army, forming a growing column of refugees that hindered its mobility, or simply wandered the countryside more or less aimlessly. 

To help provide for these people and manage the transition to a post-slavery society, on March 3, 1865 Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was given wide responsibilities but limited resources to carry them out, including providing former slaves health care, education, job training, work placement, and physical and legal protection. 

Of these its greatest successes were probably in education, as it helped independent charities and aid organizations establish hundreds of schools across the South, where hundreds of thousands of freed slaves learned how to read and write. By contrast the legal and physical protections extended to freedmen depended in the short term on the continuing presence of Federal troops, and in the long term on Congress demanding recognition of African-American rights as a condition for restoring sovereignty to conquered Confederate states. Unfortunately congressional commitment to enforcing the rights of freedmen, technically guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, proved lacking next to the demands of political expediency and reconciliation with Southern whites. 

In the immediate postwar years, records of the legal activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau provide a unique window into the daily lives of freedmen, and the problems they faced in their dealings with white neighbors and employers, as well as with each other. Complaints about unpaid wages were common, as whites tried to exploit freedmen by relying on intimidation and the lack of alternative employment to extract free labor; freedmen also often complained about neighbors, both white and black, “borrowing” livestock or tools without returning it. 

Family disputes also crop up, as in this record from Augusta County, Virginia, dated November 16, 1865: “Eliza Jackson complains that her Brother Samuel turned her out of Doors and drove her from his House under circumstances perticularly trying to her and refused to pay her her wages which he collected from her Employer.” Another dramatic slice of life dated March 5, 1866, reads: “Maria Miller… complains that Robert Coleman… deceived her by promise of marriage and now refuses to have anything to do with her.” In an entry from April 1866, “Allan Lewis… complains that his two daughters… aged 22, the other 16, have been seduced; and the oldest by a white man the youngest by a colored man who has a wife and two children; both the girls have children, he asked that some action may be taken to compel these men to contribute to support of the children.” 

Lincoln Looks Ahead and Above

On March 4, 1865, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase first administered the oath of office to the new Vice President, Andrew Johnson – a Democrat from Tennessee, who was chosen to demonstrate the new administration’s desire for reconciliation. Before the oath was administered in the Senate chamber, Johnson, apparently totally inebriated, delivered a rambling speech that prompted Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells to whisper to Stanton, “Johnson is either drunk or crazy.” Johnson’s relations with Stanton and Congress would deteriorate even more after he ascended to the presidency. 

The inauguration party next moved on to the steps of the Capitol, where Chase administered the oath of office to Lincoln in front of large, enthusiastic crowd. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (top) was another tour de force from the master orator, melding practical matters with philosophical and even mystic concerns. After reviewing the causes and course of the war over the four eventful years since his first inauguration, Lincoln reminded his listeners that God’s will is mysterious, seeming to imply that the war was a punishment as much for the North as the South, and urged them to prepare for reconciliation with their erstwhile enemies:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

After the speech Frederick Douglass congratulated the president, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” The actor John Wilkes Booth, who was also probably present, doubtless felt differently.

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.