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Fall of the South: Last Hurrah, Final Words

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

March 25-28, 1865: Last Hurrah, Final Words

In the last days of March 1865 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee made one final, desperate attempt to break out of the Siege of Petersburg – and almost succeeded, with a daring nighttime attack briefly piercing the Union lines at the Battle of Fort Stedman on March 25. But the attack soon dissipated in confusion as the rebels were thwarted by unfamiliar surroundings, giving their foes time to bring up reinforcements and recover the lost ground. Two days later, Abraham Lincoln had his last face-to-face meeting with his top commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. His orders were clear: end the war as soon as possible.

Battle of Fort Stedman

As spring approached the Southern cause was all but lost. Following Lincoln’s repeated rejections of a negotiated peace and the defeat of Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the South at the Battle of Bentonville, Lee recognized that the only chance of prolonging resistance lay in somehow breaking out of the Siege of Petersburg, where Grant’s Army of the Potomac held it in a tightening vise, and joining forces with Johnston’s army, now falling back towards Raleigh, NC. With luck their combined armies might be able to defeat Sherman before the latter was able to join forces with Grant. True, abandoning the defense of Petersburg would mean turning the Confederate capital at Richmond over to the Yankees – but if the two main Union armies linked up, it was all over anyway. Desperate measures were now appropriate. 

The problem was how to extricate the Army of Northern Virginia from its defensive positions in front of Petersburg without being immediately attacked by the much larger Union Army of the Potomac. At this point Major General John B. Gordon suggested a bold plan: he would lead a force of around 10,000 veteran infantry in a surprise, early morning attack on a thinly-held point in the Union lines. 

Gordon pointed out that the bulk of Grant’s Union troops were now stretched out in a long arc tracing the Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg, while to the east of the city Fort Stedman was held by a relatively weak skeleton force. A breakthrough here would allow the rebels to threaten the Union supply hub at City Point, which would in turn force Grant to shorten his lines southwest of the city to counter the Confederate offensive. This, hopefully accompanied by chaos behind the Union lines, would give the rest of the Confederate army a chance to slip away. 

Lee agreed to Gordon’s proposal and the last rebel offensive of the war began at 4 am on the morning of March 25, 1865. After Confederate pioneer companies cleared defensive obstacles, an advance force of 300 elite troops stealthily approached the Union pickets (advance guard posts) and overwhelmed them without a shot fired; some may have tricked the guards by claiming to be deserters. Now with the way cleared the rest of the rebel infantry could attack in force, advancing in silence in order to maintain the element of surprise (below, the Union front lines near Fort Stedman). 

With numbers on their side for once, the Confederates stormed a Union artillery battery and immediately attacked Fort Stedman from the rear. George Kilmer, a Union officer from New York, recalled what happened next: “The Confederates climbed over the parapets and in at the embrasures, and it was so dark that the garrison could not distinguish their own men from the enemy. Finding it impossible to hold the fort, the officers and men of the garrison who could get away took shelter on the outside of the parapets, and continued the fight with muskets.” 

From Fort Stedman the rebels turned to each side and began “rolling up” the Union trenches with flank attacks; the main attack centered on nearby Fort Haskell, but by now the alarm was going up in the Union ranks. With their cover blown there was no point in staying quiet, so now the Confederate artillery opened up.  Kilmer described the chaotic scene:

The Confederate forts opposite us gave a response more fierce than ever, and a body of sharp-shooters posted within easy range sent us showers of minies [Minié Balls, a type of rifle bullet]. The air was full of shells, and on glancing up one saw, as it were, a flock of blackbirds with blazing tails beating about in a gale. At first the shells did not explode. Their fuses were too long, so they fell intact, and the fires went out. Sometimes they rolled about like foot-balls, or bounded along the parapet and landed in the watery ditch. But when at last the Confederate gunners got the range, their shots became murderous. 

Another Union soldier, Richard Clow, painted a similar picture 

It was a splendid thing. The roar of the cannon was very tarific [sic]; it was louder than any thunder storm… We could hear each charge they made. The rebs would run with a kind of yelp like so many hounds and our boys would rush on cheer and shout which could be heard for many miles around… The old veterans said they never heard or saw heavier cannonading or more shells in the air at a time. 

However the rebel offensive was already running into some unexpected obstacles – or rather, their absence. Gordon had planned to press on to capture three more forts believed to be directly behind Fort Stedman, but the forts were nowhere to be seen; it turned out Confederates were mistaken about their location, reflecting the difficulties involved in battlefield reconnaissance at this time. Without their next objectives in sight, the Confederate assault began to lose momentum. Furthermore the defensive works the rebels did manage to capture proved to be a confusing warren of intersecting earthworks (below, a “bombproof” at Fort Stedman). John C. Tidball, an artillery officer in the Union Army, described the environment encountered by the Confederate attackers at Fort Stedman: 

For tenth months it had been growing up under the close and searching fire of the enemy, and had become a labyrinth of bomb-proofs, traverses, gopher holes, huts, and all in every imaginable manner of irregularity. Even those who knew the place well could not find their way about in the dark. Getting over and into this labyrinth broke entirely the enemy’s formation, and before they could reform for a forward movement, such a pelting fire of artillery was brought to bear upon them as to cause them to seek shelter in the bomb-proofs, behind traverses, or wherever else they could find cover. 

Meanwhile Union forces were already rallying to recapture Fort Stedman. Although there was later some dispute among Union officers about who should get the credit for turning the tide (the Confederate commander Gordon was also known for “exaggerating” some details in his later accounts of the battle), Union troops from a number of units charged bravely in the face of point blank cannon and rifle fire, some of it coming from their own captured artillery.   

Elisha Rhodes, a Union Colonel from Rhode Island, portrayed the Union counterattack at Fort Stedman in glowing terms: “It was a superb sight: the long lines of infantry gradually closing in on the front, the clouds of smoke that marked the line, the grand rush and the cheers of victory as the troops passed the ditch, mounted the parapet and planted their colors.” But the truth, as always, was much more bloody, as described by Milton A. Embick, a soldier from Pennsylvania: “They started forward as though on dress parade, firing as they went, which I thought was murder… their men plunging forward, staggering backward, or sinking limp as they were shot…” 

At the same time rebels were subjected to a withering crossfire from Fort Haskell and Union artillery batteries. Kilmer recalled the “fearful slaughter”: 

My mind sickens at the memory of it – a real tragedy in war – for the victims had ceased fighting, and were now struggling between imprisonment on the one hand, and death or home on the other. Suddenly an officer on a white horse rode out… and attempted to rally the panic-stricken mass… But our muskets were well aimed, and the new ranks were thinned out with every volley. The party crossed the ravine, and there the leader fell, shot through the head.

With Union reserves rushing to the scene, it was clear the attack had failed in its main aim, and the rebels beat a hasty retreat – so hasty, in fact, that the Union commanders seized the opportunity to occupy their front-line pickets, denuded of men for the attack on Fort Stedman. The Union soldiers quickly dug into the captured positions, giving them an excellent jumping-off point for an attack on the rebel defenses. Gordon’s gamble had failed, and now the rebels would pay the price. 

Lincoln’s Last War Council 

Two days after the Confederacy’s last hurrah at Fort Stedman, Lincoln met Grant and Sherman for what would prove to be the last time on March 27-28, 1865. Before the meeting Lincoln rode to the Union positions outside Petersburg, where he witnessed part of the Battle of Fort Stedman and visited wounded Union soldiers. While he was doing this Sherman had to make a lengthy journey up from North Carolina aboard a captured Confederate blockade-runner. 

The president then met his generals aboard River Queen (the steamship on which Lincoln had met the Confederate peace envoys just a few months before) anchored at City Point, Virginia (top, a copy of “The Peacemakers,” originally painted by George P.A. Healy in 1868). Alone together in the ship’s saloon, over meetings on two consecutive days Lincoln asked questions about their experiences and, in typical fashion, told a few amusing anecdotes of his own. But according to Admiral David Porter, who was also present on at least one of the two days, the meetings were dominated by how to approach the endgame of four years of unimaginable bloodshed, and what to do with the defeated Confederacy afterwards. 

Lincoln was pleased with the North’s military progress, but also worried that Lee – ever the wily master of battlefield strategy – would still somehow manage to slip away and join up with Johnston in North Carolina, as he’d just tried to do. Grant and Sherman tried to set his mind at rest, promising that Lee wouldn’t escape.

Lincoln also took great pains to emphasize that the war would only end with Southern acceptance of the abolition of slavery as enacted by the Thirteenth Amendment. However, he also wanted to end the war as quickly as possible, and was willing to be relatively lenient towards the defeated rebels if they acceded to these main demands. He also hoped to avoid the necessity of “mopping up” pockets of rebel resistance at great length. According to Sherman’s later account, Lincoln seemed to favor easy terms for Reconstruction: 

Mr. Lincoln was full and frank in his conversation, assuring me that in his mind he was all ready for the civil reorganization of affairs at the South as soon as the war was over; and he distinctly authorized me to assure Governor Vance and the people of North Carolina that, as soon as the rebel armies laid down their arms, and resumed their civil pursuits, they would at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country, and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto til Congress could provide others. 

Lincoln himself was clearly exhausted but determined to see the war through to its end, Sherman recalled: “When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard, but the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship.” 

Indeed, Lincoln was optimistic that the end of the war was near, saying there had been “enough bloodshed,” and hoped Grant and Sherman could bring their foes, Lee and Johnston, to terms at once. However, his generals respectfully demurred, venturing that there would be at least one more major battle before the enemy’s will was broken. In fact Grant’s plans were already in motion: the final, all-out assault on the rebel lines at Petersburg would begin on March 29. 

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

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A Secret Room Full of Michelangelo's Sketches Will Soon Open in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Parents all over the world have chastised their children for drawing on the walls. But when you're Michelangelo, you've got some leeway. According to The Local, the Medici Chapels, part of the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy, has announced that it plans to open a largely unseen room full of the artist's sketches to the public by 2020.

Roughly 40 years ago, curators of the chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo had a very Dan Brown moment when they discovered a trap door in a wardrobe leading to an underground room that appeared to have works from Michelangelo covering its walls. The tiny retreat is thought to be a place where the artist hid out in 1530 after upsetting the Medicis—his patrons—by joining a revolt against their control of Florence. While in self-imposed exile for several months, he apparently spent his time drawing on whatever surfaces were available.

A drawing by Michelangelo under the Medici Chapels in Florence
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Museum officials previously believed the room and the charcoal drawings were too fragile to risk visitors, but have since had a change of heart, leading to their plan to renovate the building and create new attractions. While not all of the work is thought to be attributable to the famed artist, there's enough of it in the subterranean chamber—including drawings of Jesus and even recreations of portions of the Sistine Chapel—to make a trip worthwhile.

[h/t The Local]

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