Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview

7 * THE FALL OF THE CONFEDERACY
JULY 1864-MARCH 1865

Lincoln and Seward met them at Fortress Monroe and told them that
nothing but unconditional surrender would be accepted. That is we would
lay down our arms—go to our homes and submit to the laws of the
Washington government; in other words have our property confiscated, our
slaves emancipated, our leaders hung, and we become serfs in the land
of our fathers, then he (Abraham 1st) might exercise his pardoning power
with liberality. We have the alternatives of submission or war
.

—Charles F.James, February 7, 1865

Virginia Confederates started the second half of 1864 in their weakest military position since the war began. Although they had inflicted massive casualties on Grant’s armies, they had suffered immensely. The Overland campaign cost Lee’s army 33,000 casualties.1 Worse still, they had been driven back to within twenty miles of Richmond. The summer of 1864 brought uncertainty among Confederates, unsure if they could repulse the Yankees or even hold them at bay. In the Shenandoah Valley, long a bellwether of Confederate fortunes, Confederate troops were decisively beaten and driven into disarray. By late 1864, it became clear to most soldiers that the Union would defeat the Confederacy. The pressure on supplies denied sustenance to both civilians and soldiers, divisions among Confederates flared, and Lincoln’s reelection signaled the political failure of the Confederate military effort.

In response to their impending defeat, men began leaving the army in the winter of 1864–65, and this process escalated through the spring. Poorer soldiers may well have been overrepresented among those men who abandoned the army in late 1864 and early 1865.2 Their families suffered more than wealthier families, and they may have decided that the likelihood of Union victory finally made resistance futile. Nonetheless, soldiers’ decisions to leave in late 1864 and early 1865 did not necessarily convey their abandonment of the Confederacy’s war goals.3 Rather, they recognized the impending defeat of the Confederacy. As the debates over slave soldiers and the Peace Commission in early 1865 would show, many soldiers remained committed to the goals of the Confederacy even after they realized that the state

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