Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Gettysburg

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The fighting at Gettysburg was ferocious, as if Lee knew this was his last chance to take the war to the North. After the battle, Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the most costly in US history.

During the Civil War, the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee scored numerous tactical victories.  Like his distant relation George Washington who was over-matched by the British during the Revolutionary War, Lee was most skilled at ensuring that no single Confederate defeat was decisive. On the other hand, the much more populous Union simply mustered new armies and tried again after each battle. Believing that the North’s crushing defeat at Chancellorsville gave him his chance to go on the offensive, Lee struck northward into Pennsylvania at the beginning of July 1863, almost reaching the state capital at Harrisburg. A strong Union force intercepted him at Gettysburg, where, in a titanic three‑day battle—the largest of the Civil War—the Confederates made a valiant effort to break the Union lines. They failed, and on July 4 Lee’s army, after crippling losses, retreated behind the Potomac.  The Battle of Gettysburg would be the last serious Southern offensive of the war.  From that time onward, the war was entirely defensive on their part.

More than 3,000 Union soldiers and almost 4,000 Confederates died at Gettysburg; wounded and missing totaled more than 20,000 on each side. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln dedicated a new national cemetery there with perhaps the most famous address in U.S. history, his so-called Gettysburg Address, running approximately 250 words.  This speech elevated the symbolic meaning of the war, serving as a reaffirmation of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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A crowd of citizens and soldiers gather around Abraham Lincoln (indicated with a red arrow) as he delivers his Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

Unconditional Surrender

On the Mississippi, Union control had been blocked at Vicksburg, where the Confederates had strongly fortified themselves on bluffs too high for naval attack. In early 1863 Grant began to move below and around Vicksburg, subjecting it to a six‑week siege. On July 4, he captured the town, together with the strongest Confederate Army in the West. The river was now entirely in Union hands. The Confederacy was broken in two, and it became almost impossible to bring supplies from Texas and Arkansas.

The Northern victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the turning point of the war, although the bloodshed continued unabated for more than a year-and-a-half.

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Lincoln brought Grant east and made him commander-in-chief of all Union forces. In May 1864 Grant advanced deep into Virginia and met Lee’s Confederate Army in the three-day Battle of the Wilderness. Losses on both sides were heavy, but unlike other Union commanders, Grant refused to retreat.

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Sherman’s men destroying a railroad in Atlanta.

In the West, Union forces gained control of Tennessee in the fall of 1863 with victories at Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Mountain, opening the way for General William T. Sherman to invade Georgia – his so-called March to the Sea. Sherman outmaneuvered several smaller Confederate armies, occupied the state capital of Atlanta, then marched to the Atlantic coast, systematically destroying railroads, factories, warehouses, and other facilities in his path. He also liberated slaves under the authority of the Emancipation Proclamation – all of this reduced Southern capacity to feed and supply itself and brought the destruction of war to its homefront.  Sherman said, “I will make Georgia howl!” His men, cut off from their normal supply lines, ravaged the countryside for food. From the coast, Sherman marched northward; by February 1865, he had taken Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. Sherman, more than any other Union general, understood that destroying the will and morale of the South was as important as defeating its armies.

With Malice Toward None

For the North, the war produced a still greater hero in Abraham Lincoln—a man eager, above all else, to weld the Union together again, not by force and repression but by warmth and generosity. In 1864 he had been elected for a second term as president, defeating his Democratic opponent, George McClellan, the general he had dismissed after Antietam.

At a time when victory over secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery in all of the Union was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness.  He sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated South by reminding his listeners of how wrong both sides had been in imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier.  Lincoln balanced that rejection of triumphalism, however, with recognition of the unmistakable evil of slavery, envisioning the war as the nation’s penance.  Lincoln’s second inaugural address closed with these words:

“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 bond-man’s 250 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 3,000 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.”

Peace at Last

Grant, meanwhile, lay siege to Petersburg, Virginia for nine months, before Lee, in March 1865, knew that he had to abandon both Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond in an attempt to retreat south. But it was too late. On April 9, 1865, surrounded by huge Union armies, Lee surrendered to Grant at the town of Appomattox Courthouse. Although scattered fighting continued elsewhere for several months, the Civil War was over.

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Wilmer McLean was an American wholesale grocer from Virginia. His house near Manassas, Virginia, was involved in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. After the battle he moved to Appomattox, Virginia, to escape the war thinking that it would be safe. Instead, in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in McLean’s house in Appomattox. His houses were, therefore, involved in one of the first and one of the last encounters of the American Civil War.

The terms of surrender at Appomattox were magnanimous, and on his return from his meeting with Lee, Grant quieted the noisy demonstrations of his soldiers by reminding them: “The rebels are our countrymen again.” The war for Southern independence had become the “lost cause,” whose hero, Robert E. Lee, had won wide admiration through the brilliance of his leadership and his greatness in defeat.

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The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped promulgate the Lost Cause’s ideology – that the Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery – through the construction of numerous memorials, such as this one in Tennessee.

Two days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln delivered his last public address, in which he unfolded a generous reconstruction policy. On April 14, 1865, the president held what was to be his last Cabinet meeting. That evening—with his wife and a young couple who were his guests—he attended a performance at Ford’s Theater. There, as he sat in the presidential box, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Virginia actor embittered by the South’s defeat. Booth was killed in a shootout two weeks later in a barn in the Virginia countryside. His accomplices were captured and later executed.

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John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 14,1865. Moments later Booth would leap from the balcony onto the stage, yelling to the audience in Latin, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants”)

Lincoln died in a downstairs bedroom of a house across the street from Ford’s Theater on the morning of April 15.

Reconstruction

The first great task confronting the victorious North—now under the leadership of Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union—was to determine the status of the states that had seceded. Lincoln had already set the stage. In his view, the people of the Southern states had never legally seceded; they had been misled by some disloyal citizens into a defiance of federal authority. And since the war was the act of individuals, the federal government would have to deal with these individuals and not with the states. Thus, in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed that if in any state 10 percent of the voters of record in 1860 would form a government loyal to the U.S. Constitution and would acknowledge obedience to the laws of the Congress and the proclamations of the president, he would recognize the government so created as the state’s legal government.

Congress rejected this plan. Many Republicans feared it would simply entrench former rebels in power; they challenged Lincoln’s right to deal with the rebel states without consultation. Some members of Congress advocated severe punishment for all the seceded states; others simply felt the war would have been in vain if the old Southern establishment was restored to power. Yet even before the war was wholly over, new governments had been set up in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

To deal with one of its major concerns—the condition of former slaves—Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865 to act as guardian over African Americans and guide them toward self-support. And in December of that year, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery except as punishment for a crime.

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An 1866 poster attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for giving recently freed slaves what some whites considered to be unfair advantages. The Freedmen’s Bureau aided these freed slaves, who had no education, savings, or property after their sudden freedom from a lifetime of servitude, by providing them with food, clothing, and shelter on a temporary basis as they were liberated. The Bureau also helped African Americans find family members from whom they had become separated during the war. It arranged to teach them to read and write since they had been denied these skills while enslaved. The Bureau also encouraged former major planters to rebuild their plantations and urged freed blacks to return to work for them.

Throughout the summer of 1865 Johnson proceeded to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction program, with minor modifications. By presidential proclamation he appointed a governor for each of the former Confederate states and freely restored political rights to many Southerners through use of presidential pardons.

In due time conventions were held in each of the former Confederate states to repeal the ordinances of secession and draft new state constitutions. Johnson called upon each convention to invalidate the secession, free all slaves within their borders, and ratify the 13th Amendment.

Wide public support in the North gradually developed for those members of Congress who believed that African Americans should be given full citizenship. Congress passed a 14th Amendment to the Constitution, stating that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This repudiated the Dred Scott ruling, which had denied slaves their right of citizenship.

All the Southern state legislatures, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendment, some voting against it unanimously. In addition, Southern state legislatures passed “Black Codes” to regulate the African-American freedmen. The codes differed from state to state, but some provisions were common. African Americans across the South were required to enter into annual labor contracts with white landowners, often their former masters, with penalties of jail imposed in case of violation; children were subject to compulsory apprenticeship and corporal punishments by masters; vagrants could be sold into private service if they could not pay severe fines.

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The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army as a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans.

Many Northerners interpreted the Southern response as an attempt to reestablish slavery and repudiate the hard-won Union victory in the Civil War. It did not help that Johnson, although a Unionist, was a Southern Democrat with an addiction to intemperate rhetoric and an aversion to political compromise. Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866. Firmly in power, the Radicals imposed their own vision of Reconstruction.

In the Reconstruction Act of March 1867, Congress, ignoring the governments that had been established in the Southern states, divided the South into five military districts, each administered by a Union general. Escape from permanent military government was open to those states that established civil governments, ratified the 14th Amendment, and adopted African-American suffrage. Supporters of the Confederacy who had not taken oaths of loyalty to the United States generally could not vote. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. The 15th Amendment, passed by Congress the following year and ratified in 1870 by state legislatures, provided that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

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Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867.  Black Codes and violence would soon suppress the black vote, ending scenes like this, and ensuring that, despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the old white masters remained firmly in control of the South.  

The word slavery would die with the 13th Amendment, but the practice would continue – barely altered – using tools like Black Codes, tenant farming, debt, segregation, lynching, police intimidation, mass incarceration, and other forms of extralegal violence well into the 1960s and beyond.  Slavery had ended, but institutional racism would live on into the modern day.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. A Nation Divided: The American Civil War
  2. The Civil War and Reconstruction

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