This Astounding Close

This is Mark Bradley’s book about the end of the Civil War in the Western Theater, which by 1865 was in North Carolina. Go figure. 🙂

Bradley does an excellent job in detailing the maneuvers and actions that led to Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to William T. Sherman. This may have been Johnston’s finest performance as a general. “By keeping his army intact and as much as eighty miles from Sherman’s, the Confederate commander was able to negotiate from a position of strength. Sherman knew that Johnston could have led his army on a march into the Deep South and prolonged the war indefinitely, and this knowledge contributed to his decision to offer his adversary generous terms. When Sherman’s original surrender agreement was disapproved in Washington, a persistent Johnston still managed to obtain better terms for his troops than Lee’s soldiers had received at Appomattox. … It was Lee’s surrender, not Sherman’s half-hearted pursuit, that induced Johnston to negotiate with his Federal counterpart. Though Sherman’s role as peacemaker should not be dismissed, it was Johnston who initiated the negotiations and dictated the first proposed terms, which no doubt influenced Sherman’s own first agreement.” [pp. xiii-xiv]

Bradley tells us, “When Sherman began his Carolinas campaign on February 1, 1865, his grand army–or ‘army group,’ as it would be called today–numbered 60,079 officers and men. The core of this army consisted of veteran volunteers who had enlisted during the first two years of the war and then reenlisted in 1864 after their two-and three-year terms had expired. These campaign-toughened veterans were the survivors of what one soldier called ‘a rigorous weeding-out process’ effected by Rebel bullets, hardship, and disease. Moreover, prior to both the Savannah and Carolinas campaigns, Sherman directed the Medical Department to examine all soldiers with health problems and ship out those deemed unfit for active campaigning. As a result, the army that Sherman led into South Carolina was a seasoned fighting force that in the closing months of the war had no equal. Sherman’s grand army consisted of four infantry corps and one cavalry division–the Fifteenth Corps and Seventeenth Corps in the Army of the Tennessee, the Fourteenth Corps and Twentieth Corps in the Army of Georgia, and the Third Cavalry Division. Most regiments were of western origin, although many Twentieth Corps units had served in the Army of the Potomac before their transfer to the western theater in the fall of 1863. Since September 1864, Sherman’s grand army had captured Atlanta and Savannah and had marched unchecked through the rich farming region of Georgia, encountering only weak and scattered opposition. By early 1865, the faith of the soldiers in ‘Uncle Billy’ Sherman was absolute.” [p. 4]

On the confederate side, Jefferson Davis yielded to Robert E. Lee’s recommendation and placed Joseph E. Eggleston in command of the forces opposed to Sherman. Johnston wasn’t thrilled. “Not only did Johnston believe that he lacked the resources to defeat Sherman, he was also convinced that President Davis–his old nemesis–had placed him in command so that he would be the one to surrender. Johnston assumed command believing that the most the Confederacy could gain by prolonging the war was ‘fair terms of peace.’ ” [p. 8] The previous month, Davis had ordered Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard to transfer what was left of the Army of Tennessee to South Carolina. “The soldiers traveled the 500 miles from Tupelo to Augusta on foot, by boat, and by train. Only a few arrived in time to dispute Sherman’s march through the Palmetto State; the remainder marched on roads west of the Federals. Discipline was uncertain at best: a Texan branded his comrades ‘a set of thieves,’ noting that they ‘behaved shamefully all the way around from Tupelo, Mississippi,’ yet he explained that their plundering compensated for lost pay and nonexistent whiskey and tobacco rations. Beauregard’s quartermaster, Capt. John M. Goodman, called the Army of Tennessee ‘a complete mob. I have never witnessed so much demoralization in my life. I have feared for my life in contending with our troops and in the attempt to keep them in some kind of discipline.’ ” [p. 10]

Sherman’s troops have a popular reputation for destruction. Southerners of the time dissent for many of them. “If the residents of Goldsboro had few kind words for Sherman’s troops, they had mostly praise for the conduct of Schofield’s men–particularly the 9th New Jersey. Because it was the first Federal regiment to enter Goldsboro, the 9th received the honor of serving as the town’s provost guard. The New Jersey soldiers earned the gratitude of the locals by maintaining law and order. The 9th’s historian noted that whenever some of Sherman’s troops came into town wanting ‘to paint things red,’ the New Jersey men swiftly rounded them up and tossed them into jail. As a result, when rumors spread that the 9th was to be relieved of provost duty, hundreds of citizens signed a petition urging General Schofield to reconsider. Much to the townspeople’s satisfaction, the 9th New Jersey remained at its post until the army’s departure.” [p. 39]

Bradley deeply researched this book and weaved together a narrative that provides detailed accounts of what each commander tried to do, as well as giving the details of the actions the two armies conducted in North Carolina.

This is an excellent book, and I can highly recommend it for any student of the war looking for an understanding of what happened in North Carolina and how Joseph E. Johnston was able to get highly favorable terms from William T. Sherman.

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