Lt. George E. Dixon Camp 1962
Sons of Confederate Veterans
Everyone should be familiar with the old saying, “The light at the end of the tunnel? It’s a train.” Where the Confederacy was concerned during the summer of 1864, several few bright prospects for the struggling Confederacy invariably turned into a figurative runaway train, as two major Union armies rampaged through the South, pinning down the two largest Confederate States armies under Generals Lee and Johnston.
To be sure, the United States had its own issues, chief among them war weariness. Many up north were fed up with the repeated calls from President Lincoln for more troops and almost all were shaken by the incredible loss of lives at battles such as Cold Harbor. Politically, there were no guarantees that Lincoln would gain reelection in November although, to his benefit, the Democrat Party effectively split in two, with one faction – the “War Democrats” – pushing for continuation of the war to victory and restoration of the Union and the other – the “Peace Democrats” – ready to throw in the towel and allow the South to go its own way.
It didn’t help that in early July, the Confederate Army of the Valley (the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia) under Lt Gen Jubal Early came flying out of the Shenandoah Valley, turned right, defeated a thrown-together force under Maj Gen Lew Wallace at Monocacy and then threatened Washington DC. With the US capitals’ defenses stripped down to some 9000 men, politicians and local military commanders howled for reinforcements; by the time Early’s force of 10,000 men arrived on DC’s outskirts, the city had been boosted to 20,000 by the arrival of VI and XIX Corps. Over 11-12 July, the Confederates attempted to penetrate the capital’s defenses in the vicinity of Fort Stevens on the northwest side of the city. They failed; most of the Southerners were exhausted and Early himself was unsure of the size and capability of the Northern forces he faced (most of the recent Union reinforcements were battle-tested veterans of the Army of the Potomac and they were in a particularly foul mood about the proceedings). Early pulled his army off the line, crossed the Potomac and headed south, hounded by 40,000 Yankees under Maj Gen Phil Sheridan.
Down in Georgia, Gen John Bell Hood had relieved Gen Joseph E. “Retreatin’ Joe’” Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee on 17 July 1864; at the time that army was south of the Chattahoochee River, only a few miles in front of Atlanta. Hood immediately hit Maj Gen George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland at Peachtree Creek and was repulsed. A second battle on 20 July – the “official” Battle of Atlanta – ended similarly, with the Confederates falling back. However, the Union suffered a major loss with the death of Maj Gen John B. McPherson, who had relieved William T. Sherman as commander of the Army of the Tennessee. His West Point classmate John Hood subsequently wrote, “I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend…the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow…neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship.” Another Union victory, at Jonesborough over 31 August-1 September, forced Hood to evacuate south, leaving Atlanta wide open to Sherman.
The situation further north proved equally grim. The lead Northern elements, consisting of 30,000 men under Maj Gen William F. “Baldy” Smith and Maj Gen Winfield Scott Hancock, hit Petersburg’s outer line of defenses on 15 July. Over the next two days, 5400 Confederate defenders fought hard under the leadership of Gen P.G.T. Beauregard but had to consistently give ground. The arrival of reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia stiffened the Confederate lines; the arrival of Lee and the rest of Army into Petersburg’s defenses ended any chance the north had of quickly taking the city and, by extension, Richmond. The famous (or infamous) “Battle of the Crater,” on 30 July, only briefly opened a hole in the Confederate lines. The Southern defenders slaughtered the Union troops who rushed into the crater and quickly rebuilt their defense; Grant later commented the fiasco was “…the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”
With the Army of Northern Virginia pretty much surrounded at Petersburg and the Army of Tennessee retreating away from Tennessee, Confederate prospects could not have looked bleaker. However, things did get worse during the terrible month of August. On 5 August, a US Navy fleet commanded by Rear Adm David G. Farragut successfully ran the defenses of Mobile Bay – Fort Morgan to the east and Forts Gaines and Powell to the west, plus several smaller defenses and gun positions – and destroyed a small Confederate fleet under the command of Adm Franklin Buchanan.
During the battle, the monitor USS Tecumseh went down, the victim of a mine (leading to Adm Farragut’s famous “Damn the torpedoes!” command), the ironclad CSS Tennessee was battered into submission (Adm Buchanan was wounded in the process) and the US Navy gained control of the bay.
On 23 August, the city of Mobile surrendered to the Union forces. The loss of the Gulf Coast city left the Confederate states with only one viable port for blockade runners, Wilmington, NC.