Contrary to the opinion of even those Americans with a a fair amount of familiarity with their county’s history, the Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant talking quietly across a parlor table in an Appomattox farm house on Sunday morning, April 9, 1865. Lee and Grant did meet on that morning and by four that afternoon the Army of Northern Virginia, the largest, most powerful, and famous of Confederate forces still in the field, had stacked its arms, furled its flags, and marched off into history. However, other Confederate troops remained ready for combat and some in the Confederate government were determined not to accept defeat whatever the odds against them. The Confederacy died slowly and in stages, like an old oak passing, and not all were willing to accept its death.
Chief among those refusing to accept reality was Confederate president Jefferson Davis, autocratic in his style, unbending in his convictions, and unyielding in his resolution to continue the struggle. Despite the continual setbacks which had marked the last half of 1864 and the steadily accumulating calamities which punctuated the end of winter and beginning of spring of 1865, Davis remained convinced that the South could yet escape defeat—and more than that, yet gain the elusive final victory that would result in independence from the hated Union. All that was required, Davis insisted, was for the soldiers and citizens of the Confederacy to be as firm in their faith as he was. Sheer determination and unbreakable spirit, not numbers or battles, would determine the victor of this war.
As the disasters mounted and his actual options contracted, Davis sought ever newer and more implausible means of transforming defeat into victory. The Confederate armies in the east would unite, smash Sherman in North Carolina, then turn against Grant in Virginia. If that possibility faded (and it did, relatively quickly) then Davis would escape across the lower South to join Nathan Bedford Forrest in Alabama to rally support anew to the cause. Should that prove impossible (as it would) then Davis would make his way, either by land or by boat, across the Gulf of Mexico to the “Trans-Mississippi,” where General Kirby Smith had commanded a virtually separate Confederacy since the fall of Vicksburg in July, 1863. Wherever and however, Davis was confident the Confederacy would triumph.
Davis held and articulated his position of no surrender and ultimate victory passionately, but he held it almost alone. His generals and his own cabinet disagreed. Outside Richmond, Robert E. Lee was barely holding open the rail lines into Richmond against Grant’s siege at Petersburg; once those lines were cut, the Confederate capital was doomed and Lee’s army would probably be hunted down and destroyed unless it surrendered. In North Carolina, only a couple of hundred miles to the south of Richmond, Joseph E. Johnston faced Sherman’s army, which had captured Atlanta, marched to the sea, and then cut up through the Carolinas, tearing through the heart of the Confederacy. Both Lee and Johnston saw their armies shrinking daily, with desertions taking away more men than battles. It was only a matter of time.
Time, and how to use it to the Confederacy’s last advantage, was also on the mind of Davis’s cabinet officers, especially John C. Breckinridge, his secretary of war. Breckinridge, who had served as vice president of the United States and had been the candidate of the southern wing of the Democratic Party in the 1860 election, was an aristocratic Kentuckian with the common touch, respected and admired throughout the South. From the moment Breckinridge accepted the position in Davis’s cabinet in January 1865, his thoughts and efforts had been bent to ending the war quickly and with a minimum of anger and resentment on either side. Accepting that slavery was irrevocably ended, Breckinridge yet hoped to retain a good measure of the South’s political strength and cultural heritage, but it all depended on striking an agreement with the Union before the Confederate armies were ground into powder and peace imposed by the bayonet. Most of all, peace had to come decisively and as a result of Confederate efforts, rather than amid the confusion of the government’s collapse. “This has been a magnificent epic,” Breckinridge wrote, “In God’s name, let it not terminate in a farce.”
What Breckinridge feared as farce, Jefferson Davis embraced as a final chance for victory. As secretary of war, Breckinridge sought an understanding that would have Robert E. Lee call for an end to the struggle. As the South’s greatest hero and in...
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