“The Civil War & Lincoln’s Beard” by Jim Peters
Regular contributor Jim Peters continues his articles on the American Civil War:
The Civil War is a difficult topic because there is so much history to it. Many of the park lands have been saved over the century plus that the war was fought. Jim Lighthizer is the President of the Civil War Preservation Trust, which has saved thousands of acres of prime battle site real estate and is vying with Wal Mart to save part of the area where the Battle of the Wilderness was fought. The Battle of the Wilderness was the site of some of the most costly and ferocious fighting of the war. Grant literally sent thousands of men to their deaths in his handling of the battle, but without Grant, there would have been no satisfactory end of the war. Thousands died so that many more thousands could live. Grant did not have the love of his men that his subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, had. He was not as well loved but he did have one thing in common with Mr. Lincoln. Both felt that large losses may be necessary in order to save the Union. Grant wanted to save the Union. He had the rank of Lieutenant General, a position previously only held by George Washington. As such, he served the President of the United States directly, and that President was Abraham Lincoln.
The Battle of the Wilderness, begun in the summer of 1864, was a bloodbath. Sherman was active in the Battle of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and would continue with his 100,000 men, the move up from Atlanta towards Richmond, Virginia. Grant was mired in the forests outside of Richmond. The goal of the northern army was the capture of St. Petersburg and Richmond. Soon, the goal of occupying Richmond, whose citizens were literally eating cooked rats to survive, was acheived. Richmond was a proud city and the woman of the city literally came up with recipes for cooking rats. They apparently published the recipes in a book.
Surrender of the city was caused by Grant’s movement around the city and attack on the city. Lincoln was so pleased by the surrender of Richmond, that he boarded a boat and floated to Richmond, where, taking his life into his own hands, he toured the city without guards. He even walked the Richmond Common. However, Richmond was not the site of the final victory and the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, and his Congress moved south to Petersburg.
The Wilderness saw Grant moving 102,000 men with great difficulty through the forest. “In two days fierce fighting, he lost 17,700 men.” He tried to outflank the enemy, but was unsuccessful, suffering catastrophic losses. At Spotsylvania, he took on Lee’s main force and the fighting was fierce. The two armies threw up field entrenchments, and fought for five days. Neither fully succeeded. Lee lost fewer men. Later, came the Battle of Cold Harbor, which turned out to be the costliest and most futile battle of the entire war. Eight thousand Union troops were killed but they made virtually no dent in the Confederate positions. The battle line was eight miles long. (Growth of the American Republic by Samuel Eliot Morrison; 1962)
Grants losses numbered between 55,000 and 65,000. Lee only lost 25,000 to 30,000. Clearly, the south had emerged as victor in that fight. The trek to Richmond was not going to be an easy one. But, Grant did not worry about losses. He kept sending in troops who were so sure that they were going to die that they fastened sheets of paper to their backs to identify their corpses. A war of position became the tactic of Grant’s army and he spent nine months flanking Petersburg. He basically ordered a siege of Petersburg.
On July 18, 1864 the President called for half a million more volunteers. (ibid) He had instituted a draft in which a rich man willing to pay $300.00 could have his son spared being drafted. That was a great deal of money at the time and the President knew that he would be largely staffing his army with immigrants from Ireland. The could never afford three hundred dollars. He also started executing deserters, but, due to his gentle nature, often-times released them to their families instead of having them executed. Executions did happen, however. Few were spared by a presidential pardon.
Thus, the Battle of the Wilderness consumed a great deal more time than it was thought it would and much of this was due to the golden nature of Lee. He seemed to be able to get his men fighting for their lives and to their benefit. He did not join up with General Johnston at any point in his retreat. He has often been named as the greatest general in American history. To that, I would just point out that, while brilliant as a tactician, he lost. The North had the means and used them to a satisfactory end.
I stated in the title that I would name the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew a beard. It was as the result of a child’s letter. Letters took time to write but they were the main form of communication during this time in our history. We had no telephones, no emails, no texting. We had letters and Abraham Lincoln received one from a girl in western New York named Grace Bedell. When she was eight, she saw a picture of Lincoln and wrote to his that, if he grew a beard, he would look more presidential. He was clean-shaven at the time. She noticed his sad eyes and wrote to him,
“All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” When Lincoln’s train went through her town, he asked if the little girl who had convinced him to grow a beard was in the audience. She was there with her father. The two of them got to meet the new President, and he got to thank her for asking him to grow a beard. He was one of the few Presidents with facial hair. The last one was Taft, who had a mustache. Taft was pretty roly-poly but he was not the one who got stuck in the White House’s bathtub. That is a tale for another time.