Select Page

Civil War Ends

Civil War Ends

by William H. Benson

April 9, 2015

     Abraham Lincoln recited the President’s oath of office on the Capitol’s steps at his second inauguration on Saturday, March 4, 1865. After four years of a ghastly series of bloody battles, the deaths of 620,000 men, and the dismemberment of thousands of others, the Civil War was winding down. Lincoln hoped that the Confederate States would surrender in the coming weeks. By that day, Grant’s army had encircled Lee’s army, the Confederacy’s resources were limited, and its soldiers’ willpower to fight was exhausted.

     To the crowd, Lincoln said, “ Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. . . . 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.”

     The next day, a company of black Union soldiers from the 35th U. S. Colored Troops marched into a rice plantation at Limerick, South Carolina. Their commanding officer, a white colonel named James Beecher, brother of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe, said to the plantation’s owner, William Ball, “I want to see all the people on this place now in front of the house.”

      Once assembled, the slaves stood in rapt attention as Stowe addressed them, “You are free as birds. You don’t have to work for these people anymore!” The former slaves danced, sang, fell on their knees, prayed, emptied the plantation’s food stores, wrecked the Ball’s good china, and played music long into the night. Before the Union soldiers departed Ball’s plantation that day, they pulled down the bell that had called the slaves to work, “six days a week for one hundred years, and smashed it to pieces.”

     Edward Bell, one of William Bell’s descendents, recently wrote in The New York Times, “Yankee armies crisscrossed the Deep South that spring and unlocked the gates of one thousand plantations, a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned.” Actually, 3,952,838 slaves.

     On April 3, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate States’ president, and his cabinet fled Richmond, Virginia, their capitol, as Union soldiers prepared to march into the city. Davis’s commanding officers ordered their Confederate soldiers to set fire to the city’s bridges, the armory, and supply warehouses. The fire spread, and before the Union soldiers had arrived to extinguish the last flame, some seven hundred structures were reduced to a charred rubble.

     On April 4, President Lincoln and his son Tad arrived in Richmond. With only twelve armed sailors, to guard them, the President, Tad, and Admiral Porter walked two miles across the burned-out city to Jefferson Davis’s office. Former slaves pressed and crowded about Lincoln. Some kneeled and bowed, but Lincoln said, “Don’t kneel to me. You must kneel to God only and thank him for your freedom.”

     Some questioned Lincoln’s wisdom in walking about Richmond, with so little protection. Captain Barnes, one of the sailors, thought that “nothing could have been easier than the destruction of the whole party.” Lincoln’s two secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, said, “One cannot help wondering at the manifest imprudence of both Mr. Lincoln and Admiral Porter in the whole proceeding.”

     Lincoln though was pleased to sit in Jefferson Davis’s chair just forty hours after the Confederate President had evacuated his office.

     On April 9, Palm Sunday, in Wilmer McLean’s brick house at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee accepted and signed surrender terms that General Ulysses S. Grant had drafted.

     On the evening of April 14, Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln watched a silly, farcical comedy called Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The President felt that his national nightmare had ended, and so he wanted to relax and enjoy the entertainment. John Wilkes Boothe, an actor at Ford’s Theater and a Southern sympathizer, stepped into the President’s theater box and shot the President once in the head, and the President died the next day, Saturday, April 15.

     This month, the National Geographic features an article on Lincoln’s funeral procession. From Washington the train carried Lincoln’s casket through Baltimore, Harrisburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago, before arriving in Lincoln’s town, Springfield, Illinois, where officials buried his body on May 4, three weeks after his assassination.

     People turned out in great numbers to stand and watch in reverence as the train passed through their village, town, or city. The article’s author, Adam Goodheart, wrote, “Millions—as much as one-third of the North’s population—watched the procession pass. . . Everyone—white and black—knew that Lincoln’s role in ending slavery had spawned the murderous hatred that took his life.”

     Those events in the spring of 1865 lasted only two months, from March 4 until May 4, from his Second Inauguration to his burial, but for the one hundred and fifty years since, the memories of those days remain ever-present in our nation’s psyche. It was during those two months that Lincoln and his army pried open the gates of the nation’s slave camps and extinguished the plantation system.