Civil War: Spring 1865, the war winds down

Sherman sending the Confederate States packing
Sherman sending the Confederate States packing

By Sandy Vasko

Ed Conley, a musician and former printers’ devil for the Wilmington Independent, wrote back to the newspaper on a more or less regular basis. We read his letter from the end of February, 1865:

“My late silence has been owing to the comparative inactivity of the Army of the James, and the monotonous camp life to which we have been subject for the past few months. With the exception of that portion of this army operating in the North Carolina under Gen. Terry, the troops are in comfortable quarters, and plans are being perfected for the ensuing campaign.

“Deserters continue to pour into our lines almost daily. Their numbers have increased since the failure of the late ‘peace conference’ at Fortress Monroe. They all agree that the C.S. A. (Confederate States of America) is ‘on its last legs.’ Our own army is not entirely free from deserters, as we have seen probably a dozen shot within the past three months for this crime.

“Fort Burnham (late Fort Harrison) is our nearest possession to Richmond. Here the opposing pickets are within speaking distance. Still picket firing is of seldom occurrence. Fort Gilmer (rebel) is within 600 yards of Fort Burnham. Thus, your readers can form an idea how Lee’s army is ‘pushed’ to the wall at Richmond.

“The 39th is about to be armed, we understand, with a repeating rifle, which shoot seventeen times in succession. This will add much to the effectiveness of the Regiment, if ‘the business goes on,’ this campaign – Company H, we believe will be mustered out of the service this week, their term of enlistment having expired.”

A comrade of Conley’s also wrote the Independent a letter, the first in quite a while. He excused himself by saying, “You will please excuse me for not writing last Summer, for in fact I couldn’t, as the ‘Johnies’ (from Johnny Reb) had me, and they are opposed to writing – as but few of them ever learned to write, consequently they think it is a worthless art.”

He then went on to describe the events on Washington’s Birthday: “We had a high old time on the 22nd. Speeches, toasts, and ‘jolly little drinks,’ were the order of the day; and one or two, I see, have had the ‘big head’ ever since. Salutes of one hundred guns were fired, in honor of the birth of the illustrious Washington, and, in fact, a general roar of artillery greeted the ear during that entire day.

“We have had quite a number of executions for desertion; but thank God, not a man yet from the 39th. The deserters are principally from New England regiments. The exchange of prisoners is progressing finely, and if no dispute arises again to impede, every man will be exchanged by April.”

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, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

With those words President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office for the second time on March 4, 1865. His new vice-president, Andrew Johnson, also gave a rambling, drunken speech on the occasion as well. He had been prescribed a medicine earlier in the morning which consisted of a good deal of alcohol.

As Lincoln said, all that was left was to finish the Confederacy off. Much of the fighting had ended, except for Generals Sherman and Sheridan, who continued to burn and destroy towns, railroads and the James River Canal.

In an effort to replace those deserters, on March 13, the Confederacy “allowed the induction of negro soldiers.” Jefferson Davis went so far as to ask the slave owners of the South to allow their house slaves to enlist. He allowed it would be a burden for them, but a necessary annoyance none the less. But it was too late.

Union colored troops, the 55th Massachusetts, paraded through the streets of Charleston where they were greeted by thousands of ex-slaves cheering and singing “John Brown’s Body” while they marched.

Twice during the month, Lincoln met with his generals and Secretary of State to decide how a new peace should look. Should there be amnesty for the Confederate troops? Would they be allowed to keep their weapons and horse? Would slavery be allowed to continue?

On the home front, the folks were questioning the draft. Lincoln had been clear, the fight would continue until the end, and so more men were needed. There had already been a draft, drafting one man of every 15 in the County. But a few weeks later, the State said that they were sorry, but one man in 10 would be needed from Will County. So, in March another draft was held, and more young men enlisted.

On the other side of the coin, many who had seen hard service were allowed furlough. We read on March 22, 1865: “On furlough – Capt. M. N. M. Stewart, of Co. A, 100th regiment Illinois volunteers, is home on furlough. The captain looks as rugged as could be desired. Although he has seen hard service, he has come out thus far with only a slight wound. He left the boys all right.”

Captain Stewart would not stay long at home or in the Army, but mustered out three months later; he would not be home for another year. He wandered around Europe and England, visiting religious and ancient monuments. Whether he was suffering from what we would call PTSD, or he just needed some space, we will never know.

Part of it may have been the fact the home front was just too nice, as if there had been no war at all. He had seen hunger, poverty, cold, disease and death among both the soldiers and civilians on the front.

At home, no one was starving, no one was cold, and no one had seen his best friend exploded to bits before their eyes.


A parade in Charleston of the 55th, where local slaves joined in the march


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