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1864: Beginning of the end times for the Confederacy

Grant and Lee battled it out in the Wilderness.
Grant and Lee battled it out in the Wilderness.

1864 was a watershed year in American history. The Civil War entered its final phase when Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Northern armies. Grant battled Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a number of engagements on the road to Richmond. Meanwhile, Grant's partner, William Tecumseh Sherman routed the Southern armies in Georgia and marched to the sea. Sherman's success helped re-elect Abraham Lincoln. In the end, 1864 essentially marked the end of the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee confounded Union generals since 1861. Lee had an uncanny ability to read his opponents to compliment his immense military skill. As a result, many believed Lee invincible. Meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant scored a number of victories fighting the rebels in the west. In 1864, Lincoln placed Grant in charge of Union forces. Grant's promotion led to a titanic clash in Virginia.

Grant launched an invasion of Virginia with the purpose of capturing the Confederate capitol Richmond. Lincoln hoped Richmond's fall would end the war. On May 4, Grant and Lee began a series of battles that lasted until the end of June. Grant's Overland Campaign demonstrated Northern determination and shocked observers. The two sides suffered 89,000 casualties out of 183,000 engaged over the six week period. The bloodshed shocked even veterans.

Union and rebel armies fought legendary engagements at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. Each army suffered horrendously and continued on. In the past, Union commanders that experienced high casualties retreated in the face of Lee. Grant refused to be cowed and continued onto Richmond. The new commander's doggedness shocked even General Lee. Grant knew he had the advantage. The South could not replace their dead and wounded soldiers nor could they quickly repair or replace burnt cotton fields or destroyed factories.

Grant and his protégé, Sherman, initiated a total war policy. Union forces would destroy anything the Confederates could use to make war. They also stopped prisoner exchanges. Many Confederates not killed or incapacitated abandoned their posts when they heard of the devastation back home. They chose their families over their country.

While Grant waged total war in Virginia, Sherman outflanked and outmaneuvered his Southern counterparts. Sherman ripped through Georgia like a tornado wasting everything in his path. His armies captured Atlanta on September 2. The victory changed the complexion of the war. Grant had stalled into a siege at Petersburg, but Sherman's triumph electrified the nation. People finally saw the end in sight.

Sherman's momentum translated to the political realm. The Democrats nominated former General George B. McClellan for president. They promised to end the war and negotiate with the South. Sherman's victory made the Democrats look like defeatists or even traitors. Why vote for the so-called peace party when victory was at hand? President Lincoln won in a landslide. The Republican victory guaranteed slavery's demise, the further prosecution of the war, and ended Southern hopes for a negotiated peace on beneficial terms.

Lincoln's re-election freed Sherman. He planned to march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, move up through the Carolinas, and then link up with Grant to crush Lee. However, he needed to cut off his supply lines to do so. As a result, he needed to wait for the election lest an entire army disappear into thin air. Once the march began, the troops lived off the land and proved remarkably well behaved. They destroyed factories, rail lines, and crops as needed. Sherman became a hero for hastening the war's end by breaking the Southern spirit.

Despite the irreversible change in fortunes, the South offered one major surprise in 1864. They unleashed submarine warfare onto the world. The H.L. Hunley launched in July 1863, but did not begin its service until the following February. It initiated the first successful submarine attack, but then sank. Evidence indicates the crew died from oxygen deprivation. As a result, even a great technological triumph turned sour for the Confederacy in 1864.

The year 1864 changed America. Battlefield success translated into a landslide re-election for Abraham Lincoln. The South knew they could not expect lenient terms from the Republican. Meanwhile, Grant and Sherman annihilated the South's ability to wage war. By 1865, the two men had ground the South to pulp. Southern defeat ushered in a new American age.

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