War drives people to extremes. Occasionally, the people engaged in the war are able to verbalize their experiences so succinctly, so dramatically, that a novelist or poet could hardly say it better.
It gives a strange thrill when we see the actors on the stage of history doing justice to the import and drama of the very events they're making real, and doing so not in retrospect but as it happens. Here are some Civil War quotes that would be hard for anyone to improve upon.
At the time that Grant met with Lee to sign the surrender agreement at Appomattox Court House, one of his staff officers was a Seneca Indian, Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker, who had befriended Grant in Illinois. Parker made the ink copy of the surrender terms that Lee signed.
Lee may have been somewhat surprised to see a Native American on Grant's staff. Upon meeting Parker, he said, "I am glad to see one real American here." Shaking Lee's hand, Parker replied, "We are all Americans."
After the war, when Grant was president, Parker served as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that position.2,181170Dramatic?
In September 1864, having recently captured Atlanta, General William Tecumseh Sherman gave an order that the citizens of the city should be evacuated. Sherman was preparing to begin his march to the sea and did not wish to be responsible for thousands of civilian mouths to feed as he embarked on this perilous venture.
James Calhoun, the mayor of Atlanta, wrote to Sherman, beseeching him to reconsider the order. Calhoun asked, "what has this helpless people done, that they should be driven from their homes to wander strangers and outcasts and exiles, and to subsist on charity?"
Sherman, unmoved, wrote back to Calhoun:
I assert that my military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.1,540108Dramatic?
By the standards of some later conflicts (we're looking at you, WWII), most soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War were reasonably well-behaved. But it's hard to countenance the behavior of Union troops who occupied the town of Fredericksburg in December 1862. The Union soldiers dragged pianos into the streets, pilfered silverware, fueled their campfires with furniture, and even stole a communion set from a local church.
Soon afterward came the Battle of Fredericksburg, a crushing defeat for the Union, during which waves of Federal soldiers attempted to take the long slope of Marye's Heights and were mercilessly cut down by Confederate defenders from behind a stone wall.
The Confederates, retaking the town after the battle and the subsequent Union withdrawal, were appalled at the destruction they found. When one of General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's staff officers asked him what should be done about such behavior, a furious Jackson simply replied, "Kill 'em. Kill 'em all."1,264121Dramatic?
1864 didn't initially go according to plan for the Union. Ulysses S. Grant, amid much fanfare, took command of the war effort and enacted a multi-pronged plan to bring the Confederacy to its knees. But by that summer, the Army of the Potomac, which he personally commanded, was bogged down in an extended siege outside the city of Petersburg, having spilled rivers of blood in battle after battle against Lee's still-potent Army of Northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, Sherman was fighting near Atlanta, with the outcome of that contest still uncertain. The war was looking more like a quagmire than ever before, and Abraham Lincoln began to fear for his reelection chances.
The first real bit of good news that year came in August, not from the Army but from the Navy. During an attack on Confederate-controlled Mobile Bay (the last hole in the Union naval blockade of the region), Admiral David Farragut boldly (some might say rashly) ordered his fleet forward, despite reports of floating mines (called "torpedoes" in those days). One mine destroyed an ironclad in Farragut's fleet, but he insisted the remaining ships go forward, supposedly saying the famous lines, "Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!" The fleet went in, defeated the outnumbered Confederate naval force, and captured the bay.
As is often the case with historical quotations, there is some controversy about exactly what Farragut said, but it seems likely that he expressed his determination to attack quite forcefully.
Farragut's victory was widely publicized, and the malaise that had gripped the Union that summer began to dissipate - a process completed by Sherman's capture of Atlanta the following month.91881Dramatic?