Their Last Full Measure

The Final Days of the Civil War


By Joseph Wheelan

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Dramatic developments unfolded during the first months of 1865 that brought America’s bloody Civil War to a swift climax.

As the Confederacy crumbled under the Union army’s relentless “hammering,” Federal armies marched on the Rebels’ remaining bastions in Alabama, the Carolinas, and Virginia. General William T. Sherman’s battle-hardened army conducted a punitive campaign against the seat of the Rebellion, South Carolina, while General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant sought to break the months-long siege at Petersburg, defended by Robert E. Lee’s starving Army of Northern Virginia.

In Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis struggled to hold together his unraveling nation while simultaneously sanctioning diplomatic overtures to bid for peace. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln took steps to end slavery in the United States forever.

Their Last Full Measure relates these thrilling events, which followed one on the heels of another, from the battles ending the Petersburg siege and forcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to the destruction of South Carolina’s capital, the assassination of Lincoln, and the intensive manhunt for his killer. The fast-paced narrative braids the disparate events into a compelling account that includes powerful armies; leaders civil and military, flawed and splendid; and ordinary people, black and white, struggling to survive in the war’s wreckage.



          The deep waters [are] closing over us. And we are—in this house—like the outsiders at the time of the Flood. We care for none of these things. We eat, drink, laugh, dance, in lightness of heart!!!


          The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.


          This amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.


January 1, 1865


On New Year’s Day it was quiet along the thirty-five miles of trenches and fortifications that stitched the barren countryside from Bermuda Hundred to the lines south of Petersburg. There was no shooting because the Yankees knew that the women of Richmond and Petersburg planned to bring the Confederate enlisted men in the trenches a home-cooked New Year’s feast.

The Rebels had reminded the bluecoats that they had not fired on them when they celebrated Thanksgiving, and so General Ulysses S. Grant announced an informal truce; there would be no firing during the holiday except in response to Confederate gunfire. “We are not to be outdone, either in fighting or magnanimity,” Grant’s chief of staff, General John Rawlins, wrote to his wife.4

The Southern women had held fund-raisers before undertaking the massive job of buying and preparing food for fifty thousand enlisted men. This would have been daunting enough in normal times, but during a time of food shortages in Richmond and Petersburg it was extraordinarily challenging. The half-starved Confederate defenders looked forward to their feast with keen appetites.5

Menaced on three sides by Grant’s army, Richmond and Petersburg were the castle keep of the South’s dream of sovereignty, now receding with the Confederacy’s boundaries. Tennessee and Georgia had fallen out of its orbit at the end of 1864; what remained east of the Mississippi River were the Carolinas, Alabama, and parts of Virginia and Mississippi. To seize or defend these last remnants of the proud Confederacy, the soldiers in blue and gray were prepared to give “the last full measure of devotion” that President Abraham Lincoln had spoken of when he honored the dead at Gettysburg.

For nearly two hundred days, since June 1864, when Grant’s armies had crossed the James River and attempted to seize Virginia’s second-largest city, the enemies had been stalemated outside the “Cockade City.” Like troglodytes, they had dug in, and the fortifications had multiplied like rabbit warrens and were defended in heat, rain, cold, and snow. The massive armies—124,000 Yankees in the armies of the James and the Potomac facing about 57,000 Rebels in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia—were in ceaseless contact, and every day sharpshooters and sporadic mortar fire carried off a few combatants. Sometimes there were feints and flanking movements, sharp skirmishes, and full-throated battles.6

Major John Esten Cooke, a Confederate staff officer, wrote of the months-long stalemate, “At Petersburg, the fighting seemed to decide little, and the bloody collisions had no names. . . . It was one long battle, day and night, week after week, and month after month—during the heat of summer, the sad hours of autumn, and the cold days and nights of winter.”7

On the first day of 1865 the battlefield was muddy, shorn of every scrap of wood, carved by dense networks of labyrinthine defensive works, and pitted by artillery fire. Between the lines, sometimes just a few hundred yards apart, were abatis and wire entanglements and chevaux-de-frise—timbers bored with holes through which sharpened stakes menaced attackers. Like birds of prey, sharpshooters and mortarmen on both sides kept a keen watch for the chance to pick off a careless soldier or to drop a round in a group of enemy troops.8

The seven-month stalemate had begun in June 1864, when Lee’s men stopped Grant’s army within sight of Petersburg’s church spires after it had marched one hundred miles through Virginia from the Rapidan River—the most successful Union penetration into Virginia of the war. It was also the war’s costliest campaign: sixty-six thousand Union casualties and thirty-three thousand Confederate losses in just six weeks. Grant had little trouble replacing his losses, but the replacements were not of the quality of the volunteers they succeeded; many were draftees, “bounty men,” or substitutes paid to serve in someone’s place. Lee’s losses were fewer, but he had been unable to entirely make them up. Although Grant had failed in his object of destroying Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, he had succeeded in tethering Lee to Richmond and Petersburg, preempting any major Rebel offenses in the North like those in 1862 and 1863.

Lee had warned his generals that if his army were forced back into Richmond’s defenses, it would become a siege, with defeat inevitable. Lee had been right about the siege but so far had thwarted the Union attacks to break or flank the Confederate lines or to cut the two railroads that still supplied Petersburg and Richmond.

Since June both sides had improved their fieldworks until they had become permanent fortifications and, in the process, had revived the arcane lexicon of siege warfare. Besides the usual entanglements and obstacles, the battlefield featured outlying lunettes—small earth-and-timber field forts—to stop or slow attackers before they reached the massive earthworks and forts. The main fortifications had walls dozens of feet thick at their bases and were defended by ditches eight feet wide and six feet deep. The walls were reinforced by thick bundles of sticks and twigs—fascines—and gabions, which were tall, cylindrical wicker baskets filled with dirt. There were parapets for infantrymen, loopholes for sharpshooters, firing platforms for artillery, and “splinter proofs”—thick shelters reinforced by railroad iron where artillerists could hide from enemy counterfire. The earthworks’ walls were tall enough to conceal soldiers walking and standing upright in the wide trenches behind them. There were traverses to deflect flank attacks and a honeycomb of rifle pits, secondary ditches and embankments, and “bomb proofs,” where soldiers could hide during enemy bombardments. Beyond that, the engineers had dammed creeks to create water barriers up to thirty feet deep, and they were constantly boring tunnels, either in the hope of exploding or thwarting another massive mine like the one that Union engineers had detonated beneath an enemy salient east of Petersburg on July 30. It obliterated the salient, killed three hundred Confederates outright, and created a thirty-feet-deep crater into which the badly led Union troops swarmed—and where they were slaughtered by Rebel reinforcements. These mines, countermines, and “listening galleries” for detecting enemy digging snaked for miles beneath the wasteland. The tortuous defensive complexes eerily adumbrated the Great War trench systems of fifty years hence.

It all required constant upkeep, with work parties, mainly from the combat units, performing maintenance duties and building new fortifications. The work was assigned to units by rotation. The 13th South Carolina detailed two to three hundred men to dig defensive works eight hours a day, six days a week, for two months. Lee requested five thousand black laborers to work on the Rebel defenses for sixty days but got just two thousand men because some slave owners claimed the soldiers abused their men.9

By turn too, regiments also manned the earthworks and rifle pits for days at a time. When a unit completed its shift on the line and another took its place, it retired to the surprisingly roomy bombproofs, dug deep behind the trenches and lined with timber and sheet iron. Some of them had fireplaces. When there was wood and fire, the living accommodations were almost comfortable, and the soldiers entertained themselves with fiddle and banjo music and stage plays limned by torchlight. They provided protection from artillery and mortar attacks, and the men often slept there too. Farther to the rear, units not on the line lived almost like townspeople in wood-and-mud huts built along streets. The soldiers dreaded leaving their firesides to stand picket duty in the muddy trenches in the cold and the rain and the snow. “It was endurance without relief; sleeplessness without exhilaration; inactivity without rest; constant apprehension requiring ceaseless watching,” wrote a Confederate soldier.

Firewood was a priority. Union wood parties were able to fan out over a wide area to collect firewood, but the Confederates, having used the readily accessible wood within their circumscribed area, had a more difficult time. “We suffered for firewood,” wrote Lieutenant J. F. J. Caldwell of the 1st South Carolina. “The growth about the camp, never heavy, was soon consumed by the troops . . . we were obliged to carry logs on our shoulders for the distance of a mile or more, in order to have any fire at all.”10

The winter was an unusually cold one—so achingly cold on some mornings that the water began turning to ice in the soldiers’ hands when they washed their faces; so cold that water froze in canteens; so cold that the streams the soldiers had dammed into lakes to thwart the enemy froze solid. In the North, where one could nearly forget that it was wartime, the thick ice covering the Potomac River attracted legions of skaters.11

The sufferings of Lee’s troops far surpassed the discomforts of Grant’s men. The Rebels shivered in thin blankets and ragged clothing; many of them had no shoes. Pneumonia and typhoid carved gaps in the ranks. Scurvy was commonplace because of the absence of fruit and vegetables. Subsisting mainly on half-rations of corn meal and bacon, the Confederates lost weight, strength, and stamina. At the same time, the Confederate currency was losing value so that a soldier’s monthly pay—which came at intervals, if at all, these days—might buy a pair of socks.12

A Petersburg woman was appalled by a Florida soldier’s appearance when he begged at her door for food. “His worn cotton clothes were hardly sufficient . . . to conceal his nakedness,” Bessie Callender wrote. “When I handed him food his hands were filthy, his nails long like claws, and between his fingers were sores, which he said were itchy. I handed him some food on a plate, but he began at once to eat like a wild animal.”13

But not all Confederates endured the same privations. Officers attended social affairs hosted by wealthy Petersburg families who provided music, dancing with eligible young women, and ample food. The Third Corps officers sponsored a “tournament” just before Christmas 1864 that was modeled upon the tradition of the English elite. The highlight was a coronation ball at the Bollingbrook Hotel.

Moreover, while army chaplains near the lines met the spiritual needs of the enlisted men, the officers attended Episcopalian churches in town. After services Lee, described as “a great ladies man,” often flirted with the young women outside church. “The old genl. goes smooching around among all the pretty girls,” wrote Captain Charles Dimmock, a prominent Confederate engineer, “& joked them as if he were a boy of 18.”14

Across the lines the Yankees also suffered from the same rain, snow, and cold, but they at least were well clothed and shod, and they had plenty of food. The US Military Railroad, operating fifteen trains daily that ran behind the Union lines, kept the Yankees supplied with food and ammunition. Even so, trench life was no idyll for Grant’s men. They, like the Rebels, were plagued by afflictions and dangers small and large, from lice and, in the summertime, fly swarms to shrieking mortars—“the most disgusting, low-lived things imaginable,” in the opinion of an engineer—and the black-hearted sharpshooters who transformed a mundane chore such as fetching water into a terrifying footrace.

“We have an indefinable dread, our nerves subjected to a continued strain which we know cannot end till the war ends, or we are wiped out,” wrote a Rhode Island officer. Soldiers who cracked under the tension were sent to quiet “convalescent camps.”15

Far from the fighting, Northern citizens were more optimistic about victory than they had ever been. “Much has been done toward destroying the rebellion in these last twelve months. It is far weaker tonight than it was a year ago,” wrote the diarist George Templeton Strong on December 31. A prominent New York lawyer, Strong was one of the founders of the US Sanitary Commission, a private relief organization that aided wounded Union soldiers. “God aid our efforts to put it [the rebellion] down and establish unity and peace this coming year as the last!” he wrote.16

Life in the North went on much as before, suggesting that the Union was not putting everything it had into the war. College rowing and baseball teams competed as always, and many new colleges had been established since the war began: among them MIT, Cornell, Boston College, and Vassar. People attended the theater, the opera, and the racetrack, oblivious to the desperate fighting and dying that was occurring a few hundred miles away.

Northern businesses reaped enormous profits after the financial panic attending the war’s outbreak subsided. In Chicago seven thousand new structures went up in 1863 alone. Farmers enjoyed barn-bursting harvests of wheat and corn and surpluses of pork and wool. Thirty-eight arms factories produced five thousand rifles each day, compared with one hundred rifles made in the South. The US government, which would spend $3.4 billion during the war—two-thirds of it on goods and services for the soldiers—became a behemoth. The Quartermaster Department, with one hundred thousand employees, was larger than any private US business. Financial houses flourished. “It was distinctly a money-making age,” wrote Emerson Fite of the North during the Civil War.17

The New Year’s Day feast proved to be a terrible disappointment for the Confederate soldiers. Each member of a North Carolina regiment received “a few mouthfuls” of food and a teaspoon of apple butter. Another soldier reported getting a few small pieces of meat and “about four good mouthfuls of light bread.”18

The 18th Georgia waited and watched all day for the arrival of its holiday meal. “What a long day that seemed to be!” wrote John Coxe. “We whiled away the tedious hours by telling stories and cracking jokes. At midnight Coxe went to sleep after the men on night watch promised to summon their comrades when dinner arrived. About 3 a.m. the Georgians were awakened and told that a detail had gone out to meet the dinner wagon. “But O what a disappointment when the squad returned and issued to each man only one small sandwich made up of two tiny slices of bread and a thin piece of ham!” After they ate it a middle-aged corporal lit his pipe and said, “God bless our noble women! It was all they could do; it was all they had.” The veteran soldiers broke down and wept.19

The corporal was right; the women had tried their best to serve a holiday feast. The problem was that there was too little food in Petersburg and Richmond, and what was available was prohibitively expensive because of speculation and profiteering.

The North’s “total war” strategy of destroying the South’s war-making resources was working; it was squeezing the life out of the Confederacy. The previous year had seen General William Sherman’s army march three hundred miles through Georgia, destroying barns, fields, railroads, and livestock along a sixty-mile-wide swath. General Phil Sheridan’s army burned Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, devastating Virginia’s breadbasket and smashing Confederate General Jubal Early’s army. Sheridan now controlled the valley from the Potomac River to Staunton. These destructive campaigns deprived Richmond and Petersburg of food from Georgia and the Shenandoah.

In 1864, too, Admiral David Farragut’s squadron had fought its way into Mobile Bay. Although the city of Mobile remained in Rebel hands, Farragut’s sailors had eliminated the port as a destination of blockade-runners. The increasingly efficient Union blockade had virtually closed Charleston too. That left just Wilmington, North Carolina, as the only viable Confederate port. Consequently, fewer imports were reaching the South, and fewer exports—cotton and tobacco, mainly—were leaving the Confederacy for sale abroad.

As a result of these developments, the South was now growing too much cotton for export and too little food for local consumption. The supply-demand imbalance and inflation had driven prices through the roof in Richmond and Petersburg, where most of the food came from the Carolinas and other Rebel-controlled parts of the South over two dilapidated railroads: the Richmond & Danville and the Southside Railroad, which ran from Petersburg to Lynchburg in southwestern Virginia.

The Confederacy was also grappling with a currency crisis, with $600 million in circulation in 1864. Before the war just $70 million circulated in the same eleven states. The Confederate Congress adopted emergency measures: encouraging the exchange of bills over $5 for 4 percent government bonds, with lower-denomination notes exchangeable for new notes at a three-to-two rate. After January 1 the old notes were subject to a 100 percent tax. The vigorous measures halved the amount of circulating currency but took longer to take effect than expected. Before they did, the value of the Confederate dollar in relation to the Union greenback fell from twenty-to-one to sixty-to-one, and some food suppliers stopped accepting Confederate scrip altogether.

The hyperinflated state of the Confederate currency was best described by the popular adage, “You take your money to market in the market basket and bring home what you buy in your pocketbook.” In January flour cost $1,250 per barrel, and wood $100 per load; two months later wood would sell for $5 per stick. An apple cost $2, a pair of boots $250. “Second-hand shirts” were going for $40 apiece. A bed that once cost $10 now sold for $700. “What I fear is starvation,” wrote the War Department clerk John B. Jones. Burglary was the great fear of the fortunate ones who still possessed a well-stocked larder and fuel. Fields, barns, and smokehouses were stripped of cows, pigs, flour, and bacon. By March a restaurant dinner and a night’s lodging in Richmond cost more than $2,000.

The pinch of hunger and want worsened during the unusually cold winter. “None but the rich speculators and quartermasters and commissary speculators have a supply of food and fuel,” wrote Jones, adding, “Much suffering exists in the city; and prices are indeed fabulous.” He blamed speculators, bitterly observing that there would be enough food and clothing for everyone “if we had a Roman dictator to order an equitable distribution.”

“Many people have no meat on their tables for months at a time,” wrote diarist Judith McGuire. A friend who wanted something hot to drink at night and could not afford coffee, tea, sugar, or milk had to settle for hot water.20

Captain Charles Blackford, a military judge in Richmond, lived with his family “very hardly, and counted many meals as sumptuous over which now the most patient would grumble.” They did without butter, coffee, tea, or sugar. “We had flour and meal, and the flour was made into very fair biscuits, and we had fat middling and sometimes a potato or cabbage.” The Blackfords sometimes attended parties hosted by an upper-class friend and were surprised that the wealthy still lived in the grand old style. “The viands were very abundant, consisting of oysters, turkeys, game, and everything usual on such occasions, including champagne and other wines. The constant wonder was where they all came from.”21

Living under an edged sword that might flash down upon them at any time, young upper-class men and women affected an almost frenzied gaiety. They attended parties where there was music and dancing but no food—“starvation parties,” where only water was served.

There was also a “perfect mania” for matrimony. “Some of the churches may be seen open and lighted almost every night for bridals, and wherever I turn I hear of marriages in prospect,” wrote McGuire. Sallie Putnam wrote that the patriotic young bride of a Confederate soldier remarked, “I had rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward,” something that a Spartan wife might have said two millennia earlier. T. C. DeLeon, a protégé of Jefferson Davis, said the vivacity was “merely superficial, and under it was a fixed and impenetrable gloom . . . and over all brooded the dread cloud of a speedy evacuation of the city.”22

By early 1865 Richmond had a “wretched” appearance: dilapidated homes and businesses, citizens in threadbare clothing, mud everywhere, even in the corridors of hotels, whose carpets had long ago been ripped out and sent to the military stores to be cut up for blankets. Many shops had nothing in them except broken packing cases and straw.

John B. Jones estimated that the city’s population exceeded one hundred thousand, but the produce markets could not subsist seventy thousand. “Then there is the army in the vicinity, which must be fed,” he wrote. City officials discussed the possibility of sending away “some thousands of useless consumers,” but they never made a plan or chose a place to send them.

With rumors of evacuation growing by the day, however, a voluntary exodus had begun. Along Richmond’s residential streets red flags fluttered, each signaling an auction of household goods, prefatory to a family’s departure from the capital for Charlotte or Salisbury, North Carolina; Milledgeville, Georgia; or any safe place to the south.23

Lee asked his wife, Mary, whether she would leave their home on East Franklin Street in Richmond if his army had to abandon the capital. “You must consider the question & make up your mind,” he wrote. “You will be able to retain nothing in the house, & I do not see how you can live or where go.” She said that she would stay.24

Like the Confederate soldiers in the trenches, the civilians prayed daily for God’s deliverance. “The Union Prayer-Meetings are great comforts to us,” wrote McGuire. “They are attended by crowds; ministers of all denominations officiate at them” to lead prayers for the Confederacy and hymns of praise. “I am constantly expecting the blessing of God in a way that we know not,” she wrote. One Communion Sunday at St. Paul’s “not a sound was heard” when Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Treasury Secretary George Trenholm came forward and knelt before the sacramental table. At that moment the choir and organ began “Gloria in Excelsis,” and to McGuire “it seemed indeed as if that house of God was the very gate of Heaven.”25

Christmas had been an especially somber time in Richmond and across the South, where “the dire evils . . . had shrouded our land in sorrow and misery,” wrote Sallie Putnam. “Praise and thanksgiving were blended with fasting and prayer, with deep humiliation and earnest contrition.” At Christmas dinner “we sat down to the poverty-stricken board. We counted again the vacant chairs and glanced with eyes blinded by tears, upon the somber living of woe.”26

For months John B. Jones had remarked that “my ribs stick out, being covered by skin only, for the want of sufficient food.” But by January he was writing that his greatest fear now was “starvation; and I sincerely wish my family were on the old farm on the Eastern Shore of Virginia until the next campaign is over.”27

Private Spencer Barnes of the 30th North Carolina, a three-year veteran of Lee’s army, wrote to his sister on January 1, “Every thing looks quite gloomy at the present & prospects don’t seam [sic] to get no brighter I hav [sic] hoped for peace and I fear that peace is never for me to see again I hav [sic] become disheartened like a great many others that is I don’t care which away the war goes.” “A mans life,” he said, “has become so here it is not vallied [valued] no more than we woud [sic] a dog there.”28

At the same time twenty-eight women from the Shenandoah Valley were petitioning the Confederate government to permit them and other Southern females to become soldiers. Outraged by Sheridan’s destruction of the Shenandoah’s farms and fields, the women vowed “to endure any sacrifice—any privation for the ultimate success of our Holy Cause.” The women’s offer was not accepted.29

Mary Chesnut, the diarist and social maven, had recently left Richmond for her home in South Carolina, where her husband, General James Chesnut, was now recruiting troops. She brooded in her journal, “The deep waters [are] closing over us. And we are—in this house—like the outsiders at the time of the Flood. We care for none of these things. We eat, drink, laugh, dance, in lightness of heart!!!” At social gatherings the many wounded officers “seem as utterly oblivious of the volcano we stand upon as our girls themselves.” Oblivious Chesnut was not; she said Southerners were “living a Greek tragedy” in which the outcome was foreordained. “Here we stand—despair in our hearts . . . and our houses burnt, or about to be, over our heads.”30


  • Praise for Their Last Full Measure

    William C. Davis, award-winning author of Crucible of Command
    "It may have been apparent to many by January 1865 that the war between Union and Confederacy was winding down to an inevitable denouement, but to the men in the armies and the exhausted citizens at home, the New Year promised only new trauma on new battlefields. Joseph Wheelan's Their Last Full Measure ably re-creates those feelings of dread and anticipation, and growing inevitability, in portraits and words of the men and women who lived those final months. His descriptions of the horrors of combat on the field, and the often-hidden battles among the presidents, cabinets, and congresses, are dramatically portrayed in a narrative that never loses pace or interest."

    Kirkus Reviews, April 2015
    “First-rate study of the often overlooked closing months of the Civil War…The author capably traces the closing military campaign in Virginia…At the same time, he writes critically, by way of foreshadowing, of the failure of Reconstruction...Particularly interesting are Wheelan's occasional forays into speculation: what might have happened…Wheelan has combed entire libraries to make this thoroughly readable, lucid survey. Well-practiced buffs will welcome the book, but novices can approach it without much background knowledge, too.”

On Sale
Mar 24, 2015
Page Count
432 pages
Da Capo Press

Joseph Wheelan

About the Author

Joseph Wheelan is the author of nine previous books, including the highly-acclaimed books Terrible Swift Sword and Midnight in the Pacific. Before turning to writing books full time, Wheelan was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press for twenty-four years. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.

Learn more about this author