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The War in America

The Illustrated London News, vol. 44, no. 1261, p. 509.

May 28, 1864


Those political seers whose ken enables them at a glance to comprehend the exact position of American affairs inform us, with an air of authority, that the campaign which has just commenced in Virginia is to be the last of the war between the Federal and Confederate parties. The events of the first few days of the renewal of hostilities alone would suffice to sanctify a fervent wish on the part of all thinking men that the prediction may be verified. If the dispute between these belligerent brethren is to be settled by competitive slaughter, most assuredly a great deal has been already done towards its solution. Making every allowance for a natural, and still more for an American, tendency to exaggeration, the numbers of slain in these last battles on the road to Richmond are such as to lead to a belief that the exhaustion of both parties is a question of a very precisely given time. Nothing has more struck the general mind of Europe in the contemplation of the civil war in America than the vastness of the hosts which have been brought together in the shock of battle. Notwithstanding the felicitous faculty of the Anglo-Saxon race for increase, which has been duly developed in the United States, as compared with its extent of territory, America is a thinly populated country. As a rule, its male population has not been more than adequate to the requirements of its industry; and, taking this fact also into consideration, it is really marvellous that in this later period of a war of desolation and extermination, armies on such gigantic scales should be brought into collision, that one side alone confesses to a loss of 40,000 men. At this rate, the recruiting of the whole world, if it were attainable, would soon be insufficient to meet the insatiable demands of the Transatlantic Bellona.

Page 510

Beyond the immediate influence of the hot passions which inflame the partakers in this direful contest there can be but one wish, and that is, that the time is really approaching when this awful sacrifice of human life may be stayed.

The mode in which the news of the events of the American war has reached this country has always been akin to that by which the writers of serial stories contrive to stop short in each number at a sensational point in order to keep interest alive until the issue of the next chapters. The mails are always dispatched at some critical moment of the operations. The situation which was reported at the beginning of this week, although forming no exception to this rule, was yet such as to enable an opinion to be formed of the probabilities of the next week or two. For the first time, the conduct of the Federal forces has been committed to a commander who, if not exactly a great general, is a man of resolution and of great tenacity of purpose, who is capable of forming a plan of military movement and of adhering to it. The crossing of the Rapidan, and the simultaneous movement of different Federal corps upon Richmond, were the result of a matured scheme, and, in the main, its execution was good. With his usual strategy, which seems to be to tempt his enemy into the exact position which suits his preconceived plans, the Confederate chief fell back, and on his own ground awaited the shock of the attack which Grant delivered with admirable courage and impetuosity on his front. That Grant was repulsed in this onslaught is shown by the fact that Lee, in the course of the first day's encounter, assumed the aggressive, and took his adversary's line in flank, driving it back on the centre with great loss. During the fearful pause of the following night, although the advantage may be said to have been with Lee, that General, having to make a relatively small army do the work of a large one in the face of a considerable superiority in his foe, wisely declined to fight again on the same ground, and retired to another and a still stronger position, against which, for three successive days, Grant hurled his battalions with persistent vigour, but in vain; and there the accounts received in the early part of this week left the combatants.

Unquestionably another battle on the same terrible scale as those of which we know was imminent; but, considering the relative positions of the contending armies, it hardly seemed possible that it could be a decisive one. The Confederates were scientifically posted, so that courage and endurance could be made available almost to security. It appeared quite possible for them to stand fast and to resist any attacks which might be made on them, and to keep themselves for an indefinite period between the direct advance of Grant's army on Richmond. On the other hand, the Federal General, acting with a unity of purpose and an independence of will which none of his predecessors in command seemed to have possessed in reference to the authority with which they were invested, with all appliances and means around him, appears to be fixed in his determination to bring the campaign to a decisive issue. He is asserted to have said that he will fight it out even if it take the whole summer, language which, coming from him, may be taken to indicate a feeling that he is not yet, or not likely just yet to be, completely victorious. Acting on this resolution, as the latest accounts inform us, Grant, apparently with unabated vigour, and well, indeed nobly, seconded by the troops, who feel that they have at length got a leader who conceives a purpose and holds to it, brought on another fierce contest. In its result it tended no further to a decisive issue, and it only developed the continuance of an evidently predetermined plan on the part of Lee. That General, on the whole, standing, under great difficulties, his ground to the termination of this last battle, again executed a retiring movement, left his position at Spottsylvania, crossed the river Po, and occupied another, and, no doubt, strong point, against which Grant will be compelled to dash himself as he has done on the previous occasions. That he will take that course is certain; but the tactics of his opponent remain unimpeached. The Federals have fought their way twenty miles into the enemy's country; and their march towards their next battle will still further remove them from the base of their operations, and the source of their supplies, their way lying through a desolate middle passage, in an exhausted country. Every inch that the Federals have made in advance has been hardly gained; and, as far as the main features of the war are concerned, the strategical situation is unchanged.

In the mean time, what may be called the outlying parts of Grant's plan of an advance on Richmond do not seem to have been more successful than his own immediate movement. The detached corps moving on the capital of Virginia are well watched and likely to be intercepted by sufficient Confederate forces; and anything like a triumphal march on the destined city is not to be predicated. But supposing that Lee should find it expedient still to fall back and occupy Richmond itself, the war would but enter on a new and still more dilatory phase. We have almost forgotten the way to reckon how long Charleston has withstood a siege; and it is not easy to calculate the period during which the Confederates could make a stand around and within the capital of their new-born Republic.

In considering the chances of the campaign of this summer, and its bearings on the ultimate issue of the contention involved, it must be remembered that the Federals almost confess to be staking their last General. It is not necessary to repeat the long list of the men to whom in succession the command of the chief Northern army has been committed, and who, one by one, with more or less noise, have what the Americans themselves would call, burst up. At length, as the Federals believe, the "coming man" has come; and, while placing implicit trust in General Grant to retrieve all the errors and to supply all the incapacity of his predecessors, there is a tacit admission that after him there is no one. Largely provided, how one can scarcely imagine, with money, men, and material of war, the Federal hosts have hitherto been practically without a leader; they did not have the fortune to possess a chief who could develop their capabilities, and their numerous battalions have proved but a cumbrous and unmanageable machine; their ranks have been recruited in immense numbers only to swell the lists of the slaughtered. Up to the present time Grant must be said to have justified, to a great extent, the confidence which has been placed in him; but, looking calmly on the events of the late battles, there does creep over one a notion that he has exhausted his strategical ideas in the formation of his preconceived plan for an advance into Virginia, and that in the actual contest he is acting on the old system of simply sending men by hundreds of thousands to an assault upon a resolute foe calmly awaiting attack on their own well-chosen ground. But whatever fortune may follow this last military hope of the Federals,--if either by his success or his failure he should be the means of bringing this fearful internecine quarrel to such a crisis that the voice of reason and humanity may be heard in the intervals or at the cessation of the din of battles,--and if by any means, direct or indirect, it should be his fate to be the cause of bringing this terrible war to a close, his name will be written indelibly in the pages of his country's history, even though he should be described as no more than her accidental saviour.

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