In the Spring of 1864 U.S. Grant took control of the Union Army and launched an all-out assault aimed at destroying Lee’s forces. From May 1864 until the end of the war the two armies were never out of contact. Grant stayed on the move, attacking Lee’s Army relentlessly, at a great cost in Union casualties. Earlier in the war the two sides took a break after big battles and then engaged again after resting and regrouping. One of the many bloody battles in Grant’s final campaign was at Cold Harbor in Virginia. Just before a Union assault there at dawn on June 3, 1864 hundreds of Union soldiers pinned papers on their uniforms with their names written on them so their bodies could be identified. By early afternoon Grant realized the attack was a mistake, at the cost of 7,000 Union casualties, compared to less than 1,500 for the Rebels, as pointed out by James McPherson of Princeton University in his book “Battle Cry of Freedom.” What motivated Union soldiers to march to their deaths, and why did people in the North tolerate the terrible loss of life as the Civil War ground on for four years? This question is addressed in the BBC Radio 3 documentary entitled “Dr Adam Smith on the War of the North in America,” which aired on 7/25/12.
The documentary summarizes the complex reasons for the war from a Northern perspective, and the nuanced meaning of the outcome. In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln said that slavery was “somehow, the cause of the war,” alluding to the difficulty of summing up the cause definitively. He didn’t celebrate Northern victory with a righteous note of triumph, and acknowledged that both the North and the South shared responsibility for the sin of slavery. In addition, it isn’t clear that the Civil War redeemed the nation from this sin, as Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, points out. The Civil War was followed by one hundred years of segregation.
A post I added to this blog on 8/29/13 describes a companion documentary from the BBC that looks at the Civil War from a Southern perspective. These two programs provide a broad, but very informative overview of the Civil War and feature comments by many scholars who have written major books about the history of the conflict, including Eric Foner of Columbia University, Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia, David Blight of Yale University, and the aforementioned James McPherson and Edward L. Ayers.
To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below, then scroll down until you come to the program title, dated 7/25/12.