The battle of Nashville came nearer than any other to being a really annihilating victory. Out of the forty thousand men Hood had at first in Tennessee not half escaped; and of the remainder not nearly half were ever seen in arms again. As an organized force his army simply disappeared. The few thousands saved from the wreckage of the storm found their painful way east to join all that was left for the last stand against the overwhelming forces of the North.
By '65 the Southern cause was lost. There was nothing to hope for from abroad. Neither was there anything to hope for at home, now that Lincoln and the Union Government had been returned to power. From the very first the disparity of resources was so great that the South had never had a chance alone except against a disunited North. Now that the North could bring its full strength to bear against the worn-out South the only question remaining to be settled in the field was simply one of time. Yet Davis, with his indomitable will, would never yield so long as any Confederates would remain in arms. And men like Lee would never willingly give up the fight so long as those they served required them. Therefore the war went on until the Southern armies failed through sheer exhaustion.
The North had nearly a million men by land and sea. The South had perhaps two hundred thousand. The North could count on a million recruits out of the whole reserve of twice as many. The South had no reserves at all. The total odds were therefore five to one without reserves and ten to one if these came in.
The scene of action, for all decisive purposes, had shrunk again, and now included nothing beyond Virginia and the Carolinas; and even there the Union forces had impregnable bases of attack. When Wilmington fell in January the only port still left in Southern hands was Charleston; and that was close-blockaded. Fighting Confederates still remained in the lower South. But victories like Olustee, Florida, barren in '64, could not avail them now, even if they had the troops to win them. The lower South was now as much isolated as the trans-Mississippi. Between its blockaded and garrisoned coast on one side and its sixty-mile swath of devastation through the heart of Georgia on the other it might as well have been a shipless island. The same was true of all Confederate places beyond Virginia and the Carolinas. The last shots were fired in Texas near the middle of May. But they were as futile against the course of events as was the final act of war committed by the Confederate raider Shenandoah at the end of June, when she sank the whaling fleet, far off in the lone Pacific.
For the last two months of the four-years' war Davis made Lee Commander-in-Chief. Lee at once restored Johnston to his rightful place. These two great soldiers then did what could be done to stave off Grant and Sherman. Lee's and Johnston's problem was of course insoluble. For each was facing an army which was alone a match for both. The only chance of prolonging anything more than a mere guerilla war was to join forces in southwest Virginia, where the only line of rails was safe from capture for the moment. But this meant eluding Grant and Sherman; and these two leaders would never let a plain chance slip. They took good care that all Confederate forces outside the central scene of action were kept busy with their own defense. They also closed in enough men from the west to prevent Lee and Johnston escaping by the mountains. Then, with the help of the navy, having cut off every means of escape--north, south, east, and west--they themselves closed in for the death-grip.
By the first of February Sherman was on his way north through the Carolinas with sixty thousand picked men, drawing in reinforcements as he advanced against Johnston's dwindling forty thousand, until the thousands that faced each other at the end in April were ninety and thirty respectively. On the ninth of February (the day Lee became Commander-in-Chief) Sherman was crossing the rails between Charleston and Augusta, of course destroying them. A week later he was doing the same at Columbia in the middle of South Carolina. By this time his old antagonist, Johnston, had assumed command; so that he had to reckon with the chances of a battle, as on his way against Atlanta, and not only with the troubles of devastating an undefended base, as on his march to the sea. The difficulties of hard marching through an enemy country full of natural and artificial obstacles were also much greater here than in Georgia. How well these difficulties could be surmounted by a veteran army may be realized from a recorded instance which, though it occurred elsewhere, was yet entirely typical. In forty days an infantry division of eight thousand men repaired a hundred miles of rail and built a hundred and eighty-two bridges.
Sherman took a month to advance from Columbia in the middle of South Carolina to Bentonville in the middle of North Carolina. Here Johnston stood his ground; and a battle was fought from the nineteenth to the twenty-first of March. Had Sherman known at the time that his own numbers were, as he afterwards reported, "vastly superior," he might have crushed Johnston then and there. But, as it was, he ably supported the exposed flank that Johnston so skillfully attacked, won the battle, inflicted losses a good deal larger than his own, and gained his ulterior objective as well as if there had not been a fight at all. This objective was the concentration of his whole army round Goldsboro by the twenty-fifth. At Goldsboro he held the strategic center of North Carolina, being at the junction whence the rails ran east to Newbern (which had long been in Union hands), west to meet the only rails by which Lee's army might for a time escape, and north (a hundred and fifty miles) to Grant's besieging host at Petersburg. Sherman's record is one of which his men might well be proud. In fifty days from Savannah he had made a winter march through four hundred and twenty-five miles of mud, had captured three cities, destroyed four railways, drained the Confederate resources, increased his own, and half closed on Lee and Johnston the vice which he and Grant could soon close altogether. Nevertheless Grant records that "one of the most anxious periods was the last few weeks before Petersburg"; for he was haunted by the fear that Lee's army, now nearing the last extremity of famine, might risk all on railing off southwest to Danville, the one line left. Lee, consummate now as when victorious before, masked his movements wonderfully well till the early morning of the twenty-fifth of March, when he suddenly made a furious attack where the lines were very near together. For some hours he held a salient in the Federal position. But he was presently driven back with loss; and his intention to escape stood plainly revealed.
The same day Sherman railed down to Newbern over the line repaired by that indefatigable and most accomplished engineer, Colonel W. W. Wright, took ship for City Point, Virginia, and met Lincoln, Grant, and Admiral Porter there on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth. Grant explained to Lincoln that Sheridan was crossing the James just below them, to cut the rails running south from Petersburg and then, by forced marches, to cut those running southwest from Richmond, Lee's last possible line of escape. Grant added that the final crisis was very near and that his only anxiety was lest Lee might escape before Sheridan cut the Richmond line southwest to Danville. Lincoln said he hoped the war would end at once and with no more bloodshed. Grant and Sherman, however, could not guarantee that Davis might not force Lee and Johnston to one last desperate fight. Lincoln added that all he wanted after the surrender was to get the Confederates back to their civil life and make them good contented citizens. As for Davis: well, there once was a man who, having taken the pledge, was asked if he wouldn't let his host put just a drop of brandy in the lemonade. His answer was: "See here, if you do it unbeknownst, I won't object." From the way that Lincoln told this story Grant and Sherman both inferred that he would be glad to see Davis disembarrass the reunited States of his annoying presence.