The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – April 20-26, 1865


The flow of home-bound former Confederate soldiers was starting to turn into a flood around this time, 150 years ago. The essential contest had ended.

This raises a question. Should I now stop calling this the “American Civil War” timeline and start referring to it as the “Reconstruction” timeline?

When did the war end?

It’s very difficult to say exactly when the Civil War ended. The fall of Richmond and flight of the Confederate government certainly signify an ending. From now on, per the sources I have read, it becomes more a matter of “____ was the last battle of the Civil War,” and there are many contenders for that honor.

However, the Civil War was a huge thing made out of myriads of very little things and it was spread over a vast geographical area. As dramatic as the fall of Richmond and Lee’s surrender were – with that horrible coda played out in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre last week – the actual military aspect of the war transitioned to civilian life at different times in different areas.

It took a while for enough people to get sufficiently angry to start firing cannons; now, the cannons are quieting down, but it still requires some time for everybody to adjust to that fact.

Reenactments like this would have been unbearably painful for many Americans, even in the early 20th century.  (Source:  MamaGeek)

Reenactments like this would have been unbearably painful for many Americans, north and south, even for much of the first half of the 20th century. (Source: MamaGeek)


Since Jefferson Davis, who is on the run this week, was placing his hopes on General E. Kirby Smith, it would seem appropriate to change the name of the timeline after that general’s surrender. However, he was not the last Confederate general in the field. That would be General Stand Watie, who surrendered on June 23.

We could even hold out until November, when the crew of the CSS Shenandoah surrendered (in Liverpool, England)! Technically, I suppose, the American Civil War officially ended on April 2, 1866, when President Johnson declared the insurrection was over.

I can’t go into that much detail, though. This timeline is no more than an incomplete outline, a work of the heart done to learn more about the War Between the States and to reconcile my two views of that very influential part of US history – one seen from upstate New York and the other from Alabama and Mississippi. It has been put together as objectively as possible, but with more detail on the Southern side, as that is completely new to me.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA.  (Library of Congress)

General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA. (Library of Congress)

That Southern emphasis as well as the following four factors are why I have decided to switch the timeline over to the Reconstruction phase on May 10th, the day after General Nathan Bedford Forrest makes his farewell address to the men of his command:

  • Forrest was always in the thick of things during the war. While doing this timeline, I soon learned to look up Forrest’s activity first, when putting together a timeline, as he was involved in just about all the events in the Western Theater (Tennessee, Mississippi, and West Alabama).
  • He came from the part of the South where I lived for several years. I was going to say he was the “type” for Confederate soldiers, but he wasn’t that. He was Forrest; that’s all you can really say, and it is enough.

    One thing I have learned is that the Civil War is still alive to us, in a way that much of the past is not, and there are many deep personal connections. That takes me to West Central Alabama and East Central Mississippi, and General Forrest certainly was one of the most outstanding Confederate soldiers in that region.

  • His response to defeat. Just going by sources 3 and 8, Mr. Forrest was one of those very intense individuals who embody their emotions. After Hood’s disastrous invasion of Tennessee and subsequent retreat, a strongly realistic part of Nathan Bedford Forrest made him ask someone what that man planned to do after the war. Now, four months later, as we’ll see below, Forrest is in denial. That is totally understandable as a reaction to the loss of your country.

    I very much want to see how a man who was born into a poor mountain family, became a millionaire (in 1850s dollars) when he grew up, and then turned into of the most famous/notorious military commanders of the Civil War manages the transition to peace and US citizenship under very different social conditions in the late 1860s.

  • While not typical in any other way, Forrest’s life continued to reflect the changing times, good and bad, of the whole South after the war. Of course I’m going to follow him up through the end of the timeline 150 years after Grant became president in 1869, and will probably also mention Forrest in the postscript.

This date has no official status to the majority of combatants, who were not in Forrest’s command, but it means something to me. So May 10 is when we switch over.

Meanwhile, we’ll also start looking at cities in transition. These will mostly be cities in the seceded states (some of which have been under reconstruction for years already), but this week, immediately after Lincoln’s assassination, we must look at Washington, D.C.

Ford's Theatre in 1865, after the assassination (note the black bunting).  No one had any reason to photograph the back alley, I suppose.  (Library of Congress)

Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, after the assassination. (Note the soldiers guarding the entrance to the crime scene. They and a few others were standing still; the street must have been mobbed by people who were moving slowly enough to leave a blur but quickly enough not to register on the old-fashioned camera.) (Library of Congress)


Agitation and worry in the nation’s capital

It’s sad to have to remove The Lincoln Log from my source list below. This pang, however, doesn’t begin to compare to the fear, confusion, and craziness in the States and territories after President Lincoln’s murder. Not only was it the first assassination of a US president but also it happened at the very worst time, just as this four-year national catastrophe was ending and just before any clear plans of how to proceed reuniting the country had been established.

What was to be done with the states that had seceded? What should be the fate of the Confederacy’s movers and shakers? What rights should freedmen have?

And though most historians skip over this when discussing the major issues involved during the war’s end, most white people everywhere were also probably wondering what should be done with the many tens of thousands of African Americans who were now under arms and battle hardened (three guesses how they handled that one).

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

In his last public address, on April 11, 1865, President Lincoln had said:

By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.

I have been shown a letter … in which the writer expresses regret that my mind has not seemed to be definitely fixed on the question whether the seceding States, so called, are in the Union or out of it. It would perhaps, add astonishment to his regret, were he to learn that since I have found professed Union men endeavoring to make that question, I have purposely forborne any public expression upon it. As appears to me that question has not been, nor yet is, a practically material one, and that any discussion of it, while it thus remains practically immaterial, could have no effect other than the mischievous one of dividing our friends. As yet, whatever it may hereafter become, that question is bad, as the basis of a controversy, and good for nothing at all–a merely pernicious abstraction.

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these States have ever been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these States and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.

…so new and unprecedented is the whole case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can be safely prescribed as to details and colatterals [sic]. Such exclusive, and inflexible plan, would surely become a new entanglement. Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.

In the present “situation” as the phrase goes, it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South. I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper.

(Note: Lincoln used the state of Louisiana as an example in that speech, but we’ll wait until it’s time to discuss New Orleans to get into that in more detail.)

Lincoln had wisely left things open-ended. Many people were giving him input. He understood, as did the New York Times editors, that “the peculiar nature of our institutions makes it impossible that any one man should be absolutely indispensable to their preservation and successful working.”

The US Congress had met in special session for a week in March but now was in recess until December. Andrew Johnson – the only Southern senator to retain his seat in the US Congress; the former military governor of Tennessee, who had urged Lincoln to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation and was disliked by congressional Republicans as a racist; a man who had been (accidentally) drunk at his recent vice-presidential inauguration and would go down in history as one of the country’s worst presidents – was now in charge. What would he do?

"Democracy 1865- President Andrew Johnson" was one of Thomas Nast's first political cartoons.  (Source)

“Democracy 1865- President Andrew Johnson” was one of Thomas Nast’s first political cartoons. (Source)


The New York Times editors sounded worried as they reminded Johnson that “[o]ur government is of the people. They not only elect our rulers, but their spirit, their temper, their will pervade and control all the acts and all the measures of the government.” They expected him to “respond to [the people’s] sentiments and … execute [the people’s] will” and to remember that “the general line of policy which ABRAHAM LINCOLN was carrying out, when arrested by the murderer’s blow, commanded the hearty and universal approbation of the great mass of the American people.”

Generally speaking, African Americans everywhere probably felt that things would be worse for them now. Like everyone else, they knew that Johnson had been put on the 1864 election ticket so Lincoln’s political enemies couldn’t accuse him of being a tool of the abolitionists.

White Southerners also had to be wondering about Johnson. He was not on record with “malice toward none,” as Lincoln had been. On April 3, 1865, Vice President Johnson had instead said, when asked what to do with Confederates, “I would arrest them – I would try them – I would convict them, and I would hang them…My notion is that treason must be made odious, and traitors must be punished and impoverished, their social power broken…”

It was a terrible time for all those concerned about the Big Picture. On the local and more human level, though, something wonderful and scary was also happening.

The ranks of “the people” were expanding as many who had never known freedom before now poured in. Per source 20:

A group of freedmen and children near a canal in Richmond, Virginia, April 1865.  (Library of Congress)

A group of freedmen and children near a canal in Richmond, Virginia, April 1865. (Library of Congress)

Finally the war closed, and the day of freedom came. It was a momentous and eventful day to all upon our plantation. We had been expecting it. Freedom was in the air, and had been for months. Deserting soldiers returning to their homes were to be seen every day. Others who had been discharged, or whose regiments had been paroled, were constantly passing near our place. The “grape-vine telegraph” was kept busy night and day. The news and mutterings of great events were swiftly carried from one plantation to another. In the fear of “Yankee” invasions, the silverware and other valuables were taken from the “big house,” buried in the woods, and guarded by trusted slaves. Woe be to any one who would have attempted to disturb the buried treasure. The slaves would give the Yankee soldiers food, drink, clothing—anything but that which had been specifically intrusted to their care and honour. As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the “freedom” in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world. The night before the eventful day, word was sent to the slave quarters to the effect that something unusual was going to take place at the “big house” the next morning.

Unknown man in New Orleans, between 1864 and 1866.  (Library of Congress)

Unknown man in New Orleans, between 1864 and 1866. (Library of Congress)

There was little, if any, sleep that night. All was excitement and expectancy. Early the next morning word was sent to all the slaves, old and young, to gather at the house. In company with my mother, brother, and sister, and a large number of other slaves, I went to the master’s house. All of our master’s family were either standing or seated on the veranda of the house, where they could see what was to take place and hear what was said. There was a feeling of deep interest, or perhaps sadness, on their faces, but not bitterness. As I now recall the impression they made upon me, they did not at the moment seem to be sad because of the loss of property, but rather because of parting with those whom they had reared and who were in many ways very close to them. The most distinct thing that I now recall in connection with the scene was that some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated coloured people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself. In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved. These were the questions of a home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches. Was it any wonder that within a few hours the wild rejoicing ceased and a feeling of deep gloom seemed to pervade the slave quarters? To some it seemed that, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it. Some of the slaves were seventy or eighty years old; their best days were gone. They had no strength with which to earn a living in a strange place and among strange people, even if they had been sure where to find a new place of abode. To this class the problem seemed especially hard. Besides, deep down in their hearts there was a strange and peculiar attachment to “old Marster” and “old Missus,” and to their children, which they found it hard to think of breaking off. With these they had spent in some cases nearly a half-century, and it was no light thing to think of parting. Gradually, one by one, stealthily at first, the older slaves began to wander from the slave quarters back to the “big house” to have a whispered conversation with their former owners as to the future.


And the young inherited a very different world.  (Library of Congress)

And the young inherited and would help shape a very different world. (Library of Congress)


Now let’s take a look at some of the events in the Civil War 150 years ago this week.

April 20

Flight of the Confederate government: “Robert E. Lee advised Jefferson Davis not to wage a guerrilla war and recommended a complete surrender to restore peace.” (23, including quote)

April 21

Military events: North Carolina operations: In Washington, “President Johnson rejected the surrender document signed by William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston on 18 April because it addressed political issues as well as military ones. Johnson’s cabinet also unanimously rejected the document, with Secretary of War Stanton even intimating that Sherman had committed treason by overstepping his authority. Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman’s close friend, angrily denied the charge.” (23, including quote)

Lincoln assassination: “Lincoln’s body leaves Washington in a 9-car funeral train to return to Illinois. Several cities along the route – Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago – hold funeral processions as the train passes. By now most of the assassination conspirators have been arrested.” (19, including quote. Note: Booth and Herold are still on the run, and John Surratt is in Canada and will eventually flee overseas.)

Photo of Lincoln's funeral in Philadelphia (left) and sketch of his funeral in Chicago (right).  (Library of Congress)

Photo of Lincoln’s funeral in Philadelphia (left) and sketch of his funeral in Chicago (right). (Library of Congress)


April 22

Lincoln assassination: “[US Naval} Secretary Welles warned the Potomac Flotilla that ‘[John Wilkes] Booth was near Bryantown last Saturday [15 April], where Dr. Mudd set his ankle, which was broken by a fall from his horse [sic.]. The utmost vigilance is necessary in the Potomac and Patuxent to prevent his escape. All boats should be searched. . . .’ The condition of alert remained in effect until word of the assassin’s death on 26 April was received.” (21, including quote. Note: This source adds “[sic],” but actually Michael Kauffman makes a very good case in “American Brutus” that Booth did break his leg when his horse fell on him during the escape, not during his jump to the stage immediately after his crime.)

April 23

President Davis

Military events: Mississippi operations: On the 23rd and 24th, the “C.S.S. Webb, Lieutenant Read, dashed from the Red River under forced draft and entered the Mississippi at 8:30 at night in a heroic last-ditch effort to escape to sea. Before departing Alex-andria, Louisiana, for his bold attempt, Read wrote Secretary Mallory: “I will have to stake everything upon speed and time.” The sudden appearance of the white-painted Webb in the Mississippi caught the Union blockaders (a monitor and two ironclads) at the mouth of the Red River by surprise. She was initially identified as a Federal ship; this mistake in identification gave Read a lead in the dash downstream. A running battle ensued in which Webb shook off the three Union pursuers. As Read proceeded down the Mississippi, other blockading ships took up the chase but were outdistanced by the fast moving Webb, which some observers claimed was making 25 knots. While churning with the current toward New Orleans, Read paused at one point to cut the telegraph wires along the bank. This proved futile as word of his escape and approach passed southward where it generated considerable excitement and a flurry of messages between the Army and Navy commanders who alerted shore batteries and ships to intercept him. About 10 miles above New Orleans Read hoisted the United States flag at half mast in mourning for Lincoln’s death and brought Webb’s steam pressure up to maximum. He passed the city at about midnight, 24 April, going full speed. Federal gunboats opened on him, whereupon Read broke the Confederate flag. Three hits were scored, the spar torpedo rigged at the steamer’s bow was damaged and had to be jettisoned, but the Webb continued on course toward the sea. Twenty-five miles below New Orleans Read’s luck ran out, for here Webb encountered U.S.S. Richmond. Thus trapped between Richmond and pursuing gunboats, Read’s audacious and well-executed plan came to an end. Webb was run aground and set on fire before her officers and men took to the swamps in an effort to escape. Read and his crew were apprehended within a few hours and taken under guard to New Orleans. They there suffered the indignity of being placed on public display but were subsequently paroled and ordered to their respective homes. Following the restoration of peace, Read became a pilot of the Southwest Pass, one of the mouths of the Mississippi River, and pursued that occupation until his death.” (21, including quote)

Flight of the Confederate government: “Jefferson Davis met with his cabinet, who advised him to accept the surrender document signed by Joseph E. Johnston and William T. Sherman, reserving the option to continue resistance if the Johnson administration rejected the document. Davis wrote his wife Varina, ‘Panic has seized the country… The issue is one which it is very painful for me to meet. On one hand the long night of oppression which will follow the return of our people to the ‘Union’; on the other, the suffering of the women and children, and carnage among the few brave patriots who would still oppose the invader.'” (23, including quote)

April 24

Sherman at Atlanta.  (Library of Congress)

Sherman at Atlanta. (Library of Congress)

Military events: North Carolina operations: “General William T. Sherman [US] learns of President Johnson’s rejection of his surrender terms to [CS General] Joe Johnston. General Grant, who personally delivered the message, orders Sherman to commence operations against Johnson within 48 hours. Sherman is incensed but obeys orders.” (4, including quote)

Flight of the Confederate government: “While in Augusta, Georgia, with the Confederate archives and treasure…Lieutenant W. H. Parker learned that the Federal Government had rejected the convention of surrender drawn up by Generals Sherman and Johnston. Parker withdrew his valuable cargo from the bank vaults, reformed his naval escort (consisting of Naval Academy midshipmen and sailors from the Charlotte Navy Yard) and on the 24th set out for Abbeville, South Carolina, which he had previously concluded to be the most likely city through which the Davis party would pass enroute to a crossing of the Savannah River. Near Washington, Georgia, Parker met Mrs. Jefferson Davis, her daughter and Burton Harrison, the President’s private secretary, proceed-ing independently to Florida with a small escort. Gaining no information on the President’s whereabouts, Parker continued to press toward Abbeville, while Mrs. Davis’ party resumed its journey Southward. On the 29th he arrived in Abbeville, where he stored his cargo in guarded rail ears and ordered a full head of steam be kept on the locomotive in case of emergency. Parker’s calculations as to the probable movements of President Davis’ entourage proved correct; the chief executive entered Abbeville three days after Parker’s arrival.” (21, including quote)

April 25

General Joseph Johnston, CSA.

General Joseph Johnston, CSA.

Military events: Alabama operations: General Forrest tells his men that he does not believe General Lee has surrendered and that they should remain true to their cause. (8)

Military events: North Carolina operations: “Jefferson Davis ordered Joseph E. Johnston to disperse his men, then reassemble somewhere farther south and continue the war if the Johnson administration rejected the surrender document. However, the Army of Tennessee was already disbanding, and Johnston had already decided to surrender to William T. Sherman under revised terms.” (23, including quote)

Emancipation: “[Tennessee] Senator [B. R.] Peart submits a petition to the State Senate ‘from the colored men of East Tennessee,’ asking for equal rights and protection under the law: ‘Without our political rights, our condition is very little better than it was before.'” (19, including quote)

April 26

Military events: North Carolina operations: CS General P. G. T. Beauregard surrenders at Durham Station. General Johnston surrenders his army at Greensboro, after Grant has arrived and agreed to the new terms (the same as what Grant gave Lee). (4, 6, 23)

Flight of the Confederate government: “President Davis held a cabinet meeting at Charlotte, North Carolina and pledged to move west across the Mississippi River and continue the fight. Attorney General George Davis disagreed with Davis’s decision and resigned.” (23, including quote) Davis Leaves Charlotte and spends the night at Fort Mill, South Carolina. (28)

Lincoln assassination: John Wilkes Booth is shot while resisting arrest. The bullet severs Booth’s spinal column, paralyzing him. He is conscious over the hours it takes him to slowly suffocate to death.


Special bonus feature: This is such a long post, though pivotal. It covers the darkest week in the nation’s history, up to that point, since Valley Forge. What really horrible stuff – and yet the country survived.

I feel I owe you something pleasant. Hope you enjoy the video below. Thanks for reading this far, and thank you, always, for your interest!

The whole course of human history may depend on a change of heart in one solitary and even humble individual – for it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.

— M. Scott Peck (quoted at BrainyQuote)




(1) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).

(3) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).

(4) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(6) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(7) Civil War Interactive.

(8) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(9) This Week in the Civil War.

(10) CWSAC Battle Summaries

(11) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War.” (2002) David J. Eicher.

(12) The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion…, Richard Miller Devens (1866).

(13) Memoirs of W. T. Sherman

(14) The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., 1995.

(15) A. Lincoln, A Biography, Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)

(16) The Sword of Lincoln, the Army of the Potomac. Jeffrey Wert (2005)

(17) Black Artillerymen from the Civil War through World War I (PDF), Roger D. Cunningham.

(18) Michael W. Kauffman. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. Random House. New York. 2004. (Note: I use this source heavily for details of the assassination; it is probably the best general-information book on the assassination out there. However, for balance, here is an informed review of its pros and cons, and much, much more.)

(19) Timeline 1865. State of Tennessee

(20) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington

(21) Naval History of the Civil War. History Central.

(22) Arthur F. Loux. John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day. McFarland & Company. Jefferson, North Carolina. 2014. (Note: I have more confidence in Kauffman’s dates (source 23, above), but will use this to work in the other conspirators and events. Take these dates as general times of the month unless backed up by Kauffman.)

(23) The Legacy of the Civil War: April 1865.

(24) The American Civil War Photo Gallery.

(25) The Final Campaign. Talladega County American History & Genealogy Project

(26) Capture of Jefferson Davis.

(27) Last Train South: The Flight of the Confederate Government from Richmond. James C. Clark. McFarland & Company. Jefferson, North Carolina. 1984.

(28) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, timeline. Rice University

(29) Croxton’s Raid: The Lost Brigade.

(30) The Yankee Invasion of Pickens County, Alabama.

(31) Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction, Paul H. Bergeron

Categories: American Civil War

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