The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – April 27 to May 4, 1865

Here is a look at what was happening in the closing days of the Civil War, 150 years ago. And as promised last week, we’ll also do a quick look at reconstruction in some of the major Southern cities. This week’s city is…

The Planter's Hotel in Nashville (photographed in 1865) became a soldier's home.  (Library of Congress)

The Planter’s Hotel in Nashville (photographed in 1865) became a soldier’s home. (Library of Congress)

Reconstruction: Nashville, Tennessee

According to sources 31 and 32 (which I’m using for this entire discussion), Reconstruction began in 1862 after the city of Nashville surrendered. It’s worth looking at in a little detail because the Tennessee experience not only set the pattern for other Southern cities but also established a basis for the modern US doctrine of an occupying military power restoring civil government in a war zone.

Nashville surrendered on February 24, 1862, after General Grant had taken Forts Henry and Donelson. US President Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, his Secretary of War, believed that reorganizing loyal government quickly in a seceded state would shorten the rebellion overall as well as reduce the likelihood of radical social changes. Lincoln also considered this an executive function, although he had no more constitutional basis for that belief than did the congressional Republicans who were claiming that reconstruction was a legislative duty.

To bolster his position (and after pocket-vetoing the Wade-Davis bill in 1864), the president sent military governors in, starting with Andrew Johnson in Tennessee. Johnson went in just two weeks after Nashville fell, and this led to serious leadership clashes between Johnson and the US military commander in charge of the area (first General Don Carlos Buell and then General William Rosecrans).

With Johnson and the generals at odds, there was no clear example of leadership set for Tennessee Unionists, who already had a tough row to hoe. The state was still divided politically and socially, and Confederate forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest were operating close to Nashville itself. Complicating the picture was the misunderstanding by Lincoln and Stanton of Southern Unionism. Like their Northern counterparts, these Unionists were against secession and wanted to see their state rejoin the Union, but unlike Northern Unionists, Southerners insisted that it must be done honorably, not under coercion.

Unionists, therefore, as well as Confederates in Tennessee saw Nashville’s surrender and the subsequent US occupation solely as a military matter. It had nothing to do, as far as they were concerned, with healing the political strife that had led to secession in the first place. That’s why clear US leadership was so necessary in helping Tennessee back into the Union. Unfortunately, it was lacking.

Andrew Johnson was not flexible enough to talk things over with everybody and find common ground. As military governor, he started out with the same belief that Lincoln and Stanton had, that the majority of people were loyal to the US and that secession had only happened because a bunch of hotheads got control in 1861. When political and social realities in Tennessee proved to be more complicated, Johnson took a hard line, severely punishing anyone with pro-Confederacy leanings. This certainly did nothing to rally Tennessee Unionists behind him. It also exacerbated the social divisions that were still present.

So what was Reconstruction like for Nashville? Its military government experience happened in stages, according to source 31. There was ongoing combat in the area. Control was rudimentary from March 1862 to the spring of 1863, and it extended only as far as the battle lines. Then, as fighting moved further away, the military role matured into an institution. In Nashville’s case, civil government was maintained, and when civil authorities defied the US (as happened in several cities during occupation), Andrew Johnson replaced them with other civilians not, as his counterparts often did, with military personnel. This made it easier, in the spring of 1865 to rush through a transfer of authority back to civil government.

This applies only to Nashville. That city gradually came back to life after the Civil War, but Tennessee as a whole faced severe problems that no military or civil authority could adequately control. These would hold the state back long after the war was over.

"The Scout and the Guerrillas" (Tennessee Historical Society)

“The Scout and the Guerrillas” (Tennessee Historical Society)

Tennessee was the site of the first local experiments in reconstruction after the Civil War, and consequently it also received a lot of national attention. One result of this was the Lieber Code, or General Orders No. 100, set out on April 24, 1863. Very generally, this established the principle (still used in World War II), that war is conducted by two uniformed armies. Partisans and guerrillas must be treated mercilessly. Noncombatants are to be respected as much as possible (with the exceptions of “military necessity” and “retaliation”).

In Civil War Tennessee, as the war years passed and armies moved on to other battlefields – and particularly after General Hood’s invasion of Tennessee in late 1864 – a vicious cycle took shape. Guerrilla activity in an area would be brutally repressed, leading to more dissatisfaction among the people and more support for guerrillas, with more activity, and subsequently more repression. As a result, US control and civil government could only be established in limited areas. Nashville and nearby garrison towns were under control; so were county seats, and that was it. You took your chances in smaller towns or out in the countryside. As the war wound down and amnesty was declared, the guerrillas turned into regulators and other vigilantes who would plague the region for many decades afterwards.

However, in 1863 Johnson, with Lincoln’s approval, had established that no Tennessean could vote unless they signed a loyalty oath. This ruled out Confederate sympathizers as well as many conservative Unionists. Consequently, Northern-style unconditional Unionism prevailed in the state’s elections, and when Johnson went to Washington in March 1865 to serve as Vice President, William “Parson” Brownlow took his place as governor of Tennessee and served two terms despite earning the nickname of “the most hated man in Tennessee.”

Brownlow got the state legislature to ratify the 14th Amendment and brought the state fully back into the Union.

And meanwhile…

Chief Justice Chase administering the oath of office to President Lincoln for his second term in March 1865.  (Library of Congress)

Chief Justice Chase administering the oath of office to President Lincoln for his second term in March 1865. (Library of Congress)

The firebrand

Per source 23 (May), “[US Supreme Court] Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase toured the South with journalists on a political mission for the Radical Republicans. By this time, Union Leagues in New York and Philadelphia had already begun organizing blacks into a group clamoring for the right to vote. Chase went to the South not as the chief justice, but as a politician aspiring to the presidency in 1868. At Charleston, he delivered a speech assuring blacks they would be granted suffrage. Many northerners were not pleased. The New York Herald, which had charged Chase with going on an electioneering tour, denounced the speech as ‘incendiary talk’ and found ‘the whole tenor of the speech that of a firebrand thrown into a complicated and difficult situation.’ The New York World also objected, but Chase continued.”

April 27

Flight of the Confederate government: “Jefferson Davis and his party reached South Carolina. Treasury Secretary George A. Trenholm resigned, too ill to continue. Postmaster General John Reagan replaced Trenholm.” (23, including quote)

Meanwhile, “Secretary Welles informed Commander F. A. Parker of the Potomac Flotilla that the “special restrictions relative to retaining vessels are removed.” He advised the Flotilla commander that ‘Booth was killed and captured with Herold yesterday, 3 miles southwest of Port Royal, Va.’ With the search for President Lincoln’s assassin ended, further south the Navy focused its attention to another end. This date, Rear Admiral Dahlgren ordered nine ships of his South Atlantic Blockading Squadron to patrol along the Southern coast to prevent the escape of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.” (21, including quote)

Other: The steamboat Sultana, carrying former POWs, explodes on the Mississippi River. Over 1,500 people die, making this the worst maritime disaster in American history. (5)

Library of Congress

Library of Congress


April 28

Flight of the Confederate government: “Secretary Welles directed Rear Admiral Thatcher of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron: ‘Lieutenant General Grant telegraphs to the War Department under date of the 26th instant, from Raleigh, N.C., that Jeff Davis, with his Cabinet, passed into South Carolina, with the intentions, no doubt, of getting out of the country, either via Cuba or across the Mississippi. All the vigilance and available means at your command should be brought to bear to prevent the escape of those leaders of the rebellion.'” (21, including quote)

April 29

Battles: Kentucky operations: “Acting Master W. C. Coulson, commanding U.S.S. Moose on the Cumberland River, led a surprise attack on a Confederate raiding party, numbering about 200 troops from Brigadier General Abraham Buford’s command. The raiders under the command of a Major Hopkins, were crossing the Cumberland River to sack and burn Eddyville, Kentucky. Coulson sank two troop laden boats with battery gunfire and then put a landing party ashore which engaged the remaining Confederates. The landing force dispersed the detachment after killing or wounding 20 men, taking 6 captives, and capturing 22 horses.” (21, including quote)

Flight of the Confederate government: “Jefferson Davis and his party arrived at Unionville, South Carolina, then moved on to Yorkville.” (23, including quote)

Reconstruction: Commercial fishing restrictions are lifted from most former Confederate ports. (5)

April 30

Military events: CS General Nathan Bedford Forrest is notified that General Richard Taylor has made reached terms of surrender with US General Edward Canby. (8)

Flight of Confederate government: General Grant orders special precautions along the Mississippi River to prevent Jefferson Davis from crossing it and escaping. (6)

May 1

Lincoln assassination: President Johnson appoints a commission to try the accused conspirators. (23)

Left to right, standing: Generals Thomas Harris, Lew Wallace,  and August Kautz; Mr. Henry Burnett. Seated left to right: Colonels David Clendenin and C.H. Tompkins; Generals Albion Howe, James Ekin, David Hunter,and Robert S. Foster'; Mr. John A. Binham; and General Joseph Holt.

Per Library of Congress, left to right, standing: Generals Thomas Harris, Lew Wallace, and August Kautz; Mr. Henry Burnett. Seated left to right: Colonels David Clendenin and C.H. Tompkins; Generals Albion Howe, James Ekin, David Hunter,and Robert S. Foster’; Mr. John A. Binham; and General Joseph Holt.


Flight of the Confederate government: “Jefferson Davis continued moving southwest with his remaining cabinet and cavalry escort. The travelers spent the night at Cokesbury, South Carolina.” (23, including quote)

Flight of the Confederate government/Lincoln assassination: “President Johnson issued a proclamation accusing Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders of inciting Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Despite no evidence linking Davis or the Confederate government to the crime, Johnson offered a $100,000 reward for Davis’s capture.

Davis and his group reached Abbeville, South Carolina. He met with five brigade commanders who unanimously rejected Davis’ proposal to wage a guerrilla war to sustain the government-in-exile. Davis said, ‘All is lost indeed.’ The commanders resolved to help Davis reach Mexico but nothing more. Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory resigned.” (23, including quote)

May 3

Flight of the Confederate government: “This morning, Jefferson Davis and his party crossed the Savannah River and entered Georgia. Secretary of State Judah Benjamin resigned and began heading for Florida in the hopes to getting to Europe to obtain foreign recognition for the government-in-exile.” (23, including quote)

Reconstruction: “President Johnson met with a Pennsylvania delegation headed by Thaddeus Stevens and Simon Cameron at the White House. Johnson pledged to punish Confederate leaders but offer leniency to soldiers forced to fight by Confederate draft laws.” (23, including quote)

May 4

Military events: General Taylor surrenders at Citronelle, Alabama. (5)

Flight of the Confederate government: “At Washington, Georgia, Jefferson Davis held his last cabinet meeting. Davis was reluctant to disband the government because he had no power to do so under the Confederate Constitution. However, officials continued leaving to join their families, and Davis and his dwindling party again moved south to Eatonton, Georgia.” (23, including quote)

Lincoln assassination: Abraham Lincoln is buried at Springfield, Illinois. (6)

Per the Library of Congress, "[A] group of citizens entering the grounds of the Illinois state house to view the body of Abraham Lincoln on May 3 or 4, 1865. Two soldiers stand near the specially built arch. The African American man with the cane near the head of the line is Reverend Henry Brown."

Per the Library of Congress, “[A] group of citizens entering the grounds of the Illinois state house to view the body of Abraham Lincoln on May 3 or 4, 1865. Two soldiers stand near the specially built arch. The African American man with the cane near the head of the line is Reverend Henry Brown.”




(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) The Lincoln Log timeline.

(5) 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) Treason Must Be Made Odious: Military Occupation and Wartime Reconstruction in Nashville, Tennessee, 1862-65. Peter Maslowski. KTO Press. Millwood, New York. 1978

(32) To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond: Stabilization and Reconstruction in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1864-1866. Benjamin Franklin Cooling. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville. 2011

(33) Reconstruction Timeline. Mount Holyoke College

Categories: American Civil War

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