by Jim Stempel // History News Network
Today it seems a maxim of American history that the South could never have won the American Civil War. Indeed, the facts supporting this conclusion appear overwhelming. The sizeable advantage the North enjoyed in terms of population, manufacturing, railroad infrastructure, telegraph lines, food production, naval and merchant fleets, as examples, dwarfed, by and large, their Southern counterparts. These factors have all been laboriously catalogued, were all true, and no doubt tilted the odds of victory significantly in favor of the North.
But probabilities alone do not always win wars. Wars are at times won on the field of battle, indeed won when the odds for victory appear decidedly improbable. If this were not true today names like Marathon, Rorke’s Drift, Stirling Bridge, Trenton, and Gaugamela would have no resonance whatsoever, except, perhaps, as reminders of the brutal truth of impotence in the face of overwhelming force. But that is hardly the case. Instead, these names remind us that there were times – yes, perhaps only few and far between, but times nevertheless – when the odds were turned violently on their heads, and a triumph snatched away from some presumptive victor’s grasp. Were there such moments for the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War? I believe the answer to that question is a qualified yes, and in Windmill Point, I have presented through historical fiction what I believe to be one of those rare and tantalizing moments.
It was the spring of 1864, at the tail end of what is today remembered as Grant’s Overland Campaign. It can be recalled that Grant had more or less bludgeoned his way across Virginia, from an initial battle in the Wilderness, just west of Fredericksburg, on a course continually south and east to Cold Harbor, with bloody stopovers at Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River along the way. The fighting had been heavy and steady, and while Grant had managed to force Lee back to Cold Harbor in defense of Richmond – now at the Southern commander’s back – he had also managed to inflict a staggering number of casualties on his own army. Those casualty counts (perhaps as high as 54,000 in just over a month, by some estimates) were cause for great concern in the North. So Robert E. Lee, perfectly aware of the ruckus those casualty lists had caused in the Northern press, had reason to believe that one more grisly standoff with Grant somewhere north of the James River might cause the Northern people to lose their stomach for the fight. But Lee also knew that he could not allow Grant to push him back over the James, for as he then famously stated “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”
In that manner, then, the scene was set for a two week contest of arms and wills in which both sides believed the next great battle might deliver victory their way. Grant was convinced that Lee’s army would implode if pushed hard just one more time, while Lee suspected that one more indecisive bloodletting would cause the people of the North to lose their will to war. Then Abraham Lincoln would either have to bow to popular sentiment, or risk failure in the upcoming fall elections – either way, a potential victory for the Southern cause.
At Cold Harbor Grant stumbled headfirst into a horrible defeat, and came very near to destroying the morale and viability of his army. As a result Lee and his lieutenants, now firmly on the defensive, grew ever more confident they would decisively defeat any further attempts Grant might make to break them north of the James. Grant, on the other hand, came to the realization that another frontal assault like the one incompetently delivered at Cold Harbor was out of the question, and that a movement away from the Cold Harbor trenches had become, as a result, a necessity. But a move to exactly where, and just how that maneuver was to be accomplished remained a vexing problem for the Federal commander. For a movement north would appear like a retreat, while a shift south would require crossing both the Chickahominy and James rivers – a course that might allow Lee to swoop in and destroy a corps or two of his army while in transit – in short, a disaster!
In Windmill Point I have presented this critical two week period through the eyes of the actual characters who lived it; not just the generals who endlessly crafted and reformulated their strategies, but by means of the experiences of the men who marched the dusty roads, worried about their loved ones at home, and who ultimately fought in the trenches. Among others, we meet Wyman White, for instance, a young sergeant from New Hampshire in the 2nd US Sharpshooters, Edward Porter Alexander, who handled a significant portion of Lee’s artillery, and George Armstrong Custer, then an impetuous twenty-four year old brigadier general in Grant’s cavalry corps. There is the burly but cultured Wade Hampton, in command of one of Lee’s cavalry divisions, Walter Taylor, Lee’s trusted adjutant, and, of course, Lee and Grant themselves. In that sense Windmill Point is as much a human drama as it is a military one, set in one of the most decisive periods of the Civil War, yet a moment in time when only one opponent might emerge victorious. The situation was critical for both sides, the potential for victory or defeat hanging in the balance.
To Grant’s credit, he responded with one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed strategic and logistical maneuvers of the war. Sending the bulk of his cavalry off toward the Shenandoah Valley, he successfully lured Lee into countering with cavalry of his own, thus greatly limiting the possibility that the Confederate commander would discover the Federal withdrawal as Grant’s army moved off toward the James River. The Army of the Potomac then performed an almost miraculous disappearing act from its lines at Cold Harbor – where in places the opposing trenches were no more than 50 to 60 yards apart – and crossed the James on the longest floating bridge since the days of Xerxes, hastily erected by Federal engineers, as a mystified Lee pondered the Federal army’s whereabouts. Bungling by Federal corps commanders as they approached Petersburg cost the Federals an early victory, but Grant’s brilliant bit of deception and maneuver placed the Federal army firmly across the Confederacy’s jugular, and in a strategic position it would never relinquish. With that, the Confederacy’s last real hope for victory vanished into the Tidewater mist. As Lee had earlier surmised, from that point forward it had become “a mere question of time.”
The lengthy pontoon bridge erected by the Federals to cross the James River that spring stretched from Wilcox’s Landing on the north bank to Windmill Point on the south. Edward Porter Alexander, who had handled Lee’s artillery at Cold Harbor, would in time become one of the conflict’s first serious historians, and years later that same Porter Alexander would both admit and lament of Grant’s remarkable passage to Windmill Point that “That was the time & the place, the date & the hour, when the last hope of the Confederacy died down & flickered out.”
"The Time, the Place, the Date, and the Hour that the Confederacy Died," © 2016. This article may not be reproduced without the express and written permission of the author.