As it were

1864 dawned with hope of victory


Columbus like much of America, entered the year 1864 with hope and trepidation. Bloody conflict had engulfed America for more than two and a half years. What had begun as a rebellion by what President Lincoln called "combinations too powerful to be suppressed" by normal means had turned into "a great civil war."

It was a war that many people in the North thought would be over quite soon. Of the 30 million people in America, only nine million lived in the South. The North had more men, more guns and more resources of all kinds than the South. Surely victory would come quickly.

But it did not come quickly.

The North suffered major defeats in most of its campaigns in the eastern United States. In the west, the armies of Ulysses S. Grant achieved some early victories but then became bogged down as they fought for control of the Mississippi River valley.

As the war dragged on, cities like Columbus grew rapidly. It is not hard to see why. Columbus was near the center of the state and was a major center of transportation and trade. The Ohio Canal and the National Road served the city. Several major railroad lines connected the city with most of the rest of the state and the country.

The city of 18,000 people had become an enlistment center as young men came to the Columbus to volunteer their service. Camp Chase to the west of the city became one of the largest mobilization and training camps in America with more than 20,000 Union troops in residence at any time. A Confederate prison camp was located there as well and soon contained several thousand prisoners. Many of them would die there.

The town of Columbus was changed as well. Camp Chase was the largest military base near Columbus. But it was not the only one. Camp Thomas and Camp Lew Wallace were located north of the city. Tod Barracks was located near downtown. And to the near northeast of the city, a new arsenal was under construction by 1863. Today we call it Fort Hayes.

To serve all of these soldiers as well as many more who would pass through the town temporarily, a large number of new stores, restaurants and hotels were opened. New or expanded shops to make clothing, weapons and other supplies were opened as well. Economically, Columbus was doing just fine as the war continued with no apparent end in sight.

Politically and socially, however, the city was beginning to show the strain of continued conflict. While many residents of Columbus -- and Ohio as well -- were loyal to the Union cause, a substantial and vocal minority were not. Much of southern Ohio had been settled by Southerners who still had friends and relatives in the South. Other Ohioans simply disliked President Lincoln and the war they felt he had started.

Columbus also was learning that large groups of soldiers were not easy to control.

On March 30, 1863, three troop trains were temporarily stopped on their way west. A local account reported that "some of the men ... quitted the cars and undertook to pass uptown, but were turned back by the local provost guard which had been stationed there to prevent straggling. Enraged by this, and being, it is said, somewhat intoxicated, the men who were repelled assailed the guard, first with verbal abuse, but finally with sticks and stones."

After three of the attackers were shot, the soldiers dispersed back to their trains and order was restored.

Perhaps it is not hard to see why the nerves of so many had become so frayed. After all of the hard-fought battles of the war, victory was still not in sight. North and South had collided in January 1863, near Murfreesboro, Tenn., but the battle had been indecisive. Other battles over the spring of 1863 were inconclusive as well. Then, in early July 1863, General Robert E. Lee brought his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania to show he could strike wherever he wished, whenever he wished and win any battle he fought.

This time he did not win. At a place called Gettysburg, Lee's army was defeated. As this was happening, Grant's army took the city of Vicksburg and took control of the Mississippi River.

The tide had begun to turn. Columbus celebrated by burning Confederate President Jefferson Davis in effigy at a bonfire at Town and Third streets.

There were more battles to come, and more losses to be endured. But as 1864 began, it seemed that perhaps there might be an end in sight. In November 1863, President Lincoln had said as much in dedicating a cemetery at Gettysburg.

He expressed the hope that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.