Chapter VII

 

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Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
by Captain Robert E. Lee, His Son

Chapter VII
Fronting the Army of the Potomac

Battle of Cold Harbour--Siege of Petersburg--The General intrusts a
mission to his son Robert--Battle of the Crater--Grant crosses the
James River--General Long's pen-picture of Lee--Knitting socks for
the soldiers--A Christmas dinner--Incidents of camp life

From the North Anna River the Federal Army moved by its left flank,
seeking to find its adversary unprepared, but the Army of Northern
Virginia steadily confronted it, ever ready to receive any attack.
At Cold Harbour they paused, facing each other, and General Grant,
having received sixteen thousand men from Butler by way of Yorktown
on June 1st, made an attack, but found our lines immovable.  In his
"Memoirs" he writes:

"June 2d was spent in getting troops into position for attack on the
3d.  On June 3d, we again assaulted the enemy's works in the hope of
driving him from his position.  In this attempt our loss was heavy,
while that of the enemy, I have reason to believe, was comparatively
light."

This assault was repelled along the whole line, with the most terrible
slaughter yet recorded in our war.  Yet in a few hours these beaten
men were ordered to move up to our lines again.  Swinton, the historian
of the Army of the Potomac, thus describes what happened when this
order was sent to the men:

"The order was issued through these officers" (the corps commanders)
"To their subordinate commanders, and from them descended through the
wonted channels; but no man stirred, and the immobile lines pronounced
a verdict, silent, yet emphatic, against further slaughter.  The loss
on the Union side in this sanguinary action was more than thirteen
thousand, while on the part of the Confederates it is doubtful whether
it reached that many hundreds."

Colonel Walter H. Taylor, in his "Four Years with General Lee," says:

"Soon after this, he (Grant) abandoned his chosen line of operations,
and moved his army to the south side of the James River.  The struggle
from Wilderness to this point covers a period of about one month,
during which time there had been an almost daily encounter of hostile
arms, and the Army of Northern Virginia had placed hors de combat of
the army under General Grant a number equal to its entire numerical
strength at the commencement of the campaign, and, notwithstanding
its own heavy losses and the reinforcements received by the enemy,
still presented an impregnable front to its opponent, and constituted
and insuperable barrier to General Grant's 'On to Richmond.'"

Thus after thirty days of marching, starving, fighting, and with a
loss of more than sixty thousand men, General Grant reached the James
River, near Petersburg, which he could have done at any time he so
desired without the loss of a single man.  The baffling of our
determined foe so successfully raised the spirits of our rank and file,
and their confidence in their commander knew no bounds.

The two armies now commenced a contest which could end only one way.
If General Lee had been permitted to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond,
to fall back upon some interior point, nearer supplies for man and beast
and within supporting distance of the remaining forces of the
Confederacy, the surrender would certainly have been put off--possibly
never have taken place--and the result of the war changed.  The Army
of the Potomac placed itself on the James, through whose channel it had
easy access to the wide world whence to secure for itself an unlimited
supply of men and munitions of war.  General Lee, with a line thirty
miles long to defend and with only 35,000 men to hold it, with no chance
of reinforcements, no reserves with which to fill up the ranks lessened
daily by death in battle and by disease, had to sit still and see his
army, on half rations or less, melt away because it was deemed advisable
by his government, for political and other purposes, to hold Richmond,
the Confederacy's capital.

In an article by Lord Wolseley, in "Macmillan's Magazine," he says:

"Lee was opposed to the final defense of Richmond that was urged upon
him for political, not military reasons.  It was a great strategic
error.  General Grant's large army of men was easily fed, and its daily
losses easily recruited from a near base; whereas, if it had been
drawn into the interior after the little army with which Lee
endeavoured to protect Richmond, its fighting strength would have been
largely reduced by the detachments required to guard a long line of
communications through a hostile country."

During the nine months the siege of Petersburg lasted, I saw my father
but seldom.  His headquarters were near the town, my command was on
the extreme right of the army, and during the winter, in order to get
forage, we were moved still further away, close to the border of North
Carolina.  During this summer, I had occasion, once or twice, to report
to him at his headquarters, once about July 1st by his special order.
I remember how we all racked our brains to account for this order,
which was for me to report "at once to the commanding general," and
many wild guesses were made by my young companions as to what was to
become of me.  Their surmises extended from my being shot for unlawful
foraging to my being sent on a mission abroad to solicit the recognition
of our independence.  I reported at once, and found my father expecting
me, with a bed prepared.  It was characteristic of him that he never
said a word about what I was wanted for until he was ready with full
instructions.  I was fed at once, for I was still hungry, my bed was
shown me, and I was told to rest and sleep well, as he wanted me in
the morning, and that I would need all my strength.

The next morning he gave me a letter to General Early, who, with his
command, was at that time in Maryland, threatening Washington.  My
mission was to carry this letter to him.  As Early had cut loose from
his communications with Virginia, and as there was a chance of any
messenger being caught by raiding parties, my father gave me verbally
the contents of his letter, and told me that if I saw any chance of
my capture to destroy it, then, if I did reach the General, I should
be able to tell him what he had written.  He cautioned me to keep my
own counsel, and to say nothing to any one as to my destination.  Orders
for a relay of horses from Staunton, where the railroad terminated, to
the Potomac had been telegraphed, and I was to start at once.  This I
did, seeing my sisters and mother in Richmond while waiting for the
train to Staunton, and having very great difficulty in keeping from
them my destination.  But I did, and, riding night and day, came up
with General Early at a point in Maryland some miles beyond the old
battlefield of Sharpsburg.  I delivered the letter to him, returned
to Petersburg, and reported to my father.  Much gratified by the evident
pleasure of the General at my diligence and at the news I had brought
from Early and his men, after a night's rest and two good meals I
returned to my command, never telling my comrades until long afterward
what had been done to me by the commanding general.

My father's relations with the citizens of Petersburg were of the
kindest description.  The ladies were ever trying to make him more
comfortable, sending him of their scanty fare more than they could
well spare.  He always tried to prevent them, and when he could do
so without hurting their feelings he would turn over to the hospitals
the dainties sent him--much to the disgust of his mess-steward, Bryan.
Bryan was an Irishman, perfectly devoted to my father, and, in his
opinion, there was nothing in the eatable line which was too good for
the General.  He was an excellent caterer, a good forager, and, but
for my father's frowning down anything approaching lavishness, the
headquarter's table would have made a much better show.  During this
period of the war, Bryan was so handicapped by the universal scarcity
of all sorts of provisions that his talents were almost entirely hidden.
The ladies not only were anxious to feed the General, but also to
clothe him.  From Camp Petersburg he writes to my mother, June 24th:

"...The ladies of Petersburg have sent me a nice set of shirts.  They
were given to me by Mrs. James R. Branch and her mother, Mrs. Thomas
Branch.  In fact, they have given me everything, which I fear they
cannot spare--vegetables, bread, milk, ice-cream.  To-day one of them
sent me a nice peach--the first one I think I have seen for two years.
I sent it to Mrs. Shippen [an invalid lady, in the yard of whose
country place ("Violet Bank") Lee's tents were pitched].  Mr. Platt
had services again to-day under the trees near my camp.  We had quite
a large congregation of citizens, ladies and gentlemen, and our usual
number of soldiers.  During the services, I constantly heard the shells
crashing among the houses of Petersburg.  Tell 'Life' [his pet name
for my sister Mildred] I send her a song composed by a French soldier.
As she is so learned in the language, I want he to send my a reply
in verse."

June 30, 1864, the anniversary of his wedding day, he thus writes to
my mother:

"...I was very glad to receive your letter yesterday, and to hear that
you were better.  I trust that you will continue to improve and soon
be as well as usual.  God grant that you may be entirely restored in
His own good time.  Do you recollect what a happy day thirty-three
years ago this was?  How many hopes and pleasures it gave birth to!
God has been very merciful and kind to us, and how thankless and
sinful I have been.  I pray that He may continue His mercies and
blessings to us, and give us a little peace and rest together in this
world, and finally gather us and all He has given us around His throne
in the world to come.  The President has just arrived, and I must
bring my letter to a close."

My mother had been quite ill that summer, and my father's anxiety for
her comfort and welfare, his desire to be with her to help her, was
very great.  The sick in the Confederacy at this period of universal
scarcity suffered for want of the simplest medicines.  All that could
be had were given to hospitals.  To his youngest daughter the General
writes, and sends to Mrs. Lee what little he could find in the way
of fruit:

"...I received this morning by your brother your note of the 3d, and
am glad to hear that your mother is better.  I sent out immediately
to try to find some lemons, but could only procure two, sent to me
by a kind lady, Mrs. Kirkland, in Petersburg.  These were gathered
from her own trees.  There are none to be purchased.  I found one
in my valise, dried up, which I also send, as it may prove of some
value.  I also put up some early apples which you can roast for your
mother, and one pear.  This is all the fruit I can get.  You must
go to the market every morning and see if you cannot find some fruit
for her.  There are no lemons to be had.  Tell her lemonade is not as
palatable or digestible as buttermilk.  Try to get some good buttermilk
for her.  With ice, it is delicious and very nutritious."

My sister Mildred had a pet squirrel which ran about the house in
Richmond.  She had named it "Custis Morgan," after her brother Custis,
and General John Morgan, the great cavalry leader of the western army.
He ventured out one day to see the city, and never returned.  In a
letter to Mildred, July 10th, my father alludes to his escape, and
apparently considers it a blessing:

"...I was pleased on the arrival of my little courier to learn that
you were better, and that 'Custis Morgan' was still among the missing.
I think the farther he gets from you the better you will be.  The shells
scattered the poor inhabitants of Petersburg so that many of the churches
are closed.  Indeed, they have been visited by the enemy's shells.
Mr. Platt, pastor of the principal Episcopal church, had services at
my headquarters to-day.  The services were under the trees, and the
discourse on the subject of salvation...."

About this time, the enemy, having been at work on a mine for nearly
a month, exploded it, and attacked our lines with a large force.  The
ensuing contest was called the Battle of the Crater.  General Lee,
having suspected that a mine was being run under his works, was
partly prepared for it, and the attack was repulsed very quickly with
great loss to the enemy.  In the address of Capt. W. Gordon McCabe
before the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia--November 2,
1876--speaking of this event, he says:

"From the mysterious paragraphs in the Northern papers, and from reports
of deserters, though those last were vague and contradictory, Lee and
Beauregard suspected that the enemy was mining in front of some one
of the three salients on Beauregard's front, and the latter officer
had in consequence directed counter-mines to be sunk from all three,
meanwhile constructing gorge-lines in the rear upon which the troops
might retire in case of surprise or disaster....  But the counter-
mining on the part of the Confederates was after a time discontinued,
owing to the lack of proper tools, the inexperience of the troops in
such work, and the arduous nature of their service in the trenches."

The mine was sprung July 30th.  On the 31st, the General writes:

"...Yesterday morning the enemy sprung a mine under one of our batteries
on the line and got possession of a portion of our intrenchments.  It
was the part defended by General Beauregard's troops, I sent General
Mahone with two brigades of Hill's corps, who charged them handsomely,
recapturing the intrenchments and guns, twelve stands of colours,
seventy-three officers, including General Bartlett, his staff, three
colonels, and eight hundred and fifty enlisted men.  There were
upward of five hundred of his dead and unburied in the trenches,
among them many officers and blacks.  He suffered severely.  He has
withdrawn his troops from the north side of the James.  I do not know
what he will attempt next.  He is mining on other points along our line.
I trust he will not succeed in bettering his last attempt...."

Grant, by means of a pontoon bridge, permanently established across
the James, was able to move his troops very quickly from one side to
the other, and could attack either flank, while making a feint on
the opposite one.  This occurred several times during the summer, but
General Lee seemed always to have anticipated the movement and to be
able to distinguish the feint from the real attack.  On August 14th,
he speaks of one of these movements in a letter to my mother:

"...I have been kept from church to-day by the enemy's crossing to the
north side of the James River and the necessity of moving troops to
meet him.  I do not know what his intentions are.  He is said to be
cutting a canal across the Dutch Gap, a point in the river--but I
cannot, as yet, discover it.  I was up there yesterday, and saw nothing
to indicate it.  We shall ascertain in a day or two.  I received to-day
a kind letter from Reverend Mr. Cole, of Culpeper Court House.  He
is a most excellent man in all the relations of life.  He says there
is not a church standing in all that country, within the lines formerly
occupied by the enemy.  All are razed to the ground, and the materials
used often for the vilest purposes.  Two of the churches at the Court
House barely escaped destruction.  The pews were all taken out to make
seats for the theatre.  The fact was reported to the commanding officer
by their own men of the Christian Commission, but he took no steps
to rebuke or arrest it.  We must suffer patiently to the end, when
all things will be made right...."

To oppose this movement (of August 14th), which was in heavy force,
our cavalry division was moved over to the north side, together with
infantry and artillery, and we had a very lively time for several
days.  In the engagement on the 15th of August I was shot in the arm
and disabled for about three weeks.  The wound was a very simple one--
just severe enough to give me a furlough, which I enjoyed intensely.
Time heals all wounds, it is said.  I remember it cured mine all too
soon, for, being on a wounded leave, provided it did not keep one in
bed, was the best luck a soldier could have.  I got back the last of
September, and in passing stopped to see my father.  I take from General
Long a pen-picture of him at this time, which accords with my own
recollection of his appearance:

"...General Lee continued in excellent health and bore his many cares
with his usual equanimity.  He had aged somewhat in appearance since
the beginning of the war, but had rather gained than lost in physical
vigour, from the severe life he had led.  His hair had grown gray, but
his face had the ruddy hue of health, and his eyes were as clear and
bright as ever.  His dress was always a plain, gray uniform, with
cavalry boots reaching to his knees, and a broad-brimmed gray felt
hat.  He seldom wore a weapon, and his only mark of rank was the stars
on his collar.  Though always abstemious in diet, he seemed able to
bear any amount of fatigue, being capable of remaining in his saddle
all day and at his desk half the night."

I cannot refrain from further quoting from the same author this
beautiful description of the mutual love, respect, and esteem existing
between my father and his soldiers:

"No commander was ever more careful, and never had care for the comfort
of an army given rise to greater devotion.  He was constantly calling
the attention of the authorities to the wants of his soldiers, making
every effort to provide them with food and clothing.  The feeling for
him was one of love, not of awe and dread.  They could approach him
with the assurance that they would be received with kindness and
consideration, and that any just complaint would receive proper
attention.  There was no condescension in his manner, but he was ever
simple, kind, and sympathetic, and his men, while having unbounded faith
in him as a leader, almost worshipped him as a man.  These relations
of affection and mutual confidence between the army and its commander
had much to do with the undaunted bravery displayed by the men, and
bore a due share in the many victories they gained."

Colonel Charles Marshall, in his address before the "Association of the
Army of Northern Virginia," also alludes to this "wonderful influence
over the troops under his command.  I can best describe that influence
by saying that such was the love and veneration of the men for him that
they came to look upon the cause as General Lee's cause, and they
fought for it because they loved him.  To them he represented cause,
country, and all."

All persons who were ever thrown into close relations with him had
somewhat these same feelings.  How could they help it?  Here is a letter
to his youngest daughter which shows his beautiful love and tenderness
for us all.  Throughout the war, he constantly took the time from his
arduous labours to send to his wife and daughters such evidences of his
affection for them:

                                "Camp Petersburg, November 6, 1864.

"My Precious Life:  This is the first day I have had leisure to answer
your letter.  I enjoyed it very much at the time of its reception,
and have enjoyed it since, but I have often thought of you in the
meantime, and have seen you besides.  Indeed, I may say, you are never
out of my thoughts.  I hope you think of me often, and if you could
know how earnestly I desire your true happiness, how ardently I pray
you may be directed to every good and saved from every evil, you would
as sincerely strive for its accomplishment.  Now in your youth you must
be careful to discipline your thoughts, words, and actions.  Habituate
yourself to useful employment, regular improvement, and to the benefit
of all those around your.  You have had some opportunity of learning
the rudiments of your education--not as good as I should have desired,
but I am much cheered by the belief that you availed yourself of it--
and I think you are now prepared by diligence and study to learn
whatever you desire.  Do not allow yourself to forget what you have
spent so much time and labour acquiring, but increase it every day by
extended application.  I hope you will embrace in your studies all
useful acquisitions.  I was much pleased to hear that while at 'Bremo'
you passed much of your time in reading and music.  All accomplishments
will enable you to give pleasure, and thus exert a wholesome influence.
Never neglect the means of making yourself useful in the world.  I
think you will not have to complain of Rob again for neglecting your
schoolmates.  He has equipped himself with a new uniform from top to
toe, and, with a new and handsome horse, is cultivating a marvellous
beard and preparing for conquest.  I went down on the lines to the
right, Friday, beyond Rowanty Creek, and pitched my camp within six
miles of Fitzhugh's last night.  Rob came up and spent the night with
me, and Fitzhugh appeared early in the morning.  They rode with me
till late that day.  I visited the battlefield in that quarter, and
General Hampton in describing it said there had not been during the
war a more spirited charge than Fitzhugh's division made that day up
the Boydton plank road, driving cavalry and infantry before him, in
which he was stopped by night.  I did not know before that his horse
had been shot under him.  Give a great deal of love to your dear mother,
and kiss your sisters for me.  Tell them they must keep well, not talk
too much, and go to bed early.

                                   "Ever your devoted father,

                                           "R. E. Lee."

He refers in this letter to his coming down near our command, and my
brother's visit and mine to him.  Everything was quiet, and we greatly
enjoyed seeing him and being with him.  The weather, too, was fine,
and he seemed to delight in our ride with him along the lines.  I
didn't think I saw him but once more until everything was over and we
met in Richmond.  Some time before this, my mother, fearing for his
health under the great amount of exposure and work he had to do, wrote
to him and begged him to take better care of himself.  In his reply,
he says:

"...But what care can a man give to himself in the time of war?  It is
from no desire for exposure or hazard that I live in a tent, but from
necessity.  I must be where I can, speedily, at all times attend to
the duties of my position, and be near or accessible to the officers
with whom I have to act.  I have been offered rooms in the houses of
our citizens, but I could not turn the dwellings of my kind hosts into
a barrack where officers, couriers, distressed women, etc., would be
entering day and night...."

General Fitz Lee, in his life of my father, says of him at this time:

"Self-possessed and calm, Lee struggled to solve the huge military
problem, and make the sum of smaller numbers equal to that of greater
numbers....  His thoughts ever turned upon the soldiers of his army,
the ragged gallant fellows around him--whose pinched cheeks told
hunger was their portion, and whose shivering forms denoted the absence
of proper clothing."

His letters to my mother during the winter tell how much his men were
in need.  My mother was an invalid from rheumatism, confined to a
rolling-chair.  To help the cause with her own hands as far as she
could, she was constantly occupied in knitting socks for the soldiers,
and induced all around her to do the same.  She sent them directly to
my father, and he always acknowledged them.  November 30th, he says:

"...I received yesterday your letter on the 27th and am glad to learn
your supply of socks is so large.  If two or three hundred would send
an equal number, we should have a sufficiency.  I will endeavour to
have them distributed to the most needy...."

And on December 17th:

"...I received day before yesterday the box with hats, gloves, and
socks; also the barrel of apples.  You had better have kept the latter,
as it would have been more useful to you than to me, and I should have
enjoyed its consumption by you and the girls more than by me...."

His friends and admirers were constantly sending him presents; some,
simple mementos of their love and affection; others, substantial and
material comforts for the outer and inner man.  The following letter,
from its date, is evidently an acknowledgement of Christmas gifts
sent him:

"December 30th....  The Lyons furs and fur robe have also arrived
safely, but I can learn nothing of the saddle of mutton.  Bryan, of
whom I inquired as to its arrival, is greatly alarmed lest it has been
sent to the soldiers' dinner.  If the soldiers get it, I shall be
content.  I can do very well without it.  In fact, I should rather
they should have it than I...."

The soldiers' "dinner" here referred to was a Christmas dinner, sent
by the entire country, as far as they could, to the poor starving men
in the trenches and camps along the lines.  It would not be considered
much now, but when the conditions were such as my father describes
when he wrote the Secretary of War,

"The struggle now is to keep the army fed and clothed.  Only fifty
men in some regiments have shoes, and bacon is only issued once in a
few days,"

anything besides the one-quarter of a pound of bacon and musty
corn-bread was a treat of great service, and might be construed as
"a Christmas dinner."

I have mentioned before my father's devotion to children.  This
sentiment pervaded his whole nature.  At any time the presence of a
little child would bring a brightness to his smile, a tender softness
to his glance, and drive away gloom or care.  Here is his account of
a visit paid him, early in January, 1865, by three little women:

"...Yesterday afternoon three little girls walked into my room, each
with a small basket.  The eldest carried some fresh eggs, laid by her
own hens; the second, some pickles made by her mother; the third, some
popcorn grown in her garden.  They were accompanied by a young maid
with a block of soap made by her mother.  They were the daughters of
a Mrs. Nottingham, a refugee from Northhampton County, who lived near
Eastville, not far from 'old Arlington.'  The eldest of the girls,
whose age did not exceed eight years, had a small wheel on which she
spun for her mother, who wove all the cloth for her two brothers--boys
of twelve and fourteen years.  I have not had so pleasant a visit
for a long time.  I fortunately was able to fill their baskets with
apples, which distressed poor Bryan [his mess-steward], and I begged
them to bring me nothing but kisses and to keep the eggs, corn, etc.,
for themselves.  I pray daily and almost hourly to our Heavenly
Father to come to the relief of you and our afflicted country.  I know
He will order all things for our good, and we must be content."

 

 

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