A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
ON THE CHICKAHOMINY.
I. The Two Armies
The Chickahominy, whose banks were now to be the scene of a bitter and determined conflict between the great adversaries, is a sluggish and winding stream, which, rising above Richmond, describes a curve around it, and empties its waters into the James, far below the city. Its banks are swampy, and thickly clothed with forest or underwood. From the nature of these banks, which scarcely rise in many places above the level of the water, the least freshet produces an overflow, and the stream, generally narrow and insignificant, becomes a sort of lake, covering the low grounds to the bases of the wooded bluffs extending upon each side. Numerous bridges cross the stream, from Bottom's Bridge, below the York River Railroad, to Meadow Bridge, north of the city. Of these, the Mechanicsville Bridge, about four miles from the city, and the New Bridge, about nine miles, were points of the greatest importance.
General McClellan's position has been repeatedly referred to. He had crossed a portion of his army east of Richmond, and advanced to within four or five miles of the city. The remainder, meanwhile, lay on the north bank of the stream, and swept round, in a sort of crescent, to the vicinity of Mechanicsville, where it had been anticipated
General McDowell would unite with it, thereby covering its right flank, and protecting the communications with the Federal base at the White House. That this disposition of the Federal troops was faulty, in face of adversaries like Johnston and Lee, there could be no doubt. But General McClellan was the victim, it seems, of the shifting and vacillating policy of the authorities at Washington. With the arrival of the forty thousand men under McDowell, his position would have been a safe one. General McDowell did not arrive; and this unprotected right flank--left unprotected from the fact that McDowell's presence was counted on--became the point of the Confederate attack.
The amount of blame, if any, justly attributable to General McClellan, first for his inactivity, and then for his defeat by Lee, cannot be referred to here, save in a few brief sentences. A sort of feud seems to have arisen between himself and
General Halleck, the commander-in-chief, stationed at Washington; and
General Halleck then and afterward appears to have regarded McClellan as a soldier without decision or broad generalship. And yet McClellan does not seem to have merited the censure he received. He called persistently for reinforcements, remaining inactive meanwhile, because he estimated the Confederate army before him at two hundred thousand men, and was unwilling to assail this force, under command of soldiers like Johnston and Lee, until his own force seemed adequate to the undertaking. Another consideration was, the Confederate position in front of the powerful earthworks of the city. These works would double the Confederate strength in case of battle in front of them; and, believing himself already outnumbered, the Federal commander was naturally loath to deliver battle until reenforced. The faulty disposition of his army, divided by a stream crossed by few bridges, has been accounted for in like manner--he so disposed the troops, expecting reenforcements. But Jackson's energy delayed these. Washington was in danger, it was supposed, and General McDowell did not come. It thus happened that General McClellan awaited attack instead of making it, and that his army was so posted as to expose him to the greatest peril.
A last point is to be noted in vindication of this able soldier. Finding, at the very last moment, that he could expect no further assistance from the President or General
Halleck, he resolved promptly to withdraw his exposed right wing and change his base of operations to James River, where at least his communications would be safe. This, it seems, had been determined upon just before the Confederate attack; or, if he had not then decided, General McClellan soon determined upon that plan.
To pass now to the Confederate side, where all was ready for the great movement. General Lee's army lay in front of Richmond, exactly corresponding with the front of General McClellan. The divisions of Magruder and Huger, supported by those of Longstreet and D.H. Hill, were opposite McClellan's left, on the Williamsburg and York River roads, directly east of the city. From Magruder's left, extended the division of General A.P. Hill, reaching thence up the river toward Mechanicsville; and a brigade, under General Branch lay on Hill's left near the point where the Brook Turnpike crosses the Chickahominy north of Richmond. The approaches from the east, northeast, and north, were thus carefully guarded. As the Confederates held the interior line, the whole force could be rapidly concentrated, and was thoroughly in hand, both for offensive or defensive movements.
The army thus held in Lee's grasp, and about to assail its great Federal adversary, was composed of the best portion of the Southern population. The rank and file was largely made up of men of education and high social position. And this resulted from the character of the struggle. The war was a war of invasion on the part of the North; and the ardent and high-spirited youth of the entire South threw themselves into it with enthusiasm. The heirs of ancient families and great wealth served as privates. Personal pride, love of country, indignation at the thought that a hostile section had sent an army to reduce them to submission, combined to draw into the Confederate ranks the flower of the Southern youth, and all the best fighting material. Deficient in discipline, and "hard to manage," this force was yet of the most efficient character. It could be counted on for hard work, and especially for offensive operations. And the officers placed over it shared its character.
Among these, General A.P. Hill, a Virginian by birth, was soon to be conspicuous as commander of the "Light Division," and representative of the spirit and dash and enthusiasm of the army. Under forty years of age, with a slender figure, a heavily-bearded face, dark eyes, a composed and unassuming bearing, characterized when off duty by a quiet cordiality, he was personally popular with all who approached him, and greatly beloved, both as man and commander. His chief merit as a soldier was his dash and impetus in the charge. A braver heart never beat in human breast; throughout the war he retained the respect and admiration of the army and the country; and a strange fact in relation to this eminent soldier is, that his name was uttered by both Jackson and Lee as they expired.
Associated with him in the battles of the Chickahominy, and to the end, was the able and resolute Longstreet--an officer of low and powerful stature, with a heavy, brown beard reaching to his breast, a manner marked by unalterable composure, and a countenance whose expression of phlegmatic tranquillity never varied in the hottest hours of battle. Longstreet was as famous for his bull-dog obstinacy, as Hill for his dash and enthusiasm. General Lee styled him his "old war-horse," and depended upon him, as will be seen, in some of the most critical operations of the war.
Of the young and ardent Virginian, General Magruder, the brave and resolute North-Carolinian, D.H. Hill, and other officers who subsequently acquired great reputations in the army, we have no space at present to speak. All were to cooeperate in the assault on General McClellan, and do their part.
On the night of the 25th of June, all was ready for the important movement, and the troops rested on their arms, ready for the coming battle.