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.
III. The Battle of the Chickahominy
On the morning of the 26th of June, 1862, all was ready for the great encounter of arms between the Confederates and the Federal forces on the Chickahominy. General Jackson had been delayed on his march from the mountains, and had not yet arrived; but it was known that he was near, and would soon make his appearance; and, in the afternoon, General Lee accordingly directed that the movement should commence. At the word, General A.P. Hill moved from his camps to Meadow Bridge, north of Richmond; crossed the Chickahominy there, and moved rapidly on Mechanicsville, where a small Federal force, behind intrenchments, guarded the head of the bridge. This force was not a serious obstacle, and Hill soon disposed of it. He attacked the Federal works, stormed them after a brief struggle, and drove the force which had occupied them back toward Beaver Dam Creek, below. The Mechanicsville bridge was thus cleared; and, in compliance with his orders from Lee, General Longstreet hastened to throw his division across. Hill had meanwhile pressed forward on the track of the retreating enemy, and, a mile or two below, found himself in front of a much more serious obstruction than that encountered at the bridge, namely, the formidable position held by the enemy on Beaver Dam Creek.
The ground here is of a peculiar character, and admirably adapted for a defensive position against an enemy advancing from above. On the opposite side of a narrow valley, through which runs Beaver Dam Creek, rises a bold, almost precipitous, bluff, and the road which the Confederates were compelled to take bends abruptly to the right when near the stream, thus exposing the flank of the assaulting party to a fire from the bluff. As Hill's column pushed forward to attack this position, it was met by a determined fire of artillery and small-arms from the crest beyond the stream, where a large force of riflemen, in pits, were posted, with infantry supports. Before this artillery-fire, raking his flanks and doing heavy execution, Hill was compelled to fall back. It was impossible to cross the stream in face of the fusillade and cannon. The attack ended after dark with the withdrawal of the Confederates; but at dawn Hill resumed the struggle, attempting to cross at another point, lower down the stream. This attempt was in progress when the Federal troops were seen rapidly falling back from their strong position; and intelligence soon came that this was in consequence of the arrival of Jackson, who had passed around the Federal right flank above, and forced them to retire toward the main body of the Federal army below.
No time was now lost. The memorable 27th of June had dawned clear and cloudless, and the brilliant sunshine gave promise of a day on which no interference of the elements would check the bloody work to be performed. Hill advanced steadily on the track of the retiring Federal forces, who had left evidences of their precipitate retreat all along the road, and, about noon, came in front of the very powerful position of the main body of the enemy, near Cold Harbor.
General McClellan had drawn up his forces on a ridge along the southern bank of Powhite Creek, a small water-course which, flowing from the northeast, empties below New Bridge into the Chickahominy. His left, nearest the Chickahominy, was protected by a deep ravine in front, which he had filled with sharp-shooters; and his right rested upon elevated ground, near the locality known as Maghee's House. In front, the whole line of battle, which described a curve backward to cover the bridges in rear, was protected by difficult approaches. The ground was either swampy, or covered with tangled undergrowth, or both. The ridge held by the Federal forces had been hastily fortified by breastworks of felled trees and earth, behind which the long lines of infantry, supported by numerous artillery, awaited the attack.
The amount of the Federal force has been variously stated. The impression of the Confederates differed from the subsequent statements of Federal writers. "The principal part of the Federal army," says General Lee, in his report, "was now on the north side of the Chickahominy." The force has been placed by Northern writers at only thirty, or at most thirty-five thousand. If this was the whole number of troops engaged, from first to last, in the battle, the fact is highly creditable to the Federal arms, as the struggle was long doubtful. No doubt the exact truth will some day be put upon record, and justice will be done to both the adversaries.
The Federal force was commanded by the brave and able
General Fitz-John Porter, with General Morell commanding his right, General Sykes his left, and
General McCall forming a second line.
Slocum's division, and the brigades of Generals French and Meagher, afterward reenforced Porter, who now prepared, with great coolness, for the Confederate attack.
The moment had come. A.P. Hill, pressing forward rapidly, with Longstreet's division on the right, reached Cold Harbor, in front of the Federal centre, about noon. Hill immediately attacked, and an engagement of the most obstinate character ensued. General Lee, accompanied by General Longstreet, had ridden from his headquarters, on the Nine-mile road, to the scene of action, and now witnessed in person the fighting of the troops, who charged under his eye, closing in in a nearly hand-to-hand conflict with the enemy. This was, no doubt, the first occasion on which a considerable portion of the men had seen him--certainly in battle--and that air of supreme calmness which always characterized him in action must have made a deep impression upon them. He was clad simply, and wore scarcely any badges of rank. A felt hat drooped low over the broad forehead, and the eyes beneath were calm and unclouded. Add a voice of measured calmness, the air of immovable composure which marked the erect military figure, evidently at home in the saddle, and the reader will have a correct conception of General Lee's personal appearance in the first of the great battles of his career.
Hill attacked with that dash and obstinacy which from this time forward characterized him, but succeeded in making no impression on the Federal line. In every assault he was repulsed with heavy loss. The Federal artillery, which was handled with skill and coolness, did great execution upon his column, as it rushed forward, and the infantry behind their works stood firm in spite of the most determined efforts to drive them from the ridge. Three of Hill's regiments reached the crest, and fought hand to hand over the breastworks, but they were speedily repulsed and driven from the crest, and, after two hours' hard fighting, Hill found that he had lost heavily and effected nothing.
It was now past two o'clock in the afternoon, and General Lee listened with anxiety for the sound of guns from the left, which would herald the approach of General Jackson. Nothing was heard from that quarter, however, and affairs were growing critical. The Confederate attack had been repulsed--the Federal position seemed impregnable--and "it became apparent," says General Lee, "that the enemy were gradually gaining ground." Under these circumstances, General McClellan might adopt either one of the two courses both alike dangerous to the Confederates. He might cross a heavy force to the assistance of General Porter, thus enabling that officer to assume the offensive; or, finding Lee thus checked, he might advance on Magruder, crush the small force under him, and seize on Richmond, which would be at his mercy. It was thus necessary to act without delay, while awaiting the appearance of Jackson. General Lee, accordingly, directed General Longstreet, who had taken position to the right of Cold Harbor, to make a feint against the Federal left, and thus relieve the pressure on Hill. Longstreet proceeded with promptness to obey the order; advanced in face of a heavy fire, and with a cross-fire of artillery raking his right from over the Chickahominy, and made the feint which had been ordered by General Lee. It effected nothing; and, to attain the desired result, it was found necessary to turn the feint into a real attack. This Longstreet proceeded to do, first dispersing with a single volley a force of cavalry which had the temerity to charge his infantry. As he advanced and attacked the powerful position before him, the roar of guns, succeeded by loud cheers, was heard on the left of Lee's line.
Jackson had arrived and thrown his troops into action without delay. He then rode forward to Cold Harbor, where General Lee awaited him, and the two soldiers shook hands in the midst of tumultuous cheering from the troops, who had received intelligence that Jackson's corps had joined them. The contrast between the two men was extremely striking. We have presented a brief sketch of Lee's personal appearance upon the occasion--of the grave commander-in-chief, with his erect and graceful seat in the saddle, his imposing dignity of demeanor, and his calm and measured tones, as deliberate as though he were in a drawing-room. Jackson was a very different personage. He was clad in a dingy old coat, wore a discolored cadet-cap, tilted almost upon his nose, and rode a rawboned horse, with short stirrups, which raised his knees in the most ungraceful manner. Neither in his face nor figure was there the least indication of the great faculties of the man, and a more awkward-looking personage it would be impossible to imagine. In his hand he held a lemon, which he sucked from time to time, and his demeanor was abstracted and absent.
As Jackson approached, Lee rode toward him and greeted him with a cordial pressure of the hand.
"Ah, general," said Lee, "I am very glad to see you. I hoped to be with you before!"
Jackson made a twitching movement of his head, and replied in a few words, rather jerked from the lips than deliberately uttered.
Lee had paused, and now listened attentively to the long roll of musketry from the woods, where Hill and Longstreet were engaged; then to the still more incessant and angry roar from the direction of Jackson's own troops, who had closed in upon the Federal forces.
"That fire is very heavy," said Lee. "Do you think your men can stand it?"
Jackson listened for a moment, with his head bent toward one shoulder, as was customary with him, for he was deaf, he said, in one ear, "and could not hear out of the other," and replied briefly:
"They can stand almost any thing! They can stand that!"
He then, after receiving General Lee's instructions, immediately saluted and returned to his corps--Lee remaining still at Cold Harbor, which was opposite the Federal centre.
[Illustration: Lee and Jackson at Cold harbor.]
The arrival of Jackson changed in a moment the aspect of affairs in every part of the field. Whitney's division of his command took position on Longstreet's left; the command of General D.H. Hill, on the extreme right of the whole line, and Ewell's division, with part of Jackson's old division, supported A.P. Hill. No sooner had these dispositions been made, than General Lee ordered an attack along the whole line. It was now five or six o'clock, and the sun was sinking. From that moment until night came, the battle raged with a fury unsurpassed in any subsequent engagement of the war. The Texan troops, under General Hood, especially distinguished themselves. These, followed by their comrades, charged the Federal left on the bluff, and, in spite of a desperate resistance, carried the position. "The enemy were driven," says General Lee, "from the ravine to the first line of breastworks, over which one impetuous column dashed, up to the intrenchments on the crest." Here the Federal artillery was captured, their line driven from the hill, and in other parts of the field a similar success followed the attack. As night fell, their line gave way in all parts, and the remnants of General Porter's command retreated to the bridges over the Chickahominy.
The first important passage of arms between General McClellan and General Lee--and it may be added the really decisive one--had terminated in a great success on the side of the Confederates.