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.
IV. The Retreat
The battle of Cold Harbor--or, as General Lee styles it in his report, the "battle of the Chickahominy"--was the decisive struggle between the great adversaries, and determined the fate of General McClellan's campaign against Richmond.
This view is not held by writers on the Northern side, who represent the battle in question as only the first of a series of engagements, all of pretty nearly equal importance, and mere incidents attending General McClellan's change of base to the shores of the James River. Such a theory seems unfounded. If the battle at Cold Harbor had resulted in a Federal victory, General McClellan would have advanced straight on Richmond, and the capture of the city would inevitably have followed. But at Cold Harbor he sustained a decisive defeat. His whole campaign was reversed, and came to naught, from the events occurring between noon and nightfall on the 27th of June. The result of that obstinate encounter was not a Federal success, leading to the fall of Richmond, but a Federal defeat, which led to the retreat to the James River, and the failure of the whole campaign against the Confederate capital.
It is conceded that General McClellan really intended to change his base; but after the battle of Cold Harbor every thing had changed. He no longer had under him a high-spirited army, moving to take up a stronger position, but a weary and dispirited multitude of human beings, hurrying along to gain the shelter of the gunboats on the James River, with the enemy pursuing closely, and worrying them at every step. To the condition of the Federal army one of their own officers testifies, and his expressions are so strong as wellnigh to move the susceptibilities of an opponent. "We were ordered to retreat," says General Hooker, "and it was like the retreat of a whipped army. We retreated like a parcel of sheep; everybody on the road at the same time; and a few shots from the rebels would have panic-stricken the whole command."
[Footnote 1: Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, part i., p. 580.]
Such was the condition of that great army which had fought so bravely, standing firm so long against the headlong assaults of the flower of the Southern troops. It was the battle at Cold Harbor which had produced this state of things, thereby really deciding the result of the campaign. To attribute to that action, therefore, no more importance than attached to the engagements on the retreat to James River, seems in opposition to the truth of history.
We shall present only a general narrative of the famous retreat which reflected the highest credit upon General McClellan, and will remain his greatest glory. He, at least, was too good a soldier not to understand that the battle of the 27th was a decisive one. He determined to retreat, without risking another action, to the banks of the James River, where the Federal gunboats would render a second attack from the Confederates a hazardous undertaking; and, "on the evening of the 27th of June," as he says in his official report, "assembled the corps commanders at his headquarters, and informed them of his plan, its reasons, and his choice of route, and method of execution." Orders were then issued to
General Keyes to move with his corps across the White-Oak Swamp Bridge, and, taking up a position with his artillery on the opposite side, cover the passage of the rest of the troops; the trains and supplies at Savage Station, on the York River Railroad, were directed to be withdrawn; and the corps commanders were ordered to move with such provisions, munitions, and sick, as they could transport, on the direct road to Harrison's Landing.
These orders were promptly carried out. Before dawn on the 29th the Federal army took up the line of march, and the great retrograde movement was successfully begun. An immense obstacle to its success lay in the character of the country through which it was necessary to pass. White Oak Swamp is an extensive morass, similar to that skirting the banks of the Chickahominy, and the passage through it is over narrow, winding, and difficult roads, which furnish the worst possible pathways for wagons, artillery, or even troops. It was necessary, however, to use these highways or none, and General McClellan resolutely entered upon his critical movement.
General Lee was yet in doubt as to his opponent's designs, and the fact is highly creditable to General McClellan. A portion of the Federal army still remained on the left bank of the Chickahominy, and it might be the intention of McClellan to push forward reenforcements from the Peninsula, fight a second battle for the protection of his great mass of supplies at the White House, or, crossing his whole army to the left bank of the Chickahominy by the lower bridges, retreat down the Peninsula by the same road followed in advancing. All that General Lee could do, under these circumstances, was to remain near Cold Harbor with his main body, send a force toward the York River road, on the eastern bank of the Chickahominy, to check any Federal attempt to cross there, and await further developments.
It was not until the morning of the 29th that General McClellan's designs became apparent. It was then ascertained that he had commenced moving toward James River with his entire army, and Lee issued prompt orders for the pursuit. While a portion of the Confederate army followed closely upon the enemy's rear, other bodies were directed to move by the Williamsburg and Charles City roads, and intercept him, or assail his flanks. If these movements were promptly made, and no unnecessary delay took place, it was expected that the Federal army would be brought to bay in the White-Oak Swamp, and a final victory be achieved by the Confederates.
These complicated movements were soon in full progress, and at various points on the line of retreat fierce fighting ensued. General Magruder, advancing to Savage Station, an important depot of Federal stores, on the York River Railroad, encountered on the 29th, the powerful Federal rear-guard, which fought obstinately until night, when it retired. Next day Generals Longstreet and A.P. Hill had pushed down the
Long Bridge road, and on the next day (June 30th) came on the retreating column which was vigorously engaged. From the character of the ground, little, however, was effected. The enemy fought with obstinate courage, and repulsed every assault. The battle raged until after nightfall, when the Federal army continued to retreat.
These actions were the most important, and in both the Confederates had failed to effect any important results.
Even Jackson, who had been delayed, by the destruction of the Chickahominy bridges, in crossing to the south bank from the vicinity of Cold Harbor, and had followed in rear of the rest of the army, found himself checked by General McClellan's admirable disposition for the protection of his rear. Jackson made every effort to strike a decisive blow at the Federal rear in the White-Oak Swamp, but he found a bridge in his front destroyed, the enemy holding the opposite side in strong force, and, when he endeavored to force a passage, the determined fire from their artillery rendered it impossible for him to do so. General McClellan had thus foiled the generalship of Lee, and the hard fighting of
Stonewall Jackson. His excellent military judgement had defeated every attempt made to crush him. On the 1st of July he had successfully passed the terrible swamp, in spite of all his enemies, and his army was drawn up on the wellnigh impregnable heights of Malvern Hill.
A last struggle took place at Malvern Hill, and the Confederate assault failed at all points. Owing to the wooded nature of the ground, and the absence of accurate information in regard to it, the attack was made under very great difficulties and effected nothing. The Federal troops resisted courageously, and inflicted heavy loss upon the assailing force, which advanced to the muzzles of the Federal cannon, but did not carry the heights; and at nightfall the battle ceased, the Confederates having suffered a severe repulse.
On the next morning, General McClellan had disappeared toward Harrison's Landing, to which he conducted his army safely, without further molestation, and the long and bitter struggle was over.