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.
V. Richmond in Danger--Lee's Views
We have presented a sufficiently full narrative of the great battles of the Chickahominy to enable the reader to form his own opinion of the events, and the capacity of the two leaders who directed them. Full justice has been sought to be done to the eminent military abilities of General McClellan, and the writer is not conscious that he has done more than justice to General Lee.
Lee has not escaped criticism, and was blamed by many persons for not putting an end to the Federal army on the retreat through White-Oak Swamp. To this criticism, it may be said in reply, that putting an end to nearly or quite one hundred thousand men is a difficult undertaking; and that in one instance, at least, the failure of one of his subordinates in arriving promptly, reversed his plans at the most critical moment of the struggle. General Lee himself, however, states the main cause of failure: "Under ordinary circumstances," he says, "the Federal army should have been destroyed. Its escape is due to the causes already stated. Prominent among them is the want of timely and correct information. This fact, attributed chiefly to the character of the country, enabled General McClellan skilfully to conceal his retreat, and to add much to the obstruction with which Nature had beset the way of our pursuing columns. But regret that more was not accomplished, gives way to gratitude to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe for the results achieved."
The reader will form his own opinion whether Lee was or was not to blame for this want of accurate information, which would seem, however, to be justly attributable to the War Department at Richmond, rather than to an officer who had been assigned to command only three or four weeks before. Other criticisms of Lee referred to his main plan of operations, and the danger to which he exposed Richmond by leaving only twenty-five thousand men in front of it, when he began his movement against General McClellan's right wing, beyond the Chickahominy. General Magruder, who commanded this force of twenty-five thousand men left to guard the capital, expressed afterward, in his official report, his views of the danger to which the city had been exposed. He wrote:
"From the time at which the enemy withdrew his forces to this side of the Chickahominy, and destroyed the bridges, to the moment of his evacuation, that is, from Friday night until Saturday morning, I considered the situation of our army as extremely critical and perilous. The larger portion of it was on the opposite side of the Chickahominy. The bridges had been all destroyed; but one was rebuilt--the New Bridge--which was commanded fully by the enemy's guns from Goulding's; and there were but twenty-five thousand men between his army of one hundred thousand and Richmond.... Had McClellan massed his whole force in column, and advanced it against any point of our line of battle, as was done at Austerlitz under similar circumstances by the greatest captain of any age, though the head of his column would have suffered greatly, its momentum would have insured him success, and the occupation of our works about Richmond, and consequently the city, might have been his reward. His failure to do so is the best evidence that our wise commander fully understood the character of his opponent."
To this portion of General Magruder's report General Lee appended the following "Remarks" in forwarding it:
"General Magruder is under a misapprehension as to the separation of troops operating on the north side of the Chickahominy from those under himself and General Huger on the south side. He refers to this subject on pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, of his report.
"The troops on the two sides of the river were only separated until we succeeded in occupying the position near what is known as New Bridge, which occurred before twelve o'clock M. on Friday, June 27th, and before the attack on the enemy at Gaines's Mill.
"From the time we reached the position referred to, I regarded communication between the two wings of our army as reestablished.
"The bridge referred to, and another about three-quarters of a mile above, were ordered to be repaired before noon on Friday, and the New Bridge was sufficiently rebuilt to be passed by artillery on Friday night, and the one above it was used for the passage of wagons, ambulances, and troops, early on Saturday morning.
"Besides this, all other bridges above New Bridge, and all the fords above that point, were open to us."
To this General Magruder subsequently responded as follows:
"New Bridge was finished on Friday evening, the 27th, instead of Saturday, 28th of June.
"I wrote from memory in reference to the time of its being finished.
"It was reported to me that the bridge three-quarters of a mile above was attempted to be crossed by troops (I think Ransom's brigade), on Saturday morning, from the south to the north side, but that, finding the bridge or the approach to it difficult, they came down and crossed at New Bridge on the same morning.
"My statement in regard to these bridges was not intended as a criticism on General Lee's plan, but to show the position of the troops, with a view to the proper understanding of my report, and to prove that the enemy might have reasonably entertained a design, after concentrating his troops, to march on Richmond."
We shall not detain the reader by entering upon a full discussion of the interesting question here raised. General Lee, as his observations on General Magruder's report show, did not regard Richmond as exposed to serious danger, and was confident of his ability to recross the Chickahominy and go to its succor in the event of an attack on the city by General McClellan. Had this prompt recrossing of the stream here, even, been impracticable, it may still be a question whether General Lee did not, in his movement against the Federal right wing with the bulk of his army, follow the dictates of sound generalship. In war, something must be risked, and occasions arise which render it necessary to disregard general maxims. It is one of the first principles of military science that a commander should always keep open his line of retreat; but the moment may come when his best policy is to burn the bridges behind him. Of Lee's movement against General McClellan's right, it may be said that it was based on the broadest good sense and the best generalship. The situation of affairs rendered an attack in some quarter essential to the safety of the capital, which was about to be hemmed in on all sides. To attack the left of General McClellan, promised small results. It had been tried and had failed; his right alone remained. It was possible, certainly, that he would mass his army, and, crushing Magruder, march into Richmond; but it was not probable that he would make the attempt. The Federal commander was known to be a soldier disposed to caution rather than audacity. The small amount of force under General Magruder was a secret which he could not be expected to know. That General Lee took these facts into consideration, as General Magruder intimates, may or may not have been the fact; and the whole discussion may be fairly summed up, perhaps, by saying that success vindicated the course adopted. "Success, after all, is the test of merit," said the brave
Albert Sydney Johnston, and Talleyrand compressed much sound reasoning in the pithy maxim, "Nothing succeeds like success."
On the 2d of July the campaign was over, and General McClellan must have felt, in spite of his hopeful general orders to the troops, and dispatches to his Government, that the great struggle for Richmond had virtually ended. A week before, he had occupied a position within a few miles of the city, with a numerous army in the highest spirits, and of thorough efficiency. Now, he lay on the banks of James River, thirty miles away from the capital, and his army was worn out by the tremendous ordeal it had passed through, and completely discouraged. We have not dwelt upon the horrors of the retreat, and the state of the army, which Northern writers painted at the time in the gloomiest colors. For the moment, it was no longer the splendid war-engine it had been, and was again afterward. Nothing could be done with it, and General McClellan knew the fact. Without fresh troops, a renewed advance upon Richmond was a mere dream.
No further attack was made by General Lee, who remained for some days inactive in the hot forests of Charles City. His reasons for refraining from a new assault on General McClellan are summed up in one or two sentences of his report: "The Federal commander," he says, "immediately began to fortify his position, which was one of great natural strength, flanked on each side by a creek, and the approach to his front commanded by the heavy guns of his shipping, in addition to those mounted in his intrenchments. It was deemed inexpedient to attack him, and in view of the condition of our troops, who had been marching and fighting almost incessantly for seven days under the most trying circumstances, it was determined to withdraw, in order to afford them the repose of which they stood so much in need." On the 8th of July, General Lee accordingly directed his march back toward Richmond, and the troops went into camp and rested.