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
LEE INVADES MARYLAND.
XI. Final Movements of 1862
The battle of Fredericksburg was another defeat of the Federal programme of invasion, as decisive, and in one sense as disastrous, as the second battle of Manassas.
General Burnside had not lost as many men as
General Pope, and had not retreated in confusion, pursued by a victorious enemy; but, brief as the conflict had been--two or three hours summing up all the real fighting--its desperate character, and the evident hopelessness of any attempt to storm Lee's position, profoundly discouraged and demoralized the Northern troops. We have quoted the statement of General Franklin, commanding the whole left wing, that from "the demoralized condition of the troops upon the right and centre, as represented to him by their commanders, he believed the order to recross was a very proper one." Nor is there any ground to suppose that the feeling of the left wing was greatly better. That wing of the army had not suffered as heavily as the right, which had recoiled with such frightful slaughter from Marye's Hill; but the repulse of
General Meade in their own front had been equally decisive, and the non-success of the right must have reacted on the left, discouraging that also. Northern writers, in a position to ascertain the condition of the troops, fully bear out this view: "That the _morale_ of the Army of the Potomac became seriously impaired after the disaster at Fredericksburg," says Mr. Swinton, the able and candid historian of the campaign, "was only too manifest. Indeed, it would be impossible to imagine a graver or gloomier, a more sombre or unmusical body of men than the Army of the Potomac a month after the battle. And, as the days went by, despondency, discontent, and all evil inspirations, with their natural consequent, desertion, seemed to increase rather than to diminish, until, for the first time, the Army of the Potomac could be said to be really demoralized."
General Sumner noticed that a spirit of "croaking" had become diffused throughout the forces. For an army to display that tendency clearly indicates that the troops have lost the most important element of victory--confidence in themselves and their leader. And for this sentiment there was valid reason. Columns wholly inadequate in numbers had been advanced against the formidable Confederate positions, positions so strong and well defended that it is doubtful if thrice the force could have made any impression upon them, and the result was such as might have been expected. The men lost confidence in the military capacity of their commander, and in their own powers. After the double repulse at Marye's Hill and in front of Jackson, the troops, looking at the ground strewed with dead and wounded, were in no condition to go forward hopefully to another struggle which promised to be equally bloody.
The Southern army was naturally in a condition strongly in contrast with that of their adversary. They had repulsed the determined assault of the Federal columns with comparative ease on both flanks. Jackson's first line, although pierced and driven back, soon rallied, and checked the enemy until the second line came up, when General Meade was driven back, the third line not having moved from its position along the road near the Hamilton House. On the left, Longstreet had repulsed the Federal charge with his artillery and two small brigades. The loss of the Confederates in both these encounters was much less than that of their adversaries, a natural result of the circumstances; and thus, instead of sharing the depression of their opponents, the Southern troops were elated, and looked forward to a renewal of the battle with confidence in themselves and in their leader.
[Footnote 1: "Our loss during the operation, since the movements of the enemy began, amounts to about eighteen hundred killed and wounded."--_Lee's Report_. Federal authorities state the Northern loss at a little over twelve thousand; the larger part, no doubt, in the attack on Marye's Hill.]
It is not necessary to offer much comment upon the manner in which General Burnside had attacked. He is said, by his critics, not to have, at the time, designed the turning movement against General Lee's right, upon which point the present writer is unable to decide. That movement would seem to have presented the sole and only chance of success for the Federal arms, as the successful advance of General Franklin's fifty-five or sixty thousand men up the old Richmond road would have compelled Lee to retire his whole right wing, to protect it from an assault in flank and reverse. What dispositions he would have made under these circumstances must be left to conjecture; but, it is certain that the blow would have proved a serious one, calling for the display of all his military ability. In the event, however, that this was the main great aim of General Burnside, his method of carrying out his design insured, it would seem, its failure. Ten thousand men only were to clear the way for the flanking movement, in order to effect which object it was necessary to crush Jackson. So that it may be said that the success of the plan involved the repulse of one-half Lee's army with ten thousand men.
The assault on Marye's Hill was an equally fatal military mistake. That the position could not be stormed, is proved by the result of the actual attempt. It is doubtful if, in any battle ever fought by any troops, men displayed greater gallantry. They rushed headlong, not only once, but thrice, into the focus of a frightful front and cross fire of artillery and small-arms, losing nearly half their numbers in a few minutes; the ground was littered with their dead, and yet the foremost had only been able to approach within sixty yards of the terrible stone wall in advance of the hill. There they fell, throwing up their hands to indicate that they saw at last that the attempt to carry the hill was hopeless.
These comments seem justified by the circumstances, and are made with no intention of casting obloquy upon the commander who, displaying little ability, gave evidences of unfaltering courage. He had urged his inability to handle so large an army, but the authorities had forced the command upon him; he had accepted it and done his best, and, like a brave soldier, determined to lead the final charge in person, dying, if necessary, at the head of his men.
General Lee has not escaped criticism any more than General Burnside. The Southern people were naturally dissatisfied with the result--the safe retreat of the Federal army--and asked why they had not been attacked and captured or destroyed. The London _Times_, at that period, and a military critic recently, in the same journal, declared that Lee had it in his power to crush
General Burnside, "horse, foot, and dragoons," and, from his failure to do so, argued his want of great generalship. A full discussion of the question is left by the present writer to those better skilled than himself in military science. It is proper, however, to insert here General Lee's own explanation of his action:
"The attack on the 13th," he says, "had been so easily repulsed, and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to one attempt, which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations, and the extent of his force, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. Believing, therefore, that he would attack us, it was not deemed expedient to lose the advantages of our position and expose the troops to the fire of his inaccessible batteries beyond the river, by advancing against him. But we were necessarily ignorant of the extent to which he had suffered, and only became aware of it when, on the morning of the 16th, it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of night, and the prevalence of a violent storm of wind and rain, to recross the river."
This statement was no doubt framed by General Lee to meet the criticisms which the result of the battle occasioned. In conversing with General Stuart on the subject, he added that he felt too great responsibility for the preservation of his troops to unnecessarily hazard them. "No one knows," he said, "how _brittle_ an army is."
The word may appear strange, applied to the Army of Northern Virginia, which had certainly vindicated its claim, under many arduous trials, to the virtues of toughness and endurance. But Lee's meaning was plain, and his view seems to have been founded on good sense. The enemy had in all, probably, two hundred pieces of artillery, a large portion of which were posted on the high ground north of the river. Had Lee descended from his ridge and advanced into the plain to attack, this large number of guns would have greeted him with a rapid and destructive fire, which must have inflicted upon him a loss as nearly heavy as he had inflicted upon General Burnside at Marye's Hill. From such a result he naturally shrunk. It has been seen that the Federal troops, brave as they were, had been demoralized by such a fire; and Lee was unwilling to expose his own troops to similar slaughter.
There is little question, it seems, that an advance of the description mentioned would have resulted in a conclusive victory, and the probable surrender of the whole or a large portion of the Federal army. Whether the probability of such a result was sufficient to compensate for the certain slaughter, the reader will decide for himself. General Lee did not think so, and did not order the advance. He preferred awaiting, in his strong position, the second assault which General Burnside would probably make; and, while he thus waited, the enemy secretly recrossed the river, rendering an attack upon them by Lee impossible.
General Burnside made a second movement to cross the Rappahannock--this time at Banks's Ford, above Fredericksburg--in the inclement month of January; but, as he might have anticipated, the condition of the roads was such that it was impossible to advance. His artillery, with the horses dragging the pieces, sank into the almost bottomless mud, where they stuck fast--even the foot-soldiers found it difficult to march through the quagmire--and the whole movement was speedily abandoned.
When General Burnside issued the order for this injudicious advance, two of his general officers met, and one asked:
"What do you think of it?"
"It don't seem to have the _ring_" was the reply.
"No--the bell is broken," the other added.
This incident, which is given on the authority of a Northern writer, probably conveys a correct idea of the feeling of both the officers and men of General Burnside's army. The disastrous day of Fredericksburg had seriously injured the troops.
"The Army of the Potomac," the writer adds, "was sadly fractured, and its tones had no longer the clear, inspiring ring of victory."