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
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG.
The Last Charge at Gettysburg
The weird hours of the moonlit night succeeding the "second day at Gettysburg" witnessed a consultation between Lee and his principal officers, as to the propriety of renewing the attack on the Federal position, or falling back in the direction of the Potomac. In favor of the latter course there seemed to be many good reasons. The supplies, both of provisions and ammunition, were running short. The army, although unshaken, had lost heavily in the obstinately-disputed attack. In the event of defeat now, its situation might become perilous, and the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia was likely to prove that of the Southern cause. On the other hand, the results of the day's fighting, if not decisive, had been highly encouraging. On both the Federal wings the Confederates had gained ground, which they still held. Longstreet's line was in advance of the Peach Orchard, held by the enemy on the morning of the second, and Ewell was still rooted firmly, it seemed, in their works near Gettysburg. These advantages were certainly considerable, and promised success to the Southern arms, if the assault were renewed. But the most weighty consideration prompting a renewal of the attack was the condition of the troops. They were undismayed and unshaken either in spirit or efficiency, and were known both to expect and to desire a resumption of the assault. Even after the subsequent charge of Pickett, which resulted so disastrously, the ragged infantry were heard exclaiming: "We've not lost confidence in the old man! This day's work won't do him no harm! Uncle Robert will get us into Washington yet!" Add to this the fact that the issue of the second day had stirred up in Lee himself all the martial ardor of his nature; and there never lived a more thorough _soldier_, when he was fully aroused, than the Virginian. All this soldiership of the man revolted at the thought of retreating and abandoning his great enterprise. He looked, on the one hand, at his brave army, ready at the word to again advance upon the enemy--at that enemy scarce able on the previous day to hold his position--and, weighing every circumstance in his comprehensive mind, which "looked before and after," Lee determined on the next morning to try a decisive assault upon the Federal troops; to storm, if possible, the Cemetery Range, and at one great blow terminate the campaign and the war.
The powerful influences which we have mentioned, cooeperating, shaped the decision to which Lee had come. He would not retreat, but fight. The campaign should not be abandoned without at least one great charge upon the Federal position; and orders were now given for a renewal of the attack on the next morning. "The general plan of attack," Lee says, "was unchanged, except that one division and two brigades of Hill's corps were ordered to support Longstreet." From these words it is obvious that Lee's main aim now, as on the preceding day, was to force back the Federal left in front of Longstreet, and seize the high ground commanding the whole ridge in flank and reverse. To this end Longstreet was reenforced, and the great assault was evidently intended to take place in that quarter. But circumstances caused an alteration, as will be seen, in Lee's plans. The centre, thus weakened, was from stress of events to become the point of decisive struggle. The assaults of the previous day had been directed against the two extremities of the enemy; the assault of the third day, which would decide the fate of the battle and the campaign, was to be the furious rush of Pickett's division of Virginian troops at the enemy's centre, on Cemetery Hill.
A preliminary conflict, brought on by the Federal commander, took place early in the morning. Ewell had continued throughout the night to hold the enemy's breastworks on their right, from which he had driven them in the evening. As dawn approached now, he was about to resume the attack; and, in obedience to Lee's orders, attempt to "dislodge the enemy" from other parts of the ridge, when
General Meade took the initiative, and opened upon him a furious fire of cannon, which was followed by a determined infantry charge to regain the hill. Ewell held his ground with the obstinate nerve which characterized him, and the battle raged about four hours--that is, until about eight o'clock. At that time, however, the pressure of the enemy became too heavy to stand. General Meade succeeded in driving Ewell from the hill, and the Federal lines were reestablished on the commanding ground which they had previously occupied.
This event probably deranged, in some degree, General Lee's plans, which contemplated, as we have seen, an attack by Ewell contemporaneous with the main assault by Longstreet. Ewell was in no condition at this moment to assume the offensive again; and the pause in the fighting appears to have induced General Lee to reflect and modify his plans. Throughout the hours succeeding the morning's struggle, Lee, attended by Generals Hill and Longstreet, and their staff-officers, rode along the lines, reconnoitring the opposite heights, and the cavalcade was more than once saluted by bullets from the enemy's sharp-shooters, and an occasional shell. The result of the reconnoissance seems to have been the conclusion that the Federal left--now strengthened by breastworks, behind which powerful reserves lay waiting--was not a favorable point for attack. General Meade, no doubt, expected an assault there; and, aroused to a sense of his danger by the Confederate success of the previous day, had made every preparation to meet a renewal of the movement. The Confederate left and centre remained, but it seemed injudicious to think of attacking from Ewell's position. A concentration of the Southern force there would result in a dangerous separation of the two wings of the army; and, in the event of failure, the enemy would have no difficulty in descending and turning Lee's right flank, and thus interposing between him and the Potomac.
The centre only was left, and to this Lee now turned his attention. A determined rush, with a strong column at Cemetery Hill in his front, might wrest that point from the enemy. Then their line would be pierced; the army would follow; Lee would be rooted on this commanding ground, directly between the two Federal wings, upon which their own guns might be turned, and the defeat of General Meade must certainly follow. Such were, doubtless, the reflections of General Lee, as he rode along the Seminary Range, scanning, through his field-glass, the line of the Federal works. His decision was made, and orders were given by him to prepare the column for the assault. For the hard work at hand, Pickett's division of Virginian troops, which had just arrived and were fresh, was selected. These were to be supported by Heth's division of North Carolina troops, under General Pettigrew, who was to move on Pickett's left; and a brigade of Hill's, under General Wilcox, was to cover the right of the advancing column, and protect it from a flank attack.
The advance of the charging column was preceded by a tremendous artillery-fire, directed from Seminary Ridge at the enemy's left and centre. This began about an hour past noon, and the amount of thunder thus unloosed will be understood from the statement that Lee employed one hundred and forty-five pieces of artillery, and the enemy replied with eighty--in all _two hundred and twenty-five_ guns, all discharging at the same time. For nearly two hours this frightful hurly-burly continued, the harsh roar reverberating ominously in the gorges of the hills, and thrown back, in crash after crash, from the rocky slopes of the two ridges. To describe this fire afterward, the cool soldier,
General Hancock, could find no other but the word _terrific_. "Their artillery-fire," he says, "was the most terrific cannonade I ever witnessed, and the most prolonged.... It was a most terrific and appalling cannonade--one possibly hardly ever paralleled."
While this artillery-duel was in progress, the charging column was being formed on the west of Seminary Ridge, opposite the Federal centre on Cemetery Hill. Pickett drew up his line with Kemper's and Garnett's brigades in front, and Armistead's brigade in rear. The brigade under General Wilcox took position on the right, and on the left was placed the division under Pettigrew, which was to participate in the charge. The force numbered between twelve and fifteen thousand men; but, as will be seen, nearly in the beginning of the action Pickett was left alone, and thus his force of about five thousand was all that went forward to pierce the centre of the Federal army.
The opposing ridges at this point are about one mile asunder, and across this space Pickett moved at the word, his line advancing slowly, and perfectly "dressed," with its red battle-flags flying, and the sunshine darting from the gun-barrels and bayonets. The two armies were silent, concentrating their whole attention upon this slow and ominous advance of men who seemed in no haste, and resolved to allow nothing to arrest them. When the column had reached a point about midway between the opposing heights the Federal artillery suddenly opened a furious fire upon them, which inflicted considerable loss. This, however, had no effect upon the troops, who continued to advance slowly in the same excellent order, without exhibiting any desire to return the fire. It was impossible to witness this steady and well-ordered march under heavy fire without feeling admiration for the soldiership of the troops who made it. Where shell tore gaps in the ranks, the men quietly closed up, and the hostile front advanced in the same ominous silence toward the slope where the real struggle, all felt, would soon begin.
They were within a few hundred yards of the hill, when suddenly a rapid cannon-fire thundered on their right, and shell and canister from nearly fifty pieces of artillery swept the Southern line, enfilading it, and for an instant throwing the right into some disorder. This disappeared at once, however. The column closed up, and continued to advance, unmoved, toward the height. At last the moment came. The steady "common-time" step had become "quick time;" this had changed to "double-quick;" then the column rushed headlong at the enemy's breastworks on the slope of the hill. As they did so, the real thunder began. A fearful fire of musketry burst forth, and struck them in the face, and this hurricane scattered the raw troops of Pettigrew as leaves are scattered by a wind. That whole portion of the line gave way in disorder, and fled from the field, which was strewed with their dead; and, as the other supports had not kept up, the Virginians under Pickett were left alone to breast the tempest which had now burst upon them in all its fury.
They returned the fire from the breastworks in their front with a heavy volley, and then, with loud cheers, dashed at the enemy's works, which they reached, stormed, and took possession of at the point of the bayonet. Their loss, however, was frightful. Garnett was killed; Armistead fell, mortally wounded, as he leaped on the breastworks, cheering and waving his hat; Kemper was shot and disabled, and the ranks of the Virginians were thinned to a handful. The men did not, however, pause. The enemy had partially retreated, from their first line of breastworks, to a second and stronger one about sixty yards beyond, and near the crest; and here the Federal reserve, as Northern writers state, was drawn up "four deep." This line, bristling with bayonets and cannon, the Virginians now charged, in the desperate attempt to storm it with the bayonet, and pierce, in a decisive manner, the centre of the Federal army. But the work was too great for their powers. As they made their brave rush they were met by a concentrated fire full in their faces, and on both flanks at the same moment. This fire did not so much cause them to lose heart, as literally hurl them back. Before it the whole charging column seemed to melt and disappear. The bravest saw now that further fighting was useless--that the works in their front could not be stormed--and, with the frightful fire of the enemy still tearing their lines to pieces, the poor remnants of the brave division retreated from the hill. As they fell back, sullenly, like bull-dogs from whom their prey had been snatched just as it was in their grasp, the enemy pursued them with a destructive fire both of cannon and musketry, which mowed down large numbers, if large numbers, indeed, can be said to have been left. The command had been nearly annihilated. Three generals, fourteen field-officers, and three-fourths of the men, were dead, wounded, or prisoners. The Virginians had done all that could be done by soldiers. They had advanced undismayed into the focus of a fire unsurpassed, perhaps, in the annals of war; had fought bayonet to bayonet; had left the ground strewed with their dead; and the small remnant who survived were now sullenly retiring, unsubdued; and, if repulsed, not "whipped."
Such was the last great charge at Gettysburg. Lee had concentrated in it all his strength, it seemed. When it failed, the battle and the campaign failed with it.
[Illustration: Lee at Gettysburg.]