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.
XVII. The Second Day
Throughout the forenoon of the day about to witness one of those great passages of arms which throw so bloody a glare upon the pages of history, scarcely a sound disturbed the silence, and it was difficult to believe that nearly two hundred thousand men were watching each other across the narrow valley, ready at the word to advance and do their best to tear each other to pieces.
During all these long hours, when expectation and suspense were sufficient to try the stoutest nerves, the two commanders were marshalling their lines for the obstinate struggle which was plainly at hand.
General Meade, who knew well the ability of his opponent, was seeing, in person, to every thing, and satisfying himself that his lines were in order to receive the attack. Lee was making his preparations to commence the assault, upon which, there could be little doubt, the event of the whole war depended.
From the gallantry which the Federal troops displayed in this battle, they must have been in good heart for the encounter. It is certain that the Southern army had never been in better condition for a decisive conflict. We have spoken of the extraordinary confidence of the men, in themselves and in their commander. This feeling now exhibited itself either in joyous laughter and the spirit of jesting among the troops, or in an air of utter indifference, as of men sure of the result, and giving it scarcely a thought. The swarthy gunners, still begrimed with powder from the work of the day before, lay down around the cannon in position along the crest, and passed the moments in uttering witticisms, or in slumber; and the lines of infantry, seated or lying, musket in hand, were as careless. The army was plainly ready, and would respond with alacrity to Lee's signal. Of the result, no human being in this force of more than seventy thousand men seemed to have the least doubt.
Lee was engaged during the whole morning and until past noon in maturing his preparations for the assault which he designed making against the enemy's left in front of Longstreet. All was not ready until about four in the afternoon; then he gave the word, and Longstreet suddenly opened a heavy artillery-fire on the position opposite him. At this signal the guns of Hill opened from the ridge on his left, and Ewell's artillery on the Southern left in front of Gettysburg thundered in response. Under cover of his cannon-fire, Longstreet then advanced his lines, consisting of Hood's division on the right, and McLawe's division on the left, and made a headlong assault upon the Federal forces directly in his front.
The point aimed at was the salient, formed by the projection of General Sickles's line forward to the high ground known as "The Peach Orchard." Here, as we have already said, the Federal line of battle formed an angle, with the left wing of Sickles's corps bending backward so as to cover the opening between his line and the main crest in his rear. Hood's division swung round to assail the portion of the line thus retired, and so rapid was the movement of this energetic soldier, that in a short space of time he pushed his right beyond the Federal left flank, had pierced the exposed point, and was in direct proximity to the much-coveted "crest of the ridge," upon the possession of which depended the fate of the battle. Hood was fully aware of its importance, and lost not a moment in advancing to seize it. His troops, largely composed of those famous Texas regiments which Lee had said "fought grandly and nobly," and upon whom he relied "in all tight places," responded to his ardent orders: a small run was crossed, the men rushed up the slope, and the crest was almost in their very grasp.
Success at this moment would have decided the event of the battle of Gettysburg, and in all probability that of the war. All that was needed was a single brigade upon either side--a force sufficient to seize the crest, for neither side held it--and with this brigade a rare good fortune, or rather the prompt energy of a single officer, according to Northern historians, supplied the Federal commander. Hood's line was rushing up with cheers to occupy the crest, which here takes the form of a separate peak, and is known as "Little Round Top," when
General Warren, chief-engineer of the army, who was passing, saw the importance of the position, and determined, at all hazards, to defend it. He accordingly ordered the Federal signal-party, which had used the peak as a signal-station, but were hastily folding up their flags, to remain where they were, laid violent hands upon a brigade which was passing, and ordered it to occupy the crest; and, when Hood's men rushed up the rocky slope with yells of triumph, they were suddenly met by a fusillade from the newly-arrived brigade, delivered full in their faces. A violent struggle ensued for the possession of the heights. The men fought hand to hand on the summit, and the issue remained for some time doubtful. At last it was decided in favor of the Federal troops, who succeeded in driving Hood's men from the hill, the summit of which was speedily crowned with artillery, which opened a destructive fire upon the retreating Southerners. They fell back sullenly, leaving the ground strewed with their dead and wounded. Hood had been wounded, and many of his best officers had fallen. For an instant he had grasped in his strong hand the prize which would have been worth ten times the amount of blood shed; but he had been unable to retain his hold; he was falling back from the coveted crest, pursued by that roar of the enemy's cannon which seemed to rejoice in his discomfiture.
An obstinate struggle was meanwhile taking place in the vicinity of the Peach Orchard, where the left of Hood and the division of McLaws had struck the front of General Sickles, and were now pressing his line back steadily toward the ridge in his rear. In spite of resolute resistance the Federal troops at this point were pushed back to a wheat-field in the rear of the Peach Orchard, and, following up this advantage, Longstreet charged them and broke their line, which fell back in disorder toward the high ground in rear. In this attack McLaws was assisted by Hill's right division--that of Anderson. With this force Longstreet continued to press forward, and, piercing the Federal line, seemed about to inflict upon them a great disaster by seizing the commanding position occupied by the Federal left. Nothing appears to have saved them at this moment from decisive defeat but the masterly concentration of reenforcements after reenforcements at the point of danger. The heavy reserves under Generals Sykes and Sedgwick were opposite this point, and other troops were hastened forward to oppose Longstreet. This reenforcement was continuous throughout the entire afternoon. In spite of Lee's demonstrations in other quarters to direct attention, General Meade--driven by necessity--continued to move fresh troops incessantly to protect his left; and success finally came as the reward of his energy and soldiership. Longstreet found his weary troops met at every new step in advance by fresh lines, and, as night had now come, he discontinued the attack. The Federal lines had been driven considerably beyond the point which they had held before the assault, and were now east of the wheat-field, where some of the hardest fighting of the day had taken place, but, in spite of this loss of ground, they had suffered no serious disaster, and, above all, Lee had not seized upon that "crest of the ridge," which was the keystone of the position.
Thus Longstreet's attack had been neither a success nor a failure. He had not accomplished all that was expected, but he had driven back the enemy from their advanced position, and held strong ground in their front. A continuance of the assault was therefore deferred until the next day--night having now come--and General Longstreet ordered the advance to cease, and the firing to be discontinued.
During the action on the right, Hill had continued to make heavy demonstrations on the Federal centre, and Ewell had met with excellent success in the attack, directed by Lee, to be made against the enemy's right. This was posted upon the semicircular eminence, a little southeast of Gettysburg, and the Federal works were attacked by Ewell about sunset. With Early's division on his right, and Johnson's on his left, Ewell advanced across the open ground in face of a heavy artillery-fire, the men rushed up the slope, and in a brief space of time the Federal artillerists and infantry were driven from the works, which at nightfall remained in Ewell's hands.
Such had been the fate of the second struggle around Gettysburg. The moon, which rose just as the fighting terminated, threw its ghastly glare upon a field where neither side had achieved full success.
Lee had not failed, and he had not succeeded. He had aimed to drive the Federal forces from the Cemetery Range, and had not been able to effect that object; but they had been forced back upon both their right and left, and a substantial advantage seemed thus to have been gained. That the Confederate success was not complete, seems to have resulted from the failure to seize the Round-Top Hill. The crisis of the battle had undoubtedly been the moment when Hood was so near capturing this position--in reference to the importance of which we quoted General Meade's own words. It was saved to the Federal army by the presence of mind, it seems, of a single officer, and the gallantry of a single brigade. Such are the singular chances of battle, in which the smallest causes so often effect the greatest results.
General Lee, in company with General Hill, had, during the battle, occupied his former position on Seminary Ridge, near the centre of his line--quietly seated, for the greater portion of the time, upon the stump of a tree, and looking thoughtfully toward the opposite heights which Longstreet was endeavoring to storm. His demeanor was entirely calm and composed. An observer would not have concluded that he was the commander-in-chief. From time to time he raised his field-glass to his eyes, and rising said a few words to General Hill or General Long, of his staff. After this brief colloquy, he would return to his seat on the stump, and continue to direct his glass toward the wooded heights held by the enemy. A notable circumstance, and one often observed upon other occasions, was that, during the entire action, he scarcely sent an order. During the time Longstreet was engaged--from about half-past four until night--he sent but one message, and received but one report. Having given full directions to his able lieutenants, and informed them of the objects which he desired to attain, he, on this occasion as upon others, left the execution of his orders to them, relying upon their judgment and ability.
A singular incident occurred at this moment, which must have diverted Lee, temporarily, from his abstracted mood. In the midst of the most furious part of the cannonade, when the air was filled with exploding shell, a Confederate band of music, between the opposing lines, just below General Lee's position, began defiantly playing polkas and waltzes on their instruments. The incident was strange in the midst of such a hurly-burly. The bloody battle-field seemed turned into a ballroom.
With nightfall the firing sunk to silence. The moon had risen, and the pale light now lit up the faces of the dead and wounded of both sides.
Lee's first great assault had failed to secure the full results which he had anticipated from it.