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.
XIX. Lee after the Charge
The demeanor of General Lee at this moment, when his hopes were all reversed, and his last great blow at the enemy had failed, excited the admiration of all who witnessed it, and remains one of the greatest glories of his memory.
Seeing, from his place on Seminary Ridge, the unfortunate results of the attack, he mounted his horse and rode forward to meet and encourage the retreating troops. The air was filled with exploding shell, and the men were coming back without order. General Lee now met them, and with his staff-officers busied himself in rallying them, uttering as he did so words of hope and encouragement. Colonel Freemantle, who took particular notice of him at this moment, describes his conduct as "perfectly sublime." "Lee's countenance," he adds, "did not show signs of the slightest disappointment, care, or annoyance," but preserved the utmost placidity and cheerfulness. The hurry and confusion of the scene seemed not to move him in any manner, and he rode slowly to and fro, saying in his grave, kindly voice to the men: "All this will come right in the end. We'll talk it over afterward, but in the mean time all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now."
Numbers of wounded passed him, some stretched on litters, which men wearing the red badge of the ambulance corps were bearing to the rear, others limping along bleeding from hurts more or less serious. To the badly wounded Lee uttered words of sympathy and kindness; to those but slightly injured, he said: "Come, bind up your wound and take a musket," adding "my friend," as was his habit.
An evidence of his composure and absence of flurry was presented by a slight incident. An officer near him was striking his horse violently for becoming frightened and unruly at the bursting of a shell, when General Lee, seeing that the horse was terrified and the punishment would do no good, said, in tones of friendly remonstrance: "Don't whip him, captain, don't whip him. I've got just such a foolish horse myself, and whipping does no good."
Meanwhile the men continued to stream back, pursued still by that triumphant roar of the enemy's artillery which swept the whole valley and slope of Seminary Ridge with shot and shell. Lee was everywhere encouraging them, and they responded by taking off their hats and cheering him--even the wounded joining in this ceremony. Although exposing himself with entire indifference to the heavy fire, he advised Colonel Freemantle, as that officer states, to shelter himself, saying: "This has been a sad day for us, colonel, a sad day. But we can't expect always to gain victories."
As he was thus riding about in the fringe of woods, General Wilcox, who, about the time of Pickett's repulse, had advanced and speedily been thrown back with loss, rode up and said, almost sobbing as he spoke, that his brigade was nearly destroyed. Lee held out his hand to him as he was speaking, and, grasping the hand of his subordinate in a friendly manner, replied with great gentleness and kindness: "Never mind, general, all this has been _my_ fault. It is _I_ who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can."
This supreme calmness and composure in the commander-in-chief rapidly communicated itself to the troops, who soon got together again, and lay down quietly in line of battle in the fringe of woods along the crest of the ridge, where Lee placed them as they came up. In front of them the guns used in the great cannonade were still in position, and Lee was evidently making every preparation in his power for the highly probable event of an instant assault upon him in his disordered condition, by the enemy. It was obvious that the situation of affairs at the moment was such as to render such an attack highly perilous to the Southern troops--and a sudden cheering which was now heard running along the lines of the enemy on the opposite heights, seemed clearly to indicate that their forces were moving. Every preparation possible under the circumstances was made to meet the anticipated assault; the repulsed troops of Pickett, like the rest of the army, were ready and even eager for of the attack--but it did not come. The cheering was afterward ascertained to have been simply the greeting of the men to some one of their officers as he rode along the lines; and night fell without any attempt on the Federal side to improve their success.
That success was indeed sufficient, and little would have been gained, and perhaps much perilled, by a counter-attack. Lee was not defeated, but he had not succeeded.
General Meade could, with propriety, refrain from an attack. The battle of Gettysburg had been a Federal victory.
Thus had ended the last great conflict of arms on Northern soil--in a decisive if not a crushing repulse of the Southern arms. The chain of events has been so closely followed in the foregoing pages, and the movements of the two armies have been described with such detail, that any further comment or illustration is unnecessary. The opposing armies had been handled with skill and energy, the men had never fought better, and the result seems to have been decided rather by an occult decree of Providence than by any other circumstance. The numbers on each side were nearly the same, or differed so slightly that, in view of past conflicts, fought with much greater odds in favor of the one side, they might be regarded as equal. The Southern army when it approached Gettysburg numbered sixty-seven thousand bayonets, and the cavalry and artillery probably made the entire force about eighty thousand. General Meade's statement is that his own force was about one hundred thousand. The Federal loss was twenty-three thousand one hundred and ninety. The Southern losses were also severe, but cannot be ascertained. They must have amounted, however, to at least as large a number, even larger, perhaps, as an attacking army always suffers more heavily than one that is attacked.
What is certain, however, is that the Southern army, if diminished in numbers and strength, was still unshaken.