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.
VII. Lee's Generalship and Personal Demeanor during the Campaign
The movements of the two armies in the Chancellorsville campaign, as it is generally styled, have been so fully described in the foregoing pages, that little comment upon them is here necessary. The main feature which attracts attention, in surveying the whole series of operations, is the boldness, amounting to apparent recklessness, of Lee; and, first, the excellent generalship, and then the extraordinary tissue of military errors, of
Up to the 1st of May, when he emerged from the Chancellorsville thicket, every thing had succeeded with the Federal commander, and deserved to succeed. He had successfully brought over his great force, which he himself described as the "finest army on the planet," and occupied strong ground east of Chancellorsville, on the road to Fredericksburg. General Sedgwick was absent at the latter place with a strong detachment of the army, but the main body covered Banks's Ford, but twelve miles from the city, and by the afternoon of this day the whole army might have been concentrated. Then the fate of Lee would seem to have been decided. He had not only a very small army, but that army was scattered, and liable to be cut off in detail. General Sedgwick menaced his right at Fredericksburg--General Hooker was in front of his left near Chancellorsville--and to crush one of these wings before the other could come to its assistance seemed a work of no very great difficulty. General Hooker appears, however, to have distrusted his ability to effect this result, and, finding that General Lee was advancing with his main body to attack him, retired, from his strong position in the open country, to the dense thicket around Chancellorsville. That this was a grave military error there can be no doubt, as, by this retrograde movement, General Hooker not only discouraged his troops, who had been elated by his confident and inspiring general orders, but lost the great advantage of the open country, where his large force could be successfully manoeuvred.
Lee took instant advantage of this fault in his adversary, and boldly pressed the force retiring into the Wilderness, where, on the night of the 1st of May, General Hooker was shut up with his army. This unforeseen result presented the adversaries now in an entirely new light. The Federal army, which had been promised by its commander a speedy march upon Richmond in pursuit of Lee, had, instead of advancing, made a backward movement; and Lee, who it had been supposed would retreat, was now following and offering them battle.
The daring resolution of Lee, to divide his army and attack the Federal right, followed. It would seem unjust to General Hooker greatly to blame him for the success of that blow, which could not have been reasonably anticipated. In determining upon this, one of the most extraordinary movements of the war, General Lee proceeded in defiance of military rules, and was only justified in his course by the desperate character of the situation of affairs. It was impossible to make any impression upon General Hooker's front or left, owing to the elaborate defences in both quarters; it was, therefore, necessary either to retire, or attack in a different direction. As a retreat, however, upon Richmond would have surrendered to the enemy a large and fertile tract of country, it was desirable, if possible, to avoid that alternative; and the attack on the Federal right followed. The results of this were truly extraordinary. The force routed and driven back in disorder by General Jackson was but a single corps, and that corps, it is said, not a legitimate part of the old
Army of the Potomac; but the disorder seems to have communicated itself to the whole army, and to have especially discouraged General Hooker. In describing the scene in question, we refrained from dwelling upon the full extent of the confusion into which the Federal forces were thrown: some sentences, taken from Northern accounts, may lead to a better understanding of the result. After Jackson's assault, a Northern historian says: "The open plain around Chancellorsville presented such a spectacle as a simoom sweeping over the desert might make. Through the dusk of nightfall a rushing whirlwind of men and artillery and wagons swept down the road, past headquarters, and on toward the fords of the Rappahannock; and it was in vain that the staff opposed their persons and drawn sabres to the panic-stricken fugitives." Another writer, an eye-witness, says the spectacle presented was that of "solid columns of infantry retreating at double-quick; a dense mass of beings flying; hundreds of cavalry-horses, left riderless at the first discharge from the rebels, dashing frantically about in all directions; scores of batteries flying from the field; battery-wagons, ambulances, horses, men, cannon, caissons, all jumbled and tumbled together in one inextricable mass--the stampede universal, the disgrace general."
After all, however, it was but one corps of the Federal army which had been thus thrown into disorder, and General Hooker had no valid grounds for distrusting his ability to defeat Lee in a more decisive action. There are many reasons for coming to the conclusion that he did from that moment distrust his powers. He had courageously hastened to the assailed point, ordering the men to "throw themselves into the breach," and receive Jackson's troops "on the bayonet;" but, after this display of soldierly resolution, General Hooker appears to have lost some of that nerve which should never desert a soldier, and on the same night sent engineers to trace out a new line of defences in his rear, to which, it seems, he already contemplated the probability of being forced to retire. Why he came to take this depressed view of the situation of affairs, it is difficult to say. One of General Sedgwick's corps reached him on this night, and his force at Chancellorsville still amounted to between ninety and one hundred thousand men, about thrice that of Lee. No decisive trial of strength had yet taken place between the two armies; and yet the larger force was constructing defences in rear to protect them from the smaller--a circumstance not tending, it would seem, to greatly encourage the troops whose commander was thus providing for a safe retreat.
The subsequent order to General Sedgwick to march up from Fredericksburg and assail Lee's right was judicious, and really saved the army from a great disaster. Lee was about to follow up the discouraged forces of General Hooker as they fell back toward the river; and, as the Southern army was flushed with victory, the surrender of the great body might have ensued. This possible result was prevented by the flank movement of General Sedgwick, and some gratitude for assistance so important from his able lieutenant would have seemed natural and graceful in General Hooker. This view of the subject does not seem, however, to have been taken by the Federal commander. He subsequently charged the defeat of Chancellorsville upon General Sedgwick, who he declared had "failed in a prompt compliance with his orders." The facts do not bear out this charge, as the reader has seen. General Sedgwick received the order toward midnight on Saturday, and, at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, had passed over that stubborn "stone wall" which, in the battle of the preceding December, General Hooker's column had not even been able to reach; had stormed Marye's Hill, which General Hooker had described, in vindication of his own failure to carry the position, as "masonry," "a fortification," and "a mountain of rock;" and had marched thereafter so promptly as to force Lee, in his own defence, to arrest the second advance upon the Federal main body, and divert a considerable force to meet the attack on his flank.
[Footnote 1: General Hooker in Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part I., page 130. This great collection is a valuable repository of historic details, and contains the explanation of many interesting questions.]
After the repulse of General Sedgwick, and his retreat across the Rappahannock, General Hooker seems to have been completely discouraged, and hastened to put the river between himself and Lee. His losses in the battles of Saturday and Sunday had amounted to seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-seven killed and wounded and missing, fourteen pieces of artillery, and twenty thousand stand of arms. The Confederate loss was ten thousand two hundred and eighty-one. Contrary to the ordinary course of things the assailing force had lost a less number of men than that assailed.
The foregoing reflections, which necessarily involve a criticism of General Hooker, arise naturally from a review of the events of the campaign, and seem justified by the circumstances. There can be no inducement for the present writer to underrate the military ability of the Federal commander, as that want of ability rather detracts from than adds to the merit of General Lee in defeating him. It may be said, indeed, that without these errors and shortcomings of General Hooker, Lee, humanly speaking, must have been either defeated or forced to retire upon Richmond.
After giving full weight, however, to all the advantages derived from the extraordinary Federal oversights and mistakes, General Lee's merit in this campaign was greater, perhaps, than in any other during his entire career. Had he left behind him no other record than this, it alone would have been sufficient to have conferred upon him the first glories of arms, and handed his name down to posterity as that of one of the greatest soldiers of history. It is difficult to discover a single error committed by him, in the whole series of movements, from the moment when General Sedgwick crossed at Fredericksburg, to the time of General Hooker's retreat beyond the Rappahannock. It may appear that there was unnecessary delay in permitting Tuesday to pass without a final advance upon General Hooker, in his second line of intrenchments; but, no doubt, many circumstances induced Lee to defer this attack--the fatigue of his troops, consequent upon the fighting of the four preceding days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday; the necessity of reforming his battalions for the final blow; and the anticipation that General Hooker, who still had at his command a force of more than one hundred thousand men, would not so promptly relinquish his campaign, and retire.
With the exception of this error, if it be such, Lee had made no single false step in the whole of his movements. The campaign was round, perfect, and complete--such as a student of the art of war might pore over, and analyze as an instance of the greatest principles of military science "clothed in act." The most striking features of Lee's movements were their rapidity and audacity. It had been the fashion with some persons to speak of Lee as slow and cautious in his operations, and this criticism had not been completely silenced even in the winter of 1862, when his failure to crush
General Burnside afforded his detractors another opportunity of repeating the old charge. After the Chancellorsville campaign these fault-finders were silenced--no one could be found to listen to them. The whole Southern movement completely contradicted their theory. At the first intelligence of the advance of General Hooker's main body across the upper Rappahannock, Lee rode rapidly in that direction, and ordered his troops at the fords of the river to fall back to Chancellorsville. He then returned, and, finding that General Sedgwick had crossed at Fredericksburg, held a prompt consultation with Jackson, when it was decided at once to concentrate the main body of the army in front of General Hooker's column. At the word, Jackson moved; Lee followed. On the 1st of May, the enemy were pressed back upon Chancellorsville; on the 2d, his right was crushed, and his army thrown into confusion; on the 3d, he was driven from Chancellorsville, and, but for the flank movement of General Sedgwick, which Lee was not in sufficient force to prevent, General Hooker would, upon that same day, Sunday, have in all probability suffered a decisive defeat.
In the course of four days Lee had thus advanced, and checked, and then attacked and repulsed with heavy slaughter, an army thrice as large as his own. On the last day of April he had been nearly enveloped by a host of about one hundred and twenty thousand men. On the 3d day of May their main body was in disorderly retreat; and at daylight on the morning of the 6th there was not a Federal soldier, with the exception of the prisoners taken, on the southern bank of the Rappahannock.
During all these critical scenes, when the fate of the Confederate capital, and possibly of the Southern cause, hung suspended in the balance, General Lee preserved, as thousands of persons can testify, the most admirable serenity and composure, without that jubilant confidence displayed by General Hooker in his address to the troops, and the exclamations to his officers. Lee was equally free from gloom or any species of depression. His spirits seemed to rise under the pressure upon him, and at times he was almost gay. When one of General Jackson's aides hastened into his tent near Fredericksburg, and with great animation informed him that the enemy were crossing the river, in heavy force in his front, he seemed to be amused by that circumstance, and said, smiling: "Well, I _heard_ firing, and I was beginning to think it was time some of you lazy young fellows were coming to tell me what it was all about. Say to General Jackson that he knows just as well what to do with the enemy as I do."
The commander-in-chief who could find time at such a moment to indulge in _badinage_, must have possessed excellent nerve; and this composure, mingled with a certain buoyant hopefulness, as of one sure of the event, remained with Lee throughout the whole great wrestle with General Hooker. He retained to the end his simple and quiet manner, divested of every thing like excitement. In the consultation with Jackson, on the night of the 1st of May, when the crisis was so critical, his demeanor indicated no anxiety; and when, as we have said, the news came of Jackson's wound, he said simply, "Sit down here, by me, captain, and tell me all about the fight last evening"--adding, "Ah! captain, any victory is dearly bought which deprives us of the services of General Jackson even for a short time. Don't talk about it--thank God, it is no worse!" The turns of expression here are those of a person who permits nothing to disturb his serenity, and indulges his gentler and tenderer feelings even in the hot atmosphere of a great conflict. The picture presented is surely an interesting and beautiful one. The human being who uttered the good-natured criticism at the expense of the "lazy young fellows," and who greeted the news of Jackson's misfortune with a sigh as tender as that of a woman, was the soldier who had "seized the masses of his force with the grasp of a Titan, and swung them into position as a giant might fling a mighty stone." To General Hooker's threat to crush him, he had responded by crushing General Hooker; nearly surrounded by the huge cordon of the Federal army, he had cut the cordon and emerged in safety. General Hooker with his one hundred thousand men had retreated to the north bank of the Rappahannock, and, on the south bank, Lee with his thirty thousand remained erect, threatening, and triumphant.
We have not presented in these pages the orders of Lee, on various occasions, as these papers are for the most part of an "official" character, and not of great interest to the general reader. We shall, however, occasionally present these documents, and here lay before the reader the orders of both General Hooker and General Lee, after the battle of Chancellorsville, giving precedence to the former. The order of the Federal commander was as follows:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, _May_ 6,1863.
The major-general commanding tenders to this army his congratulations on its achievements of the last seven days. If it has not accomplished all that was expected, the reasons are well known to the army. It is sufficient to say, they were of a character not to be foreseen or prevented by human sagacity or resources.
In withdrawing from the south bank of the Rappahannock, before delivering a general battle to our adversaries, the army has given renewed evidence in its confidence in itself, and its fidelity to the principles it represents.
By fighting at a disadvantage, we would have been recreant to our trust, to ourselves, to our cause, and to our country. Profoundly loyal, and conscious of its strength, the Army of the Potomac will give or decline battle whenever its interests or honor may command it.
By the celerity and secrecy of our movements, our advance and passage of the river were undisputed, and on our withdrawal not a rebel dared to follow us. The events of the last week may well cause the heart of every officer and soldier of the army to swell with pride.
We have added new laurels to our former renown. We have made long marches, crossed rivers, surprised the enemy in his intrenchments, and, whenever we have fought, we have inflicted heavier blows than those we have received.
We have taken from the enemy five thousand prisoners, and fifteen colors, captured seven pieces of artillery, and placed _hors de combat_ eighteen thousand of our foe's chosen troops.
We have destroyed his depots filled with vast amounts of stores, damaged his communications, captured prisoners within the fortifications of his capital, and filled his country with fear and consternation.
We have no other regret than that caused by the loss of our brave companions, and in this we are consoled by the conviction that they have fallen in the holiest cause ever submitted to the arbitration of battle.
By command of Major-General HOOKER:
S. WILLIAMS, _Assistant Adjutant-General_
General Lee's order was as follows:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
With heart-felt gratification, the general commanding expresses to the army his sense of the heroic conduct displayed by officers and men during the arduous operations in which they have just been engaged.
Under trying vicissitudes of heat and storm you attacked the enemy, strongly intrenched in the depths of a tangled wilderness, and again on the hills of Fredericksburg, fifteen miles distant, and by the valor that has triumphed on so many fields forced him once more to seek safety beyond the Rappahannock. While this glorious victory entitles you to the praise and gratitude of the nation, we are especially called upon to return our grateful thanks to the only Giver of victory, for the signal deliverances He has wrought.
It is therefore earnestly recommended that the troops unite on Sunday next in ascribing unto the Lord of hosts the glory due unto His name.
Let us not forget, in our rejoicing, the brave soldiers who have fallen in defence of their country; and, while we mourn their loss, let us resolve to emulate their noble example.
The army and the country alike lament the absence for a time of one to whose bravery, energy, and skill, they are so much indebted for success.
The following letter from the
President of the Confederate States is communicated to the army, as an expression of his appreciation of their success:
"I have received your dispatch, and reverently unite with you in giving praise to God for the success with which He has crowned our arms. In the name of the people I offer my cordial thanks, and the troops under your command, for this addition to the unprecedented series of great victories which our army has achieved. The universal rejoicing produced by this happy result will be mingled with a general regret for the good and the brave who are numbered among the killed and the wounded."
R.E. LEE, _General_.