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
LAST CAMPAIGNS OF THE YEAR 1863.
V. The Advance to Mine Run
November of the bloody year 1863 had come; and it seemed not unreasonable to anticipate that a twelvemonth, marked by such incessant fighting at Chancellorsville,
Fredericksburg, Salem Church,
Winchester, Gettysburg, Front Royal, Bristoe, and along the Rappahannock, would now terminate in peace, permitting the combatants on both sides, worn out by their arduous work, to go into winter-quarters, and recuperate their energies for the operations of the ensuing spring.
General Meade had otherwise determined. He had resolved to try a last advance, in spite of the inclement weather; and Lee's anticipations of a season of rest and refreshment for his troops, undisturbed by hostile demonstrations on the part of the enemy, were destined speedily to be disappointed. The Southern army had gone regularly into winter-quarters, south of the Rapidan, and the men were felicitating themselves upon the prospect of an uninterrupted season of leisure and enjoyment in their rude cabins, built in sheltered nooks, or under their breadths of canvas raised upon logs, and fitted with rough but comfortable chimneys, built of notched pine-saplings, when suddenly intelligence was brought by scouts that the Federal army was in motion. The fact reversed all their hopes of rest, and song, and laughter, by the good log-fires. The musket was taken from its place on the rude walls, the cartridge-box assumed, and the army was once more ready for battle--as gay, hopeful, and resolved, as in the first days of spring.
General Meade had, indeed, resolved that the year should not end without another blow at his adversary, and the brief campaign, known as the "Advance to Mine Run," followed. It was the least favorable of all seasons for active operations; but the Federal commander is vindicated from the charge of bad soldiership by two circumstances which very properly had great weight with him. The first was, the extreme impatience of the Northern authorities and people at the small results of the bloody fighting of the year. Gettysburg had seemed to them a complete defeat of Lee, since he had retreated thereafter without loss of time to Virginia; and yet three months afterward the defeated commander had advanced upon and forced back his victorious adversary. That such should be the result of the year's campaigning seemed absurd to the North. A clamorous appeal was made to the authorities to order another advance; and this general sentiment is said to have been shared by General Meade, who had declared himself bitterly disappointed at missing a battle with Lee in October. A stronger argument in favor of active operations lay in the situation, at the moment, of the Southern army. Lee, anticipating no further fighting during the remainder of the year, opposed the enemy on the Rapidan with only one of his two corps--that of Ewell; while the other--that of Hill--was thrown back, in detached divisions, at various points on the Orange and the Virginia Central Railroads, for the purpose of subsistence during the winter. This fact, becoming known to General Meade, dictated, it is said, his plan of operations. An advance seemed to promise, from the position of the Southern forces, a decisive success. Ewell's right extended no farther than Morton's Ford, on the Rapidan, and thus the various fords down to Chancellorsville were open. If General Meade could cross suddenly, and by a rapid march interpose between Ewell and the scattered divisions of Hill far in rear, it appeared not unreasonable to conclude that Lee's army would be completely disrupted, and that the two corps, one after another, might be crushed by the Federal army.
This plan, which is given on the authority of Northern writers, exhibited good soldiership, and, if Lee were to be caught unawares, promised to succeed. Without further comment we shall now proceed to the narrative of this brief movement, which, indecisive as it was in its results, was not uninteresting, and may prove as attractive to the military student as other operations more imposing and accompanied by bloodier fighting.
General Meade began to move toward the Rapidan on November 26th, and every exertion was made by him to advance with such secrecy and rapidity as to give him the advantage of a surprise. In this, however, he was disappointed. No sooner had his orders been issued, and the correspondent movements begun, than the accomplished scouts of Stuart hurried across the Rapidan with the intelligence. Stuart, whose headquarters were in a hollow of the hills near Orange, and not far from General Lee's, promptly communicated in person to the commander-in-chief this important information, and Lee dispatched immediately an order to General A.P. Hill, in rear, to march at once and form a junction with Ewell in the vicinity of Verdierville. The latter officer was directed to retire from his advanced position upon the Rapidan, which exposed him to an attack on his right flank and rear, and to fall back and take post behind the small stream called Mine Run.
In following with a critical eye the operations of General Lee, the military student must be struck particularly by one circumstance, that in all his movements he seemed to proceed less according to the nice technicalities of the art of war, than in accordance with the dictates of a broad and comprehensive good sense. It may be said that, in choosing position, he always chose the right and never the wrong one; and the choice of Mine Run now as a defensive line was a proof of this. The run is a small water-course which, rising south of the great highway between Orange and Chancellorsville, flows due northward amid woods and between hills to the Rapidan, into which it empties itself a few miles above Germanna, General Meade's main place of crossing. This stream is the natural defence of the right flank of an army posted between Orange and the Rapidan. It is also the natural and obvious line upon which to receive the attack of a force marching from below toward Gordonsville. Behind Mine Run, therefore, just east of the little village of Verdierville, General Lee directed his two corps to concentrate; and at the word, the men, lounging but now carelessly in winter-quarters, sprung to arms, "fell in," and with burnished
muskets took up the line of march.
We have spoken of the promptness with which the movement was made, and it may almost be said that General Meade had scarcely broken up his camps north of the Rapidan, when Lee was in motion to go and meet him. On the night of the 26th, Stuart, whose cavalry was posted opposite the lower fords, pushed forward in person, and bivouacked under some pines just below Verdierville; and before daylight General Lee was also in the saddle, and at sunrise had reached the same point. The night had been severely cold, for winter had set in in earnest; but General Lee, always robust and careless of weather, walked down, without wrapping, and wearing only his plain gray uniform, to Stuart's _impromptu_ headquarters under the pines, where, beside a great fire, and without other covering than his army-blanket, the commander of the cavalry had slept since midnight.
As Lee approached, Stuart came forward, and Lee said, admiringly, "What a hardy soldier!"
They consulted, Stuart walking back with General Lee, and receiving his orders. He then promptly mounted, and hastened to the front, where, taking command of his cavalry, he formed it in front of the advancing enemy, and with artillery and dismounted sharp-shooters, offered every possible impediment to their advance.
General Meade made the passage of the Rapidan without difficulty; and, as his expedition was unencumbered with wagons, advanced rapidly. The only serious obstruction to his march was made by Johnson's division of Ewell's corps, which had been thrown out beyond the run, toward the river. Upon this force the Federal Third Corps, under General French, suddenly blundered, by taking the wrong road, it is said, and an active engagement followed, which resulted in favor of the Southerners. The verdict of Lee's troops afterward was, that the enemy fought badly; but General French probably desired nothing better than to shake off this hornets'-nest into which he had stumbled, and to reach, in the time prescribed by General Meade, the point of Federal concentration near Robertson's Tavern.
Toward that point the Northern forces now converged from the various crossings of the river; and Stuart continued to reconnoitre and feel them along the entire front, fighting obstinately, and falling back only when compelled to do so. Every step was thus contested with sharp-shooters and the Horse-Artillery, from far below to above New-Hope Church. The Federal infantry, however, continued steadily to press forward, forcing back the cavalry, and on the 27th General Meade was in face of Mine Run.
Lee was ready. Hill had promptly marched, and his corps was coming into position on the right of Ewell. Receiving intelligence of the enemy's movement only upon the preceding day, Lee had seemed to move the divisions of Hill, far back toward Charlottesville, as by the wave of his hand. The army was concentrated; the line of defence occupied; and General Meade's attempt to surprise his adversary, by interposing between his widely-separated wings, had resulted in decisive failure. If he fought now, the battle must be one of army against army; and, what was worst of all, it was Lee who held all the advantages of position.
We have spoken of Mine Run: it is a strong defensive position, on its right bank and on its left. Flowing generally between hills, and with densely-wooded banks, it is difficult to cross from either side in face of an opposing force; and it was Lee's good fortune to occupy the attitude of the party to be assailed. He seemed to feel that he had nothing to fear, and was in excellent spirits, as were the men; an eye-witness describes them as "gay, lively, laughing, magnificent." In front of his left wing he had already erected works; his centre and right were as yet undefended, but the task of strengthening the line at these points was rapidly prosecuted. Lee superintended in person the establishment of his order of battle, and it was plain to those who saw him thus engaged that the department of military engineering was a favorite one with him. Riding along the western bank of the water-course, a large part of which was densely clothed in oak, chestnut, and hickory, he selected, with the quick eye of the trained engineer, the best position for his line--promptly moved it when it had been established on bad ground--pointed out the positions for artillery; and, as he thus rode slowly along, the works which he had directed seemed to spring up behind him as though by magic. As the troops of Hill came up and halted in the wood, the men seized axes, attacked the large trees, which soon fell in every direction, and the heavy logs were dragged without loss of time to the prescribed line, where they were piled upon each other in double walls, which were filled in rapidly with earth; and thus, in an inconceivably short space of time the men had defences breast-high which would turn a cannon-shot. In front, for some distance, too, the timber had been felled and an _abatis_ thus formed. A few hours after the arrival of the troops on the line marked out by Lee, they were rooted behind excellent breastworks, with forest, stream, and _abatis_ in front, to delay the assailing force under the fire of small-arms and cannon.
This account of the movements of the army, and the preparations made to receive General Meade's attack, may appear of undue length and minuteness of detail, in view of the fact that no battle ensued. But the volume before the reader is not so much a history of the battles of Virginia, which have often been described, as an attempt to delineate the military and personal character of General Lee, which displayed itself often more strikingly in indecisive events than in those whose results attract the attention of the world. It was the vigorous brain, indeed, of the great soldier, that made events indecisive--warding off, by military acumen and ability, the disaster with which he was threatened. At Mine Run, Lee's quick eye for position, and masterly handling of his forces, completely checkmated an adversary who had advanced to deliver decisive battle. With felled trees, breastworks, and a crawling stream, Lee reversed all the calculations of the commander of the Federal army.
From the 27th of November to the night of the 1st of December, General Meade moved to and fro in front of the formidable works of his adversary, feeling them with skirmishers and artillery, and essaying vainly to find some joint in the armor through which to pierce. There was none. Lee had inaugurated that great system of breastworks which afterward did him such good service in his long campaign with General Grant. A feature of the military art unknown to Jomini had thus its birth in the woods of America; and this fact, if there were naught else of interest in the campaign, would communicate to the Mine-Run affair the utmost interest.
General Meade, it seems, was bitterly opposed to foregoing an attack. In spite of the powerful position of his adversary, he ordered an assault, it is said; but this did not take place, in consequence, it would appear, of the reluctance of
General Warren to charge the Confederate right. This seemed so strong that the men considered it hopeless. When the order was communicated to them, each one wrote his name on a scrap of paper and pinned it to his breast, that his corpse might be recognized, and, if possible, conveyed to his friends. This was ominous of failure: General Warren suspended the attack; and General Meade, it is said, acquiesced in his decision. He declared, it is related, that he could carry the position _with a loss of thirty thousand men_; but, as that idea was frightful, there seemed nothing to do but retreat.
Lee seemed to realize the embarrassment of his adversary, and was in excellent heart throughout the whole affair. Riding to and fro along his line among his "merry men"--and they had never appeared in finer spirits, or with greater confidence in their commander--he addressed encouraging words to them, exposed himself with entire indifference to the shelling, and seemed perfectly confident of the result. It was on this occasion that, finding a party of his ragged soldiers devoutly kneeling in one of the little glades behind the breastworks, and holding a praying-meeting in the midst of bursting shells, he dismounted, took off his hat, and remained silently and devoutly listening until the earnest prayer was concluded. A great revival was then going on in the army, and thousands were becoming professors of religion. The fact may seem strange to those who have regarded Lee as only a West-Pointer and soldier, looking, like all soldiers, to military success; but the religious enthusiasm of his men in this autumn of 1863 probably gave him greater joy than any successes achieved over his Federal adversary. Those who saw him on the lines at Mine Run will remember the composed satisfaction of his countenance. An eye-witness recalls his mild face, as he rode along, accompanied by "Hill, in his drooping hat, simple and cordial; Early, laughing; Ewell, pale and haggard, but with a smile _de bon coeur_" [Footnote: Journal of a staff-officer.] He was thus attended, sitting his horse upon a hill near the left of his line, when a staff officer rode up and informed him that the enemy were making a heavy demonstration against his extreme right.
"Infantry or cavalry?" he asked, with great calmness.
"Infantry, I think, general, from the appearance of the guns. General Wilcox thinks so, and has sent a regiment of sharp-shooters to meet them."
"Who commands the regiment?" asked General Lee; and it was to introduce this question that this trifle has been mentioned. Lee knew his army man by man almost, and could judge of the probable result of the movement here announced to him by the name of the officer in command.
Finding that General Meade would not probably venture to assail him. Lee determined, on the night of December 1st, to attack his adversary on the next morning. His mildness on this night yielded to soldierly ardor, and he exclaimed:
"They must be attacked! they must be attacked!"
His plan is said to have contemplated a movement of his right wing against the Federal left flank, for which the ground afforded great advantages. All was ready for such a movement, and the orders are said to have been issued, when, as the dawn broke over the hills, the Federal camps were seen to be deserted. General Meade had abandoned his campaign, and was in full retreat toward the Rapidan.
The army immediately moved in pursuit, with Lee leading the column. The disappearance of the enemy was an astounding event to them, and they could scarcely realize it. An entertaining illustration of this fact is found in the journal of a staff-officer, who was sent with an order to
General Hampton. "In looking for him," says the writer, "I got far to our right, and in a hollow of the woods found a grand guard of the Eleventh Cavalry, with pickets and videttes out, gravely sitting their horses, and watching the wood-roads for the advance of an enemy who was then retreating across Ely's Ford!" Stuart was pressing their rear with his cavalry, while the infantry were steadily advancing. But the pursuit was vain. General Meade had disappeared like a phantom, and was beyond pursuit, to the extreme regret and disappointment of General Lee, who halted his troops, in great discouragement, at Parker's Store.
"Tell General Stuart," he said, with an air of deep melancholy, to an officer whom he saw passing, "that I had received his dispatch when he turned into the Brock Road, and have halted my infantry here, not wishing to march them unnecessarily."
Even at that early hour all chance of effective pursuit was lost. General Meade, without wagons, and not even with the weight of the rations brought over, which the men had consumed, had moved with the rapidity of cavalry, and was already crossing the river far below. He was afterward asked by a gentleman of Culpepper whether in crossing the Rapidan he designed a real advance.
"Certainly," he is reported by the gentleman in question to have replied, "I meant to go to Richmond if I could, but Lee's position was so strong that to storm it would have cost me thirty thousand men. I could not remain without a battle--the weather was so cold that my sentinels froze to death on post."
The pursuit was speedily abandoned by General Lee as entirely impracticable, and the men were marched back between the burning woods, set on fire by the Federal campfires. The spectacle was imposing--the numerous fires, burning outerward in the carpet of thick leaves, formed picturesque rings of flame resembling brilliant necklaces; and, as the flames reached the tall trees, wrapped to the summit in dry vines, these would blaze aloft like gigantic torches--true "torches of war"--let fall by the Federal commander in his hasty retrograde.
Twenty-four hours afterward the larger part of General Lee's
army were back in their winter-quarters. In less than a week the
Mine-Run campaign had begun and ended. The movement of General
Meade might have been compared to that of the King of France and
his forty thousand men in the song; but the campaign was not ill
devised, was rather the dictate of sound military judgment. All
that defeated it was the extreme promptness of Lee, the
excellent choice of position, and the beginning of that great
system of impromptu breastworks which afterward became so
powerful an engine against General Grant.