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
LEE'S LAST CAMPAIGNS AND LAST DAYS.
I. General Grant crosses the Rapidan
In the first days of May, 1864, began the immense campaign which was to terminate only with the fall of the Confederacy.
For this, which was regarded as the decisive trial of strength, the Federal authorities had made elaborate preparations. New levies were raised by draft to fill up the ranks of the depleted forces; great masses of war material were accumulated at the central depots at
Washington, and the Government summoned from the West an officer of high reputation to conduct hostilities on what was more plainly than ever before seen to be the theatre of decisive conflict--Virginia. The officer in question was General Ulysses S. Grant, who had received the repute of eminent military ability by his operations in the West; he was now commissioned lieutenant-general, and
President Lincoln assigned him to the command of "all the armies of the United States," at that time estimated to number one million men.
General Grant promptly accepted the trust confided to him, and, relinquishing to Major-General Sherman the command of the Western forces, proceeded to Culpepper and assumed personal command of the
Army of the Potomac, although nominally that army remained under command of
General Meade. The
spring campaign was preceded, in February, by two movements of the Federal forces: one the advance of General B.F. Butler up the Peninsula to the Chickahominy, where for a few hours he threatened Richmond, only to retire hastily when opposed by a few local troops; the other the expedition of General Kilpatrick with a body of cavalry, from the Rapidan toward Richmond, with the view of releasing the Federal prisoners there. This failed completely, like the expedition up the Peninsula. General Kilpatrick, after threatening the city, rapidly retreated, and a portion of his command, under
Colonel Dahlgren, was pursued, and a large portion killed, including their commander. It is to be hoped, for the honor of human nature, that
Colonel Dahlgren's designs were different from those which are attributed to him on what seems unassailable proof. Papers found upon his body contained minute directions for releasing the prisoners and giving up the city to them, and for putting to death the
Confederate President and his Cabinet.
To return to the more important events on the Rapidan. General Grant assumed the direction of the Army of the Potomac under most favorable auspices. Other commanders--especially General McClellan--had labored under painful disadvantages, from the absence of cooeperation and good feeling on the part of the authorities. The new leader entered upon the great struggle under very different circumstances. Personally and politically acceptable to the Government, he received their hearty cooeperation: all power was placed in his hands; he was enabled to concentrate in Virginia the best troops, in large numbers; and the character of this force seemed to promise him assured victory. General McClellan and others had commanded troops comparatively raw, and were opposed by Confederate armies in the full flush of anticipated success. General Grant had now under him an army of veterans, and the enemy he was opposed to had, month by month, lost strength. Under these circumstances it seemed that he ought to succeed in crushing his adversary.
The Federal army present and ready for duty May 1, 1864, numbered one hundred and forty-one thousand one hundred and sixty-six men. That of General Lee numbered fifty-two thousand six hundred and twenty-six. Colonel Taylor, adjutant-general of the Army, states the strictly effective at a little less, viz.:
Ewell 13,000 Hill 17,000 Longstreet 10,000
Infantry 40,000 Cavalry and artillery 10,000
The two statements do not materially differ, and require no discussion. The force at Lee's command was a little over one-third of General Grant's; and, if it be true that the latter commander continued to receive reenforcements between the 1st and 4th days of May, when he crossed the Rapidan, Lee's force was probably less than one-third of his adversary's.
Longstreet, it will be seen, had been brought back from the West, but the Confederates labored under an even more serious disadvantage than want of sufficient force. Lee's army, small as it was, was wretchedly supplied. Half the men were in rags, and, worse still, were but one-fourth fed. Against this suicidal policy, in reference to an army upon which depended the fate of the South, General Lee had protested in vain. Whether from fault in the authorities or from circumstances over which they could exercise no control, adequate supplies of food did not reach the army; and, when it marched to meet the enemy, in the first days of May, the men were gaunt, half-fed, and in no condition to enter upon so arduous a campaign. There was naught to be done, however, but to fight on to the end. Upon the Army of Northern Virginia, depleted by casualties, and unprovided with the commonest necessaries, depended the fate of the struggle. Generals Grant and Lee fully realized that fact; and the Federal commander had the acumen to perceive that the conflict was to be long and determined. He indulged no anticipations of an early or easy success. His plan, as stated in his official report, was "to _hammer continuously_ against the armed force of the enemy and his resources, until _by mere attrition_, if by nothing else, there should be nothing left of him but an equal submission with the loyal section of our common country to the Constitution and the laws." The frightful cost in blood of this policy of hammering continuously and thus wearing away his adversary's strength by mere attrition, did or did not occur to General Grant. In either case he is not justly to be blamed.
It was the only policy which promised to result in Federal success. Pitched battles had been tried for nearly three years, and in victory or in defeat the Southern army seemed equally unshaken and dangerous. This fact was now felt and acknowledged even by its enemies. "Lee's army," said a Northern writer, referring to it at this time, "is an army of veterans: it is an instrument sharpened to a perfect edge. You turn its flanks--well, its flanks are made to be turned. This effects little or nothing. All that we reckon as gained, therefore, is the loss of life inflicted on the enemy." With an army thus trained in many combats, and hardened against misfortune, defeat in one or a dozen battles decided nothing. General Grant seems to have understood this, and to have resolutely adopted the programme of "attrition"--coldly estimating that, even if he lost ten men to General Lee's one, he could better endure that loss, and could afford it, if thereby he "crushed the rebellion."
The military theory of the Federal commander having thus been set forth in his own words, it remains to notice his programme for the approaching campaign. He had hesitated between two plans--"one to cross the Rapidan below Lee, moving by his right flank; the other above, moving by his left." The last was abandoned, from the difficulty of keeping open communication with any base of supplies, and the latter adopted. General Grant determined to "fight Lee between Culpepper and Richmond, if he would stand;" to advance straight upon the city and invest it from the north and west, thereby cutting its communications in three directions; and then, crossing the James River above the city, form a junction with the left of Major-General Butler, who, moving with about thirty thousand men from
Fortress Monroe, at the moment when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan, was to occupy
City Point, advance thence up the south side of James River, and reach a position where the two armies might thus unite.
It is proper to keep in view this programme of General Grant. Lee completely reversed it by promptly moving in front of his adversary at every step which he took in advance; and it will be seen that the Federal commander was finally compelled to adopt a plan which does not seem to have entered his mind, save as a _dernier ressort_, at the beginning of the campaign.
On the morning of the 4th of May, General Grant commenced crossing the Rapidan at Germanna and other fords above Chancellorsville, and by the morning of the 5th his army was over. It appears from his report that he had not anticipated so easy a passage of the stream, and greatly felicitated himself upon effecting it so successfully. "This I regarded," he says, "as a great success, and it removed from my mind the most serious apprehension I had entertained, that of crossing the river in the face of an active, large, well-appointed, and ably-commanded army." Lee had made no movement to dispute the passage of the stream, from the fact, perhaps, that his army was _not_ either "large" or "well-appointed." He preferred to await the appearance of his adversary, and direct an assault on the flank of his column as it passed across his front. From a speech attributed to General Meade, it would seem to have been the impression in the Federal army that Lee designed falling back to a defensive position somewhere near the South Anna. His movements were, however, very different. Instead of retiring before General Grant in the direction of Richmond, he moved with his three corps toward the Wilderness, to offer battle.
[Illustration: Routes of Lee & Grant, May and June 1864.]
The head of the column consisted of Ewell's corps, which had retained its position on the Rapidan, forming the right of Lee's line. General A.P. Hill, who had been stationed higher up, near Liberty Mills, followed; and Longstreet, who lay near Gordonsville, brought up the rear. These dispositions dictated, as will be seen, the positions of the three commands in the ensuing struggle. Ewell advanced in front down the Old Turnpike, that one of the two great highways here running east and west which is nearest the Rapidan; Hill came on over the Orange Plank-road, a little south of the turnpike, and thus formed on Ewell's right; and Longstreet, following, came in on the right of Hill.
General Grant had plunged with his army into the dense and melancholy thicket which had been the scene of
General Hooker's discomfiture. His army, followed by its great train of four thousand wagons, indicating the important nature of the movement, had reached Wilderness Tavern and that Brock Road over which Jackson advanced in his secret flank-march against the Federal right in May, 1863. In May of 1864, now, another Federal army had penetrated, the sombre and depressing shadows of the interminable thickets of the Wilderness, and a more determined struggle than the first was to mark with its bloody hand this historic territory.