Part 8- Chapter 11


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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



XI.   Lee in the Winter of 1864-'65

 Before entering upon the narrative of the last and decisive campaign of the war, we shall speak of the personal demeanor of General Lee at this time, and endeavor to account for a circumstance which astonished many persons--his surprising equanimity, and even cheerfulness, under the pressure of cares sufficient, it would seem, to crush the most powerful organization.

He had established his headquarters a mile or two west of Petersburg, on the Cox Road, nearly opposite his centre, and here he seemed to await whatever the future would bring with a tranquillity which was a source of surprise and admiration to all who were thrown in contact with him. Many persons will bear their testimony to this extraordinary composure. His countenance seldom, if ever, exhibited the least traces of anxiety, but was firm, hopeful, and encouraged those around him in the belief that he was still confident of success. That he did not, however, look forward with any thing like hope to such success, we have endeavored already to show. From the first, he seems to have regarded his situation, unless his army were largely reenforced, as almost desperate; those reenforcements did not come; and yet, as he saw his numbers day by day decreasing, and General Grant's increasing a still larger ratio, he retained his courage, confronting the misfortunes closing in upon him with unmoved composure, and at no time seemed to lose his "heart of hope."

Of this phenomenon the explanation has been sought in the constitutional courage of the individual, and that instinctive rebound against fate which takes place in great organizations. This explanation, doubtless, is not without a certain amount of truth; but an attentive consideration of the principles which guided this eminent soldier throughout his career, will show that his equanimity, at a moment so trying, was due to another and more controlling sentiment. This sentiment was his devotion to Duty--"the sublimest word in our language." Throughout his entire life he had sought to discover and perform his duty, without regard to consequences. That had been with him the great question in April, 1861, when the war broke out: he had decided in his own mind what he ought to do, and had not hesitated.

From that time forward he continued to do what Duty commanded without a murmur. In the obscure campaign of Western Virginia--in the unnoted work of fortifying the Southern coast--in the great campaigns which he had subsequently fought--and everywhere, his consciousness of having performed his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability sustained him. It sustained him, above all, at Gettysburg, where he had done his best, giving him strength to take upon himself the responsibility of that disaster; and, now, in these last dark days at Petersburg, it must have been the sense of having done his whole duty, and expended upon the cause every energy of his being, which enabled him to meet the approaching catastrophe with a calmness which seemed to those around him almost sublime.

If this be not the explanation of the composure of General Lee, throughout the last great struggle with the Federal Army, the writer of these pages is at a loss to account for it. The phenomenon was plain to all eyes, and crowned the soldier with a glory greater than that which he had derived from his most decisive military successes. Great and unmoved in the dark hour as in the bright, he seemed to have determined to perform his duty to the last, and to shape his conduct, under whatever pressure of disaster, upon the two maxims, "Do your duty," and "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."

There is little reason to doubt that General Lee saw this "calamity" coming, for the effort to reenforce his small army with fresh levies seemed hopeless. The reasons for this unfortunate state of things must be sought elsewhere. The unfortunate fact will be stated, without comment, that, while the Federal army was regularly and largely reenforced, so that its numbers at no time fell below one hundred and fifty thousand men. Lee's entire force at Petersburg at no time reached sixty thousand, and in the spring of 1865, when he still continued to hold his long line of defences, numbered scarcely half of sixty thousand. This was the primary cause of the failure of the struggle. General Grant's immense hammer continued to beat upon his adversary, wearing away his strength day by day. No new troops arrived to take the places of those who had fallen; and General Lee saw, drawing closer and closer, the inevitable hour when, driven from his works, or with the Federal army upon his communications, he must cut his way southward or surrender.

A last circumstance in reference to General Lee's position at this time should be stated; the fact that, from the autumn of 1864 to the end in the spring of 1865, he was felt by the country and the army to be the sole hope of the Confederacy. To him alone now all men looked as the _deus ex machina_ to extricate them from the dangers surrounding them. This sentiment needed no expression in words. It was seen in the faces and the very tones of voice of all. Old men visited him, and begged him with faltering voices not to expose himself, for, if he were killed, all would be lost. The troops followed him with their eyes, or their cheers, whenever he appeared, feeling a singular sense of confidence from the presence of the gray-haired soldier in his plain uniform, and assured that, as long as Lee led them, the cause was safe. All classes of the people thus regarded the fate of the Confederacy as resting, not partially, but solely, upon the shoulders of Lee; and, although he was not entitled by his rank in the service to direct operations in other quarters than Virginia, there was a very general desire that the whole conduct of the war everywhere should be intrusted to his hands. This was done, as will be seen, toward the spring of 1865, but it was too late.

These notices of General Lee individually are necessary to a clear comprehension of the concluding incidents of the great conflict. It is doubtful if, in any other struggle of history, the hopes of a people were more entirely wrapped up in a single individual. All criticisms of the eminent soldier had long since been silenced, and it may, indeed, be said that something like a superstitious confidence in his fortunes had become widely disseminated. It was the general sentiment, even when Lee himself saw the end surely approaching, that all was safe while he remained in command of the army. This hallucination must have greatly pained him, for no one ever saw more clearly, or was less blinded by irrational confidence. Lee fully understood and represented to the civil authorities--with whom his relations were perfectly friendly and cordial--that if his lines were broken at any point, the fate of the campaign was sealed. Feeling this truth, of which his military sagacity left him in no doubt, he had to bear the further weight of that general confidence which he did not share. He did not complain, however, or in any manner indicate the desperate straits to which he had come. He called for fresh troops to supply his losses; when they did not arrive he continued to oppose his powerful adversary with the remnant still at his command. These were now more like old comrades than mere private soldiers under his orders. What was left of the army was its best material. The fires of battle had tested the metal, and that which emerged from the furnace was gold free from alloy. The men remaining with Lee were those whom no peril of the cause in which they were fighting could dishearten or prompt to desert or even temporarily absent themselves from the Southern standard; and this _corps d' elite_ was devoted wholly to their commander. For this devotion they certainly had valid reason. Never had leader exhibited a more systematic, unfailing, and almost tender care of his troops. Lee seemed to feel that these veterans in their ragged jackets, with their gaunt faces, were personal friends of his own, who were entitled to his most affectionate exertions for their welfare. His calls on the civil authorities in their behalf were unceasing. The burden of these demands was that, unless his men's wants were attended to, the Southern cause was lost; and it plainly revolted his sense of the fitness of things that men upon whom depended the fate of the South should be shoeless, in tatters, and forced to subsist on a quarter of a pound of rancid bacon and a little corn bread, when thousands remaining out of the army, and dodging the enrolling-officers, were well clothed and fed, and never heard the whistle of a bullet. The men understood this care for them, and returned the affectionate solicitude of their commander in full. He was now their ideal of a leader, and all that he did was perfect in their eyes. All awe of him had long since left them--they understood what treasures of kindness and simplicity lay under the grave exterior. The tattered privates approached the commander-in-chief without embarrassment, and his reception of them was such as to make them love him more than ever. Had we space we might dwell upon this marked respect and attention paid by General Lee to his private soldiers. He seemed to think them more worthy of marks of regard than his highest officers. And there was never the least air of condescension in him when thrown with them, but a perfect simplicity, kindness, and unaffected sympathy, which went to their hearts. This was almost a natural gift with Lee, and arose from the genuine goodness of his heart. His feeling toward his soldiers is shown in an incident which occurred at this time, and was thus related in one of the Richmond journals: "A gentleman who was in the train from this city to Petersburg, a very cold morning not long ago, tells us his attention was attracted by the efforts of a young soldier, with his arm in a sling, to get his overcoat on. His teeth, as well as his sound arm, were brought into use to effect the object; but, in the midst of his efforts, an officer rose from his seat, advanced to him, and very carefully and tenderly assisted him, drawing the coat gently over his wounded arm, and buttoning it up comfortably; then, with a few kind and pleasant words, returning to his seat. Now the officer in question was not clad in gorgeous uniform, with a brilliant wreath upon his collar, and a multitude of gilt lines upon the sleeves, resembling the famous labyrinth of Crete, but he was clad in a simple suit of gray, distinguished from the garb of a civilian only by the three stars which every Confederate colonel in the service, by the regulations, is entitled to wear. And yet he was no other than our chief, General Robert E. Lee, who is not braver than he is good and modest."

To terminate this brief sketch of General Lee, personally, in the winter of 1864. He looked much older than at the beginning of the war, but by no means less hardy or robust. On the contrary, the arduous campaigns through which he had passed seemed to have hardened him--developing to the highest degree the native strength of his physical organization. His cheeks were ruddy, and his eye had that clear light which indicates the presence of the calm, self-poised will. But his hair had grown gray, like his beard and mustache, which were worn short and well-trimmed. His dress, as always, was a plain and serviceable gray uniform, with no indications of rank save the stars on the collar. Cavalry-boots reached nearly to his knees, and he seldom wore any weapon. A broad-brimmed gray-felt hat rested low upon the forehead; and the movements of this soldierly figure were as firm, measured, and imposing, as ever. It was impossible to discern in General Lee any evidences of impaired strength, or any trace of the wearing hardships through which he had passed. He seemed made of iron, and would remain in his saddle all day, and then at his desk half the night, without apparently feeling any fatigue. He was still almost an anchorite in his personal habits, and lived so poorly that it is said he was compelled to borrow a small piece of meat when unexpected visitors dined with him.

Such, in brief outline, was the individual upon whose shoulders, in the last months of 1864 and the early part of 1865, rested the Southern Confederacy.



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