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.
XII. The Situation at the Beginning of 1865
In approaching the narrative of the last tragic scenes of the Confederate struggle, the writer of these pages experiences emotions of sadness which will probably be shared by not a few even of those readers whose sympathies, from the nature of things, were on the side of the North. To doubt this would be painful, and would indicate a contempt for human nature. Not only in the eyes of his friends and followers, but even in the eyes of his bitterest enemies, Lee must surely have appeared great and noble. Right or wrong in the struggle, he believed that he was performing his duty; and the brave army at his back, which had fought so heroically, were inspired by the same sentiment, and risked all on the issue.
This great soldier was now about to suffer the cruellest pang which the spite of Fate can inflict, and his army to be disbanded, to return in poverty and defeat to their homes. That spectacle was surely tragic, and appealed to the hardest heart; and if any rejoiced in such misery he must have been unsusceptible of the sentiment of admiration for heroism in misfortune.
The last and decisive struggle between the two armies at Petersburg began in March, 1865. But events of great importance in many quarters had preceded this final conflict, the result of which had been to break down all the outer defences of the Confederacy, leaving only the inner citadel still intact. The events in question are so familiar to those who will peruse these pages, that a passing reference to them is all that is necessary. Affairs in the Valley of Virginia, from autumn to spring, had steadily proceeded from bad to worse. In September,
General Sheridan, with a force of about forty-five thousand, had assailed General Early near
Winchester, with a force of about eight or nine thousand
muskets, and succeeded in driving him up the Valley beyond Strasburg, whence, attacked a second time, he had retreated toward Staunton. This was followed, in October, by another battle at Cedar Run, where Early attacked and nearly crushed General Sheridan, but eventually was again repulsed, and forced a second time to retreat up the Valley to Waynesboro', where, in February, his little remnant was assailed by overwhelming numbers and dispersed. General Sheridan, who had effected this inglorious but important success, then proceeded to the Lowlands, joined General Grant's army, and was ready, with his large force of horse, to take part in the coming battles.
A more important success had attended the Federal arms in the West. General Johnston, who had been restored to command there at the solicitation of Lee, had found his force insufficient to oppose
General Sherman's large army; the Confederates had accordingly retreated; and General Sherman, almost unresisted, from the exhaustion of his adversary,
marched across the country to Savannah, which fell an easy prize, and thence advanced to Goldsborough, in North Carolina, where he directly threatened Lee's line of retreat from Virginia.
Such was the condition of affairs in the months of February and March, 1865. In the former month, commissioners from the Confederate Government had met
President Lincoln in Hampton Roads, but no terms of peace could be agreed upon; the issue was still left to be decided by arms, and every advantage was upon the Federal side. General Lee, who had just been appointed "General-in-Chief"--having thus imposed upon him the mockery of a rank no longer of any value--saw the armies of the enemy closing in upon him, and did not deceive himself with the empty hope that he could longer hold his lines at Petersburg. The country, oppressed as it was, and laboring under a sentiment akin to despair, still retained in almost undiminished measure its superstitious confidence in him; but he himself saw clearly the desperate character of the situation. General Grant was in his front with a force of about one hundred and fifty thousand men, and General Sherman was about to enter Virginia with an army of about the same numbers. Lee's force at Petersburg was a little over thirty thousand men--that of Johnston was not so great, and was detained by Sherman. Under these circumstances, it was obviously only a question of time when the Army of Northern Virginia would be overwhelmed. In February, 1865, these facts were perfectly apparent to General Lee: but one course was left to him--to retreat from Virginia; and he promptly began that movement in the latter part of the month, ordering his trains to Amelia Court-House, and directing pontoons to be got ready at Roanoke River. His aim was simple--to unite his army with that of General Johnston, and retreat into the Gulf States. In the mountains of Virginia he could carry on the war, he had said, for twenty years; in the fertile regions of the South he might expect to prolong hostilities, or at least make favorable terms of peace--which would be better than to remain in Virginia until he was completely surrounded, and an unconditional submission would alone be left him.
It will probably remain a subject of regret to military students, that Lee was not permitted to carry out this retreat into the Gulf States. The movement was arrested after a consultation with the civil authorities at Richmond. Upon what grounds a course so obviously necessary was opposed, the present writer is unable to declare. Whatever the considerations, Lee yielded his judgment; the movement suddenly stopped; and the Army of Northern Virginia--if a skeleton can be called such--remained to await its fate.
The condition of the army in which "companies" scarce existed, "regiments" were counted by tens, and "divisions" by hundreds only, need not here be elaborately dwelt upon. It was indeed the phantom of an army, and the gaunt faces were almost ghostly. Shoeless, in rags, with just sufficient coarse food to sustain life, but never enough to keep at arm's-length the gnawing fiend Hunger, Lee's old veterans remained firm, scattered like a thin skirmish-line along forty miles of works; while opposite them lay an enemy in the highest state of efficiency, and numbering nearly five men to their one. That the soldiers of the army retained their nerve under circumstances so discouraging is surely an honorable fact, and will make their names glorious in history. They remained unshaken and fought undismayed to the last, although their courage was subjected to trials of the most exhausting character. Day and night, for month after month, the incessant fire of the Federal forces had continued, and every engine of human destruction had been put in play to wear away their strength. They fought all through the cheerless days of winter, and, when they lay down in the cold trenches at night, the shell of the Federal mortars rained down upon them, bursting, and mortally wounding them. All day long the fire of muskets and cannon--then, from sunset to dawn, the curving fire of the roaring mortars, and the steady, never-ceasing crack of the sharp-shooters along the front. Snow, or blinding sleet, or freezing rains, might be falling, but the fire went on--it seemed destined to go on to all eternity.
In March, 1865 however, the end was approaching, and General Lee must have felt that all was lost. His last hope had been the retreat southward in the month of February. That hope had been taken from him; the result was at hand; and his private correspondence, if he intrusted to paper his views of the situation, will probably show that from that moment he gave up all anticipation of success, and prepared to do his simple duty as a soldier, leaving the issue of affairs to Providence. Whatever may have been his emotions, they were not reflected in his countenance. The same august composure which had accompanied him in his previous campaigns remained with him still, and cheered the fainting hearts around him. To the 2d of April, and even up to the end, this remarkable calmness continued nearly unchanged, and we can offer no explanation of a circumstance so astonishing, save that which we have already given in a preceding chapter.