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.
XIII. Lee attacks the Federal Centre
General Lee became aware, as the end of March drew near, that preparations were being made in the Federal army for some important movement. What that movement would be, there was little reason to doubt. The Federal lines had been extended gradually toward the Southside Railroad; and it was obvious now that General Grant had in view a last and decisive advance in that quarter, which should place him on his opponent's communications, and completely intercept his retreat southward.
The catastrophe which General Lee had plainly foreseen for many months now stared him in the face, and, unless he had recourse to some expedient as desperate as the situation, the end of the struggle must soon come. The sole course left to him was retreat, but this now seemed difficult, if not impossible. General Grant had a powerful force not far from the main roads over which Lee must move; and, unless a diversion of some description were made, it seemed barely possible that the Southern army could extricate itself. This diversion General Lee now proceeded to make; and although we have no authority to state that his object was to follow up the blow, if it were successful, by an evacuation of his lines at Petersburg, it is difficult to conceive what other design he could have had in risking an operation so critical. He had resolved to throw a column against the Federal centre east of Petersburg, with the view to break through there and seize the commanding ground in rear of the line. He would thus be rooted in the middle of General Grant's army, and the Federal left would probably be recalled, leaving the way open if he designed to retreat. If he designed, however, to fight a last pitched battle which should decide all, he would be able to do so, in case the Federal works were broken, to greater advantage than under any other circumstances.
The point fixed upon was Fort Steadman, near the south bank of the Appomattox, where the opposing works were scarcely two hundred yards from each other. The ground in front was covered with _abatis_, and otherwise obstructed, but it was hoped that the assaulting column would be able to pass over the distance undiscovered. In that event a sudden rush would probably carry the works--a large part of the army would follow--the hill beyond would be occupied--and General Grant would be compelled to concentrate his army at the point, for his own protection.
On the morning of March 25th, before dawn, the column was ready. It consisted of three or four thousand men under General Gordon, but an additional force was held in reserve to follow up the attack if it succeeded. Just as dawn appeared, Gordon put his column in motion. It advanced silently over the intervening space, made a rush for the Federal works, mounted them, drove from them in great confusion the force occupying them, and a loud cheer proved that the column of Gordon had done its work. But this auspicious beginning was the only success achieved by the Confederates. For reasons unknown to the present writer, the force directed by Lee to be held in readiness, and to move at once to Gordon's support, did not go forward; the brave commander and his men were left to breast the whole weight of the Federal onslaught which ensued; and disaster followed the first great success. The forts to the right and left of Fort Steadman suddenly opened their thunders, and something like a repetition of the scene succeeding the mine explosion ensued. A considerable portion of the assaulting column was unable to get back, and fell into the enemy's hands; their works were quickly reoccupied; and Lee saw that his last hope had failed. Nothing was left to him now but such courageous resistance as it was in his power to make, and he prepared, with the worn weapon which he still held in his firm grasp, to oppose as he best could the immense "hammer"--to use General Grant's own illustration--which was plainly about to be raised to strike.