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.
XIV. The Southern Lines broken
The hour of the final struggle now rapidly drew near. On the 29th of March, General Lee discovered that a large portion of the Federal army was moving steadily in the direction of his works beyond Burgen Mill, and there could be no doubt what this movement signified. General Grant was plainly about to make a decisive attack on the Confederate right, on the White-Oak Road; and, if that attack succeeded, Lee was lost.
Had not General Lee and his men become accustomed to retain their coolness under almost any circumstances of trial, the prospect now before them must have filled them with despair. The bulk of the Federal army was obviously about to be thrown against the Confederate right, and it was no secret in the little body of Southerners that Lee would be able to send thither only a painfully inadequate force, unless his extensive works were left in charge of a mere line of skirmishers. This could not be thought of; the struggle on the right must be a desperate one, and the Southern troops must depend upon hard fighting rather than numbers if they hoped to repulse the attack of the enemy.
Such was the situation of affairs, and neither the Confederate commander nor his men shrunk in the hour of trial. Leaving Longstreet to confront the enemy north of the James, and
Gordon in command of Ewell's corps--if it could be called such--in front of Petersburg, Lee moved with nearly the whole remainder of his small force westward, beyond Hatcher's Run, to meet the anticipated attack. The force thus moved to the right to receive General Grant's great assault consisted of about fifteen thousand infantry, and about two thousand cavalry under General Fitz Lee, who, in consequence of the departure of
Hampton to North Carolina, now commanded the cavalry of the army. This force, however, was cavalry only in name; and General Lee, speaking afterward of General Sheridan, said that his victories were won "when we had no horses for our cavalry, and no men to ride the few broken-down steeds that we could muster."
With this force, amounting in all to about seventeen thousand men, Lee proceeded to take position behind the works extending along the White-Oak Road, in the direction of
Five Forks, an important _carrefour_ beyond his extreme right. The number of men left north of James River and in front of Petersburg was a little under twenty thousand. As General Grant had at his command a force about four times as great as his adversary's, it seemed scarcely possible that Lee would be able to offer serious resistance.
It soon became evident, however, that, in spite of this great disproportion of force, General Lee had determined to fight to the last. To attribute this determination to despair and recklessness, would be doing injustice to the great soldier. It was still possible that he might be able to repulse the assault upon his right, and, by disabling the Federal force there, open his line of retreat. To this hope he no doubt clung, and the fighting-blood of his race was now thoroughly aroused. At Chancellorsville and elsewhere the odds had been nearly as great, and a glance at his gaunt veterans showed him that they might still be depended upon for a struggle as obstinate as any in the past history of the war.
The event certainly vindicated the justice of this latter view, and we shall briefly trace the occurrences of the next three or four days which terminated the long conflict at Petersburg.
General Grant's assaulting force was not in position near the Boydton Road, beyond Hatcher's Run, until March 31st, when, before he could attack, Lee suddenly advanced and made a furious onslaught on the Federal front. Before this attack, the divisions first encountered gave way in confusion, and it seemed that the Confederate commander, at a single blow, was about to extricate himself from his embarrassing situation. The force opposed to him, however, was too great, and he found himself unable to encounter it in the open field. He therefore fell back to his works, and the fighting ceased, only to be renewed, however, at
Five Forks. This had been seized by the cavalry of General
Sheridan, and, as the point was one of importance, Lee detached a small body of infantry to drive away the Federal horse. This was done without difficulty, and the Confederate infantry then advanced toward Dinwiddie Court-House; but late at night it was withdrawn, and the day's fighting ended.
On the next day, the 1st of April, a more determined struggle ensued, for the possession of Five Forks, where Lee had stationed the small remnants of the divisions of Pickett and Johnson. These made a brave resistance, but were wholly unable to stand before the force brought against them. They maintained their ground as long as possible, but were finally broken to pieces and scattered in confusion, the whole right of the Confederate line and the Southside Road falling into the hands of the enemy.
[Illustration: Lee at Petersburg]
This was virtually the end of the contest, but General Grant, it would appear, deemed it inexpedient to venture any thing. So thinly manned were the lines in front of Petersburg, in the absence of Longstreet north of James River, and the troops sent beyond Hatcher's Run, that on the 1st of April the Federal commander might have broken through the works at almost any point. He elected to wait, however, until the following day, thereby running the risk of awaking to find that Lee had retreated.
At dawn on the 2d the long struggle ended. The Federal forces advanced all along the Confederate front, made a furious attack, and, breaking through in front of the city, carried all before them. The forts, especially Fort Gregg, made a gallant resistance. This work was defended by the two hundred and fifty men of Harris's Mississippi Brigade, and these fought until their numbers were reduced to thirty, killing or wounding five hundred of the assailants. The fort was taken at last, and the Federal lines advanced toward the city. In this attack fell the eminent soldier General A.P. Hill, whose record had been so illustrious, and whose fortune it was to thus terminate his life while the Southern flag still floated.