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.
XV. Lee evacuates Petersburg
Any further resistance upon the part of General Lee seemed now impossible, and nothing appeared to be left him but to surrender his army. This course he does not seem, however, to have contemplated. It was still possible that he might be able to maintain his position on an inner line near the city until night; and, if he could do so, the friendly hours of darkness might enable him to make good his retreat to the north bank of the Appomattox, and shape his course toward North Carolina, where General Johnston awaited him. If the movements of the Federal forces, however, were so prompt as to defeat his march in that direction, he might still be able to reach Lynchburg, beyond which point the defiles of the Alleghanies promised him protection against the utmost efforts of his enemy. Of his ability to reach North Carolina, following the line of the Danville Railroad, Lee, however, seems to have had no doubt. The Federal army would not probably be able to concentrate in sufficient force in his path to bar his progress if his march were rapid; if detached bodies only opposed him on his line of retreat, there was little doubt that the Army of Northern Virginia, reduced as it was, would be able to cut its way through them.
This preface is necessary to an intelligent comprehension of Lee's movements on the unfortunate 2d of April when his lines were broken. This occurrence took place, as we have said, about sunrise, and, an hour or two afterward, the Federal forces pressed forward all along the line, surging toward the suburbs of Petersburg. We have mentioned the position of General Lee's headquarters, about a mile and a half west of the city, on the Cox Road, nearly opposite the tall Federal observatory. Standing on the lawn, in front of his headquarters, General Lee now saw, approaching rapidly, a heavy column of Federal infantry, with the obvious design of charging a battery which had opened fire upon them from a hill to the right. The spectacle was picturesque and striking. Across the extensive fields houses set on fire by shell were sending aloft huge clouds of smoke and tongues of flame; at every instant was seen the quick glare of the Federal artillery, firing from every knoll, and in front came on the charging column, moving at a double quick, with burnished gun-barrels and bayonets flashing in the April sunshine.
General Lee watched with attention, but with perfect composure, this determined advance of the enemy; and, although he must have realized that his army was on the verge of destruction, it was impossible to discern in his features any evidences of emotion. He was in full uniform, and had buckled on his dress-sword, which he seldom wore--having, on this morning declared, it is said, that if he were compelled to surrender he would do so in full harness. Of his calmness at this trying moment the writer is able to bear his personal testimony. Chancing to hear a question addressed to a member of his staff, General Lee turned with great courtesy, raised his gray hat in response to the writer's salute, and gave him the desired information in a voice entirely measured and composed. It was impossible to regard a calmness so striking without strong sentiments of admiration, and Lee's appearance and bearing at this moment will always remain vividly impressed upon the writer's memory.
The Federal column was soon in dangerous proximity to the battery on the hill, and it was obliged to retire at a gallop to escape capture. An attempt was made to hold the ground near the headquarters, but a close musketry-fire from the enemy rendered this also impossible--the artillery was withdrawn--and General Lee, mounting his iron-gray, slowly rode back, accompanied by a number of officers, toward his inner line. He still remained entirely composed, and only said to one of his staff, in his habitual tone: "This is a bad business, colonel."
"Well, colonel," he said afterward to another officer, "it has happened as I told them it would at Richmond. The line has been stretched until it has broken."
The Federal column was now pressing forward along the Cox Road toward Petersburg, and General Lee continued to ride slowly back in the direction of the city. He was probably recognized by officers of the Federal artillery, or his _cortege_ drew their fire. The group was furiously shelled, and one of the shells burst a few feet in rear of him, killing the horse of an officer near him, cutting the bridle-reins of others, and tearing up the ground in his immediate vicinity. This incident seemed to arouse in General Lee his fighting-blood. He turned his head over his right shoulder, his cheeks became flushed, and a sudden flash of the eye showed with what reluctance he retired before the fire directed upon him. No other course was left him, however, and he continued to ride slowly toward his inner line--a low earthwork in the suburbs of the city--where a small force was drawn up, ardent, hopeful, defiant, and saluting the shell, now bursting above them, with cheers and laughter. It was plain that the fighting-spirit of the ragged troops remained unbroken; and the shout of welcome with which they received Lee indicated their unwavering confidence in him, despite the untoward condition of affairs.
Arrangements were speedily made to hold the inner line, if possible, until night. To
General Gordon had been intrusted the important duty of defending the lines east of the city, and General Longstreet had been directed to vacate the works north of James River, and march at once to the lines of Petersburg. This officer made his appearance, with his small force, at an early hour of the day; and, except that the Federal army continued firing all along the front, no other active operations took place. To those present on the Confederate side this fact appeared strange. As the force beyond Hatcher's Run had been completely defeated and dispersed, General Lee's numbers for the defence of Petersburg on this day did not amount to much, if any, more than fifteen thousand men. General Grant's force was probably one hundred and fifty thousand, of whom about one hundred thousand might, it would appear, have been concentrated in an hour or two directly in front of the city. That, with this large force at his disposal, the Federal commander did not at once attack, and so end all on that day, surprised the Confederate troops, and still continues to surprise the writer.
Night came at last, and General Lee began his retreat. He had sent, early in the morning, a dispatch to the civil authorities, at Richmond, informing them of the fact that his lines had been broken, and that he would that night retreat from Petersburg. Orders had also been sent to all the forces holding the lines north of James River to move at once and join him, and, just at nightfall, the army at Petersburg began crossing the Appomattox. This movement was effected without interruption from the enemy; and the army, turning into what is called the Hickory Road, leading up the north bank of the river, moved on steadily through the half light. Its march was superintended by Lee in person. He had stationed himself at the mouth of the Hickory Road, and, standing with the bridle of his horse in his hand, gave his orders. His bearing still remained entirely composed, and his voice had lost none of its grave strength of intonation. When the rear was well closed up, Lee mounted his horse, rode on slowly with his men; and, in the midst of the glare and thunder of the exploding magazines at Petersburg, the small remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia, amounting to about fifteen thousand men, went on its way through the darkness.