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.
II. The First Collision in the Wilderness
To understand the singular combat which now ensued, it is necessary to keep in view the fact that nothing more surprised General Grant than the sudden appearance of his adversary face to face with him in the Wilderness.
It had not been supposed, either by the lieutenant-general or his corps-commanders, that Lee, with his small army, would have recourse to a proceeding so audacious. It was anticipated, indeed, that, somewhere on the road to Richmond, Lee would make a stand and fight, in a carefully-selected position which would enable him to risk collision with his great adversary; but that Lee himself would bring on this collision by making an open attack, unassisted by position of any sort, was the last thing which seems to have occurred to his adversary.
Such, however, as has been said, was the design, from the first, of the Southern commander, and he moved with his accustomed celerity and energy. As soon as General Grant broke up his camps north of the Rapidan, Lee was apprised of the fact, and ordered his three corps to concentrate in the direction of Chancellorsville. Those who were present in the Southern army at this time will bear record to the soldierly promptness of officers and men. On the evening of the 3d of May the camps were the scenes of noise, merriment, and parade: the bands played; the woods were alive; nothing disturbed the scene of general enjoyment of winter-quarters. On the morning of the 4th all this was changed. The camps were deserted; no sound was anywhere heard; the troops were twenty miles away, fully armed and ready for battle. General Lee was in the saddle, and his presence seemed to push forward his column. Ewell, marching with celerity, bivouacked that night directly in face of the enemy; and it was the suddenly-discovered presence of the troops of this commander which arrested General Grant, advancing steadily in the direction of Spottsylvania Court-House.
He must have inwardly chafed at a circumstance so unexpected and embarrassing. It had been no part of his plan to fight in the thickets of the Wilderness, and yet an adversary of but one-third his own strength was about to reverse his whole programme, and dictate the terms of the first battles of the campaign. There was nothing to do, however, but to fight, and General Grant hastened to form order of battle for that purpose, with General Sedgwick commanding his right,
Generals Warren and
Burnside his centre, and
General Hancock his left, near the Brock Road. The line thus formed extended from northwest to southeast, and, as the right wing was in advance with respect to Lee, that circumstance occasioned the first collision.
This occurred about mid-day on the 5th of May, and was brought on by
General Warren, who attacked the head of Swell's column, on the Old Turnpike. An obstinate engagement ensued, and the division which received the assault was forced back. It quickly, however, reformed, and being reenforced advanced in turn against General Warren, and, after a hard fight, he was driven back with a loss of three thousand men and two pieces of artillery.
This first collision of the armies on the Confederate left was followed almost immediately by a bloody struggle on the centre. This was held by A.P. Hill, who had marched down the Plank-road, and was near the important point of junction of that road with the Brock Road, when he was suddenly attacked by the enemy. The struggle which ensued was long and determined. General Lee wrote: "The assaults were repeated and desperate, but every one was repulsed." When night fell, Hill had not been driven back, but had not advanced; and the two armies rested on their arms, awaiting the return of light to continue the battle.