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.
III. The Battle of the 6th of May
The morning of the 6th of May came, and, with the first light of dawn, the adversaries, as by a common understanding, advanced at the same moment to attack each other.
The battle which followed is wellnigh indescribable, and may be said, in general terms, to have been naught but the blind and desperate clutch of two great bodies of men, who could scarcely see each other when they were but a few feet apart, and who fired at random, rather by sound than sight. A Southern writer, describing the country and the strange combat, says: "The country was sombre--a land of thicket, undergrowth, jungle, ooze, where men could not see each other twenty yards off, and assaults had to be made by the compass. The fights there were not even as easy as night attacks in open country, for at night you can travel by the stars. Death came unseen; regiments stumbled on each other, and sent swift destruction into each other's ranks, guided by the crackling of the bushes. It was not war--military manoeuvring: science had as little to do with it as sight. Two wild animals were hunting each other; when they heard each other's steps, they sprung and grappled. The conqueror advanced, or went elsewhere. The dead were lost from all eyes in the thicket. The curious spectacle was here presented of officers advancing to the charge, in the jungle, _compass in hand_, attacking, not by sight, but by the bearing of the needle. In this mournful and desolate thicket did the great campaign of 1864 begin. Here, in blind wrestle as at midnight, did two hundred thousand men in blue and gray clutch each other--bloodiest and weirdest of encounters. War had had nothing like it. The genius of destruction, tired apparently of the old commonplace killing, had invented the 'unseen death.' At five in the morning, the opponents closed in, breast to breast, in the thicket. Each had thrown up here and there slight, temporary breastworks of saplings and dirt; beyond this, they were unprotected. The question now was, which would succeed in driving his adversary from these defences, almost within a few yards of each other, and from behind which crackled the musketry. Never was sight more curious. On the low line of these works, dimly seen in the thicket, rested the muzzles spouting flame; from the depths rose cheers; charges were made and repulsed, the lines scarcely seeing each other; men fell and writhed, and died unseen--their bodies lost in the bushes, their death-groans drowned in the steady, continuous, never-ceasing crash."
These sentences convey a not incorrect idea of the general character of this remarkable engagement, which had no precedent in the war. We shall now proceed to speak of General Lee's plans and objects, and to indicate where they failed or succeeded. The commanders of both armies labored under great embarrassments. General Grant's was the singular character of the country, with which he was wholly unacquainted; and General Lee's, the delay in the arrival of Longstreet. Owing to the distance of the camps of the last-named officer, he had not, at dawn, reached the field of battle. As his presence was indispensable to a general assault, this delay in his appearance threatened to result in unfortunate consequences, as it was nearly certain that General Grant would make an early and resolute attack. Under these circumstances, Lee resolved to commence the action, and did so, counting, doubtless, on his ability, with the thirty thousand men at his command, to at least maintain his ground. His plan seems to have been to make a heavy demonstration against the Federal right, and, when Longstreet arrived, throw the weight of his whole centre and right against the Federal left, with the view of seizing the Brock Road, running southward, and forcing back the enemy's left wing into the thickets around Chancellorsville. This brilliant conception, which, if carried out, would have arrested General Grant in the beginning of his campaign, was very near meeting with success. The attack on the Federal right, under General Sedgwick, commenced at dawn, and the fighting on both sides was obstinate. It continued with indecisive results throughout the morning, gradually involving the Federal centre; but, nearly at the moment when it began, a still more obstinate conflict was inaugurated between
General Hancock, holding the Federal left, and Hill, who opposed him on the Plank-road. The battle raged in this quarter with great fury for some time, but, attacked in front and flank at once by his able opponent, Hill was forced back steadily, and at last, in some disorder, a considerable distance from the ground which had witnessed the commencement of the action. At this point, however, he was fortunately met by Longstreet. That commander rapidly brought his troops into line, met the advancing enemy, attacked them with great fury, and, after a bloody contest, in which General Wadsworth was killed, drove them back to their original position on the Brock Road.
It now seemed nearly certain that Lee's plan of seizing upon this important highway would succeed. General Hancock had been forced back with heavy loss, Longstreet was pressing on, and, as he afterward said, he "thought he had another Bull Run on them," when a singular casualty defeated all. General Longstreet, who had ridden in front of his advancing line, turned to ride back, when he was mistaken by his own men for a Federal cavalryman, fired upon, and disabled by a musket-ball. This threw all into disorder, and the advance was discontinued. General Lee, as soon as he was apprised of the accident, hastened to take personal command of the corps, and, as soon as order was restored, directed the line to press forward. The most bloody and determined struggle of the day ensued. The thicket filled the valleys, and, as at Chancellorsville, a new horror was added to the horror of battle. A fire broke out in the thicket, and soon wrapped the adversaries in flame and smoke. They fought on, however, amid the crackling flames. Lee continued to press forward; the Federal breastworks along a portion of their front were carried, and a part of General Hancock's line was driven from the field. The struggle had, however, been decisive of no important results, and, from the lateness of the hour when it terminated, it could not be followed up. On the left Lee had also met with marked but equally indecisive success.
General Gordon had attacked the Federal right, driven the force at that point in disorder from their works, and but for the darkness this success might have been followed up and turned into a complete defeat of that wing of the enemy. It was only discovered on the next morning what important successes Gordon had effected with a single brigade; and there is reason to believe that with a larger force this able soldier might have achieved results of a decisive character.
[Footnote 1: General Early, in his "Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence," bears his testimony to the important character of the blow struck by General Gordon. He says: "At light, on the morning of the 7th, an advance was made, which disclosed the fact that the enemy had given up his line of works in front of my whole line and a good portion of Johnson's. Between the lines a large number of his dead had been left, and at his breastworks a large number of
muskets and knapsacks had been abandoned, and there was every indication of great confusion. It was not till then that we understood the full extent of the success attending the movement of the evening before." General Gordon had proposed making the attack on the _morning_ of the 6th, but was overruled.]
Such had been the character and results of the first conflicts between the two armies in the thickets of the Wilderness. As we have already said, the collision there was neither expected nor desired by General Grant, who, unlike
General Hooker, in May of the preceding year, seems fully to have understood the unfavorable nature of the region for manoeuvring a large army. His adversary had, however, forced him to accept battle, leaving him no choice, and the result of the actions of the 5th and 6th had been such as to determine the Federal commander to emerge as soon as possible from the tangled underwood which hampered all his movements. On the 7th he accordingly made no movement to attack Lee, and on the night of that day marched rapidly in the direction of Hanover Junction, following the road by Todd's Tavern toward Spottsylvania Court-House.
For this determination to avoid further fighting in the Wilderness, General Grant gives a singular explanation. "On the morning of the 7th," he says, "reconnoissance showed that the enemy _had fallen behind his intrenched lines_, with pickets to the front, covering a part of the battle-field. From this it was evident that the two-days' fighting had satisfied him of his inability to further maintain the contest in the open field, _notwithstanding his advantage of position_, and that he would wait an attack behind his works." The "intrenched lines" and "advantage of position" of Lee, were both imaginary. No lines of intrenchment had been made, and the ground was not more favorable on General Lee's side than on General Grant's. Both armies had erected impromptu breastworks of felled trees and earth, as continued to be their habit throughout the campaign, and the flat country gave no special advantage to either. The forward movement of General Grant is susceptible of much easier explanation. The result of the two-days' fighting had very far from pleased him; he desired to avoid further conflict in so difficult a country, and, taking advantage of the quiescence of Lee, and the hours of darkness, he moved with his army toward the more open country.