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.
IV. The 12th of May
Throughout the entire day succeeding this first great conflict, General Lee remained quiet, watching for some movement of his adversary. His success in the preliminary straggle had been gratifying, considering the great disproportion of numbers, but he indulged no expectation of a retrograde movement across the Rapidan, on the part of General Grant. He expected him rather to advance, and anxiously awaited some development of this intention. There were no indications of such a design up to the night of the 7th, but at that time, to use the words of a confidential member of Lee's staff, "he all at once seemed to conceive the idea that his enemy was preparing to forsake his position, and move toward Hanover Junction _via_ the Spottsylvania Court-House, and, believing this, he at once detailed Anderson's division with orders to proceed rapidly toward the court-house."
General Anderson commenced his march about nine o'clock at night, when the Federal column was already upon its way. A race now began for the coveted position, and General Stuart, with his dismounted sharp-shooters behind improvised breastworks, harassed and impeded the Federal advance, at every step, throughout the night. This greatly delayed their march, and their head of column did not reach the vicinity of Spottsylvania Court-House until past sunrise.
General Warren, leading the Federal advance, then hurried forward, followed by
General Hancock, when suddenly he found himself in front of breastworks, and was received with a fire of musketry. Lee had succeeded in interposing himself between General Grant and Richmond.
On the same evening the bulk of the two armies were facing each other on the line of the Po.
By the rapidity of his movements General Lee had thus completely defeated his adversary's design to seize on the important point, Spottsylvania Court-House. General Grant, apparently conceiving some explanation of this untoward event to be necessary, writes: "The enemy, having become aware of our movement, and _having the shorter line_, was enabled to reach there first." The statement that General Lee had the shorter of the two lines to march over is a mistake. The armies moved over parallel roads until beyond Todd's Tavern, after which the distance to the south bank of the Po was greater by Lee's route than General Grant's. The map will sufficiently indicate this. Two other circumstances defeated General Grant's attempt to reach the point first--the extreme rapidity of the march of the Confederate advance force, and the excellent fighting of Stuart's dismounted men, who harassed and delayed General Warren, leading the Federal advance throughout the entire night.
An additional fact should be mentioned, bearing upon this point, and upon General Lee's designs. "General Lee's orders to me," says General Early, who, from the sickness of A.P. Hill, had been assigned to the command of the corps, "were to _move by Todd's Tavern along the Brock Road_, to Spottsylvania Court-House, as soon as our front was clear of the enemy." From this order it would appear either that General Lee regarded the Brock Road, over which General Grant moved, as the "shorter line," or that he intended the movement of Early on the enemy's rear to operate as a check upon them, while he went forward to their front with his main body.
These comments may seem tedious to the general reader, but all that illustrates the military designs, or defends the good soldiership of Lee, is worthy of record.
We proceed now to the narrative. In the Wilderness General Grant had found a dangerous enemy ready to strike at his flank. He now saw in his front the same active and wary adversary, prepared to bar the direct road to Richmond. General Lee had taken up his position on the south bank of one of the four tributaries of the Mattapony. These four streams are known as the Mat, Ta, Po, and Nye Rivers, and bear the same relation to the main stream that the fingers of the open hand do to the wrist. General Lee was behind the Po, which is next to the Nye, the northernmost of these water-courses. Both were difficult to cross, and their banks heavily wooded. It was now to be seen whether, either by a front attack or a turning movement, General Grant could oust his adversary, and whether General Lee would stand on the defensive or attack.
All day, during the 9th, the two armies were constructing breastworks along their entire fronts, and these works, from the Rapidan to the banks of the Chickahominy, remain yet in existence. On the evening of this day a Federal force was thrown across the Po, on the Confederate left, but soon withdrawn; and on the 10th a similar movement took place near the same point, which resulted in a brief but bloody conflict, during which the woods took fire, and many of the assaulting troops perished miserably in the flames. The force was then recalled, and, during that night and the succeeding day, nothing of importance occurred, although heavy skirmishing and an artillery-fire took place along the lines.
On the morning of the 12th, at the first dawn of day, General Grant made a more important and dangerous assault than any yet undertaken in the campaign. This was directed at a salient on General Lee's right centre, occupied by Johnson's division of Ewell's corps, and was one of the bloodiest and most terrible incidents of the war. For this assault General Grant is said to have selected his best troops. These advanced in a heavy charging column, through the half darkness of dawn, passed silently over the Confederate skirmishers, scarcely firing a shot, and, just as the first streak of daylight touched the eastern woods, burst upon the salient, which they stormed at the point of the bayonet. In consequence of the suddenness of the assault and the absence of artillery--against whose removal General Johnston is stated to have protested, and which arrived too late--the Federal forces carried all before them, and gained possession of the works, in spite of a stubborn and bloody resistance.
Such was the excellent success of the Federal movement, and the Southern line seemed to be hopelessly disrupted. Nearly the whole of Johnson's division were taken prisoners--the number amounting to about three thousand--and eighteen pieces of artillery fell into the hands of the assaulting column.
The position of affairs was now exceedingly critical; and, unless General Lee could reform his line at the point, it seemed that nothing was left him but an abandonment of his whole position. The Federal army had broken his line; was pouring into the opening; and, to prevent him from concentrating at the point to regain possession of the works, heavy attacks were begun by the enemy on his right and left wings. It is probable that at no time during the war was the Southern army in greater danger of a bloody and decisive disaster.
At this critical moment General Lee acted with the nerve and coolness of a soldier whom no adverse event can shake. Those who saw him will testify to the stern courage of his expression; the glance of the eye, which indicated a great nature, aroused to the depth of its powerful organization. Line of battle was promptly formed a short distance in rear of the salient then in the enemy's possession, and a fierce charge was made by the Southerners, under the eye of Lee, to regain it. It was on this occasion that, on fire with the ardor of battle, which so seldom mastered him, Lee went forward in front of his line, and, taking his station beside the colors of one of his Virginian regiments, took off his hat, and, turning to the men, pointed toward the enemy. A storm of cheers greeted the general, as he sat his gray war-horse, in front of the men--his head bare, his eyes flashing, and his cheeks flushed with the fighting-blood of the soldier.
General Gordon, however, spurred to his side and seized his rein.
"General Lee!" he exclaimed, "this is no place for you. Go to the rear. These are Virginians and Georgians, sir--men who have never failed!--Men, you will not fail now!" he cried, rising in his stirrups and addressing the troops.
"No, no!" was the reply of the men; and from the whole line burst the shout, "Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!"
Instead of being needed, it was obvious that his presence was an embarrassment, as the men seemed determined not to charge unless he retired. He accordingly did so, and the line advanced to the attack, led by General Gordon and other officers of approved ability and courage. The charge which followed was resolute, and the word ferocious best describes the struggle which followed. It continued throughout the entire day, Lee making not less than five distinct assaults in heavy force to recover the works. The fight involved the troops on both flanks, and was desperate and unyielding. The opposing flags were at times within only a few yards of each other, and so incessant and concentrated was the fire of musketry, that a tree of about eighteen inches in diameter was cut down by bullets, and is still preserved, it is said, in the city of Washington, as a memorial of this bloody struggle.
[Illustration: The Wilderness. "Lee to the Rear"]
The fighting only ceased several hours after dark. Lee had not regained his advanced line of works, but he was firmly rooted in an interior and straighter line, from which the Federal troops had found it impossible to dislodge him. This result of the stubborn action was essentially a success, as General Grant's aim in the operation had been to break asunder his adversary's army--in which he very nearly succeeded.
At midnight all was again silent. The ground near the salient was strewed with dead bodies. The loss of the three thousand men and eighteen guns of Johnson had been followed by a bloody retaliation, the Federal commander having lost more than eight thousand men.