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.
V. From Spottsylvania to the Chickahominy
After the bloody action of the 12th of May, General Grant remained quiet for many days, "awaiting," he says, "the arrival of reenforcements from Washington." The number of these fresh troops is not known to the present writer. General Lee had no reinforcements to expect, and continued to confront his adversary with his small army, which must have been reduced by the heavy fighting to less than forty thousand men, while that of General Grant numbered probably about one hundred and forty thousand.
Finding that his opponent was not disposed to renew hostilities. General Lee, on the 19th of May, sent General Ewell to turn his right flank; but this movement resulted in nothing, save the discovery by General Ewell that the Federal army was moving. This intelligence was dispatched to General Lee on the evening of the 21st, and reached him at Souther's House, on the banks of the Po, where he was calmly reconnoitring the position of the enemy.
As soon as he read the note of General Ewell, he mounted his horse, saying, in his grave voice, to his staff, "Come, gentlemen;" and orders were sent to the army to prepare to move. The troops began their march on the same night, in the direction of Hanover Junction, which they reached on the evening of the 22d. When, on May 23d, General Grant reached the banks of the North Anna, he found Lee stationed on the south bank, ready to oppose his crossing.
The failure of General Grant to reach and seize upon the important point of Hanover Junction before the arrival of Lee, decided the fate of the plan of campaign originally devised by him. If the reader will glance at the map of Virginia, this fact will become apparent. Hanover Junction is the point where the Virginia Central and Richmond and
Fredericksburg Railroads cross each other, and is situated in the angle of the North Anna and South Anna Rivers, which unite a short distance below to form the Pamunkey. Once in possession of this point, General Grant would have had easy communication with the excellent base of supplies at Aquia Creek; would have cut the Virginia Central Railroad; and a direct march southward would have enabled him to invest Richmond from the north and northwest, in accordance with his original plan. Lee had, however, reached the point first, and from that moment, unless the Southern force were driven from its position, the entire plan of campaign must necessarily be changed.
The great error of General Grant in this arduous campaign would seem to have been the feebleness of the attack which he here made upon Lee. The position of the Southern army was not formidable, and on his arrival they had had no time to erect defences. The river is not difficult of crossing, and the ground on the south bank gives no decided advantage to a force occupying it. In spite of these facts--which it is proper to say General Grant denies, however--nothing was effected, and but little attempted. A few words will sum up the operations of the armies during the two or three days. Reaching the river, General Grant threw a column across some miles up the stream, at a point known as Jericho Ford, where a brief but obstinate encounter ensued between Generals Hill and
Warren, and this was followed by the capture of an old redoubt defending the Chesterfield bridge, near the railroad crossing, opposite Lee's right, which enabled another column to pass the stream at that point. These two successful passages of the river on Lee's left and right seemed to indicate a fixed intention on the part of his adversary to press both the Southern flanks, and bring on a decisive engagement; and, to cooeperate in this plan, a third column was now thrown over opposite Lee's centre.
These movements were, however, promptly met. Lee retired his two wings, but struck suddenly with his centre at the force attempting to cross there; and then active operations on both sides ceased. In spite of having passed the river with the bulk of his army, and formed line of battle, General Grant resolved not to attack. His explanation of this is that Lee's position was found "stronger than either of his previous ones."
Such was the result of the able disposition of the Southern force at this important point. General Grant found his whole programme reversed, and, on the night of the 26th, silently withdrew and hastened down the north bank of the Pamunkey toward Hanovertown preceded by the cavalry of
That officer had been detached from the army as it approached Spottsylvania Court-House, to make a rapid march toward Richmond, and destroy the Confederate communications. In this he partially succeeded, but, attempting to ride into Richmond, was repulsed with considerable loss. The only important result, indeed, of the expedition, was the death of General Stuart. This distinguished commander of General Lee's cavalry had been directed to pursue General Sheridan; had done so, with his customary promptness, and intercepted his column near Richmond, at a spot known as the Yellow Tavern; and here, in a stubborn engagement, in which Stuart strove to supply his want of troops by the fury of his attack, the great chief of cavalry was mortally wounded, and expired soon afterward. His fall was a grievous blow to General Lee's heart, as well as to the Southern cause. Endowed by nature with a courage which shrunk from nothing; active, energetic, of immense physical stamina, which enabled him to endure any amount of fatigue; devoted, heart and soul, to the cause in which he fought, and looking up to the commander of the army with childlike love and admiration, Stuart could be ill spared at this critical moment, and General Lee was plunged into the deepest melancholy at the intelligence of his death. When it reached him he retired from those around him, and remained for some time communing with his own heart and memory. When one of his staff entered, and spoke of Stuart, General Lee said, in a low voice, "I can scarcely think of him without weeping."
The command of the cavalry devolved upon
General Hampton, and it was fought throughout the succeeding campaign with the nerve and efficiency of a great soldier; but Stuart had, as it were, formed and moulded it with his own hands; he was the first great commander of horse in the war; and it was hard for his successors, however great their genius, to compete with his memory. His name will thus remain that of the greatest and most prominent cavalry-officer of the war.
Crossing the Pamunkey at Hanovertown, after a rapid night-march, General Grant sent out a force toward Hanover Court-House to cut off Lee's retreat or discover his position. This resulted in nothing, since General Lee had not moved in that direction. He had, as soon as the movement of General Grant was discovered, put his lines in motion, directed his march across the country on the direct route to Cold Harbor, and, halting behind the Tottapotomoi, had formed his line there, to check the progress of his adversary on the main road from Hanovertown toward Richmond. For the third time, thus, General Grant had found his adversary in his path; and no generalship, or rapidity in the movement of his column, seemed sufficient to secure to him the advantages of a surprise. On each occasion the march of the Federal army had taken place in the night; from the Wilderness on the night of May 7th; from Spottsylvania on the night of May 21st; and from near the North Anna on the night of May 26th. Lee had imitated these movements of his opponent, interposing on each occasion, at the critical moment, in his path, and inviting battle. This last statement may be regarded as too strongly expressed, as it seems the opinion of Northern writers that Lee, in these movements, aimed only to maintain a strict defensive, and, by means of breastworks, simply keep his adversary at arm's length. This is an entire mistake. Confident of the efficiency of his army, small as it was, he was always desirous to bring on a decisive action, under favorable circumstances. General Early bears his testimony to the truth of this statement. "I happen to know," says this officer, "that General Lee had always the greatest anxiety to strike at Grant in the open field." During the whole movement from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, the Confederate commander was in excellent spirits. When at Hanover Junction he spoke of the situation almost jocosely, and said to the venerable Dr. Gwathmey, speaking of General Grant, "If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him."
This expression does not seem to indicate any depression or want of confidence in his ability to meet General Grant in an open pitched battle. It may, however, be asked why, if such were his desire, he did not come out from behind his breastworks and fight. The reply is, that General Grant invariably defended his lines by breastworks as powerful as--in many cases much more powerful than--his adversary's. The opposing mounds of earth and trees along the routes of the two armies remain to prove the truth of what is here stated. At Cold Harbor, especially, the Federal works are veritable forts. In face of them, the theory that General Grant uniformly acted upon the offensive, without fear of offensive operations in turn on the part of Lee, will be found untenable. Nor is this statement made with the view of representing General Grant as over-cautious, or of detracting from his merit as a commander. It was, on the contrary, highly honorable to him, that, opposed to an adversary of such ability, he should have neglected nothing.
Reaching the Tottapotomoi, General Grant found his opponent in a strong position behind that sluggish water-course, prepared to dispute the road to Richmond; and it now became necessary to force the passage in his front, or, by another flank march, move still farther to the left, and endeavor to cross the Chickahominy somewhere in the vicinity of Cold Harbor. This last operation was determined upon by General Grant, and, sending his cavalry toward Cold Harbor, he moved rapidly in the same direction with his infantry. This movement was discovered at once by Lee; he sent Longstreet's corps forward, and, when the Federal army arrived, the Southern forces were drawn up in their front, between them and Richmond, thus barring, for the fourth time in the campaign, the road to the capital.
During these movements, nearly continuous fighting had taken place between the opposing columns, which clung to each other, as it were, each shaping its march more or less by that of the other. At last they had reached the ground upon which the obstinate struggle of June, 1862, had taken place, and it now became necessary for General Grant either to form some new plan of campaign, or, by throwing his whole army, in one great mass, against his adversary, break through all obstacles, cross the Chickahominy, and seize upon Richmond. This was now resolved upon.
Heavy fighting took place on June 2d, near Bethesda Church and at other points, while the armies were coming into position; but this was felt to be but the preface to the greater struggle which General Lee now clearly divined. It came without loss of time. On the morning of the 3d of June, soon after daylight, General Grant threw his whole army straightforward against Lee's front--all along his line. The conflict which followed was one of those bloody grapples, rather than battles, which, discarding all manoeuvring or brain-work in the commanders, depend for the result upon the brute strength of the forces engaged. The action did not last half an hour, and, in that time, the Federal loss was thirteen thousand men. When General Lee sent a messenger to A.P. Hill, asking the result of the assault on his part of the line, Hill took the officer with him in front of his works, and, pointing to the dead bodies which were literally lying upon each other, said: "Tell General Lee it is the same all along my front."
The Federal army had, indeed, sustained a blow so heavy, that even the constant mind and fixed resolution of General Grant and the Federal authorities seem to have been shaken. The war seemed hopeless to many persons in the North after the frightful bloodshed of this thirty minutes at Cold Harbor, of which fact there is sufficient proof. "So gloomy," says a Northern historian, "was the military outlook after the action on the Chickahominy, and to such a degree, by consequence, had the moral spring of the public mind become relaxed, that there was at this time great danger of a collapse of the war. The history of this conflict, truthfully written, will show this. The archives of the State Department, when one day made public, will show how deeply the Government was affected by the want of military success, and to what resolutions the Executive had in consequence come. Had not success elsewhere come to brighten the horizon, it would have been difficult to have raised new forces to recruit the
Army of the Potomac, which, shaken in its structure, its valor quenched in blood, and thousands of its ablest officers killed and wounded, was the Army of the Potomac no more."
[Footnote 1: Mr. Swinton, in his able and candid "Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac."]
The campaign of one month--from May 4th to June 4th--had cost the Federal commander sixty thousand men and three thousand officers--numbers which are given on the authority of Federal historians--while the loss of Lee did not exceed eighteen thousand. The result would seem an unfavorable comment upon the choice of the route across the country from Culpepper instead of that by the James. General McClellan, two years before, had reached Cold Harbor with trifling losses. To attain the same point had cost General Grant a frightful number of lives. Nor could it be said that he had any important successes to offset this loss. He had not defeated his adversary in any of the battle-fields of the campaign; nor did it seem that he had stricken him any serious blow. The Army of Northern Virginia, not reenforced until it reached Hanover Junction, and then only by about nine thousand men under Generals Breckinridge and Pickett, had held its ground against the large force opposed to it; had repulsed every assault; and, in a final trial of strength with a force largely its superior, had inflicted upon the enemy, in about an hour, a loss of thirteen thousand men.
These facts, highly honorable to Lee and his troops, are the plainest and most compendious comment we can make upon the campaign. The whole movement of General Grant across Virginia is, indeed, now conceded even by his admirers to have been unfortunate. It failed to accomplish the end expected from it--the investment of Richmond on the north and west--and the lives of about sixty thousand men were, it would seem, unnecessarily lost, to reach a position which might have been attained with losses comparatively trifling, and without the unfortunate prestige of defeat.