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.
VI. First Battles at Petersburg
General Lee remained facing his adversary in his lines at Cold Harbor, for many days after the bloody struggle of the 3d of June, confident of his ability to repulse any new attack, and completely barring the way to Richmond. The Federal campaign, it was now seen, was at an end on that line, and it was obvious that General Grant must adopt some other plan, in spite of his determination expressed in the beginning of the campaign, to "fight it out on that line if it took all the summer." The summer was but begun, and further fighting on that line was hopeless. Under these circumstances the Federal commander resolved to give up the attempt to assail Richmond from the north or east, and by a rapid movement to Petersburg, seize upon that place, cut the Confederate railroads leading southward, and thus compel an evacuation of the capital.
[Illustration: Map of Petersburg and Environs.]
It would be interesting to inquire what the course of General Lee would have been in the event of the success of this plan, and how the war would have resulted. It would seem that, under such circumstances, his only resource would have been to retire with his army in the direction of Lynchburg, where his communications would have remained open with the south and west. If driven from that point, the fastnesses of the Alleghanies were at hand; and, contemplating afterward the possibility of being forced to take refuge there, he said: "With my army in the mountains of Virginia, I could carry on this war for twenty years longer." That spectacle was lost to the world--Lee and his army fighting from mountain fastness to mountain fastness--and the annals of war are not illustrated by a chapter so strange. That Lee was confident of his ability to carry on such a struggle successfully is certain; and
Washington had conceived the same idea in the old Revolution, when he said that if he were driven from the seaboard he would take refuge in West Augusta, and thereby prolong the war interminably.
To return from these speculations to the narrative of events. General Grant remained in front of Lee until the 12th of June, when, moving again by his left flank, he crossed the
Chickahominy, proceeded in the direction of
City Point, at which place the Appomattox and James Rivers mingle their waters, and, crossing the James on pontoons, hastened forward in order to seize upon Petersburg. This important undertaking had been strangely neglected by Major-General Butler, who, in obedience to General Grant's orders, had sailed from
Fortress Monroe on the 4th of May, reached Bermuda Hundred, the peninsula opposite City Point, made by a remarkable bend in James River, and proceeded to intrench himself. It was in his power on his arrival to have seized upon Petersburg, but this he failed to do at that time, and the appearance of a force under
General Beauregard, from the south, soon induced him to give his entire attention to his own safety. An attack by
Confederate General Beauregard had been promptly made, which nearly resulted in General Butler's destruction. He succeeded, however, in retiring behind his works across the neck of the Peninsula, in which he now found himself completely shut up; and so powerless was his situation, with his large force of thirty thousand men, that General Grant wrote, "His army was as completely shut off ... as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked."
The attempt of General Grant to seize upon Petersburg by a surprise failed. His forces were not able to reach the vicinity of the place until the 15th, when they were bravely opposed behind impromptu works by a body of local troops, who fought like regular soldiers, and succeeded in holding the works until night ended the contest.
When morning came long lines were seen defiling into the breastworks, and the familiar battle-flags of the Army of Northern Virginia rose above the long line of bayonets giving assurance that the possession of Petersburg would be obstinately disputed.
General Lee had moved with his accustomed celerity, and, as usual, without that loss of time which results from doubt of an adversary's intentions. If General Grant retired without another battle on the Chickahominy, it was obvious to Lee that he must design one of two things: either to advance upon Richmond from the direction of Charles City, or attempt a campaign against the capital from the south of James River. Lee seems at once to have satisfied himself that the latter was the design. An inconsiderable force was sent to feel the enemy near the White-Oak Swamp; he was encountered there in some force, but, satisfied that this was a feint to mislead him, General Lee proceeded to cross the James River above Drury's Bluff, near "Wilton," and concentrate his army at Petersburg. On the 16th he was in face of his adversary there. General Grant had adopted the plan of campaign which Lee expected him to adopt.
General McClellan had not been permitted in 1862 to carry out the same plan; it was now undertaken by General Grant, who sustained better relations toward the Government, and the result would seem to indicate that General McClellan was, after all, a soldier of sound views.
As soon as General Lee reached Petersburg, he began promptly to draw a regular line of earthworks around the city, to the east and south, for its defence. It was obvious that General Grant would lose no time in striking at him, in order to take advantage of the slight character of the defences already existing; and this anticipation was speedily realized. General Lee had scarcely gotten his forces in position on the 16th when he was furiously attacked, and such was the weight of this assault that Lee was forced from his advanced position, east of the city, behind his second line of works, by this time well forward in process of construction. Against this new line General Grant threw heavy forces, in attack after attack, on the 17th and 18th, losing, it is said, more than four thousand men, but effecting nothing. On the 21st General Lee was called upon to meet a more formidable assault than any of the preceding ones--this time more to his right, in the vicinity of the Weldon Railroad, which runs southward from Petersburg. A heavy line was advanced in that quarter by the enemy; but, observing that an interval had been left between two of their corps, General Lee threw forward a column under General Hill, cut the Federal lines, and repulsed their attack, bearing off nearly three thousand prisoners. On the same night an important cavalry expedition, consisting of the divisions of General Wilson and Kautz, numbering about six thousand horse, was sent westward to cut the Weldon, Southside, and Danville Railroads, which connected the Southern army with the South and West. This raid resulted in apparently great but really unimportant injury to the Confederate communications against which it was directed. The Federal cavalry tore up large portions of the tracks of all three railroads, burning the wood-work, and laying waste the country around; but the further results of the expedition were unfavorable. They were pursued and harassed by a small body of cavalry under General W. H.F. Lee, and, on their return in the direction of Reams's Station, were met near Sapponey Church by a force of fifteen hundred cavalry under
General Hampton. That energetic officer at once attacked; the fighting continued furiously throughout the entire night, and at dawn the Federal horse retreated in confusion. Their misfortunes were not, however, ended. Near Reams's, at which point they attempted to cross the Weldon Railroad, they were met by General Fitz Lee's horsemen and about two hundred infantry under General Mahone, and this force completed their discomfiture. After a brief attempt to force their way through the unforeseen obstacle, they broke in disorder, leaving behind them twelve pieces of artillery, and more than a thousand prisoners, and, with foaming and exhausted horses, regained the Federal lines.
Such was the result of an expedition from which General Grant probably expected much. The damage done to Lee's communications was inconsiderable, and did not repay the Federal commander for the losses sustained. The railroads were soon repaired and in working order again; and the Federal cavalry was for the time rendered unfit for further operations.
It was now the end of June, and every attempt made by General Grant to force Lee's lines had proved unsuccessful. It was apparent that surprise of the able commander of the Confederate army was hopeless. His works were growing stronger every day, and nothing was left to his great adversary but to lay regular siege to the long line of fortifications; to draw lines for the protection of his own front from attack; and, by gradually extending his left, reach out toward the Weldon and Southside Railroads.
To obtain possession of these roads was from this time General Grant's great object; and all his movements were shaped by that paramount consideration.