Part 8- Chapter 8


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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



VIII.   Lee threatens Washington

 The month of July began and went upon its way, with incessant fighting all along the Confederate front, both north of James River and south of the Appomattox. General Grant was thus engaged in the persistent effort to, at some point, break through his opponent's works, when intelligence suddenly reached him, by telegraph from Washington, that a strong Confederate column had advanced down the Shenandoah Valley, crossed the Potomac, and was rapidly moving eastward in the direction of the Federal capital.

This portentous incident was the result of a plan of great boldness devised by General Lee, from which he expected much. A few words will explain this plan.

A portion of General Grant's plan of campaign had been an advance up the Valley, and another from Western Virginia, toward the Lynchburg and Tennessee Railroad--the two columns to cooeperate with the main army by cutting the Confederate communications. The column in Western Virginia effected little, but that in the Valley, under General Hunter, hastened forward, almost unopposed, from the small numbers of the Southern force, and early in June threatened Lynchburg. The news reached Lee at Cold Harbor soon after his battle there with General Grant, and he promptly detached General Early, at the head of about eight thousand men, with orders to "move to the Valley through Swift-Run Gap, or Brown's Gap, attack Hunter, and then cross the Potomac and threaten Washington." [Footnote: This statement of his orders was derived from Lieutenant-General Early.]

General Early, an officer of great energy and intrepidity, moved without loss of time, and an engagement ensued between him and General Hunter near Lynchburg. The battle was soon decided. General Hunter, who had more cruelly oppressed the inhabitants of the Valley than even General Milroy, was completely defeated, driven in disordered flight toward the Ohio, and Early hastened down the Valley, and thence into Maryland, with the view of threatening Washington, as he had been ordered to do by Lee. His march was exceedingly rapid, and he found the road unobstructed until he reached the Monocacy near Frederick City, where he was opposed by a force under General Wallace. This force he attacked, and soon drove from the field; he then pressed forward, and on the 11th of July came in sight of Washington.

It was the intelligence of this advance of a Confederate force into Maryland, and toward the capital, which came to startle General Grant while he was hotly engaged with Robert E. Lee at Petersburg. The Washington authorities seem to have been completely unnerved, and to have regarded the capture of the city as nearly inevitable. General Grant, however, stood firm, and did not permit the terror of the civil authorities to affect him. He sent forward to Washington two army corps, and these arrived just in time. If it had been in the power of General Early to capture Washington--which seems questionable--the opportunity was lost. He found himself compelled to retire across the Potomac again to avoid an attack in his rear; and this he effected without loss, taking up, in accordance with orders from Lee, a position in the Valley, where he remained for some months a standing threat to the enemy.

Such was the famous march of General Early to Washington; and there seems at present little reason to doubt that the Federal capital had a narrow escape from capture by the Confederates. What the result of so singular an event would have been, it is difficult to say; but it is certain that it would have put an end to General Grant's entire campaign at Petersburg. Then--but speculations of this character are simply loss of time. The city was not captured; the war went upon its way, and was destined to terminate by pure exhaustion of one of the combatants, unaffected by _coups de main_ in any part of the theatre of conflict.

We have briefly spoken of the engagement between Generals Early and Hunter, near Lynchburg, and the abrupt retreat of the latter to the western mountains and thence toward the Ohio. It may interest the reader to know General Lee's views on the subject of this retreat, which, it seems, were drawn from him by a letter addressed to him by General Hunter:

"As soon after the war as mail communications were opened," writes the gentleman of high character from whom we derive this incident, "General David Hunter wrote to General Lee, begging that he would answer him frankly on two points:"

'I. His (Hunter's) campaign in 1864 was undertaken on information received by General Halleck that General Lee was about to detach forty thousand picked troops to send to Georgia. Did not his (Hunter's) move prevent this?

'II. When he found it necessary to retreat from Lynchburg, did he not take the most feasible route?'

General Lee wrote a very courteous reply, in which he said:

'I. General Halleck was misinformed. I had _no troops to spare_, and forty thousand would have taken nearly my whole army.

'II. I am not advised as to the motives which induced you to adopt your line of retreat, and am not, perhaps, competent to judge of the question; _but I certainly expected you to retreat by way_ of the Shenandoah Valley.'

"General Hunter," adds our correspondent, "never published this letter, but I heard General Lee tell of it one day with evident pleasure."

Lee's opinion of the military abilities of both Generals Hunter and Sheridan was indeed far from flattering. He regarded those two commanders--especially General Sheridan--as enjoying reputations solely conferred upon them by the exhaustion of the resources of the Confederacy, and not warranted by any military efficiency in themselves.



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