Lee's object in these manoeuvres, besides the general one of embarrassing his adversary, seems to have been to gain time, and thus to render impossible, from the lateness of the season, a Federal advance upon Richmond. Had General McClellan remained in command, it is probable that this object would have been attained, and the battle of Fredericksburg would not have taken place. The two armies would have lain opposite each other in Culpepper and Fauquier respectively, with the Upper Rappahannock between them throughout the winter; and the Confederate forces, weary and worn by the long marches and hard combats of 1862, would have had the opportunity to rest and recover their energies for the coming spring.
The change of commanders defeated these views, if they were entertained by General Lee. On assuming command, General Burnside conceived the project, in spite of the near approach of winter, of crossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and marching on Richmond. This he now proceeded to attempt, by steadily moving from Warrenton toward the Lower Rappahannock, and the result, as will be seen, was a Federal disaster to wind up this "year of battles."
We have spoken with some particularity of the character and military abilities of General McClellan, the first able commander of the Federal forces in Virginia. Of General Burnside, who appears but once, and for a brief space only, on that great theatre, it will be necessary to say only a few words. A modest and honorable soldier, cherishing for General McClellan a cordial friendship, he was unwilling to supersede that commander, both from personal regard and distrust of his own abilities. He had not sought the position, which had rather been thrust upon him. He was "surprised" and "shocked," he said, at his assignment to the command; he "did not want it, it had been offered to him twice before, and he did not feel that he could take it; he had told them that he was not competent to command such an army as this; he had said the same over and over again to the President and the Secretary of War." He was, however, directed to assume command, accepted the responsibility, and proceeded to carry out the unexpected plan of advancing upon Richmond by way of Fredericksburg.
To cover this movement, General Burnside made a heavy feint as though designing to cross into Culpepper. This does not seem to have deceived Lee, who, on the 17th of November, knew that his adversary was moving. No sooner had the fact been discovered that General Burnside was making for Fredericksburg, than the Confederate commander, by a corresponding movement, passed the Rapidan and hastened in the same direction. As early as the 17th, two divisions of infantry, with cavalry and artillery, were in motion. On the morning of the 19th, Longstreet's corps was sent in the same direction; and when, on November 20th, General Burnside arrived with his army, the Federal forces drawn up on the hills north of Fredericksburg saw, on the highlands south of the city, the red flags and gray lines of their old adversaries.
As General Jackson had been promptly directed to join the main body, and was already moving to do so, Lee would soon be able to oppose General Burnside with his whole force.
Such were the movements of the opposing armies which brought them face to face at Fredericksburg. Lee had acted promptly, and, it would seem, with good judgment; but the question has been asked, why he did not repeat against General Burnside the strategic movement which had embarrassed General McClellan, and arrest the march upon Fredericksburg by threatening, with the detachment under Jackson, the Federal rear. The reasons for not adopting this course will be perceived by a glance at the map. General Burnside was taking up a new base—Aquia Creek on the Potomac—and, from the character of the country, it was wholly impossible for Lee to prevent him from doing so. He had only to fall back before Jackson, or any force moving against his flank or rear; the Potomac was at hand, and it was not in the power of Lee to further annoy him. The latter accordingly abandoned all thought of repeating his old manoeuvre, moved Longstreet and the other troops in Culpepper toward Fredericksburg, and, directing Jackson to join him there, thus concentrated his forces directly in the Federal front with the view of fighting a pitched battle, army against army.
This detailed account of Lee's movements may appear tedious to some readers, but it was rather in grand tactics than in fighting battles that he displayed his highest abilities as a soldier. He uniformly adopted the broadest and most judicious plan to bring on battle, and personally directed, as far as was possible, every detail of his movements. When the hour came, it may be said of him that he felt he had done his best—the actual fighting was left largely in the hands of his corps commanders.
The feints and slight encounters preceding the battle of Fredericksburg are not of much interest or importance. General Burnside sent a force to Port Royal, about twenty-five miles below the city, but Lee promptly detached a portion of his army to meet it, if it attempted to cross, and that project was abandoned. No attempt was made by General Burnside to cross above, and it became obvious that he must pass the river in face of Lee or not at all.
Such was the condition of affairs at Fredericksburg in the first days of December.
THE BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG.
To a correct understanding of the interesting battle of Fredericksburg, a brief description of the ground is essential.
The city lies on the south bank of the Rappahannock, which here makes a considerable bend nearly southward; and along the northern bank, opposite, extends a range of hills which command the city and the level ground around it. South of the river the land is low, but from the depth of the channel forms a line of bluffs, affording good shelter to troops after crossing to assail a force beyond. The only good position for such a force, standing on the defensive, is a range of hills hemming in the level ground. This range begins near the western suburbs of the city, where it is called "Marye's Hill," and sweeps round to the southward, gradually receding from the stream, until, at Hamilton's Crossing, on the Richmond and Potomac Railroad, a mile or more from the river, it suddenly subsides into the plain. This plain extends to the right, and is bounded by the deep and difficult channel of Massaponnax Creek. As Marye's Hill is the natural position for the left of an army posted to defend Fredericksburg, the crest above Hamilton's Crossing is the natural position for the right of such a line, care being taken to cover the extreme right with artillery, to obstruct the passage of the ground between the crest and the Massaponnax.
Behind the hills on the north side General Burnside's army was posted, having the railroad to Aquia Creek for the transportation of their supplies. On the range of hills which we have described south of the city, General Lee was stationed, the same railroad connecting him with Richmond. Longstreet's corps composed his left wing, and extended from Marye's Hill to about the middle of the range of hills. There Jackson's line began, forming the right wing, and extending to the termination of the range at Hamilton's Crossing. On Jackson's right, to guard the plain reaching to the Massaponnax, Stuart was posted with cavalry and artillery.
The numbers of the adversaries at Fredericksburg can be stated with accuracy upon one side, but not upon the other. General Lee's force may be said to have been, in round numbers, about fifty thousand of all arms. It could scarcely have exceeded that, unless he received heavy reenforcements after Sharpsburg; and the present writer has never heard or read that he received reenforcements of any description. The number, fifty thousand, thus seems to have been the full amount of the army. That of General Burnside's forces seems to have been considerably larger. The Federal army consisted of the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Corps; the latter a corps of reserve and large. If these had been recruited to the full number reported by General McClellan at Sharpsburg, and the additional troops (Fifth and Eleventh Corps) be estimated, the Federal army must have exceeded one hundred thousand men. This estimate is borne out by Federal authorities. "General Franklin," says a Northern writer, "had now with him about one-half the whole army;" and General Meade says that Franklin's force "amounted to from fifty-five thousand to sixty thousand men," which would seem to indicate that the whole army numbered from one hundred and ten thousand to one hundred and twenty thousand men.
A strong position was obviously essential to render it possible for the Southern army, of about fifty thousand men, to successfully oppose the advance of this force of above one hundred thousand. Lee had found this position, and constructed earthworks for artillery, with the view of receiving the attack of the enemy after their crossing. He was unable to obstruct this crossing in any material degree; and he states clearly the grounds of this inability. "The plain of Fredericksburg," he says, "is so completely commanded by the Stafford heights, that no effectual opposition could be made to the construction of bridges, or the passage of the river, without exposing our troops to the destructive fire of the numerous batteries of the enemy.... Our position was, therefore, selected with a view to resist the enemy's advance after crossing, and the river was guarded only by a force sufficient to impede his movements until the army could be concentrated."
The brief description we have presented of the character of the ground around Fredericksburg, and the position of the adversaries, will sufficiently indicate the conditions under which the battle was fought. Both armies seem to have been in excellent spirits. That of General Burnside had made a successful march, during which they had scarcely seen an enemy, and now looked forward, probably, to certain if not easy victory. General Lee's army, in like manner, had undergone recently no peculiar hardships in marching or fighting; and, to whatever cause the fact may be attributed, was in a condition of the highest efficiency. The men seemed to be confident of the result of the coming conflict, and, in their bivouacs on the line of battle, in the woods fringing the ridge which they occupied, laughed, jested, cheered, on the slightest provocation, and, instead of shrinking from, looked forward with eagerness to, the moment when General Burnside would advance to attack them. This buoyant and elastic spirit in the Southern troops was observable on the eve of nearly every battle of the war. Whether it was due to the peculiar characteristics of the race, or to other causes, we shall not pause here to inquire; but the fact was plain to the most casual observation, and was never more striking than just before Fredericksburg, unless just preceding the battle of Gettysburg.
Nothing of any importance occurred, from the 20th of November, when General Burnside's army was concentrated on the heights north of Fredericksburg, until the 11th of December, when the Federal army began crossing the Rappahannock to deliver battle. Lee's reasons for not attempting to resist the passage of the river have been given above. The plain on which it would have been necessary to draw up his army, in order to do so, was too much exposed to the numerous artillery of the enemy on the northern bank. Lee resolved, therefore, not to oppose the crossing of the Federal troops, but to await their assault on the commanding ground west and south of the city.
On the morning of December 11th, before dawn, the dull boom of Lee's signal-guns indicated that the enemy were moving, and the Southern troops formed line of battle to meet the coming attack. General Burnside had made arrangements to cross the river on pontoon bridges, one opposite the city, and another a mile or two lower down the stream. General Franklin, commanding the two corps of the left Grand Division, succeeded, without trouble, in laying the lower bridge, as the ground did not permit Lee to offer material obstruction; and this large portion of the army was now ready to cross. The passage of the stream at Fredericksburg was more difficult. Although determined not to make a serious effort to prevent the enemy from crossing, General Lee had placed two regiments of Barksdale's Mississippians along the bank of the river, in the city, to act as sharp-shooters, and impede the construction of the pontoon bridges, with the view, doubtless, of thus giving time to marshal his troops. The success of this device was considerable. The workmen, busily engaged in laying the Federal pontoons, were so much interrupted by the fire of the Confederate marksmen—who directed their aim through the heavy fog by the noise made in putting together the boats—that, after losing a number of men, the Federal commander discontinued his attempt. It was renewed again and again, without success, as before, when, provoked apparently by the presence of this hornet's nest, which reversed all his plans, General Burnside, about ten o'clock, opened a furious fire of artillery upon the city. The extent of this bombardment will be understood from the statement that one hundred and forty-seven pieces of artillery were employed, which fired seven thousand three hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition, in one instance piercing a single small house with fifty round-shot. An eye-witness of this scene says: "The enemy had planted more than a hundred pieces of artillery on the hills to the northern and eastern sides of the town, and, from an early hour in the forenoon, swept the streets with round-shot, shell, and case-shot, firing frequently a hundred guns a minute. The quick puffs of smoke, touched in the centre with tongues of flame, ran incessantly along the lines of their batteries on the slopes, and, as the smoke slowly drifted away, the bellowing roar came up in one continuous roll. The town was soon fired, and a dense cloud of smoke enveloped its roofs and steeples. The white church-spires still rose serenely aloft, defying shot or shell, though a portion of one of them was torn off. The smoke was succeeded by lurid flame, and the crimson mass brought to mind the pictures of Moscow burning." The same writer says: "Men, women, and children, were driven from the town, and hundreds of ladies and children were seen wandering, homeless, and without shelter, over the frozen highway, in thin clothing, knowing not where to find a place of refuge."
General Lee watched this painful spectacle from a redoubt to the right of the telegraph road, not far from his centre, where a shoulder jutting out from the ridge, and now called "Lee's Hill," afforded him a clear view of the city. The destruction of the place, and the suffering of the inhabitants, aroused in him a deep melancholy, mingled with exasperation, and his comment on the scene was probably as bitter as any speech which he uttered during the whole war. Standing, wrapped in his cape, with only a few officers near, he looked fixedly at the flames rising from the city, and, after remaining for a long time silent, said, in his grave, deep voice: "These people delight to destroy the weak, and those who can make no defence; it just suits them."
General Burnside continued the bombardment for some hours, the Mississippians still holding the river-bank and preventing the laying of the pontoons, which was again begun and again discontinued. At about four in the afternoon, however, a force was sent across in barges, and by nightfall the city was evacuated by Lee, and General Burnside proceeded rapidly to lay his pontoon bridge, upon which his army then began to pass over. The crossing continued throughout the next day, not materially obstructed by the fire of Lee's artillery, as a dense fog rendered the aim of the cannoneers unreliable. By nightfall (of the 12th) the Federal army was over, with the exception of General Hooker's Centre Grand Division, which was held in reserve on the north bank. General Burnside then proceeded to form his line of battle. It stretched from the western suburbs of Fredericksburg down the river, along what is called the River road, for a distance of about four miles, and consisted of the Right Grand Division, under General Sumner, at the city, and the Left Grand Division, under General Franklin, lower down, and opposite Lee's right. General Franklin's Grand Division numbered, according to General Meade, from fifty-five to sixty thousand men; the numbers of Generals Sumner and Hooker are not known to the present writer, but are said by Federal authorities, as we have stated, to have amounted together to about the same.
At daybreak, on the morning of December 13th, a muffled sound, issuing from the dense fog covering the low ground, indicated that the Federal lines were preparing to advance.
To enable the reader to understand General Burnside's plan of attack, it is necessary that brief extracts should be presented from his orders on the occasion, and from his subsequent testimony before the committee on the conduct of the war. Despite the length of time since his arrival at Fredericksburg—a period of more than three weeks—the Federal commander had, it appears, been unable to obtain full and accurate information of the character of the ground occupied by Lee, and thus moved very much in the dark. He seems to have formed his plan of attack in consequence of information from "a colored man." His words are: "The enemy had cut a road along in the rear of the line of heights where we made our attack.... I obtained, from a colored man at the other side of the town, information in regard to this new road which proved to be correct. I wanted to obtain possession of that new road, and that was my reason for making an attack on the extreme left." It is difficult for those familiar with the ground referred to, to understand how this "new road," a mere country bridle-path, as it were, extending along in the rear of Lee's right wing, could have been regarded as a topographical feature of any importance. The road, which remains unchanged, and may be seen by any one to-day, was insignificant in a military point of view, and, in attaching such importance to seizing it, the Federal commander committed a grave error.
What seems to have been really judicious in his plan, was the turning movement determined on against Lee's right, along the old Richmond road, running from the direction of the river past the end of the ridge occupied by the Confederates, and so southward. To break through at this point was the only hope of success, and General Burnside had accordingly resolved, he declared, upon "a rapid movement down the old Richmond road" with Franklin's large command. Unfortunately, however, this wise design was complicated with another, most unwise, to send forward a division, first, to seize the crest of the ridge near the point where it sinks into the plain. On this crest were posted the veterans of Jackson, commanded in person by that skilful soldier. Three lines of infantry, supported by artillery, were ready to receive the Federal attack, and, to force back this stubborn obstacle, General Burnside sent a division. The proof is found in his order to General Franklin at about six o'clock on the morning of the battle: "Send out a division at least ... to seize, if possible, the heights near Captain Hamilton's," which was the ground whereon Jackson's right rested.
An attack on the formidable position known as Marye's Hill, on Lee's left, west of Fredericksburg, was also directed to be made by the same small force. The order to General Sumner was to "form a column of a division, for the purpose of pushing in the direction of the Telegraph and Plank roads, for the purpose of seizing the heights in the rear of the town;" or, according to another version, "up the Plank road to its intersection with the Telegraph road, where they will divide, with the object of seizing the heights on both sides of those roads."
The point of "intersection" here referred to was the locality of what has been called "that sombre, fatal, terrible stone wall," just under Marye's Hill, where the most fearful slaughter of the Federal forces took place. Marye's Hill is a strong position, and its importance was well understood by Lee. Longstreet's infantry was in heavy line of battle behind it, and the crest bristled with artillery. There was still less hope here of effecting any thing with "a division" than on the Confederate right held by Jackson.
General Burnside seems, however, to have regarded success as probable. He added in his order: "Holding these heights, with the heights near Captain Hamilton's, will, I hope, compel the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge between these points." In his testimony afterward, he said that, in the event of failure in these assaults on Lee's flanks, he "proposed to make a direct attack on their front, and drive them out of their works."
These extracts from General Burnside's orders and testimony clearly indicate his plan, which was to assail both Lee's right and left, and, in the event of failure, direct a heavy blow at his centre. That the whole plan completely failed was mainly due, it would seem, to the inconsiderable numbers of the assaulting columns.
We return now to the narrative of the battle which these comments have interrupted.
General Lee was ready to receive the Federal attack, and, at an early hour of the morning, rode from his headquarters, in rear of his centre, along his line of battle toward the right, where he probably expected the main assault of the enemy to take place. He was clad in his plain, well-worn gray uniform, with felt hat, cavalry-boots, and short cape, without sword, and almost without any indications of his rank. In these outward details, he differed much from Generals Jackson and Stuart, who rode with him. The latter, as was usual with him, wore a fully-decorated uniform, sash, black plume, sabre, and handsome gauntlets. General Jackson, also, on this day, chanced to have exchanged his dingy old coat and sun-scorched cadet-cap for a new coat covered with dazzling buttons, and a cap brilliant with a broad band of gold lace, in which (for him) extraordinary disguise his men scarcely knew him.
[Footnote 1: This coat was a present from Stuart.]
As Lee and his companions passed along in front of the line of battle, the troops cheered them. It was evident that the army was in excellent spirits, and ready for the hard work which the day would bring. Lee proceeded down the old Richmond, or stage road—that mentioned in General Burnside's order as the one over which his large flanking column was to move—and rode on with Stuart until he was near the River road, running toward Fredericksburg, parallel to the Federal line of battle. Here he stopped, and endeavored to make out, through the dense fog covering the plain, whether the Federal forces were moving. A stifled hum issued from the mist, but nothing could be seen. It seemed, however, that the enemy's skirmishers—probably concealed in the ditches along the River road—had sharper eyes, as bullets began to whistle around the two generals, and soon a number of black specks were seen moving forward. General Lee remained for some time longer, in spite of the exposure, conversing with great calmness and gravity with Stuart, who was all ardor. He then rode back slowly, passed along his line of battle, greeted wherever he was seen with cheers, and took his position on the eminence in his centre, near the Telegraph road, the same commanding point from which he had witnessed the bombardment of Fredericksburg.
The battle did not commence until ten o'clock, owing to the dense fog, through which the light of the sun could scarcely pierce. At that hour the mist lifted and rolled away, and the Confederates posted on the ridge saw a heavy column of infantry advancing to attack their right, near the Hamilton House. This force was Meade's division, supported by Gibbon's, with a third in reserve, General Franklin having put in action as many troops as his orders ("a division at least") permitted. General Meade was arrested for some time by a minute but most annoying obstacle. Stuart had placed a single piece of artillery, under Major John Pelham, near the point where the old Richmond and River roads meet—that is, directly on the flank of the advancing column—and this gun now opened a rapid and determined fire upon General Meade. Major Pelham—almost a boy in years—continued to hold his exposed position with great gallantry, although the enemy opened fire upon him with several batteries, killing a number of his gunners. General Lee witnessed this duel from the hill on which he had taken his stand, and is said to have exclaimed, "It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!" [Footnote: General Lee's opinion of Major Pelham appears from his report, in which he styles the young officer "the gallant Pelham," and says: "Four batteries immediately turned upon him, but he sustained their heavy fire with the unflinching courage that ever distinguished him." Pelham fell at Kelly's Ford in March, 1863.]
Pelham continued the cannonade for about two hours, only retiring when he received a peremptory order from Jackson to do so; and it would seem that this one gun caused a considerable delay in the attack. "Meade advanced across the plain, but had not proceeded far," says Mr. Swinton, "before he was compelled to stop and silence a battery that Stuart had posted on the Port Royal road." Having brushed away this annoying obstacle, General Meade, with a force which he states to have amounted to ten thousand men, advanced rapidly to attack the hill upon which the Confederates awaited him. He was suffered to approach within a few hundred yards, when Jackson's artillery, under Colonel Walker, posted near the end of the ridge, opened a sudden and furious fire, which threw the Federal line into temporary confusion. The troops soon rallied, however, and advanced again to the attack, which fell on Jackson's front line under A.P. Hill. The struggle which now ensued was fierce and bloody, but, a gap having been left between the brigades of Archer and Lane, the enemy pierced the opening, turning the left of one brigade and the right of the other, pressed on, attacked Gregg's brigade of Hill's reserve, threw it into confusion, and seemed about to carry the crest. Gregg's brigade was quickly rallied, however, by its brave commander, who soon afterward fell, mortally wounded; the further progress of the enemy was checked, and, Jackson's second line rapidly advancing, the enemy were met and forced back, step by step, until they were driven down the slope again. Here they were attacked by the brigades of Hoke and Atkinson, and driven beyond the railroad, the Confederates cheering and following them into the plain. The repulse had been complete, and the slope and ground in front of it were strewed with Federal dead. They had returned as rapidly as they had charged, pursued by shot and shell, and General Lee, witnessing the spectacle from his hill, murmured, in his grave and measured voice: "It is well this is so terrible! we should grow too fond of it!"
The assault on the Confederate right had thus ended in disaster, but almost immediately another attack took place, whose results were more bloody and terrible still. As General Meade fell back, pursued by the men of Jackson, the sudden roar of artillery from the Confederate left indicated that a heavy conflict had begun in that quarter. The Federal troops were charging Marye's Hill, which was to prove the Cemetery Hill of Fredericksburg. This frightful charge—for no other adjective can describe it—was made by General French's division, supported by General Hancock. The Federal troops rushed forward over the broken ground in the suburbs of the city, and, "as soon as the masses became dense enough," were received with a concentrated artillery fire from the hill in front of them. This fire was so destructive that it "made gaps that could be seen at the distance of a mile." The charging division had advanced in column of brigades, and the front was nearly destroyed. The troops continued to move forward, however, and had nearly reached the base of the hill, when the brigades of Cobb and Cooke, posted behind a stone wall running parallel with the Telegraph road, met them with a sudden fire of musketry, which drove them back in terrible disorder. Nearly half the force was killed or lay disabled on the field, and upon the survivors, now in full retreat, was directed a concentrated artillery-fire from, the hill.
[Footnote 1: Longstreet.]
In face of this discharge of cannon, General Hancock's force, supporting French, now gallantly advanced in its turn. The charge lasted about fifteen minutes, and in that time General Hancock lost more than two thousand of the five thousand men of his command. The repulse was still more bloody and decisive than the first. The second column fell back in disorder, leaving the ground covered with their dead.
General Burnside had hitherto remained at the "Phillips House," a mile or more from the Rappahannock. He now mounted his horse, and, riding down to the river, dismounted, walked up and down in great agitation, and exclaimed, looking at Marye's Hill: "That crest must be carried to-night."
[Footnote 1: The authority for this incident is Mr. William Swinton, who was present.]
In spite of the murderous results of the first charges, the Federal commander determined on a third. General Hooker's reserve was ordered to make it, and, although that officer protested against it, General Burnside was immovable, and repeated his order. General Hooker sullenly obeyed, and opened with artillery upon the stone wall at the foot of the hill, in order to make a breach in it. This fire continued until nearly sunset, when Humphrey's division was formed for the charge. The men were ordered to throw aside their knapsacks, and not to load their guns, "for there was no time there to load and fire," says General Hooker. The word was given about sunset, and the division charged headlong over the ground already covered with dead. A few words will convey the result. Of four thousand men who charged, seventeen hundred and sixty were left dead or wounded on the field. The rest retreated, pursued by the fire of the batteries and infantry; and night fell on the battle-field.
This charge was the real termination of the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, but, on the Confederate right, Jackson had planned and begun to execute a decisive advance on the force in his front. This he designed to undertake "precisely at sunset," and his intention was to depend on the bayonet, his military judgment or instinct having satisfied him that the morale of the Federal army was destroyed. The advance was discontinued, however, in consequence of the lateness of the hour and the sudden artillery-fire which saluted him as he began to move. A striking feature of this intended advance is the fact that Jackson had placed his artillery in front of his line of battle, intending to attack in that manner.
As darkness settled down, the last guns of Stuart, who had defended the Confederate right flank with about thirty pieces of artillery, were heard far in advance, and apparently advancing still. The Federal lines had fallen back, wellnigh to the banks of the river, and there seems little room to doubt that the morale of the men was seriously impaired. "From what I knew of our want of success upon the right," says General Franklin, when interrogated on this point, "and the demoralized condition of the troops upon the right and centre, as represented to me by their commanders, I confess I believe the order to recross was a very proper one."
General Burnside refused to give the order; and, nearly overwhelmed, apparently, by the fatal result of the attack, determined to form the ninth corps in column of regiments, and lead it in person against Marye's Hill, on the next morning. Such a design, in a soldier of ability, indicates desperation. To charge Marye's Hill with a corps in column of regiments, was to devote the force to destruction. It was nearly certain that the whole command would be torn to pieces by the Southern artillery, but General Burnside seems to have regarded the possession of the hill as worth any amount of blood; and, in face of the urgent appeals of his officers, gave orders for the movement. At the last moment, however, he yielded to the entreaties of General Sumner, and abandoned his bloody design.
Still it seemed that the Federal commander was unable to come to the mortifying resolution of recrossing the Rappahannock. The battle was fought on the 13th of December, and until the night of the 15th General Burnside continued to face Lee on the south bank of the river—his bands playing, his flags flying, and nothing indicating an intention of retiring. To that resolve he had however come, and on the night of the 15th, in the midst of storm and darkness, the Federal army recrossed to the north bank of the Rappahannock.
XI FINAL MOVEMENTS OF 1862
The battle of Fredericksburg was another defeat of the Federal programme of invasion, as decisive, and in one sense as disastrous, as the second battle of Manassas. General Burnside had not lost as many men as General Pope, and had not retreated in confusion, pursued by a victorious enemy; but, brief as the conflict had been—two or three hours summing up all the real fighting—its desperate character, and the evident hopelessness of any attempt to storm Lee's position, profoundly discouraged and demoralized the Northern troops. We have quoted the statement of General Franklin, commanding the whole left wing, that from "the demoralized condition of the troops upon the right and centre, as represented to him by their commanders, he believed the order to recross was a very proper one." Nor is there any ground to suppose that the feeling of the left wing was greatly better. That wing of the army had not suffered as heavily as the right, which had recoiled with such frightful slaughter from Marye's Hill; but the repulse of General Meade in their own front had been equally decisive, and the non-success of the right must have reacted on the left, discouraging that also. Northern writers, in a position to ascertain the condition of the troops, fully bear out this view: "That the morale of the Army of the Potomac became seriously impaired after the disaster at Fredericksburg," says Mr. Swinton, the able and candid historian of the campaign, "was only too manifest. Indeed, it would be impossible to imagine a graver or gloomier, a more sombre or unmusical body of men than the Army of the Potomac a month after the battle. And, as the days went by, despondency, discontent, and all evil inspirations, with their natural consequent, desertion, seemed to increase rather than to diminish, until, for the first time, the Army of the Potomac could be said to be really demoralized." General Sumner noticed that a spirit of "croaking" had become diffused throughout the forces. For an army to display that tendency clearly indicates that the troops have lost the most important element of victory—confidence in themselves and their leader. And for this sentiment there was valid reason. Columns wholly inadequate in numbers had been advanced against the formidable Confederate positions, positions so strong and well defended that it is doubtful if thrice the force could have made any impression upon them, and the result was such as might have been expected. The men lost confidence in the military capacity of their commander, and in their own powers. After the double repulse at Marye's Hill and in front of Jackson, the troops, looking at the ground strewed with dead and wounded, were in no condition to go forward hopefully to another struggle which promised to be equally bloody.
The Southern army was naturally in a condition strongly in contrast with that of their adversary. They had repulsed the determined assault of the Federal columns with comparative ease on both flanks. Jackson's first line, although pierced and driven back, soon rallied, and checked the enemy until the second line came up, when General Meade was driven back, the third line not having moved from its position along the road near the Hamilton House. On the left, Longstreet had repulsed the Federal charge with his artillery and two small brigades. The loss of the Confederates in both these encounters was much less than that of their adversaries, a natural result of the circumstances; and thus, instead of sharing the depression of their opponents, the Southern troops were elated, and looked forward to a renewal of the battle with confidence in themselves and in their leader.
[Footnote 1: "Our loss during the operation, since the movements of the enemy began, amounts to about eighteen hundred killed and wounded."—Lee's Report. Federal authorities state the Northern loss at a little over twelve thousand; the larger part, no doubt, in the attack on Marye's Hill.]
It is not necessary to offer much comment upon the manner in which General Burnside had attacked. He is said, by his critics, not to have, at the time, designed the turning movement against General Lee's right, upon which point the present writer is unable to decide. That movement would seem to have presented the sole and only chance of success for the Federal arms, as the successful advance of General Franklin's fifty-five or sixty thousand men up the old Richmond road would have compelled Lee to retire his whole right wing, to protect it from an assault in flank and reverse. What dispositions he would have made under these circumstances must be left to conjecture; but, it is certain that the blow would have proved a serious one, calling for the display of all his military ability. In the event, however, that this was the main great aim of General Burnside, his method of carrying out his design insured, it would seem, its failure. Ten thousand men only were to clear the way for the flanking movement, in order to effect which object it was necessary to crush Jackson. So that it may be said that the success of the plan involved the repulse of one-half Lee's army with ten thousand men.
The assault on Marye's Hill was an equally fatal military mistake. That the position could not be stormed, is proved by the result of the actual attempt. It is doubtful if, in any battle ever fought by any troops, men displayed greater gallantry. They rushed headlong, not only once, but thrice, into the focus of a frightful front and cross fire of artillery and small-arms, losing nearly half their numbers in a few minutes; the ground was littered with their dead, and yet the foremost had only been able to approach within sixty yards of the terrible stone wall in advance of the hill. There they fell, throwing up their hands to indicate that they saw at last that the attempt to carry the hill was hopeless.
These comments seem justified by the circumstances, and are made with no intention of casting obloquy upon the commander who, displaying little ability, gave evidences of unfaltering courage. He had urged his inability to handle so large an army, but the authorities had forced the command upon him; he had accepted it and done his best, and, like a brave soldier, determined to lead the final charge in person, dying, if necessary, at the head of his men.
General Lee has not escaped criticism any more than General Burnside. The Southern people were naturally dissatisfied with the result—the safe retreat of the Federal army—and asked why they had not been attacked and captured or destroyed. The London Times, at that period, and a military critic recently, in the same journal, declared that Lee had it in his power to crush General Burnside, "horse, foot, and dragoons," and, from his failure to do so, argued his want of great generalship. A full discussion of the question is left by the present writer to those better skilled than himself in military science. It is proper, however, to insert here General Lee's own explanation of his action:
"The attack on the 13th," he says, "had been so easily repulsed, and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to one attempt, which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations, and the extent of his force, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. Believing, therefore, that he would attack us, it was not deemed expedient to lose the advantages of our position and expose the troops to the fire of his inaccessible batteries beyond the river, by advancing against him. But we were necessarily ignorant of the extent to which he had suffered, and only became aware of it when, on the morning of the 16th, it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of night, and the prevalence of a violent storm of wind and rain, to recross the river."
This statement was no doubt framed by General Lee to meet the criticisms which the result of the battle occasioned. In conversing with General Stuart on the subject, he added that he felt too great responsibility for the preservation of his troops to unnecessarily hazard them. "No one knows," he said, "how brittle an army is."
The word may appear strange, applied to the Army of Northern Virginia, which had certainly vindicated its claim, under many arduous trials, to the virtues of toughness and endurance. But Lee's meaning was plain, and his view seems to have been founded on good sense. The enemy had in all, probably, two hundred pieces of artillery, a large portion of which were posted on the high ground north of the river. Had Lee descended from his ridge and advanced into the plain to attack, this large number of guns would have greeted him with a rapid and destructive fire, which must have inflicted upon him a loss as nearly heavy as he had inflicted upon General Burnside at Marye's Hill. From such a result he naturally shrunk. It has been seen that the Federal troops, brave as they were, had been demoralized by such a fire; and Lee was unwilling to expose his own troops to similar slaughter.
There is little question, it seems, that an advance of the description mentioned would have resulted in a conclusive victory, and the probable surrender of the whole or a large portion of the Federal army. Whether the probability of such a result was sufficient to compensate for the certain slaughter, the reader will decide for himself. General Lee did not think so, and did not order the advance. He preferred awaiting, in his strong position, the second assault which General Burnside would probably make; and, while he thus waited, the enemy secretly recrossed the river, rendering an attack upon them by Lee impossible.
General Burnside made a second movement to cross the Rappahannock—this time at Banks's Ford, above Fredericksburg—in the inclement month of January; but, as he might have anticipated, the condition of the roads was such that it was impossible to advance. His artillery, with the horses dragging the pieces, sank into the almost bottomless mud, where they stuck fast—even the foot-soldiers found it difficult to march through the quagmire—and the whole movement was speedily abandoned.
When General Burnside issued the order for this injudicious advance, two of his general officers met, and one asked:
"What do you think of it?"
"It don't seem to have the ring" was the reply.
"No—the bell is broken," the other added.
This incident, which is given on the authority of a Northern writer, probably conveys a correct idea of the feeling of both the officers and men of General Burnside's army. The disastrous day of Fredericksburg had seriously injured the troops.
"The Army of the Potomac," the writer adds, "was sadly fractured, and its tones had no longer the clear, inspiring ring of victory."
THE YEAR OF BATTLES.
The stormy year 1862 had terminated, thus, in a great Confederate success. In its arduous campaigns, following each other in rapid succession, General Lee had directed the movements of the main great army, and the result of the year's fighting was to gain him that high military reputation which his subsequent movements only consolidated and increased.
A rapid glance at the events of the year in their general outlines will indicate the merit due the Southern commander. The Federal plan of invasion in the spring had been extremely formidable. Virginia was to be pierced by no less than four armies—from the northwest, the Shenandoah Valley, the Potomac, and the Peninsula—the whole force to converge upon Richmond, the "heart of the rebellion." Of these, the army of General McClellan was the largest and most threatening. It advanced, with little opposition, until it reached the Chickahominy, crossed, and lay in sight of Richmond. The great force of one hundred and fifty thousand men was about to make the decisive assault, when Lee attacked it, and the battle which ensued drove the Federal army to a point thirty miles from the city, with such loss as to render hopeless any further attempt to assail the capital.
Such was the first act of the drama; the rest speedily followed. A new army was raised promptly by the Federal authorities, and a formidable advance was made against Richmond again, this time from the direction of Alexandria. Lee was watching General McClellan when intelligence of the new movement reached him. Remaining, with a portion of his troops, near Richmond, he sent Jackson to the Rapidan. The battle of Cedar Mountain resulted in the repulse of General Pope's vanguard; and, discovering at last that the real danger lay in the direction of Culpepper, Lee moved thither, drove back General Pope, flanked him, and, in the severe battle of Manassas, routed his army, which was forced to retire upon Washington.
Two armies had thus been driven from the soil of Virginia, and the Confederate commander had moved into Maryland, in order to draw the enemy thither, and, if practicable, transfer the war to the heart of Pennsylvania. Unforeseen circumstances had defeated the latter of these objects. The concentration on Sharpsburg was rendered necessary; an obstinately-fought battle ensued there; and, not defeated, but forced to abandon further movements toward Pennsylvania, Lee had retired into Virginia, where he remained facing his adversary. This was the first failure of Lee up to that point in the campaigns of the year; and an attentive consideration of the circumstances will show that the result was not fairly attributable to any error which he had committed. Events beyond his control had shaped his action, and directed all his movements; and it will remain a question whether the extrication of his small force from its difficult position did not better prove Lee's generalship than the victory at Manassas.
The subsequent operations of the opposing armies indicated clearly that the Southern forces were still in excellent fighting condition; and the movements of Lee, during the advance of General McClellan toward Warrenton, were highly honorable to his military ability. With a force much smaller than that of his adversary, he greatly embarrassed and impeded the Federal advance; confronted them on the Upper Rappahannock, completely checking their forward movement in that direction; and, when they moved rapidly to Fredericksburg, crossed the Rapidan promptly, reappearing in their front on the range of hills opposite that city. The battle which followed compensated for the failure of the Maryland campaign and the drawn battle of Sharpsburg. General Burnside had attacked, and sustained decisive defeat. The stormy year, so filled with great events and arduous encounters, had thus wound up with a pitched battle, in which the enemy suffered a bloody repulse; and the best commentary on the decisive character of this last struggle of the year, was the fault found with General Lee for not destroying his adversary.
In less than six months Lee had thus fought four great pitched battles—all victories to his arms, with the exception of Sharpsburg, which was neither a victory nor a defeat. The result was thus highly encouraging to the South; and, had the Army of Northern Virginia had its ranks filled up, as the ranks of the Northern armies were, the events of the year 1862 would have laid the foundation of assured success. An inquiry into the causes of failure in this particular is not necessary to the subject of the volume before the reader. It is only necessary to state the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia, defending what all conceded to be the territory on which the decisive struggle must take place, was never sufficiently numerous to follow up the victories achieved by it. At the battles of the Chickahominy the army numbered at most about seventy-five thousand; at the second Manassas, about fifty thousand; at Sharpsburg, less than forty thousand; and at Fredericksburg, about fifty thousand. In the following year, it will be seen that these latter numbers were at first but little exceeded, and, as the months passed on, that they dwindled more and more, until, in April, 1865, the whole force in line of battle at Petersburg was scarcely more than thirty thousand men.
Such had been the number of the troops under command of Lee in 1862. The reader has been informed of the number of the Federal force opposed to him. This was one hundred and fifty thousand on the Chickahominy, of whom one hundred and fifteen thousand were effective; about one hundred thousand, it would seem, under General Pope, at the second battle of Manassas; eighty-seven thousand actually engaged at the battle of Sharpsburg; and at Fredericksburg from one hundred and ten to one hundred and twenty thousand.
These numbers are stated on the authority of Federal officers or historians, and Lee's force on the authority of his own reports, or of gentlemen of high character, in a situation to speak with accuracy. Of the truth of the statements the writer of these pages can have no doubt; and, if the fighting powers of the Northern and Southern troops be estimated as equal, the fair conclusion must be arrived at that Lee surpassed his adversaries in generalship.
The result, at least, of the year's fighting, had been extremely encouraging to the South, and after the battle of Fredericksburg no attempts were made to prosecute hostilities during the remainder of the year. The scheme of crossing above Fredericksburg proved a fiasco, beginning and ending in a day. Thereafter all movements ceased, and the two armies awaited the return of spring for further operations.
LEE IN DECEMBER, 1862.
Before passing to the great campaigns of the spring and summer of 1863, we propose to say a few words of General Lee, in his private and personal character, and to attempt to indicate the position which he occupied at this time in the eyes of the army and the country. Unknown, save by reputation, when he assumed command of the forces in June, 1862, he had now, by the winter of the same year, become one of the best-known personages in the South. Neither the troops nor the people had perhaps penetrated the full character of Lee; and they seem to have attributed to him more reserve and less warmth and impulse than he possessed; but it was impossible for a human being, occupying so prominent a station before the general eye, to hide, in any material degree, his main great characteristics, and these had conciliated for Lee an exalted and wellnigh universal public regard. He was felt by all to be an individual of great dignity, sincerity, and earnestness, in the performance of duty. Destitute plainly of that vulgar ambition which seeks personal aggrandizement rather than the general good, and dedicated as plainly, heart and soul, to the cause for which he fought, he had won, even from those who had denounced him for the supposed hesitation in his course in April, 1861, and had afterward criticised his military operations, the repute of a truly great man, as well as of a commander of the first ability. It was felt by all classes that the dignity of the Southern cause was adequately represented in the person and character of the commander of her most important army. While others, as brave and patriotic, no doubt, but of different temperament, had permitted themselves to become violent and embittered in their private and public utterances in reference to the North, Lee had remained calm, moderate, and dignified, under every provocation. His reports were without rhodomontade or exaggeration, and his tone uniformly modest, composed, and uninflated. After his most decisive successes, his pulse had remained calm; he had written of those successes with the air of one who sees no especial merit in any thing which he has performed; and, so marked was this tone of moderation and dignity, that, in reading his official reports to-day, it seems wellnigh impossible that they could have been written in the hot atmosphere of a war which aroused the bitterest passions of the human soul.
Upon this point of Lee's personal and official dignity it is unnecessary to dwell further, as the quality has long since been conceded by every one acquainted with the character of the individual, in the Old World and the New. It is the trait, perhaps, the most prominent to the observer, looking back now upon the individual; and it was, doubtless, this august moderation, dignity, and apparent exemption from natural infirmity, which produced the impression upon many persons that Lee was cold and unimpressible. We shall speak, in future, at greater length of his real character than is necessary in this place; but it may here be said, that the fancy that he was cold and unimpressible was a very great error. No man had stronger or warmer feelings, or regarded the invasion of the South with greater indignation, than himself. The sole difference was, that he had his feelings under greater control, and permitted no temptation to overcome his sense of that august dignity and composure becoming in the chief leader of a great people struggling for independent government.
The sentiment of the Southern people toward Lee may be summed up in the statement that they regarded him, in his personal and private character, with an admiration which was becoming unbounded, and reposed in him, as commander of the army, the most implicit confidence.
These expressions are strong, but they do not convey more than the truth. And this confidence was never withdrawn from him. It remained as strong in his hours of disaster as in his noontide of success. A few soured or desponding people might lose heart, indulge in "croaking," and denounce, under their breath, the commander of the army as responsible for failure when it occurred; but these fainthearted people were in a small minority, and had little encouragement in their muttered criticisms. The Southern people, from Virginia to the utmost limits of the Gulf States, resolutely persisted in regarding Lee as one of the greatest soldiers of history, and retained their confidence in him unimpaired to the end.
The army had set the example of this implicit reliance upon Lee as the chief leader and military head of the Confederacy. The brave fighting-men had not taken his reputation on trust, but had seen him win it fairly on some of the hardest-contested fields of history. The heavy blow at General McClellan on the Chickahominy had first shown the troops that they were under command of a thorough soldier. The rout of Pope at Manassas had followed in the ensuing month. At Sharpsburg, with less than forty thousand men, Lee had repulsed the attack of nearly ninety thousand; and at Fredericksburg General Burnside's great force had been driven back with inconsiderable loss to the Southern army. These successes, in the eyes of the troops, were the proofs of true leadership, and it did not detract from Lee's popularity that, on all occasions, he had carefully refrained from unnecessary exposure of the troops, especially at Fredericksburg, where an ambitious commander would have spared no amount of bloodshed to complete his glory by a great victory. Such was Lee's repute as army commander in the eyes of men accustomed to close scrutiny of their leaders. He was regarded as a thorough soldier, at once brave, wise, cool, resolute, and devoted, heart and soul, to the cause.
Personally, the commander-in-chief was also, by this time, extremely popular. He did not mingle with the troops to any great extent, nor often relax the air of dignity, somewhat tinged with reserve, which was natural with him. This reserve, however, never amounted to stiffness or "official" coolness. On the contrary, Lee was markedly free from the chill demeanor of the martinet, and had become greatly endeared to the men by the unmistakable evidences which he had given them of his honesty, sincerity, and kindly feeling for them. It cannot, indeed, be said that he sustained the same relation toward the troops as General Jackson. For the latter illustrious soldier, the men had a species of familiar affection, the result, in a great degree, of the informal and often eccentric demeanor of the individual. There was little or nothing in Jackson to indicate that he was an officer holding important command. He was without reserve, and exhibited none of that formal courtesy which characterized Lee. His manners, on the contrary, were quite informal, familiar, and conciliated in return a familiar regard. We repeat the word familiar as conveying precisely the idea intended to be expressed. It indicated the difference between these two great soldiers in their outward appearance. Lee retained about him, upon all occasions, more or less of the commander-in-chief, passing before the troops on an excellent and well-groomed horse, his figure erect and graceful in the saddle, for he was one of the best riders in the army; his demeanor grave and thoughtful; his whole bearing that of a man intrusted with great responsibilities and the general care of the whole army. Jackson's personal appearance and air were very different. His dress was generally dingy: a faded cadet-cap tilted over his eyes, causing him to raise his chin into the air; his stirrups were apt to be too short, and his knees were thus elevated ungracefully, and he would amble along on his rawboned horse with a singularly absent-minded expression of countenance, raising, from time to time, his right hand and slapping his knee. This brief outline of the two commanders will serve to show the difference between them personally, and it must be added that Jackson's eccentric bearing was the source, in some degree, of his popularity. The men admired him immensely for his great military ability, and his odd ways procured for him that familiar liking to which we have alluded.
It is not intended, however, in these observations to convey the idea that General Lee was regarded as a stiff and unapproachable personage of whom the private soldiers stood in awe. Such a statement would not express the truth. Lee was perfectly approachable, and no instance is upon record, or ever came to the knowledge of the present writer, in which he repelled the approach of his men, or received the humblest of them with any thing but kindness. He was naturally simple and kind, with great gentleness and patience; and it will not be credible, to any who knew the man, that he ever made any difference in his treatment of those who approached him from a consideration of their rank in the army. His theory, expressed upon many occasions, was, that the private soldiers—men who fought without the stimulus of rank, emolument, or individual renown—were the most meritorious class of the army, and that they deserved and should receive the utmost respect and consideration. This statement, however, is doubtless unnecessary. Men of Lee's pride and dignity never make a difference in their treatment of men, because one is humble, and the other of high rank. Of such human beings it may be said that noblesse oblige.
The men of the army had thus found their commander all that they could wish, and his increasing personal popularity was shown by the greater frequency with which they now spoke of him as "Marse Robert," "Old Uncle Robert," and by other familiar titles. This tendency in troops is always an indication of personal regard; these nicknames had been already showered upon Jackson, and General Lee was having his turn. The troops regarded him now more as their fellow-soldier than formerly, having found that his dignity was not coldness, and that he would, under no temptation, indulge his personal convenience, or fare better than themselves. It was said—we know not with what truth—that the habit of Northern generals in the war was to look assiduously to their individual comfort in selecting their quarters, and to take pleasure in surrounding themselves with glittering staff-officers, body-guards, and other indications of their rank, and the consideration which they expected. In these particulars Lee differed extremely from his opponents, and there were no evidences whatever, at his headquarters, that he was the commander-in-chief, or even an officer of high rank. He uniformly lived in a tent, in spite of the urgent invitations of citizens to use their houses for his headquarters; and this refusal was the result both of an indisposition to expose these gentlemen to annoyance from the enemy when he himself retired, and of a rooted objection to fare better than his troops. They had tents only, often indeed were without even that much covering, and it was repugnant to Lee's feelings to sleep under a good roof when the troops were so much exposed. His headquarters tent, at this time (December, 1862), as before and afterward, was what is called a "house-tent," not differing in any particular from those used by the private soldiers of the army in winter-quarters. It was pitched in an opening in the wood near the narrow road leading to Hamilton's Crossing, with the tents of the officers of the staff grouped near; and, with the exception of an orderly, who always waited to summon couriers to carry dispatches, there was nothing in the shape of a body-guard visible, or any indication that the unpretending group of tents was the army headquarters.
Within, no article of luxury was to be seen. A few plain and indispensable objects were all which the tent contained. The covering of the commander-in-chief was an ordinary army blanket, and his fare was plainer, perhaps, than that of the majority of his officers and men. This was the result of an utter indifference, in Lee, to personal convenience or indulgence. Citizens frequently sent him delicacies, boxes filled with turkeys, hams, wine, cordials, and other things, peculiarly tempting to one leading the hard life of the soldier, but these were almost uniformly sent to the sick in some neighboring hospital. Lee's principle in so acting seems to have been to set the good example to his officers of not faring better than their men; but he was undoubtedly indifferent naturally to luxury of all descriptions. In his habits and feelings he was not the self-indulgent man of peace, but the thorough soldier, willing to live hard, to sleep upon the ground, and to disregard all sensual indulgence. In his other habits he was equally abstinent. He cared nothing for wine, whiskey, or any stimulant, and never used tobacco in any form. He rarely relaxed his energies in any thing calculated to amuse him; but, when not riding along his lines, or among the camps to see in person that the troops were properly cared for, generally passed his time in close attention to official duties connected with the well-being of the army, or in correspondence with the authorities at Richmond. When he relaxed from this continuous toil, it was to indulge in some quiet and simple diversion, social converse with ladies in houses at which he chanced to stop, caresses bestowed upon children, with whom he was a great favorite, and frequently in informal conversation with his officers. At "Hayfield" and "Moss Neck," two hospitable houses below Fredericksburg, he at this time often stopped and spent some time in the society of the ladies and children there. One of the latter, a little curly-headed girl, would come up to him always to receive her accustomed kiss, and one day confided to him, as a personal friend, her desire to kiss General Jackson, who blushed like a girl when Lee, with a quiet laugh, told him of the child's wish. On another occasion, when his small friend came to receive his caress, he said, laughing, that she would show more taste in selecting a younger gentleman than himself, and, pointing to a youthful officer in a corner of the room, added, "There is the handsome Major Pelham!" which caused that modest young soldier to blush with confusion. The bearing of General Lee in these hours of relaxation, was quite charming, and made him warm friends. His own pleasure and gratification were plain, and gratified others, who, in the simple and kindly gentleman in the plain gray uniform, found it difficult to recognize the commander-in-chief of the Southern army.
These moments of relaxation were, however, only occasional. All the rest was toil, and the routine of hard work and grave assiduity went on month after month, and year after year, with little interruption. With the exceptions which we have noted, all pleasures and distractions seemed of little interest to Lee, and to the present writer, at least, he seemed on all occasions to bear the most striking resemblance to the traditional idea of Washington. High principle and devotion to duty were plainly this human being's springs of action, and he went through the hard and continuous labor incident to army command with a grave and systematic attention, wholly indifferent, it seemed, to almost every species of diversion and relaxation.
This attempt to show how Lee appeared at that time to his solders, has extended to undue length, and we shall be compelled to defer a full notice of the most interesting and beautiful trait of his character. This was his humble and profound piety. The world has by no means done him justice upon this subject. No one doubted during the war that General Lee was a sincere Christian in conviction, and his exemplary moral character and life were beyond criticism. Beyond this it is doubtful if any save his intimate associates understood the depth of his feeling on the greatest of all subjects. Jackson's strong religious fervor was known and often alluded to, but it is doubtful if Lee was regarded as a person of equally fervent convictions and feelings. And yet the fact is certain that faith in God's providence and reliance upon the Almighty were the foundation of all his actions, and the secret of his supreme composure under all trials. He was naturally of such reserve that it is not singular that the extent of this sentiment was not understood. Even then, however, good men who frequently visited him, and conversed with him upon religious subjects, came away with their hearts burning within them. When the Rev. J. William Jones, with another clergyman, went, in 1863, to consult him in reference to the better observance of the Sabbath in the army, "his eye brightened, and his whole countenance glowed with pleasure; and as, in his simple, feeling words, he expressed his delight, we forgot the great warrior, and only remembered that we were communing with an humble, earnest Christian." When he was informed that the chaplains prayed for him, tears started to his eyes, and he replied: "I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me."
On the day after this interview he issued an earnest general order, enjoining the observance of the Sabbath by officers and men, urging them to attend public worship in their camps, and forbidding the performance on Sunday of all official duties save those necessary to the subsistence or safety of the army. He always attended public worship, if it were in his power to do so, and often the earnestness of the preacher would "make his eye kindle and his face glow." He frequently attended the meetings of his chaplains, took a warm interest in the proceedings, and uniformly exhibited, declares one who could speak from personal knowledge, an ardent desire for the promotion of religion in the army. He did not fail, on many occasions, to show his men that he was a sincere Christian. When General Meade came over to Mine Run, and the Southern army marched to meet him, Lee was riding along his line of battle in the woods, when he came upon a party of soldiers holding a prayer-meeting on the eve of battle. Such a spectacle was not unusual in the army then and afterward—the rough fighters were often men of profound piety—and on this occasion the sight before him seems to have excited deep emotion in Lee. He stopped, dismounted—the staff-officers accompanying him did the same—and Lee uncovered his head, and stood in an attitude of profound respect and attention, while the earnest prayer proceeded, in the midst of the thunder of artillery and the explosion of the enemy's shells.
[Footnote 1: These details are given on the authority of the Rev. J. William Jones, of Lexington, Va.]
Other incidents indicating the simple and earnest piety of Lee will be presented in the course of this narrative. The fame of the soldier has in some degree thrown into the background the less-imposing trait of personal piety in the individual. No delineation of Lee, however, would be complete without a full statement of his religious principles and feelings. As the commander-in-chief of the Army of Northern Virginia, he won that august renown which encircles his name with a halo of military glory, both in America and Europe. His battles and victories are known to all men. It is not known to all that the illustrious soldier whose fortune it was to overthrow, one after another, the best soldiers of the Federal army, was a simple, humble, and devoted Christian, whose eyes filled with tears when he was informed that his chaplains prayed for him; and who said, "I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and need all the prayers you can offer for me."
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG
ADVANCE OF GENERAL HOOKER.
Lee remained throughout the winter at his headquarters in the woods south of Fredericksburg, watching the Northern army, which continued to occupy the country north of the city, with the Potomac River as their base of supplies.
With the coming of spring, it was obviously the intention of the Federal authorities to again essay the crossing of the Rappahannock at some point either above or below Fredericksburg; and as the movement above was less difficult, and promised more decisive results, it was seen by General Lee that this would probably be the quarter from which he might expect an attack. General Stuart, a soldier of sound judgment, said, during the winter, "The next battle will take place at Chancellorsville," and the position of Lee's troops seemed to indicate that this was also his own opinion. His right remained still "opposite Fredericksburg," barring the direct approach to Richmond, but his left extended up the Rappahannock beyond Chancellorsville, and all the fords were vigilantly guarded to prevent a sudden flank movement by the enemy in that direction. As will be seen, the anticipations of Lee were to be fully realized. The heavy blow aimed at him, in the first days of spring, was to come from the quarter in which he had expected it.
The Federal army was now under command of General Joseph Hooker, an officer of dash, energy, excellent administrative capacity, and, Northern writers add, extremely prone to "self-assertion." General Hooker had harshly criticised the military operations both of General McClellan on the Chickahominy, and of General Burnside at Fredericksburg, and so strong an impression had these strictures made upon the minds of the authorities, that they came to the determination of intrusting the command of the army to the officer who made them, doubtless concluding that his own success would prove greater than that of his predecessors. This opinion seemed borne out by the first proceedings of General Hooker. He set to work energetically to reorganize and increase the efficiency of the army, did away with General Burnside's defective "grand division" arrangement, consolidated the cavalry into an effective corps, enforced strict discipline among officers and men alike, and at the beginning of spring had brought his army to a high state of efficiency. His confident tone inspired the men; the depression resulting from the great disaster at Fredericksburg was succeeded by a spirit of buoyant hope, and the army was once more that great war-engine, ready for any undertaking, which it had been under McClellan.
It numbered, according to one Federal statement, one hundred and fifty-nine thousand three hundred men; but according to another, which appears more reliable, one hundred and twenty thousand infantry and artillery, and twelve thousand cavalry; in all, one hundred and thirty-two thousand troops. The army of General Lee was considerably smaller. Two divisions of Longstreet's corps had been sent to Suffolk, south of James River, to obtain supplies in that region, and this force was not present at the battle of Chancellorsville. The actual numbers under Lee's command will appear from the following statement of Colonel Walter H. Taylor, assistant adjutant-general of the army:
Our strength at Chancellorsville: Anderson and McLaws........................... 13,000 Jackson (Hill, Rodes, and Trimble)............ 21,000 Early (Fredericksburg)........................ 6,000 40,000 Cavalry and artillery......................... 7,000 Total of all arms............................. 47,000
As the Federal infantry numbered one hundred and twenty thousand, according to the smallest estimate of Federal authorities, and Lee's infantry forty thousand, the Northern force was precisely three times as large as the Southern.
General Hooker had already proved himself an excellent administrative officer, and his plan of campaign against Lee seemed to show that he also possessed generalship of a high order. He had determined to pass the Rappahannock above Fredericksburg, turn Lee's flank, and thus force him to deliver battle under this disadvantage, or retire upon Richmond. The safe passage of the stream was the first great object, and General Hooker's dispositions to effect this were highly judicious. A force of about twenty thousand men was to pass the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and thus produce upon Lee the impression that the Federal army was about to renew the attempt in which they had failed under General Burnside. While General Lee's attention was engaged by the force thus threatening his right, the main body of the Northern army was to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan above Chancellorsville, and, sweeping down rapidly upon the Confederate left flank, take up a strong position between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. The column which had crossed at the latter point to engage the attention of the Confederate commander, was then to recross to the northern bank, move rapidly to the upper fords, which the advance of the main body would by that time have uncovered; and, a second time crossing to the southern bank, unite with the rest. Thus the whole Federal army would be concentrated on the southern bank of the Rappahannock, and General Lee would be compelled to leave his camps on the hills of the Massaponnax, and fight upon ground dictated by his adversary. If he did not thus accept battle, but one other course was left. He must fall back in the direction of Richmond, to prevent his adversary from attacking his rear, and capturing or destroying his army.
In order to insure the success of this promising plan of attack, a strong column of well-mounted cavalry was to cross in advance of the army and strike for the railroads in Lee's rear, connecting him with Richmond and the Southwest. Thus flanked or cut off, and with all his communications destroyed, it seemed probable that General Lee would suffer decisive defeat, and that the Federal army would march in triumph to the capture of the Confederate capital.
This plan was certainly excellent, and seemed sure to succeed. It was, however, open to some criticism, as the event showed. General Hooker was detaching, in the beginning of the movement, his whole cavalry force for a distant operation, and dividing his army by the ruse at Fredericksburg, in face of an adversary not likely to permit that great error to escape him. While advancing thus, apparently to the certain destruction of Lee, General Hooker was leaving a vulnerable point in his own armor. Lee would probably discover that point, and aim to pierce his opponent there. At most, General Hooker was wrapping in huge folds the sword of Lee, not remembering that there was danger to the cordon as well as to the weapon.
Such was the plan which General Hooker had devised to bring back that success of the Federal arms in the spring of 1863 which had attended them in the early spring of 1862. At this latter period a heavy cloud rested upon the Confederate cause. Donaldson and Roanoke Island, Fort Macon, and the city of New Orleans, had then fallen; at Elkhorn, Kernstown, Newbern, and other places, the Federal forces had achieved important successes. These had been followed, however, by the Southern victories on the Chickahominy, at Manassas, and at Fredericksburg. Near this last-named spot now, where the year had wound up with so mortifying a Federal failure, General Hooker hoped to reverse events, and recover the Federal glories of the preceding spring.
Operations began as early as the middle of March, when General Averill, with about three thousand cavalry, crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford, above its junction with the Rapidan, and made a determined attack upon nearly eight hundred horsemen there, under General Fitz Lee, with the view of passing through Culpepper, crossing the Rapidan, and cutting Lee's communications in the direction of Gordonsville. The obstinate stand of General Fitz Lee's small force, however, defeated this object, and General Averill was forced to retreat beyond the Rappahannock again with considerable loss, and abandon his expedition. In this engagement fell Major John Pelham, who had been styled in Lee's first report of the battle of Fredericksburg "the gallant Pelham," and whose brave stand on the Port Royal road had drawn from Lee the exclamation, "It is glorious to see such courage in one so young." Pelham was, in spite of his youth, an artillerist of the first order of excellence, and his loss was a serious one, in spite of his inferior rank.
After this action every thing remained quiet until toward the end of April—General Lee continuing to hold the same position with his right at Fredericksburg, his left at the fords near Chancellorsville, and his cavalry, under Stuart, guarding the banks of the Rappahannock in Culpepper. On the 27th of April, General Hooker began his forward movement, by advancing three corps of his army—the Fifth, Eleventh, and Twelfth—to the banks of the river, near Kelly's Ford; and, on the next day, this force was joined by three additional corps—the First, Third, and Sixth—and the whole, on Wednesday (the 29th), crossed the river without difficulty. That this movement was a surprise to Lee, as has been supposed by some persons, is a mistake. Stuart was an extremely vigilant picket-officer, and both he and General Lee were in the habit of sending accomplished scouts to watch any movements in the Federal camps. As soon as these movements—which, in a large army, cannot be concealed—took place, information was always promptly brought, and it was not possible that General Hooker could move three large army corps toward the Rappahannock, as he did on April 27th, without early knowledge on the part of his adversary of so important a circumstance.
As the Federal infantry thus advanced, the large cavalry force began also to move through Culpepper toward the Central Railroad in Lee's rear. This column was commanded by General Stoneman, formerly a subordinate officer in Lee's old cavalry regiment in the United States Army; and, as General Stoneman's operations were entirely separate from those of the infantry, and not of much importance, we shall here dismiss them in a few words. He proceeded rapidly across Culpepper, harassed in his march by a small body of horse, under General William H.F. Lee; reached the Central Railroad at Trevillian's, below Gordonsville, and tore up a portion of it; passed on to James River, ravaging the country, and attempted the destruction of the Columbia Aqueduct, but did not succeed in so doing; when, hearing probably of the unforeseen result at Chancellorsville, he hastened back to the Rapidan, pursued and harassed as in his advance, and, crossing, regained the Federal lines beyond the Rappahannock.
To return to the movements of the main Federal force, under the personal command of General Hooker. This advanced rapidly across the angle between the two rivers, with no obstruction but that offered by the cavalry under Stuart, and on Thursday, April 30th, had crossed the Rapidan at Germanna and Ely's Fords, and was steadily concentrating around Chancellorsville. At the same time the Second Corps, under General Couch, was preparing to cross at United States Ford, a few miles distant; and General Sedgwick, commanding the detached force at Fredericksburg, having crossed and threatened Lee, in obedience to orders, now began passing back to the northern bank again, in order to march up and join the main body. Thus all things seemed in train to succeed on the side of the Federal army. General Hooker was over with about one hundred thousand men—twenty thousand additional troops would soon join him. Lee's army seemed scattered, and not "in hand" to oppose him; and there was some ground for the ebullition of joy attributed to General Hooker, as he saw his great force massing steadily in the vicinity of Chancellorsville. To those around him he exclaimed: "The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac. They may as well pack up their haversacks and make for Richmond, and I shall be after them!"
In a congratulatory order to his troops, he declared that they occupied now a position so strong that "the enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defences and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him."
Such were the joyful anticipations of General Hooker, who seems to have regarded the campaign as virtually ended by the successful passage of the river. His expressions and his general order would seem to indicate an irrepressible joy, but it is doubtful if the skilful soldiers under him shared this somewhat juvenile enthusiasm. The gray cavalier at Fredericksburg was not reported to be retiring, as was expected. On the contrary, the Southern troops seemed to be moving forward with the design of accepting battle.
Lee had determined promptly upon that course as soon as Stuart sent him information of the enemy's movements. Chancellorsville was at once seen to be the point for which General Hooker was aiming, and Lee's dispositions were made for confronting him there and fighting a pitched battle. The brigades of Posey and Mahone, of Anderson's Division, had been in front of Banks's and Ely's Fords, and this force of about eight thousand men was promptly ordered to fall back on Chancellorsville. At the same time Wright's brigade was sent up to reenforce this column; but the enemy continuing to advance in great force, General Anderson, commanding the whole, fell back from Chancellorsville to Tabernacle Church, on the road to Fredericksburg, where he was joined on the next day by Jackson, whom Lee had sent forward to his assistance.
The ruse at Fredericksburg had not long deceived the Confederate commander. General Sedgwick, with three corps, in all about twenty-two thousand men, had crossed just below Fredericksburg on the 29th, and Lee had promptly directed General Jackson to oppose him there. Line of battle was accordingly formed in the enemy's front beyond Hamilton's Crossing; but as, neither on that day nor the next, any further advance was made by General Sedgwick, the whole movement was seen to be a feint to cover the real operations above. Lee accordingly turned his attention in the direction of Chancellorsville. Jackson, as we have related, was sent up to reenforce General Anderson, and Lee followed with the rest of the army, with the exception of about six thousand men, under General Early, whom he left to defend the crossing at Fredericksburg.
Such were the positions of the opposing forces on the 1st day of May. Each commander had displayed excellent generalship in the preliminary movements preceding the actual fighting. At last, however, the opposing lines were facing each other, and the real struggle was about to begin.
The "Wilderness," as the region around Chancellorsville is called, is so strange a country, and the character of the ground had so important a bearing upon the result of the great battle fought there, that a brief description of the locality will be here presented.
The region is a nearly unbroken expanse of dense thicket pierced only by narrow and winding roads, over which the traveller rides, mile after mile, without seeing a single human habitation. It would seem, indeed, that the whole barren and melancholy tract had been given up to the owl, the whippoorwill, and the moccasin, its original tenants. The plaintive cries of the night-birds alone break the gloomy silence of the desolate region, and the shadowy thicket stretching in every direction produces a depressing effect upon the feelings. Chancellorsville is in the centre of this singular territory, on the main road, or rather roads, running from Orange Court-House to Fredericksburg, from which latter place it is distant about ten miles. In spite of its imposing name, Chancellorsville was simply a large country-house, originally inhabited by a private family, but afterward used as a roadside inn. A little to the westward the "Old Turnpike" and Orange Plank-road unite as they approach the spot, where they again divide, to unite a second time a few miles to the east, where they form the main highway to Fredericksburg. From the north come in roads from United States and Ely's Fords; Germanna Ford is northwest; from the south runs the "Brock Road" in the direction of the Rapidan, passing a mile or two west of the place.
The whole country, the roads, the chance houses, the silence, the unending thicket, in this dreary wilderness, produce a sombre effect. A writer, familiar with it, says: "There all is wild, desolate, and lugubrious. Thicket, undergrowth, and jungle, stretch for miles, impenetrable and untouched. Narrow roads wind on forever between melancholy masses of stunted and gnarled oak. Little sunlight shines there. The face of Nature is dreary and sad. It was so before the battle; it is not more cheerful to-day, when, as you ride along, you see fragments of shell, rotting knapsacks, rusty gun-barrels, bleached bones, and grinning skulls.... Into this jungle," continues the same writer, "General Hooker penetrated. It was the wolf in his den, ready to tear any one who approached. A battle there seemed impossible. Neither side could see its antagonist. Artillery could not move; cavalry could not operate; the very infantry had to flatten their bodies to glide between the stunted trees. That an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men should have chosen that spot to fight forty thousand, and not only chosen it, but made it a hundred times more impenetrable by felling trees, erecting breastworks, disposing artillery en masse to sweep every road and bridle-path which led to Chancellorsville—this fact seemed incredible."
It was no part of the original plan of the Federal commander to permit himself to be cooped up in this difficult and embarrassing region, where it was impossible to manoeuvre his large army. The selection of the Wilderness around Chancellorsville, as the ground of battle, was dictated by Lee. General Hooker, it seems, endeavored to avoid being thus shut up in the thicket, and hampered in his movements. Finding that the Confederate force, retiring from in front of Ely's and United States Fords, had, on reaching Chancellorsville, continued to fall back in the direction of Fredericksburg, he followed them steadily, passed through the Wilderness, and, emerging into the open country beyond, rapidly began forming line of battle on ground highly favorable to the manoeuvring of his large force in action. A glance at the map will indicate the importance of this movement, and the great advantages secured by it. The left of General Hooker's line, nearest the river, was at least five miles in advance of Chancellorsville, and commanded Banks's Ford, thereby shortening fully one-half the distance of General Sedgwick's march from Fredericksburg, by enabling him to use the ford in question as a place of crossing to the south bank, and uniting his column with the main body. The centre and right of the Federal army had in like manner emerged from the thickets of the Wilderness, and occupied cleared ground, sufficiently elevated to afford them great advantages.