It is proper to keep in view this programme of General Grant. Lee completely reversed it by promptly moving in front of his adversary at every step which he took in advance; and it will be seen that the Federal commander was finally compelled to adopt a plan which does not seem to have entered his mind, save as a dernier ressort, at the beginning of the campaign.
On the morning of the 4th of May, General Grant commenced crossing the Rapidan at Germanna and other fords above Chancellorsville, and by the morning of the 5th his army was over. It appears from his report that he had not anticipated so easy a passage of the stream, and greatly felicitated himself upon effecting it so successfully. "This I regarded," he says, "as a great success, and it removed from my mind the most serious apprehension I had entertained, that of crossing the river in the face of an active, large, well-appointed, and ably-commanded army." Lee had made no movement to dispute the passage of the stream, from the fact, perhaps, that his army was not either "large" or "well-appointed." He preferred to await the appearance of his adversary, and direct an assault on the flank of his column as it passed across his front. From a speech attributed to General Meade, it would seem to have been the impression in the Federal army that Lee designed falling back to a defensive position somewhere near the South Anna. His movements were, however, very different. Instead of retiring before General Grant in the direction of Richmond, he moved with his three corps toward the Wilderness, to offer battle.
The head of the column consisted of Ewell's corps, which had retained its position on the Rapidan, forming the right of Lee's line. General A.P. Hill, who had been stationed higher up, near Liberty Mills, followed; and Longstreet, who lay near Gordonsville, brought up the rear. These dispositions dictated, as will be seen, the positions of the three commands in the ensuing struggle. Ewell advanced in front down the Old Turnpike, that one of the two great highways here running east and west which is nearest the Rapidan; Hill came on over the Orange Plank-road, a little south of the turnpike, and thus formed on Ewell's right; and Longstreet, following, came in on the right of Hill.
General Grant had plunged with his army into the dense and melancholy thicket which had been the scene of General Hooker's discomfiture. His army, followed by its great train of four thousand wagons, indicating the important nature of the movement, had reached Wilderness Tavern and that Brock Road over which Jackson advanced in his secret flank-march against the Federal right in May, 1863. In May of 1864, now, another Federal army had penetrated, the sombre and depressing shadows of the interminable thickets of the Wilderness, and a more determined struggle than the first was to mark with its bloody hand this historic territory.
THE FIRST COLLISION IN THE WILDERNESS.
To understand the singular combat which now ensued, it is necessary to keep in view the fact that nothing more surprised General Grant than the sudden appearance of his adversary face to face with him in the Wilderness.
It had not been supposed, either by the lieutenant-general or his corps-commanders, that Lee, with his small army, would have recourse to a proceeding so audacious. It was anticipated, indeed, that, somewhere on the road to Richmond, Lee would make a stand and fight, in a carefully-selected position which would enable him to risk collision with his great adversary; but that Lee himself would bring on this collision by making an open attack, unassisted by position of any sort, was the last thing which seems to have occurred to his adversary.
Such, however, as has been said, was the design, from the first, of the Southern commander, and he moved with his accustomed celerity and energy. As soon as General Grant broke up his camps north of the Rapidan, Lee was apprised of the fact, and ordered his three corps to concentrate in the direction of Chancellorsville. Those who were present in the Southern army at this time will bear record to the soldierly promptness of officers and men. On the evening of the 3d of May the camps were the scenes of noise, merriment, and parade: the bands played; the woods were alive; nothing disturbed the scene of general enjoyment of winter-quarters. On the morning of the 4th all this was changed. The camps were deserted; no sound was anywhere heard; the troops were twenty miles away, fully armed and ready for battle. General Lee was in the saddle, and his presence seemed to push forward his column. Ewell, marching with celerity, bivouacked that night directly in face of the enemy; and it was the suddenly-discovered presence of the troops of this commander which arrested General Grant, advancing steadily in the direction of Spottsylvania Court-House.
He must have inwardly chafed at a circumstance so unexpected and embarrassing. It had been no part of his plan to fight in the thickets of the Wilderness, and yet an adversary of but one-third his own strength was about to reverse his whole programme, and dictate the terms of the first battles of the campaign. There was nothing to do, however, but to fight, and General Grant hastened to form order of battle for that purpose, with General Sedgwick commanding his right, Generals Warren and Burnside his centre, and General Hancock his left, near the Brock Road. The line thus formed extended from northwest to southeast, and, as the right wing was in advance with respect to Lee, that circumstance occasioned the first collision.
This occurred about mid-day on the 5th of May, and was brought on by General Warren, who attacked the head of Swell's column, on the Old Turnpike. An obstinate engagement ensued, and the division which received the assault was forced back. It quickly, however, reformed, and being reenforced advanced in turn against General Warren, and, after a hard fight, he was driven back with a loss of three thousand men and two pieces of artillery.
This first collision of the armies on the Confederate left was followed almost immediately by a bloody struggle on the centre. This was held by A.P. Hill, who had marched down the Plank-road, and was near the important point of junction of that road with the Brock Road, when he was suddenly attacked by the enemy. The struggle which ensued was long and determined. General Lee wrote: "The assaults were repeated and desperate, but every one was repulsed." When night fell, Hill had not been driven back, but had not advanced; and the two armies rested on their arms, awaiting the return of light to continue the battle.
THE BATTLE OF THE 6TH OF MAY.
The morning of the 6th of May came, and, with the first light of dawn, the adversaries, as by a common understanding, advanced at the same moment to attack each other.
The battle which followed is wellnigh indescribable, and may be said, in general terms, to have been naught but the blind and desperate clutch of two great bodies of men, who could scarcely see each other when they were but a few feet apart, and who fired at random, rather by sound than sight. A Southern writer, describing the country and the strange combat, says: "The country was sombre—a land of thicket, undergrowth, jungle, ooze, where men could not see each other twenty yards off, and assaults had to be made by the compass. The fights there were not even as easy as night attacks in open country, for at night you can travel by the stars. Death came unseen; regiments stumbled on each other, and sent swift destruction into each other's ranks, guided by the crackling of the bushes. It was not war—military manoeuvring: science had as little to do with it as sight. Two wild animals were hunting each other; when they heard each other's steps, they sprung and grappled. The conqueror advanced, or went elsewhere. The dead were lost from all eyes in the thicket. The curious spectacle was here presented of officers advancing to the charge, in the jungle, compass in hand, attacking, not by sight, but by the bearing of the needle. In this mournful and desolate thicket did the great campaign of 1864 begin. Here, in blind wrestle as at midnight, did two hundred thousand men in blue and gray clutch each other—bloodiest and weirdest of encounters. War had had nothing like it. The genius of destruction, tired apparently of the old commonplace killing, had invented the 'unseen death.' At five in the morning, the opponents closed in, breast to breast, in the thicket. Each had thrown up here and there slight, temporary breastworks of saplings and dirt; beyond this, they were unprotected. The question now was, which would succeed in driving his adversary from these defences, almost within a few yards of each other, and from behind which crackled the musketry. Never was sight more curious. On the low line of these works, dimly seen in the thicket, rested the muzzles spouting flame; from the depths rose cheers; charges were made and repulsed, the lines scarcely seeing each other; men fell and writhed, and died unseen—their bodies lost in the bushes, their death-groans drowned in the steady, continuous, never-ceasing crash."
These sentences convey a not incorrect idea of the general character of this remarkable engagement, which had no precedent in the war. We shall now proceed to speak of General Lee's plans and objects, and to indicate where they failed or succeeded. The commanders of both armies labored under great embarrassments. General Grant's was the singular character of the country, with which he was wholly unacquainted; and General Lee's, the delay in the arrival of Longstreet. Owing to the distance of the camps of the last-named officer, he had not, at dawn, reached the field of battle. As his presence was indispensable to a general assault, this delay in his appearance threatened to result in unfortunate consequences, as it was nearly certain that General Grant would make an early and resolute attack. Under these circumstances, Lee resolved to commence the action, and did so, counting, doubtless, on his ability, with the thirty thousand men at his command, to at least maintain his ground. His plan seems to have been to make a heavy demonstration against the Federal right, and, when Longstreet arrived, throw the weight of his whole centre and right against the Federal left, with the view of seizing the Brock Road, running southward, and forcing back the enemy's left wing into the thickets around Chancellorsville. This brilliant conception, which, if carried out, would have arrested General Grant in the beginning of his campaign, was very near meeting with success. The attack on the Federal right, under General Sedgwick, commenced at dawn, and the fighting on both sides was obstinate. It continued with indecisive results throughout the morning, gradually involving the Federal centre; but, nearly at the moment when it began, a still more obstinate conflict was inaugurated between General Hancock, holding the Federal left, and Hill, who opposed him on the Plank-road. The battle raged in this quarter with great fury for some time, but, attacked in front and flank at once by his able opponent, Hill was forced back steadily, and at last, in some disorder, a considerable distance from the ground which had witnessed the commencement of the action. At this point, however, he was fortunately met by Longstreet. That commander rapidly brought his troops into line, met the advancing enemy, attacked them with great fury, and, after a bloody contest, in which General Wadsworth was killed, drove them back to their original position on the Brock Road.
It now seemed nearly certain that Lee's plan of seizing upon this important highway would succeed. General Hancock had been forced back with heavy loss, Longstreet was pressing on, and, as he afterward said, he "thought he had another Bull Run on them," when a singular casualty defeated all. General Longstreet, who had ridden in front of his advancing line, turned to ride back, when he was mistaken by his own men for a Federal cavalryman, fired upon, and disabled by a musket-ball. This threw all into disorder, and the advance was discontinued. General Lee, as soon as he was apprised of the accident, hastened to take personal command of the corps, and, as soon as order was restored, directed the line to press forward. The most bloody and determined struggle of the day ensued. The thicket filled the valleys, and, as at Chancellorsville, a new horror was added to the horror of battle. A fire broke out in the thicket, and soon wrapped the adversaries in flame and smoke. They fought on, however, amid the crackling flames. Lee continued to press forward; the Federal breastworks along a portion of their front were carried, and a part of General Hancock's line was driven from the field. The struggle had, however, been decisive of no important results, and, from the lateness of the hour when it terminated, it could not be followed up. On the left Lee had also met with marked but equally indecisive success. General Gordon had attacked the Federal right, driven the force at that point in disorder from their works, and but for the darkness this success might have been followed up and turned into a complete defeat of that wing of the enemy. It was only discovered on the next morning what important successes Gordon had effected with a single brigade; and there is reason to believe that with a larger force this able soldier might have achieved results of a decisive character.
[Footnote 1: General Early, in his "Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence," bears his testimony to the important character of the blow struck by General Gordon. He says: "At light, on the morning of the 7th, an advance was made, which disclosed the fact that the enemy had given up his line of works in front of my whole line and a good portion of Johnson's. Between the lines a large number of his dead had been left, and at his breastworks a large number of muskets and knapsacks had been abandoned, and there was every indication of great confusion. It was not till then that we understood the full extent of the success attending the movement of the evening before." General Gordon had proposed making the attack on the morning of the 6th, but was overruled.]
Such had been the character and results of the first conflicts between the two armies in the thickets of the Wilderness. As we have already said, the collision there was neither expected nor desired by General Grant, who, unlike General Hooker, in May of the preceding year, seems fully to have understood the unfavorable nature of the region for manoeuvring a large army. His adversary had, however, forced him to accept battle, leaving him no choice, and the result of the actions of the 5th and 6th had been such as to determine the Federal commander to emerge as soon as possible from the tangled underwood which hampered all his movements. On the 7th he accordingly made no movement to attack Lee, and on the night of that day marched rapidly in the direction of Hanover Junction, following the road by Todd's Tavern toward Spottsylvania Court-House.
For this determination to avoid further fighting in the Wilderness, General Grant gives a singular explanation. "On the morning of the 7th," he says, "reconnoissance showed that the enemy had fallen behind his intrenched lines, with pickets to the front, covering a part of the battle-field. From this it was evident that the two-days' fighting had satisfied him of his inability to further maintain the contest in the open field, notwithstanding his advantage of position, and that he would wait an attack behind his works." The "intrenched lines" and "advantage of position" of Lee, were both imaginary. No lines of intrenchment had been made, and the ground was not more favorable on General Lee's side than on General Grant's. Both armies had erected impromptu breastworks of felled trees and earth, as continued to be their habit throughout the campaign, and the flat country gave no special advantage to either. The forward movement of General Grant is susceptible of much easier explanation. The result of the two-days' fighting had very far from pleased him; he desired to avoid further conflict in so difficult a country, and, taking advantage of the quiescence of Lee, and the hours of darkness, he moved with his army toward the more open country.
THE 12TH OF MAY.
Throughout the entire day succeeding this first great conflict, General Lee remained quiet, watching for some movement of his adversary. His success in the preliminary straggle had been gratifying, considering the great disproportion of numbers, but he indulged no expectation of a retrograde movement across the Rapidan, on the part of General Grant. He expected him rather to advance, and anxiously awaited some development of this intention. There were no indications of such a design up to the night of the 7th, but at that time, to use the words of a confidential member of Lee's staff, "he all at once seemed to conceive the idea that his enemy was preparing to forsake his position, and move toward Hanover Junction via the Spottsylvania Court-House, and, believing this, he at once detailed Anderson's division with orders to proceed rapidly toward the court-house."
General Anderson commenced his march about nine o'clock at night, when the Federal column was already upon its way. A race now began for the coveted position, and General Stuart, with his dismounted sharp-shooters behind improvised breastworks, harassed and impeded the Federal advance, at every step, throughout the night. This greatly delayed their march, and their head of column did not reach the vicinity of Spottsylvania Court-House until past sunrise. General Warren, leading the Federal advance, then hurried forward, followed by General Hancock, when suddenly he found himself in front of breastworks, and was received with a fire of musketry. Lee had succeeded in interposing himself between General Grant and Richmond.
On the same evening the bulk of the two armies were facing each other on the line of the Po.
By the rapidity of his movements General Lee had thus completely defeated his adversary's design to seize on the important point, Spottsylvania Court-House. General Grant, apparently conceiving some explanation of this untoward event to be necessary, writes: "The enemy, having become aware of our movement, and having the shorter line, was enabled to reach there first." The statement that General Lee had the shorter of the two lines to march over is a mistake. The armies moved over parallel roads until beyond Todd's Tavern, after which the distance to the south bank of the Po was greater by Lee's route than General Grant's. The map will sufficiently indicate this. Two other circumstances defeated General Grant's attempt to reach the point first—the extreme rapidity of the march of the Confederate advance force, and the excellent fighting of Stuart's dismounted men, who harassed and delayed General Warren, leading the Federal advance throughout the entire night.
An additional fact should be mentioned, bearing upon this point, and upon General Lee's designs. "General Lee's orders to me," says General Early, who, from the sickness of A.P. Hill, had been assigned to the command of the corps, "were to move by Todd's Tavern along the Brock Road, to Spottsylvania Court-House, as soon as our front was clear of the enemy." From this order it would appear either that General Lee regarded the Brock Road, over which General Grant moved, as the "shorter line," or that he intended the movement of Early on the enemy's rear to operate as a check upon them, while he went forward to their front with his main body.
These comments may seem tedious to the general reader, but all that illustrates the military designs, or defends the good soldiership of Lee, is worthy of record.
We proceed now to the narrative. In the Wilderness General Grant had found a dangerous enemy ready to strike at his flank. He now saw in his front the same active and wary adversary, prepared to bar the direct road to Richmond. General Lee had taken up his position on the south bank of one of the four tributaries of the Mattapony. These four streams are known as the Mat, Ta, Po, and Nye Rivers, and bear the same relation to the main stream that the fingers of the open hand do to the wrist. General Lee was behind the Po, which is next to the Nye, the northernmost of these water-courses. Both were difficult to cross, and their banks heavily wooded. It was now to be seen whether, either by a front attack or a turning movement, General Grant could oust his adversary, and whether General Lee would stand on the defensive or attack.
All day, during the 9th, the two armies were constructing breastworks along their entire fronts, and these works, from the Rapidan to the banks of the Chickahominy, remain yet in existence. On the evening of this day a Federal force was thrown across the Po, on the Confederate left, but soon withdrawn; and on the 10th a similar movement took place near the same point, which resulted in a brief but bloody conflict, during which the woods took fire, and many of the assaulting troops perished miserably in the flames. The force was then recalled, and, during that night and the succeeding day, nothing of importance occurred, although heavy skirmishing and an artillery-fire took place along the lines.
On the morning of the 12th, at the first dawn of day, General Grant made a more important and dangerous assault than any yet undertaken in the campaign. This was directed at a salient on General Lee's right centre, occupied by Johnson's division of Ewell's corps, and was one of the bloodiest and most terrible incidents of the war. For this assault General Grant is said to have selected his best troops. These advanced in a heavy charging column, through the half darkness of dawn, passed silently over the Confederate skirmishers, scarcely firing a shot, and, just as the first streak of daylight touched the eastern woods, burst upon the salient, which they stormed at the point of the bayonet. In consequence of the suddenness of the assault and the absence of artillery—against whose removal General Johnston is stated to have protested, and which arrived too late—the Federal forces carried all before them, and gained possession of the works, in spite of a stubborn and bloody resistance.
Such was the excellent success of the Federal movement, and the Southern line seemed to be hopelessly disrupted. Nearly the whole of Johnson's division were taken prisoners—the number amounting to about three thousand—and eighteen pieces of artillery fell into the hands of the assaulting column.
The position of affairs was now exceedingly critical; and, unless General Lee could reform his line at the point, it seemed that nothing was left him but an abandonment of his whole position. The Federal army had broken his line; was pouring into the opening; and, to prevent him from concentrating at the point to regain possession of the works, heavy attacks were begun by the enemy on his right and left wings. It is probable that at no time during the war was the Southern army in greater danger of a bloody and decisive disaster.
At this critical moment General Lee acted with the nerve and coolness of a soldier whom no adverse event can shake. Those who saw him will testify to the stern courage of his expression; the glance of the eye, which indicated a great nature, aroused to the depth of its powerful organization. Line of battle was promptly formed a short distance in rear of the salient then in the enemy's possession, and a fierce charge was made by the Southerners, under the eye of Lee, to regain it. It was on this occasion that, on fire with the ardor of battle, which so seldom mastered him, Lee went forward in front of his line, and, taking his station beside the colors of one of his Virginian regiments, took off his hat, and, turning to the men, pointed toward the enemy. A storm of cheers greeted the general, as he sat his gray war-horse, in front of the men—his head bare, his eyes flashing, and his cheeks flushed with the fighting-blood of the soldier. General Gordon, however, spurred to his side and seized his rein.
"General Lee!" he exclaimed, "this is no place for you. Go to the rear. These are Virginians and Georgians, sir—men who have never failed!—Men, you will not fail now!" he cried, rising in his stirrups and addressing the troops.
"No, no!" was the reply of the men; and from the whole line burst the shout, "Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!"
Instead of being needed, it was obvious that his presence was an embarrassment, as the men seemed determined not to charge unless he retired. He accordingly did so, and the line advanced to the attack, led by General Gordon and other officers of approved ability and courage. The charge which followed was resolute, and the word ferocious best describes the struggle which followed. It continued throughout the entire day, Lee making not less than five distinct assaults in heavy force to recover the works. The fight involved the troops on both flanks, and was desperate and unyielding. The opposing flags were at times within only a few yards of each other, and so incessant and concentrated was the fire of musketry, that a tree of about eighteen inches in diameter was cut down by bullets, and is still preserved, it is said, in the city of Washington, as a memorial of this bloody struggle.
The fighting only ceased several hours after dark. Lee had not regained his advanced line of works, but he was firmly rooted in an interior and straighter line, from which the Federal troops had found it impossible to dislodge him. This result of the stubborn action was essentially a success, as General Grant's aim in the operation had been to break asunder his adversary's army—in which he very nearly succeeded.
At midnight all was again silent. The ground near the salient was strewed with dead bodies. The loss of the three thousand men and eighteen guns of Johnson had been followed by a bloody retaliation, the Federal commander having lost more than eight thousand men.
FROM SPOTTSYLVANIA TO THE CHICKAHOMINY.
After the bloody action of the 12th of May, General Grant remained quiet for many days, "awaiting," he says, "the arrival of reenforcements from Washington." The number of these fresh troops is not known to the present writer. General Lee had no reinforcements to expect, and continued to confront his adversary with his small army, which must have been reduced by the heavy fighting to less than forty thousand men, while that of General Grant numbered probably about one hundred and forty thousand.
Finding that his opponent was not disposed to renew hostilities. General Lee, on the 19th of May, sent General Ewell to turn his right flank; but this movement resulted in nothing, save the discovery by General Ewell that the Federal army was moving. This intelligence was dispatched to General Lee on the evening of the 21st, and reached him at Souther's House, on the banks of the Po, where he was calmly reconnoitring the position of the enemy.
As soon as he read the note of General Ewell, he mounted his horse, saying, in his grave voice, to his staff, "Come, gentlemen;" and orders were sent to the army to prepare to move. The troops began their march on the same night, in the direction of Hanover Junction, which they reached on the evening of the 22d. When, on May 23d, General Grant reached the banks of the North Anna, he found Lee stationed on the south bank, ready to oppose his crossing.
The failure of General Grant to reach and seize upon the important point of Hanover Junction before the arrival of Lee, decided the fate of the plan of campaign originally devised by him. If the reader will glance at the map of Virginia, this fact will become apparent. Hanover Junction is the point where the Virginia Central and Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroads cross each other, and is situated in the angle of the North Anna and South Anna Rivers, which unite a short distance below to form the Pamunkey. Once in possession of this point, General Grant would have had easy communication with the excellent base of supplies at Aquia Creek; would have cut the Virginia Central Railroad; and a direct march southward would have enabled him to invest Richmond from the north and northwest, in accordance with his original plan. Lee had, however, reached the point first, and from that moment, unless the Southern force were driven from its position, the entire plan of campaign must necessarily be changed.
The great error of General Grant in this arduous campaign would seem to have been the feebleness of the attack which he here made upon Lee. The position of the Southern army was not formidable, and on his arrival they had had no time to erect defences. The river is not difficult of crossing, and the ground on the south bank gives no decided advantage to a force occupying it. In spite of these facts—which it is proper to say General Grant denies, however—nothing was effected, and but little attempted. A few words will sum up the operations of the armies during the two or three days. Reaching the river, General Grant threw a column across some miles up the stream, at a point known as Jericho Ford, where a brief but obstinate encounter ensued between Generals Hill and Warren, and this was followed by the capture of an old redoubt defending the Chesterfield bridge, near the railroad crossing, opposite Lee's right, which enabled another column to pass the stream at that point. These two successful passages of the river on Lee's left and right seemed to indicate a fixed intention on the part of his adversary to press both the Southern flanks, and bring on a decisive engagement; and, to cooeperate in this plan, a third column was now thrown over opposite Lee's centre.
These movements were, however, promptly met. Lee retired his two wings, but struck suddenly with his centre at the force attempting to cross there; and then active operations on both sides ceased. In spite of having passed the river with the bulk of his army, and formed line of battle, General Grant resolved not to attack. His explanation of this is that Lee's position was found "stronger than either of his previous ones."
Such was the result of the able disposition of the Southern force at this important point. General Grant found his whole programme reversed, and, on the night of the 26th, silently withdrew and hastened down the north bank of the Pamunkey toward Hanovertown preceded by the cavalry of General Sheridan.
That officer had been detached from the army as it approached Spottsylvania Court-House, to make a rapid march toward Richmond, and destroy the Confederate communications. In this he partially succeeded, but, attempting to ride into Richmond, was repulsed with considerable loss. The only important result, indeed, of the expedition, was the death of General Stuart. This distinguished commander of General Lee's cavalry had been directed to pursue General Sheridan; had done so, with his customary promptness, and intercepted his column near Richmond, at a spot known as the Yellow Tavern; and here, in a stubborn engagement, in which Stuart strove to supply his want of troops by the fury of his attack, the great chief of cavalry was mortally wounded, and expired soon afterward. His fall was a grievous blow to General Lee's heart, as well as to the Southern cause. Endowed by nature with a courage which shrunk from nothing; active, energetic, of immense physical stamina, which enabled him to endure any amount of fatigue; devoted, heart and soul, to the cause in which he fought, and looking up to the commander of the army with childlike love and admiration, Stuart could be ill spared at this critical moment, and General Lee was plunged into the deepest melancholy at the intelligence of his death. When it reached him he retired from those around him, and remained for some time communing with his own heart and memory. When one of his staff entered, and spoke of Stuart, General Lee said, in a low voice, "I can scarcely think of him without weeping."
The command of the cavalry devolved upon General Hampton, and it was fought throughout the succeeding campaign with the nerve and efficiency of a great soldier; but Stuart had, as it were, formed and moulded it with his own hands; he was the first great commander of horse in the war; and it was hard for his successors, however great their genius, to compete with his memory. His name will thus remain that of the greatest and most prominent cavalry-officer of the war.
Crossing the Pamunkey at Hanovertown, after a rapid night-march, General Grant sent out a force toward Hanover Court-House to cut off Lee's retreat or discover his position. This resulted in nothing, since General Lee had not moved in that direction. He had, as soon as the movement of General Grant was discovered, put his lines in motion, directed his march across the country on the direct route to Cold Harbor, and, halting behind the Tottapotomoi, had formed his line there, to check the progress of his adversary on the main road from Hanovertown toward Richmond. For the third time, thus, General Grant had found his adversary in his path; and no generalship, or rapidity in the movement of his column, seemed sufficient to secure to him the advantages of a surprise. On each occasion the march of the Federal army had taken place in the night; from the Wilderness on the night of May 7th; from Spottsylvania on the night of May 21st; and from near the North Anna on the night of May 26th. Lee had imitated these movements of his opponent, interposing on each occasion, at the critical moment, in his path, and inviting battle. This last statement may be regarded as too strongly expressed, as it seems the opinion of Northern writers that Lee, in these movements, aimed only to maintain a strict defensive, and, by means of breastworks, simply keep his adversary at arm's length. This is an entire mistake. Confident of the efficiency of his army, small as it was, he was always desirous to bring on a decisive action, under favorable circumstances. General Early bears his testimony to the truth of this statement. "I happen to know," says this officer, "that General Lee had always the greatest anxiety to strike at Grant in the open field." During the whole movement from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, the Confederate commander was in excellent spirits. When at Hanover Junction he spoke of the situation almost jocosely, and said to the venerable Dr. Gwathmey, speaking of General Grant, "If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him."
This expression does not seem to indicate any depression or want of confidence in his ability to meet General Grant in an open pitched battle. It may, however, be asked why, if such were his desire, he did not come out from behind his breastworks and fight. The reply is, that General Grant invariably defended his lines by breastworks as powerful as—in many cases much more powerful than—his adversary's. The opposing mounds of earth and trees along the routes of the two armies remain to prove the truth of what is here stated. At Cold Harbor, especially, the Federal works are veritable forts. In face of them, the theory that General Grant uniformly acted upon the offensive, without fear of offensive operations in turn on the part of Lee, will be found untenable. Nor is this statement made with the view of representing General Grant as over-cautious, or of detracting from his merit as a commander. It was, on the contrary, highly honorable to him, that, opposed to an adversary of such ability, he should have neglected nothing.
Reaching the Tottapotomoi, General Grant found his opponent in a strong position behind that sluggish water-course, prepared to dispute the road to Richmond; and it now became necessary to force the passage in his front, or, by another flank march, move still farther to the left, and endeavor to cross the Chickahominy somewhere in the vicinity of Cold Harbor. This last operation was determined upon by General Grant, and, sending his cavalry toward Cold Harbor, he moved rapidly in the same direction with his infantry. This movement was discovered at once by Lee; he sent Longstreet's corps forward, and, when the Federal army arrived, the Southern forces were drawn up in their front, between them and Richmond, thus barring, for the fourth time in the campaign, the road to the capital.
During these movements, nearly continuous fighting had taken place between the opposing columns, which clung to each other, as it were, each shaping its march more or less by that of the other. At last they had reached the ground upon which the obstinate struggle of June, 1862, had taken place, and it now became necessary for General Grant either to form some new plan of campaign, or, by throwing his whole army, in one great mass, against his adversary, break through all obstacles, cross the Chickahominy, and seize upon Richmond. This was now resolved upon.
Heavy fighting took place on June 2d, near Bethesda Church and at other points, while the armies were coming into position; but this was felt to be but the preface to the greater struggle which General Lee now clearly divined. It came without loss of time. On the morning of the 3d of June, soon after daylight, General Grant threw his whole army straightforward against Lee's front—all along his line. The conflict which followed was one of those bloody grapples, rather than battles, which, discarding all manoeuvring or brain-work in the commanders, depend for the result upon the brute strength of the forces engaged. The action did not last half an hour, and, in that time, the Federal loss was thirteen thousand men. When General Lee sent a messenger to A.P. Hill, asking the result of the assault on his part of the line, Hill took the officer with him in front of his works, and, pointing to the dead bodies which were literally lying upon each other, said: "Tell General Lee it is the same all along my front."
The Federal army had, indeed, sustained a blow so heavy, that even the constant mind and fixed resolution of General Grant and the Federal authorities seem to have been shaken. The war seemed hopeless to many persons in the North after the frightful bloodshed of this thirty minutes at Cold Harbor, of which fact there is sufficient proof. "So gloomy," says a Northern historian, "was the military outlook after the action on the Chickahominy, and to such a degree, by consequence, had the moral spring of the public mind become relaxed, that there was at this time great danger of a collapse of the war. The history of this conflict, truthfully written, will show this. The archives of the State Department, when one day made public, will show how deeply the Government was affected by the want of military success, and to what resolutions the Executive had in consequence come. Had not success elsewhere come to brighten the horizon, it would have been difficult to have raised new forces to recruit the Army of the Potomac, which, shaken in its structure, its valor quenched in blood, and thousands of its ablest officers killed and wounded, was the Army of the Potomac no more."
[Footnote 1: Mr. Swinton, in his able and candid "Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac."]
The campaign of one month—from May 4th to June 4th—had cost the Federal commander sixty thousand men and three thousand officers—numbers which are given on the authority of Federal historians—while the loss of Lee did not exceed eighteen thousand. The result would seem an unfavorable comment upon the choice of the route across the country from Culpepper instead of that by the James. General McClellan, two years before, had reached Cold Harbor with trifling losses. To attain the same point had cost General Grant a frightful number of lives. Nor could it be said that he had any important successes to offset this loss. He had not defeated his adversary in any of the battle-fields of the campaign; nor did it seem that he had stricken him any serious blow. The Army of Northern Virginia, not reenforced until it reached Hanover Junction, and then only by about nine thousand men under Generals Breckinridge and Pickett, had held its ground against the large force opposed to it; had repulsed every assault; and, in a final trial of strength with a force largely its superior, had inflicted upon the enemy, in about an hour, a loss of thirteen thousand men.
These facts, highly honorable to Lee and his troops, are the plainest and most compendious comment we can make upon the campaign. The whole movement of General Grant across Virginia is, indeed, now conceded even by his admirers to have been unfortunate. It failed to accomplish the end expected from it—the investment of Richmond on the north and west—and the lives of about sixty thousand men were, it would seem, unnecessarily lost, to reach a position which might have been attained with losses comparatively trifling, and without the unfortunate prestige of defeat.
FIRST BATTLES AT PETERSBURG.
General Lee remained facing his adversary in his lines at Cold Harbor, for many days after the bloody struggle of the 3d of June, confident of his ability to repulse any new attack, and completely barring the way to Richmond. The Federal campaign, it was now seen, was at an end on that line, and it was obvious that General Grant must adopt some other plan, in spite of his determination expressed in the beginning of the campaign, to "fight it out on that line if it took all the summer." The summer was but begun, and further fighting on that line was hopeless. Under these circumstances the Federal commander resolved to give up the attempt to assail Richmond from the north or east, and by a rapid movement to Petersburg, seize upon that place, cut the Confederate railroads leading southward, and thus compel an evacuation of the capital.
It would be interesting to inquire what the course of General Lee would have been in the event of the success of this plan, and how the war would have resulted. It would seem that, under such circumstances, his only resource would have been to retire with his army in the direction of Lynchburg, where his communications would have remained open with the south and west. If driven from that point, the fastnesses of the Alleghanies were at hand; and, contemplating afterward the possibility of being forced to take refuge there, he said: "With my army in the mountains of Virginia, I could carry on this war for twenty years longer." That spectacle was lost to the world—Lee and his army fighting from mountain fastness to mountain fastness—and the annals of war are not illustrated by a chapter so strange. That Lee was confident of his ability to carry on such a struggle successfully is certain; and Washington had conceived the same idea in the old Revolution, when he said that if he were driven from the seaboard he would take refuge in West Augusta, and thereby prolong the war interminably.
To return from these speculations to the narrative of events. General Grant remained in front of Lee until the 12th of June, when, moving again by his left flank, he crossed the Chickahominy, proceeded in the direction of City Point, at which place the Appomattox and James Rivers mingle their waters, and, crossing the James on pontoons, hastened forward in order to seize upon Petersburg. This important undertaking had been strangely neglected by Major-General Butler, who, in obedience to General Grant's orders, had sailed from Fortress Monroe on the 4th of May, reached Bermuda Hundred, the peninsula opposite City Point, made by a remarkable bend in James River, and proceeded to intrench himself. It was in his power on his arrival to have seized upon Petersburg, but this he failed to do at that time, and the appearance of a force under General Beauregard, from the south, soon induced him to give his entire attention to his own safety. An attack by Beauregard had been promptly made, which nearly resulted in General Butler's destruction. He succeeded, however, in retiring behind his works across the neck of the Peninsula, in which he now found himself completely shut up; and so powerless was his situation, with his large force of thirty thousand men, that General Grant wrote, "His army was as completely shut off ... as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked."
The attempt of General Grant to seize upon Petersburg by a surprise failed. His forces were not able to reach the vicinity of the place until the 15th, when they were bravely opposed behind impromptu works by a body of local troops, who fought like regular soldiers, and succeeded in holding the works until night ended the contest.
When morning came long lines were seen defiling into the breastworks, and the familiar battle-flags of the Army of Northern Virginia rose above the long line of bayonets giving assurance that the possession of Petersburg would be obstinately disputed.
General Lee had moved with his accustomed celerity, and, as usual, without that loss of time which results from doubt of an adversary's intentions. If General Grant retired without another battle on the Chickahominy, it was obvious to Lee that he must design one of two things: either to advance upon Richmond from the direction of Charles City, or attempt a campaign against the capital from the south of James River. Lee seems at once to have satisfied himself that the latter was the design. An inconsiderable force was sent to feel the enemy near the White-Oak Swamp; he was encountered there in some force, but, satisfied that this was a feint to mislead him, General Lee proceeded to cross the James River above Drury's Bluff, near "Wilton," and concentrate his army at Petersburg. On the 16th he was in face of his adversary there. General Grant had adopted the plan of campaign which Lee expected him to adopt. General McClellan had not been permitted in 1862 to carry out the same plan; it was now undertaken by General Grant, who sustained better relations toward the Government, and the result would seem to indicate that General McClellan was, after all, a soldier of sound views.
As soon as General Lee reached Petersburg, he began promptly to draw a regular line of earthworks around the city, to the east and south, for its defence. It was obvious that General Grant would lose no time in striking at him, in order to take advantage of the slight character of the defences already existing; and this anticipation was speedily realized. General Lee had scarcely gotten his forces in position on the 16th when he was furiously attacked, and such was the weight of this assault that Lee was forced from his advanced position, east of the city, behind his second line of works, by this time well forward in process of construction. Against this new line General Grant threw heavy forces, in attack after attack, on the 17th and 18th, losing, it is said, more than four thousand men, but effecting nothing. On the 21st General Lee was called upon to meet a more formidable assault than any of the preceding ones—this time more to his right, in the vicinity of the Weldon Railroad, which runs southward from Petersburg. A heavy line was advanced in that quarter by the enemy; but, observing that an interval had been left between two of their corps, General Lee threw forward a column under General Hill, cut the Federal lines, and repulsed their attack, bearing off nearly three thousand prisoners.
On the same night an important cavalry expedition, consisting of the divisions of General Wilson and Kautz, numbering about six thousand horse, was sent westward to cut the Weldon, Southside, and Danville Railroads, which connected the Southern army with the South and West. This raid resulted in apparently great but really unimportant injury to the Confederate communications against which it was directed. The Federal cavalry tore up large portions of the tracks of all three railroads, burning the wood-work, and laying waste the country around; but the further results of the expedition were unfavorable. They were pursued and harassed by a small body of cavalry under General W. H.F. Lee, and, on their return in the direction of Reams's Station, were met near Sapponey Church by a force of fifteen hundred cavalry under General Hampton. That energetic officer at once attacked; the fighting continued furiously throughout the entire night, and at dawn the Federal horse retreated in confusion. Their misfortunes were not, however, ended. Near Reams's, at which point they attempted to cross the Weldon Railroad, they were met by General Fitz Lee's horsemen and about two hundred infantry under General Mahone, and this force completed their discomfiture. After a brief attempt to force their way through the unforeseen obstacle, they broke in disorder, leaving behind them twelve pieces of artillery, and more than a thousand prisoners, and, with foaming and exhausted horses, regained the Federal lines.
Such was the result of an expedition from which General Grant probably expected much. The damage done to Lee's communications was inconsiderable, and did not repay the Federal commander for the losses sustained. The railroads were soon repaired and in working order again; and the Federal cavalry was for the time rendered unfit for further operations.
It was now the end of June, and every attempt made by General Grant to force Lee's lines had proved unsuccessful. It was apparent that surprise of the able commander of the Confederate army was hopeless. His works were growing stronger every day, and nothing was left to his great adversary but to lay regular siege to the long line of fortifications; to draw lines for the protection of his own front from attack; and, by gradually extending his left, reach out toward the Weldon and Southside Railroads.
To obtain possession of these roads was from this time General Grant's great object; and all his movements were shaped by that paramount consideration.
THE SIEGE OF RICHMOND BEGUN.
The first days of July, 1864, witnessed, at Petersburg, the commencement of a series of military manoeuvres, for which few, if any, precedents existed in all the annals of war. An army of forty or fifty thousand men, intrenched along a line extending finally over a distance of nearly forty miles, was defending, against a force of about thrice its numbers, a capital more than twenty miles in its rear; and, from July of one year to April of the next, there never was a moment when, to have broken through this line, would not have terminated the war, and resulted in the destruction of the Confederacy.
A few words in reference to the topography of the country and the situation will show this. Petersburg is twenty-two miles south of Richmond, and is connected with the South and West by the Weldon and Southside Railroads, which latter road crosses the Danville Railroad, the main line of communication between the capital and the Gulf States. With the enemy once holding these roads and those north of the city, as they were preparing to do, the capital would be isolated, and the Confederate Government must evacuate Virginia. In that event the Army of Northern Virginia had also nothing left to it but retreat. Virginia must be abandoned; the Federal authority would be extended over the oldest and one of the largest and most important members of the Confederacy; and, under circumstances so adverse, it might well be a question whether, disheartened as they would be by the loss of so powerful an ally, the other States of the Confederacy would have sufficient resolution to continue the contest.
These considerations are said to have been fully weighed by General Lee, whose far-reaching military sagacity divined the exact situation of affairs, and the probable results of a conflict so unequal as that which General Grant now forced upon him. We have noticed, on a preceding page, his opinions upon this subject, expressed to a confidential friend as far back as 1862. He then declared that the true line of assault upon Richmond was that now adopted by General Grant. As long as the capital was assailed from the north or the east, he might hope with some reason, by hard fighting, to repulse the assault, and hold Richmond. But, with an enemy at Petersburg, threatening with a large force the Southern railroads, it was obviously only a question of time when Richmond, and consequently Virginia, must be abandoned.
General Lee, we repeat, fully realized the facts here stated, when his adversary, giving up all other lines, crossed James River to Petersburg. Lee is said, we know not with what truth, to have coolly recommended an evacuation of Richmond. But this met with no favor. A powerful party, including both the friends and enemies of the Executive, spoke of the movement as a "pernicious idea." If recommended by Lee, it was speedily abandoned, and all the energies of the Government were concentrated upon the difficult task of holding the enemy at arm's length south of the Appomattox and in Charles City.
In a few weeks after the appearance of the adversaries opposite each other at Petersburg, the lines of leaguer and defence were drawn, and the long struggle began. General Grant had crossed a force into Charles City, on the north bank of James River, and thus menaced Richmond with an assault from that quarter. His line extended thence across the neck of the Peninsula of Bermuda Hundred, and east and south of Petersburg, where, day by day, it gradually reached westward, approaching nearer and nearer to the railroads feeding the Southern army and capital. Lee's line conformed itself to that of his adversary. In addition to the works east and southeast of Richmond, an exterior chain of defences had been drawn, facing the hostile force near Deep Bottom; and the river at Drury's Bluff, a fortification of some strength, had been guarded, by sunken obstructions, against the approach of the Federal gunboats. The Southern lines then continued, facing those of the enemy north of the Appomattox, and, crossing that stream, extended around the city of Petersburg, gradually moving westward in conformity with the works of General Grant. A glance at the accompanying diagram will clearly indicate the positions and relations to each other of the Federal and Confederate works. These will show that the real struggle was anticipated, by both commanders, west of Petersburg; and, as the days wore on, it was more and more apparent that somewhere in the vicinity of Dinwiddie Court-House the last great wrestle of the opposing armies must take place.
To that conclusive trial of strength we shall advance with as few interruptions as possible. The operations of the two armies at Petersburg do not possess, for the general reader, that dramatic interest which is found in battles such as those of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, deciding for the time the fates of great campaigns. At Petersburg the fighting seemed to decide little, and the bloody collisions had no names. The day of pitched battles, indeed, seemed past. It was one long battle, day and night, week after week, and month after month—during the heat of summer, the sad hours of autumn, and the cold days and nights of winter. It was, in fact, the siege of Richmond which General Grant had undertaken, and the fighting consisted less of battles, in the ordinary acceptation of that word, than of attempts to break through the lines of his adversary—now north of James River, now east of Petersburg, now at some point in the long chain of redans which guarded the approaches to the coveted Southside Railroad, which, once in possession of the Federal commander, would give him victory.
Of this long, obstinate, and bloody struggle we shall describe only those prominent incidents which rose above the rest with a species of dramatic splendor. For the full narrative the reader must have recourse to military histories aiming to chronicle the operations of each corps, division, and brigade in the two armies—a minuteness of detail beyond our scope, and probably not desired by those who will peruse these pages.
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 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.
THE MINE EXPLOSION.
The end of the month of July was now approaching, and every attempt made by General Grant to break through Lee's lines had resulted in failure. At every point which he assailed, an armed force, sufficient to repulse his most vigorous attacks, seemed to spring from the earth; and no movement of the Federal forces, however sudden and rapid, had been able to take the Confederate commander unawares. The campaign was apparently settling down into stubborn fighting, day and night, in which the object of General Grant was to carry out his programme of attrition. Such was the feeling in both armies when, at dawn on the 30th of July, a loud explosion, heard for thirty miles, took place on the lines near Petersburg, and a vast column of smoke, shooting upward to a great height, seemed to indicate the blowing up of an extensive magazine.
Instead of a magazine, it was a mine which had thus been exploded; and the incident was not the least singular of a campaign unlike any which had preceded it.
The plan of forming a breach in the Southern works, by exploding a mine beneath them, is said by Northern writers to have originated with a subordinate officer of the Federal army, who, observing the close proximity of the opposing works near Petersburg, conceived it feasible to construct a subterranean gallery, reaching beneath those of General Lee. The undertaking was begun, the earth being carried off in cracker-boxes; and such was the steady persistence of the workmen that a gallery five hundred feet long, with lateral openings beneath the Confederate works, was soon finished; and in these lateral recesses was placed a large amount of powder.
All was now ready, and the question was how to utilize the explosion. General Grant decided to follow it by a sudden charge through the breach, seize a crest in rear, and thus interpose a force directly in the centre of Lee's line. A singular discussion, however, arose, and caused some embarrassment. Should the assaulting column consist of white or negro troops? This question was decided, General Grant afterward declared, by "pulling straws or tossing coppers"—the white troops were the fortunate or unfortunate ones—and on the morning of July 30th the mine was exploded. The effect was frightful, and the incident will long be remembered by those present and escaping unharmed. The small Southern force and artillery immediately above the mine were hurled into the air. An opening, one hundred and fifty feet long, sixty feet wide, and thirty feet deep, suddenly appeared, where a moment before had extended the Confederate earthworks; and the Federal division, selected for the charge, rushed forward to pierce the opening.
The result did not justify the sanguine expectations which seem to have been excited in the breasts of the Federal officers. A Southern writer thus describes what ensued:
"The 'white division' charged, reached the crater, stumbled over the debris, were suddenly met by a merciless fire of artillery, enfilading them right and left, and of infantry fusillading them in front; faltered, hesitated, were badly led, lost heart, gave up the plan of seizing the crest in rear, huddled into the crater, man on top of man, company mingled with company; and upon this disordered, unstrung, quivering mass of human beings, white and black—for the black troops had followed—was poured a hurricane of shot, shell, canister, musketry, which made the hideous crater a slaughter-pen, horrible and frightful beyond the power of words. All order was lost; all idea of charging the crest abandoned. Lee's infantry was seen concentrating for the carnival of death; his artillery was massing to destroy the remnants of the charging divisions; those who deserted the crater, to scramble over the debris and run back, were shot down; then all that was left to the shuddering mass of blacks and whites in the pit was to shrink lower, evade the horrible mitraille, and wait for a charge of their friends to rescue them or surrender."
These sentences sufficiently describe the painful scene which followed the explosion of the mine. The charging column was unable to advance in face of the very heavy fire directed upon them by the Southern infantry and artillery; and the effect of this fire was so appalling that General Mahone, commanding at the spot, is said to have ordered it to cease, adding that the spectacle made him sick. The Federal forces finally succeeded in making their way back, with a loss of about four thousand prisoners; and General Lee, whose losses had been small, reestablished his line without interruption.
Before passing from this incident, a singular circumstance connected with it is deserving of mention. This was the declaration of the Congressional Committee, which in due time investigated the whole affair.
The conclusion of the committee was not flattering to the veteran Army of the Potomac. The report declared that "the first and great cause of disaster was the employment of white instead of black troops to make the charge."
END OF THE CAMPAIGN OF 1864.
Throughout the months of August and September, Lee continued to be attacked at various points along his entire front, but succeeded in repulsing every assault. General Grant's design may be said, in general terms, to have been a steady extension of his left toward the Confederate communications west of Petersburg, while taking the chances, by attacks north of James River, to break through in that quarter and seize upon Richmond. It is probable that his hopes of effecting the last-mentioned object were small; but operations in that direction promised the more probable result of causing Lee to weaken his right, and thus uncover the Southside Railroad.
An indecisive attack on the north of James River was followed, toward the end of August, by a heavy advance, to seize upon the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg. In this General Grant succeeded, an event clearly foreseen by Lee, who had long before informed the authorities that he could not hold this road. General Grant followed up this success by sending heavy forces to seize Reams's Station, on the same road, farther south, and afterward to destroy it to Hicksford—which, however, effected less favorable results, Lee meeting and defeating both forces after obstinate engagements, in which the Federal troops lost heavily, and were compelled to retreat.
These varying successes did not, however, materially affect the general result. The Federal left gradually reached farther and farther westward, until finally it had passed the Vaughan, Squirrel Level, and other roads, running south-westward from Petersburg, and in October was established on the left bank of Hatcher's Run, which unites with Gravelly Run to form the Rowanty. It was now obvious that a further extension of the Federal left would probably enable General Grant to seize upon the Southside Railroad. An energetic attempt was speedily made by him to effect this important object, to which it is said he attached great importance from its anticipated bearing on the approaching presidential election.
On the 27th of October a heavy column was thrown across Hatcher's Run, in the vicinity of Burgess's Mill, on the Boydton Road, and an obstinate attack was made on Lee's lines there with the view of breaking through to the Southside Road. In this, however, General Grant did not succeed. His column was met in front and flank by Generals Hampton—who here lost his brave son, Preston—and W.H.F. Lee, with dismounted sharp-shooters; infantry was hastened to the threatened point by General Lee, and, after an obstinate struggle, the Federal force was driven back. General Lee reporting that General Mahone charged and "broke three lines of battle."
[Footnote 1: Dispatch of Lee, October 28, 1864.—It was the habit of General Lee, throughout the last campaign of the war, to send to Richmond, from time to time, brief dispatches announcing whatever occurred along the lines; and these, in the absence of official reports of these occurrences on the Confederate side, are valuable records of the progress of affairs. These brief summaries are reliable from the absence of all exaggeration, but cannot be depended upon by the historian, for a very singular reason, namely, that almost invariably the Confederate successes are understated. On the present occasion, the Federal loss in prisoners near Burgess's Mill and east of Richmond—where General Grant had attacked at the same time to effect a diversion—are put down by General Lee at eight hundred, whereas thirteen hundred and sixty-five were received at Richmond.
Lee's dispatch of October 28th is here given, as a specimen of these brief military reports.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
October 28, 1864.
Hon. Secretary of War:
General Hill reports that the attack of General Heth upon the enemy on the Boydton Plank-road, mentioned in my dispatch last evening, was made by three brigades under General Mahone in front, and General Hampton in the rear. Mahone captured four hundred prisoners, three stand of colors, and six pieces of artillery. The latter could not be brought off, the enemy having possession of the bridge.
In the attack subsequently made by the enemy General Mahone broke three lines of battle, and during the night the enemy retreated from the Boydton Road, leaving his wounded and more than two hundred and fifty dead on the field.
About nine o'clock P.M. a small force assaulted and took possession of our works on the Baxter Road, in front of Petersburg, but were soon driven out.
On the Williamsburg Road General Field captured upward of four hundred prisoners and seven stand of colors. The enemy left a number of dead in front of our works, and to-day retreated to his former position.
With this repulse of the Federal forces terminated active operations of importance for the year; and but one other attempt was made, during the winter, to gain ground on the left. This took place early in February, and resulted in failure like the former—the Confederates losing, however, the brave General John Pegram.
The presidential election at the North had been decided in favor of Mr. Lincoln—General McClellan and Mr. Pendleton, the supposed advocates of peace, suffering defeat. The significance of this fact was unmistakable. It was now seen that unless the Confederates fought their way to independence, there was no hope of a favorable termination of the war, and this conclusion was courageously faced by General Lee. The outlook for the coming year was far from encouraging; the resources of the Confederacy were steadily being reduced; her coasts were blockaded; her armies were diminishing; discouragement seemed slowly to be invading every heart—but, in the midst of this general foreboding, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia retained an august composure; and, conversing with one of the Southern Senators, said, "For myself, I intend to die sword in hand."
That his sense of duty did not afterward permit him to do so, was perhaps one of the bitterest pangs of his whole life.
LEE IN THE WINTER OF 1864-'65.
Before entering upon the narrative of the last and decisive campaign of the war, we shall speak of the personal demeanor of General Lee at this time, and endeavor to account for a circumstance which astonished many persons—his surprising equanimity, and even cheerfulness, under the pressure of cares sufficient, it would seem, to crush the most powerful organization.
He had established his headquarters a mile or two west of Petersburg, on the Cox Road, nearly opposite his centre, and here he seemed to await whatever the future would bring with a tranquillity which was a source of surprise and admiration to all who were thrown in contact with him. Many persons will bear their testimony to this extraordinary composure. His countenance seldom, if ever, exhibited the least traces of anxiety, but was firm, hopeful, and encouraged those around him in the belief that he was still confident of success. That he did not, however, look forward with any thing like hope to such success, we have endeavored already to show. From the first, he seems to have regarded his situation, unless his army were largely reenforced, as almost desperate; those reenforcements did not come; and yet, as he saw his numbers day by day decreasing, and General Grant's increasing a still larger ratio, he retained his courage, confronting the misfortunes closing in upon him with unmoved composure, and at no time seemed to lose his "heart of hope."
Of this phenomenon the explanation has been sought in the constitutional courage of the individual, and that instinctive rebound against fate which takes place in great organizations. This explanation, doubtless, is not without a certain amount of truth; but an attentive consideration of the principles which guided this eminent soldier throughout his career, will show that his equanimity, at a moment so trying, was due to another and more controlling sentiment. This sentiment was his devotion to Duty—"the sublimest word in our language." Throughout his entire life he had sought to discover and perform his duty, without regard to consequences. That had been with him the great question in April, 1861, when the war broke out: he had decided in his own mind what he ought to do, and had not hesitated.
From that time forward he continued to do what Duty commanded without a murmur. In the obscure campaign of Western Virginia—in the unnoted work of fortifying the Southern coast—in the great campaigns which he had subsequently fought—and everywhere, his consciousness of having performed his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability sustained him. It sustained him, above all, at Gettysburg, where he had done his best, giving him strength to take upon himself the responsibility of that disaster; and, now, in these last dark days at Petersburg, it must have been the sense of having done his whole duty, and expended upon the cause every energy of his being, which enabled him to meet the approaching catastrophe with a calmness which seemed to those around him almost sublime.
If this be not the explanation of the composure of General Lee, throughout the last great struggle with the Federal Army, the writer of these pages is at a loss to account for it. The phenomenon was plain to all eyes, and crowned the soldier with a glory greater than that which he had derived from his most decisive military successes. Great and unmoved in the dark hour as in the bright, he seemed to have determined to perform his duty to the last, and to shape his conduct, under whatever pressure of disaster, upon the two maxims, "Do your duty," and "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."
There is little reason to doubt that General Lee saw this "calamity" coming, for the effort to reenforce his small army with fresh levies seemed hopeless. The reasons for this unfortunate state of things must be sought elsewhere. The unfortunate fact will be stated, without comment, that, while the Federal army was regularly and largely reenforced, so that its numbers at no time fell below one hundred and fifty thousand men. Lee's entire force at Petersburg at no time reached sixty thousand, and in the spring of 1865, when he still continued to hold his long line of defences, numbered scarcely half of sixty thousand. This was the primary cause of the failure of the struggle. General Grant's immense hammer continued to beat upon his adversary, wearing away his strength day by day. No new troops arrived to take the places of those who had fallen; and General Lee saw, drawing closer and closer, the inevitable hour when, driven from his works, or with the Federal army upon his communications, he must cut his way southward or surrender.
A last circumstance in reference to General Lee's position at this time should be stated; the fact that, from the autumn of 1864 to the end in the spring of 1865, he was felt by the country and the army to be the sole hope of the Confederacy. To him alone now all men looked as the deus ex machina to extricate them from the dangers surrounding them. This sentiment needed no expression in words. It was seen in the faces and the very tones of voice of all. Old men visited him, and begged him with faltering voices not to expose himself, for, if he were killed, all would be lost. The troops followed him with their eyes, or their cheers, whenever he appeared, feeling a singular sense of confidence from the presence of the gray-haired soldier in his plain uniform, and assured that, as long as Lee led them, the cause was safe. All classes of the people thus regarded the fate of the Confederacy as resting, not partially, but solely, upon the shoulders of Lee; and, although he was not entitled by his rank in the service to direct operations in other quarters than Virginia, there was a very general desire that the whole conduct of the war everywhere should be intrusted to his hands. This was done, as will be seen, toward the spring of 1865, but it was too late.
These notices of General Lee individually are necessary to a clear comprehension of the concluding incidents of the great conflict. It is doubtful if, in any other struggle of history, the hopes of a people were more entirely wrapped up in a single individual. All criticisms of the eminent soldier had long since been silenced, and it may, indeed, be said that something like a superstitious confidence in his fortunes had become widely disseminated. It was the general sentiment, even when Lee himself saw the end surely approaching, that all was safe while he remained in command of the army. This hallucination must have greatly pained him, for no one ever saw more clearly, or was less blinded by irrational confidence. Lee fully understood and represented to the civil authorities—with whom his relations were perfectly friendly and cordial—that if his lines were broken at any point, the fate of the campaign was sealed. Feeling this truth, of which his military sagacity left him in no doubt, he had to bear the further weight of that general confidence which he did not share. He did not complain, however, or in any manner indicate the desperate straits to which he had come. He called for fresh troops to supply his losses; when they did not arrive he continued to oppose his powerful adversary with the remnant still at his command. These were now more like old comrades than mere private soldiers under his orders. What was left of the army was its best material. The fires of battle had tested the metal, and that which emerged from the furnace was gold free from alloy. The men remaining with Lee were those whom no peril of the cause in which they were fighting could dishearten or prompt to desert or even temporarily absent themselves from the Southern standard; and this corps d' elite was devoted wholly to their commander. For this devotion they certainly had valid reason. Never had leader exhibited a more systematic, unfailing, and almost tender care of his troops. Lee seemed to feel that these veterans in their ragged jackets, with their gaunt faces, were personal friends of his own, who were entitled to his most affectionate exertions for their welfare. His calls on the civil authorities in their behalf were unceasing. The burden of these demands was that, unless his men's wants were attended to, the Southern cause was lost; and it plainly revolted his sense of the fitness of things that men upon whom depended the fate of the South should be shoeless, in tatters, and forced to subsist on a quarter of a pound of rancid bacon and a little corn bread, when thousands remaining out of the army, and dodging the enrolling-officers, were well clothed and fed, and never heard the whistle of a bullet. The men understood this care for them, and returned the affectionate solicitude of their commander in full. He was now their ideal of a leader, and all that he did was perfect in their eyes. All awe of him had long since left them—they understood what treasures of kindness and simplicity lay under the grave exterior. The tattered privates approached the commander-in-chief without embarrassment, and his reception of them was such as to make them love him more than ever. Had we space we might dwell upon this marked respect and attention paid by General Lee to his private soldiers. He seemed to think them more worthy of marks of regard than his highest officers. And there was never the least air of condescension in him when thrown with them, but a perfect simplicity, kindness, and unaffected sympathy, which went to their hearts. This was almost a natural gift with Lee, and arose from the genuine goodness of his heart. His feeling toward his soldiers is shown in an incident which occurred at this time, and was thus related in one of the Richmond journals: "A gentleman who was in the train from this city to Petersburg, a very cold morning not long ago, tells us his attention was attracted by the efforts of a young soldier, with his arm in a sling, to get his overcoat on. His teeth, as well as his sound arm, were brought into use to effect the object; but, in the midst of his efforts, an officer rose from his seat, advanced to him, and very carefully and tenderly assisted him, drawing the coat gently over his wounded arm, and buttoning it up comfortably; then, with a few kind and pleasant words, returning to his seat. Now the officer in question was not clad in gorgeous uniform, with a brilliant wreath upon his collar, and a multitude of gilt lines upon the sleeves, resembling the famous labyrinth of Crete, but he was clad in a simple suit of gray, distinguished from the garb of a civilian only by the three stars which every Confederate colonel in the service, by the regulations, is entitled to wear. And yet he was no other than our chief, General Robert E. Lee, who is not braver than he is good and modest."
To terminate this brief sketch of General Lee, personally, in the winter of 1864. He looked much older than at the beginning of the war, but by no means less hardy or robust. On the contrary, the arduous campaigns through which he had passed seemed to have hardened him—developing to the highest degree the native strength of his physical organization. His cheeks were ruddy, and his eye had that clear light which indicates the presence of the calm, self-poised will. But his hair had grown gray, like his beard and mustache, which were worn short and well-trimmed. His dress, as always, was a plain and serviceable gray uniform, with no indications of rank save the stars on the collar. Cavalry-boots reached nearly to his knees, and he seldom wore any weapon. A broad-brimmed gray-felt hat rested low upon the forehead; and the movements of this soldierly figure were as firm, measured, and imposing, as ever. It was impossible to discern in General Lee any evidences of impaired strength, or any trace of the wearing hardships through which he had passed. He seemed made of iron, and would remain in his saddle all day, and then at his desk half the night, without apparently feeling any fatigue. He was still almost an anchorite in his personal habits, and lived so poorly that it is said he was compelled to borrow a small piece of meat when unexpected visitors dined with him.
Such, in brief outline, was the individual upon whose shoulders, in the last months of 1864 and the early part of 1865, rested the Southern Confederacy.
THE SITUATION AT THE BEGINNING OF 1865.
In approaching the narrative of the last tragic scenes of the Confederate struggle, the writer of these pages experiences emotions of sadness which will probably be shared by not a few even of those readers whose sympathies, from the nature of things, were on the side of the North. To doubt this would be painful, and would indicate a contempt for human nature. Not only in the eyes of his friends and followers, but even in the eyes of his bitterest enemies, Lee must surely have appeared great and noble. Right or wrong in the struggle, he believed that he was performing his duty; and the brave army at his back, which had fought so heroically, were inspired by the same sentiment, and risked all on the issue.
This great soldier was now about to suffer the cruellest pang which the spite of Fate can inflict, and his army to be disbanded, to return in poverty and defeat to their homes. That spectacle was surely tragic, and appealed to the hardest heart; and if any rejoiced in such misery he must have been unsusceptible of the sentiment of admiration for heroism in misfortune.
The last and decisive struggle between the two armies at Petersburg began in March, 1865. But events of great importance in many quarters had preceded this final conflict, the result of which had been to break down all the outer defences of the Confederacy, leaving only the inner citadel still intact. The events in question are so familiar to those who will peruse these pages, that a passing reference to them is all that is necessary. Affairs in the Valley of Virginia, from autumn to spring, had steadily proceeded from bad to worse. In September, General Sheridan, with a force of about forty-five thousand, had assailed General Early near Winchester, with a force of about eight or nine thousand muskets, and succeeded in driving him up the Valley beyond Strasburg, whence, attacked a second time, he had retreated toward Staunton. This was followed, in October, by another battle at Cedar Run, where Early attacked and nearly crushed General Sheridan, but eventually was again repulsed, and forced a second time to retreat up the Valley to Waynesboro', where, in February, his little remnant was assailed by overwhelming numbers and dispersed. General Sheridan, who had effected this inglorious but important success, then proceeded to the Lowlands, joined General Grant's army, and was ready, with his large force of horse, to take part in the coming battles.