The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton
AGAINST HEAVY ODDS
THE beginning of the campaign of 1864 found the Confederacy in sore straits. Almost all its able-bodied men were in the army, and the boys were now enlisting, and, as Grant said, “the seed corn” was thus taken from the South. In the West the Confederate cause had met disaster as early as 1862 with the capture of Forts Donelson and Henry by Grant, the battle of Shiloh with the death of the gallant Albert Sidney Johnston, and the fall of Nashville and New Orleans. The loss of Vicksburg in 1863 had given the last stronghold on the Mississippi River to the Federal forces. The blockade had become so effective that only Wilmington, North Carolina, remained open, and the blockade-running there steadily became more and more difficult. The South was like some animal confined in a glass bell from which the air is slowly being drawn out.
In the South the railroads, which had been poor enough at the beginning of the war, were growing hopelessly inefficient. Rails, cars, and engines, as they wore out, could not be replaced. Want and distress were widespread, and, in many places, supplies of food, even of the simplest sort, were scarce. Prices, because of this and because of the great quantity of paper money in circulation, were very high. Country jeans sold for twenty-five dollars a yard, calico for thirty dollars, a pair of cotton socks for ten dollars, a wheat-straw hat for twenty dollars, and a bushel of meal for twenty-five dollars. There was no tea, no coffee, and little sugar. Salt and soda were both very scarce. The following accounts, written just at the close of the war, give a good picture of conditions in parts of the South to which the Federal armies had not penetrated:—
Many families of the highest respectability and refinement lived for months on corn-bread, sorghum, and peas; meat was seldom on the table, tea and coffee never; dried apples and peaches were a luxury; children went barefoot through the winter, and ladies made their own shoes, and wove their own homespuns; carpets were cut up into blankets, and window curtains and sheets were torn up for hospital uses; soldiers' socks were knit day and night, while for home service clothes were twice turned, and patches were patched again; and all this continually, and with an energy and cheerfulness that may well be called heroic.
Every available bit of paper, every page of old account books, whether already written on one side or not, and even the fly leaves of printed volumes . . . were ferreted out and exhausted. Envelopes were made of scraps of wall-paper and from the pictorial pages of old books, the white side out, stuck together in some cases with the gum that exudes from peach trees.
Between the South and the final defeat lay now Joseph E. Johnston's army in Georgia, a small force in the West, and Lee's army of Northern Virginia. There was no new supply of men for them to draw from, and every man lost meant a permanently decreased force. Opposing these armies were strong, well-equipped Federal forces, backed by unlimited money and fresh men, as well as supplies of every sort in limitless quantities. No army in the history of the world to that time had ever been so splendidly supplied and equipped as the Federal army. In spite of its terrific losses the North grew steadily in wealth and prosperity during the war. Also it suffered scarcely at all from the presence of armies, since the South was the battle-ground of the war.
Grant's plan of campaign provided that each of the Federal armies should try to hold the attention of the entire Confederacy and thus prevent any attempt of one Confederate army to reinforce another. He planned that the Army of the Potomac should move toward Richmond from the north, and said that he proposed “to fight it out along that line if it takes all summer.” General Butler was to come up the James from Fortress Monroe, and it was believed that by these methods the summer would see the close of the war.
Early in May Grant, with an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men, crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness, a region so named because of its tangled thickets of pine, scrub-oak, hazel, and chinquapin. Here there were hardly any inhabitants and only two public roads. As soon as the Federal army had got well into the Wilderness, Lee attacked it, and there followed a terrible battle which lasted two days. Longstreet was once more late, and it is possible that he thus prevented a complete victory for Lee. The horror of the battle was many times increased by the furious burning of the woods, together with the dead and wounded, the undergrowth having caught from the firing of the guns. For many days a heavy pall of smoke hung over all the country.
In spite of his great losses and defeat, Grant did not retreat. He had all the tenacity of a bulldog and did not consider such a thing. Instead, by a flank movement, he pressed on toward Richmond. Lee then fell back and met him at Spottsylvania Court House, where, between May 8 and May 13, a series of furiously contested battles occured in which Grant failed to break the Confederate lines. Here was the famous “Bloody Angle,” first in the possession of one and then of the other side during the whole conflict, and noted for the frenzied fighting which took place there. Grant, upon receiving reinforcements, again attacked, but without success. He then again moved by the left flank, but at Cold Harbor Lee succeeded in establishing himself in such a position that another flank movement by Grant would carry the Federal army beyond Richmond. Just at this time Stuart was killed, and his death meant a heavy loss to Lee and to the Confederate cause. On June 3 Grant tried to break the Confederate lines by direct assault and lost twelve thousand men in twenty minutes. This crushing disaster ended the campaign, one remarkable both for the brilliance of Lee's defense and for the splendid energy of Grant's attacks, which last would have been impossible in the face of such losses but for the superb bravery of the Federal troops. Since crossing the Rapidan Grant had lost more than sixty thousand men, or almost as many as Lee's whole army. Lee had lost twenty thousand, and he could ill afford the loss, since there were none to take the places of those who had been killed. The men in the Confederate army had fought a large part of the time on a daily ration of three crackers and a small piece of salt pork, and they were now almost exhausted. Grant now abandoned his plan of campaign and, skillfully swinging his army across the James, moved on Richmond from the south. At Petersburg, twenty miles from Richmond, there were strong fortifications which had been erected under Lee's orders in 1862, and into them Lee at once moved his army. Attempts of the Federals to carry them by storm failed, and a plan to mine them resulted in an engagement known as the “Battle of the Crater” in which the Federal losses were greater than those of the Confederates. Grant then settled down for a siege. He threw up the most powerful fortifications used during the war, and then succeeded in cutting the railroad running from Petersburg south, by which the Confederates received most of their supplies.
The further defense of Richmond, from a military standpoint, was a mistake, and Lee advised giving it up. But President Davis regarded the continued possession of the capital as of first importance to the Confederate cause and would not consent to its abandonment. Lee, like the good soldier he was, sought to make the best defense possible. He knew, of course, that the strength of his army would be lessened after standing a siege at Petersburg. He saw, too, the difficulty of combining with the other Confederate armies when such a combination should become necessary, that being, as he said, “ a mere question of time.”
In the meantime General Butler had been, as Grant said, “bottled up” at Bermuda Hundred by General Magruder. The Federal forces in the Valley, sent there to cut off supplies from Richmond, had met with spirited resistance. In the battle of New Market even the little boys from the Virginia Military Institute took part in the fighting and gained a victory. The Federals were finally driven out of the Valley by General Early, who then invaded Maryland and finally took up a position in front of Washington and in sight of the dome of the Capitol. Hearing that fresh troops had come against him in large numbers, he succeeded in retreating in good order. Later in July one of his subordinates burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The operations of the Confederates had become so vigorous that Grant sent Sheridan into the Valley, ordering him to destroy everything that could support an army, thus preventing Early's staying there, and also any future Confederate menace to Washington. Several battles were fought and Early was at last driven from the Valley. Sheridan, in carrying out Grant's orders, burned two thousand barns filled with grain and seventy mills filled with flour and wheat, and drove off most of the cattle and other stock. He then reported that “a crow flying across the Valley will have to carry its own rations.”
The siege of Petersburg, which lasted the rest of the summer of 1864 and all of the following winter, brought intense suffering to the army. Food was scarcer than ever, and all the soldiers were in rags and most of them without shoes through the bitter cold weather. The daily ration at best was one pound of flour and one half a pound of beef, but there were sometimes days and days together when the beef was lacking. Lee had only thirty-five thousand men to defend a line thirty-five miles long, and there was no hope of any important reinforcements.
In the West the Federals under Thomas had decisively defeated Hood, who had replaced Johnston in command. Sherman, after his march to the sea, captured Savannah, and later, as spring opened, moved north, capturing Charleston and Columbia, and invading North Carolina. As his army moved it stripped the whole country bare of food and all valuable movable property. Confronting him was Johnston, who was again in command, with a fairly large army. On January 15, 1865, Fort Fisher, at the mouth of the Cape Fear below Wilmington, fell, and the last gateway between the South and the world outside was closed.
Grant began the campaign of 1865 at the end of January and spread his force out south of Petersburg to cut off Lee's retreat and also his sources of supplies. Lee now wished to abandon immediately both Richmond and Petersburg and join Johnston, but he was forced to give up the plan because his half-starved horses could not pull the cannon and wagons over the soft roads. On January 31 Lee was made general-in-chief of all the armies of the Confederacy. He accepted and took charge at once. Had this been done two years before, great results might have followed, but matters had gone too far for him to be able to accomplish anything through his new power. Shortly afterwards he recommended the enlistment of negroes in the army, and Congress consented to this, but there was only time to enroll a very few, far too few to help the cause.
Late in March an effort on Lee's part to break Grant's line was partially successful, but men were lacking to follow up the advantage. Lee had already seen that Richmond must soon be abandoned and had notified President Davis of the fact. Supplies had been sent to Danville, a little town on the southern border of Virginia, so that Lee could leave his lines rapidly and, joining Johnston, with their combined forces attack Sherman before Grant could bring help. Grant foresaw this plan, and on April I attacked Lee at Five Forks, where the Confederate line was so weak that the men were seven yards apart. Lee at once notified Davis that he would move south toward Amelia Court House, where he had directed the War Department to have an abundance of supplies for his men. Richmond was at once evacuated and the Federal forces entered it just at the time that Grant was entering Petersburg. Here Grant was joined by Lincoln who later went to Richmond. The Confederates had in the meantime gone to Danville, which Davis reached on April 5.
Lee moved his troops as rapidly as possible to Amelia Court House, and was followed closely by Grant's columns. The Confederates, numbering less than thirty thousand men, were flushed with the joy of getting out of the trenches into the open fields, and they eagerly hoped that victory might yet be theirs. But when they reached Amelia Court House, there were no supplies there. Nearly twenty-four hours of precious time were lost in attempting to gather food and forage enough to enable the army to push on. There was an abundance of both at Danville, but here there was practically nothing. The hungry army could be furnished with nothing better than raw corn, and of that only one handful to each man, but not a man complained.
In the meantime, thanks to this delay, Sheridan had been able to place a force of cavalry across the proposed line of retreat to Danville. This forced Lee to turn westward toward Farmville, in the hope of being able to effect a junction with Johnston on the North Carolina line. At Sailor's Creek part of the army was cut off, but the main body pushed on to Farmville, where on April 7 a small supply of food was secured after a Federal force in the path had been repulsed. All this took time, and Sheridan reached and captured Appomattox Court House, the place at which Lee had counted on getting more supplies. Lee did not learn of this until April 9.
Return to The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls