The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe, Chapter 3

The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe


BEFORE pursuing this recital further, let us say a few words on the relative forces of the two adversaries in the great Civil War of 1861. According to the official census of 1860, the states and territories of the North contained a population of 22,877,000, in which were included some hundreds of thousands of negroes.

According to the same census, the population of the Confederate States was only 8,733,000, of whom 3,664,000 were negroes, so that, after deducting these from both sides, there remain in round figures 5,000,000 whites to uphold the struggle against 22,000,000. In these calculations we have taken no account of Kentucky and Missouri as Confederate States, inasmuch as the North occupied their territories, and made use of their resources, during the whole war. To be exact, we must remember that, after the month of May, 1862, the Northern armies were masters of the centre and west of Tennessee, nearly all Louisiana, part of Florida, the coasts of North and South Carolina, and the east and north of Virginia. The number of the inhabitants of the South who, for this reason, could not contribute to the support of the Confederate cause, may be estimated at 1,200,000. The South, therefore, during the greater part of the war, had only 3,800,000 whites to contend against 22,000,000 of the North. The neighbouring territories, beyond the frontiers of the Confederacy, furnished, it is true, some combatants to the Southern cause, over and above the number already mentioned; but there was no reliance for material resources to be placed on districts in the power of the enemy. Indeed, material resources were still more disproportionate than population. The region which formed the Confederate States may be styled a country of plantations, producing cotton, tobacco, and rice, rather than an agricultural country, properly so called, producing corn, cattle, wool, horses, and everything which contributes to the maintenance of large armies, as in the North. The Northern part of the United States had the advantage also in the extent of its commerce, and the development of its manufactures. Everything which formerly had been in common, the army, the navy, the arsenals, the taxes,—in a word, the government,—remained with the North. The South had, therefore, while it fought, to create everything ab ovo.

There is an error to be rectified which consists in believing that a people, inhabiting a large country, finds in the forests, rivers, mountains, and especially in the vast spaces which hostile armies have to traverse, advantages against an invader—advantages which compensate for every other inferiority. This argument, as far as regards the Confederates, is utterly inapplicable. These apparent advantages were completely neutralised by the circumstances under which the war was carried on, and the geographical configuration of the country. At the commencement the invader had at his disposal numerous railways, drawing distant places nearer together, and facilitating the transport of provisions and war-material, no matter of what weight or bulk. Whatever might be done to destroy the iron ways, or render them useless to the Federals, they, having under their command a multitude of workmen, skilful engineers, machines and materials without limit, repaired the damage without delay. So that an invading army, as it advanced, repaired the railways, and made use of them to bring its base of operations, so to speak, quite to its rearguard. The cause of the greatest embarrassments to an army which invades a hostile country was thus, in this case, wanting.

But what contributed most to snatch from the South the advantages which its vast territory would have been able to give, was the superiority which the North enjoyed at sea. All the navy remained to it. The South, a district of planters, had not the same resources as the North, a district of manufacturers and sailors. Hence the extreme facility with which the latter multiplied its ships and means of attack by water. It was not difficult for it to establish a blockade more and more effective, which deprived the Confederates of all succour from the foreigner. The Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, forming two of the Southern boundaries, constituted a part, one might say, of the Northern territory, and furnished the Federals every facility for assailing the Confederacy. Let the reader imagine Bavaria attacked simultaneously on its four sides by Austria, Switzerland, and the other German States, all obeying the same will, and he will have some idea of the position of the Confederate States, with a population less than that of Bavaria, but with a territory infinitely more vast to defend, invaded by an enemy having two double bases of operation, at right angles to one another; whence the result, that whatever point of support a Confederate army might have, in defending one of its frontiers, its line of operations must necessarily be exposed to a flank attack from a Federal force coming to surprise it.

Add to this that the Confederate territory was intersected by rivers, often navigable for large ships, some flowing into the sea, which was in the power of the Federals, others communicating directly with the territory of the North, a resource which freed the invasion from all ordinary difficulties in other places and circumstances, especially when it was proved that the land-batteries could no longer close the passage of the rivers to ironclad steamers. Thus the Federal steamers were able to pass in front of the forts constructed on the Mississippi with a view to the defence of New Orleans, Memphis, and Vicksburg, sustaining their fire, it is true, but without any great damage. These towns, therefore, were at the mercy of the invader. Not only did the districts bordering on these rivers, and the towns on their banks, become the prey of the enemy, but the rivers themselves served as bases of operation. No Confederate army was thenceforward sure that it would not see the Federals masters of one of these rivers, and consequently at a new and unforeseen point of attack.

It is thus explained why, the South being on the defensive, most of the Confederate successes had no permanent results. Even before the fiercest part of the struggle, after the month of May, 1862, all the rivers (except a small portion of the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson), were in the power of the Federals, and all the advantages resulting from extent of territory or vast distances to be traversed had, as regards the South, become illusory.

Lastly, let us compare the number of soldiers whom the two belligerent powers were able to bring into the field. The report of the Adjutant-General of the United States proves that the North, during the war, employed by land 2,530,000 combatants. General Shanks, who has compiled a statistical work on this war, estimates the number only at 2,335,951 men, of whom 83,944 were officers (nine of these were negroes), 2,073,112 white soldiers, and 178,895 negroes; 9,314 officers, 251,722 white soldiers, and 33,379 negroes fell on the Federal side.

In the North, all the able-bodied population fit to serve, but not under arms, had been enrolled, and the number of these enrolments was 2,784,000.

A curious fact to be noticed, whence arose the large number of mercenaries who served in the Federal ranks, is, that if the North had not had foreigners in her armies, nearly half of the whole population fit for service (2,530,000 as against 2,784,000), would have been under her standards.

The number of volunteers disbanded at the end of the war, according to a table compiled with the greatest care, amounted to 1,034,000. The greatest number of combatants that the Federal government had in its service at a given moment was 1,072,500.

Five hundred horses or mules perished per day; 1,080 steamers, on the sea or by the rivers, served for the conveyance of the Northern armies, at a cost of 120,000 dollars per day; 8,000 cannons and 12,000,000 rifles were distributed among the Federals during the war.

To these figures, already formidable, must be added the regular navy of the United States; 126,553 sailors or marines served on the water, without counting the workmen and others employed in the dockyards and arsenals. On the 5th of December, 1864, the number of the United States ships of war was 559 steamers (of which 71 were iron-clads) and 112 sailing-vessels: total, 671.

Now let us glance at the Confederate armies. All the levies made by the South throughout the whole duration of the war only amounted to 660,000 men—a number very inferior to that of the combatants present under the Northern flags at any given moment. The total of the Southern levies, therefore, never reached above a quarter of those of the North, which would give us an average of 165,000 soldiers under arms at any one time.

If we take into account the fact, that a large number of Confederate recruits came from districts permanently occupied by the enemy, where runaways and deserters could not be pursued, we shall be justified in concluding that the number of Confederate forces present under arms at a given moment was necessarily inferior to that of the levies; but thanks to the patriotism of the Southerners, there was little of this, and in May, 1864, the South could put in line 264,000 combatants against the 970,000 whom, at that date, Mr. Lincoln opposed to them. She could not, however, possibly mobilize such a great number of men so easily as the North. Her frontier was as extended; it must be protected; regard being had to their relative forces, the South was obliged to reserve a greater proportion for garrisons: whence the result, that General Grant could put in the field 620,000 men in May, 1864, while Mr. Davis had only 125,000 men to oppose him, counting all the different armies.

This disproportion of the forces will be still more strikingly realized, by comparing the number of combatants present on both sides, in the different principal battles. The official reports of Generals MacDowell and Beauregard showed, that at the first battle of Manassas, the final effort which decided the victory was attempted by 6,500 Confederates against 20,000 Federals, among whom were several regiments of regular troops. At Sharpsburg, in 1862, Lee’s 33,000 Confederates repulsed 80,000 Federals.

At Chancellorsville, Lee and his 50,000 soldiers defeated General Hooker at the head of 108,000 men. In the “Wilderness,” General Lee had only 50,000 Confederates to oppose 140,000 men under General Grant, and, without receiving any reinforcement, he continued to hold his own against the Federal army, increased, the losses which the Confederate fire made it undergo only excepted, by 60,000 new troops. At the battle of Winchester, in the autumn of 1864, Sheridan gained a dearly-bought success over General Early only by crushing 12,000 Confederates under the weight of his own 50,000 soldiers. In the final struggle, Lee’s 33,000 soldiers were not dislodged from Petersburg and Richmond till after their adversaries had been successively increased to 180,000 men, and the remnant of Lee’s truly heroic army did not finally surrender to this multitude till after it had been reduced to less than 8,000 bayonets. The number of 27,500 soldiers made prisoners at Appomatox came from this, that 20,000 famished stragglers and others on detached service profited by what they believed to be a definitive peace, to surrender themselves to the conquerors.

Thus the blockade cruelly paralyzed the South. For Mr. Davis would have been able to negotiate loans in Europe, by the aid of the abundant harvest of cotton and tobacco of 1861, as well as those of 1862 and 1863, diminished in bulk but increased in value, and to obtain also, perhaps, the recognition of the South by foreign powers. But in 1864, the cultivation of cotton was obliged to yield to that of cereals, in order that the inhabitants might have something to eat Besides, the blockade, in the end, had become so effective, that the feebler of the two adversaries in this unequal strife was, so to speak, without arms and without nourishment, as if all its other disadvantages had not already been enough.

One last remark, which has also its importance. The Confederacy never had under its standards a good, solid, and well-organized army. Time failed it, and officers endued with knowledge were necessarily wanting. The Southerners, certainly very brave, had no experience in war. Since that of 1812, two generations had passed away amid the profoundest peace. Few men are born soldiers. For the greater number, that incessant self-denial, that cultivation of duty, that acquaintance with details, that care, that self-control, that faculty of commanding, that understanding of the art of attack and defence, which, joined to personal courage, constitute a good officer, all are acquired in a rude school. Experience in war alone can give these great military virtues. The Confederacy had, in a very short space of time, to organize and discipline a number of men greater, in proportion to its population, than any other nation of modem times.

It was necessary to employ thousands of officers, very few of whom had previously seen service. Throughout the whole of the country, not the tenth part of the knowledge wanted for the instruction and organization of armies was to be found. The results obtained argue much in favour of the military aptitude of the Southern people. For want of instruction, and of officers capable of giving it, the Confederate regiments seldom preserved their line in a charge. On the contrary, they suffered from the fire of their own men.

The officers were never sufficiently masters of their soldiers to prevent them, when bullets were whistling past, from immediately answering the enemy’s fire. In the best Confederate regiments, in the midst of a conflict, the ardent and burning inclination of the soldiers was obeyed rather than the commands of the officers.

This imperfect discipline corresponded also with the critical position of public affairs. New recruits were often obliged to join their regiments under pressing urgency, before they had even learnt their drill. Scattered about in different corps, these young soldiers, wholly given up to the duties of an active camp-life, getting supplies for long marches, mounting guard in the outposts, or crossing bayonets on the field of battle, could no longer find leisure to learn it They did not even go into winter quarters, for campaigns lasted winter and summer. Want of discipline and the ignorance of the soldiers were the cause of the officers being exposed beyond measure, so that, in time, the best of them were captured or slain. The principle of election of the officers was the origin of the evil—the source of a relaxation of discipline.

This is why the Confederate armies, in spite of the heroic bravery of which they gave so many proofs, could scarcely, from their want of discipline and instruction, pretend to the name of regular armies.

General Lee, speaking of the great advantages which military instruction and the unity of action resulting from it give to soldiers, made apparent, in connection with the two armies then in presence of each other, the superiority which the Confederates would have over their adversaries, in spite of their small relative number, if their organization and discipline were what they ought to be: “But,” added he, after a moment’s silence, with a sadness very easy to understand, “I cannot give this instruction to my army, for the enemy detains my officers in his prisons.”

The Federals had none of these difficulties to overcome. The old army of the United States served them as a nucleus for the organization of their troops, most of the officers remaining in their service. Besides, they could legally draw from Europe mercenaries without number. As the aggressors, they could wait till their new recruits were sufficiently drilled, and choose, for attacking the South, the moment which most suited them; while the Confederates, not having the same freedom, must go to the encounter whether ready or not. Further, the invaders, having at their disposal a much more numerous population, as well as the whole world to recruit from, were always sure of having enough men under their flags, since their conflict was with an adversary whose forces only amounted to a quarter of their own.

It is a singular fact to be remarked, that the South furnished the North with legions of negroes nearly as numerous as the entire total of the Confederate armies.

The Minister of War (Federal) acknowledges in his official report having disbanded, at the end of the war, 170,000 negroes, who were mostly old Southern slaves. In justification of the different statements which have been made, we shall not be charged with exaggeration, if we fix at 500,000 the number of soldiers of foreign origin who served in the Federal armies. In the Confederate prisons half the captives were foreigners. Some brigades, like that of General Meagher, were composed of Irishmen, and whole divisions (that of Bleaker, for instance) of Germans. Thus, then, to struggle against the 3,800,000 Southerners (men, women, and children), 200,000 negroes and 500,000 foreign mercenaries must be added to the 22,000,000 Northerners.

As this work is not written with the intention of recriminating against the North, and as it has not for its end to re-open old wounds, we shall say nothing of the systematic manner in which certain Northern generals undertook to devastate entire districts in the South, in order to starve out those who were so hard to conquer. It was an odd way of making their brothers love the Union yoke.

War is a cruel thing. Apparently there are but two ways of carrying it on. At all times there have been burning, sack, and pillage. Let us hope that the intention of the Federal Government, in authorizing such devastations, was to have done more promptly with the horrors of war, and that the chiefs who accepted such a mission reluctantly fulfilled it.

Return to The Life and Campaigns of General Lee