The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe, Chapter 15

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


BEFORE relating the last and decisive passage of arms in the war, let us say a few words on a very remarkable circumstance. We wish to speak of the equal, almost laughing, humour of General Lee, in the midst of anxieties and preoccupations sufficient to break the strongest heart.

His headquarters were nearly two miles west of Petersburg, on the Cox Road, nearly in the centre of the army. There he lived, awaiting with calmness the events of the future. His face betrayed not a shadow of disquietude; on the contrary, it appeared full of hope, and encouraged those who surrounded him to believe in final success. We have, however, proved that he was far from really having this assurance. From the first day of the siege he seemed to have regarded the situation as desperate, unless, at least, his army received numerous reinforcements; but to the end he recollected his two favourite maxims: “Do your duty,” and, “Human courage ought to rise to the height of human adversity.”

Beyond all doubt Lee saw the sad dénouement approaching, for all his efforts to reinforce his little army by new recruits were unavailing. Without repeating the reasons we have given elsewhere, it is incontestable that the country was exhausted, and at the end of its strength. While the Federal army was receiving numerous reinforcements in a manner so regular that it never had less than 150,000 combatants, the entire army of Lee under Petersburg never reached the figure of 60,000 men, and in the spring of 1865, whilst still it held all its old positions, it had not 30,000 men under arms. The South had no more men to send it. “The immense hammer,” as Grant called his army, that multitudinous army, powerful, and admirably organized, continually recruited, and abundantly provided with all that was necessary to it, struck with redoubled blows on the decimated, half-starved, exhausted ranks of the meagre battalions of the South. Lee saw the hour inevitably arriving when it would be compulsory on him to surrender, or force his way through the multitude of his enemies.

As the situation became more critical, all eyes in the Confederacy centred in Lee, as the only man who could save the country. Public opinion demanded that the direction of all the armies spread over the Southern territory should be confided to him. Had this measure been taken sooner, it might, perhaps, have produced other results; but towards the spring of 1865, when this wish of the population was realized, it was too late.

The Confederate cause finished by becoming personified in Lee. An almost superstitious faith in his good star spread throughout the country. At the very moment when Lee saw clearly that the final scene was near at hand, most of his fellow-citizens believed they ran no risk so long as he was at the head of the army. This deep-rooted persuasion might well be a source of grief to him, for nobody less than he was subject to illusions, or blind through an excess of confidence.

In vain Lee represented to the civil authorities, that, if the enemy succeeded in breaking his lines at any point whatever, it was all over with the Confederacy. His military experience would not allow him to be deceived: he had to sustain the weight of a universal confidence, which he did not share. Not a murmur escaped him; nothing which indicated the desperate position to which he was reduced. He asked for men to fill his gaps; if none or but few came, he continued no less to show a bold front to his powerful adversary, with what soldiers remained to him. They were chosen men, it is true. The fire of battles had purified the metal, and all that had issued from the crucible was pure gold without alloy.

Lee was in their eyes an ideal captain. For a long time they had ceased to have towards him the respectful fear of former times; they had come to understand the treasures of goodness and simplicity hidden beneath that grave exterior. A charming incident is related as regards this subject. One day, during the latter months of the siege, in one of the trains going from Richmond to Petersburg, a young soldier, with his arm in a sling, was trying to arrange his cloak so as to keep him from the severe cold of the morning. He did the best he could with his teeth and strong arm, when an officer seated at a little distance rose, came to him, tenderly drew the cloak over the wounded arm, and then buttoned it with care. Then, after a few words of real sympathy, he returned to his place. His light-grey uniform, the three stars on his collar, and the simplicity of his behaviour, would not have been sufficient to denote his rank, had not everybody present known that it was General Lee, as gentle as he was modest and brave.

The winter of 1864 shows him to us much aged. But his step was as firm and his figure as upright as at the beginning of the war. He seemed to be of iron. All his days were passed on horseback, and half his nights in writing.

As the end approaches, which the last tragic scenes of this protracted strife unveil, it is difficult, even for those whose sympathies are of necessity with the North, not to feel attracted with sadness and respect towards that noble figure of the Confederate general-in-chief.

This great warrior was about to undergo the cruellest trial possible to a general—that of seeing his army dispersed and dismissed to their hearths, vanquished and ruined.

The last passage of arms between the two armies under Petersburg began in March, 1865. It had been preceded in other places by serious events, the result of which had been to annihilate, so to speak, the advanced works of the Confederacy, leaving only the citadel standing. In the Valley of Virginia, since the preceding autumn, the situation of the Southerners had grown much worse. In September, General Sheridan, at the head of 45,000 men, had attacked General Early near Winchester, who commanded only from 8000 to 10,000 infantry. Driven first to Strasburg, the latter was obliged to retire to Staunton, in the upper part of the Valley. In October, Early, resuming the offensive, failed completely to crush his adversary at Cedar Run; but being himself surprised by a stratagem of the enemy, he was finally obliged to beat a retreat to Waynesborough, in the Valley. There, in February, his little band was attacked and dispersed for good. Sheridan, who had gained this anything but glorious, though most important, triumph, was at liberty to descend into the plain, join General Grant, and with his numerous legions of cavalry, take part in the last combats under Petersburg.

In the west the Federal arms had won still greater successes. General Johnston, to whom, on Lee’s demand, the command of the Confederate troops in this region had been given, seeing that he had not the disposal of forces sufficient to resist General Sherman, was obliged to retire before him. The Federal commander, thanks to the exhaustion of the country, and the small number of Johnston’s soldiers, traversed with scarce any resistance the whole district to Savannah, on the Atlantic Ocean. Easily mastering this town, he pushed on to Goldsborough, in North Carolina, whence he could easily march on whatever line of retreat Lee might choose.

Such was the state of military affairs in February and March, 1865. In February, some delegates of the Confederate Government had had an interview with President Lincoln on board a steamer in the roadstead of Fortress Monroe, at the mouth of the James River. But it ended in nothing. Nothing then was left but the arbitration of the sword, and every advantage was on the Federal side. Lee, who had just been nominated generalissimo of the Confederate armies, vain tide, almost a derision at such a moment, saw the different hostile armies gradually forming a circle round him. He did not deceive himself with the idea that he could much longer maintain himself in the lines of Petersburg. The country, especially the civil portion, had in its general such confidence as to refuse to see the imminence of the danger. To act thus they must have closed their eyes, for Lee had in front of him Grant, with his 150,000 men; General Sherman, with forces nearly as numerous, was at that moment entering the south of Virginia. All Lee’s army numbered but a little over 30,000 men, and that of Johnston, which Sherman pursued, was still less.

It was, therefore, evident that, sooner or later, but in a few days at most, the Confederate army would be annihilated. At the beginning of February, 1865, Lee foresaw that nothing but the abandonment of Virginia could save him. Consequently, before Sherman had penetrated into the heart of Carolina, he had taken steps to effect a retreat by ordering his waggons and other impedimenta to cross to Amelia Court House, west of Petersburg, and likewise to prepare pontoons for the crossing of the Roanoke River. His plan was to join Johnston in North Carolina, who was so to manœuvre as to help his chief, and retire with him into the districts of the West. First the Virginian mountains, and then the fertile regions of the South-west, he hoped, would permit him to prolong the struggle with the possibility of treating for better conditions. Any plan of campaign was better than a prolonged sojourn in Virginia, which would end in his being completely surrounded by the enemy, and compelled to surrender at his mercy.

It will always be a subject for regret that Lee was not permitted to realize his plan. The opposition of the Richmond Cabinet, who much dreaded the moral effect of a voluntary abandonment of the Confederate capital, compelled him to give it up.

The suffering of the Confederates during these winter months around Petersburg cannot be described. The service, of victuals was bad and irregular. As the Federal movements extended further and further over the territory of the Confederacy, the Southern commissariat was obliged gradually to contract the limits whence it could hope to draw provisions. When February came, the only ways by which supplies still reached Richmond and Petersburg, as well as the army, were the Lynchburg Canal, and the two railways leading to the west, namely, the Southside Railway, along the southern bank of the Appomattox, as its name implies, and the Danville and Richmond Railway, starting from the latter town, and leaving the James River, till it joins the first line at Burke Station, whence it branches east to Lynchburg and south to Danville.

Frequently Lee had but two or three days’ provisions, so much was the country impoverished, and so difficult was it to get the few that could be procured transported. This life of continual self-denial, cruel privations, want of warm clothing, of medicines, of nourishment, rapidly diminished the, efficiency of Lee’s army. Some regiments had less than 200 men in their ranks. It was a phantom army; the pale and meagre visages seemed to belong to shadows without bodies. Occasionally the arrival of a vessel lucky enough to force the blockade of Wilmington, in North Carolina, the only Confederate port remaining, spread in the camp comparative plenty. But presently again one was reduced to a quarter of a pound of lard, and a little flour diluted with water. Sometimes a little coffee; this was the only stimulant to bring back a little warmth to those fainting bodies. Only at rare intervals could the Richmond Government distribute to them blankets, clothing, or shoes. Their old uniforms hung in tatters, and no longer protected them against the winter frosts. They shivered nightly under their worn-out and ragged blankets. Their old shoes, often patched, and always in holes, in consequence of marchings and alarms, no longer protected their bare feet against the stony and frozen ground. They were literally “Lee’s Miserables,” as they entitled themselves in recollection of Victor Hugo’s work, which had penetrated to the tents of this army at bay.

Notwithstanding all this suffering and the little hope apparent on the horizon, the greater part of Lee’s veterans remained firm at their post, forming a woefully slender but well-held line, strung out over an extent of works forty miles in length, while in their front was an enemy admirably equipped, well provided with tools and food, and having forces five times their strength.

Surely impartial history will do justice to soldiers who, amid such circumstances, neither despaired nor suffered their moral force to wane. Unshaken in their patriotism, unsubdued in their military fidelity, they persisted in the struggle, although their courage was submitted to terrible trials. Day and night for months an incessant Federal fire, without one break, rained down upon them all known means of destruction. Their constancy during those dismal days of winter never failed: night came; they lay down in their trenches, where cold and the enemy’s shells left them no repose. Snow, hail, wind, rain, cannon-fire,—they had to bear all, without a ray of sunlight, without a ray of hope. If, sometimes, anxiety or fatigue tended to undermine their resolution, they had but to turn their eyes to the calm, paternal countenance of their chief, to feel spring up within them a more profound and unlimited confidence in him than ever.

The naked state of his brave soldiers cut him to the heart. Yet his looks did not betray his feelings. He spared no effort, no application to alleviate their misery. But we can well believe that the Richmond Cabinet found it impossible to do anything more for its noble defenders. Lee’s evenness of temper, his serene tranquillity, rendered him dearer than ever to his soldiers and his country. One after another the armies of the South and West melted away and disappeared before the enemy; Wilmington, the last port connecting the Confederacy with Europe and the rest of the world, had just fallen into the hands of Sherman; the Richmond Congress were displaying such indecision and feebleness as we so often find in assemblies in moments of crisis; the grand figure of Lee alone stood out luminous from this gloomy and stormy background. He remained an anchor of safety to his agonising fatherland.

Informed of the bill which nominated him commander-in-chief of all the Southern armies, he did not conceal the embarrassment in which this new and undesired honour placed him. The reciprocal relations of friendship and confidence between him and President Davis made him hesitate to accept a title, vain, it is true, and henceforth useless—which seemed likely to bring about a coolness between himself and the executive power. But the unanimous wish of all carried the day; he was obliged to yield, although he felt that the nearly absolute power decreed to him could no longer save the country.

When the result of the conferences between the delegates assembled at Fortress Monroe was known, the indignation at Richmond and in the army was great. President Davis had declared that the independence of the South was the absolute basis of all ulterior negotiation. This, in the eyes of President Lincoln and his councillors, was an inadmissible condition. All parleying was therefore broken off. Many meetings at Richmond testified to a deep feeling of irritation at the humiliating propositions made by the North. This manifestation of public opinion assumed various forms; addresses signed by the army appeared in the newspapers, affirming anew an unshaken resolution to struggle to the end for the sacred cause of the fatherland.

The will was there, but the means were wanting. More defenders were necessary to the cause, which was collapsing for want of soldiers and material. How could the Government arm and equip new levies when it could not sufficiently minister to the necessities of those already under its flags? Early in the war the arming of the negroes was discussed. The proposition was so ill-received that it had to be given up. When, however, later, it was perceived that the law of conscription, which it was hoped would give 400,000 men, did not furnish near that number, a law for the enrolment of the blacks was presented to the Chamber of Representatives at Richmond. To this General Lee was favourable, and in February he wrote on the subject a letter to a commission of the Chamber, in which, among other things, he says:—”I think the measure not only expedient, but necessary. The enemy will certainly use them against us if he can get possession of them; and as his present numerical superiority will enable him to penetrate many parts of the country, I cannot see the wisdom of the policy of holding them to await his arrival, when we may, by timely action and judicious management, use them to arrest his progress.”

In his opinion they might have been made good soldiers with the help of a severe discipline. He adds, “My notion is that those of them who serve in the army ought, in consequence, to be declared free. It would be neither just nor wise to expose them to the greatest of all dangers, risk of losing their lives, and refuse them the finest of rewards—liberty.”

The bill, which was passed in March, too late to be of any use, did not correspond to the lofty ideas enunciated by Lee. The pro-slavery party, in the narrow acceptation of the term, had dictated the terms of it.

On accepting the new position forced on him by circumstances, General lee published an order of the day, in which he humbly invoked the support of the Almighty, and addressed a warm appeal to the patriotism of his fellow-citizens, expressing the hope that thus the end so ardently wished for would be reached—peace and independence.

The concentration of all military powers in Lee’s hands, and the evacuation of Charleston, preceded by the destruction of its works, seemed to announce a defence à outrance, which inspired the North with a legitimate disquietude. On this subject, a Northern writer expresses himself in terms like these: “While endeavouring to realise the signification of the recent change in the Southern system of defence, the future appears to us more gloomy and impenetrable than ever. It is to a single head, and we know how fertile that head is in resources—it is to a single heart, and we know the firmness and courage of that heart—it is to a single man, and we know to what a high degree he is endowed with intelligence to plan, to strike, to counteract, to repair errors, to profit by the blunders of his adversaries, that henceforth the military destinies of the South are confided.”

But he was not permitted to put in execution the projects indicated. Had he been able to obtain the authority of the Richmond Government to evacuate both Petersburg and the Confederate capital, very probably the war would have had another issue.

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