Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee, Jr.

CHAPTER VII
FRONTING THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC

BATTLE OF COLD HARBOUR—SIEGE OF PETERSBURG—THE GENERAL INTRUSTS A MISSION TO HIS SON, ROBERT—BATTLE OF THE CRATER—GRANT CROSSES THE JAMES RIVER—GENERAL LONG’S PEN-PICTURE OF LEE—KNITTING SOCKS FOR THE SOLDIERS—A CHRISTMAS DINNER—INCIDENTS OF CAMP LIFE

FROM the North Anna River the Federal Army moved by its left flank, seeking to find its adversary unprepared, but the Army of Northern Virginia steadily confronted it, ever ready to receive any attack. At Cold Harbour they paused, facing each other, and General Grant, having received sixteen thousand men from Butler by way of Yorktown on June 1st, made an attack, but found our lines immovable. In his “Memoirs” he writes:

June 2d was spent in getting troops into position for attack on the 3d. On June 3d, we again assaulted the enemy’s work in the hope of driving him from his position. In this attempt our loss was heavy, while that of the enemy, I have reason to believe, was comparatively light.

This assault was repelled along the whole line, with the most terrible slaughter yet recorded in our war. Yet in a few hours these beaten men were ordered to move up to our lines again. Swinton, the historian of the Army of the Potomac, thus describes what happened when this order was sent to the men:

The order was issued through these officers (the corps commanders) to their subordinate commanders, and from them descended through the wonted channels; but no man stirred, and the immobile lines pronounced a verdict, silent, yet emphatic, against further slaughter. The loss on the Union side in this sanguinary action was more than thirteen thousand, while on the part of the Confederates it is doubtful whether it reached that many hundreds.

Colonel Walter H. Taylor, in his “Four Years with General Lee,” says:

Soon after this, he (Grant) abandoned his chosen line of operations, and moved his army to the south side of the James River. The struggle from the Wilderness to this point covers a period of about one month, during which time there had been an almost daily encounter of hostile arms, and the Army of Northern Virginia had placed hors de combat of the army under General Grant a number equal to its entire numerical strength at the commencement of the campaign, and, notwithstanding its own heavy losses and the reinforcements received by the enemy, still presented an impregnable front to its opponent, and constituted and insuperable barrier to General Grant’s “On to Richmond.”

Thus after thirty days of marching, starving, fighting, and with a loss of more than sixty thousand men, General Grant reached the James River, near Petersburg, which he could have done at any time he so desired without the loss of a single man. The baffling of our determined foe so successfully raised the spirits of our rank and file, and their confidence in their commander knew no bounds.

The two armies now commenced a contest which could end only one way. If General Lee had been permitted to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond, to fall back upon some interior point, nearer supplies for man and beast and within supporting distance of the remaining forces of the Confederacy, the surrender would certainly have been put off—possibly never have taken place—and the result of the war changed. The Army of the Potomac placed itself on the James, through whose channel it had easy access to the wide world whence to secure for itself an unlimited supply of men and munitions of war. General Lee, with a line thirty miles long to defend and with only 35,000 men to hold it, with no chance of reinforcements, no reserves with which to fill up the ranks lessened daily by death in battle and by disease, had to sit still and see his army, on half rations or less, melt away because it was deemed advisable by his government, for political and other purposes, to hold Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital.

In an article by Lord Wolseley, in Macmillan’s Magazine, he says:

Lee was opposed to the final defense of Richmond that was urged upon him for political, not military reasons. It was a great strategic error. General Grant’s large army of men was easily fed, and its daily losses easily recruited from a near base; whereas, if it had been drawn far into the interior after the little army with which Lee endeavoured to protect Richmond, its fighting strength would have been largely reduced by the detachments required to guard a long line of communications through a hostile country.

During the nine months the siege of Petersburg lasted, I saw my father but seldom. His headquarters were near the town, my command was on the extreme right of the army, and during the winter, in order to get forage, we were moved still further away, close to the border of North Carolina. During this summer, I had occasion, once or twice, to report to him at his headquarters, once about July 1st by his special order. I remember how we all racked our brains to account for this order, which was for me to report “at once to the commanding general,” and many wild guesses were made by my young companions as to what was to become of me. Their surmises extended from my being shot for unlawful foraging to my being sent on a mission abroad to solicit the recognition of our independence. I reported at once, and found my father expecting me, with a bed prepared. It was characteristic of him that he never said a word about what I was wanted for until he was ready with full instructions. I was fed at once, for I was still hungry, my bed was shown me, and I was told to rest and sleep well, as he wanted me in the morning, and that I would need all my strength.

The next morning he gave me a letter to General Early, who, with his command, was at that time in Maryland, threatening Washington. My mission was to carry this letter to him. As Early had cut loose from his communications with Virginia, and as there was a chance of any messenger to him being caught by raiding parties, my father gave me verbally the contents of his letter, and told me that if I saw any chance of my capture to destroy it, then, if I did reach the General, I should be able to tell him what he had written. He cautioned me to keep my own counsel, and to say nothing to any one as to my destination. Orders for a relay of horses from Staunton, where the railroad terminated, to the Potomac had been telegraphed, and I was to start at once. This I did, seeing my sisters and mother in Richmond while waiting for the train to Staunton, and having very great difficulty in keeping from them my destination. But I did, and, riding night and day, came up with General Early at a point in Maryland some miles beyond the old battlefield of Sharpsburg. I delivered the letter to him, returned to Petersburg, and reported to my father. Much gratified by the evident pleasure of the General at my diligence and at the news I had brought from Early and his men, after a night’s rest and two good meals I returned to my command, never telling my comrades until long afterward what had been done to me by the commanding general.

My father’s relations with the citizens of Petersburg were of the kindest description. The ladies were ever trying to make him more comfortable, sending him of their scanty fare more than they could well spare. He always tried to prevent them, and when he could do so without hurting their feelings he would turn over to the hospitals the dainties sent him—much to the disgust of his mess-steward, Bryan. Bryan was an Irishman, perfectly devoted to my father, and, in his opinion, there was nothing in the eatable line which was too good for the General. He was an excellent caterer, a good forager, and, but for my father’s frowning down anything approaching lavishness, the headquarter’s table would have made a much better show. During this period of the war, Bryan was so handicapped by the universal scarcity of all sorts of provisions that his talents were almost entirely hidden. The ladies not only were anxious to feed the General, but also to clothe him. From Camp Petersburg he writes to my mother, June 24th:

. . . The ladies of Petersburg have sent me a nice set of shirts. They were given to me by Mrs. James R. Branch and her mother, Mrs. Thomas Branch. In fact, they have given me everything, which I fear they cannot spare—vegetables, bread, milk, ice-cream. To-day one of them sent me a nice peach—the first one I think I have seen for two years. I sent it to Mrs. Shippen.[note 41] Mr. Platt had services again to-day under the trees near my camp. We had quite a large congregation of citizens, ladies and gentlemen, and our usual number of soldiers. During the services, I constantly heard the shells crashing among the houses of Petersburg. Tell “Life”[note 42] I send her a song composed by a French soldier. As she is so learned in the language, I want her to send my a reply in verse.

June 30, 1864, the anniversary of his wedding day, he thus writes to my mother:

. . . I was very glad to receive your letter yesterday, and to hear that you were better. I trust that you will continue to improve and soon be as well as usual. God grant that you may be entirely restored in His own good time. Do you recollect what a happy day thirty-three years ago this was? How many hopes and pleasures it gave birth to! God has been very merciful and kind to us, and how thankless and sinful I have been. I pray that He may continue His mercies and blessings to us, and give us a little peace and rest together in this world, and finally gather us and all He has given us around His throne in the world to come. The President has just arrived, and I must bring my letter to a close.

My mother had been quite ill that summer, and my father’s anxiety for her comfort and welfare, his desire to be with her to help her, was very great. The sick in the Confederacy at this period of universal scarcity suffered for want of the simplest medicines. All that could be had were given to hospitals. To his youngest daughter the General writes, and sends to Mrs. Lee what little he could find in the way of fruit:

. . . I received this morning by your brother your note of the 3d, and am glad to hear that your mother is better. I sent out immediately to try to find some lemons, but could only procure two, sent to me by a kind lady, Mrs. Kirkland, in Petersburg. These were gathered from her own trees. There are none to be purchased. I found one in my valise, dried up, which I also send, as it may prove of some value. I also put up some early apples which you can roast for your mother, and one pear. This is all the fruit I can get. You must go to the market every morning and see if you cannot find some fruit for her. There are no lemons to be had. Tell her lemonade is not as palatable or digestible as buttermilk. Try to get some good buttermilk for her. With ice, it is delicious and very nutritious.

My sister Mildred had a pet squirrel which ran about the house in Richmond. She had named it “Custis Morgan,” after her brother Custis, and General John Morgan, the great cavalry leader of the western army. He ventured out one day to see the city, and never returned. In a letter to Mildred, July 10th, my father alludes to his escape, and apparently considers it a blessing:

. . . I was pleased on the arrival of my little courier to learn that you were better, and that “Custis Morgan” was still among the missing. I think the farther he gets from you the better you will be. The shells scattered the poor inhabitants of Petersburg so that many of the churches are closed. Indeed, they have been visited by the enemy’s shells. Mr. Platt, pastor of the principal Episcopal church, had services at my headquarters to-day. The services were under the trees, and the discourse on the subject of salvation. . . .

About this time, the enemy, having been at work on a mine for nearly a month, exploded it, and attacked our lines with a large force. The ensuing contest was called the Battle of the Crater. General Lee, having suspected that a mine was being run under his works, was partly prepared for it, and the attack was repulsed very quickly with great loss to the enemy. In the address of Capt. W. Gordon McCabe before the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia—November 2, 1876—speaking of this event, he says:

From the mysterious paragraphs in the Northern papers, and from reports of deserters, though those last were vague and contradictory, Lee and Beauregard suspected that the enemy was mining in front of some one of the three salients on Beauregard’s front, and the latter officer had in consequence directed counter-mines to be sunk from all three, meanwhile constructing gorge-lines in the rear upon which the troops might retire in case of surprise or disaster. . . . But the counter-mining on the part of the Confederates was after a time discontinued, owing to the lack of proper tools, the inexperience of the troops in such work, and the arduous nature of their service in the trenches.

The mine was sprung July 30th. On the 31st, the General writes:

. . . Yesterday morning the enemy sprung a mine under one of our batteries on the line and got possession of a portion of our intrenchments. It was the part defended by General Beauregard’s troops, I sent General Mahone with two brigades of Hill’s corps, who charged them handsomely, recapturing the intrenchments and guns, twelve stands of colours, seventy-three officers, including General Bartlett, his staff, three colonels, and eight hundred and fifty enlisted men. There were upward of five hundred of his dead and unburied in the trenches, among them many officers and blacks. He suffered severely. He has withdrawn his troops from the north side of the James. I do not know what he will attempt next. He is mining on other points along our line. I trust he will not succeed in bettering his last attempt. . . .

Grant, by means of a pontoon bridge, permanently established across the James, was able to move his troops very quickly from one side to the other, and could attack either flank, while making a feint on the opposite one. This occurred several times during the summer, but General Lee seemed always to have anticipated the movement and to be able to distinguish the feint from the real attack. On August 14th, he speaks of one of these movements in a letter to my mother:

. . . I have been kept from church to-day by the enemy’s crossing to the north side of the James River and the necessity of moving troops to meet him. I do not know what his intentions are. He is said to be cutting a canal across the Dutch Gap, a point in the river—but I cannot, as yet, discover it. I was up there yesterday, and saw nothing to indicate it. We shall ascertain in a day or two. I received to-day a kind letter from Reverend Mr. Cole, of Culpeper Court House. He is a most excellent man in all the relations of life. He says there is not a church standing in all that country, within the lines formerly occupied by the enemy. All are razed to the ground, and the materials used often for the vilest purposes. Two of the churches at the Court House barely escaped destruction. The pews were all taken out to make seats for the theatre. The fact was reported to the commanding officer by their own men of the Christian Commission, but he took no steps to rebuke or arrest it. We must suffer patiently to the end, when all things will be made right. . . .

To oppose this movement (of August 14th), which was in heavy force, our cavalry division was moved over to the north side, together with infantry and artillery, and we had a very lively time for several days. In the engagement on the 15th of August I was shot in the arm and disabled for about three weeks. The wound was a very simple one—just severe enough to give me a furlough, which I enjoyed intensely. Time heals all wounds, it is said. I remember it cured mine all too soon, for, being on a wounded leave, provided it did not keep one in bed, was the best luck a soldier could have. I got back the last of September, and in passing stopped to see my father. I take from General Long a pen-picture of him at this time, which accords with my own recollection of his appearance:

. . . General Lee continued in excellent health and bore his many cares with his usual equanimity. He had aged somewhat in appearance since the beginning of the war, but had rather gained than lost in physical vigour, from the severe life he had led. His hair had grown gray, but his face had the ruddy hue of health, and his eyes were as clear and bright as ever. His dress was always a plain, gray uniform, with cavalry boots reaching to his knees, and a broad-brimmed gray felt hat. He seldom wore a weapon, and his only mark of rank was the stars on his collar. Though always abstemious in diet, he seemed able to bear any amount of fatigue, being capable of remaining in his saddle all day and at his desk half the night.

I cannot refrain from further quoting from the same author this beautiful description of the mutual love, respect, and esteem existing between my father and his soldiers:

No commander was ever more careful, and never had care for the comfort of an army given rise to greater devotion. He was constantly calling the attention of the authorities to the wants of his soldiers, making every effort to provide them with food and clothing. The feeling for him was one of love, not of awe and dread. They could approach him with the assurance that they would be received with kindness and consideration, and that any just complaint would receive proper attention. There was no condescension in his manner, but he was ever simple, kind, and sympathetic, and his men, while having unbounded faith in him as a leader, almost worshipped him as a man. These relations of affection and mutual confidence between the army and its commander had much to do with the undaunted bravery displayed by the men, and bore a due share in the many victories they gained.

Colonel Charles Marshall, in his address before the “Association of the Army of Northern Virginia,” also alludes to this “wonderful influence over the troops under his command. I can best describe that influence by saying that such was the love and veneration of the men for him that they came to look upon the cause as General Lee’s cause, and they fought for it because they loved him. To them he represented cause, country, and all.”

All persons who were ever thrown into close relations with him had somewhat these same feelings. How could they help it? Here is a letter to his youngest daughter which shows his beautiful love and tenderness for us all. Throughout the war, he constantly took the time from his arduous labours to send to his wife and daughters such evidences of his affection for them:

CAMP PETERSBURG, November 6, 1864.

My Precious Life: This is the first day I have had leisure to answer your letter. I enjoyed it very much at the time of its reception, and have enjoyed it since, but I have often thought of you in the meantime, and have seen you besides. Indeed, I may say, you are never out of my thoughts. I hope you think of me often, and if you could know how earnestly I desire your true happiness, how ardently I pray you may be directed to every good and saved from every evil, you would as sincerely strive for its accomplishment. Now in your youth you must be careful to discipline your thoughts, words, and actions. Habituate yourself to useful employment, regular improvement, and to the benefit of all those around you. You have had some opportunity of learning the rudiments of your education—not as good as I should have desired, but I am much cheered by the belief that you availed yourself of it—and I think you are now prepared by diligence and study to learn whatever you desire. Do not allow yourself to forget what you have spent so much time and labour acquiring, but increase it every day by extended application. I hope you will embrace in your studies all useful acquisitions. I was much pleased to hear that while at “Bremo” you passed much of your time in reading and music. All accomplishments will enable you to give pleasure, and thus exert a wholesome influence. Never neglect the means of making yourself useful in the world. I think you will not have to complain of Rob again for neglecting your schoolmates. He has equipped himself with a new uniform from top to toe, and, with a new and handsome horse, is cultivating a marvellous beard and preparing for conquest. I went down on the lines to the right, Friday, beyond Rowanty Creek, and pitched my camp within six miles of Fitzhugh’s last night. Rob came up and spent the night with me, and Fitzhugh appeared early in the morning. They rode with me till late that day. I visited the battlefield in that quarter, and General Hampton in describing it said there had not been during the war a more spirited charge than Fitzhugh’s division made that day up the Boydton plank road, driving cavalry and infantry before him, in which he was stopped by night. I did not know before that his horse had been shot under him. Give a great deal of love to your dear mother, and kiss your sisters for me. Tell them they must keep well, not talk too much, and go to bed early. Ever your devoted father,

R. E. LEE.

He refers in this letter to his coming down near our command, and my brother’s visit and mine to him. Everything was quiet, and we greatly enjoyed seeing him and being with him. The weather, too, was fine, and he seemed to delight in our ride with him along the lines. I didn’t think I saw him but once more until everything was over and we met in Richmond. Some time before this, my mother, fearing for his health under the great amount of exposure and work he had to do, wrote to him and begged him to take better care of himself. In his reply, he says:

. . . But what care can a man give to himself in the time of war? It is from no desire for exposure or hazard that I live in a tent, but from necessity. I must be where I can, speedily, at all times attend to the duties of my position, and be near or accessible to the officers with whom I have to act. I have been offered rooms in the houses of our citizens, but I could not turn the dwellings of my kind hosts into a barrack where officers, couriers, distressed women, etc., would be entering day and night. . . .

General Fitz Lee, in his life of my father, says of him at this time:

Self-possessed and calm, Lee struggled to solve the huge military problem, and make the sum of smaller numbers equal to that of greater numbers. . . . His thoughts ever turned upon the soldiers of his army, the ragged gallant fellows around him—whose pinched cheeks told hunger was their portion, and whose shivering forms denoted the absence of proper clothing.

His letters to my mother during the winter tell how much his men were in need. My mother was an invalid from rheumatism, confined to a rolling-chair. To help the cause with her own hands as far as she could, she was constantly occupied in knitting socks for the soldiers, and induced all around her to do the same. She sent them directly to my father, and he always acknowledged them. November 30th, he says:

. . . I received yesterday your letter on the 27th and am glad to learn your supply of socks is so large. If two or three hundred would send an equal number, we should have a sufficiency. I will endeavour to have them distributed to the most needy. . . .

And on December 17th:

. . . I received day before yesterday the box with hats, gloves, and socks; also the barrel of apples. You had better have kept the latter, as it would have been more useful to you than to me, and I should have enjoyed its consumption by you and the girls more than by me. . . .

His friends and admirers were constantly sending him presents; some, simple mementos of their love and affection; others, substantial and material comforts for the outer and inner man. The following letter, from its date, is evidently an acknowledgement of Christmas gifts sent him:

December 30th. . . . The Lyons furs and fur robe have also arrived safely, but I can learn nothing of the saddle of mutton. Bryan, of whom I inquired as to its arrival, is greatly alarmed lest it has been sent to the soldiers’ dinner. If the soldiers get it, I shall be content. I can do very well without it. In fact, I should rather they should have it than I. . . .

The soldiers’ “dinner” here referred to was a Christmas dinner, sent by the entire country, as far as they could, to the poor starving men in the trenches and camps along the lines. It would not be considered much now, but when the conditions were such as my father describes when he wrote the Secretary of War,

The struggle now is to keep the army fed and clothed. Only fifty men in some regiments have shoes, and bacon is only issued once in a few days,

anything besides the one-quarter of a pound of bacon and musty corn-bread was a treat of great service, and might be construed as “a Christmas dinner.”

I have mentioned before my father’s devotion to children. This sentiment pervaded his whole nature. At any time the presence of a little child would bring a brightness to his smile, a tender softness to his glance, and drive away gloom or care. Here is his account of a visit paid him, early in January, 1865, by three little women:

. . . Yesterday afternoon three little girls walked into my room, each with a small basket. The eldest carried some fresh eggs, laid by her own hens; the second, some pickles made by her mother; the third, some popcorn grown in her garden. They were accompanied by a young maid with a block of soap made by her mother. They were the daughters of a Mrs. Nottingham, a refugee from Northhampton County, who lived near Eastville, not far from “old Arlington.” The eldest of the girls, whose age did not exceed eight years, had a small wheel on which she spun for her mother, who wove all the cloth for her two brothers—boys of twelve and fourteen years. I have not had so pleasant a visit for a long time. I fortunately was able to fill their baskets with apples, which distressed poor Bryan,[note 43] and I begged them to bring me nothing but kisses and to keep the eggs, corn, etc., for themselves. I pray daily and almost hourly to our Heavenly Father to come to the relief of you and our afflicted country. I know He will order all things for our good, and we must be content.

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