The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


WHEN the Civil War was launched, the South, though confident and bold even to audacity, was in numbers weak, as compared with the North and the North- Western region, that threw in its lot with the Union. Of the thirty-one millions representing the population of the United States according to the Census of 1860, only some twelve millions dwelt in the Slave States, and but nine millions could be counted among the States of the South that actually seceded, since the Slave States of Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, did not unite with the Confederacy. Of these nine millions, it has to be remember, moreover, that about three and a half millions were slaves; so that the entire strength of the Confederate States, in freemen, that broke away from and defied the Union, was only some five and a half millions, of which, in round numbers, two and a half millions were women, leaving but three millions of a possible fighting strength to be opposed, roughly speaking, to three times the number in the North. The disparity in wealth and resources was also great, the preponderance being vastly on the side of the Union. On the other hand, the South was at the outset better prepared for conflict, and had proportionately a larger number of expert soldiers, used to arms, among them being many able officers who had seen considerable service in the Union army, and had a practical as well as a theoretical knowledge of and genius for war. The South, moreover, was from the first in deadly earnest, and fought, in the main, on the defensive and on its own soil, and that not only for what it conceived to be its rights in the institution of slavery, but for the inherent right of Secession, especially when its interests and free, independent action were in peril from Northern coercion and the clamor of what was deemed incendiary abolition dictation and fanaticism. In the view it took with regard to these rights and sectional claims, it looked at the outset for a division of sentiment in its favor in the North and West, as well as for recognition by, if not practical aid from, the European nations whose industry and commerce were dependent upon “King Cotton.” In the indulging of these hopes it was largely disappointed, for the West remained loyal to the Union; while the effectiveness of the Northern blockade of the Southern ports, and the absence of a Confederate navy, proved futile to Southern expectation of European interference and aid. Nor was it financially in a position to enter upon a prolonged struggle, as was ere long seen in the collapse of the Confederate Government’s credit, depending, in the main, as it did upon issues of paper money which so depreciated in value that towards the close of the struggle it took $500 of Confederate money to buy a pair of trooper’s boots.

Another matter that favored the South throughout the course of the struggle, was the unity of its army organization, in the main, under a single directing mind, one who knew his men well, and that not only in units but in masses, and whom his men knew and trusted in a remarkable degree. In General Lee, moreover, the Southern cause had a commander capable of fighting a battle on a large scale, and who, as an engineer officer of great experience and astuteness, possessed a trained eye for adequate preliminary reconnaissance, and for every coign of vantage in the field; and at the same time had phenomenal personal qualities that gave him pre-eminence among the leaders of the South, while they removed him far above self-seeking, petty jealousy, and fretfulness as to his rank-status or right to be where he was and remained throughout the war. In contrast with these things, the North, especially at the outset of the war, had no such single commander to lead with confidence and unerring judgment and purpose its arms, or who could bring on the field masses of trained men, enured to fighting, rather than fresh, hastily mobilized units, without staying power in a hot encounter, and who had all the inefficiency and timorousness of raw recruits. The North, we know, did better later on in the struggle, after it had got over its early chastening time of defeat and bafiiement, and had fully roused itself to bring its greater strength of men and resources to bear upon the “rebels” and prosecute the war with effect and vigor to its final and successful issue. It did better, moreover, when such leaders of its armies as Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Rosecrans, Pope, and Thomas came to the front and replaced or overshadowed men of the lesser stamp like McClellan, Hancock, McDowell, Buell, Burnside, and Meade; though, at the best, if we except Grant, whose bull-dog tenacity and sledge-hammer though sanguinary work told in the issues of the conflict, with the brilliant achievements of Sheridan and Sherman, the North had no such array of fighting generals, skilful tacticians, and strong, sagacious leaders as the South had in Lee, J. E. and A. S. Johnston, “Stonewall” Jackson, Beauregard, Bragg, Hood, and Early, who proved themselves foes it was folly to underrate. Besides this disadvantage, the North at the outset, moreover, made the palpable mistake of belittling its Union adversaries, and was even sceptical as to the imminence of war; though the firing on Fort Sumter, the affair at Big Bethel, and discomfiture at Bull Run, with the fiight of Union forces back upon the capital, speedily undeceived her; and yet not to a greater or more adequate extent than led President Lincoln, some months before, to summon to the Nation’s aid a defensive and aggressive force no heavier than that of 75,000 men, to serve for a period of only three months!

Meanwhile, as we know, the South was straining every nerve not only to strengthen the assailable sections of her frontier and vast coast line, put Richmond, now the Confederate capital, in an adequate state of defense, and watch the approaches to Virginia’s borders, but even meditated a menacing raid upon Washington, to assail the North in its then ill-defended capital. Already Lee, who by his own Virginian Commonwealth, had been given command of her military forces and was at work erecting fortifications and batteries round the State’s sea-front and river mouths, was by this time called to the councils of the Confederacy at Richmond, under Jefferson Davis, its President and nominal commanding-general, thence was despatched to the mountains of Western Virginia in command of a body of troops to make reconnaissances and maintain an oversight of the situation. All here he succeeded, meantime, in doing, was to watch and, as far as possible, nullify the operations, on land and sea, of invading Northern forces in the region, until the early spring of 1862, when he was recalled to Richmond and there given command of the Army of Northern Virginia, with the special object of concentrating forces for the protection of the Confederate capital, then threatened by a Northern army under McClellan. Entrusted with this important and responsible task. General Lee entered with his wonted vigor upon his new duties. The cry in the North just then was, “0n to Richmond!” for since McClellan had been given the chief command of the Northern forces he had as yet done nothing actively in the field, his extreme caution holding his hand; while his attention to the details of organization occupied him fully, in spite of Northern impatience with his tardiness. At length, however, he proposed to put his command in motion, with the view of meeting the Union clamor for the capture of Richmond, though the Washington Administration insisted that in the move against the Confederate capital the safety of the Union capital should be amply provided for and secured. McClellan’s project in advancing upon Richmond was not to move in force upon the Confederate entrenchments at Manassas and try the hazard of battle there with General J. E. Johnston, but to transport his army by water to the lower Chesapeake—to the Peninsula formed by the James and York rivers—and, with his base resting upon Fortress Monroe, advance upon Richmond from that quarter.

Before the Peninsular campaign was entered upon, in April, 1862, it had been going ill with the fortunes of the South in the West. There, thanks to the aid afforded by the Northern fleet, under Commodore Foote, Ulysses Grant, earlier in the year, had made his way up the Tennessee River and captured Fort Henry, following that by an attack upon Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, which, after two days’ severe fighting surrendered to him, with a loss of nearly 15,000 men. A little later than these Southern defeats, came other Northern successes, in the capture of Island Number Ten, on the Mississippi, and the fall of New Orleans to Admirals Farragut and Porter; while the fiercely-contested battle of Shiloh, between A. S. Johnston and Buell and Grant, had been fought, the losses on both sides amounting to over 20,000 men, besides the killing of the Confederate commander (Johnston), whose command was taken over by Beauregard. These losses, together with the earlier Northern victories under Thomas at Mill Spring, and under Curtis at Pea Kidge, with the later surrender of Memphis to Commodore Davis, were irretrievable disasters to the South, not to speak of its having to abandon the control of the Mississippi. For the time, the Southern heart, on the other hand, was cheered by the doings of the armor-clad Merrimac, in Hampton Koads, where the transmogrified craft rammed and sank the Northern frigate Cumberland, burned the Congress and forced the Minnesota to seek safety in shoal water. After this, came the encounter with an equally formidable adversary, the Ericsson revolving turret ship Monitor (March, 1862), and the withdrawal of both Monitor and Merrimac after a lavish waste of shot on both sides; though the presence of and reputation gained by the Monitor relieved the Northern mind from dread of Southern attack on Eastern harbors by the Confederate ram. Nor were the complications of the era between the United States Government and Great Britain, in the Trent affair, without a ray of hope to the South, as being likely to lead to trouble between the two nations, and so be advantageous to the Confederate cause. The threatening aspect of affairs, as we know, however, speedily blew over, the Washington authorities having the good sense to recognize that Captain Wilkes’ seizure of Messrs. Slidell and Mason on board the Trent was not only a violation of neutrality, but contrary to American contention and tradition.

While these events were happening. General McClellan, tardily meeting the Northern clamor for an advance upon Richmond, pursued his object of proceeding with his Army of the Potomac to Fortress Monroe, there to initiate his movement against the Confederate capital. Before setting out with his Peninsular army of invasion, the North had at Washington a fighting force of about 170,000 men; yet, with this large body of troops at his command, McClellan was, as we have seen, timidly afraid of marching upon Richmond through Johnston’s defensive lines at Manassas. He preferred, as we have related, to operate from the lower Chesapeake, where he hoped to have had the aid of the Northern gunboats to protect the flanks of his army. In this he was, however, disappointed, since the Union gunboats were at the time fully occupied in keeping watch over the terrible ironclad, the Merrimac. He was further disappointed in having to leave behind him, for the defense of Washington, about 40,000, instead of 20,000 men, the Lincoln Administration insisting that McDowell’s army corps should be retained, in addition to the 20,000 troops, which were all McClellan had designed to leave at the capital. As it was, he had with him a force well nigh 130,000 strong, to pit against the Southern armies, all told, of less than half that number in Virginia, to protect Richmond, and guard the coast line and other approaches to the Southern capital. Of the latter force, the Southern general, Magruder, had under him, to confront McClellan when he reached the Peninsula, a body of but 11,000 troops, which were extended behind defensive lines, some twelve miles in length, from Yorktown, where his left rested, along the Warwick River to Mulberry Island, to his right flank on the James. On McClellan’s failure to meet Johnston at Manassas and proceeding to the Chesapeake, the latter met the movement by withdrawing from the region of Rull Run, and took up a new position on the Rappahannock, where he could better oppose McClellan. Meanwhile, Magruder’s front was reinforced by the divisions of Jubal Early, D. R. Jones, and D. H. Hill, increasing the Southern defensive array to oppose the Federal advance to 53,000 men, the chief command of all being now assumed (April 17, 1862) by General J. E. Johnston, who had also the general charge of the Department of Norfolk.

It took the remainder of the month of April for McClellan to make his reconnaissances in the region and ascertain the strength of the forces opposed to him; and when this was done he proceeded to erect batteries commanding Yorktown and to prepare for a general assault. While thus engaged, a council of war had been held at Richmond, in which General Lee took a leading directing part, and which favored the withdrawal of the Southern defensive line and concentrate it nearer to the Confederate capital. This decision having been come to, Yorktown was abandoned, the retreat upon Williamsburg being for a time adroitly concealed by a furious cannonade from the batteries of the place. The movement was one of chagrin to McClellan, for he had hoped to take York town by siege and assault, having expended weeks in preparing for it, and was, moreover, confident of success. All he had for his pains was the occupying of the evacuated Confederate works, and the pursuit of the retreating Southern defenders of the post. In the retreat towards Kichmond, an effective stand was made at Williamsburg by the troops under Longstreet and D. H. Hill, who fought the pursuing Northern force under Hooker and Hancock, General Sumner being in chief command; while a division under Kearny later came on the field. Battle had been given at Williamsburg, so as to check Federal pursuit and allow time for Johnston to get the mass of his army and its equipment well on the road to Richmond. As it was, the Northerners, were hotly repulsed, suffering a heavy loss of over 2,000 men in killed and wounded, in addition to some pieces of artillery captured by “the rebels.” The battle lasted throughout the day of May 5th, when the Confederates fell back towards the Chickahominy, at the same time withdrawing the garrison under Huger, from Norfolk, Va. In spite of defeat McClellan continued the advance upon Richmond, having for his new base the White House, on the Pamunkey. By this time he had been relieved of the chief command of the Northern forces by General Halleck at Washington, and was now solely responsible for the Federal operations in the Peninsula, though in conducting these he looked for support from McDowell’s division, which was now advanced from the neighborhood of Manassas to Fredericksburg. Here it was, however, detained by instructions from Washington, much to McClellan’s annoyance, owing to continued fear of a Southern advance upon the Union capital by Jackson’s alertly-moving command, which was operating menacingly in the Valley of Virginia. It was to Jackson, at this juncture, that Richmond, now in real dread of McClellan, was saved from assault and possible occupation by the Army of the Potomac. To his active, adroit, and tactical movements in the Valley, which alarmed Washington, and kept McDowell from joining McClellan, the South owed the deliverance of its capital seat; while it gave Johnston the opportunity to give his attention to the Federal forces now massing on the Chickahominy.

McClellan’s advance upon Richmond was for a time balked by difficulties in getting across the latter stream (the Chickahominy), the retreating Confederates having destroyed its bridges in falling back upon the capital; while the wet season had swollen the river greatly and rendered very swampy its banks. One of the Northern army wings was, however, got across the stream, by means of pontoons, in the neighborhood of Bottom Bridge, and the corps composing it—those of Keyes, Franklin, and Heintzelman—Johnston now proceeded to attack. The engagement that ensued—that at Seven Pines or Fair Oaks—took place on the last day of May and the first of June (1862), and was stubbornly fought by J. E. Johnston and his next ranking officer, G. W. Smith. In the battle, the Federals met with a severe rebuff, and were repeatedly driven back on the Chickahominy, the timely arrival of Sumner’s corps only saving them from annihilation or utter rout. At the close of the first day’s fighting. General Johnston was unfortunate enough to be severely wounded, and this disabled him from taking part in, or even directing, the morrow’s operations. The incidents of the second day’s battle were unimportant in results on either side, both armies remaining on the ground at the close of the fighting and protecting themselves by entrenchments. Johnston’s disablement for the time from active service brought General Lee upon the scene, however. President Davis permitting him at length to take the field, while he appointed him Commander-in-chief.

With Lee’s return to active duty in the field, McClellan’s designs upon the Confederate capital were signally balked; while the presence and superb leadership of the great Southern soldier were great gains to the South in the crisis of invasion. This was presently seen by the vigorous campaign he now entered upon at the head of the Northern Army of Virginia, and by its operations during the critical era of the Seven Days’ Battles in front of Richmond. The troops under him, or within call from Richmond, did not, all told, exceed 60,000 men; against which McClellan, at this time, had an army double in number, without reckoning the corps under McDowell, Fremont, and Banks, which were nigh at hand. At this period, Jackson, once more, was of great service to Lee and the Southern cause in continuing his daring operations in the Virginia Valley, where he was now joined by Ewell’s division, and with whose co-operation he fell first upon Fremont, whom he drove back upon Western Virginia, and then attacked and routed Banks, who fled across the Potomac. These Northern repulses foiled any hope of McDowell’s joining McClellan, and compelled the latter to rely upon his own already large resources. The situation of the South at this time was, moreover, brightened; while Lee and his army, still holding McClellan in check on the Chickahominy, was encouraged, by the brilliant reconnaissance ride of General Stuart and his Southern cavalry command round the whole of the widely-extended lines of the Federal position, during which Stuart and his men did much serviceable work in learning of the strength and weakness of McClellan’s lines, as well as in harassing the outposts of the enemy.

At this juncture in the South’s affairs. General Lee had a heavy and responsible duty to face, having in front of him, within only five or six miles of Richmond, a Northern army, eleven divisions strong, with but five divisions, at most, under him, to pit against this unequal force. Disposing his command—which consisted of the divisions under Huger, Longstreet, Magruder, A. P. Hill, and D. H. Hill—to the best advantage, Lee saw that his best tactics lay in attacking one or other of the enemy’s flanks. The right flank was the one he chose to operate against, the topographical features of the country on McClellan’s right and rear being favorable to assault from that quarter. Moreover, the information which General Stuart had gleaned for him, in his daring ride round McClellan’s lines, confirmed Lee in his decision to attack the enemy on the right. In thus deciding, he was also influenced by the brilliant movements of “Stonewall” Jackson in the Virginia Valley, and the distractions caused McClellan by these exploits, which brought “Stonewall” in rear of the Federal right, and in a position to aid Lee in the vigorous onslaught he was about to undertake. Now was launched the famous Seven Days’ conflict (June 26–July 2), which brought consternation to the Federal commander, and not only foiled him in his anticipated capture of the “rebel” capital, but caused his entire plans to miscarry, and actually drove him and his invading army from the Peninsula. The vigor and daring, as well as the brilliance, of Lee’s operations, which resulted in this signal discomfiture of his boastful Northern adversary, were conspicuous throughout the Seven Days’ battles; while their success caused renewed despair at Washington, and correspondingly elated the whole South. They, moreover, infused fresh ardor into all ranks of the Confederate armies, and increasingly stiffened the back of rebellion. Nor was McClellan’s failure in the Peninsular campaign simply a defeat, or rather a series of defeats; it came near involving the destruction or surrender of the entire army of the Potomac, and that in spite of the stubborn fightings which marked almost the whole course of the retreat from the Chickahominy to the James River, and the skill shown by the Federal commander in extricating himself and his forces from the region, which Nature had further rendered a toilsome and difficult one to penetrate. Amply, however, was Lee rewarded by the success he achieved, splendidly aided as he was by the loyal support and active, determined work of his ably co-operating generals.

Of the latter generals, Lee received perhaps the greatest assistance from Stonewall Jackson, who, as we have seen, was operating in the Virginia Valley, and had just defeated Fremont at Cross Keys and Shields at Port Eepublic (June 8–9). From the Valley Lee had asked Jackson to come secretly to his aid, leaving in the region only such portions of his command as were necessary to keep watch over the Northern corps he had been fighting, and concealing from the enemy the suggested junction with General Lee. To replace Jackson’s own personal command, Lee had directed Brigadier-Generals Lawton and Whiting, with their respective corps, to join “Stonewall” and aid him in crushing the Northerners in the Valley, and then, with his main body, including Ewell’s division and Lawton and Whiting’s contingents, move rapidly to Ashland, thence sweep down between the Chickahominy and the Pamunkey, where it was hinted Jackson could cut the enemy’s communications while Lee was to attack McClellan in front. For a time, McClellan was in the dark about this understanding between Lee and Jackson, which was arranged more in detail at a personal conference between the two Confederate leaders on a flying visit to Richmond. McClellan, moreover, was purposely misled not only as to this co-operating movement, but also as to the strength of the Southern forces to be brought against him, which he seems to have reckoned at the preposterously extravagant number of 200,000 men. The truth is, the Confederate strength under Lee at this time was not over $1,000, to pit against which the Union had a fighting force of 105,000 effective men.

At last McClellan gained a knowledge of the movement against his right flank on the north bank of the Chickahominy, in which, besides Jackson’s command, the two Hills, Longstreet, and Branch, were to take part; while Lee left Holmes, Magruder, and Huger, to make a counter-demonstration upon the Federal front. In beginning to carry out the movement, Jackson and Branch, guided by Stuart’s cavalry, reached Ashland on June 25, after which the combined columns pressed on towards Cold Harbor. On the following day, D. H. Hill rather unexpectedly gave battle to Fitz-John Porter at Mechanicsville, and after a stiff fight he pressed the latter’s command back to Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines’ Mill. At New Cold Harbor, the fighting became general, Lee having ordered a combined assault in force against Porter, in which the corps of Jackson, Ewell, Longstreet, Whiting, and the two Hills, took an active and at times a daring part. For a time the rebel attack was met chiefly by Porter’s artillery; though, as the assault was pressed, the Northern commander continued to fall back, a movement which, as a whole, was now decided upon by McClellan, who sought to reach the James Kiver, about twenty-five miles distant, through the intricacies of the White Oak Swamp. The federal position was now one of extreme peril, and much depended upon Porter’s tactics of defense, so as to allow time for the withdrawal of the mass of McClellan’s army and prevent Jackson, at Lee’s bidding, from getting in rear of him and cutting off his retreat. As Hill pressed the Federals at this juncture, in the face of a furious fire, he discovered the strength of Porter’s position; but he nevertheless continued gallantly to assail them, aided, at Lee’s instructions, by Longstreet’s division, and later by those of Ewell and Whiting. Still later. Hill was cheered by the approach of the indomitable Jackson’s division, when the Federals fell back from Beaver Dam Creek in confusion; though they saved themselves from further disaster by the coming on of night, as well as by the nature of the region, which made it difficult for effective pursuit in the darkness. The losses on both sides were heavy from the day’s operations, and nightfall was consequently hailed with gladness, especially by the Northerners, who fell back on the Powhite Creek.

Meanwhile, the main Federal army had withdrawn from its base at the White House, on the Pamunkey, and the line of the York River railroad, taking with it such of its equipment and baggage as could be carried off in retreat, and destroying the remainder—a large amount of Federal property—besides burning the bridge, on the way back to the James. At Savage Station and the neighborhood there were several hot brushes with the retreating Federals, in which many of the latter were taken prisoners; while for a time a determined stand was made at Frazier’s Farm by the commands under Sumner and Heintzelman. Here, on June 30, the Southern columns were held stiffly in check, in spite of the vigorous assaults of the forces under Jackson, Longstreet, and A. P. Hill; while another battle was fought at Malvern Bridge, and simultaneous fighting went on along all the swampy country over which the Federals were retreating, back as far as Westover, which McClellan reached on July 4, and where he eagerly sought the- safety of the strong Federal defensive works there, protected by the Northern gunboats in the river.

With McClellan’s retreat, Lee had been able not only to bring relief to the Confederate capital, but to unite the entire forces of his varied command on the south side of the Chickahominy and deliver the many offensive attacks which marked the period of the Seven Days’ battles. From these almost continuous assaults McClellan narrowly escaped destruction or enforced surrender, mainly owing to the inferior numbers of the Southern fighting armies and to the difficult country through which the Federal commander-in-chief had cleverly conducted his retreat. Even at Westover, where he had strong entrenchments to take shelter in and the Union gunboats in the James to protect him, McClellan barely saved his force from the strategy of Major-General Stuart, who, with great sagacity, seized, and against stout Federal opposition pluckily held for a time, Evelington Heights, an eminence overlooking Westover that commanded the entire position occupied by the Northern army after its retreat. In the Seven Days’ fighting the losses on each side exceeded fifteen thousand men, the casualties naturally falling more heavily on the Southern side, as the offensive one throughout the repulse. In addition, the Northerners lost many guns, as well as captured men and equipment; while they also burned in their retreat very considerable military shores, tents, baggage, and other camp-appurtenances. To Lee, the successes of the period were not all he had hoped for and had brilliantly sought to achieve; but he made few mistakes, and had much to felicitate himself upon, with a heightened record for coolness, reliance, and sagacity, and increased reputation for superb skill in planning, and great force and effectiveness in executing, his operations.

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