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


TO the South, several objects were to be gained by the crossing of the Potomac and once more assuming the offensive by the Army of Northern Virginia. Its late successes, in spite of shrunken ranks, warranted a new and aggressive movement, which would relieve Northern Virginia of the presence of the enemy, always within striking distance of Richmond; while it would enable it to ease the pressure just then of the Northern forces upon Confederate arms in the West; and at the same time obtain for Lee’s army the greatly needed supplies for his men and horses, which it was thought could be gathered plentifully by a spirited and menacing raid as far North as Pennsylvania. The feeling of dejection at the North at the seeming impossibility of finding a Union general capable of beating Lee on the field favored the projected renewed invasion, especially as Hooker’s array was, besides being worsted, greatly depleted by recent casualties and by desertions from its ranks; while Lee’s, on the other hand, after the period of rest it had had, was in fine fettle for a raid across the Potomac, with the prospect before it of unlimited loot in the North, and the consciousness of striking terror throughout the region the army was likely to invade. There was, of course, no little risk involved in Lee’s transferring hostilities to Northern regions; and there was at first some difficulty in obtaining the consent of the Confederate Government to the proposal, as, just then, the Richmond authorities wanted part of Lee’s army to aid the contest going on in Tennessee, as well as to afford succor to Vicksburg, at the period being besieged by General Grant. Lee, however, as we have seen, was not usually deterred by risks to be run, and, as a matter of sound tactics, was given to the striking of decisive blows, when his judgment suggested them; hence, he had his way, and at once prepared his army for the Northern incursion. Latent in his mind, probably at this time, was also the hope that, by some further and signal victory, he might terminate the struggle, with its direful tale of bloodshed, and dictate in the North a treaty which would end the war, and give both sections of the country peace, if not unity. Some such idea in Lee’s mind was at this period not improbable, especially as he knew that importunate voices were now being heard in the North calling for an end to the conflict, on the basis of separation. Lee was, moreover, confirmed in his purpose of making a new foray in the North by the improved strength and enthusiasm of his army, which was now augmented not only by the return of Longstreet’s command from Suffolk, but also by the return to the ranks of the recovered wounded who had been on temporary furlough, with other absentees, as well as by some fresh levies forwarded from the Confederate capital.

Lee’s present army was now about 68,000 strong, of which close upon 10,000 consisted of cavalry and artillery. The whole force he divided anew into three corps, of three divisions each, viz., those under Longstreet, Ewell (who succeeded to the command of the late General Jackson’s corps), and A. P. Hill; while the cavalry was commanded, as before, by General Stuart, and the artillery (composed of 200 guns) by General Pendleton. On June 3rd, a month after the battle of Chancellorsville, the Northern movement began by the despatch of General Longstreet to Culpeper, followed by Ewell; while Hill was for the time left in front of Fredericksburg to keep watch on Hooker; and prevent any advance upon Richmond, as well as to conceal from Hooker Lee’s departure. At Culpeper, on June 9th, Lee reports to his Government at Richmond that a portion of Hooker’s army, including a large force of cavalry and artillery, had early that morning crossed the Rappahannock on a reconnaissance expedition, after previously making a demonstration against Hill on the Rapidan. The object of the expedition, which crossed the river at Kelly’s and Beverley’s Fords, east of the Culpeper Court House, was manifestly to get on General Stuart’s track, and if possible learn of the designs of his column in the region and of his later advance upon Brandy Station. At this time, Lee’s advance northward had not fully transpired, and Stuart’s object in being where he was was to mask from Hooker Lee’s movement in the direction of Maryland, and at the same time to guard the Southern army’s flank in its march northward.

From the two fords, came the Federal columns under Buford and Gregg, forcing back the Confederate pickets, and delivering a determined attack. This was at first resisted by the Southern brigade under General Jones, but on being heavily pressed Stuart sent back W. H. F. Lee, Wade Hampton, and Robertson, with their several brigades, to withstand the onslaught, which now developed into almost the proportions of a battle, and lasted throughout the day. Finally, the Northerners were repulsed at all points and compelled to recross the river, leaving in the Confederate hands, besides their dead on the field, about 500 prisoners, with three pieces of artillery and several regimental colors. In the day’s encounter near Brandy Station, said to have been one of the stiffest cavalry contests of the whole war, Lee’s second son, Brigadier-General W. H. F. Lee, was wounded. Of this mishap to a member of his family, following soon after the death of a loved daughter, Anne, General Lee wrote to his wife two days afterwards (June 11th): “My supplications continue to ascend for you, my children, and my country. When I last wrote I did not suppose that Fitzhugh (his son) would so soon be sent to the rear disabled, and I hope it will be but for a short time. I saw him the night after the battle—indeed, met him on the field as they were bringing him from the front. He is young and healthy, and I trust will soon be up again. He seemed to be more concerned about his brave men and officers who had fallen in the battle than about himself.”

On the following day (June 10th), Lee sent Ewell northward from Culpeper into the Shenandoah Valley, with the design of reaching Winchester, then held by 6,000 Federal troops under General Milroy, with a small force occupying Martinsburg. At Winchester, which the Federals had strongly fortified, Ewell directed Rodes’s division to move upon Martinsburg, capture the Union garrison, and dispose of his force so as cut off the enemy’s retreat in falling back from Winchester to the Potomac. Ewell then prepared to assault Milroy, having invested the town on the 13th, and having with him the divisions of Johnson and Early. The next day, the latter, after a furious cannonade, stormed Milroy ‘s defenses, carried them, and made prisoners of the greater part of the garrison. The remainder, with Milroy, fled from Winchester, during the night, but the majority of the Federal command fell into Johnson’s hands and were captured, though Milroy, with a small following, eluding the Southern leader, escaped to Harper’s Ferry. Berryville and Martinsburg were also surprised and their garrison taken, while the Valley was throughout freed from the enemy. The spoils of the two days’ hard-won victories included 4,000 prisoners captured, 29 pieces of artillery, 270 wagons and ambulances taken, and a mass of various stores. News of the mishap reached Hooker speedily at Fredericksburg and opened his eyes as to the character and design of Lee’s operations in the North. He therefore gave his army orders to quit the Rappahannock and move in the direction of Manassas, meantime confining his attention to the Blue Ridge mountains and the Southern movement in that quarter, and taking care to keep his army between the line of the Confederate advance and Washington. When Hooker moved northward, Hill, in compliance with Lee’s orders, took the road to the Shenandoah Valley, thence to Winchester; while Ewell directed the steps of his command towards Pennsylvania, Lee following him at supporting distance. As the advance northward was made, Lee bore eastward in the direction of Washington, now in alarm over this new Confederate foray; but Hooker by this time had come north and interposed a barrier between the capital and the Confederate columns, on the east side of the Bull Run Eange. Lee was thus balked in making any demonstration against the Federal seat of government, though his presence in the region brought on a series of conflicts between Stuart’s command and the Union cavalry.

Leaving Stuart to guard the passes of the Blue Ridge, Lee pressed on with Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps to Chambersburg, Pa., already occupied by Ewell, who now advanced to Carlisle and York, and even threatened Harrisburg. At this juncture, Hooker now sought to move against Lee’s rear with Slocum’s command, and to do so effectively he asked permission from Halleck at Washington to take the garrison of Harper’s Ferry (10,000 strong) to assist him in the operation. This Halleck, however, refused to allow, and Hooker warmly remonstrated with the Commander-in-chief, telling him that, if he was not permitted to conduct the campaign in his own way, he preferred to resign the command of the Army of the Potomac. Thus matters were brought to a deadlock, the way out of which was speedily taken by relieving Hooker of his post and replacing him by Major-General G. G. Meade, of the Federal Fifth corps, who now took the chief command (June 28, 1863).

Meade, though not an officer of great brilliance, was an able and sagacious commander, and had seen a good deal of service. Though called upon suddenly to assume the chief Federal command, and knowing little of Hooker’s plan of campaign, he at once set himself to rally and concentrate the scattered Union forces in Maryland and Pennsylvania, with the design of giving Lee battle and cutting off his retreat southward. Up to this time, Lee had accomplished not a little in gathering supplies in the enemy’s country, and in spreading alarm throughout the North by his invasion of Pennsylvania. He was, however, greatly handicapped by a lack of cavalry, especially for scouting purposes, and in enabling him to learn of the whereabouts and projected movements of the Federal army. He, nevertheless, was aware that his rear communications were in serious danger, and the better to protect them and strengthen himself for anticipated attack, he directed Longstreet and Hill to move from Chambersburg to Gettysburg, while he recalled Ewell from York and Carlisle to the same rallying point.

The great historic battle of Gettysburg was fought through its three entire days’ course (July 1–3, 1863) by detached masses of the two contending armies, as they successively came upon the now renowned field, on which was at length grouped close upon 150,000 men, about equally divided between the Union and the Confederate forces. The town lies in the valley of the Cumberland, in one of the southern counties of Pennsylvania, 36 miles southwest of Harrisburg, the State capital. Through the valley run roads leading to the different towns of the adjoining counties, most of them centering in Gettysburg. To
the west of the town is situate Seminary Ridge, three miles in length, on which stands a theological school; while southward is a series of ridges and hills, intersected by ravines and gullies. “The point of these hills farthest west is a little to the north of the general trend, and, with its connecting ridges, forms a curve or outward bend. Joining this curved part is a long line of hills, which end in two prominences, and finally in open country. The extreme western point of the curve is known as Gulp’s Hill, the two prominences as Little and Big Round Top, and the long connecting ridge as Cemetery Hill, the local burial-ground. Between Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill, filling a gap in the long line, is a ridge, which stands out in the valley, and is known as Peach Orchard. Near Big Round Top is Devil’s Den, a small knoll, and Rock Greek. These hills and ridges are wooded, and in some
portions are very steep and rocky.”

The closing day of June found the Gonfederate forces pressing through Gashtown, on the road from Chambersburg to Gettysburg, Hill having sent the divisions of Heth and Pender on in advance to ascertain Meade’s whereabouts. Stuart at this time, to whom the reconnaissance duty would doubtless have been assigned, was off at Carlisle, and, besides having Kilpatrick’s squadrons to fight, had Meade’s army, for most of his return march, between him and Lee. Longstreet was still west of the South Mountain at Greenwood, with Pickett guarding the supply trains at Chambersburg. Of Swell’s corps, Johnson’s division was near Longstreet; the divisions of Rodes and Early were in the vicinity of Heidlersberg, though now on the way from the Susquehanna to Cashtown. Early in the morning of the 1st of July, Heth and Pender, of Hill’s corps, on their approach to Gettysburg, found themselves confronted by Buford’s command, with a strong Federal contingent, at Willoughby Run, a force which the Confederates drove back, the noise of the firing bringing both Hill and Ewell on the field, when battle between the two armies was precipitated near McPherson’s Ridge, on the Cashtown or Chambersburg road, just west of Gettysburg. To Buford’s assistance, after the opening cavalry skirmish, came up the Federal First corps under Reynolds, and the Second corps under Howard. Reynolds posted his men along the Seminary Ridge, from which he saw the hot engagement between Heth and Buford, and at once rushed down the slope with his command to take part in it. In the action that ensued, and which for a time bore heavily against the Confederates, Reynolds was himself unhappily slain; while Pender, now taking part in the fray, was able to aid Heth in holding the First corps at bay. By noon, the Federal Eleventh corps came up, under Howard, who took command, now that Reynolds had fallen; while Ewell appeared on the field from Heidlersburg, and with Rodes, Early, and Hill, they together fell upon Howard’s front and flank, and, by four o’clock in the afternoon, they forced his shattered brigades through Gettysburg back upon the Union batteries on Cemetery Hill. As Hill bore heavily down upon the retreating Federals, several thousands of them were taken prisoners, and other masses of them had fallen before the attack of cold steel. Lee at this juncture came up, and on looking over the scene he at once sent an order to Ewell to press on after the broken Federals and secure the hill, if possible. The elevation was found, however, practically unassailable, with the present Confederate force at Ewell’s disposal, and the Federal guns now belching from it. Ewell, therefore, wisely deferred the assault, especially as new arrivals of Federal troops were coming into Gettysburg, including Hancock’s and Slocum’s corps, which at once occupied Gulp’s Hill, as well as part of the Cemetery Ridge. The day’s fighting ended amid Confederate exultation, and with a conference of Lee and his generals as to the plan of attack on the morrow. The losses of the day on both sides were heavy.

The early part of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg was occupied in placing in advantageous positions the contingents of both armies that had arrived during the night, with a redisposition of part of those that had been engaged on the previous day. Of the arrivals on the Union side were the Second, Third, Fifth, and Twelfth corps, commanded respectively by Hancock, Sickles, Sykes, and Slocum; while later on in the day came the Sixth corps, under Sedgwick. On the Confederate side, Stuart’s cavalry corps had not yet arrived, nor did he reach the field until the afternoon of the following day. Longstreet, however, had early joined Lee, though portions of his command, those under Hood, Kershaw, and McLaws, had not as yet come up. Lee was anxious for their arrival, and for the coming of Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps, as he wished Longstreet to open the day’s operations with an attack on the Federal lines along the Emmittsburg road. To this design of the Confederate commander-in-chief, Longstreet entered a protest, as the latter preferred to attack Meade first on the left. This lack of acquiescence lost Lee most part of the day, when it was important to attack the enemy before they had taken up their assigned positions and strengthened their lines of defense. Longstreet’s attitude was naturally embarrassing to Lee, and the latter doubtless wished that morning to have had on the field his old war-horse, the redoubtable and eager Jackson, who, with his unshaken confidence in his chief and promptitude in obeying orders, would have readily thrown his command against the enemy, and more than probably have disastrously routed them, and so obviated the third day’s fighting. As it turned out, the Confederate chances of success in the day’s operations were lost by Longstreet’s reluctance to attack as Lee had directed; and ere long the result proved that Lee was right, for the Federal column (the Fifth Corps), on arriving and taking up ground, at once seized Little Round Top, the key of the day’s position, and occupied it, reinforced later in the day, as the struggle around it and for its possession developed.

The conflict of opinion between the Confederate commander-in-chief and his senior general on the field produced for a time an unfortunate deadlock. It also delayed other action designed to have been simultaneously taken along other parts of the field, in conjunction with Longstreet’s movement. Already, the divisions of McLaws and Hood were waiting to carry out the orders assigned them; Hill, opposite the enemy’s center, was impatient to attack; Ewell was eager to storm Gulp’s Hill; while Early, on the Confederate left, had since two in the morning been ready for the word to scale Cemetery Hill from the direction of Grettysburg. Finally, by four o’clock in the afternoon, Longstreet, with his 12,000 men, got into position in front of and on the left of Sickles’ command, the Federals being here arrayed in strong force behind stone walls and partly in the forest and among heavy boulders, the position bristling with artillery. Here, Longstreet delivered a vigorous attack, “forcing the salient at the peach orchard, and driving in the successive regiments and brigades from the left toward the right of the Third corps, pushing them back across the wheat-field, gaining the Devil’s Den, and threatening to take Little Round Top.” That the latter was not captured was owing to the determined efforts of General Warren, of the Federal Engineer corps, who, seeing the importance of holding the eminence against Longstreet and Hood, brought up in the nick of time a battery of artillery and a brigade of infantry, and repulsed the Confederate attack, though a hand-to-hand fight almost placed it in the latter’s possession. Longstreet now turned upon Sickles’ center and drove his command from the peach orchard, and with Hood’s assistance pressed the Federals back upon their main position on Cemetery Ridge. Meanwhile, Hill attacked Sickles’ right with Anderson’s division, and pressed its corps-commander, Humphreys, from the field. Sickles himself falling in the fight. Later on in the evening, an attack was made on Cemetery Ridge, then stoutly held by Hancock, but this was repulsed after hard fighting. Simultaneously, Early, Ewell, and Johnson made determined attacks on the enemy’s right center, on Cemetery Ridge and Gulp’s Hill, assaults which were only partially successful, Ewell capturing part of the Federal breastworks on the extreme right, though in doing so he suffered terribly from the fire of the Federal artillery. The approach of night brought the day’s dire conflict to a close, though its gains were sufficiently encouraging to the Confederates to lead their heroic chieftain to determine to renew the battle on the morrow. The losses on both sides had meanwhile been frightful.

The two days’ battle, though it had been an aggressive and partly successful one to the Confederates, was by no means decisive. To both combatants, it had, moreover, been a sanguinary one, as the field, littered with dead, in all directions showed. On the Federal right, part of the Union lines had been occupied over night by Johnson, of Ewell’s command, and on the morning of the 3rd it was designed by Lee to make the position won the basis of the new day’s attack. In this, Lee was, however, checkmated by Meade, for by daybreak Johnson was heavily assaulted by the foe, and the position, after protracted fighting, was retaken before Confederate reinforcements could be brought up to strengthen it. The Union lines were then re-formed. After the morning’s discomfiture, Lee at once resolved to break the enemy’s center, and with that object he first ordered his artillery, consisting of 140 guns on Seminary Ridge, to open fire on the Federal lines. This furious cannonade, which lasted for close upon two hours, was fitfully replied to by Meade’s 80 cannon posted on Cemetery Hill, for his artillery was short of ammunition. After this cannoneers’ combat—“the most terrible artillery-fire of the whole war”—there followed the gallant historic charge, which became the culminating feature of the three days’ battle, that of the Virginian division, led by Major-General Pickett, 13,000 strong, supported by Heth’s division of Hill’s corps, under General Pettigrew, and protected on its exposed right flank by a
brigade commanded by General Wilcox. The charge was made in three lines across the slopes of the valley intervening between the positions occupied by the opposing armies, its steady, magnificent advance, in the face of a murderous artillery and infantry cross-fire, being the admiration of friend and foe alike.

For a time, Pickett’s gallant line was shielded by the fire of the Confederate artillery; but as it advanced towards the salient position occupied by Hancock, which Lee had given Pickett as the objective point, the protecting fire was silenced, so as not to harm the advancing lines. Now they were thrown by Pickett into echelon order and pushed on rapidly by their ardent leader, when the ranks were once more thinned by the musketry fire of the foe, which was now directed upon them. In spite of this, the Virginians continued to advance against their assailants, and the struggle henceforth was one waged at close quarters, until the Confederates pierced the first Federal line and threw it back upon the second. Pickett’s brigades now found themselves far in advance of their supports, and were met besides by a hail of grape-shot at close range, which leveled hundreds with the dust. The command still did not flinch, however, though hotly opposed by Gibbon’s Federal defenders. Upon the Union lines the advance almost recklessly threw itself, only to be mowed down by the Federal fire, though, at this crisis, a few of the supporting regiments came up and united with Pickett’s men, and both for a time made a determined stand—only to be annihilated. At this juncture, the charge, it was seen, was a forlorn hope, and what remained of it had no alternative but to face about and retreat, or submit to the shrunk-from choice of capture. Out of 4,800 men who had followed Pickett to the point of contact with the Federal line, but 1,200 escaped; while 3,600 fell before the murderous fire to which they had been exposed. Such was the tragic ending of a glorious and memorable deed of arms, and practically the close of the great battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg, it has often been said, should have ended the war, together with the surrender of Vicksburg to Grant on July 4th, the morrow of the last day’s fighting between Meade’s and Lee’s forces on the bloody field of Gettysburg. But this was hardly to be expected when we consider the keen-edged temper of the Southern troops and their confidence in their great leader, not to speak of the losses that had been inflicted, in the three days’ engagement, upon the Army of the Potomac, and in view of what the Army of Northern Virginia was yet capable of accomplishing in the Campaign of the Wilderness that ensued, where man for man the Confederates greatly out-fought the Northerners. The losses on both sides at Gettysburg were appalling, and what the battle had cost Meade—in a loss of 23,000 out of nearly 90,000 of the Northern forces, against a “rebel“ loss of 21,000 out of a total of 60,000 under Lee—showed the punishment that had been received, a punishment that restrained the northern general-in-chief from immediately renewing the fighting.

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