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

CHAPTER XIV.
OPERATIONS ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE JAMES RIVER
AND THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG.

BAULKED in his endeavor to reach Richmond from the North, Grant sought now, as we have related, to reach it by abandoning the line of the Chickahominy, crossing the James, and, with the assistance of Butler, now at Petersburg, to attempt the movement from the south. This resolution of Grant’s was put in action on the night of the 12th of June, when the Federal leader proceeded, by way of White House and Wilcox’s Landing, across the James; and by the 16th of the month the Federal hosts were massed at Petersburg, the “backdoor of Richmond,” which was held by General Beauregard. The same day (June 16) found part of Lee’s army, now numbering only 30,000 men, south of the James, the divisions of Pickett and Field being almost at once engaged in an attack upon Butler, assisted by the forces under Beauregard.

While these new dispositions in the armies of Grant and Lee were being made, the Federal general, Hunter, was engaged in the task General Sigel had been occupied with, of raiding and burning in the Valley of the Virginia, destroying the railroad tracks and bridges, and committing many outrages in the region, including the devastating and burning of homesteads. By the 16th of June, Hunter had set himself the task of attacking the town of Lynchburg, then held by a small local force of Confederates, supplemented by the command of General Breckenridge. News of this reaching Lee, the latter detached Early from his army with 10,000 men to bring Hunter’s wild career to a close; this had the desired effect, for on Early’s reaching Lynchburg, which had already repulsed the Federal attack, he found Hunter and his command in full retreat from the place, passing out of the region through Western Virginia. All that Early had for his pains, was to get upon the rear of Hunter’s retreating force, when he captured a number of prisoners, besides the prize of thirteen pieces of artillery.

From the middle of June, 1864, to April 3rd, 1865, Grant’s operations before Petersburg continued with varying but wearying fortunes. The operations, the while, had little of the character of a siege; nor, save for the protection of the Confederate capital, whose fortunes were linked with those of Petersburg, was it worth Lee’s while to fritter away the strength and patience of his army, for nearly nine months, in front of the city. But while the Army of the James remained there, there, necessarily, must Lee and his veterans remain also. Had events gone more favorably for the South in other sections of the country, Lee’s detention so long at Petersburg would not have greatly mattered; but the turn of the tide elsewhere, adverse to the Confederacy, and the great and increasing preponderance in the numbers of the Federal armies, were Lee’s, and the South’s, undoing. All our hero could do was but to bend his head, as he ever did, to the will of Heaven, in ordering events otherwise, even to the blasting of Southern hopes.

Shortly after settling down to the protracted investment of Petersburg, Grant ordered elaborate assaults upon the place, though results were not as he anticipated; nor did they compensate for the frightful slaughter they occasioned. All that was practically gained from them, or, at least, from those of the 15th, 16th, and 17th of June, was the carrying of portions of the Confederate exterior lines, which did not effect any more important purpose than to add to the area of the Federal entrenchments. It is on record that Grant’s losses in these assaults did not fall much short of 10,000 men; while the Confederate casualties were not a third of that number. Up to this time, when the siege operations proper are claimed to have been begun, there had been little accomplished by the Union army beyond the four day assaults (June 15–18), if we exclude the general raiding in the neighborhood, with the design of destroying the Weldon railroad, which connects Petersburg with the Confederate capital. Even in that operation and other general skirmishing in the vicinity, success did not altogether lie with the North. This we may see from the two subjoined reports of General Lee to the Confederate Secretary of War at Richmond, under the dates, respectively, of June 22nd and 29th (1864). On the first of these dates, Lee writes:

Since Friday last there has been skirmishing along the lines in front of Bermuda Hundreds and around Petersburg. The Federal army appears to be concentrated at these two places, and is strongly entrenched.

Yesterday, a movement of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was made towards the right of our forces and Petersburg, in the direction of the Weldon railroad. The enemy was driven back, and his infantry is reported to have halted. His cavahy have continued to advance upon the road by a route further removed from our position.

The enemy’s infantry was attacked this afternoon, on the west side of the Jerusalem plank road, and driven from his first line of works to his second on that road, by General Mahone, with a part of his division. About 1,600 prisoners, 4 pieces of artillery, 8 stands of colors, and a large stand of small-arms were captured.

Under date of June 29th, the Confederate commander-in-chief reports to Richmond:

General Hampton states that he attacked the enemy’s cavalry yesterday afternoon on their return from Staunton River bridge, this side of Sappony Church, and drove them beyond that point. The fight continued during the night, and at daylight this morning he turned their left and routed them. When they reached Reame’s Station they were confronted by a portion of Mahone’s division, who attacked them in front, while their left flank was turned by General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. The enemy was completely routed, and several pieces of artillery, with a number of prisoners, wagons, ambulances, etc., were captured. The cavalry are in pursuit.

R. E. Lee, General.

If Grant expected to take Petersburg by a coup de main, he was grievously disappointed; his attacks on it in the middle of July, as we have shown, were practically fruitless, while they brought only calamitous loss of life. In the North, there was at this time (gold in New York was then over 2.50) a widespread feeling of disappointment, as well as of impatience, at the manner in which he had conducted the campaign, with its ruthless waste of human life. The war of invasion was in many Northern journals bluntly spoken of as a tragic and costly failure; while sympathy was not even withheld from the brave Lee and his ragged and ill-fed veterans, who had won their admiration, and, in spite of all their disadvantages, had accomplished so much. Nor, in military quarters, did it escape notice that Grant’s heedless and unfeeling tactics in the field—in marked contrast to those of the humane and considerate Lee—were breeding discontent in his army, and giving birth to a feeling of hopelessness in the ranks when ordered out on rash ventures. This is specially and pointedly noted in General F. A. Walker’s “Life of General Hancock,” when referring particularly to the Second corps of Grant’s army, on whose services in critical undertakings Grant largely relied. The passage is as follows:

“As the corps turned southward from Cold Harbor to take its part in the second act of the great campaign of 1864, the historian” (relates General Walker) “is bound to confess that something of its pristine virtue had departed under the terrific blows that had been showered upon it in the series of fierce encounters which have been recited. Its casualties had averaged more than four hundred a day for the whole period since it crossed the Rapidan . . . moreover, the confidence of the troops in their leaders had been severely shaken. They had again and again been ordered to attacks which the very privates in the ranks knew to be hopeless from the start; they had seen the fatal policy of ‘assaults all along the line,’ persisted in even after the most ghastly failures; and they had almost ceased to expect victory when they went into battle. The lamentable story of Petersburg” (the historian-critic adds) “cannot be understood without reference to facts like these.” In sharp contrast to this feeling of despondency and discontent in Grant’s command was the hopefulness manifested by all ranks of Lee’s army, their ready alacrity to undertake any enterprise their beloved leader asked of them, and their fidelity and attachment to the person of their great chieftain. To their cause—a lost one though it was to he—they were, moreover, and to the last, ever staunchly and enthusiastically loyal and faithful. This is well borne out and attested in a passage occurring at the close of the chapter, on ‘The Campaign in the Wilderness,’ in Professor H. A. White’s admirable “Life of Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy” (N.Y., Putnams, 1902). “The Army of Northern Virginia,” observes the interesting and well-informed writer of the biography, “still retained its old elasticity and vigor.” Lee’s losses (in the Wilderness Campaign) amounted to about 20,000. The spirit of the soldiers was yet buoyant. The old yell had gathered additional fierceness; the men went into battle with all their former dash and impetuosity. Perhaps not one in Lee’s heroic band held a doubt as to the ultimate success of the Confederacy.”

At the beginning of July, when discontent was rife in the North at the protracted and costly campaign Grant was conducting, and when Washington was but indifferently protected by Federal troops, while high military officers in the National capital were known to be engrossed in petty jealousies of each other, Lee despatched his trusted colleague, General Early, with a force of 10,000 men, across the Potomac to invade Maryland and threaten Washington. From the Southern point of view, the projected raid northward was a politic one under the circumstances; while it was most disconcerting and embarrassing to the Washington authorities and created consternation throughout the North. It moreover diverted to the capital a large contingent of troops organized at New Orleans, which were designed as additions to Grant’s army; while, at the close of the month (July, 1864), it drew from his cavalry command at Petersburg the dashing Sheridan. From the latter officer’s “Personal Memoirs” (N.Y., 1888), we extract an interesting account of the expedition of Early, with its chief incidents, and the efforts that were made in the North to interfere with and put an end to it. “By rapid marching,” relates General Sheridan, “Early reached Winchester on the 2nd of July, and on the 4th occupied Martinsburg, driving General Sigel out of that place the same day that Hunter’s troops, after their fatiguing retreat through the mountains, reached Charlestown, West Virginia. Early was thus enabled to cross the Potomac without difficulty, when, moving around Harper’s Ferry, through the gaps of the South Mountain, he found his path unobstructed till he reached the Monocacy, where Rickett’s division of the Sixth corps, and some raw troops that had been collected by General Lew Wallace, met and held the Confederates till the other reinforcements that had been ordered to the capital from Petersburg could be brought up. Wallace contested the line of the Monocacy with obstinacy, but had to retire finally toward Baltimore. The road was then open to Washington, and Early marched to the outskirts and began against the capital the demonstrations (July 11–12) which were designed to divert the Army of the Potomac from its main purpose in front of Petersburg. Early’s audacity in thus threatening Washington had caused some concern to the officials in the city, but as the movement was looked upon by General Grant as a mere foray, which could have no decisive issue, the Administration was not much disturbed till the Confederates came in close proximity. Then was repeated the alarm and consternation of two years before, fears for the safety of the capital being magnified by the confusion and discord existing among the different generals in Washington and Baltimore; and the imaginary dangers vanished only with the appearance of General Wright, who with the Sixth corps and one division of the Nineteenth corps, pushed out to attack Early as soon as he could get his arriving troops in hand, but under circumstances that precluded celerity of movement. As a consequence, the Confederates escaped with little injury, retiring across the Potomac to Leesburg, unharassed save by some Union cavalry that had been sent out into London county by Hunter, who, in the meantime, had arrived at Harper’s Ferry by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.

[“]From Leesburg Early retired through Winchester toward Strasburg, but when the head of his column reached this place he found that he was being followed by General Crook with the combined troops of Hunter and Sigel only, Wright having returned to Washington under orders to rejoin Meade at Petersburg. This reduction of the pursuing force tempting Early to resume the offensive, he attacked Crook at Kernstown, and succeeded in administering such a check as to necessitate this general’s retreat to Martinsburg, and finally to Harper’s Ferry. Crook’s withdrawal restored to Early the line of the Upper Potomac, so, recrossing this stream, he advanced again into Maryland, and sending McCausland on to Chambersburg, Pa., laid that town in ashes [July 30], leaving 3,000 non-combatants without shelter or food. . . .

“This second irruption of Early, and his ruthless destruction of Chambersburg, led to many recommendations on the part of General Grant looking to a speedy elimination of the confusion then existing among the Union forces along the Upper Potomac, but for a time the authorities at Washington would approve none of his propositions. . . . Finally the maneuvers of Early and the raid to Chambersburg compelled a partial compliance, though Grant had somewhat circumvented the difficulty already by deciding to appoint a commander for the forces in the field that were to operate against Early. On the 31st of July, General Grant selected me as this commander. . . . On the evening of August 1, I was relieved from immediate duty with the Army of the Potomac, but not from command of the cavalry as a corps organization. I arrived at Washington August 4, and the next day received instructions from General Halleck to report to General Grant at Monocacy Junction, whither he had gone direct from City Point, in consequence of a characteristic despatch from the President indicating his disgust with the confusion, disorder, and helplessness prevailing along the Upper Potomac, and intimating that Grant’s presence there was necessary.”

This extract, which is longer than at the outset we intended to make, sets forth the essential incidents in General Early’s expedition towards the national capital. It at the same time makes clear, what we have already pointed out, the unseemly contentions, caballings, and jealousies rife among the Northern generals, and that at a critical juncture of affairs, when the nation was riven asunder by civil war, and when patriotism and loyalty to the cause these officers professed to uphold counselled concord and amity among brethren in the profession of arms. How sore a trial, in addition to all else he had at this era to bear, these contentions were to the head of the Federal nation—so soon now to come to a pitiful and tragical end—we can readily conceive; and well was Lincoln justified in calling upon Grant at this period, as in his perplexity we see that he did, to seek aid in making peace among the responsible though jarring chiefs of the Unionist arms.

But we once more turn our attention to our narrative proper, though in the interval there has been little occurring at Petersburg to record, save the progress of Federal entrenching, and the construction of what is known as Burnside’s Mine, to he used against the fortifications of the city, and its gallant defenders within and without its walls. The story of this Mine, it has to he related, is a tragical one, with an almost farcical cast, for what had taken many weeks’ expenditure of labor and material to prepare, and launch against the foe, recoiled, and with most disastrous effect, upon the Federals who had prepared, and upon the sacrificed assaulting columns that took part in the attack, after the mine was fired (July 30th). The mine was excavated behind a concealed portion of the Federal lines, a ravine in rear of Burnside’s command, and extended along a tunnel-way, over 500 feet in length, to a point immediately underneath a projecting angle of the Confederate defences, known as Elliott’s Salient, at the time occupied by 300 of Elliott’s Carolinian corps, together with a battery of guns. Here, in this ghastly subterranean passage-way, were deposited some 8000 pounds of blasting powder, which, when the match was applied to it, was not only to blow up the 300 Carolinians and the battery on the angle crest, but to cause such consternation to the Confederates and damage to their fortifications, that it would be easy, it was thought, to assault and carry Petersburg and capture its doomed defenders.

Extensive preparations had previously been made by the Federals for this direful attempt to capture Petersburg. A monster array of mortars and heavy guns were put in position to assist in the assault; while more than half of Grant’s large army was drawn up, in addition to the assaulting columns, to be precipitated against the breaches about to be made in the “rebel” defences, and, when the crucial moment arrived, to be thrown into, seize, and occupy the city, the defenders of which, it was thought, would be so paralyzed by the firing of the mine as to become easy Federal prey. The time, moreover, had been well chosen for the assault, for at the period Lee and a large portion of his command, by a piece of strategy on Grant’s part, had been lured across the James River, some twenty miles from the place, to defend an outlying Confederate post against attack by Sheridan and Hancock, whose ulterior design was to march upon Richmond. The outlying post, it was found, however, was so strongly protected that the expedition against it was unable to effect anything, and so was recalled; Lee and his command returning to Petersburg almost simultaneously.

Meantime, all having been made ready, the mine was sprung, the explosion blowing up the Confederate fort in the air, and with it its 300 garrison, but leaving an immense crater, over 30 feet deep, 140 feet in length, and 65 feet in width, partly filled with a mass of loose earth, impossible for the Federal troops to get over on their way to the assault. Into this chasm, however, the Federal forlorn hope, composed of white and black soldiery, were sent, only to become an entangled and confused mass, upon whom, when the Confederates recovered from their surprise and rallied their defending forces, they poured a fire of so destructive a character that no life could live through it. To add to the confusion in thecrater, the supporting Federal columns were also pushed forward, quickly losing their formation, and huddling all up inextricably; while an indescribable panic seized the whole, as they were mowed down by the merciless Confederate fire. The place became a veritable charnel-house and death-trap, though the Federals bravely sought to remedy matters, and, in spite of the confusion worse confounded, attempted to reach the crest of the “rebel” positions; but all were driven helplessly back or fell victims to the withering fire poured upon them. From this scene of heartrending and unresisted slaughter few returned to the Federal lines; the losses in killed, wounded, and taken prisoners, amounting to no less than 4,500 men, falling chiefly on Ledlie’s division of Burnside’s corps, and upon the divisions of the Federal Ninth corps commanded by Wilcox and Potter. The Confederate casualties, including the 300 of the South Carolina infantry blown up, with part of Pegram’s battery; in Elliott’s Salient, all told, did not exceed 1000.

Thus ended the episode of the Burnside Mine, an episode which in its calamitous and demoralizing results was most mortifying to General Grant; while it created such consternation in the North that it sent up the depreciated United States currency, always extremely susceptible to Federal disasters in the field, to 2.90. Another result was to cause several of the influential Northern journals to renew the clamor to end the war, with a suggestion, which emanated from the New York Herald, to despatch an embassy to the Richmond administration, seeking to bring about that purpose by an immediate treaty of peace. Nothing, however, came of the proposal.

Later in the month of August, and after the Federal army had recovered from the effects of the misdirected Burnside Mine operation, Grant renewed his raiding attempts in the vicinity of his extended lines, chiefly with the intent of destroying the Weldon railroad. His further design, no doubt, was to divert his forces from the tedium of trench-construction and other wearying siege duties in front of Petersburg. In these raiding diversions, which were conducted, under Grant’s orders, by two infantry divisions, commanded by General Hancock, assisted by General Warren’s corps, by Gregg’s cavalry, and by a battery of Federal guns, misfortune, in the main, also pursued Northern operations. To check these movements, as well as to protect his own flanks. General Lee directed General A. P. Hill, supported by Heth’s and Mahone’s commands, Hampton’s cavalry, and Pegram’s guns, to move along the endangered railway, upon which, and upon the Danville railroad, Lee’s army depended for its supplies from Richmond, with the design, if possible, of bringing the Federals to battle. For some days there was no other result than sundry skirmishings; though by the 19th of August Warren’s command was come upon and a heavy loss was caused him, including the capture of 2,500 of his men. The Federals, meanwhile, strongly entrenched themselves by the railway, and Hill found it difficult to oust them or bring them to battle. Thus was the Weldon road lost to the Confederates. This, however, did not interfere with Hill’s efforts to dislodge the enemy, and fighting continued for a time, the Federal losses, chiefly falling upon Warren’s corps, amounting by the 21st of the month to 4,450 men. By the 24th (of August) Warren’s command was re-enforced by the divisions under Hancock, which materially strengthened Warren, especially in the neighborhood of Eeam’s Station on the Weldon railroad. Here a severe engagement took place, most disastrous to Hancock, and disheartening in its effect upon his spiritless and panic-stricken men. The attack was made by General A. P. Hill, led by a charge of Heth’s command, and supported by Hampton’s cavalry and part of Pegram’s battery. The extent of the discomfiture which ensued is told in General Lee’s report to Kichmond, under date August 26th (two days after the encounter). Here is Lee’s account of the fighting:

General A. P. Hill attacked the enemy in his entrenchments at Beam’s Station yesterday evening, and at the second assault carried his entire line. Cooke’s and McEae’s North Carolina brigades, under General Heth, and Lane’s North Carolina brigade of Wilcox’s division, under General Connor, with Pegram’s artillery, composed the assaulting column. One line of breast-works was carried by the cavalry, under General Hampton, with great gallantry, who contributed greatly to the success of the day. Seven stands of colors, two thousand prisoners, and nine pieces of artillery are in our possession. The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded is reported to be heavy; ours relatively small. Our profound gratitude is due to the Giver of all victory, and our thanks to the brave men and officers engaged.

R. E. LEE, General.

After the action at Reams’ Station, little of moment for a month happened, save minor attacks on the extension of Lee’s position north of the James River. About the middle of September an expedition was sent out under General Hampton to attack a Federal post about twenty miles from Petersburg, and, with the aid of the Confederate cavalry, to capture a large drove of cattle, designed for the uses of the Federal camp, then grazing in Prince George county, Va. The Federal post was taken by surprise, the works and camp being captured, with 300 of a garrison; while the cattle were secured and driven towards the “rebel” camp. On the way, however, Hampton’s column was met by one under the Federal general, Wilson, which sought to resist the Confederate return to Petersburg and retake the captured beeves. Though Hampton lost fifty men in the fight that ensued, he was able to return with his command to headquarters, bringing with him all the cattle, which proved a timely acquisition, for many weeks, to the ever-scantily-supplied Confederate camp leaders.

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