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


THE South at this juncture of affairs was now in extremis; her chief seaports, as we have seen, were either captured or closely blockaded, and her cotton, the chief commodity of exchange with Europe, could get no outlet; while her financial credit was gone, Confederate paper money at the period being so valueless that it took $500 to purchase a pair of army boots. Nor was the situ ation in Virginia any less hopeless, for Lee could get no substantial addition to his now dwindled command, or food or pay for his men; while after Johnston’s defeat at Bentonville, Sherman was in the main free to menace Lee’s army from the South. Emancipation for the slave, moreover, had so altered the condition of labor in the South that this became extremely irksome to the planter; while the recruiting of the negro, and his enrolment in Northern regiments, added to the despondency, and even despair, now manifesting itself throughout the Confederacy. The sole reliance at this crisis was still in General Lee and his veterans on the James, and what he was able to do—little as it could possibly be—he, we may be certain, would surely accomplish. Certain it is, that our hero was the one public man whom the South unqualifiedly believed in and trusted; whose abilities, of a rare and uncommon order, everywhere elicited the highest commendation; whose integrity was unimpeachable; and who, moreover,—despite the pall of darkness that now hung over the country—continued ever hopeful and buoyant, as well as devotedly loyal, and sincerely desirous of helping to a favorable issue the cause which every leal Southerner had in his inmost heart.

How earnestly Lee strove at this time to dispel despondency and check desertions from the ranks, as well as to give tone to public sentiment favorable to the Southern cause, may be seen from the appended letter which the General, towards the close of February (1865), addressed to Governor Vance of North Carolina. The period is that when Sherman was conducting his spirited raid through the Carolinas, and this was evidently in Lee’s mind when he wrote, as perhaps the chief inciting cause of the prevailing despondency. Here is the letter:

The state of despondency that now prevails among our people is producing a bad effect upon the troops. Desertions are becoming very frequent, and there is good reason to believe that they are occasioned, to a considerable extent, by letters written to the soldiers by their friends at home. . . . I think some good can be accomplished by the efforts of influential citizens to change public sentiment, and cheer the hearts of the people. It has been discovered that despondent persons represent to their friends in the army that our cause is hopeless, and that they had better provide for themselves. They state that the number of deserters is so large in the several counties that there is no danger to be apprehended from the home-guard. The deserters generally take their arms with them: the greater number are from regiments from the western part of the State. So far as the despondency of the people occasions this sad condition of affairs, I know of no other means of removing it than by the counsel and exhortation of prominent citizens. If they would explain to the people that the cause is not hopeless, that the situation of affairs, though critical, is so to the enemy as well as ourselves, that he has drawn his troops from every other quarter to accomplish his designs against Richmond, and that his defeat now would result in leaving nearly our whole territory open to us; that this great result can be accomplished if all will work diligently, and that his successes are far less valuable in fact than in appearance,—I think our sorely tried people would be induced to make one more effort to bear their sufferings a little longer, and regain some of the spirit that marked the first two years of the war.

Alas! this hopeful, inspiriting, and eminently patriotic letter was a fruitless one, as the Southern cause was now fast becoming “a lost cause,” which the events of the following four or five weeks were emphatically to prove. Yet, manifestly, it might have been otherwise, had all in the Confederacy been as earnest and strenuous in the purpose to make it a successful, rather than a lost, cause, as was Robert E. Lee; and had the Fates been less adverse in environing him and his veterans on the James, as they were environed, not only by the numerically superior forces of Grant, but by the returning to the latter’s command of Sheridan and his most efficient cavalry force, and by the approaching from the south of Sherman’s army, flush with victory, and strong in the success that had attended his march through the heart of the Confederacy. In spite of the menacing aspect of affairs, Lee, nevertheless, was full of the hope of yet brightening the situation for his section of the country, by, if possible, effecting a union with General J. E. Johnston’s command in North Carolina, and there falling upon Sherman and his army on their way North—thus abandoning Petersburg and Richmond, while the Confederate Government, as Lee desired, was to remove from the Virginia capital to Danville, on the southern frontier of the State, and there reëstablish itself and the Confederate Administration. To the achieving of the purpose which lay deep in the heart and mind of the heroic leader. Heaven, we shall presently see, was not propitious; though what was possible for Lee to do, in at least staving off for a while the end, which was soon now to come, he bravely and untiringly sought to accomplish.

Meanwhile, Lee’s great adversary, Grant, was alert in his attitude towards the critical Southern situation—one which, he tells us in his “Personal Memoirs,” was the most anxious period of his experience during the Rebellion—as he saw that it would result in Lee’s retirement from Petersburg, and the abandonment of Richmond, both of which he properly undertook to prevent, or tactically to checkmate. With the approach of Spring (1865), and the drying up of the roads along the thirty odd miles of the offensive and defensive lines ahout Petersburg, each of the respective generals in chief command was preparing for decisive action, an account of which it now becomes our duty to relate.

On the Southern side, the month of March, which had by this time come, brought matters to a crisis in evolving plans for the evacuation of Petersburg and its defenses by Lee, and the withdrawal of the remains of his army (now only about 30,000 in number) to the mountain regions of the South. Here, as we have already mentioned, he hoped to effect a junction with Johnston, and thus put himself in a better position to cope with Grant and the converging columns under Sherman, whose combined strength, at this time, would be more than 230,000 effective men. Before setting out from Petersburg, Lee, however, projected an assault on Grant’s center line, at a vulnerable position on the south side of the Appomattox, protected by the Federal Fort Stedman. The assault was made by the Second Confederate corps, under General Gordon, supported, or intended to be supported, by a part of Longstreet’s division and other contingents of the “rebel” army. The attack began at dawn on the 25th of March, and when Gordon’s storming party issued forth it rapidly crossed the Federal entrenchments and captured the Fort. Here, however, it was exposed to a heavy Federal fire from the forts on either side of it, which the attacking force was unable to silence; nor was it able to take them, owing to the tardy coming up of the supports, which were designed not only to reenforce the storming party, but to move on and take a strong position held by the enemy on the heights in rear of Fort Stedman. The tardiness in the arrival of the supports proved fatal to the whole movement, as advantage was instantly taken of the pause that ensued upon the seizure of and flight of the Federals from the Fort to pour a deadly fire from the ridge-crest in rear upon Gordon’s assaulting column. Demoralization in the latter was the result, followed by a stampede of all the Confederates in the Fort and its immediate vicinity; while the Federals, having now recovered from their surprise at the unexpected seizure and occupation of the Fort, came back in force and retook the citadel, capturing about 2,000 of the assaulting columns. Besides the captured, the Confederates lost in the attack nearly 1,000 in killed and wounded; while the Federal loss all told, was close upon 2,000. A further Confederate loss, before the day’s operations were over, was a portion of Lee’s defense line nearest to the enemy. This, in the confusion that followed the repulse from Fort Stedman, had been snatched from the “rebel” pickets, though only after a stubborn resistance. The counter-attack and advance of the Federal lines was done at the bidding, and with the oversight, of General Meade.

Anticipating that the Confederates, after the failure of the assault on Fort Stedman, would abandon their lines at Petersburg and retire from the place. Grant took the precaution to instruct his several cavalry commands to carefully guard all roads by which Lee might seek to withdraw his army; while he was himself increasingly watchful of every movement, or sign of movement, along the enemy’s far-extended lines. Beyond this, Grant had formed designs against the Confederate right, and that by a massed movement to his own left in great force. In this he was aided by Sheridan, with his cavalry division, after that skilled raider’s destroying march through Central Virginia, and who, with his command, had returned to duty at Petersburg, or rather, near by, at Dinwiddle Court-House. The Federal assault was arranged for the 29th of March, when General Ord (Butler’s successor), who had previously been sent out, with three divisions of infantry and McKenzie’s cavalry, to the extreme left of Grant’s line, was to cooperate with Generals Warren and Humphreys, with the Second and Fifth Union corps, in an advance, by way of Hatcher’s Run, upon Five Forks. Here they were instructed to seize the South Side railroad, over which Lee received his army’s meager supplies, and also fall upon the Danville railroad. At Five Forks, Sheridan was simultaneously to arrive and there take part in falling upon the Confederate right.

While these designs were being carried out against Lee’s right flank, General Wright’s corps was to make a concerted assault upon the weakened Confederate center. Much of the entire movement was, however, delayed for several days by heavy rains and the consequently bad state of the roads, over which it was found extremely difficult to move the Federal artillery; it was also harassed by constant conflicts with the watchful Confederate cavalry. Especially did Sheridan suffer from the latter, as well as from the attacks of the “rebel” unmounted men, by whom, in fact, he was driven from Five Forks back to Dinwiddie, where he called upon Grant to send him assistance. The Federal leader met his request by despatching Warren and his command to him, but the latter was so dilatory in his movements that he was relieved of his command of the Fifth corps, and its control was given to Griffin. With Griffin’s assistance, Sheridan now renewed his assault upon the Confederates, chiefly under Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, at Five Forks, where, on April 1st, Pickett was outflanked and beaten by Sheridan. The situation was now a forlorn one for Lee, who, nevertheless, stoutly braced himself to cope with the difficulties of the position, as well as to enhearten his troops, already wearied with the burden of guarding a defense line thirty miles in length, and that, for the most part, on ill-filled stomachs and amid every discomfort from the raw, wet weather.

When the assault on the Confederate center (in front of Petersburg) was developed, the position of things became desperate, for that portion of Lee’s attenuated line had been greatly weakened to protect his menaced right flank, which, by this time, “had been torn from its position and hurled back.” An all-night bombardment of the Southern entrenchments and the city of Petersburg found the Confederates, on the morning of April 2nd, in little condition further to hold its position, far less to meet, with accustomed “rebel” bravery and vigor, the general assault which was now about to be made. Nevertheless, as is stated in an authority (that of J. D. McCabe, in his “Life and campaigns of Robert E. Lee”), “General Lee was resolved to make one more effort to save the city.”

From the source just named, we extract an interesting account of the battle that ensued. “Sunday, the 2nd of April, dawned bright and clear. With the first light of morning the Federal columns of attack advanced upon the Southern works, and the engagement quickly spread along the whole line from the Appomattox to Hatcher’s Run. The left of the Southern position rested on the Appomattox, and was held by General Gordon’s corps. This weak force was attacked by the 9th Federal corps, under General Parke, and after a brief but gallant struggle the Confederates gave way, and the enemy carried the outer line. Gordon’s troops fell back to an inner cordon of works just on the city limits, where they were quickly in line again. The 9th corps, pressing on, attempted to carry these works also, but was repulsed in all its efforts.

“To the right of Gordon, A. P. Hill’s command was in position, and against this part of the Southern line the 6th Federal corps was thrown in an impetuous charge. Hill’s left was the weakest part of the whole position, as the infantry for its defense (McGowan’s brigade) had been withdrawn on the previous day, and the works were held only by the artillerists, with a slim picket line in front. The 6th corps drove in the pickets, and, sweeping forward, captured the works, the batteries, and artillerymen.

“The movements of the 9th and 6th corps were simultaneous, and the success of the latter threatened the Confederate army with the most serious disaster. Wright’s corps had completely broken the left of Hill’s line, and threatened to push right through to the river, and cut the Southern force in two. The danger was increased by the attack of the corps, which, as soon as the 6th had carried Hill’s works, stormed the redoubts on Hatcher’s Run, and drove the small force of Confederates holding them beyond Sutherland’s Station, on the South Side railroad. Then, uniting with the 6th and 24th corps, it completed the Federal line, which, swinging round, steadily closed in upon Petersburg.

“Fortunately, there were just in rear of the redoubts captured by the 6th corps two strong enclosed works, covering the ground over which the enemy must advance to reach the river. These works were held by only a handful of men. Fort Alexander was nearer the enemy, and was garrisoned by a less devoted force than the other. As soon as the Federals had re-formed their line, they made a heavy charge forward, and carried the works with a rush, not, however, without a spirited struggle on the part of the defenders.

“There remained now only the other work—Fort Gregg—and this it was necessary to hold to the last extremity, in order that General Lee might have time to occupy his new position around the city. If the fort fell before that was accomplished, the army was lost. The garrison of Fort Gregg consisted of the 4th Maryland battery, with two 3-inch rifles and thirty men, a body of dismounted artillery drivers—Virginians and Louisianians—who had been armed with muskets, part of Harris’s Mississippi brigade, and some North Carolinians—in all 250 men; the whole being under the command of Captain Chew of the Maryland battery. The critical situation of the army was known to this little band of heroes, and they silently resolved to purchase the safety of their comrades with their lives.

“As soon as Fort Alexander was captured, General Ord advanced Gibbon’s division to storm and carry Fort Gregg, and break through to the city. Gibbon’s column approached in fine order, and by its strength alone seemed about to envelop the work. Moving on rapidly it neared the fort, the Confederates suffering it to come within less than fifty yards. Then, by a well-directed volley, they sent the enemy reeling back across the ground they had passed over. The whole affair could be directly seen by both armies, and the repulse of the Federals was greeted by loud cheers from the Confederates in the inner line. Still no aid could be sent to the brave garrison, whose only hope was to die in the presence of the comrades they were trying to save. Both armies ceased firing at other points and every eye was fixed on the fight at Fort Gregg.

“Rallying his forces, Gibbon made another desperate attempt to carry the fort, but was again repulsed. A third charge met with the same fate, and for a while there sprang up in the hearts of the gazers at the city a wild hope that the fort would be held in spite of the heavy odds against it. Vain hope! At seven o’clock the Federals made a last charge, and this time succeeded in reaching the ditch. Many clambered to the top of the works, but were beaten back by the clubbed muskets of the defenders, while the guns were fired rapidly through the embrasures. The pressure in front was too strong to be resisted, and the enemy swarmed into the works, crushing the garrison by their weight. The fort was taken, but the heroic defenders had reason to be proud of its defense. Out of the 250 men present when the action began, but 30 survived. There were none missing; the dead and wounded made up the dire list. They had inflicted a loss of between 500 and 600 men upon their captors, or two Federals for each one of the 250 Confederates. Nor was the sacrifice vain. Fort Gregg was taken at a little after seven in the morning, and the two hours gained by its defense enabled General Lee to bring up his troops and occupy his last line around Petersburg.

“The enemy did not resume their advance immediately, but spent the next two hours in occupying the entire country towards the Appomattox, throwing their cavalry out on their left to the South Side railroad and the river above the city.

“Towards ten o’clock, General Lee received a small reënforcement. Early on the morning of the 2nd, General Longstreet had discovered the weakness of the Federals in his front, and had marched promptly with Benning’s brigade of Field’s division, less than 300 strong. He reached the battlefield just as the enemy—a few minutes before ten o’clock—moved forward again to force an entrance to the city. Longstreet instantly brought Benning’s brigade into action, and by his bold and skillful handling of it checked the enemy’s advance until General Lee could hurry troops to its assistance, when the line was occupied and firmly held.

“The Confederates now occupied a short, but very strong line, extending immediately around Petersburg, with the right flank resting on the river above, and the left on the same stream below the city. Against this line the enemy now made repeated assaults, but they were met and repulsed at every point. Not only were the Federals everywhere thrown back in their efforts to advance, but Heth’s division, under the immediate direction of General A. P. Hill, was ordered to recover some commanding ground held by the 9th Federal corps on the Southern left, near the river. Hill made his attack with great spirit, and pressed the 9th corps so hard with his little command, that the Federals were forced to bring up the garrison of the works at City Point to aid them in maintaining their ground. The enemy held their position, and the Southern troops were withdrawn. Among the killed was Lieut.-General A. P. Hill. He had passed with high honor through the whole war up to this period, with but a slight wound, and fell now a victim to the chivalrous daring for which he was always distinguished.

“Thus the day closed, with the Confederates in possession of Petersburg. But it was far from General Lee’s intention to attempt to hold the city longer. Such a course would involve the capture or destruction of his army, and all that remained to him now was to abandon both Richmond and Petersburg, and endeavor to join Johnston near Danville. It was no longer possible to retreat by the south bank of the Appomattox, for all the roads were in possession of the enemy, and now the march must be made by the longer route north of the river.”

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