Robert E. Lee
Philip Alexander Bruce

CHAPTER X
SIEGE OF PETERSBURG AND APPOMATTOX

LEE had never approved the view that Richmond’s defense was imperative, not for strategic or even economic, but for political reasons. As soon as the capital’s retention ceased to offer strategic advantages, he considered it unwise to hold it longer. It is true that Richmond contained numerous mills, foundries, and workshops, which only grew more valuable as the territory still under Confederate control shrank in area; but had the policy of protecting the city at all hazards adopted at the beginning, been afterward abandoned, and similar establishments erected in other cities, like Danville or Raleigh, more remotely situated from the Federal main lines of communication, the Confederate government’s existence would, perhaps, have been indefinitely prolonged.

The capital’s successful defense until the end undoubtedly gave greater dignity to that government within its own borders, but it exercised no influence whatever in inducing foreign powers to recognize the Confederacy, the only substantial political benefit which could be expected to flow from it. The defense of Washington as the Federal capital was a much more practical measure, for its capture would quite certainly have been followed by the recognition of the Confederacy and the removal of the blockade, two acts that, sooner or later, would have brought about Southern independence. After the battle of Cold Harbor, there was not the smallest prospect of foreign intervention, so that Richmond’s abandonment would not have diminished the chance of success from the operation of favorable influences abroad, for there were no such influences at work.

In continuing his defense of the capital, all that Lee could expect was that, by repeating the slaughter of his last campaign, he might so shock Northern sensibilities that the peace party would finally prevail; but this hope, he knew, was dependent upon the Western army’s securing an equal success, which was far from certain. Unless this success could be won by both armies during the next twelve months, the Confederacy’s fast declining resources could not endure the strain to which they were now subjected, and must collapse altogether.

No one foresaw more clearly than Lee the final consequences of suffering Grant to concentrate below Richmond. “We must destroy the Federal army before they get to James River,” he exclaimed to General Early immediately after Cold Harbor. “If they get there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Once established south of the Appomattox, behind impregnable entrenchments, that army, he knew, could be recruited at leisure, as its line of communication, being a great waterway, could not even be threatened. The unlimited resources in the East at Grant’s disposal could, in such a position, be gradually accumulated until they would become ovewhelming; and the more slowly be operated, the more certain was he of being ultimately assisted by the Federal western army, first, indirectly by its narrowing the field of Confederate supply and conscription; and afterward, directly by its joining hands with the forces in Virginia.

But the evils to be expected from a siege were not confined to the ever-increasing Federal numerical superiority; Lee was fully aware that his troops’ morale was for more apt to be lowered by such a siege than by a strenuous campaign in the open field. It would be a life of equal exposure, but of less active enterprise to serve as a diversion. Starvation would overshadow the permanent trenches more darkly even than the temporary; there would be more time for the soldiers to become discouraged by brooding over the South’s declining prospects; and desertions would grow more common, either because the privations would seem more unbearable, or because the dangers overhanging the families at home, through the advance of the other Federal armies, would appear closer at hand.

Had Lee, after Grant’s safe arrival at the James, followed the suggestions of his own judgment, instead of dispatching Early to the Valley to oppose Sigel and Hunter, and afterward to threaten Washington, he would have retired toward the upper waters of the Staunton, where the foothills were peculiarly adapted to defensive operations. There he could have guarded the sources of supply in the Confederacy’s remaining territory, and in an emergency joined hands with Johnston. Had his army been mobile, not only could it have stared off starvation without difficulty, for there was no lack of food in the country, but it could have constrained Grant to diminish his fighting force by leaving behind, on an ever-lengthening line, large detachments to defend his communications in a hostile region. Lee had just reason for asserting that had he been able to entrench his troops in the back hills, he could have prolonged the war for twenty years.

Mr. Davis was chiefly responsible for the two acts that precipitated the Confederacy’s final destruction; namely, the continued defense of Richmond after Cold Harbor, and the displacement of Joseph E. Johnston before Atlanta. Prudence and caution were the qualities needed in handling the Western army at this time, and these were qualities which Johnston possessed in an extraordinary degree; had he remained in command, it is not probable that Sherman would have been allowed to reach the sea without vigorous opposition. With Johnston obstructing the Federal advance upon Atlanta, and Lee planted firmly in the region south of Lynchburg, Sherman’s march through Georgia and Sheridan’s raid in the Shenandoah Valley would not have occurred so soon, if at all. It was these two events alone that assured the reëlection of Mr. Lincoln and the triumph of the Northern war party: the one was made possible by Mr. Davis’s removal of Johnston; the other by his insistence upon the defense of Richmond, of which the siege of Petersburg was merely the closing incident.

On April 4th of the following year, after Mr. Davis had been compelled to abandon Richmond, he issued at Danville a proclamation in which he declared that the South “had now entered on a new phase of the struggle. Relieved from the necessity of guarding particalar points, our army will be free to move from point to point to strike the enemy in detail far from his base.” These words were penned before the writer had been informed of the closing scene at Appomattox; but even had that event not occurred so soon, they came too late to aid the Confederacy’s moribund cause. Had this proclamation been issued before the siege of Petersburg began, although the spirit of the Southern people would have been depressed by the evacuation of Richmond, the spirit of the Northern people correspondingly elated, and the Confederate resources in munitions of war seriously crippled, nevertheless the life of the Confederacy would have been prolonged, and the South would have gained, if not independence, pacification on terms that would have secured her readmission to the Union on a footing of perfect equality, with compensation for her emancipated slaves. Instead of resuming her old position as a conquered country, she would have reentered the circle of states with all the prestige of the most heroic struggle recorded in modem times.

It was unfortunate for the Confederacy that Lee at this supreme hour could not have been as pertinacious as Mr. Davis in insisting upon carrying out his own plans. His influence with the Southern people was never more commanding than after Cold Harbor, and yet never apparently was he, the South’s only pillar of fire, more subservient to the authorities in Richmond, who, at that fateful moment, were of less real importance to the cause than an equal number of the humblest privates in the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was not a man to act in a half-hearted way when he found himself out of sympathy with the tasks imposed on him by his civil and military superiors; he now threw himself into the measures necessary for Richmond’s defense with all the ardor, energy, and singleness of purpose distinguishing his conduct in the great campaign so recently closed.

During the previous spring, Butler, at the head of 36,000 men, had occupied Bermuda Hundred at the month of the Appomattox, with the intention of first cutting Richmond’s southern communications, and then forming a junction with the Army of the Potomac north of that city. Breaking camp on May 16th, he was soon attacked by Beauregard with a much smaller force, and driven back to his entrenchments in the narrow peninsula between the Appomattox and the James. Having fortified the neck of this peninsula, Beauregard dispatched two divisions and one brigade to Lee, then posted behind the North Anna River. Butler, however, was able to escape from “his hermetically sealed bottle” by sending troops across the Appomattox on an unsuccessful expedition against Petersburg.

This occurred on June 9th. In a few days, the advance corps of Grant’s army began to cross the James. As soon as the First Corps, consisting of 17,000 troops, with a division of cavalry, had got over, Butler ordered it to renew the attack on Petersburg, whose defenses at this time were confined to a circle of redans, connected by infantry parapets, drawn at a distance of two miles from the boundaries of the town. The assault by this vanguard was partially successful. The First Corps was soon reinforced by the Second, and had the two attacked at once with vigor, Petersburg would now have fallen, and with the aid of the troops hurried up by Grant, permanently held. The Confederate communications with the South by way of the Weldon Railroad would have been immediately cut, and Richmond’s evacuation made necessary,—if not at once, then at the end of a few weeks. The whole course of subsequent operations would have been diverted from the channel they actually followed, and Lee enabled to enter opon the unhampered campaign which was the only hope of prolonging the Confederacy’s existence. In response to the wishes of the Confederate authorities he, for a time, might have attempted to defend Richmond, but the Federal army, by working around toward the Danville Railroad, would soon have compelled him to retire either along that railway, or the one running toward Farmville.

The Federal failure to capture Petersburg on June 15th, though apparently a Confederate success, was in reality, as the event was to prove, a blow to Southern prospects. The Confederate army was still elated by the issue of the campaign ending with Cold Harbor. There was perhaps not an officer or private in it who did not think that the defense of Petersburg was ordered more for political than for military reasons, and who, aware of this fact, would have felt no discouragement had it now fallen. But that result was to be deferred until the waning strength of the Confederacy had been completely sapped.

Concentrating 14,000 infantry in the city, and rapidly constructing a new line of entrenchments, Beauregard was thus able, on the 17th, successfully to resist a fierce assault by nearly the whole Federal army; but after night fell, he retired to a third line of breastworks, erected in the rear at a distance varying from 500 to 1,000 yards. Hill’s corps arriving on the following day, a second assault by three Federal corps was repulsed. Grant, by these different attacks, had lost about 10,000 men. He now, for the first time, it would seem, perceived that the frontal assault was proportionately far more destructive to his own army than to Lee’s, and that a succession of similar repulses would, by shaking confidence in his capacity, quite probably subject him to the fate of McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and Meade. The danger of defeat was now greater than ever, as it was only too plain that the new recruits were, in fire and resolution, quite unequal to the veterans who had passed through the last campaign. These recruits had unwisely been formed into separate regiments instead of being distributed among the old.

Grant had two great objects in view in his plan of capturing Richmond; first, to break up the Central Railway, the Confederate line of western communication, and secondly, the Weldon road running south from Petersburg. This would leave only the Richmond and Danville and the Southside Railways to support the Confederate army; but with the two former roads in Federal hands, Grant knew that Lee would be forced to retire in order to escape investment. His attempt to destroy the Central Railway had for a time failed; Sheridan was checked at Trevilians by Hampton, and Hunter driven by Early into West Virginia. Nor were his own efforts to seize the Weldon Railway crowned with immediate success. Having abandoned the frontal attack, by which alone that road might have been captured at a single blow, he doubtless expected only slow results from the new plan he had now adopted. Lee held Petersburg in such a manner that all the railroads entering the city were fully protected by the interpostion of his entrenchments. In order to get around to the Confederate flank, where the Weldon Road came out on its way toward the Carolinas, it was necessary for Grant to throw up breastworks running first directly southward, and then, at a certain point, turning and running directly westward. These breastworks must be so strong that they could be easily held by a comparatively small force while his main body should be engaged at the western end in seizing new ground for the extension of entrenchments, behind which they might crawl nearer and nearer to the railway.

The line of Federal fortifications in front of Petersburg was perhaps the strongest of its length ever erected on the North American continent. All the engineer’s art was exhausted in its construction. It was a system of gigantic redans chained together by powerful parapets, whose approaches were obstructed by heavy abatis, the whole defended by siege guns as well as by ordinary artillery. Back of this great earthwork ran a telegraph line to hasten the transmission of orders from centre to wing with a view to perfect concert of action. Practically, the obstacle formed by the presence of James River to the dispatch of troops from wing to wing was removed by the laying of a large pontoon bridge; while the railroad connecting Petersburg with City Point afforded rapid means for the distribution of the enormous supplies of food, clothing, and ammunition almost daily arriving at the latter place in fleets of transports for the use of the Federal army.

On the other hand, Lee, who, in the end, must draw out his line thirty-five miles in order to defend both Petersburg and Richmond, had few facilities for sending instructions quickly, or for concentrating his troops promptly to repel attack on a particular point; but even if he had possessed such facilities, the force at his disposal was relatively so small that he could strengthen resistance at one spot only by dangerously weakening it at another. It was upon this fact that Grant, who was determined to use his numerical superiority to the fullest, counted most confidently for ultimate success. The first point which he wished to seize was the Weldon Railway, and to accomplish this, he, throughout the siege, had recourse to attempted surprises of Lee’s left wing on the north side of the James. Every Confederate soldier called away from the right wing to meet these attacks, only made it less difficult for the opposing Federal force there to push its line of earthworks farther toward the goal.

So enormous was the numerical disproportion between the two armies that Grant had at his beck several corps, which, without weakening his own position anywhere, he could move from right to left, or left to right as he chose. Lee could do this only by practically denuding his line at some one point. And yet down to the battle of Five Forks, many months after the siege began, he baffled every effort of his energetic and persevering antagonist either to surprise or outflank him; and this, too, with troops steadily diminishing in number and suffering from prolonged exposure, without proper clothing, and on the verge of starvation. The radical alteration in Grant’s manner of warfare, as illustrated in his operations before Petersburg, constitutes the most remarkable tribute ever paid to the firmness, valor, and constancy of the Army of Northern Virginia, and to the genius and energy of its commander.

The first great Federal turning movement began on June 21st. The Second and Sixth Corps were ordered to advance from the western end of the Federal entrenchments and endeavor to seize the Weldon Railway. In marching, a large gap, owing to the character of the country traversed, arose between the two bodies of troops. Hill took prompt advantage of the opportunity which this presented; leaving Wilcox’s division to protect the railroad from the Sixth Corps’s attack, he fell with Mahone’s division upon the Second’s exposed flank, and succeeded in rolling it up from left to right. After a heavy loss this corps was able to resume the position it had held in the morning, but next day, it again advanced and reoccupied the entrenchments thrown up before Hill’s assault. Another permanent step westward was thus taken by the Federal army. In the meanwhile, the Sixth Corps had been able to plant itself within a mile and a half of the Weldon Railway, but could press forward no farther.

Wilson, dispatched at the head of 5,500 horsemen on a raid to destroy the Richmond and Danville Railroad, met with even less success in accomplishing his principal object. Stopped at Staunton River by the firm resistance of the local militia, he was, on his return, compelled to make a wide detour, harassed at every step by the horsemen of W. H. F. Lee. In attempting to evade Hampton, who stood in his way, he ran upon Fitzhugh Lee, posted at Reams Station with one cavalry division and two infantry brigades. In the battle that followed, he lost 1,500 men and twelve pieces of artillery, and it was only by a circuitous route that the remnant of his force was able to regain the main army.

The heat now became excessive, and Grant decided to make no fufrther flank movements for the present. He was the more inclined to relax, as his army had been weakened by the dispatch of a large body of troops to Washington to defend that city from the incursion of General Early, who had even then reached its first line of fortifications. At this moment, the Federal capital was in more danger of falling than the Confederate. But if Lee had hoped that he would be able, by that campaign, to arouse Mr. Lincoln’s apprehensions and thereby reduce the size of the Federal army in front of Petersburg to a point which would permit him gradually to transfer his own troops to Piedmont, if not to the Valley itself, that expectation was soon dispelled by the declining fortunes of Early’s small command. The manœuvre causing McClellan’a recall from Harrison’s Landing could not now be successfully repeated.

Disappointed in his first flank movement, Grant resumed, with increased energy, the work of extending his entrenchments on the left, and advancing his siege operations in the centre. It was no longer the man of Missionary Ridge and Spottsylvania, the bold, resolute, and even reckless fighter, but rather a new McClellan of the Chickahominy, more reliant on siege guns and breastworks than on the sword and musket. He now even descended to burrowing to produce a breach in the enemy’s fortifications; a mine, 511 feet in length and charged with eight thousand pounds of powder was excavated to a point situated directly under a Confederate bastion. The plan adopted was to rush a large body of men through the opening as soon as the explosion occurred, and seize the rising ground situated not far behind this part of the Confederate entrenchments. In order to weaken the Southern defense at this spot, Grant dispatched the Second Corps to the north side of the James for the purpose of threatening Richmond in that quarter. Lee, to meet this new danger, at once withdrew all troops from the fortifications of Petersburg except one cavalry and three infantry divisions.

Informed of this by spies, Grant thought the hour had come for setting off the mine. He was not aware that his operations were known to the Confederates, and that a line of batteries had been erected behind the threatened salient which would hurl shells into the advancing column’s face and flank simultaneously. The explosion occurred at 4:40 in the morning, a regiment of Confederate soldiers was blown up, and a crater 150 feet in length, 60 in width, and 25 in depth formed. Two or three hundred yards of the Confederate line on each side of this great hole had to be abandoned at once; but before the assaulting column could enter the breach, the defenders, rallying, began to assail the advancing ranks with their batteries, and the Federals, while able to seize the deserted entrenchments next to the crater, found it impossible to occupy the rising ground in the rear.

The first three divisions attacking had been composed of white troops; a fourth, composed of black, now came forward, but in a few minutes many of the negro soldiers, appalled by the terrible cannonade, took refuge in the great hole. The Eighteenth Corps, advancing to their support, succeeded in carrying a part of the Confederate line on the right, but were forced to retire in consequence of a panic seizing their comrades on the left, which soon involved themselves. One brigade alone stood its ground, but in a short time, by Mahone’s vigorous action, this part of the assaulting column also was compelled to retreat. No Federal troops now remained within the Confederate lines except those who had fallen or jumped into the crater. Altogether 4,000 had been killed or disabled in the unfortunate enterprise.

Although Lee was constantly threatened with attack by Grant along his Petersburg and Richmond lines, he did not hesitate to reinforce Early operating in the Valley. Sheridan had been appointed to the Federal command in that quarter, and for his opponent’s little army of 12,000 men, had 40,000 to show, a disproportion which could ultimately lead to but one result, unless Early should develop the energy, promptness, and resourcefulness of a second “Stonewall” Jackson. By this time, Lee had abandoned all hope of being able gradually to draw off his own army, detachment by detachment, to the foothills, by compelling Grant to weaken his lines on the Appomattox. In retaining Early in the Valley, his object seems now to have been simply to prevent Sheridan from coöperating with Grant by a march upon Richmond from the north side, or by a grand cavalry sweep from Lynchburg to Danville, and thence eastward toward Weldon, in order to cut all the Confederate lines of communication with the Carolinas and Georgia.

It is doubtful whether either of these apprehended movements would have been as permanently injurious to Confederate prospects as the upshot of the Valley campaign. Sheridan’s success was the most powerful of all the influences that revived the hopes of the Northern war party, and assured Mr. Lincoln’s reëlection. Taken with Sherman’s march to the sea and Hood’s defeat at Nashville, it signified the early and final ruin of the Southern cause. Perhaps, it would have been wiser had Lee in person assumed command of the Confederate troops stationed in the Valley, as his presence there would certainly have led Grant to weaken his army before Petersburg to a greater extent than any other course of action on his antagonist’s part.

Grant must have been afraid that Lee, in dispatching to Early’s assistance as many men as he could spare, had such a design in mind, for he now began to repeat his attacks on the Confederates with extraordinary vigor, seemingly to show his opponent the danger to which such a loss of strength exposed him. To produce the impression that he was withdrawing troops for Washington’s defense, Grant sent the Second Corps to City Point as if to embark, but, after nightfall, transported it up the river to the vicinity of Chaffin’s Bluff to join the Tenth Corps in an assault on the Confederate entrenchments in that quarter of the field. Lee, suspecting his antagonist’s object, hurried Mahone’s infantry and two cavalry divisions to the spot be expected to be attacked, and these, combining with the troops already on the ground, found no difficulty in stopping the Federal advance. Grant, however, ordered Hancock to remain on the north side in order to induce Lee to retain there the reinforcements drawn from his extreme right, as this would leave that part of the Confederate line,—the most vital of all, as commanding the Confederate base of supply,—in a weakened condition, and, therefore, the more exposed to disaster.

No incident during the siege shows more plainly than this manœuvre the Federal numerical superiority and the necessity on Lee’s part of constant vigilance to neutralize the disparity. When Grant, on August 18th, sought to take advantage of the supposed diminished strength of his opponent’s right by advancing Warren’s Corps to the Weldon Road for the purpose of tearing it up, Lee, by hurrying back Mahone’s division, and bringing forward every available man, was able to disconcert the movement for a time. It was not long, however, before the Federals succeeded in pushing their line of entrenchments up to the railway; but the Confederates were still able to use the road by sending their wagons by a circuit to a point some miles to the southward. An attempt by Grant to break up the railway so far toward Weldon as to make it useless even by wagon, met with severe disaster at Reams Station, where the Federal force was saved from destruction only by Hancock’s gallantry. This put an end for some time to the Federal effort to close the Weldon Railroad.

Disconcerted on one side, Grant, with characteristic persistency, turned almost immediately to the other. Transporting to the James’s north bank a part of two corps, with a cavalry division, he succeeded, on August 30th, in capturing Fort Harrison, but was repulsed before Fort Gilmer. Lee having hurried up reinforcements from his extreme right to resist this attack, Grant, following his usual plan, took advantage of the reduced strength in that quarter to advance Warren in force across the Weldon Railroad to seize the Boydton Turnpike, a point nearer to the Southside Railway, and also one whose possession would make the Confederate circuit by wagon to the Weldon longer and more difficult. Driven back at first by Hill, Warren returned next day and threw up a new line of entrenchments, which were afterward connected with the main line now reaching as far as the Weldon Railroad.

Grant, thinking that he was now in position to seize the Southside Railway, detached for that purpose 32,000 infantry, with a cavalry division, a force nearly equal to the entire Confederate army. A part of this body, commanded by Hancock, in advancing against the bridge at Burgess Mill, exposed its flank to assault, and was driven back in great confusion. Only a retreat at night saved it from further disaster, as the Confederates under Hill were rapidly concentrating to strike a second blow. A simultaneous attack had been made on the Confederate entrenchments on the James’s north bank, but this had been attended with even heavier loss. Thus, in Federal discomfiture, the operations before Petersburg and Richmond were closed for the winter.

During five months, Grant had been persistently and energetically attempting to compel Lee to abandon the defense of Richmond. He had made three great flank attacks on the Confederate right wing, and three on the left; and these movements to left and right respectively had, as a rule, been practically simultaneous, or at least following so closely upon each other as to make possible the utmost use of the necessity thus imposed on Lee to weaken one part of his line in order to strengthen another. In each manœuvre, Grant had been firmly opposed, and his success had not been proportionate to his numerical superiority; indeed, all that he had accomplished on his right had been the capture of Fort Harrison, and on his left, the extension of his entrenchments across the Weldon Railroad, without, however, closing that road, beyond a few miles, to Confederate possession. The principal frontal assault, that at the crater, had been repelled with heavy Federal losses. Had the influences brought to bear to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia been confined to those set at work by the Army of the Potomac alone, it seems quite certain that the life of the former organization would have been greatly, perhaps indefinitely, prolonged. But there were other factors now operating which were to be even more effective in terminating its existence.

First, the end of Confederate conscription had been reached. Enrolment, which began with persons between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, had, in February, 1864, been extended to persons between the ages of seventeen and fifty. “They have robbed the cradle and the grave to get their present force,” said Grant during the progress of the siege. But even if conscription had not already been carried so far, the spirit of the Southern people at large toward the end of 1864, was so depressed it is not likely that any addition to the army would have added materially to its efficiency. It was observed that the new conscripts in the trenches at Petersburg, who had joined the ranks with the hopeless feeling prevailing outside, were an element of weakness and not of strength. The number of desertions steadily increased; chiefly, however, because the advance of Sherman’s army had made so many of the soldiers anxious for the safety of their families residing on the line of that devastating march.

Lee, in February, 1865, advocated the enlistment of negroes, and the Confederate Congress assented, but the measure was passed too late to be of use. Had it been adopted early in the war, as it should have been, the field of Federal enrolments would have been sensibly curtailed, and the Confederate armies supplied with a body of troops, who, in return for their freedom, would have fought at least as well for one side as the other. By the end of the winter of 1864–5, the force under Lee did not exceed 37,000 men. At this moment, Grant had in hand, or in easy reach, not less that 150,000; 20,000 additional could, in a few days, be brought up from the Valley; while Thomas, who had overwhelmed Hood at Nashville on November 15th, would, by an advance through southwest Virginia, as he designed, be able to swell the whole number to 200,000. Sherman was approaching from Savannah with 80,000 more. Against this combined host, under the leadership of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas, Lee and Johnston, together, could oppose only 65,000 troops.

Secondly, the Army of Northern Virginia was now only half-fed, half-clothed, and half-shod. Six hundred Confederate soldiers behind the fortifications of Petersburg received hardly as much food as was supplied to one hundred Federals. The daily single ration did not exceed one pound of flour, and one-quarter of a pound of beef. Not infrequently, three days would pass without any distribution of meat at all. In some regiments, not more than fifty men were in possession of shoes, while the great majority wore clothes held together by the rudest patching.

Hopeless of reinforcement; exposed to sleet and snow in the trenches; lacking in nourishing fare; scantily clad; without proper medicines in case of sickness; and racked by the thought that their loved ones at home might soon be subjected to all the perils raised by the Federal armies’ advance from the West and South, it seems extraordinary that the Army of Northern Virginia should, after the winter of 1864–5 set in, have continued at all to maintain its organization in the face of the overwhelming numbers in its front. The soldiers must have known that the Confederate cause was doomed to complete destruction. The constancy which they showed under such dreadful circumstances was due principally to their devotion to Lee. “I can but describe his influence,” records Colonel Marshall, of his staff, “by saying that such was the love and veneration of the men for him, that they had come to look upon the cause as General Lee’s cause, and they fought for it because they loved him. To them, he represented cause, country, and all.” In obedience to the proclamation which he issued at this dark hour, they continued to “oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger.”

As the dark cloud was rolling up from the South, carrying in its bosom a storm of destruction, more blasting than any which ever issued from the Libyan deserts, Lee was appointed on February 9, 1865, commander-in-chief of all the Confederate armies. The power of the office was conferred too late. He, however, still hoped to strike an effective blow, in conjunction with Johnston, by attacking Sherman in North Carolina before Grant could come up, and then turning upon Grant, inflict a disaster upon his army also. It was a desperate expectation, but the only one possibly tenable; continuation in the trenches of Petersburg signified ruin as soon as Sherman could trample down Johnston, and assail Lee in the rear. The Confederate leader would have abandoned his position in February, but for the emaciated condition of his draught animals, and the almost bottomless mud of the roads at that season. By this time, the Federal entrenchments had been extended as for westward as Hatcher’s Run. The Southern line of defense was now drawn out to thirty-five miles, and hardly one thousand men to the mile remained for its protection.

In order to cause the withdrawal of Federal troops from the path of his proposed retreat by creating an urgent need for their presence in a distant part of the field, Lee, on March 25th, directed Gordon to lead an assaulting column against Fort Steadman, situated near the Federal centre. The fortification was captured, but the effort to seize the hill in the rear failed; no fresh troops were moved up to Gordon’s support; and he was compelled to evacuate the ground he had won. Grant, suspecting Lee’s general design, now concentrated on the extreme left an enormous force to obstruct, if not to close, the Confederate line of retreat. He had been heavily reinforced during the winter, and Sheridan, when the spring opened, had also joined him, after driving the last remnant of Early’s army from the Valley. Never was he in so good a position to make a powerful simultaneous attack all along the Confederate entrenchments with his stationary corps, while he hurried forward several mobile ones to strike a particularly heavy blow at some selected point.

As soon as Lee detected Grant’s movement of troops westward, he did not hesitate to weaken still further his attenuated infantry line in order to strengthen his extreme right, always the most important part of his position. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry was also dispatched to Five Forks in the same direction to oppose Sheridan, now stationed on the Federal left, and here he was soon joined by five infantry brigades under Pickett and a cavalry force under W. S. F. Lee and Rosser. Together Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee drove a part of Sheridan’s command, in great confusion, back to Dinwiddie Court-House, where Sheridan himself, with much difficulty, had been resisting attack; and so precarious did his position now become that as soon as night arrived, he sent for reinforcements in order to insure his own safe return to the Federal army. When darkness fell, the Confederates went back to Five Forks, where very unwisely they occupied ground exposed on three sides, including the side facing their line of retreat. By next morning (April 1st) the enemy had concentrated, and now in overwhelming numbers confronted them from these three sides. In vain, the Confederates strove to break through. Crushed by the treble collision, they gave way and the few escaping death or capture, dispersed in the woods. Such was the consequence of Pickett’s fatal mistake in halting in an unprotected position four miles away from the main Confederate line.

The Federals were now able to seize the Southside Railroad, which made the further retention of Petersburg by the Confederates impracticable. Grant, afraid lest his antagonist should throw the greater part of his army on Sheridan in order to clear the road for retreat, began at ten o’clock the same night a fierce artillery fire along the whole of his line; and this was followed up next morning (April 2d) by a determined assault, which forced Lee to draw his troops back to the entrenchments situated within the city’s boundaries. “It has happened as I told them at Richmond it would,” he remarked somewhat bitterly to a staff officer as he slowly retired to this last refuge; “the line has been stretched until it has broken.” That night, he withdrew from Petersburg at the head of a force barely numbering 30,000 men. They had not gone far when they observed in the heavens toward Richmond the reflection of a great conflagration, for that city had been evacuated and set on fire. It was with a feeling of relief that the soldiers found themselves once more in the open fields. The trees were now budding, and the grass springing up luxuriantly. The freshness and beauty of nature inspired the commander, officers, and privates alike with new hope, which, however, was destined soon to be dashed.

It was Lee’s intention to retire southward by the Richmond and Danville Railroad. On arriving at Amelia Court-House, where food had been ordered to be accumulated, he found none, and a day was lost in scouring the country for a supply. When the advance again began, Sheridan had succeeded in barring the line of retreat to Danville, and Lee was compelled to strike across country to Farmville on the Southside Railway, in the hope of uniting with Johnston on the south bank of the Staunton River in Pittsylvania County.

Although the only ration which could now be given to each soldier was a handful of raw corn, no word of discontent reached the commander’s ears. The army resumed its march in silence, but with no apparent diminution of confidence. The roads being heavy, and the streams swollen, the wagon train ahead made very slow progress, and at every turn the troops behind had to halt and to beat off the Federal attack, now directed against both rear and flank. At Sailor’s Creek, what remained of one corps and a part of another, were surrounded and made prisoners by the swarming pursuers, but the main body pressed bravely on under Lee in person. Upon passing Farmville, where for the first time after leaving Petersburg, proper food was obtained, he succeeded in repulsing Humphreys’s corps, which obstructed his path; but the delay thus caused enabled Sheridan to advance and capture the Confederate supplies accumulated at Appomattox Court-House. When Lee reached this point, he found that large bodies of cavalry and infantry had been posted athwart his line of retreat. He decided, however, to make one more effort to break through the cordon of 75,000 men now surrounding him; but when, on the morning of the 9th, Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee drove back the horsemen, they found themselves confronted with an impenetrable mass of foot soldiery.

Such was the last military movement of the Army of Northern Virginia, now dwindled to 8,000 men with arms in their hands ready for duty. Lee had succeeded in reaching a point one hundred miles from the place of starting, and it is the testimony of all who saw him during the retreat, that never had be appeared more grandly heroic. “All eyes were raised to him for deliverance,” one witness has recorded. “He alone was expected to provide food for the starving army, and rescue from a powerful and eager enemy. Under the accumulation of diffculties, his courage seemed to expand, and wherever he appeared, his presence inspired the weary with renewed energy to continue the toilsome march. During these trying scenes, his countenance wore its habitual calm, grave expression. Those who watched his face to catch a glimpse of what was passing in his mind could gather thence no trace of his inner sentiments.”

Indeed, his courage never failed him. Believing the troops’ extrication to be hopeless, some of his officers, in order to lighten his responsibility and soften the pangs of defeat, suggested through General Pendleton that negotiations should be opened for the surrender of the remnants of the army. This was only a few days before the surrender actually occurred. “We have yet too many bold men to think of laying down our arms,” was his reply; and when Grant made a similar suggestion at Farmville, be answered that “he did not think the emergency had yet arisen” to justify submission. Lee was really relying upon a bold front to secure the best terms. When it was argued that this might be soonest effected by the dispersion of his troops in guerilla warfare, he replied: “No, that will not do. It must be remembered we are Christian people. We have fought this fight as long and as well as we knew how. We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people there is but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation. These men must go home and plant a crop, and we must proceed to build up our country on a new basis.”

“How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest,” he said to a member of his staff in a moment of profound depression. “I have only to ride along the line and all will be over. But it is our duty to live, for what would become of the women and children of the South if we were not here to protect them?” And again he said in the same sad hour: “Human virtue should be equal to human calamity,” a sentiment illustrated in his own conduct throughout the remainder of his life, to a degree never before or since surpassed. When he perceived that the end could do longer be staved off, he bent his spirit to the inevitable. “O General,” exclaimed some one to him when he announced his intention of giving up his sword, “what will History say of the surrender of this army in the field?” “That is not the question,” he replied. “The question is, is it right? If it is right, I will take all the responsibility.”

As man and patriot, Grant, like Lee, was fully equal to all the highest demands upon character in that searching hour. The victor bore himself with as much true dignity as the vanquished. No one understood more thoroughly than he the valor, fortitude, and constancy of the Army of Northern Virginia. To have that army at his mercy at last might well have raised undisguised exultation in his mind, and also called up irrepressible visions of the most dazzling political honors. If such natural and justifiable thoughts occurred to him, there is no proof of the fact. “I felt like anything,” he himself said, “rather than rejoicing at the downnfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for their cause,”—generous-hearted words that will be cherished by all his reunited countrymen to the remotest generations. Throughout those memorable scenes he remained, what he had always been,—quiet, modest, unpretending, and magnanimous. “His whole object,” according to a distinguished Confederate officer who was present, “seemed to be to mitigate as far as lay in his power the bitterness of defeat and to soothe as far as he could the lacerated susceptibilities of Lee.”

As for the Confederate commander, he bore himself under those sad and trying circumstances with his usual firmness and dignity, without a trace of temper or mortification. “His demeanor,” says a member of General Grant’s staff, present at the interview, “was that of a thoroughly self-possessed gentleman, who had a very disagreeable duty to perform, but was determined to get through with it as well and as soon as he could.” Dressed in a new uniform, with an ornate sword at his side, the striking beauty of his person made his quiet but imposing bearing all the more memorable. There was no offer of the sword, as the provisions of the surrender permitted the retention by the Confederate officers of their side arms.

When Lee returned to his own lines, he was received with a shout of welcome, which died into a sad silence when his recent mission was recalled. With head bare and tears flowing down his cheeks, he said, “Soldiers, we have fought through the war together. I have done the best for you I could.” The men crowded about him. Many wept; while hundreds attempted to take his hand or touch his person, or even his horse. Overcome by his veterans’ grief, he said to an officer present: “I could wish that I were numbered with the slain of the last battle. No,” be interrupted himself, “we must live for our afflicted country.” Not many hours afterward, be issued a touching farewell addressed to his heroic army. The next day be set out for Richmond. When on the second morning, a little group of horsemen appeared on the farther side of the pontoon bridge at that place, the rumor began to spread through the city that General Lee was among them. Hundreds, silent and bareheaded, gathered along the route he must take on his way to his residence. “There was no excitement,” says an eye-witness, “no hurrahing, but as the great chief passed, a deep, loving murmur, greater than this, arose from the heart of the crowd. Taking off his hat, and simply bowing his head, the man, great in adversity, passed silently to his own door. It closed on him, and his people had seen him for the last time in battle harness.”

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