Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 34

Camp-Fires of General Lee



LATE in the tempestuous winter of 1864 a heavy-set, grim-featured man clad in the uniform of a major-general in the United States army sat in his tent in the South-west intently studying the most momentous question of the century: “How shall the Federal Union be restored?” He was a born fighter; he had led his blue-coated legions to triumph on more than one crimson battle-field. He believed in “pounding” his adversary—in “never letting go,” and in winning by hard knocks and the momentum of superior numbers. Contemplating the mighty resources of the North and the fast-waning strength of the South, he felt that the problem was solved. With an army practically limitless in numbers, in a superb state of discipline, with able lieutenants and the command of boundless wealth and material, he had but to keep hammering away, and, though the mallet was wood, yet under the multitudious blows the rock at last must be split to fragments. The man was Ulysses S. Grant, who on the 2d of March, 1864, was confirmed by the Senate lieutenant-general, and on the 10th of the same month, by special order of president Lincoln, assigned to the command of the armies of the United States.

In his ragged tent on Clarke’s Mountain, in Virginia, sat, at the same time, a man of handsome features, erect form, clear eye, silvered beard and august presence wrestling with the problem of his life: “How shall the Southern Confederacy conquer a peace and secure its independence?” For three years he had led his army to victory after victory. While the leaders of his opposing forces had been weighed in the balance and found wanting, this man had grown steadily in the confidence and love of the Southern people until he was now their idol. He had won the fear and respect of his foes; he had proven to the world that he was master of the science of war. While disaster had overtaken the gray-coated hosts in other sections, he had never been overthrown; he still rode his white horse a conqueror, and the army under him was still defiant and eager for the fray. But, while the Federal power must increase, the Confederate power must decrease. There were no more resources upon which to draw; the currency was fast becoming worthless; many brilliant officers had fallen, and brave men had been stricken down by tens of thousands; the ranks were decimated, and the long, thin, gray battle-line of ragged and gaunt veterans was daily growing thinner and weaker. The South itself was in the field, and the Southern Confederacy was upborne on the bayonets of the Army of Northern Virginia. If that was conquered, then was the end. But not yet. In the face of discouragement and defeat elsewhere, Robert E. Lee contemplated the future with the serene assurance of the Christian warrior and the high resolve to do his whole duty and to leave the issue with the God of battles.

In the month of April, 1864, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac awoke from their winter’s sleep, and, springing to their feet, confronted each other, as they had done so many times in the terrible years that were gone. They glared fiercely, compressed their lips, knit their muscles and entered upon the most terrific struggle of modern times. It was the last campaign, and soon the last camp-fire would be extinguished.

When General Grant came to Virginia, the Army of the Potomac was reorganized into the corps, Major-General W. S. Hancock commanding the Second; Major-General G. K. Warren, the Fifth; and Major-General John Sedgwick, the Sixth. The command of the army continued with General Meade, and Major-General P. H. Sheridan was made the leader of the cavalry corps. Before active operations were begun, the Ninth Corps, under Burnside, returned East from its campaign in Tennessee and united with the Army of the Potomac, which as it marched southward numbered one hundred and forty thousand men of all arms.

Months before the opening of the last campaign the “dead point” of the Army of Northern Virginia had been reached: no more reinforcements could be obtained. The corps of Longstreet, which had been doing such effective work in Tennessee, rejoined Lee the 1st of May, but it brought only two divisions. As nearly as can be ascertained, the effective force of Lee’s army was slightly more than fifty thousand men. The line defended by the Confederate army was naturally strong, and had been fortified to such an extent that no fear was felt of a direct attack. The line of the Rapidan was held by small detachments, mainly for the purposes of observation. The army itself was distributed from the vicinity of Somerville Ford, on the Rapidan, to Gordonsville. Hill was at Orange Court-House; Ewell, on the Rapidan; and Longstreet, at Gordonsville. It was necessary for Lee to keep vigilant watch and be ready to concentrate at any threatened point. The plan of General Grant was to cross the Rapidan, attack Lee’s right, cut his commuuications, and, forcing him out of his position, compel him to fight between his line and Richmond. If Lee should be beaten, then Grant intended to pursue him to Richmond and capture both the army and the city. Simultaneous with this movement, Major-General B. F. Butler was to ascend the James River from Fortress Monroe, seize City Point, and, advancing up the south bank of the river, cut the Confederate communications south of the James, and, if possible, capture Petersburg. General Grant intended, in case of his own failure to defeat Lee before reaching Richmond, to move his whole army to the south side of the James and attack from that direction. In such an event Butler’s column would be used to cover the transfer. While these important movements were in progress in Eastern Virginia the army of General Sigel was to be organized into two expeditions, one in the Kanawha Valley, under General Crook, and the other in the Shenandoah Valley, under Sigel in person. The latter was to cut the Central Railroad, one of the great channels of supplies for Lee, while the former, seizing the Virginia and Tennessee road, would shut out the other source, in South-western Virginia. If this grand scheme could be pushed to a successful conclusion, then, beyond all question, the days of the Confederacy were numbered.

The Army of the Potomac began moving at midnight on the 3d of May. The advance was in two columns. The right, consisting of Warren and Sedgwick’s corps, crossed the Rapidan at Germanna Ford, and the left, which was Hancock’s corps, made the passage six miles below, at Ely’s Ford. The army bivouacked on the night of the 4th between the Rapidan and Chancellorsville. Early the next morning the march was resumed. Having turned Lee’s right flank. Grant intended to push quickly through the Wilderness to Gordonsville, thus planting his army between that of Lee and Richmond, But Lee, watching every act of his adversary, was quick to fathom his plan and to form a brilliant and audacious scheme. He decided to allow Grant to cross the Rapidan without molestation, and then to assail him while marching through the Wilderness. Amid the thicket and ooze, where the Federal commander could not use his artillery, the Southern leader believed he could destroy his army. Accordingly, while it was crossing the Rapidan, he sent forward Ewell’s and Hill’s corps, the former by the old turnpike, the latter by the plank-road, and directed Longstreet to march without delay from Gordonsville and move down on the right of Ewell, so as to assail the Federal advance while it was in motion. Curiously enough, while Warren’s corps, constituting this advance, bivouacked that night at Old Wilderness Tavern, at the intersection of the road from Germanna Ford with the Orange and Fredericksburg turnpike, the camp-fires of Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps were kindled along the latter highway. Only three miles separated the hostile forces, and neither suspected the fact.

Each column resumed the march early the next morning, the Federal army still unsuspicious of any assault from Lee, who was supposed to be hurrying in the direction of Richmond, on the hunt for some suitable place where he could make a stand against the host almost three times as numerous as his own. Sedgwick’s corps followed Warren, and, to protect against any demonstration from Lee by way of the Orange Turnpike, Griffin’s division was thrown out on that road, while Crawford’s division was advanced by way of a wood road to Parker’s Store. As we have stated, Johnson’s division, of Ewell’s corps, encamped May 4 within three miles of Old Wilderness Tavern, where Warren lay with the Federal advance. Rodes was in the rear of Johnson, while Early followed, coming to a halt at Locust Grove. Johnson learned of the presence of his enemy the next morning, and, hastening forward, secured some high ground, where he began forming his line.

General Grant, who had reached the field, was still unsuspicious of the scheme of General Lee. Believing the force in advance was insignificant in numbers, he made his dispositions to brush it from his path. About noon three divisions of Warren’s corps made a furious assault on Johnson’s division. A hot fire was poured into them, but they pushed on unflinchingly, and broke the line where it crossed the turnpike and was held by the brigade of General J. M. Jones. With exultant cheers the Federals swept forward, the Confederate leader being killed while vainly trying to rally his men. The whole division was in imminent danger of being routed, when General Stewart at the critical moment brought his brigade from its position in line of battle and launched it upon the head of the victorious column. The shock checked the exultant Federals, who were tumbled back in such headlong haste that two pieces of artillery were left behind and captured. The stillness was scarcely broken by the sound of firing when General Ewell sent Rodes’s division to Johnson’s assistance, and ordered General Gordon to take his own and Daniels’s brigades and repel the foe on the right. Gordon obeyed orders in his usual vigorous fashion, driving back the Federals for more than a mile and capturing an entire regiment. The attack on the left was a little later, and was repulsed by the brigades of Pegram and Hays. The original position was taken, and Ewell awaited the arrival of Hill and Longstreet.

The severity of the opening struggle showed Grant his mistake. He saw that Lee intended to force him to battle in the Wilderness, and he therefore made his dispositions to accept the conflict in that most unfavorable spot.

The Sixth Corps, under General Sedgwick, was brought up, and Hancock was directed to hurry forward with the Second. He was approaching by the Brock road, which crosses the Orange plank-road between two and three miles south-west of Old Wilderness Tavern and four miles south-east of Parker’s Store. A. P. Hill’s corps, which had left Verdiersville early that morning, was moving along the plank-road toward the Brock road crossing, which, if reached in time, would enable him to cut off the Second Corps from the main army. Seeing the danger, General Meade despatched Getty’s division; of Sedgwick’s corps, to seize and hold the important point until the arrival of Hancock. Shortly after Getty reached the ground, Hill, having repulsed Warren, came in front of the crossroads. Uncertain of the strength of his enemy, he took position across the plank-road and began to develop it.

Very soon, by direction of Lee, communication was opened with General Ewell. An examination of the map will show that the Confederate line extended from the woods on the right of the Orange plank-road to a point beyond the old turnpike, on the left. The distance was fully six miles, and nearly all of it led through dense forest. Directly in front was the thicket occupied by the Federal army.

Hancock secured the position on the Brock road, and distributed his line along it. Late in the afternoon he received orders from General Grant to attack Hill’s corps and drive it back to Parker’s Store. Hill was drawn up in battle-line about fifty rods distant, and received the impetuous assault of Hancock with such a destructive fire that he was repulsed with severe loss. Again and again was the charge repeated, but in vain; the fighting ceased at nightfall, and nothing had been accomplished.

General Longstreet had set out from Gordonsville as soon as Lee’s order reached him, and was but a few miles distant on the evening of the 5th; but, as no artillery was used, the density of the woods prevented his hearing the sounds of musketry. The first knowledge he received that a battle was in progress was the order from Lee to go to the assistance of Hill. The command was obeyed with such promptness that Longstreet readied Hill’s position by daylight. As he was expected, Hill’s men began retiring, but while doing so the Federals renewed their attack on his line. Both armies had arranged to open the fight that morning, but Lee anticipated Grant by advancing Ewell against Sedgwick’s corps. His purpose was to turn Grant’s left and compel him to retire to the Rapidan. Hill’s soldiers were taken “on the hip” by the unexpected assault. The brigades of Heth and Wilcox were tumbled together and over upon Longstreet’s column, which had not yet formed in battle-line. The furious rush of the Federals swept everything before it, until the disorganized masses were within a hundred yards of the spot where Lee had established his headquarters. Longstreet, however, proved himself the man for the emergency. Kershaw’s division was thrown forward, and the Federals were held at bay until all of Longstreet’s corps could be brought up, when they were launched against the Unionists, who were driven back, and the Confederate line was re-established.

Grant was now in the Wilderness, and Lee determined he should have no rest. It was not yet noon when Longstreet suddenly assailed Hancock’s left with such fury that it was pushed toward the Brock road, which Longstreet determined to seize; could he succeed in doing so, Grant would be compelled to retreat to the Rapidan under the most disastrous circumstances. “Elated by his success, General Longstreet spurred forward to lead this movement in person, but on the way paused to receive the congratulations of General Jenkins, a young officer who by his rapid rise and extraordinary skill had become a favorite with the whole army; at this moment a heavy discharge of musketry was fired upon them by their own troops, who had mistaken them and their escorts for Federal cavalry, General Longstreet vainly shouted to his men to cease firing, but before he could make them understand their mistake he was shot in the throat, the ball passing out through his right shoulder. He fell from his horse by the side of his friend General Jenkins, who had been killed at the first fire, and at first his staff thought he too was dead. Discovering that he was only wounded, they procured a litter, and he was borne to the rear, the troops testifying their sympathy by loud cheers as the litter was carried along the line.”* It was a strange coincidence that both Stonewall Jackson and Longstreet should have been shot through mistake by their own men.

The loss of Longstreet at this critical juncture was a severe one, and General Lee took personal charge of the serious business on the right. During the delay caused by the incident the Federals detected the intended demonstration, and made hasty preparations for it. The assaults of the Confederates were repelled, and after a time the line became so much shaken that it was ready to break. Realizing the desperate crisis, Lee galloped to the Texas brigade, determined to lead them in a charge that should be decisive. “Those who saw him at that moment describe his appearance as inexpressibly grand. He had removed his hat, and, bareheaded and with his hair floating in the wind and his features glowing with the fire of a true soldier, he pointed in silence toward the Federal line with a gesture far more eloquent than words could have been. For a moment the troops paused and gazed first at their commander and then at one another, as if hesitating whether to allow him to incur such danger. Then a ragged, scarred veteran, approaching the commander-in-chief, seized his bridle-rein and turned his horse’s head, saying respectfully but firmly, ‘You must not expose yourself, General Lee. You must go to the rear. We will obey your orders; we have never faltered yet, and will not do so now.—Will we, boys?’ he added, turning to his comrades. Instantly the whole line took up the cry, ‘No! no! General Lee to the rear!” and the men refused to move until General Lee had withdrawn to a safer position. Touched to the heart by this affecting proof of the devotion of his troops, General Lee bowed and rode back, while the line, with deafening cheers, moved forward to the charge.”*

The troops redeemed their pledge. With their ear-splitting yells they charged once more, driving the Federals into the log breastworks they had thrown up on the Brock road. The assailants were almost against them, when they were seen to be on fire, caught from the woods, which had been aflame for several hours. The fighting then went on amid the blaze, smoke and heat, the Confederates finally planting their battle-flags on the captured works. Many of the Federals ran toward Chancellorsville, but others rallied and in a desperate charge drove out the captors. By this time it was dark, and hostilities ceased for the day.

General Gordon had done magnificently on the left. Ewell early in the forenoon repulsed the repeated efforts of Sedgwick and Burnside to carry his position. Toward night, Gordon, with several scanty brigades, leaped against Sedgwick’s line with irrestrainable ferocity. It was tom and rolled back for a distance of two miles, when darkness compelled the cessation of a charge which otherwise promised to overthrow that wing of the army. In this terrific assault Gordon captured Generals Seymour and Shaler and a large number of men.

Neither leader showed any wish to resume the offensive on the morrow. The Federal position had been proven too strong to be carried, and Grant not only had suffered frightful losses, but had learned that Lee could not be driven from his position. But, with that bull-dog tenacity so characteristic of the Federal commander, he spent the next day in hunting for some point where he could fasten his teeth in his watchful enemy. He decided that Spottsylvania Court-House was the spot, and on the night of the 7th the Federal army marched thither by way of Todd’s Tavern. The lions were impatient that they had been hampered by the jungle; they now bounded into the open plain, where their rage would be without hindrance.

While making this movement, Grant sent General Sheridan with orders to make a dash toward Richmond and sever Lee’s communications. Moving to the right of the Confederate army, Sheridan cut the Central Railroad at Beaver Dam Station, and then, galloping to Ashland, tapped the Fredericksburg road. Stuart and his cavalry were hard after the raiders, but their mount was scarcely equal to what was required of them. Sheridan, however, was overtaken while preparing to burn Ashland, and run out of town. Sheridan and his troopers then headed in the direction of Richmond, but Stuart, by a shorter route, reached the Yellow Tavern, where, within seven miles-of the Capital, he again attacked the Federals as they came up. In the fight General Stuart was mortally wounded, and died in Richmond the next day. His loss was one of the severest encountered by the Confederacy during the war. The immediate effect of the fall of Stuart was a collapse of the energy usually shown by his command. The Federals withdrew to a stretch of woods near the turnpike, where they kept up a show of resistance while repairing the Meadow bridge, across the Chickahominy, over which they rode without molestation, and galloped down the Peninsula.


* J. D. McCabe, Jr.

* J. D. McCabe, Jr.

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