Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 35

Camp-Fires of General Lee


HAD the first commander of the Army of the Potomac been in charge after the battle of the Wilderness, he would have begun to fortify and entrench himself and awaited reinforcements; the second commander would have attempted several more utterly hopeless charges until his loss was greatly increased, and then would have fled; the third commander would have made all haste to Washington; but Grant, despite the shocking list of killed and wounded, did not stop or wait. Having determined to pass around Lee’s right, he lost no time in making the movement. Hancock’s corps held possession of the Brock road, leading straight to the objective-point, Spottsylvania Court-House, fifteen miles distant. The wagon-trains were sent off during the day, and the Fifth Corps were directed to start as soon as it was dark and occupy the village without delay. The rest of the troops were to move directly behind them, the expectation being that at daylight the entire Federal army would be concentrated between Lee and Richmond.

But the moving wagon-trains convinced Lee that something of the kind was intended. Uncertain, however, of the plan of his enemy, he ordered General R. H. Anderson, commanding Longstreet’s corps, to hold himself in readiness to march to Spottsylvania early the next morning. Anderson, as directed, withdrew his men from their entrenchments and began hunting for a suitable place to bivouac. The burning woods rendered this difficult to find, and he finally decided that, inasmuch as his destination was Spottsylvania, he would make the march at night. It was this singular cause that took his corps to the battle-ground so much earlier than was originally intended. He reached Spottsylvania at daylight, and found Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry sharply engaged with Warren, who was just coming up. Lee had done his utmost to impede the Federal advance along the Brock road, barricading it and fighting continually wherever any opportunity presented itself. He was still contesting the advance, when Anderson came up and found Spottsylvania in the possession of a detachment of Federal cavalry. Anderson quickly sent a part of his command to the relief of Fitzhugh Lee, while he gathered the others together to drive out the cavalry from the village.

Believing he had only the advance-guard of the Confederate army in front of him, Warren continued to push on until he began ascending the ridge on which Anderson had posted his soldiers. Then such a destructive fire of musketry was delivered in the faces of the advancing Federals that they broke and fled in disorder, Robinson, their leader, being severely wounded. Almost at the same moment the Union cavalry were driven from the village, and Anderson hurried forward his whole force with the intention of seizing and holding the valuable position. The remainder of Warren’s corps were sent ahead on the double-quick and made a gallant and determined attack on Anderson, but were unable to carry the position. Falling back, the Federals began entrenching while they awaited reinforcements before renewing the attack. General Sedgwick came up during the afternoon with the Sixth Corps, but the day was drawing to a close when the preparations were completed. Crawford’s division was advanced, but was repulsed. Ewell, however, while taking position, was suddenly assailed, and driven back with the loss of a hundred prisoners. The rest of Ewell’s corps came up during the night, and Early took command for the time, on account of the sickness of A. P. Hill. Thus again Lee had anticipated Grant in securing possession of a coveted position, and there he held him at bay day after day, until the Federal leader had paid appalling toll in human life.

Monday morning, May 9, the Confederate army was in position at Spottsylvania, and confronted Grant with the same defiance it had shown for years. Anderson’s corps formed the right, and reached from the river Po northward to the courthouse; Ewell was in the centre and Hill held the left, his line curving backward toward the south. Thus Lee’s line was in the form of a semicircle extending along a range of heights enclosing Spottsylvania Court-House. The Federal line was formed with Hancock on the right, Warren and Sedgwick in the centre and Burnside on the left. Most of the day was consumed by the Federals in assuming position, during which time the Confederate sharpshooters were busy. One of the results of their work early in the day was the killing of General Sedgwick, who was shot dead while standing in the breastworks along the lines. He was one of the bravest and most competent officers of the Federal army, and for a time his loss caused a grief almost akin to consternation.

The valley of the Po extended between Hancock’s position and that held by Hill’s corps, and one of the branches of that somewhat uniquely-named river flows through it. On the afternoon of the 9th, Hancock was sent across the stream to intercept a wagon-train moving toward Spottsylvania Court-House. The crossing was made, but before he could go far darkness stopped him. It is scarcely necessary, however, to say that it did not stop the wagon-train, which passed safely within Lee’s lines. Hancock pushed on the next morning, and was not long in finding that A. P. Hill’s corps was strongly entrenched along the east bank of the Po, so as to command the approaches to the stream. Early in the afternoon Hancock was ordered to return to his original position, and while doing so Barlow’s division, covering his withdrawal, was fiercely assailed by Heth’s division, of Hill’s corps, and suffered considerable loss.

Bloody work was going on in other quarters. General Warren repeatedly assaulted Field’s position, which was Hill’s right. Again and again were the bluecoats rushed forward, and again and again were they driven back with scores and hundreds killed. When Hancock had safely returned, he was directed to unite with Warren’s corps and make another assault on the same position. They succeeded in carrying the first line of breastworks, but were able to hold them only a few minutes, when they were driven out, leaving many dead behind them. On the left of Warren a part of the sixth Corps assailed General Rodes, on the left of Ewell’s position, pierced his line, and gained possession of the works, including nine hundred prisoners and six guns. The demonstration was unsupported, and Rodes, rallying his men, drove out the Federals and recaptured the guns.

The events of the day induced Lee to think Grunt would concentrate all his efforts against his left; most of the night of the 10th and much of the 11th were occupied, therefore, in strengthening that wing. It was made so strong, indeed, that Grant declined to make the assault. He was convinced that the Confederate right centre was the weakest point; he resolved to attack his enemy there with Hancock’s corps and to support it by his whole army.

The selection made by Grant was a wise one, being a salient which had been thrown out to cover a hill several hundred yards in front of the general line with the purpose of preventing the Federals from occupying it with their artillery. The blunder committed by the Confederates at that point was similar to the disastrous error made by General Sickles at Gettysburg. The salient was held by General Edward Johnson, of General Ewell’s corps. As if to complete the first error, Johnson’s artillery was withdrawn during the night, and he was left with nothing except his infantry to defend the position. Discovering the preparations for attack in his front, Johnson sent for the guns; but at daylight, while being placed in position, the Federal attack was made. It was an overwhelming rush gallantly but vainly resisted. More than three thousand prisoners were captured, among them being Generals Johnson and G. H. Stuart. Besides, twenty-five cannon were secured and the Federals held the works. Hancock’s soldiers were so elated that they charged on toward the interior line of works, in the rear of Johnson’s position. The Confederate line had been broken, and the wedge was driving the wings farther and farther apart. The fiery General Gordon, in charge of Early’s division, threw forward his men, and Rodes and Wilcox hastened to his assistance. The struggle was desperate and bloody, lasting for hours, but it was repulsed. Grant believed that the tremendous resistance encountered at the right centre indicated that Lee had greatly weakened, his lines at other points. Generals Warren and Burnside, therefore, were ordered to assail the Southern right and left wings. They obeyed with great vigor, but accomplished nothing.

Meanwhile, Lee was determined to retake the line which Hancock had captured. During the day he made five desperate charges against it, but the Federal concentration there rendered it impregnable. The struggles in front of this fatal salient displayed the ferocity of so many jungle-tigers. The slaughter was horrible, the dead lying crosswise, mixed together and on top of one another, two, three, four, and in some places more, deep. It was the most dreadful massacre that had taken place during the entire war.* At midnight it was seen that the vantage-point could hot be recovered, and the Confederates, grimy, bleeding, sullen and baffled, drew back, and Lee formed them on his interior lines. Disappointed though the Southern leader was, yet he had kept the Federals within the captured position, and had foiled every effort to penetrate farther or to pierce his lines anywhere else. The losses had been very heavy, amounting to eight thousand for the Federals, and they were nearly as great on the Confederate side.

Grant determined to pass around to Lee’s right and shove back that wing. General Warren was sent to unite with Burnside on the left, and to take position on the extreme left. This was done after an arduous march, and early on the 14th the Fifth and Ninth Corps assailed Wilcox’s division, but were repulsed. Some hours later Lane and Mahone made a sudden charge, which resulted in the capture of several hundred prisoners and a number of standards. General Meade himself narrowly avoided capture, barely succeeding in “readjusting” his position before Mahone could secure him, and thus escaped. The manœuvring of General Grant resulted in such a shifting of positions that he was compelled to change his base of supplies from Port Royal to Aquia Creek. On the 18th the corps of Hancock, Burnside and Wright were again hurled against the Confederate works in the rear of the salient Hancock had carried six days before, but the attempt was hopeless, and was soon abandoned.

General Grant had followed out his favorite plan of “hammering” his enemy. He had lost about forty thousand men, and the enemy in his front was still unsubdued. It looked, indeed, as though it was absolutely beyond the power of any force that could be brought into the field to dislodge the Army of Northern Virginia; indeed, there was but the one way—to move around between it and Richmond.

As before, Grant was prompt to resort to this method. His preparations were begun on the afternoon of the 19th. Detecting it almost immediately, Lee threw forward Ewell’s corps, and delivered such a severe blow to the Federal left that General Grant was forced to delay his movement until the 21st. The Federal army reached Milford the next day. On the morning of the 23d, Grant arrived at the North Anna River. Rapid as had been his march, he found that Lee was there ahead of him, with his invincible army in position and perfectly willing to be attacked in the usual fashion. Here was another chance for pounding, and Grant got his hammers ready. General Hancock, with the Federal left, and General Warren, with the right, were ordered to force a passage of the river. Warren did so unmolested at Jericho Ford, and pushed on toward the Central Railroad. At Noel’s Station he came in collision with Wilcox’s division, of A. P. Hill’s corps. The other divisions of this corps were hurried up, and gave Warren so much attention that he was held motionless the rest of the day. Hancock reached the river six miles above, driving off the three regiments guarding the telegraph-bridge. He held the bridge until daylight, repulsing several attempts to drive him away, and the next morning crossed to the south side of the river.

General Lee, previous to this, had established his centre at Oxford Mills, a mile above the telegraph-bridge. His right, extending southward to Hanover Junction, was protected by a series of almost impenetrable marshes, while his left, running west, rested on Little River. As the centre was strongly entrenched, it will be seen that his position was an admirable one. An examination of his line and the disposition of the Confederate forces was such that Grant could not attack, except with a part of his forces, without crossing the river twice, while the confederates themselves could concentrate on any part of their line which might be menaced. Furthermore, Lee could assail the right or left and prevent either wing going to the assistance of the other. Lee’s conception was such a masterly one that Grant found himself baffled before a gun was fired. With a view of gaining some advantage of position—or, rather, with a view of making his own less perilous—he sent Burnside to cross with the Ninth Corps at Oxford Mills; he was to push away Lee’s centre from the river and open communication between Warren and Hancock. But when Burnside got one division over, it was shaken up so roughly that he was forced to withdraw it again. At the same time, Warren was assailed savagely by Hill’s troops, and found it very difficult to extricate himself from his dangerous position.

Grant was now driven to the humiliating conclusion that, in common parlance, he had undertaken a contract in which he was “unable to deliver the goods.” For him to “hammer” his adversary would be like using an egg with which to smite a stone. There was but the one thing to do: that was to withdraw from his dangerous position while able to do so. Accordingly, on the night of the 26th of May, he sullenly retreated across the North Anna. Had Lee possessed an army anywhere equal in numbers to that of his adversary, he would have fallen upon him while he was withdrawing and delivered a mortal blow, but the Southern leader could not afford to lose any men; for when one was gone, no one was left to fill his place.

Defeated though Grant had been in his effort to cut the communications between Lee and Richmond, he decided to make one more attempt before the Army of Northern Virginia could reach the defences of its capital. He now hastened down the north bank of the Pamunkey toward Hanovertown, preceded by the cavalry of General Sheridan. Crossing at Hanovertown, after a hurried night-march, he despatched a strong force to Hanover Court-House to cut off Lee’s retreat or to learn his movements. But no discovery was made, for Lee had not moved in that direction. He had marched, instead, across the country on the direct road to Cold Harbor. Reaching Tottapotomoi, he formed his lines on the main highway between Hanovertown and Richmond.

And so again, and for the third time, when the Federal lion crept toward Richmond, he found the Confederate tiger crouching in the path and eager for him to approach within reach of his claws. Those claws were sharp, and the valor which controlled them knew no fear. The lion turned aside to hunt some path by which he could pass around the formidable adversary. It seemed to Grant that the wiser course was to move farther to the left, and to cross the Chickahominy in the vicinity of Cold Harbor. Accordingly, his cavalry was sent thither, and he followed rapidly with his infantry. As before, Lee was quick to detect his intention, and he sent Longstreet’s corps to interpose itself between the Federal army and Richmond.

For the fourth time when the lion stepped stealthily along the forest-path he was arrested by a growl, and, raising his head, saw the tiger crouching before him, lashing his tail, showing his sharp teeth and inviting him to come a little closer. At last the lion forgot that the tiger is stronger than himself, and leaped upon him.

Considerable fighting took place while the armies were swinging into position, but the shock came on the morning of June 3, when Grant hurled his whole force against that of Lee. The attack was made all along the line, and the vast Army of the Potomac in the gray of the early-morning light rushed like demons at the throats of the Army of Northern Virginia. But the latter were not taken unawares. The struggle was one of the most bloody recorded in the history of war. Within the space of twenty minutes the Federal loss amounted to twelve thousand men. The assailants fought with all the courage that man possessed, but they had undertaken the impossible: every attack was repulsed in the same dreadful fashion. The slaughter is almost inconceivable, and no man who was engaged in that awful conflict can recall its memory to-day without a shudder. It is useless to give the movements in detail. General Lee had been reinforced by Breckenridge’s command, of two thousand men, from the Valley of the Virginia, and also by Hoke’s and Pickett’s divisions, from Beauregard’s army, south of the James. This brought his force up to forty-four thousand of all arms.

The second battle of Cold Harbor raged with more or less fierceness for four or five hours. At the end the Federals were defeated at every point; they had lost thirteen thousand men, while the loss of the Confederates amounted to scarcely twelve hundred. Every Federal soldier saw the utter folly and madness of the attack, in which there was no vestige of generalship.

As if enough poor fellows had not been slaughtered, General Meade, some hours after the failure of the first assault, sent orders to each corps commander to renew the attack without reference to the other troops. When the orders reached the men, not one of them stirred. It was not cowardice which restrained them, unless that man be deemed a coward who refuses a plunge into a fiery furnace heated seven times hotter than before.

The loss of the Confederates from the opening of the overland campaign to its close, at the Chickahominy, was, as nearly as can be ascertained, about eighteen thousand men; that of General Grant almost reached the awful total of sixty thousand—greater than the entire army under Lee!*

The North began to ask whether this was to go on for ever. Humanity sickened at this eternal feast of blood, and the feeling showed itself in many quarters that the North was paying too dearly for the prize for which it had contended so long. “Now, so gloomy was the military outlook after the action on the Chickahominy, and to such a degree, by consequence, had the moral spring of the public mind become relaxed, that there was at this time great danger of a collapse of the war. The archives of the State Department, when one day made public, will show how deeply the government was affected by the want of military success, and to what resolutions the Executive had, in consequence, come.”


* There has been preserved for years in Washington the trunk of a tree eighteen inches in diameter which was cut in two by the bullets at Spottsylvania.

* Swinton

† Ibid.

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