Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 36

Camp-Fires of General Lee


HURLED back bleeding and stunned, the Army of the Potomac lay motionless for days, while its antagonist crouched fierce and defiant, awaiting another attack. But the lesson had not been thrown away on General Grant. The appalling losses of his campaign and the failure to accomplish anything substantial had taught him that it was useless to try to reach Richmond by the overland route. His “hammering” might be continued until the plain was strewn with the bodies of Union soldiers, and still the gate would be barred. He therefore gave up the attempt to capture the city from the north or east, and decided to move rapidly upon Petersburg, seize that place, and thus cut the Confederate communications with the South.

Petersburg lies twenty-two miles south of Richmond, and is connected with the South and West by the Weldon and Southside Railroads. The latter crosses the Danville line, the principal avenue of communication between the capital and the Gulf States. When these roads were seized, including those north of the city, Richmond would no longer be tenable, and the authorities must surrender or retreat. With the fall of the capital the Southern Confederacy would pass out of existence.

General Grant held position in front of Lee until June 12, when, moving once more by his left flank, he passed over the Chickahominy and advanced to City Point, where the Appomattox and James unite. The latter was crossed on pontoons, and without delay the march was resumed toward Petersburg.

In point of fact, this city could have been taken weeks before by the Federals. General Butler, by direction of General Grant, had sailed from Fortress Monroe May 4 with a column of thirty thousand troops, and, landing at Bermuda Hundred, began throwing up entrenchments. Instead of seizing Petersburg, he continued entrenching, and the arrival of a force from the South under the direction of Beauregard caused him to devote all his energies to saving his command from destruction. As it was, he narrowly escaped. Finally, he retreated before the savage attack of Beauregard, and took shelter behind his works across the neck of the Peninsula. There his situation was such that General Grant wrote of him, “His army was as completely shut off as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.”

Although the Federal commander used the utmost celerity in marching against Petersburg, he failed to take it by surprise. He did not reach the vicinity until the 15th, but by the next day the entire Federal army was south of the James. Fully aware of his movements, General Lee offered no opposition, for the Army of Northern Virginia was too weak in numbers. He had just detached Early’s corps from the army, and was left with only thirty thousand men. But, detecting the purpose of the Union leader, he hastened southward to confront him as he had done so many times before.

Petersburg offered such sturdy resistance to General Grant’s attack, on the 15th, that the works were held until darkness ended the struggle. When the sun rose on the morrow and all eyes were turned toward the city, they saw long lines of soldiers defiling into the breastworks. Above the myriads of gleaming bayonets fluttered the torn battle-flags of the Army of Northern Virginia. Once more the exultant lion found the tiger crouching in the path before him.

General Lee lost no time in drawing a regular line of earthworks to the east and south of the city, but the first spade was scarcely taken up when Grant assailed him with such fierceness that the Confederates were forced from their advanced position and compelled to take shelter behind the second line of works, which were then in a fair state of completion. General Grant hurled his men against this second line with the same desperate valor as before. On the 17th, Hancock and Burnside renewed the attack, but it was not until near nightfall that they succeeded in carrying a part of the entrenchments, and these were retaken after dark.

The formidable line of works which General Lee had been constructing immediately around the city were sufficiently completed, and he withdrew within them on the morning of the 18th. A few hours later a general assault was made by General Grant, but it was repulsed. The attack was repeated twice, but in each instance the Federals were driven back with heavy loss. From the firing of the first gun until the close of the day above mentioned, the total Federal loss was slightly less than ten thousand men. This result proved that the whole Army of Northern Virginia was south of the James, and, overpowering as were the numbers of the Union host, it could not take Petersburg by direct assault. As General Grant had secured his grip, however, he did not loosen it, but set deliberately to work to besiege the city. Muskets were thrown aside and spades taken up. The thousands of men toiled like beavers, and it required but a few days for the Federal army to entrench itself from the river to the Norfolk Railroad. Then the left wing began slowly creeping around, so as to complete the investment of the city. The long arms of the octopus were gradually closing about the lusty victim, who, undismayed, fought fiercely to save himself from strangulation.

On the 21st a heavy Federal line was advanced toward the Weldon Railroad, but General Mahone with his division plunged between the two Federal corps, doubled them up, repulsed the attack, and when he withdrew took with him sixteen hundred prisoners, four pieces of artillery, eight stands of colors and a large number of small-arms. Simultaneous with this demonstration, the Federals sent out a cavalry expedition under Generals Wilson and Kautz, with the purpose of operating against the railroads south of the Appomattox. Starting at night, the horsemen proceeded to Ream’s Station, on the Weldon Railroad, where the dépêt was burned and considerable of the track destroyed. Then the cavalry struck across the country toward the Southside Railroad. Kautz galloped to Burkesville, the junction of the Southside and Richmond and Danville Railroads, where he did all the damage possible. Wilson went to Nottoway Station and destroyed several miles of track. General Lee sent Fitzhugh Lee’s division of cavalry in pursuit of the raiders, and Mahone’s infantry moved down the Weldon Railroad to cut off their retreat in case they sought to return by the route taken on the advance.

Fitzhugh Lee came up with Wilson near Dinwiddie Court-House, but in his attack was repulsed. He annoyed the cavalry considerably, and the next day threw himself across Wilson’s line of march. Wilson could not break through, and turned off to the Danville Railroad, where he effected a junction with Kautz. They then made for the railroad-bridge over Staunton River, but it was gallantly defended by a number of home-guards, and, Fitzhugh Lee arriving soon after, Wilson retreated, leaving his thirty dead on the field. Finding he was in hot quarters, Wilson galloped off with all haste, reaching Sappony Church toward the close of the 28th. There he ran against Hampton’s cavalry, who were hunting for him. A sharp fight lasted through most of the night, but Wilson was defeated and hurried in the direction of Ream’s Station; but when he reached the railroad, he was assailed by Mahone’s infantry, while Hampton and Lee’s cavalry closed in upon his rear. The situation for the Federals had become desperate, and they fled in panic, losing their trains, artillery and everything that could impede their flight. At last the terrified troopers managed to cross the Nottoway River, and rode breathlessly into the Union lines, having inflicted little substantial harm on their enemies.

The fervid days of summer wore on, and no collision of importance took place. General Lee steadily improved his defences, until on the 1st of July the Federal engineers pronounced them impregnable against assault. The line consisted of a chain of redans connected by infantry parapets of a powerful profile, while the approaches were completely obstructed by abatis, stakes and entanglements. Beginning at the south bank of the Appomattox, it enveloped Petersburg on the east and south, stretching westward beyond the farthest reach of the left flank of the Union army. A continuation of the same system to the north side of the Appomattox protected the city and the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad against attack from the direction of the front, held by Butler’s force at Bermuda Hundred. The defence of Richmond was provided for by its own chain of fortifications.*

Despite the invulnerabilty of the Confederate lines, General Grant determined to make one more effort against them. This time he decided to avail himself of an extraordinary expedient proposed by Burnside, which was to explode a mine so near the works that a breach would be opened, through which the assailants could rush before the defenders would have time to recover from the terror into which they would be thrown. The entrenchments of Burnside’s Ninth Corps were within one hundred and fifty yards of the Confederate line, which just opposite formed an angle covered by a fort. Under this fort was carefully stowed six tons of powder, the operation being completed without causing any suspicion on the part of the defenders. This enormous bulk of explosives was fired at forty-two minutes past four o’clock on the morning of July 30. A solid mass of earth, as if it were the vast lid of some volcano, rose slowly in the air until it had reached a height of two hundred feet, where it seemed to poise motionless for several minutes, when it shuddered itself apart and began raining to the ground again. As it started upward the exploding powder flashed through the dark pile in a hundred places, and a volume of black smoke rolled off in the sky. The thunderous shock was felt for miles around, and the report was heard distinctly in Richmond. But when General Grant described that which followed, he fitly called it “a miserable affair.” In accordance with the prearranged plan, the Federal batteries immediately opened upon the Confederates, and soon silenced them. Then the assaulting column charged, but in a straggling and broken fashion. When they reached the site of the fort, it was gone; in its place was a yawning pit a hundred and fifty feet long, sixty feet wide and thirty feet deep. Instead of advancing, the column sought shelter in this crater. Other troops were pushed on, but they huddled like terrified sheep in the cavity or cowered behind the breastworks in the immediate vicinity, which the Confederates had deserted for the time.

The tremendous explosion astounded the defender’s for a brief while, but, seeing the panic-stricken Federals in the pit, they ran back to their guns and opened on them. The horrible scene is thus described by one who looked upon it: “The ‘white division’ charged, reached the crater, stumbled over the débris, were suddenly met by a merciless fire of artillery, enfilading them right and left, and of infantry fusillading them in front; faltered, hesitated, were badly led, lost heart, gave up the plan of seizing the crest in the rear, huddled into the crater, man on top of man, company mingled with company; and upon this disordered, unstrung, quivering mass of human beings, white and black—for the black troops had followed—was poured a hurricane of shot, shell, canister and musketry which made the hideous crater a slaughter-pen horrible and frightful beyond the power of words. All order was lost; all idea of charging the crest was abandoned. Lee’s infantry was seen concentrating for the carnival of death; his artillery was massing to destroy the remnants of the charging divisions. Those who deserted the crater to scramble over the débris and run back were shot down; then all that was left to the shuddering mass of blacks and whites in the pit was to shrink lower, evade the horrible mitraille, and wait for a charge of their friends to rescue them or surrender.”

Finally, at nine o’clock Mahone rushed forth and drove out the wretched survivors. It is said he ordered the firing to cease, for the sight was so dreadful that he could not bear it. The Unionists lost four thousand men, of whom eight hundred were prisoners, including one general officer and twelve standards. The Confederate loss was a few hundred.

General Grant was still hammering away at Petersburg, when the startling news was telegraphed him that a Confederate column had crossed into Maryland, had scattered the force sent out to meet it, and was then in front of the fortifications of Washington. The news was alarming indeed; and when it became, known throughout the North, the belief was general that at last the national capital was doomed to fall.

A part of General Grant’s plan of campaign was an advance up the valley, with a second from Western Virginia toward the Lynchburg and Tennessee Railroad, the object being to co-operate with the main army in cutting the Confederate communications. Comparatively little was accomplished by the force in Western Virginia, but that in the valley, under General Hunter, easily forced its way until Lynchburg itself was threatened. When the news reached Lee, he was at Cold Harbor, shortly after the battle there. General Early was promptly detached with eight thousand men and orders to attack Hunter or threaten Washington.

General Early quickly obeyed, and assailed Hunter with great fury near Lynchburg. Hunter was defeated and driven in disorderly flight toward the Ohio, and Early then galloped down the valley and into Maryland, with a view of threatening Washington, as Lee had directed. When he reached the Monocacy, he was opposed by a force under General Wallace, but, driving him aside, he pushed on, and on the 11th of July his column appeared before the capital. Two years before, when McClellan was almost similarly placed, a like diversion caused the withdrawal of a large number of his reinforcements to the defence of Washington; now Grant was left to do as he saw fit, and he sent only a comparatively small force to the defence of the city. Early was not long in learning that Washington was too strongly fortified for him to risk a direct attack. He skirmished several days before the city, and then withdrew in the direction of Winchester, taking several thousand cattle and horses with him.

As a matter of precaution, General Grant now sent the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to Washington, from which point they went to Harper’s Ferry. The old Departments of Washington, the Susquehanna, West Virginia and the Middle Department were combined in one command and assigned to General Hunter, who afterward gave way to General Sheridan. General Lee held Early’s army in the valley, with the hope of inducing Grant to raise the siege of Petersburg in order to protect Washington against the real danger which threatened it; but the campaign was not well managed, and accomplished no good for the Confederate cause.

Meanwhile, General Grant retained his grip on Petersburg. Skirmishing and fighting continued, but General Lee was able to repel every assault. Steadily advancing his line, he sent out a strong force in the latter part of August to seize the Weldon Railroad, a short distance from Petersburg. As General Lee anticipated, the effort was successful; for he had informed the authorities long before that it was impossible for him to hold it. An attempt, however, to inflict damage upon the road farther south was defeated by General Lee, who drove back the Federals with heavy loss.

But all these movements, fighting and forays were but by-plays which had no effect upon the general result. Like the line of demarcation which marks the creeping upward of death when the limb of a strong man is seized with gangrene, the Federal wing stole steadily westward until it had passed over the Vaughan, Squirrel Level, and other roads which extend southward from Petersburg, until in October it was firmly established on the left bank of Hatcher’s Run. A little farther, and the Southside Railroad would be seized. The attempt was made October 27, but failed. The Federal column was assailed in front and flank by General Wade Hampton and his son, General Preston Hampton, who was killed, and by W. H. F. Lee with his dismounted sharpshooters. Infantry were hurried forward under General Mahone, who, to quote the words of General Lee, charged and broke three lines of battle. During the night the Federals retreated, leaving their wounded and more than two hundred and fifty dead on the field. On the Williamsburg Road seven stands of colors and over four hundred prisoners were taken.

No other movement of importance was undertaken during the year. The Presidential election in the North resulted in favor of President Lincoln, and what hopes the Confederates may have based on the growth of a peace sentiment in that section were dissipated. They saw that all that remained to them was to fight to the bitter end.


* Swinton.

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