Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 37

Camp-Fires of General Lee


DURING the winter of 1864–65, General Lee established his headquarters a short distance west of Petersburg, on the Cox road, almost opposite his centre. Long before, his masterly genius must have foreseen the inevitable end, and doubtless he fixed, nearly to a certainty, the .date and manner of the downfall of the Southern Confederacy.

Events in other portions of the country clearly foreshadowed the collapse that was at hand. In the Valley of Virginia matters had gone from bad to worse. General Sheridan had overwhelmed and dispersed Early and his cavalry, so that it may be said the valley was entirely cleared of all Confederate forces. Then, with his horsemen, Sheridan galloped into the lowlands to join General Grant in his last campaign against Richmond. General Sherman with his mighty host was sweeping through the heart of the South from Atlanta to the sea. General Johnston, with all his splendid generalship, could not with his fragment of an army stay the march. Savannah dropped like a mellow apple into Sherman’s grasp, and, facing northward, he advanced to Goldsborough, North Carolina, directly threatening Lee’s line of retreat from Virginia.

The fate of the Southern Confederacy rested at this time upon the shoulders of one man. John Esten Cooke says, “It is doubtful if in any other struggle of history the hopes of a people were more entirely wrapped up in a single individual. All criticism of the eminent soldier had long since been silenced, and it may, indeed, be said that something like a superstitious confidence in his fortunes had become widely disseminated. It was the general sentiment, even when Lee himself saw the end surely approaching, that all was safe while he remained in command of the army. This hallucination must have greatly pained him, for no one ever saw more clearly. or was less blinded by irrational confidence. Lee fully understood and represented to the civil authorities—with whom his relations were perfectly friendly and cordial—that if his lines were broken at any point the fate of the campaign was sealed. Feeling this truth, of which his military sagacity left him no doubt, he had to bear the further weight of that general confidence which he did not share. He did not complain, however, or in any manner indicate the desperate straits to which he had come. He called for fresh troops to supply his losses; when they did not arrive, he continued to oppose his powerful adversary with the remnant still at his command. These were now more like old comrades than mere private soldiers under his orders. What was left of the army was its best material. The fires of battle had tested the metal, and that which emerged from the furnace was gold free from alloy. . . . He was now their ideal of a leader, and all that lie did was perfect in their eyes. All awe of him had long since left them; they understood what treasures of kindness and simplicity lay under the grave exterior. The tattered privates approached the commander-in-chief without embarrassment, and his reception of them was such as to make them love him more than ever. . . . He looked much older than at the beginning of the war, but by no means less hardy or robust. On the contrary, the arduous campaigns through which he had passed seemed to have hardened him, developing to the highest degree the native strength of his physical organization. His cheeks were ruddy, and his eye had that clear light which indicates the presence of the calm, self-poised will. But his hair had grown gray, like his beard and moustache, which were worn short and well trimmed. His dress, as always, was a plain and serviceable gray uniform with no indications of rank save the stars on the collar. Cavalry-boots reached nearly to his knees, and he seldom wore any weapon. A broad-brimmed gray felt hat rested low upon the forehead, and the movements of this soldierly figure were as firm, measured and imposing as ever. He was still almost an anchorite in his personal habits, and lived so poorly that it is said he was compelled to borrow a small piece of meat when unexpected visitors dined with him.”

The Army of Northern Virginia suffered greatly for want of clothing and food, the commissariat being mismanaged beyond endurance. General Lee’s appeals were unheeded, and many men were compelled to desert to save themselves from starving to death. At one time the army was on the eve of disbandment for lack of food. In the spring Confederate treasury-notes were worth scarcely a cent to a dollar, and thousands of soldiers had not received a penny for two years.* The Conscription Act brought forth no men, but diminished rather than increased the strength of the army. Gross favoritism was shown by the authorities, and the interference of the Executive threatened to destroy military discipline in the army. The proposition to arm the slaves was made in November, 1864, but the act did not pass until the succeeding March, when it was shorn of the wise recommendations of General Lee. As a consequence, the effort to raise colored troops failed, and possibly it was fortunate, under the circumstances, that such was the case.

January, 1865, was noteworthy as bringing forth an effort to secure peace. An interview took place between President Lincoln, Secretary Seward and others on the Federal side, and Vice-president Stephens, Senator Hunter and others for the Confederates, on board a steamer in Hampton Roads. The soldiers cheered the ambassadors—if they may be thus termed—and proved how such a blessed consummation would have been welcomed by them. Nothing came of it, however.

General Lee, by act of the Confederate Congress, February 5, 1865, was created commander-in-chief, and thus placed beyond all possibility of the interference of the Executive. But the advancement came too late to prove of any benefit; the Southern Confederacy was doomed beyond the power of mortal man to save it.

Operations were resumed in. February, 1865, on the part of the Army of the Potomac, by an attempt to turn the Confederate right. Petersburg and the works were bombarded for several days, and on the 5th the Second and Fifth Corps and Gregg’s cavalry division, after a few hours’ march, reached Hatcher’s Run. Part of the infantry crossed the Vaughan road and made their way to Cattail Creek, while the cavalry proceeded to Dinwiddie Court-House, where they were driven back by the Confederate cavalry. Later in the day portions of Hill’s and Gordon’s corps attacked the infantry, which was on the left bank of Hatcher’s Run, near Armstrong’s Mill, but the Federals were so strongly entrenched that the assailants withdrew. On the morning of the 6th, Pegram’s division moved down the right bank of the stream to reconnoitre, and was attacked by the Fifth Corps. In the sharp engagement which followed, General Pegram was killed and his division driven back. Evan’s division was sent to the support of Pegram’s command, but that too was forced to withdraw. Mahone then charged, and the Federals were driven into their entrenchments. The Confederates then drew off, having lost a thousand men, while that of their enemies was nearly twice as great.

General Grant had failed to capture the Southside Railroad, but he extended his left to Hatcher’s Run, which was connected by earthworks with the rest of his line.

In the month of March, General Lee’s army numbered less than thirty-five thousand men. General Longstreet, who had returned to duty some time before, commanded the left wing, which was north and south of the James; General Gordon commanded the centre, at Petersburg; while General A. P. Hill commanded the right, extending from Petersburg to Hatcher’s Run. The wretchedly-mounted cavalry, so far as possible, guarded the flanks. This line, spun out to the utmost extremity of attenuation, was forty miles in length.

Campaigning in the Army of Northern Virginia was no holiday parade during that terrible winter. The thirty-odd thousand soldiers had to do picket- and guard-duty and cover that entire stretch of ground, passing continually from one duty to the other. No reserves were available to relieve those who gave out, and the men were shifted again and again from one place to another to meet the menaces of the Federals. Let us recall the military situation. General Sherman with his vast army was at Goldsborough, only one hundred and fifty miles distant, and steadily pushing northward, directly upon Lee’s line of retreat. The skeleton of an army under Johnston could do nothing but fall back before this overwhelming advance. When Sherman should unite with Grant, the latter would have an army of two hundred thousand under his immediate command; Johnston’s force consolidated with Lee’s would give about one-fourth that number, or fifty thousand men.

They were shoeless, gaunt, ragged and famishing while the embattled hosts were closing in around them, but they were as brave and defiant as ever: so long as R. E. Lee was with them, they were content.

The plan decided upon by the Confederate commander-in-chief was to evacuate the line then held by his army, retreat hastily toward Danville, unite with Johnston and take a strong position in the interior. This decision was reached before Sherman had penetrated as far as North Carolina. Johnston was ordered to retire before Sherman, and to manœuvre with his left so as to bring it into communication with Lee’s right. Ponton-trains were made ready and a large supply of provisions was ordered to be collected at Amelia Court-House, west of Petersburg, with which it is connected by the Cox road, and over which Lee intended to withdraw his army. But the extension of the Federal left had reached Hatcher’s Run, which was dangerously close to the Cox road. Before the starving tiger could steal out from his lair it was necessary that the sleek lion on guard should be induced to turn his eyes away for a brief while.

With the purpose of compelling Grant to withdraw his left, which was so close to the Cox road, Lee prepared to attack his right. The Federal position was like adamantine. A cordon of redoubts of a powerful profile and armed with the heaviest metal studded this line; infantry parapets amply manned stretched from work to work. Covering the fronts of approach were labyrinthine acres of abatis, while all the appliances of ditches, entanglements and chevaux-de-frise lent their aid to make defence sure and assault folly.*

General Lee fixed upon Fort Steadman as the point of assault. This was close to the south bank of the Appomattox, and less than two hundred yards from the Federal breastworks. It was believed that by a sudden rush the work could be surprised and captured. After the high ground in the rear was gained, the City Point Railroad,which was the chief line of communication of the Federal army, might be seized. The attack was to be made by two divisions of Gordon’s corps, while the rest of the army were to be held ready to support the movement. If Grant assaulted immediately, so as to recover the ground lost, Lee would be ready to meet him; if he hastened toward City Point to regain his communications, then the Southern army would withdraw over the Cox road. It was quite certain, in any event, that the Federal left wing would be drawn in, and the Cox road thus opened. In the dim light of early morning, March 25, Gordon’s two divisions emerged as silently as spectres from their works and in columns of attack ran across the open space, flung aside the abatis, bounded into Fort Steadman, and captured the work and before the latter understood what was going on. Immediately the guns of the captured fort were turned on the nearest Federal works. Several batteries were abandoned by the defenders and one of their brigades put to flight. The impetuous charge had captured nine pieces of artillery, eight mortars and five hundred prisoners, among whom was a full-fledged brigadier-general.

Gordon had made a splendid opening, and there was every prospect of greater and more brilliant success; but his charge was not sustained as was promised. The troops which attacked Fort Haskell on his right did so in such a spiritless manner that they were immediately repulsed; many others refused to advance at the critical moment and huddled in the breastworks; seeing which, the Federals recovered their self-possession and concentrated a heavy fire on Fort Steadman. The situation became similar to that which followed the mine-explosion some months before. Gordon was caught in a frightful trap, from which his high courage and masterly leadership could not extricate his command. So completely were they encircled by the ring of consuming fire that two thousand Confederates surrendered on the spot, bringing up their total loss to fully three thousand, while that of the Unionists was five hundred less. The repulse was followed by the advance of the Federal Sixth Corps, which after a hard fight succeeded in capturing the picket-line in front. The Confederate army had suffered a loss which it could ill afford to bear, and General Grant still clung to his advanced position on Hatcher’s Run, overlooking and commanding the Cox road, along which Lee meant to make his withdrawal.

Sheridan, having given a quietus to affairs in the valley, had rejoined Grant’s army before Petersburg. Thus in the latter part of March the Federal leader had one hundred and seventy thousand men under his immediate direction, including the ten thousand sabres of Sheridan, which were of incalculable service in the last struggle.

On the 29th of March, General Lee discovered that a large portion of the Federal army was massing in the works beyond Bergen Mill; this proved that General Grant was making ready to assail the Confederate right. His first intention was to wait until General Sherman should cross the Roanoke River, but a fear that Lee would withdraw from Petersburg induced the Federal leader to move at once.

General Grant determined this time that his assault against the Confederate right should be resistless. Two days previous Sheridan’s cavalry were moved to the left, and General Ord, the successor of General Butler in command of the Army of the James, crossed from Deep Bottom to the Southside with three divisions of infantry and one of cavalry. With these he relieved the Second and Fifth Corps in the trenches on the left of the Federal lines, so they were enabled to take part in the movement. The assault in column numbered twenty-five thousand, and was to be supported by the rest of the army. The Confederate right, against which this formidable demonstration was to be made, extended several miles south-west from Petersburg. The combined force was about fifteen thousand men, besides two thousand alleged cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee, if the few wretched, broken-down steeds can be viewed as of any account. With this force Lee took position behind the works extending along the White Oak road toward Five Forks. The force that remained north of James River and in front of Petersburg was barely twenty thousand.

The difficult character of the ground so delayed the Federal advance that it was not in position until the 31st. When it was gathered near the Boydton Road, beyond Hatcher’s Run, and about ready to attack, Lee suddenly assailed it with such fierceness that the first lines were scattered like chaff. But a forest of bayonets seeming limitless in extent rose beyond, and there was no end to the legions of Federals which confronted the assailants. It was destruction to advance, and Lee fell back to his works. Five Forks had been seized by Sheridan, but he was driven out, and the Confederate infantry, after advancing toward Dinwiddie Court-House, were withdrawn. Fighting was over for the day.

Five Points was a valuable position, and Lee had stationed there the remnants of the divisions of Pickett and Johnston; they made a desperate resistance, but were overwhelmed and scattered. Thereupon, the whole right of the Confederate line and the Southside Railroad passed into the possession of the Federal army.

When Sunday, the 2d of April, dawned, Lee was in ill form to withstand the tremendous “hammering” to which he was to be subjected, but he was calm and undismayed. His right wing had been destroyed, and he was left with only the remnants of Gordon and A. P. Hill’s divisions. General Longstreet still confronted his adversary, and no troops could be drawn from the north side.

At the earliest dawn the Unionists advanced upon the Confederate works, and in a short time the flame of battle outblazed along the whole line from the Appomattox to Hatcher’s Run. General Gordon, who held the left on the Appomattox, was attacked by General Parke and the Ninth Corps, and after a furious resistance compelled to fall back on an inner cordon of works, which he held against other attacks.

The weakest part of the Confederate position was the left of A. P. Hill, on the right of Gordon, for the reason that the infantry for its defence had been withdrawn the day before, and it was now held only by the artillerists and a thin picket-line. When, therefore, the Sixth Corps bore down upon it, the pickets were driven in and the works were captured, including the batteries and artillerists. This success threatened the ruin of the whole Confederate army, for Hill’s works were scarcely carried when the Second Corps drove the small Confederate force out of the redoubts of Hatcher’s Run, and then, connecting with the Sixth and Twenty-Fourth Corps, completed the environment which was slowly strangling Petersburg.

Two strong works were left, Forts Alexander and Gregg, commanding the ground over which the Federals must advance to reach the river. Fort Alexander was closer to the assailants, and was captured with a hurrah and a rush. This left only Fort Gregg, on which for the time the fate of the army depended. The garrison consisted of two hundred and fifty men, made up of the Fourth Maryland Battery with two three-inch rifles and thirty men, a body of dismounted artillery-drivers, Virginians and Louisianians, carrying muskets, a part of Harris’s Mississippi brigade and a few North Carolinians, all being under the command of Captain Chew of the Maryland battery. The salvation of the army required that this fort should be held until General Lee could take his new position; if it yielded before, the army was doomed.

Fort Alexander having fallen, General Ord pushed forward Gibbon’s division to storm and carry Fort Gregg. It advanced in admirable order until within fifty yards, when it received such a destructive fire that the troops reeled and fell back. The attack and repulse were witnessed by both armies. The Confederates broke into admiring cheers, though unable to forward a single musket to the help of the little band of Spartans. A second and third charge was made with great daring, but they were repelled as splendidly as before; but a fourth assault prevailed. The assailants swarmed over and into the works, and found that, put of the two hundred and fifty men composing the garrison, only thirty were unhurt. All the rest were dead or wounded.

About ten o’clock General Longstreet, having discovered the weakness of the Federal line in his front, reached the battlefield with Benning’s brigade, less than three hundred strong. It was just as the Federals were again moving forward to force an entrance into the city. Longstreet handled this “corporal’s guard” with such great skill that he checked the advance until Lee could forward troops to his assistance.

The line now held by Lee was short but powerful, extending directly around Petersburg, with the right flank touching the river above and the left resting on the same stream below the city. This line was assaulted again and again by the Army of the Potomac, but without success. Finally, Heth’s division, under General A. P. Hill, charged the Ninth Corps, on the Confederate left, near the river, with a view of recovering some commanding ground. The attack was made with the dash and courage of that officer, but the Federals, being reinforced, were able to hold the ground. In this fight Lieutenant-General A . P. Hill was killed. Strange it was that after being exposed hundreds of times in battle he should be stricken down at the end of those lurid years, when it may be said the last gun of the war was aimed and about to be fired!

The day closed and the Confederates still held Petersburg, but it had become untenable. Lee saw that if he remained longer his whole army would be made prisoners; he determined, therefore, to abandon both Petersburg and Richmond, and, retreating into North Carolina, unite with Johnston. At eleven o’clock Sunday morning, April 2, he telegraphed to the authorities in the capital that it was his purpose to retire from Richmond and Petersburg that night at eight o’clock. He counselled them to make everything ready to leave the city that evening, unless he soon sent another telegram advising the contrary.


* In the last few weeks of the war a Confederate serving under Lee wrote home to his father that he was almost barefooted and completely discouraged. As soon as the old man received the letter he mounted his mule and set off at a gallop, but was soon halted by an acquaintance, who called out,

“Hello! Has there been another fight?”

“Not as I’ve heard of, but I’ve got a letter from Cyrus.”

“What does Cyrus say?”

“He’s out o’ butes and clean discouraged.”

“And where are you going?”

“Down to Abner Smith’s to borrow seven hundred thousand dollars to send to Cyrus to get a cheap pair of shoes, and we’re going to write him a long letter and send him a box o’ pills, and tell him to hang on to the last; for if Cyrus gets low-spirited and begins to let go, the infernal Yanks will be riding over us afore we kin back a mule outer the barn!”

“That’s so! that’s so!” nodded the other. “I kin let you have the money myself as well as not. I was saving up to buy three plugs o’ tobacker and a box o’ matches all at once, but the army mustn’t go barefut when it only takes seven or eight hundred thousand dollars to buy a purty good pair o’ shoes.”—Austin (Texas) Dispatch.

* Swinton.

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