The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 4

The Soul of Lee


“The unparalleled audacity of his campaigns.”—Gen. Alexander.

“His name might be called Audacity.”—Col. Ives.

“In the boldness and sagacity of his strategy . . . he resembled Napoleon himself.”—Capt. Cecil Battine.

“Lee was undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest soldier, who ever spoke the English tongue.”—Col. Henderson.

“His campaigns have much in common with those of Napoleon, and fascinate the reader for the same reasons.”—London Times, 1865.

“Lee made five campaigns in a single year; no other man and no other army ever did as much.”—Col. Eben Swift.

During the first thirteen months of the war between the States Lee’s services, though invaluable in the organization of the army,[1] were inconspicuous; and the only campaign he directed, that in West Virginia, was unsuccessful, He was freely and severely criticised by not a few at the South, notably by Pollard. But, when on June 1, 1862, by reason of the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, he became commander of the army of Northern Virginia, his military genius burst forth like the sun from behind a cloud, and henceforth he became the idol of his army and indeed of the whole South. It is appropriate to note at this point that his great fame as a commander was achieved in less than three years of active service.

Although now fifty-four years of age, he was in the full vigor of his manhood, both in mind and body, the very embodiment of manly grace and beauty, of kingly stature, “with a noble and commanding presence and an admirable, graceful and athletic figure.”

His face was clothed with a dignity which instantly commanded respect, but there was in the expression of his eyes a profound human sympathy, which won the heart. One of his latest biographers has well said, “It cannot harm a royal soul to dwell within a royal body, and not Pericles nor Washington would seem in this more royal than was Lee.”[2]

Lee found the army somewhat dispirited and depressed, suffering also from a want of cooperation; and when a council of war was called the consensus of opinion favored the evacuation of its position and a retirement to a point nearer Richmond; but he overruled this proposal, and ordered a strong defensive line to be constructed on substantially the same line then occupied, and then prepared to assume the offensive. Facing McClellan’s army of 10 5,000 men (June 20, 1862), with but 50,000, Lee called upon the Richmond authorities for reinforcements, and within three weeks his army had been increased to about 80,000 men, and had been thoroughly organized. On June 26th he attacked McClellan in his entrenchments and in a series of engagements covering seven days forced him to retreat with great loss to the shelter of his gunboats at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

Thus Lee had at one blow raised the siege of Richmond and defeated an elaborate campaign which had been prepared with great care and prosecuted at enormous expenditure of men and material. Among the fruits of his victory were the capture of more than 10,000 prisoners, 52 pieces of artillery, and 35,000 stands of small arms. But the best fruit of the battles was the spirit and enthusiasm created in the Confederate Army, and the confidence in the genius of Lee, which his masterly strategy had engendered in both the army and the people.

In the operations of this his first great campaign, Lee showed that same aggressive energy and daring which characterized him throughout his career, as a commander—as at 2d Manassas, at Sharpsburg, at Chancellorsville, and at Gettysburg, Those who describe him as a master of defensive war, but lacking the qualities necessary for the offensive, are strangely blind to the facts of his military career. Splendid audacity is perhaps the moat conspicuous feature of Lee’s character as a soldier. In this his first great engagement, he stood in his breastworks close to Richmond facing McClellan’s army of 70,000 on the south of the Chickahominy, with only 27,000 men, while he massed 53,000 against the Federal right on the north side of that river. It was by offensive, not defensive strategy, that he raised the siege of Richmond in those July days of 1862.

We may pause here to note that Lee had never commanded an army in the field before, and the ill success of his West Virginia campaign had created doubts in many minds as to his possessing the qualities of an aggressive commander. This led Alexander, afterwards Chief of Artillery, Longstreet’s Corps, to enquire of Col, Joseph C, Ives, of the staff of President Jefferson Davis, whether Lee possessed the audacity that would be requisite for the commander of an inferior force in conflict with the superior force of the North, and he tells us that Ives “reined up his horse, stopped in the road, and said, ‘Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee. His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it too’.”

This remarkable divination of Lee’s character as a soldier was more than justified by this his first campaign. Both his strategy and his tactics were definitely and boldly offensive. Even before Stonewall Jackson had brought his amazing campaign in the valley of Virginia to a close,—on June 8th—Lee had written him of his design to bring him down to attack McClellan’s right wing, and had made suggestions as to how he might mislead the enemy. Secretly and swiftly, as an eagle swooping down upon his prey, that splendid officer executed the orders of his Chief,—and yet, for some unexplained reason, once upon the ground, Jackson was neither as swift nor as effective as was his wont.

There were other failures in this campaign which detracted from the completeness of Lee’s victory,—failures of staff officers, failures of commanders, mistakes of judgment,—all the faults to be expected in a new army not yet thoroughly compacted and disciplined; but throughout, from the moment when the assault on the Union right was ordered till McClellan was driven under the protecting wings of his gunboats at Harrison’s Landing; the genius of Lee’s offensive strategy and offensive tactics was conspicuous.

But a new campaign was now determined upon. McClellan was still encamped on the James River but two marches away from the Confederate capital, and he commanded a brave and well-equipped army of 101,000 men. Instead of attacking the Federal army in its strongly fortified position Lee resolved to march north and threaten Washington and thus draw McClellan out of his trenches and relieve Richmond of danger. The campaign that followed was one of the most brilliant of the war, and exhibited the daring strategy of Lee to the best advantage. Gen. Pope was his adversary,—Pope whose “headquarters” were to be “in the saddle,” and who let his army know that “lines of retreat” and “bases of supply” were words which had no place in his vocabulary. Stonewall Jackson with 8000 men met Pope’s advance forces at Slaughter Mountain near Cedar Run, and defeated them.[3]

This decided the Washington authorities to order McClellan to evacuate the Peninsula and move his Army to Washington. Lee was now free to move against Pope with the bulk of his army. In the wonderful campaign that followed we see to advantage the splendid combination of Lee and Jackson cooperating for the success of the South. It has been well said by a discriminating Northern writer that “Lee and Jackson probably formed as wonderful a pair of military geniuses as ever existed.”

It is no part of the purpose of these pages to undertake a detailed discussion of the campaigns of Lee,—with the possible exception of Gettysburg,[4] but rather to enable the reader to see what manner of man Lee was in the dash of battle, and in the conception and execution of his great campaigns.

Lee, arriving at Jackson’s camp on August 15th, at once saw an opportunity of striking Pope a decisive blow and cutting oft’ his retreat to Washington, and promptly issued the orders and made the dispositions to carry out his plan. Unfortunately, however, a staff officer with a copy of the order on his person was captured, and the plan thus revealed to Pope, who lost no time in moving his army out of its perilous position.

Fortune, which in this had favored Pope, now reciprocally favored the Southern commander; for Stuart, in a bold raid in Pope’s rear, captured the latter’s private despatch book, which revealed the fact that the reinforcements which would reach Pope within five days would raise his army to nearly 130,000 men.

As Lee’s army was little over 54,000 men, his situation was almost desperate, unless he could promptly strike an effective blow, This, with his usual quick decision, he resolved to do. His plan was a daring one. Jackson with about 22,000 infantry and 2000 cavalry was to make a circuitous march of over 50 miles, and seize Pope’s depot of supplies, 24 miles in his rear. He himself, with Longstreet and 30,000 men, would hold the line of the Rappahannock, while Jackson was making his forced march. By this hazardous manœuvre Lee would divide his army in two, leaving Pope’s army of 80,000 men midway between the two halves. No wonder a very high Federal authority writes:

The disparity between Pope’s force and that of Jackson is so enormous that it is impossible not to be amazed at the audacity of the Confederate general, in thus risking an encounter in which the very existence of Jackson’s command would be imperiled.[5]

Col. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson’s biographer, remarks: “We have record of few enterprises of greater daring than that which was there decided on. To risk cause and country, name and reputation, on a single throw, and to abide the issue with unflinching heart, is the supreme exhibition of the soldier’s fortitude.”

We cannot here recapitulate the marvellous story of this battle,—how Lee, with Longstreet, by hard marching and harder fighting at length effected a junction with Jackson at Thoroughfare Gap; how the Federal soldiers despite their valor were repulsed with bloody losses in six assaults; how Jackson’s men, when their ammunition ran low, stood on the railroad embankment and hurled stones at their attackers; how, at a critical moment, Longstreet opened upon Pope’s lines a flanking fire of artillery which disorganized the Federals and threw them into confusion, and the great battle was won. Within a few days afterwards the whole Federal army took refuge within the fortified works about Alexandria, having lost, killed, wounded and missing nearly 15,000 men,—the Confederate loss being something over 9000.

This second battle of Manassas exhibits one of Lee’s “unjustifiable audacities,” as his critics say. “The rules of war,” says Ropes, “allow of no such dangerous movement as Jackson’s.” No, but Lee was a law unto himself in war. His necessities compelled him to take enormous risks. The results justified his audacious strategy. Henderson—than whom we have no superior critic—says, “The campaign against Pope has seldom been surpassed.”

The invasion of Maryland was the next scene in the great drama, followed soon by the terrific battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam. It was the 5th of September when the Confederate legions crossed the Potomac and took position at Frederick, Md., behind the Monocacy River. They had been reinforced by the divisions of McLaws and D. H. Hill, which had been left at Richmond; but the long, forced marches and the hard service the army had endured during the five week’s campaign since the battles around Richmond began, had greatly thinned their ranks. Large numbers of the men were barefooted. “The soldier was still there with his gun and his ammunition—but his clothes—from the hat on his head to his shoeless feet—were tattered and torn.” The people of Maryland wondered that such a tatterdemalion army as this could have won such renown. Even “Stonewall” Jackson disappointed their expectations as they noted his coarse homespun uniform and his old slouch hat. Lee, on the other hand, with his noble and heroic bearing, the beau ideal of a great commander, elicited universal admiration.

Lee’s first move was the investment and capture of Harper’s Ferry with twelve thousand troops, seventy-three pieces of artillery, thirteen thousand stands of small arms, and immense supplies. This was the achievement of his matchless lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson. And now, we come to the fierce and bloody battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) where again the genius of Lee was brilliantly displayed, and also that same sublime audacity which was one of his most conspicuous characteristics. The story of the lost order which fell into McClellan’s hands by a strange accident need not be repeated here, but, by common consent, it is agreed among critics, that the revelation it made of the positions occupied by the Confederate Army,—especially the absence of Jackson at Harper’s Ferry-ought to have enabled the Union commander to destroy Lee’s army in detail.

But the tactical genius of Lee and the indomitable resolution of his ragged troops prevented such a consummation. Gen. McClellan reports that he had in the field on September 17th, 87,164 men of all arms. To this great force Gen, Lee was able to oppose only 35,000 men;—such had been the immense depletion of his ranks through the exhaustion of his army. Thousands and thousands of stragglers had been left behind in Virginia—most of them barefooted. It was fortunate for Lee that hardly more than 57,000 of McClellan’s troops were actually engaged in the battle. Nearly 30,000 of his men did not fire a shot. It should also be remembered that, on the other hand, A. P, Hill’s division did not arrive on the field to support Lee till the afternoon, having left Harper’s Ferry at 7 A.M.

No battle of the war, perhaps, exhibits in stronger light the splendid tenacity and valor of American manhood, North and South, than this battle of Sharpsburg. It exhibits also more vividly than perhaps any other the glorious and invincible audacity of the soul of Lee.

When the long, terrible day of bloody conflict was over, and the Confederate generals, one after another, gave in to the commander-in-chief the story of their sanguinary losses, the anxious question was asked, “Shall this army stand its ground, or shall it retreat into Virginia?” Not a voice was raised in favor of the former alternative. Even the iron resolution of Jackson, seemed to yield before the peril of another battle, with thinned and exhausted ranks, and a great river behind them, besides an army vastly superior in numbers before them.

But from one indomitable heart the hope of victory had not yet vanished.[6] In the deep silence of the night, more oppressive than the stunning roar of battle, Lee, still mounted; stood on the high road to the Potomac, and as general after general rode in wearily from the front, he asked quietly of each, “How is it on your part of the line?” Each told the same tale: their men were worn out; the enemy’s numbers were overwhelming; there was nothing left but to retreat across the Potomac before daylight. Even Jackson had no other counsel to offer. His report was not the less impressive for his quiet and respectful tone. He had had to contend, he said, against the heaviest odds he had ever met. Many of his divisional and brigade commanders were dead or wounded, and his loss had been severe. Hood, who came next, was quite unmanned. He exclaimed that he had no men left! “Great God,” cried Lee, with an excitement he had not yet displayed, “where is the splendid division you had this morning?” “They are lying on the field where you sent them,” was the reply, “for few have straggled. My division has been almost wiped out.”

“After all had given their opinion, there was an appalling silence, which seemed to last for several minutes, and then General Lee, rising erect in his stirrups, said, ‘Gentlemen, we will not cross the Potomac tonight. You will go to your respective commands, strengthen your lines; send two officers from each brigade towards the ford to collect your stragglers. Many have come in. I have had the proper steps taken to collect all the men who are in the rear. If McClellan wants to fight in the morning, I will give him battle again. Go!’ Without a word of remonstrance the group broke up, leaving their great commander alone with his responsibility.”[7]

But McClellan did not want to fight. He had had enough. Lee’s battle gauge was not taken up, “Of General Lee’s management of the battle (of Sharpsburg) there is nothing but praise to be said.” So writes Mr. John Codman Ropes. He also says, “The Confederate infantry did not exceed 31,200 men, or thereabouts, while . . . the only troops put in by McClellan numbered about 46,000.” (Troops not put in 24,000.) He further says. “It’s likely more men were killed and wounded on the 17th of September than on any single day in the whole war.” General Alexander says, “It was the bloodiest battle ever fought upon this continent.”

The Confederate loss he puts at 8000 men; that of the Union Army at 12,410 men.

Major Steele says of the Antietam campaign,

Lee had only 55,000 men,[8] with little hope of reinforcements; while McClellan had nearly 90,000 with strong reinforcements on the way.—American Campaigns, p. 280.

The same accomplished critic further says:

From beginning to end of the campaign the Confederate commander’s conduct was characterized by boldness, resolution, and quickness.—Id., p. 283.

To another, and a crucial, example of the audacity of the soul of Lee let us now briefly advert. We refer to the daring strategy which he employed at the battle of Chancellorsville, where he stood with 15,000 men, under Anderson and McLaws, facing Hooker’s great army of 73,000 while Jackson with 22,600 men made his great flank march to fall upon the right wing of Hooker. What glorious audacity it was! Unjustifiable, perhaps some will say,—contrary to sound principles of war. Yes, but Lee was a law unto himself in the art of war. He knew the maxims of the approved masters of strategy and he applied them; but there came crises when he rode straight over them to attain his ends. He acknowledged that he took fearful risks, but under the conditions that sometimes encompassed him it was often true that the only hope of success lay in taking desperate chances.

We cannot write of Chancellorsville without pausing a moment at the mention of Stonewall Jackson, whose name will forever be associated with the great Confederate victory there. If ever there was a double star in the firmament of military glory, it was in the case of these two great soldiers. Their name and fame will ever be closely intertwined,—so closely that we can hardly think of or understand the achievements of the one without the other,—so closely that when the historian turns the telescope of his observation upon the one, he always sees the other by his side,—so closely that the glory of the one on the battlefield is constantly mingled with the glory of the other; and thus we see them, as at 2d Manassas and at Chancellorsville, not as two illustrious leaders, and strategists, but as one—a true binary star in the firmament of history.

Lee’s confidence in Jackson was unbounded. Jackson’s opinion of Lee is seen in his well-known declaration that “Lee is a phenomenon. He is the only man whom I would follow blindfold.” When Jackson was wounded Lee wrote him:

Could I have directed events, I should have chosen for the good of the country to have been disabled in your stead. I congratulate you on the victory, which is due to your skill and energy.

When this was read to him, Jackson said,

Better that ten Jacksons should fall than one Lee.

And when Lee heard Jackson was worse, he said,

Tell him that I am praying for him as I believe I never prayed for myself.

There was another deed of daring inspired by the soul of Lee at Chancellorsville which is sometimes overlooked. At 10 A.M. on the third day of the conflict, after Jackson had fallen, the army of Lee which was preparing an assault on Hooker’s third line of entrenchments—a blow which must have been fatal to the Federal Army,—was arrested by the news that Sedgwick had captured Marye’s heights at Fredericksburg and was marching with his 25,000 men on Lee’s rear.

This was disquieting news indeed, Lee had intended that Early should interpose between him and Sedgwick. Instead, Early had retreated on the Plank road in the direction of Richmond. Thus he had become separated from Lee, and could render him no assistance. It was a critical moment; the battle was not yet won. On the contrary, it might easily be turned into defeat for Lee, with Hooker in his front and Sedgwick in his rear.

But the genius of Lee was equal to the emergency, He resolved on a movement “even more daring,” says the Comte de Paris, “than that which the day previous had brought Jackson upon the flank of the enemy.” Suspending his attack on Hooker, he turned with McLaws’ and Anderson’s divisions, advanced swiftly against Sedgwick, attacked him, and drove him back over the river.

By general consent the battle of Chancellorsville is acknowledged the most brilliant of all Lee’s achievements. By his consummate strategy and by the celerity, skill and audacity with which Jackson cooperated with his plans, he was able with an army of not more than 57,000 men of all arms to foil and hurl back staggering and broken Hooker’s splendid army which Swinton, the Northern historian, estimates at 132,000 men. Col. Charles Marshall of his staff thus describes the climax of the victory on the third day:

In the midst of this scene General Lee, mounted on that horse which we all remember so well, rode to the front of his advancing battalions. His presence was the signal for one of those uncontrollable outbursts of enthusiasm which none can appreciate who have not witnessed them. The fierce soldiers, with their faces blackened with the smoke of battle, the wounded, crawling with feeble limbs from the fury of the devouring flames, all seemed possessed with a common impulse. One long, unbroken cheer, in which the feeble cry of those who lay helpless on the earth blended with the strong voices of those who still fought, rose high above the roar of the battle, and hailed the presence of the victorious chief. He sat in the full realization of all that soldier’s dream of—triumph.[9]

The careful study of this one battle is sufficient to justify Col. Henderson’s opinion that Lee was “undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest soldier, who ever spoke the English tongue.”

We may compare with this English soldier’s words, those of Theodore Roosevelt in his Life of Benton (p. 38). “Lee will undoubtedly rank as without any exception the greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking people have brought forth.”

The battle of Gettysburg, following Chancellorsville at an interval of only two months, will occur to every student of Lee’s campaigns as a vivid illustration of his characteristic aggressiveness both in strategy and tactics. He took the offensive on each of the three days of battle—only failing at last to win a decisive victory for two reasons,—first by the lack of coordination in the attacks made by his commanders, and second, by the strange failure of his chief lieutenants to carry out his orders promptly and exactly. While his conduct of this battle has been severely criticised it is acknowledged by some of the most competent critics, such as Hunt and Henderson and Battine, that had his orders been carried out he should have achieved an overwhelming success. “There can be no doubt,” says Capt. Battine, “that a prompt employment of all his available resources would have placed victory within Lee’s grasp.”

He further says, “There can be no doubt that the opportunity was the brightest the Confederates had made for themselves since they let McClellan escape from the banks of the Chickahominy.”

Chas. Francis Adams pronounces the campaign “timely, admirably designed, energetically executed, and brought to a close with consummate military skill.” Henderson says Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg not by his defective strategy, or his errors of tactics, but because he suffered his second in command to argue instead of marching.

The great assault delivered against the Union center on the third day was one of the most daring enterprises in the history of war, and exhibits that splendid audacity that marked Lee’s whole career as a soldier from his service under Scott in Mexico to the day when he yielded to the inevitable and surrendered the remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. Nor was it a reckless or unreasoned daring. The condition of the Federal Army after its severe losses and the impairment of its morale on the first two days of the conflict, coupled with the splendid courage and indomitable resolution of the soldiers of Lee justified the expectation of success; and had the glorious charge been made in the morning as ordered; and had it been supported as it might, and could, and should have been—in other words, had not the orders of the commanding general been disobeyed,—there is little doubt that the Federal Army would have been cut in twain, and driven in disaster from the field.

It was not the plan of Gen, Lee that that column of 12,000 men should have been thrown unsupported against that formidable position. His order was that the divisions of Hood and McLaws should have advanced in support of Pickett and that Pettigrew and Anderson should also have cooperated.[10] Most certainly it was not the intention of this great commander that four-fifths of his army should have looked idly on while one-fifth charged into the jaws of death.

The failure of Gen. Ewell to seize Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of the first day’s battle has new light shed upon it by an incident recounted in the following extract of a letter addressed to the author by Major W. A. Anderson, of Lexington, Virginia, February 10, 1916:

What you say about General Ewell’s fatal inaction on the afternoon and evening of July 1st is fully confirmed by what Doctor Samuel B. Morrison told me in his lifetime.

Doctor Morrison was a surgeon of high rank in Ewell’s Corps. His statement to me a number of years ago was as follows:

On the afternoon of the 1st of July, 1863, Dr. Morrison received a summons to go to Gen. Ewell, who he was informed had been wounded. He found Gen, Ewell lying by the roadside near the Town of Gettysburg attended by some members of his staff.

Dr. Morrison dismounted and approached Gen. Ewell, remarking, “General, I hope you are not badly hurt.” To which the General replied, “Doctor, I have a compound communicated fracture of my leg,”—and then, after a brief pause, adding with a twinkle in his eyes,—“but it is my wooden leg.”

The Doctor told me he found Gen. Ewell very pale, and on taking his pulse, and examining his condition, he discovered that he was “suffering from shock,” but was not seriously injured by the blow from a fragment of a shell (I think it was) which had shattered his wooden leg, and doubtless painfully bruised the stump of that amputated limb,

Dr. Morrison’s examination of the General soon satisfied him that any injury he had received was slight, and he told Gen, Ewell that he was “all right,” and would in a little while entirely rally from the slight shock from the shattering of his wooden leg.

Dr. Morrison remained with Gen. Ewell for some little time, how long he did not inform me.

While he was still there, Col. Walter H. Taylor, of Gen. Lee’s staff, rode up, and saluted Gen. Ewell, and after learning that he was not seriously hurt delivered the following message from Gen. Lee, as nearly as I can recall Dr. Morrison’s language:

General,—General Lee desires me to present you his compliments, and to express his hope that you will see your way clear to press the pursuit of the enemy who seem to be retreating in disorder.

In some such language Col. Taylor communicated Gen. Lee’s views and wish to Gen. Ewell.

Gen. Ewell made some courteous but not entirely definite reply, and Col. Taylor rode off.

After a little while, however, Gen, Ewell remarked to the members of his staff and other officers about him as follows:

My boys have had a long and hard day. They have had nothing to eat since the early morning, and are hungry, hot and tired. I will let them get something to eat and a rest tonight, and we will take the enemy before breakfast in the morning.

Dr. Morrison’s account of the occurrence referred to was given me some time, several years perhaps, before Col. Walter Taylor’s book was published in in which there is an account of the same memorable incident.

This narrative, never published before, explains Ewell’s failure to seize Cemetery Hill, so easily within his grasp that afternoon. The shock which he received, and the painful bruising of his amputated limb, was in all probability responsible for his fatal postponement of the attack which would have given the Confederates the hill and with it victory at Gettysburg.[11]

We may pause a moment at this point to ask the reader to recall a battle which bears some striking resemblances and contrasts to the battle of Gettysburg, the battle of Solferino. It was fought June 24, 1859, only three years before. Not since Leipsig in 1813 had such a stupendous conflict taken place. About 270,000 men were engaged, the Austrians having nearly 130,000, the French and Piedmontese almost 139,000. The losses were appalling. All Europe stood aghast at the carnage. Napoleon III was overwhelmed as he rode over the field the next day and witnessed the frightful scenes of death and agony. And yet the killed and wounded at Gettysburg were more in number than at Solferino, while the aggregate of the Union, and Confederate Armies was more than one-third smaller than the forces engaged in the famous Italian battlefield,—about 170,000 at Gettysburg,—about 270,000 at Solferino.

As to the question, “Was Gettysburg a Federal victory!” it may be sufficient to quote the words of Gen. Meade in a letter to his wife, “I never claimed a victory, though I stated that Lee was defeated in his efforts to destroy my army.”—Life and Letters, vol. 2, p. 133.[12]

The Wilderness campaign of 1864 furnishes yet another example of the aggressive daring which was the most striking characteristic of the strategy and the tactics of Lee.

Facing Grant’s Army of 140,000 men (see the Report of the Secretary of War to the 39th Congress, vol. I, 1865–6, pp. 3–5, 55) with barely 64,000 men of all arms,—under which circumstances a commander whose genius inclined to defensive strategy would naturally manœuvre to avoid a general engagement,—Lee did not hesitate to pursue a policy the very reverse of Fabian, Owing to Longstreet’s unnecessary failure to arrive on the battle front May 5th, Lee gave orders to Ewell and Hill not to bring on a general engagement, but to oppose the passage of the Union Army. Two divisions, 15,000 strong, heroically resisted five Union divisions; 45,000 strong, and completely foiled their repeated assaults.[13] But next morning the divisions of Heth and Wilcox were overpowered and compelled to retire before Longstreet could put his corps in to the fight. It was then that Lee, seeing the threat of disaster, dashed among the fugitives and personally appealed to them to rally. His presence as he rode along the lines was most inspiring. Then, Longstreet having arrived and put his troops into battle; Lee put himself at the head of the Texans as they bravely advanced to save the day; but the soldiers cried out to him to “go to the rear,” promising to restore the line and drive the enemy back. It was done, The Confederate advance was irresistible. This was the first of three occasions in the Wilderness campaign that Lee undertook to lead his charging columns in person, viz., on May 6th, 10th, and 12th.[14] Thus no sooner had Grant with his immense army, outnumbering the Confederate commander much more than two to one (140,000 to 64,000), crossed the Rapidan and plunged into the tangled maze of the wilderness, than Lee boldly advanced and struck him two staggering blows on the same day, May 6th; one at 11 A.M. under the leadership of Longstreet, as just mentioned, the other under Gordon at 6 P.M. The first was an attack on Grant’s right flank by four of Longstreet’s brigades. The success was complete.

“Brigade after brigade was routed and rolled up.” In vain did the brave Hancock strive to stay the panic, Longstreet with five fresh brigades was ready to follow it up by a frontal attack and drive the Federals into the Rapidan. Two full corps had already been utterly routed. The rout of the rest of the army seemed assured when these five brigades should be unleashed. Longstreet was already receiving congratulations when, at the critical moment, he fell severely wounded by the fire of his own men—just as Jackson had fallen almost exactly a year before, and near the same spot, while victoriously executing a similar movement!

The second blow which Lee gave Grant on that 6th day of May was delivered by Gen. John B, Gordon a little before sundown, and was directed against the right of the Federal Army, under the direction of Gen. Lee himself. It was immediately and splendidly successful, and the news of it carried consternation to Grant’s headquarters’ staff and the soul of Grant himself; but night prevented the consummation of the defeat; and saved the Federal Army. Had it not been for the stubborn and unreasoning opposition of Gen. Early, this assault would have been made early in the day, in which case overwhelming disaster would have overtaken Gen. Grant.

Referring to this blow delivered by Gen. Gordon, Major Gen. James Harrison Wilson, who was very close to Gen. Grant, tells us in his book Under the Old Flag, vol. I. p. 390, that an officer who had been with Grant through the whole war and “had seen him in every battle,” stated to him that the news from the right “gave the impression that an overwhelming disaster had befallen our line,” and that as officer after officer came in with additional details, it became apparent “that the General was confronted by the greatest crisis of his life.” It was a disaster “which threatened to overwhelm his army and put an end to his career.” Gen. Wilson adds that “both Rawlins and Bowers concurred in the statement that Grant went into his tent, and throwing himself face downward on his cot, gave way to the greatest emotion.” And they added that “not till it became apparent that the enemy was not pressing his advantage did he entirely recover his perfect composure.”[15]

The facts thus briefly recalled show how essentially offensive was the military genius of Lee. In this Wilderness campaign, as it is called, from the Rapidan River to Richmond, although Lee’s strategy was wisely defensive, yet his tactics were in many cases boldly offensive. Indeed, as military critics have been free to acknowledge, his tactics were consistently offensive up to the very day of the surrender at Appomattox.

As to his defensive strategy in this campaign of the Wilderness a high authority has said, “In this only a few of his detractors have seen evidence of failing courage. Actually, it is only another exhibition of his genius which enabled him to see that the day for those tactics was passed. His unerring perception told him that his only chance lay in wearing out his enemy, and he would not be tempted into a false move.”[16]

And now finally another example of Lee’s boldness in offensive strategy. Right in the midst of his death grapple with Grant before Petersburg, he despatches Gen. Early to the Valley of Virginia with a division taken from his little army in the trenches, with orders to cross the Potomac, threaten Washington, and “insult with the fires of his bivouacs the Capital City.”


[1] Gen. Scott had pronounced him the best organizer in this country, and congratulated himself upon the fact that the Federal organization was well under way before Lee began that of the South.

[2] Gamaliel Bradford, p. 21.

[3] The losses in this battle were as follows:

Confederates, killed, wounded and missing 1367
Federals, killed, wounded and missing 2381

[4] See Appendix.

[5] Ropes, History of the Civil War. Vol. II, p. 124.

[6] The next day Lee laid before Jackson a plan for attack, but after careful consideration it was abandoned.

[7] Henderson, Life of Jackson, Vol. 11, pp. 322–3. The above account was given by Gen. Stephen D. Lee, an eyewitness.

[8] But actually in the firing lines Lee had not more than 35,000 as stated above.

[9] Quoted by Miss E. Mason in her Life of Lee, p. 361.

[10] See Long’s Memoirs of Lee, p. 294.

[11] Major Steele says of Gettysburg, “On the morning of the 2d of July Lee had on the ground thirty-three brigades—all of his infantry except foul brigades. At seven o’clock Meade had thirty-nine brigades, at nine o’clock forty-one, and at 12 o’clock forty-three. On the morning of the 3d, after Pickett had come up with his division, Lee had only thirty-seven brigades; Meade had fifty-one brigades.”—American Campaigns, I, 390.

[12] The author invites particular attention to the discussion in the Appendix of this much misunderstood campaign. It is there shown we think, conclusively, that Gen. Ewell’s failure to seize Cemetery Hill, as Lee directed, on the first day of the battle,—Gen. Longstreet’s inexcusable delay in his attack on the second day,—and the same officer’s double departure from the orders of his chief on the third day,—were responsible for the loss of a great victory. Lee’s genius did not fail in his plan of battle, nor was his strategy at fault. The failure was in the execution of his plan by his subordinates.

[13] See Taylor’s Four Years with General Lee, p. 127, First Edition.

[14] See for May 6th; Alexander’s Memoirs, p. 503; for May 10th, Taylor’s Four Years with Lee, p. 130; for May 12th, Gordon’s Reminiscences, p. 278.

[15] He further says “it was an episode of terrible import followed by a night of anxiety which none of us will ever forget.”—p. 387.

[16] Referring to Longstreet’s failure to arrive on the Wilderness field May 5th, one of the critics remarks, “Longstreet was behindhand again, but through no fault of his.” This is an error. Had Longstreet taken the right road (4 P.M. June 4th) he should easily have arrived by the afternoon, or noon, of the 5th, having only twenty miles to march, Lee had sent an officer “to stay with him, and show him the roads,” but Longstreet discharged him, and so took the wrong road, “consuming a day and a half of precious time.”—Life of Gen. Lee by Fitzhugh Lee, p. 331.

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