Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 20


High Hopes

ROBERT E. LEE, a well-disciplined soldier, plodded along at his new assignment. It; was routine work and its value was not evident until later on in the war, when Beauregard was to make his stand. Lee was short on both men and supplies but strengthened the fortifications as best he could, using Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, as his headquarters.

As Christmas Day approached, he wrote his usual loving letters to Mary and the children. He told Agnes that he wasn’t able to buy her a present but was enclosing a bit of money, which, though often stigmatized as “vile dross,” he himself had often found most useful, and he added, “To compensate for such ‘trash,’ I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost, whose crystals glittered in the bright sun like diamonds, and formed a brooch of rare beauty and sweetness which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money. May God guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter. . . .”

To his distress, he had no “Chris’mus gifs” for his faithful Perry and Meredith but he was delighted when a belated parcel containing two pairs of socks Mary had knitted for him arrived some time in January. He wrote, saying that he could manage without them and they made most acceptable presents for the two Negro men who had come with him from the old home-place.

In this same month Robert wrote Mary that, at long last, he had been able to visit his father’s grave on Cumberland Island. He expressed pleasure that the spot on General Greene’s place was well cared for and that the grave was clearly marked with a marble slab bearing his father’s name, his age and the date of his death.

As he stood in this deserted retreat, with the birds singing all around him and the wild olives casting their grateful shade above him, we may imagine that he dreamed of his long-ago boyhood. . .of the people he had loved then and the places: Stratford, Shirley, Alexandria, Arlington. He loved them all—his people, his homes—he remembered them now so clearly, so devotedly. . . .

But soon he was forced to turn his back on such gracious memories of the past; and face the stern realities of the present, of the future. . . .

In February he commented in his correspondence on the bad news from Tennessee and North Carolina and said that the enemy gunboats were pushing up all the creeks and marshes to Savannah but that he had hopes of remedying this particular peril.

Just before this the Confederates had lost both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson to Commodore Foote and General U. S. Grant. Fifteen thousand prisoners had been captured and the blow was a severe one to the Southern cause, since it meant the evacuation of Nashville and much of Tennessee.

Throughout the early spring, there was much activity and the tide turned one way and then another. The first naval battle between iron-clad ships (the Monitor and the Merrimac) was indecisive, with both sides claiming the victory.

Richmond was the next point to be threatened and Lee was summoned back to the capital to act again as Military Aide and Adviser to President Davis.

He was able at this time to have a brief glimpse of his wife and daughters and to help his son, Robert, who was now eighteen, find his place in the ranks. (The idea of making him an officer never occurred to Lee.)

Mary and the girls had found refuge in the White House, one of the Custis’ estates, but were soon forced to vacate this and move to Richmond. Mrs. Lee left a note on the door reading: “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.”

When the house was used by General McClellan as his headquarters, someone wrote beneath Mrs. Lee’s message: “A Northern officer has protected your property in sight of the enemy.” Later, however, the house was burned by the Union soldiers.

The story is told that when Lee asked that a certain Confederate officer be promoted, one of his aides replied that that particular man had been very free in his criticism of Lee himself. “The point is not,” the General answered mildly, “what he thinks, or is pleased to say about me, but what I think of him.

On April 6 and 7 the Battle of Shiloh was fought on the banks of the Tennessee. This was thought by many of the Southern soldiers who took part in it to be the best planned and best fought engagement of the War between the States.

General U. S. Grant says in his Memoirs that on the second day of battle he saw an open field over which the Confederates had made repeated charges so thickly covered with their dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing using the bodies as stepping-stones and not touching a foot to the ground.

The first day of the battle was Easter Sunday. It was described as “a day so beautiful and lovely that all nature seemed proud and happy.” The birds were singing in the bright sunshine of early spring and the trees were putting forth their leaves of shining green.

At dawn the Southern soldiers were quietly wakened by their officers—many of them from their last sleep on earth. The buglers refrained from sounding reveille because they feared it might attract the attention of the enemy. The boys snatched a quick bite of breakfast from their haversacks and formed in double columns by companies, led by the bands playing Dixie.

They moved through the woods at quick-step, stopping only once to unsling their knapsacks containing the small, familiar treasures which they were never to see again. Up ahead there was the roll of the skirmishers’ rifles, where the battle lines were being formed.

The pound of the Union guns under Grant’s direction answered the surprise challenge of the Rebels as the Orphan Brigade and the other groups of the boys in gray pushed forward in columns of fours, joining another squadron which moved on under the leadership of the gallant and picturesque Captain John Morgan.

Black Bess, the captain’s thoroughbred, tossed her head and pranced proudly as Morgan’s men greeted the companions who fell in with them. There was a shout of “Brava! Brava!” from the newcomers as the lads burst into their famous battle song:

Cheer, boys, cheer; we’ll march away to battle;
Cheer, boys, cheer, for our sweethearts and wives;
Cheer, boys, cheer; we’ll nobly do our duty,
Kentucky owns our arms, our hearts, our lives!

The troops pushed quickly forward. In the outer encampments of the enemy they found signs of a hurried departure, untouched breakfasts with the coffee still steaming in the pot and the frying pans filled with thick, red slices of ham whose delicious, tangy smell mingled with the fresh morning breeze.

The clash and boom of shot and shell filled the air as the men ducked to avoid the rush of bullets.

Soon the call “Fix bayonets!” rang out and was repeated by the company commanders- Now the Rebel yell was given, a sound that began on a low tone and rose higher and higher till its shrillness could be heard even above the din of battle, ringing in a never-to-be-forgotten challenge of fierce defiance.

The men in gray pressed forward, eager to try out the new Enfield rifles which had been issued to them by General Johnston just before the battle, as Grant hurled his battalions in echelons against the extended lines. These battalions were met and hurled back but the enemy quickly made another desperate stand, pouring destructive fire into the ranks and wounding and killing many of the Confederates.

Again and again, these and various other tactics were repeated while the battle raged furiously as grape and canister were hurled desperately into the enemy’s moving columns.

General Albert Sidney Johnston fell in the charge on the stronghold known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” Johnston had graduated from West Point during Lee’s first year there and had been the commander of the Texan forces during their struggle for independence but when Texas became a part of the United States, he had proved himself a true patriot in the Mexican War.

His death, at the moment of victory, as his men were driving the Union forces from Shiloh to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, was a heavy blow for the Confederacy. He was succeeded by General Pierre Beauregard at the end of the day.

During the night the Northern army received fresh men and the following day Beauregard was forced to retreat, leaving the successful issue to General Grant. Other Federal gains followed. New Orleans was occupied and on May 1 McClellan prepared to take Richmond.

Lee laid his plans and counter-plans carefully, playing for time. The days and weeks dragged by in apparent retreat and yet, during this period, the strategy of the town’s defense was actually being strengthened.

In minor engagements and in the Battle of Seven Pines the Confederates won a considerable amount of booty, though it was not accounted a decisive victory for the South.

At last Lee was in the saddle and it was his carefully thought-out plans which were being followed. He was calm and confident in spite of circumstances that would have discouraged most men.

The opposing general, McClellan, was equally confident. On the second day of June he wrote to President Lincoln, telling him that part of his forces were within four miles of Richmond and that he was only waiting for the river to fall before he crossed with the remainder of his men to make an attack.

Four days after this, Stonewall Jackson struck with skill and boldness and received congratulations from Lee. Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry followed up the advantage that was gained in a series of skirmishes, taking a goodly number of prisoners and capturing supplies.

June the twenty-fifth was the beginning of the “Seven Days Battle.” When it; was over, Lee had saved Richmond and had won a great victory, and the Northern host was compelled to retreat to the James River.

Southern hearts rejoiced. Southern voices shouted, “Lee! Lee! Robert E. Lee!”

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