Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 23

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

23
Farewell to Jackson

AT last the snow was gone and spring came, bringing A with it wild flowers underfoot and leaves no bigger than a squirrel’s ear on all the budding trees.

A new and eager commander was sent forth to have his chance to lick the Rebels. His name was “Fighting Joe” Hooker and Lincoln wrote him: “The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done, or will do far all Commanders . . . and now beware of rashness! but with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.”

Lee, at this time, returned to Richmond for a brief visit that he might confer with President; Davis. He had the pleasure of a glimpse of “Mary and the girls” and enjoyed giving them first-hand news of “the boys,” whom he saw at intervals on the field.

Before this he had attended to the freeing of his father-in-law’s slaves, after the prescribed five years following death mentioned in the will. He had already informed Mary by letter that he had executed the deed of manumission, and when he saw her now he reminded her that if any names had been omitted by mistake, she was to have an extra deed drawn up for him to sign at the first opportunity, so that none would be overlooked. Years before this, he had provided in his own will that the few slaves left to him by his mother should be freed.

While he was in Richmond, Lee was sounded out by friends as to his political aspirations. He said in no uncertain terms that he had no ambitions along these lines and felt himself inadequate for any other career than a military one, expressing the opinion that soldiers rarely make good rulers.

“What about Washington?” one of the men inquired.

“He was an exception to all rules,” Lee answered, lifting his hat as he mentioned the revered name. “There are no others like him.”

And there were many throughout the Southland who felt there were no others like Lee, himself. Stonewall Jackson was among these, for in answer to the criticism that Lee was too slow and too cautious, he replied that his commander-in-chief was not slow, that he had not only great responsibility, but the weight of the Army upon his heart, knowing that if it were lost, it could not be replaced. He said that there were some persons whose good opinion attached some weight to his views, and that if any of them ever heard this charge laid against General Lee, they would contradict it in his name. He said that he had known Lee for twenty-five years and that he was cautious—as he should be, but not slow. “The General,” he added, “is a phenomenon—the only man I would follow blindfolded.”

How fortunate it was for Robert E. Lee that he had Jackson (and many more who felt the same way) at his command!

The opposing armies met at Chancellorsville on the second day of May, 1863. Stonewall Jackson made a predawn start, heading his “foot-cavalry” toward Hooker’s right flank. Young Fitz Lee, Robert’s nephew, was to protect the other flank, while Lee stayed at Chancellorsville to confront the enemy there.

Jackson was successful in surprising Hooker and making a sweep through his lines. It was his greatest victory—and his last one. A fitting climax to a man whose motto was, “You may be what you resolve to be!”

There is a saying that every man’s name is on a particular bullet, and if that bullet finds him. . . .

And so it was, for on that starlit night of high endeavor, as Jackson and a group of fellow officers were making an inspection tour, they were mistaken by their own men for the enemy and shot down.

A couple of the men were killed outright and two bullets struck Stonewall’s left arm and one his right, as his horse bolted into the woods.

A litter arrived and Jackson was placed on it. Other shots sounded in the darkness, from the Union lines this time, and a litter-bearer fell, giving a fearful thud to the wounded hero.

Jackson, the game fighting-cock, cried, “No matter! Press on!”

They reached the rear and his wounds were promptly dressed. For a few days he showed signs of improvement but then pneumonia developed and he grew weaker and failed to rally. Prayers were said and an anxious watch was kept. It was too late. His friends listened sorrowfully as his last words were spoken, “Let us pass over the river and rest under the trees.”

When General Lee received the message he said sadly, “I’ve lost my right arm.” Then he was silent for a long while, thinking of a hymn that both he and his old friend, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, had loved. It was a hymn called On the Other Side of the River, and it mentioned the everlasting spring and never-fading flowers. In that far-off heavenly land, it said, there was joyfulness and peace—and peace. . . . Lee sighed and turned back to his immediate duty of war.

President Davis wished to appoint General Lee’s son, Custis, to succeed Jackson, but the General would not consent to this, as he did not consider him experienced enough.

The command was given to Jeb Stuart and he continued the fight. Beside him rode his banjo-player, Sweeny, thumping, plunk, plunk, plunk—making that plunk shape itself to the words, “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out of the wilderness,” which the marching men shouted up and down the lines.

Lee won this battle, although he only had a third as many men as Hooker. Now he determined to cross into Pennsylvania, hoping to draw the Federal troops away from the strong forts near Washington and to be able to get food for his men and horses.

Jeb Stuart was sent ahead to guard the right flank, but he crossed the Potomac too far to the east and found that the whole Union Army was between himself and his commander-in-chief. When he was at last able to join Lee at Gettysburg, the second day of lighting had already begun and the Union and Confederate forces were locked in deadly combat.

Before the engagement, “Fighting Joe” Hooker had asked President Lincoln to relieve him and George C. Meade had been appointed in his place, as Chief of the Army of the Potomac.

Neither General Meade nor Lee had counted on having the battle take place at Gettysburg. Nevertheless, here, where the roads converged, the fighting began as the two armies came in contact with one another.

During the day the advantage was with the Confederate troops, who swept the Union Army before them and captured five thousand prisoners. When, in the late afternoon, General Longstreet came up, Lee gave him orders to reopen the attack the next morning at dawn, before Meade’s men would have time to rally.

Morning found the Federals entrenched on the heights extending from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top where they had retreated during the previous day’s fighting.

Longstreet delayed and failed to follow Lee’s instructions to storm the citadel at an early hour.

In spite of this, by the day’s end the Rebels had secured a foothold on Gulp’s Hill and held lodgements in the Union lines.

On the third day Pickett’s Command of thirteen thousand men charged across the valley and advanced the Confederate standards, in spite of continuing lack of support from General Longstreet. They were unable to hold their advantage, however, as the task had grown beyond their wavering strength.

Death stared them in the face—death and sure defeat.

On the Fourth of July, Union hearts sang and Union throats shouted themselves hoarse. The Battle of Gettysburg was won and, in the South, Vicksburg had fallen. It was a glorious day and there was rejoicing in every Northern home. Victory was just around the corner. The rebels were licked to a fare-you-well!

But they weren’t! It wasn’t that easy, or that quick.

If Meade had pushed forward and struck back on that momentous night; of July third, the war might have ended then.

If he had done that—but he didn’t. And there was more to come, Ahead lay Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the Georgia campaigns, the Battle of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor and the rest. A long and blood-soaked march to Appomattox Court House.

Lee packed his wounded into the springless wagons and the racing horses careened over the rough mountain roads, bearing their burden of injured men. Some of those tightlipped boys would die on the way and some recover to continue the fight for the Cause to which they had given their hearts.

Back in Virginia, Lee held the line of the Rapidan in Orange County. He wrote to President Davis, saying he had failed at Gettysburg and asking that he be replaced by a younger and an abler man, stating with simple sincerity that it would be the happiest day of his life when he saw such a commander at the head of his brave and gallant army.

Davis answered that he knew of no abler man and did not think any more capable commander existed, He expressed complete confidence in Lee and urged him to continue his efforts toward a complete and final victory.

This letter cheered the heart of the General and gave him comfort in a difficult hour, when his thoughts were turning constantly to his wounded son, Fitzhugh, who was a prisoner at Fortress Monroe. His heart was constantly touched too, by the sight of the men around him, who had been given the nickname of “Lee’s Miserables.”

Mounted on Traveler, Lee made daily inspection tours, stopping often to chat with one or another of the “boys.” When he could not sleep at night, he would often speak a quiet word to Perry or Meredith, and whichever one it might be would rise quickly from the near-by pallet.

“Yassir, Marse Robert, I’se ready. I’ll git our bosses an’ we’ll take a lil ride. De moon she’s all a-shine an’ t’will make us feel real good!”

In a couple of minutes the two dark figures would slip out of the wooded grove where the tent was pitched and move silently among the bivouacked figures sprawled out on the dusty ground. Sometimes it was raining but they were lying there just the same, without a shred of canvas to protect them.

As dawn came and the call of the bugle aroused them, the blankets would hatch out a group of what looked like sodden roosters with their plumage all rumpled up. There would be a curse or two and then the cursing would give place to good-natured laughter as the fires jumped up and the smell of fry-stuff crept into the air.

Sometimes the figure on the gray horse would be glimpsed. Then such a shout went up as never was. “Rah, rah, rah, for Marse Robert!”

Traveler would prick his ears and step more proudly. Perry would grin and show his fine white teeth and Marse Robert himself would feel better.

Things were going to be all right, he’d tell himself. Failure could be forgotten. Tomorrow, surely, would be a fairer day. The rain was clearing now. Yonder where the horizon stretched there was a strip of blue sky. It was a brighter blue than “Yankee-blue!”

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