Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 25


Toward the End

DURING the late summer and autumn months there were some victories for the Southern side in which Lee’s own army did not take part.

General Longstreet, the man who had failed so signally at Gettysburg, performed nobly in September at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he threw the invading forces back on Chattanooga.

The descriptions of the terrain brought the scene vividly before Lee’s eyes. He visualized the castle of Lookout Mountain, with the masonry of its gray rocks alternating with the green of its oaks and the deeper shadows of the cedars. Missionary Ridge and the loitering Tennessee River. That view of three states to be seen from the summit of the mountain, in the dim distance the looming Blue Ridge and the far-off smoky ranges.

He pictured to himself that ravine which was more than eight hundred feet in length. There, on that precarious railroad, he imagined the worn-out, dilapidated cars which pounded up and down the trellised ridges, bounding and creaking along the rails.

Reports came to him that in many places planks had been spiked down by the Rebs to make a road over which their wagons could be driven. Here, beside the roadway, rows of corn and beans were growing up where the scanty supplies had been jostled out of their sacks.

Here, too, had been the testing ground of two of the mightiest armies ever to meet in mortal combat. Longstreet and Braxton Bragg against Rosecrans and his Western boys in blue. It had been a case of “stand-up-johnnie,” and two hundred cannons had thundered forth till the saying went round that “hell broke loose in Georgia.” This battle was one of the hardest actions of the war, with tremendous losses on both sides.

Lee wrote to Longstreet, “If it gives you as much pleasure to receive my warmest congratulations as it does me to convey them, this letter has not been written in vain. . . . Finish the work before you, my dear General, and return to me. I want you badly and you cannot get back too soon.”

Longstreet was unable to return to Lee at this time, as he went from his victory at Chickamauga to the relief of Knoxville, while Bragg faced General U, S. Grant at Chattanooga on November twenty-fourth. In this engagement all of the honors went to the Union and Bragg was forced to fall back toward Georgia.

President Davis asked Lee early in December if he would take command in this theater of operations and he replied that, while willing to do so if it were thought best, he feared that he would not receive co-operation and felt that no good would result from the move.

Nashville and New Orleans had fallen and the railroad system throughout the South was breaking down. The paper money in circulation was almost valueless and food and other supplies were almost impossible to obtain, even at exorbitant prices.

One of the Richmond restaurants offered “pure coffee” at three dollars a cup and bread and butter at a dollar-fifty a serving.

Robert E. Lee was worrying about how he was to pay his taxes and wrote to Custis that he had been unable to find the collector and was distressed over this fact, as he wished to take care of the affair as “a matter of right and conscience.” He said that he owned nothing now that was not in the hands of the enemy, except five thousand dollars in Confederate bonds, three horses, his watch, clothes and camp equipment.

The clothes mentioned could certainly not have been of any considerable value, for in another letter he wrote to his son that if his “pants” were finished, he would like to have them sent to him, since he was down to his last pair and fearful of tearing those.

Lee was not alone in his shabbiness, for the entire Army was ragged and almost shoeless. Civilians were in practically the same sorry state, for footwear of any kind was said to be worth its weight in gold, and while this was an exaggeration it was not as great as one might think. Clothes had been patched and repatched so much that it was nearly impossible to tell what the original color of the garment had been.

Midwinter added a deep personal sorrow to Lee’s trials and tribulations, for it brought the deaths of his sister Ann and of his loved daughter-in-law, Charlotte, and of the latter’s two children. This last blow was a particularly heavy one to Robert and to Mary, as Charlotte’s husband, Fitzhugh, was still in prison.

Surely few men have been tried as sorely by circumstances and fate, and yet Lee’s worn Bible was constantly in his hands, and many nights his candle flickered late while he communed with his God with perfect assurance and confidence that the ultimate plan was a wise and righteous one. He merely besought guidance toward his duty. Courage and confidence he never lacked, even in these dark days, nor in the darker ones that lay ahead, and were beginning already to assail him.

In January, Lee had been made general-in-chief of all the armies of the Confederacy, and from that date on the supreme responsibility rested on his shoulders.

Joseph E. Johnston was continuing the struggle in Georgia and there was a small force still active in the West. These, with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, constituted the remaining strength of the Confederacy, which was opposed by the still-vigorous and newly-equipped Federal Army.

In the spring of 1864, this army was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant, a soldier who, though he also had taken part in the Mexican War, was a much younger man than Lee. At this momentous hour he did not know that fame and fortune lay ahead of him, but of one thing he was very sure—that he was going to fight the present issue out, if it took all summer to achieve his purpose. His forces numbered more than a hundred and forty thousand men, as compared to Lee’s sixty-four thousand, and his wagon train was sixty-five miles long!

On May third Grant led his troops across the Rapidan without opposition. By the morning of the fifth they were all safely over and well into the maze known as the Wilderness. And it was here that the Gray legions struck the columns at right angles and brought confusion to the ranks.

Underfoot was wet day soil, a greater impediment to the well-shod Yanks than to the barefoot “Rebs,” and all around was the entanglement of vines and thick., stunted scrub pine trees. It was terrain familiar to the Southerners but strange and uncomfortable to their opponents.

Lee ordered the Texas troops forward into battle, shouting, “Hurrah for Texas and the Bonnie Blue Flag!”

The Texans yelled “Lee to the rear!” and as one of them seized Traveler’s bridle they announced that they would not advance a step unless he retired to safety.

The General, sensing the mettle of these gallant fighters, saluted and followed the commands of his brave boys as they swept on to victory and to death.

The tide swung back and forth, but at the end of the day the advantage was still with the Confederates. On the third evening Grant decided to withdraw.

Sheridan had taken a stand behind Lee’s forces, which had followed Grant toward Spottsylvania Court House, and here he encountered the dashing and gallant Jeb Stuart. It was Stuart’s last stand, and in his death, as in that of Stonewall Jackson, both Lee personally and the Confederate Cause in general sustained great loss.

For three more days Grant hammered at the Spottsylvania lines. For another ten days the scattered fighting continued. The musket fire set the scrub blazing and a pall of smoke rose throughout the wilderness.

Action at a jutting point on the North Anna River gave Lee’s troops further advantage when they managed to divide Grant’s forces, and on June first the Confederates were entrenched at Cold Harbor, where they had met McClellan in ‘62. Here Grant attacked them and was vanquished. His casualties for the three-day battle amounted to 10,000, bringing his losses for the campaign to more than 60,000, a number almost equaling Lee’s entire army.

Grant’s next move was to swing his army across the James River and advance on Petersburg from the south. This town, twenty miles below Richmond, had been fortified by Lee in ‘62 and now he moved in with his forces.

Grant, when he was unable to storm the fortifications, attempted to mine them in the Battle of the Crater. When this, too, was unsuccessful, he settled down for a siege which lasted the remainder of the summer and all of the following winter.

Lee advised President Davis to abandon any further defense of Richmond, but Davis felt the continued possession of the capital to be of supreme importance.

It was during the defense of Richmond that Lee, who was completely without fear, risked his life to save a young bird that had fallen from its nest in a spot that was being shelled by the enemy. Often he exposed himself to danger but was never wounded. The only disability he suffered during the entire war was in having a bone in his hand broken when his charger was suddenly startled by gunfire. This accident kept him from riding Traveler for some weeks and proved irksome to him, but he made light of it in his letters to Mary and bore the inconvenience with his usual good nature.

Not wishing to worry Mary, he did not mention an incident which happened during the siege of Petersburg. Here shells from Grant’s huge guns had been falling day after day, demolishing churches and houses and endangering the lives of all of the citizens, as well as the soldiers.

One particular morning General Lee sat under a tree near his headquarters until the rain of fire became unusually heavy. Then, at the request of his aides, he mounted Traveler and rode away.

“Say, fellows, I think I’ll see if I can’t fill Grandpappy’s place for a while!” one of the young blades said gaily, as he seated himself in the chair Lee had just vacated. At that instant a shot struck the chair and he fell to the ground, slightly wounded—and with the laugh on the other side of his mouth!

It was difficult, these days, to find cheerful news to fill the home letters, but amid all his cares and hardships Robert somehow managed. One night before he found rest on his tent cot, he wrote:

Yesterday afternoon three little girls walked into my room, each with a small basket. The eldest carried some fresh eggs laid by her own hens; the second some pickles made by her mother; the third some popcorn which had grown in her garden. They were accompanied by a young maid with a block of soap made by her mother. . . . The eldest of the girls, whose age did not exceed eight years, held a small wheel on which she spun for her mother, who wove all the clothes for her two brothers—boys of twelve and fourteen years. I have not had so pleasant a visit for a long time. I fortunately was able to fill their baskets with apples, which distressed poor Bryan, and begged them to bring me nothing but. kisses and keep their eggs, corn, etc., for themselves. . . .”

Another letter, written to his daughter, reads:

My Precious Life: I received this morning, by your brother, your note, and am very glad to hear your mother is better. I sent out immediately to try and find some lemons, but could only procure two—sent to me by a kind lady, Mrs. Kirkland, in Petersburg. These were gathered from her own trees; there are none to be purchased. I found one in my valise, dried up, which I also send, as it may be of some value. I also put up some early apples, which you can roast for your mother, and one pear. This is all the fruit I can get.

You must go to market every morning and see if you cannot find some fresh fruit for her. There are no lemons to be had here. Tell her lemonade is not as palatable or digestible as buttermilk. Try and get some for her—with ice it is delicious and very nutritious. I hope she will continue to improve, and soon be well and leave that heated city. It must be roasting now. Tell her I can only think of her and pray for her recovery. I wish I could be with her to nurse her and care for her. I want to see you all very much, but cannot now see the day when we shall be together once more. I think of you, long for you, pray for you; it is all I can do. Think sometimes of your devoted father, R. E. Lee.

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