The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 5

The Soul of Lee

V
LIFE AS A MASTER OF DEFENSIVE STRATEGY

Napoleon’s seventy-third maxim says:

“The first qualification in a general-in-chief is a cool head—that is a head which receives just impressions, and estimates things and objects at their real value. He must not allow himself to be elated by good news, or depressed by bad.”

“This campaign alone would entitle him to the high place he justly holds among the great Commanders of the world.”—Col. Livermore.

“The mighty campaign of 1864 before Richmond was as much a masterpiece of defensive warfare as Napoleon’s campaign of 1814.”—Capt. Cecil Battine.

Lee was skilful in the use of the shield as well as of the sword. His campaigns furnish some of the most brilliant examples of defensive strategy and tactics to be found in the history of war. Of these the battle of Fredericksburg is a striking instance. On December 11 and 12, 1862, Gen. Burnside crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and prepared to assault the Confederate lines. Eyewitnesses describe the scene presented by the Army of the Potomac on the morning of the 13th as an imposing and glorious spectacle. It was, by the testimony of its commander, 100,000 strong, and as it advanced in solid ranks, with colors flying and drums beating and the sun glittering on its bayonets, it presented a panorama at once beautiful and terrible.

But Lee had skilfully selected his defensive lines, and these had been protected by hastily erected earthworks. Such was the strength of the position and such the skill with which the artillery was handled, and such the steadiness of the Southern infantry that terrible havoc was wrought in the ranks of the brave Federal Army. Gallantly they advanced, not once but over and over again, now on the right, now on the left; but their gallantry was all to no purpose, Those fine divisions of brave Americans were shattered and at last demoralized by the deadly Confederate fire—and the battle of Fredericksburg went into history a splendid proof of Lee’s genius in defensive warfare. Of the 78,000 men of all arms under his command a large proportion was not actively engaged. The Confederate losses were a little over 5000; those of the Federals over 12,600. Bumside’s entire force present for duty on December 10th, in the three grand divisions, was 118,952.

The most supreme example of Lee’s genius in defensive strategy and tactics is seen in the campaign against Grant in 1864, culminating in the long and bitterly contested siege of Petersburg, Though strategically defensive it was often tactically offensive. Attention may be briefly focussed upon some of the remarkable features of this long and terrific struggle. Lee was grappling with Grant with an army less than half the size of his. It was 64,000 against 140,000. To this superiority in numbers was added a great superiority in munitions and equipment and artillery. Moreover, the Union commander had at his disposal scientific helps which were quite lacking to Lee. His signal system was very perfect. “At every halt of the army telegraphic wires were laid along the whole line so that in a short time after encamping each corps and division was connected by a telegraphic network, making of the whole extended army a single body under instant control of the commander through these outstretching iron nerves.”

Consider also the extraordinary features of the region where these sanguinary battles took place, The Wilderness where the two armies closed in a death grapple three days (May 4–7) was a jungle of tangled brushwood so dense that the men were invisible to each other at half musket range, It was “a region of gloom and the shadow of death.” So dense was the thicket that both cavalry and artillery were almost useless—it was a battle of the infantry alone. Sometimes their volleys set fire to the woods, or even the breastworks, which would become a mass of seething fire.

And now see with what consummate skill Lee met and foiled Grant at every turn. It was the Union commander’s constant effort to march by the flank and place his army between Lee and Richmond, but notwithstanding his immense superiority in numbers, he was never able to accomplish this, nor to break permanently through the Confederate lines, though he constantly assailed them with great skill and determination. At the close of the three days tremendous struggle in the Wilderness Grant had failed in his objective, and his losses had been more than 20,000. Lee, too, had lost heavily—7750 men (Livermore’s estimate), but his veteran army was unshaken, and still stoutly barred Grant’s way.

Then the Union commander made a rapid night march to Spottsylvania C.H.—only to find that Lee had anticipated his move and was there in force before him,—to the great surprise of the general in command.

Lee’s army should surely have been fifteen miles in the rear! Instead, there it was right across Grant’s line of advance to Richmond! The Confederate chieftain by bold and skilful strategy had marched quite around the Army of the Potomac, and stood ready to receive its assaults. These were not slow in developing and were delivered with that immense energy which characterized Gen. Grant. On the 10th of May two assaults were directed against Lee’s lines,—at 10 A.M. and again at 3 P.M.—only to meet a bloody repulse. These were, however, only preliminary to the main assault at 5 P.M. which also was repulsed with enormous loss, But still the iron will of the Union commander would not accept defeat. He organized a fourth attack which was hurled back with even greater loss. When the day closed between 5000 and 6000 Union soldiers lay dead and wounded on the field, while the Confederate loss was comparatively small. Both armies had fought with splendid courage. Only at one point had success attended the Federal attacks. Part of Ewell’s line was broken by Sedgwick, and the affair might have resulted in serious disaster had not Lee put himself at the head of the counter-charging column, and so inspired the men that they rushed to the attack with such irresistible élan that the works were speedily retaken, and impending disaster averted.

Another partial success was achieved on the 12th of May when Hancock, aided by the darkness of the night and a thick fog in the early morning, broke through Lee’s lines, capturing Major General Johnson and his entire division with about twenty pieces of artillery. It was a desperate moment for the Confederate Army,—it had been cut in twain—and again disaster was averted by the personal valor of Lee, who rode to the head of the column that was rushed forward to recover the lost line, but was “ordered to the rear” by Gen. Gordon and his gallant men. Terrible was the battle that followed and that raged from daylight until dark, but at last the Union soldiers were compelled to give up the contest. Ten thousand of them had fallen on that fateful day. Swinton, the Northern historian, thus describes the struggle at the bloody salient:

Of all the struggles of the war, this was perhaps the fiercest and most deadly. Frequently throughout the conflict, so close was the fight that the rival standards were planted on opposite sides of the breastworks. The enemies’ most savage sallies were directed to retake the famous salient, which was now become an angle of death and presented a spectacle ghastly and terrible. On the Confederate side of the works lay many corpses of those who had been bayoneted by Hancock’s men when they first leaped the entrenchments, To these were constantly added the bravest of those who, in the assaults to recapture the position, fell at the margin of the works till the ground was literally covered with piles of dead and the woods in front of the salient were one hideous Golgotha.

Gen. Grant had sent eight brigades to the Angle at 8 A.M. The men stood in the narrow area from 20 to 40 deep, and the rear lines passed their guns rapidly to those in front. So tremendous was the fire that the entire forest was killed. An oak tree 22 inches in diameter was cut down by musketry fire. Its trunk is still preserved in Washington. The bodies of the wounded and slain fallen in the earlier attacks were shot to pieces. So ended the bloody series of encounters at and around Spottsylvania Court House, And now again on May 20th Grant resolves on a flank movement; but Lee discovers it, and when the Union commander reaches his objective near Hanover Junction on the 23d he finds it occupied by Lee in a position of great strength. Says the historian of the Army of the Potomac, “The game of war seldom presents a more effectual checkmate than was here given by Lee.”

Passing over other flank movements of Gen. Grant—always met and foiled by Lee, often because he divined rather than discovered them—we come to the bloodiest battle of the whole campaign, that of Cold Harbor. The strength of the two armies was now as follows, each having been reinforced: Lee, 45,000 men; Grant (with Butler), 112,000. We shall not describe the battle that ensued. Suffice it to say that a simultaneous assault was made on the Confederate lines by the Union Army—and everywhere with the same result, “Rank after rank was swept away until the column of assault was almost annihilated.”

One Confederate commander, General Hoke, reported that the ground of his entire front was literally covered with the dead and wounded, and that, up to that time, he had not had a single man killed. Grant’s columns were composed of brave men, but when he ordered the assault renewed they sullenly refused to advance. “No man stirred,” says Swinton, “and the immobile lines pronounced a verdict, silent) yet emphatic against further slaughter.” No wonder, for in one hour on that disastrous 3d of June, 13,000 Union soldiers had fallen before the deadly Confederate fire.[1]

Major Steele in his American Campaigns, vol. I, p, 504, justly remarks, “If the student looks for anything brilliant of strategy or tactics, in Gen. Grant’s operations in this campaign, he will look in vain. Lee anticipated every movement the Union Army made and took prompt steps to meet it.”

Of his great antagonist he says, “This was the first campaign in which Lee was reduced to a strictly strategic defensive. After the battle of the Wilderness he never felt strong enough to assume the strategic offensive. Tactically, however, parts of his army acted on the offensive in every battle up to and including Cold Harbor; and as will be seen in the next lecture, almost up to the day of his surrender at Appomattox.”—(Id., p. 500).

Thus ended this extraordinary campaign covering a period of one month, in which time Lee’s incomparable army had put hors de combat of the army under Grant a number of men almost equal to its own entire strength when the campaign began on the 4th of May. The Union losses aggregated 60,000; Lee’s loss was about 20,000. No wonder that there is a general chorus of admiration among military critics for Lee’s achievements in these operations. We have space for but one quotation:

“Lee,” says Capt. Cecil Battine, “had emerged triumphant from a campaign which is surpassed by no other in gallant fighting and skilful direction. Even the glories of the campaigns of France in 1814, and Frederick’s wonderful defiance of his enemies in the Seven Years’ War, pale before Lee’s astonishing performance; for neither Napoleon till he met Wellington, nor Frederick at any time, was opposed to such a dangerous enemy as Grant.”[2]

It should be noted that the Confederates were nearer success at this juncture than at any time during the war. “So gloomy was the outlook, after the action on the Chickahominy,” says Swinton, “and to such a degree, by consequence, had the public mind become relaxed, that there was at this time great danger of a collapse of the war.”—(p. 494).[3]

“Grant’s campaign,” says Steele, “as far southward as the Chickahominy had been one of tactical defeats, with heavy losses, which carried sorrow home to every part of the land; the last battle, Cold Harbor, was the costliest repulse the Union Army had suffered; the morale of Lee’s Army was as good as ever,” Why then did the government at Washington persevere with the war? The answer does not admit of doubt. The success of Farragut in Mobile Bay; Hood’s defeat by Sherman before Atlanta in August; and Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah in September;—these were the events which neutralized Lee’s success in the campaign of 1864. It may therefore be said with much truth that the war was won for the South in the East, but lost in the Southwest.

[Notes]

[1] This is Swinton’s estimate. Gen. Alexander puts the loss at 7,000.

[2] The Crisis of the Confederacy, p. 382.

[3] There is a story resting on excellent authority which, if made public, will remarkably confirm Mr. Swinton’s statement above.

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