The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 6

The Soul of Lee

VI
THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG

“In the case of Lee we admire muck that was Napoleonic
in the conception of his plans.”—Count Yorck von Wartenburg.

“The greatest general of the day.”—Col, Livermore.

“Lee stands out as one of the greatest soldiers of all time.”—Col, Henderson.

“As Hannibal, notwithstanding Zama, towers over the very inferior Scipio, the figure of Lee eclipses Grant.”—Colonel Chesney.

The crossing of the James River by Gen, Grant after the close of the Wilderness campaign, and the transfer of his whole army to the front of Petersburg, June 15–17, 1864, was a remarkable performance,—a bold and successful piece of strategy. On this one occasion he certainly outmanœuvred Lee, who, for three days, refused to believe that the thing had been done.

Alexander, the chief of artillery of Longstreet’s corps, is of opinion that had Lee discovered the movement of Grant, and sent Longstreet to man the entrenchments at Petersburg, “it is not too much to claim that Grant’s defeat would have been not less bloody and disastrous than was the one at Cold Harbor.” “Grant here escaped a second defeat more bloody and more overwhelming than any preceding. Thus the last, and perhaps the best, chances of Confederate success were not lost in the repulse at Gettysburg, nor in any combat of arms. They were lost in three days lying in camp, believing that Grant was hemmed in by the broad part of the James below City Point and had nowhere to go but to come and attack us.”[1]

Major Steele is of opinion that this movement of Grant’s must be reckoned, “in conception and execution, among the very finest achievements of strategy to be found in our military history.”[2]

Now begins the long siege of Petersburg. It lasted nine months, from June 15, 1864, to April 1, 1865. The one advantage which Lee had was that he operated on interior lines, but in everything else, except military genius, he was at a great disadvantage, yet in spite of his inferior numbers he met successfully every movement of his powerful and resourceful antagonist, on his right or left flank or his center, to the very last.

The story of this siege cannot be told in these pages. All through the Wilderness campaign both armies protected themselves by breastworks. But now a new phase of warfare was developed, which may be considered the germ of the vast trench system employed at the present time by the armies in Europe. Grant caused high, bastioned works to be erected, and these made the Union lines so formidable that they were practically unassailable, and enabled the commander to hold them safely with a small force, while throwing the bulk of his army on some chosen point of attack in Lee’s line.

A word may be said of the mine driven under the Confederate works and exploded on the morning of July 30th. A main gallery had been constructed 510 feet long, with lateral galleries in which eight magazines were placed, containing a charge of 8000 pounds of powder. It was cleverly planned and skilfully and scientifically executed by the Federal engineers.

The explosion was to be the signal for a grand assault along the whole line by infantry and cavalry also. A little before 5 A.M. the fuse was lighted. “Then the earth trembled and heaved, and cannon, caissons, sandbags and men went up into the air with the tremendous explosion, leaving an enormous hole in the ground, 175 feet long, 60 feet wide, 30 feet deep, filled with dust, great blocks of clay, guns, broken gun carriages, projecting timbers, and men buried up to their necks, others to their waists, and some with only their feet and legs protruding from the earth.”

But great as was the success of the mine, the Confederates quickly rallied under the eye of Lee himself and the “Battle of the Crater” which ensued resulted in a brilliant success for the Southern Army. The Crater was crowded with Union troops who in the end raised the white flag and surrendered. Gen, Grant says it promised to be the most successful assault of the campaign, but terminated in disaster, though 50,000 troops stood ready to support it. Of this siege Col. Archer Anderson says, “The Confederate commander displayed every art by which genius and courage can make good the lack of numbers and resources. But the increasing misfortunes of the Confederate arms in other theatres of war gradually cut off the supply of men and means. The Army of Northern Virginia ceased to be recruited, it ceased to be adequately fed. It lived for months on less than one-third rations. It was demoralized not by the enemy in its front, but by the enemy in Georgia and the Carolinas. It dwindled to 35,000 men holding a front of 35 miles; but over the enemy it still cast the shadow of its great name.” Gen. Grant continued to press the siege with great energy and with dogged perseverance. He could afford to persevere when he saw the army of Lee growing weaker with every conflict, and its supplies steadily exhausted. The opinion of an accomplished officer of the United States may here be quoted:

In the long siege of Petersburg, Lee had the advantage of interior lines of operation and of a better knowledge of the intricate wooded country and cross roads. He made such good use of his advantages as to meet every movement of his enemy to right or left, up to the very last, with a force large enough to stop him. Not until Lee’s line of works had stretched to more than 35 miles, with only about 1000 men to the mile to hold it, and Sheridan’s larger force of cavalry was threatening his only line of supply and retreat, was Lee driven back from his outer line of entrenchments and forced to flee with his army.”[3]

The same authority bears the following testimony as to the Army of Northern Virginia at the end of the Wilderness campaign: ?The morale of Lee’s Army was as good as ever.”

Lee on his part bravely and skilfully met and often foiled his powerful antagonist. Gen. A. P. Hill severely defeated Gen. Hancock when the latter attempted to seize the Weldon railroad, capturing colors and guns and over 3000 stands of small arms besides 2150 prisoners, His loss was about 700 men, Hancock’s 2370. But such successes made no change in Grant’s tactics, He kept up the hammering process, now at one point, now at another.

Having failed in his attacks so far on the South side of the James, he now assaulted Lee’s lines on the Richmond side of the river, and though successful at Fort Harrison, he met a bloody repulse at Fort Gilmer.

For eight months after the battle of the Crater the heroic Confederate chieftain held his lines before Petersburg, but as winter drew on his difficulties became more and more overwhelming. He saw his brave veterans suffering in the trenches from cold and hunger and insufficient food and clothing, and do what he would he could not relieve them. “In some regiments,” he wrote Mrs. Lee, “only 50 men have shoes, and bacon is issued only once in a few days.” In visiting the lines late in the evening he found a sentry on duty without any trousers. When questioned he said he only had one pair and they were much worn, so he kept them to wear in the daytime. It was about that time that he advocated enlisting negro troops.

What a tragic spectacle it is—the struggle of that heroic soul against the fate that was relentlessly closing in upon him! The dark shadows of impending disaster were falling across his pathway as the New Year of 1865 dawned on the South. January 15th Fort Fisher falls—and the ports of the Confederacy are hermetically sealed! Then come the tidings that Sherman has reached Savannah! By March 23d he is at Goldsboro, N.C., only 150 miles from Petersburg.

But Lee and his heroic little army have no thought but to stand firmly in their lines, grimly resisting to the last. On the 9th of February he had been made Commander-in-chief of the Confederate Armies—an empty honor at that desperate stage of the great game of war! However he at once issued a general order exhorting the soldiers of the South to renewed devotion and sacrifice, saying:

Let us oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger, with the firm assurance that He who gave freedom to our fathers will bless the efforts of their children to preserve it.

Other efforts too he made. We find him appealing to the farmers to send in supplies for provisioning the army in its great straits. Later he issued a circular to the citizens asking them to contribute saddles, revolvers; pistols, carbines for the cavalry. To Mrs. Lee about this time he writes:

I pray we may not be overwhelmed. I shall, however, endeavor to do my duty and fight to the last.

One more heroic effort Lee resolved upon, the assault on Fort Stedman, which, had it succeeded, would have broken the center of Grant’s Army. It met with initial success under Gordon’s splendid leadership, and might have accomplished its object had the supporting column been in time, but it was not, and the daring enterprise ended in failure and severe loss.

Even on the eve of the evacuation of Petersburg, on March 31st, Lee essayed a daring offensive—making a swift attack with about 17,000 men upon Grant’s exposed flank while marching through a swampy forest.

Once more Lee’s resourceful genius flared forth in his dispositions for the battle of Five Forks, on April 1st, where a great success should have been achieved but for Major-Gen. Pickett’s absence from the field of battle till the day was lost. That officer was soon after relieved from duty with the Army of Northern Virginia. We shall have more to say of Five Forks in our next chapter, and also of the tragic retreat, begun April 2d, and ending with Appomattox April 9th.

We may here say a few words of Lee’s place as a strategist and as a commander among the great soldiers of history, At the outset one thing is clear,—his fame has been waxing greater and greater during the last half century. General Grant’s estimate of him as “a fair commander,” “of a slow, cautious nature without imagination or humor,” finds no echo among military experts in Europe or America today. That General further said, “I never could see in his achievements what justified his reputation. The illusion that heavy odds beat him will not stand the ultimate light of history. I know it is not true. Lee was a good deal of a headquarters general . . . almost too old for active service.”[4]

What Gen. Grant could not see (if Young has correctly reported him) is plain to the eyes of the great body of military men today whose judgment would really count. For instance, Major-Gen. Sir Frederick B. Maurice, chief director of military operations at the War Office of the British Army, has recently told us that the commanders of the great armies now at deadly grip in Europe are following the same strategical principles laid down by Napoleon and Lee.

Count Yorck von Wartenburg in his brilliant work on the Campaigns of Napoleon (published in 1902) says, “In the case of Lee we admire much that was Napoleonic in the conception of his plans,” Col. Chas. Cornwallis Chesney of the British Army says, “Like Napoleon, Lee’s troops soon learned to believe him equal to every emergency that war could bring.”

Capt. Cecil Battine, of the King’s Hussars, in his brilliant work The Crisis of the Confederacy says, “The mighty campaign of 1864 before Richmond was as much a masterpiece of defensive warfare as Napoleon’s campaign of 1814” (p. 307). And again he writes, referring to the final action of June 17th and 18th before Petersburg, “Lee had emerged triumphant from a campaign which is surpassed by no other in gallant fighting and skilful direction. Even the glories of the Campaign 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.”—(Id., p. 380).

And yet again, “In the boldness and sagacity of his strategy, he resembled Napoleon himself.”—(Id., p. 114).

Col, Henderson also, the accomplished author of the Life of Stonewall Jackson, commenting on the campaign against Pope says, “Lee stands out as one of the greatest soldiers of all times.”—II, 231.

And again he gives it as his opinion that “Lee was undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soldier who ever spoke the English tongue.”—(Science of War, p. 314).

Lord Wolseley’s opinion of Lee as “the ablest general he had ever met,” is well known,—and he had met von Moltke, who by the way held Lee the equal of Wellington.

It has been remarked that the most recent foreign critics, while recognizing the mistakes which Lee undoubtedly made—and, as a distinguished general once remarked, the commander “who has never made mistakes has never made war”—yet unite in the highest praise of his military genius.

Let it also be said that not the least enthusiastic praise of Lee’s strategy has fallen from the lips or the pens of Northern military writers, For example, Col. W. R, Livermore is of opinion that “if Grant in the spring of 1864 had come to the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee to the Army of the Potomac, it is not impossible that the war would have ended then and there,” and that “this campaign alone would entitle him to the high place he justly holds among the great commanders of the world.” Again he calls him “the greatest general of the day.”

Other Union officers might be quoted who express the highest admiration for Lee’s genius in war,—but the most remarkable is that of Col. Eben Swift, of the General Staff of the United States, in a paper read before the American Historical Society in 1910, who writes, “The odds of numbers were greater against Lee in the Wilderness campaign than against Napoleon in the Waterloo campaign. But Lee had his army at the end and Napoleon’s disaster was complete. In the Wilderness campaign Lee inflicted losses in killed and wounded almost as great as the army he commanded. Lee made five campaigns in a single year; no other man and no other army ever did as much. . . . Lee practiced his own theory of the art of war. Although indebted to Napoleon, he treated each problem as a concrete case, which he solved according to circumstances, and he had his greatest success when he departed furthest from established rules. . . . But Lee’s art seems to have died with him. Up to the present he has taught no pupil and he has inspired no successor.”[5]

With these estimates of Lee still echoing in our ears how pitiful is the carping criticism of Gen. Badeau that Gen. Lee was after all only “a second-rate commander,” and the jaundiced view of Longstreet, smarting under the well-deserved condemnation of the Southern soldiers after the war: “In the art of war I do not think Gen. Lee was a master.”

Two circumstances ought always be in mind in considering Lee’s achievements and his failures. The first is that he was hampered up to February, 1865, by the fact that he was not in supreme command. Viscount Lord Wolseley remarks that for that reason we can never take the full measure of Lee’s military genius. Before he could put his plans into operation, he must always get the approval of the Richmond authorities. And political considerations sometimes decided the strategy of a campaign, instead of purely military ones, Richmond and Petersburg would have been abandoned months before they were, had sound military strategy determined Lee’s policy.

And another thing of great moment in considering Lee’s success or failure in his campaigns was the enemy in his rear,—the incompetence which kept his army half shod, half fed and half clothed—this in the first years of the war, and then the failure of resources and of food and of munitions, as the coils of the blockade were drawn tighter and tighter almost to strangulation. He fought Gen, Grant in front and General Want and General Desertion in his rear.

[Notes]

[1] Military Memoirs, p. 547.

[2] Military Memoirs, p. 529.

[3] American Campaigns, Major M. F. Steele, 1909.

[4] Mr. Gamaliel Bradford tells us that Grant never said anything in commendation of Lee’s military ability.

[5] Quoted by Gamaliel Bradford, Lee, the American, p. 189.

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