Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 12

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner

CHAPTER XII
THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN

IF GRANT had harbored any delusion that Lee was a general strong only in defensive operations, he had reason quickly to be undeceived. Lee, who for reasons of his own, had permitted him to cross the river unopposed, waited until he had reached the tangles of the Wilderness, where his superiority in men and arms might prove less preponderant, and two days later, having called in his widely separated divisions,—separated for the want of subsistence—though he was outnumbered two to one* he threw himself upon him, inflicting upon him losses before which any other general who had yet commanded the Army of the Potomac would have recrossed the river, and even Grant recoiled. For two days (the 5th and 6th) the battle raged, and Lee forced Grant, with losses of 17,666 men, from his direct line of march and led him to call on his Government for reinforcements. “Send to Belle Plain,” he wrote on the 10th, “all the infantry you can rake and scrape.” And he needed them all. On the evening of the second day an attack similar to Jackson’s at Chancellorsville was made on Grant’s flank, and his left taken in reverse was driven back when an accident similar to that which changed the issue of that day changed this day’s issue. As Longstreet, who commanded the advancing troops, rode down the plank-road accompanied by Generals Kershaw and Jenkins, a volley was poured into them by his own men, and Jenkins was killed and Longstreet dangerously wounded. It stopped the movement which otherwise might have forced Grant back across the Rapidan. Lee’s forces were largely outnumbered, but to make good the difference Lee offered at more than one critical moment to lead them in person. Officers and men alike refused to advance while he remained at a point of danger, and he was forced to the rear. But not only in the battle of the 6th, but also in the battle of the 10th and in the furious fight at the 𔄘bloody angle,” where, when his army was imperilled, he again rode forward to inspire his straining troops and was again driven by them to the rear, the fact that he had felt it necessary to place himself at their head called forth new efforts from the jaded soldiers and stirred them to redoubled valor.

“These men, General,“ said Gordon, as rode with him down the lines at Spottsylvania, where they rested for a moment prior to the final charge, “are the brave Virginians.” Lee uttered no word. He simply removed his hat and passed bare-headed along the line. I had it from one who witnessed the act. “It was,” said he, “the most eloquent address ever delivered.” And a few minutes later as the men a advanced to the charge, he heard a youth, as he ran forward crying and reloading his musket, shout through his tears that “any man who would not fight after what General Lee said was a—coward.”

In no battle of the war did Lee’s genius shine forth more brightly than in the great battle of Spottsylvania Court House, where, after the bloody battle of the Wilderness, he divined Grant’s plans, and again cutting him off from the object of his desire, threw himself upon him in a battle whose fury may be gauged by the fact that the musketry fire continued in one unbroken roar for seventeen hours, and large trees were shorn down by the musket balls.

By the evening of the 7th, while his staff were yet in darkness as to Grant’s next move, Lee, with his unerring sense of the soldier, had divined it, and he sent General Anderson with his division to relieve Stuart at Spottsylvania.* His adjutant-general, who was sent to apprise Stuart of the approach of the infantry, found him already engaged. The supports arrived just in time; for the cavalry had been driven back, and Grant already occupied the Court House, as he reported in his dispatch of the 8th. But Lee’s promptness “deranged this part of the programme,” driving him back and holding him off during a week’s fierce fighting, when Grant, having lost 40,000 men, finding his enemy too obstinate and ready to die in the last ditch, drew off by the flank, toward the southward, whereupon Lee again headed him and facing him at Hanover Junction, forced him down the north bank of the Pamunkey to Hanover town.

“Before the lines of Spottsylvania,” says Swinton, “the Army of the Potomac had for twelve days and nights engaged in a fierce wrestle in which it had done all that valor may do to carry a position by nature and art impregnable. In this contest, unparalleled in its continuous fury and swelling to the proportions of a campaign, language is inadequate to convey an impression of the labors, fatigues and sufferings of those who fought by day, only to march by night from point to point of the long line, and renew the fight on the morrow. Above forty thousand men had already fallen in the bloody encounters of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, and the exhausted army began to lose its spirits.”

Such was the defence which Lee presented to his able antagonist, and his great army, after the exhaustion of the hungry winter of ’sixty-four. Had he not been ill and half delirious in his ambulance when Grant attempted to cross the North Anna and failed to get his centre over after his two wings were across, Grant’s star might have set on the banks of the North Anna instead of rising to its zenith at Appomattox. But Lee was suddenly stricken down, and while he was murmuring in his semi-delirium, “We must strike them—we must never let them pass us again,” Grant, after the most anxious night of the war, drew back his wings and slowly moved down the Pamunkey to find Lee still across his path at the historic levels of Cold Harbor, where valor and constancy rose to their highest point.

“I stood recently in the wood where Gregg’s Texans put on immortality,” wrote a Southern historian; ”where Kershaw led three of his brigades in person to compensate them for the absence of the fourth.”* It was this need to compensate their troops for want of reserves or equipment which so often led the generals of the Confederacy to the firing line, But it was a costly expedient. Four times, in what appeared the very hour of complete victory, the prize was stricken from the hand by the commander being shot from his saddle. First, when General Albert Sydney Johnston was slain at Shiloh, in the moment of victory. Next, when at Seven Pines Joseph E. Johnston was struck from his horse, and what might have proved a crushing defeat for McClellan was turned into an indecisive battle. Again, when Jackson was driving all before him at Chancellorsville, and fell like Wolff, victorious. And, finally, when in the Wilderness Longstreet was wounded and incapacitated at the critical moment when victory hovered over his arms.

It is related that on one occasion, Lee, being asked by his staff to leave during a battle one spot after another where he had posted himself, finally exclaimed, “I wish I knew where my place is on the battlefield. Wherever I go some one tells me it is not the place for me.”

In fact, so far from Lee being chiefly good in defence, the quality of his military spirit appears to one who studies his career to have been distinctly aggressive, possibly even too aggressive. No captain ever knew better the value of a quarter of an hour or the importance of striking first when the enemy was preparing to deliver his blow. In truth, he was an ardent fighter, and possessed in an extraordinary degree the qualities of both physical and moral courage. Lee’s personal daring was the talk of his army. “I hear on all sides of your exposing yourself,” wrote one of his sons during the Wilderness campaign, urging him to be more careful for the sake of the cause. And again and again, at some moment of supreme crisis, as at the “bloody angle” at Spottsylvania, which Grant had seized and where he was massing his picked troops to the number of 50,000, he rode forward to put himself at the head of his exhausted troops to lead them in a charge on which hung the fate of his army. Yet, as Henderson says in discussing Lee’s audacity in attacking with an inferior force McClellan’s well-equipped army, secure in their entrenchments, “he was no hare-brained leader, but a profound thinker, following the highest principles of the military art.” That this will be the final verdict of History there can be little doubt.

After crossing the Rapidan the advance of Grant by the flank was under almost continuous attack by Lee. “Measured by casualties,” says Rhodes, in his history of this campaign, “the advantage was with the Confederates.” This far from expresses the real fact that Grant received a drubbing which, as Lee’s Adjutant-General, Colonel Walter H. Taylor, said the next day in his note-book, would have sent any other general who had hitherto commanded the Union Army back in haste across the river. It was Grant’s fortitude which saved him, and led him to tell General James H. Wilson that he would fight again. As Lee had assaulted at the Wilderness, so again at Spottsylvania he barred the way of his indomitable antagonist, and again and again forced the fighting, until, after holding him at the North Anna, where he offered battle, he had wedged Grant from his direct march on Richmond and forced him down the left bank of the Pamunkey, to end his direct march on Richmond at last on the doubly bloody field of Cold Harbor, the only battle which Grant declared afterward he would not have fought over again under the same circumstances.

Foiled in that campaign of his immediate object, and having lost more men than Lee had at any time in his entire army, Grant adopted a new line of attack, and secretly crossing to the south side of the James, which he might at any time have reached by water without the loss of a man, attempted to seize Petersburg, as McClellan had planned to do, by a coup, but, failing in his object, began to lay siege to that place with a view to cutting off Richmond from the South, a feat which he only accomplished after eight months’ fighting, in which he lost over 60,000 more men.

[Notes]

* * Rhodes’s “History of The United States,” IV, p. 480. Humphrey’s Va. Campaign of ‘64 and ’65, p. 17.

† The Century Co.’s “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” IV, p. 182.

* Taylor’s “General Lee,” p. 238.

* Leigh Robinson’s Address on the Wilderness Campaign, Memorial Volume: Army of Northern Virginia.

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