Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 13

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


NECESSARILY a comparison arises between the two captains who confronted each other in this great campaign of 1864.

Grant’s fame, when he was made lieutenant-general and came into Virginia, rested on the three great feats of Donelson, Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge. And to these three a fourth was added a year later, when at Appomattox, Lee, on the 9th of April, 1865, surrendered to him the starving remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia, which the exigencies of the Confederacy had held before Petersburg as in a vise till it had slowly perished. Current history has chosen to assign to Grant the greater praise for this last campaign, partly because he finally crushed Lee, but chiefly because it ended the war. And possibly the lasting fame of the successful captain will be based chiefly on this. It may be well, however, to recall the simple, but often overlooked, principle, that while success is without doubt the gauge of a general’s ability, this does not necessarily mean final success. History shines with the names of generals who have failed at last and have yet borne off the palm in the great contest in which Fame is the reward. Hannibal was not the less the superior of Scipio Africanus because the latter finally conquered him and saved Rome. Charles XII. was not the less a greater captain than Peter’s forgotten general because the latter drove him from Russia to seek an asylum in Turkey. Nor was Napoleon inferior to Wellington though he died defeated and a prisoner, while Wellington became prime minister and first citizen of the England he had been so capable and fortunate as to save.

A captain’s rank must be measured by his opportunities and the manner in which he uses them. That Grant was a general of rare ability, clear-headed, capable, far-sighted, single-minded, prompt, resourceful, resolute even to obstinacy, no one who studies his campaigns will deny; that he was the equal of Lee in that high combination of these and other qualities which go to make up the greatest soldier, no one who studies with open mind the campaign of 1864 may successfully affirm.

The heroic manner in which Lee with his half-starved veterans sustained the repeated shocks of the “persistent hammering” of Grant’s great army through so long a period must ever be a cause of wonder to the true student of history, and the key will only be found by him who, looking beyond mere natural forces, shall consider the power that, springing from love of country, animates the breast of those who, firm in their conviction of right, fight on their own oil for their homes and their firesides. Study of the subject has, at least, convinced one writer, who has desired to give the truth and nothing but the truth, that never has there been such an army led by such a leader. Grant’s persistent hammering, as attritive as it was, was far less so than the attrition of hunger and want. Lee, who early in the war had sighed for a force of veteran troops to whom to confide the trust, had long been at the head of the most experienced veterans who ever fought on American soil. He believed in his soul that they would go anywhere where properly led. But he was too clear-eyed a soldier not to know that the most veteran legions that ever followed the eagles of Rome or France or the flag of the Confederacy must be shod and fed or they could not fight. From the first there had been difficulty in the equipment of the troops, owing to the absence of manufactories of even elementary articles. The arms were largely of the oldest and most obsolete kind; and many troops were armed with old muskets roughly changed from flinting locks to percussion; saddles were wanting to the cavalry, and swords were made on country forges.* Artillery had to be mounted on farm wagons;
and uniforms were woven on country looms. This deficiency was in time partially overcome by captures from the enemy, and by blockade-running; but the matter of subsistence of the army was one which always caused grave alarm and serious and, at last, fatal trouble. The means of transportation were so limited that any break in even one line of railway was a perilous loss and the absence of manufactories contributed to frustrate Lee’s boldest designs.

In October, 1863, after Gettysburg, Lee writes of his troops: “If they had been properly provided with clothes I would certainly have endeavored
to have thrown them north of the Potomac; but thousands were barefooted; thousands with fragments of shoes, and all without coats, blankets or warm clothing. I could not bear to expose them to certain suffering not bear to expose them to certain suffering on an uncertain issue.”

Again on October 28th he writes to his wife: “I am glad you have some socks for the Army. Send them to me. Tell the girls to send all they can. I wish they could make some shoes, too. We have thousands of barefooted men. There is no news. General Meade, i believe, is repairing the railroads and I presume will come on again. If I cold only get some shoes and clothes for the men I would save him the trouble.”

In the preceding winter, lying before Fredericksburg, he writes that his army is suffering so that he “may have to yield to a stronger force than General Burnside.”

Could anything be more tragic than this general bound in his trenches by the nakedness of his army, while his opponent prepared to overwhelm him! Or could anything be more pathetic than this general of any army acting as receiver of a few dozen pairs of sock knitted for his barefooted army by his invalid wife! Not merely here, but from now on he acts as dispenser of the socks knitted by her busy needles. Truly, the South may well point with pride to her gifted son, who in his head-quarters in a “nice pine thicket,” showed such antique simplicity of character.

An historian of the Wilderness campaign, in a remarkable study of that campaign, has called attention to an unconsciously pathetic phrase used by Lee in relation to his cavalry: Now that “the grass is springing,” he says he hopes to be able to use his cavalry effectively.*

By the beginning of the year 1864, the subsistence of the army had become almost impossible. “Many of the infantry,” writes General Lee in an official communication, “are without shoes, and the cavalry worn down by the pursuit of Averill. We are now issuing to the troops a fourth of a pound of salt meat, and have only three days’ supply at that rate. Two droves of cattle from the West that were reported to be for this army, I am told have been directed to Richmond. I can learn of no supply of meat on the road to the army, and fear I shall be unable to retain it in the field.”

In another official letter to the Commissary General, he writes: “I regret very much to learn that the supply of beef for the army is so nearly exhausted. . . . No beef has been issued to the cavalry corps by the chief commissary that I am aware of for eighteen months. During that time it has supplied itself, and has now, I understand, sufficient to last until the middle of February.”*

Two weeks later he writes the Quartermaster-General as follows: “General: The want of shoes and blankets in this army continues to cause much suffering and to impair its efficiency. In one regiment I am informed there are only fifty men with serviceable shoes, and a brigade that recently went on picket was compelled to leave several hundred men in camp that were unable to bear the exposure of duty, being destitute of shoes and blankets.”

He thereupon urges that instead of trusting to the precarious supplies procured by running the blockade, the South should spare no efforts to develop her own resources.

But the time had passed when the South could develop her resources, and it was soon to come when even the precarious supply by blockade-running was to cease altogether.

On the 24th of January he wrote his wife: “. . . I have had to disperse the cavalry as much as possible to obtain forage for their horses, and it is that which causes trouble. Provisions for the men, too, are very scarce, and with very light diet and light clothing I fear they suffer. But still they are cheerful and uncomplaining. I received a report from one division the other day in which it stated that over four hundred men were barefooted and over one thousand without blankets. . . .”

Such was the condition of the army in the depth of the winter of 1863–1864, and it steadily grew worse. By the opening of spring Lee stood face to face with the gravest problem that can confront a general, the impossibility of subsisting his army, and moreover his own strength was waning, although he was yet to put forth the supreme effort which was to make his defence of Virginia against Grant possibly the greatest defensive campaign in history. In a letter to his eldest son, expressing his hearty acquiescence in an order substituting a chief engineer in place of his son for whom he had applied, wishing to make him chief of staff, he says: “I thought that position presented less objections to your serving with me than any other. . . . I want all the aid I can get, now. I feel a marked change in my strength since my attack last spring at Fredericksburg, and am less competent for my duty than ever.”*

All through the spring, with undimmed vision, he had foreseen the tragic fate awaiting him, and his letters show plainly how clear this vision was, yet never once does he show aught but the same heroic constancy which had distinguished him in the past. “In none of them,” says Long, “does he show a symptom of despair, or breathe a thought of giving up the contest. To the last, he remained full of resources, energetic and defiant, and ready to bear on his own shoulders the whole burden of the conduct of the war.”*

In March, when lying opposite Grant’s great army on the Rapidan, he wrote the President of the indication that Grant was concentrating a great force to operate in Virginia. And on April 6th, he writes of the great efforts that, according to all the information he received, were to be made in Virginia. A week later he writes him again:

HEAD-QUARTERS, April 12, 1864.

MR. PRESIDENT: My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the Army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival, or disaster to the Railroad, would render it impossible for me to keep the Army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops to-day and to-morrow. . . . Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. . . . I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE, General.

Three weeks later in a letter stating the movements of Grant’s troops along the Rappahannock, and the signs of “large preparations on the part of the enemy and a state of readiness for action,” he adds, “If I could get back Pickett, Hoke and B. R. Johnson, I would feel strong enough to operate. . . . I cannot get the troops together for want of forage and am looking for grass.” It was a tragic situation. Three days later, on the night of May 3, 1864, Grant crossed the Rapidan with an army of over 140,000 men, many of them veteran troops, as brave men as ever carried a musket—armed and equipped in a manner unsurpassed, if equalled, in the annals of war, officered by the flower of the North. He had also 318 guns and a wagon-train that, stretched in a line, would have reached to Richmond.* He controlled, with the aid of the exceedingly efficient navy, the York and the James to Dutch Gap, where Butler lay with an army which could spare him 10,000 men, to help in the deadly assaults at Cold Harbor, and a few days later could carry the formidable outer defences of Petersburg.

To meet this force, Lee had 62,000 men and but 224 guns. His army was less efficiently armed and with an equipment which would have been hopelessly insufficient for any other army than the one he commanded: the war-worn veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia, inured to hunger and hardship and battle.

On the 12th day of June, when Grant crossed the James to the south side, of the 140,000 men who had crossed the Rapidan one month and nine days before he had lost 60,000 men, almost as many men as Lee had had during the campaign. On the 9th of April following, when Lee surrendered, Grant’s losses had mounted up to 124,000, two men for every man that Lee had in his army at any time. By this record judge the two captains.

The adverse criticism of Grant as a captain of the first rank is based on the charge that he sacrificed over 50,000 men to reach the James, when he might have reached the south side of James River and laid siege to Petersburg and Richmond without the loss of a man.* As to whether, had he done this, he could have succeeded in the destruction of Lee’s army, the impregnable defence of the Confederate Capital, can never be known. It was necessary for him not only to defeat Lee, but at the same time protect Washington, failure to do which had cost McClellan his place. His policy of “persistent hammering,” no matter what the cost, won out in the end; for while the attrition wore away the thin gray line, which, stretched from Richmond to Petersburg, ever grew thinner, the drafts for the ranks of the Union ever grew larger.

No one knew so well as Lee the disastrous consequences of this policy of attrition. From August on his letters express plainly his recognition of the terrible fact that his army was wearing down without the hope of his losses being repaired.* His soldierly prevision enabled him to predict precisely what afterward occurred: the extension of Grant’s lines to envelop him, and the consequent loss of Richmond.

Applause has been accorded Grant because he slipped away from Lee and crossed to the south side of the James without molestation. It was a capital piece of work. In truth, however, he failed absolutely in the immediate object of this movement: the securing, as he wrote Halleck, of the city of Petersburg, by a coup before the Confederates could get there in much force.

The design of Grant to capture Petersburg, and by cutting off Richmond from the South force the capitulation of the Confederate Capital, was undoubtedly able strategy and why it had not been attempted by him before seems even now somewhat singular, for McClellan had urged it in July 1862, and a dash had been made to seize Richmond from this side by a daring raid which, possibly, had failed only because of a rise in James River which prevented the raiding party from crossing; and the mouth of the Appomattox was as securely in the hands of the Union as the mouth of the Delaware.

Grant’s plan to seize Petersburg with its slender garrison of less than 2,500 men was, however, foiled by Beauregard, to whom on his urgent request Lee sent men from the north side of the James, and though Grant was enabled to seize on June 15th “the formidable works to the north-east of the town,” when he attacked in force on three successive days he was repulsed with the loss of 10,000 men, losses which shook and disheartened his army even more, possibly, than the slaughter at Cold Harbor.

The demoralization consequent on Lee’s victories from the Wilderness to Petersburg, over “the crippled Army of the Potomac,” which now enabled him to detach Early and, with a view to repeating the strategy of 1862, send him to the Valley of Virginia, followed by that general’s signal success, in conjunction with Breckinridge, in clearing the valley of Sigel and Hunter, and, after defeating Wallace at Monocacy Bridge, in immediately threatening Washington itself, sent gold up to 285, the highest point it reached during the war.*

The authorities in Washington, more alarmed even than when Lee was at Sharpsburg or at Chambersburg, were clamoring for Grant to come and assume personal command of the forces protecting the city. And it is charged that Grant escaped the fate of his predecessors only because there was no one else to put in his place. It was even charged that he had fallen “back into his old habits of intemperance,” a charge which Mr. Lincoln dryly dismissed with a witticism.*

Congress, by resolution, requested the President “to appoint a day for humiliation and prayer,” and the President, ”cordially concurring . . . in the pious sentiments expressed” in this resolution, appointed the first Thursday in August as a day of national humiliation and prayer.

The simple truth is that, against great outside clamor, Grant was sustained by the authorities in Washington because he was manifestly the best general in sight, and not because he had proved himself the equal of Lee.

So great was the feeling of despondency at the North at this time that several serious, if somewhat informal, embassies were sent by the authorities at Washington to ascertain the feeling of the Confederate authorities touching peace on the basis of a restoration of the Union, coupled at first with a condition of “an abandonment of slavery,” but later without even this condition.

On the very day that Mr. Davis, yielding to clamor at the South against the Fabian policy of the cautious Johnston, who had been falling back before Sherman, relieved that veteran office of his command, he accorded an interview to two gentlemen, who had come on an irregular mission, with the knowledge and consent of Mr. Lincoln, to ask whether any measure could be tried that might lead to peace. Mr. Davis rejected the proposal to make peace, unless with it came the acknowledgment of the right of the South to self-government; “and,” declares the historian above quoted, “taking into account the actual military situation, a different attitude on the part of the Richmond Government could not have been expected.”*

In truth, it was not until long afterward, after it was found that the resources of the South were exhausted, that Grant’s costly policy of attrition was accepted by the Government or the people, and his star which had been waning once more ascended. That it ever ascended again was due in part to his constancy of purpose, and for the rest, to successes elsewhere and to the exhaustion of the South: particularly to destruction of the means of communication.

Viewed in the cold light of the inexorable facts, the honors at this time were all with the Confederate general, and later comparisons so fulsome to Grant and so invidious to Lee have all been made in the light of subsequent events, over which neither Grant nor Lee exercised control.

Early failed to seize the golden moment which presented itself on July 11th and take Washington, if indeed, it was ever possible to take it. On July 17th, the day Sherman crossed the Chattahoochee and began his direct march on Atlanta, Johnston was relieved from the command of the Southern Army, in obedience to popular clamor, at the moment when, if his strategy had not prepared the way for the possible destruction of the invading force, the veteran general was, at least, preparing to carry out the consistent plan he had laid down from the beginning. His army was placed under the command of the daring but rash Hood, who, reversing Johnston’s plan, and assuming the offensive, was speedily defeated, thus leaving Sherman free to devastate the South and close the last Southern port through which outside supplies could be secured.

No step could have given more aid and comfort to the North, or have been more disastrous to the South, than the removal of Johnston. Abroad it satisfied the anxious nations of Europe that the South was at her last gasp and established their hitherto vacillating policy in favor of the Union cause, and the Southern cause thereafter steadily declined to its end.

The same day that the President of the Confederate States removed Joseph E. Johnston, the President of the United States, appalled at the effect of Lee’s masterly defence of Richmond, issued a proclamation calling for 500,000 men, and before Grant learned of this call he wrote urging a draft of 300,000 immediately.*

Meantime, Europe had changed front. The skilful diplomacy of Charles Francis Adams had prevented the delivery to the Confederacy of the rams which had been built for her; the sympathies of the European nations had changed, and the South was, as has been well said by the son and namesake of the able diplomat referred to, as securely shut up to perish as if she had been in a vast vacuum. The victories of diplomacy are little considered beside those of the battlefield. But, taking into consideration what the Merrimac had accomplished during her brief but formidable cruise in Hampton Roads, where she sank the Cumberland, captured the Congress’s crew and drove the famous Monitor into shoal water, it is probable that the blockade of the Southern ports might have been broken had not Mr. Adams’s unremitting efforts availed to prevent the Confederate rams being delivered.

As it was, the end was clearly in view to Lee. The destruction of Hood’s army at Nashville removed the only force capable of blocking the way of Sherman across the South, and left him free to march to the sea, and, having got in touch with the fleet there, continue through the Carolinas, marking his way with a track of devastation which has been likened to that made when Saxe carried fire and sword through the Palatinate.

Lee, with “Richmond hung like a millstone about his neck,” a figure he is said to have employed, was forced to guard a line extending from the south of Petersburg to the north of Richmond, and to withstand with his thinning ranks his able antagonist with an ever-growing army and an ever-increasing confidence.

All that winter Lee lay in the trenches, while his army withered and perished from want and cold, and while Sherman, almost unopposed, burnt, in sheer riot of destruction, supplies that might, had they been available, have subsisted that army for ten years, and yet by the policy of the Confederate Government were left unprotected.

By the end of the year all available resources were exhausted.

On the 11th of January, 1865, Lee sent this dispatch to the Secretary of War: “Hon. J. A. Seddon, there is nothing within reach of this army to be impressed. The country is swept clear. Our only reliance is upon the railroads. We have but two days’ supplies. R. E. LEE.”

A few weeks later he telegraphed again to the Secretary of War, under date of February 8, 1865.


All the disposable force of the right wing of the army has been operating against the enemy beyond Hatcher’s Run since Sunday. Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, they had to be retained in line of battle, having been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail and sleet. I have directed Colonel Coler, Chief Commissary, who reports that he has not a pound of meat at his disposal, to visit Richmond and see if nothing can be done. If some change is not made and the Commissary Department reorganized, I apprehend dire results. The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under such treatment. Our cavalry has to be dispersed for want of forage. Fitz Lee’s and Lomax’s divisions are scattered because supplies cannot be transported where their services are required. I had to bring Wm. H. F. Lee’s division forty miles Sunday night to get him in position. Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us. . . .

R. E. LEE,

President Davis endorsed on this report: “This is too sad to be patiently considered and cannot have occurred without criminal neglect or gross incapacity. . . .” A comment, as true to-day as when Lee set before him plainly the tragic fact that his army was fast perishing at its post.

Unfortunately for the South, the rest of the President’s endorsement, “Let supplies be had by purchase or borrowing or other possible mode,” was inefficacious. There was no longer any possible mode by which supplies could be had. The South was exhausted, because Virginia had been swept clean and there were no means of transporting supplies from elsewhere.

The following day General Lee assumed the office of Commander-in-Chief of the military forces of the Confederate States to which he had been appointed on the 6th; but it was too late. He had already carried the fortunes of the Confederacy on his shoulders for, at least, two years longer than the Confederacy could have survived without his genius to sustain it; and now the time had come when no mortal power could longer support it. Its end had come. All had gone except the indomitable and immortal spirit of its people.

Grant’s sagacious disposition of his forces, together with his command of the Chesapeake and its great tributaries, enabled him to threaten at pleasure either of the two cities. With his pontoon bridge across the James, protected by his gunboats and veiled by his heavy entrenchents, he could at any time mass a sufficient number of troops on the north side of that river to cause grave anxiety and compel Lee to transfer a sufficient force from before Petersburg to withstand him. And, at the same time, he could still retain on the Appomattox a force superior to Lee’s, prepared to assault Lee’s depleted lines whenever a chance presented itself.

Yet, for nearly ten months after Grant’s first attempt on Petersburg, Lee held him at bay. And even at the last he succumbed not so much to the attacks in his front, as to the failure of the Confederate Government to supply his troops with the necessaries of life—a failure, in its turn, due to the perishing or the destruction of all means of transportation. His reports to the President of the Confederate States during the winter set forth plainly the impossibility of maintaining his position unless subsistence should be furnished his troops. But subsistence could not be, or, at least, was not, furnished, and while the sword attacked in front, hunger assailed in the rear. His men had, he wrote the War Department in February, endured all that flesh and blood could endure. In the battle-line suffering from cold and exhaustion, they had not had meat for three days. No wonder that his numbers dwindled and that his tardy elevation, in February, to the position of Commander-in-Chief was futile to recoup the destruction.


* “Life of Forrest,” by Dr. John A. Wyeth.

† “Life of General Wm. N. Pendleton,” by S. P. Lee.

‡ Letter to Mrs. Lee, October 19, 1863.

* Leigh Robinson in the Memorial Volume of the Army Northern Virginia.

† Letter to President Davis, January 2, 1864.

* Letter to Colonel L. B. Northrop, Commissary-General, January 5, 1864.

† Letter to Brigadier-General R. A. Lawton, Quartermaster General, January 18, 1864.

* Letter of April 6, 1864.

* Long’s “Lee.”

* “The Army immediately opposed to Lee numbered, when it crossed the Rapidan, on May 4th, 1864, 149,166 men. While Lee had within call 62,000, but with only half that number he moved on and attacked Grant’s army in the Wilderness.” Jones’s “Life and Letters of R. E. Lee,” p. 310.

* Grant’s losses, from May 4th, when he crossed the Rapidan, to June 12th, when staggering back from Cold Harbor he abandoned his first plan of attack and crossed to the south side of the James, was, according to the Union authorities, 54,929. (Rhodes’s “History,” Vol. IV, p. 447. The Century Co.’s “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” Vol. IV, p. 182.) And among these were the flower of his army, as gallant officers and men as ever faced death on a battlefield.

* Letter to Secretary of War, August 23,1864. Letter to President Davis, September 2d, 1864.

† Letter of October 10, 1864, W. R., 1144.

‡ Official Records, Vol. XI, pp. I, 12.

* Rhodes’s “History of the United States,” IV, p. 509.

* “Despondency and discouragement,” says Rhodes, the latest and among the most thoughtful of all the Northern historians of the war, “are words which portray the state of feeling at the North during the month of July, and the closer one’s knowledge of affairs, the gloomier was his view; but the salient facts put into every one’s mind the pertinent question, ‘Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed on the opening of Grant’s campaign’?” This question he quotes from the New York World, a paper which he states was not unfriendly to Grant. “History of the United States,” IV, p. 507.

* Rhodes’s “History of the United States,” IV, pp. 514–516.

* Rhodes’s “History of the United States,” IV, pp. 506–507.

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