Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 14

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


AS sequel to these far-reaching conditions, the policy of attrition simply went on from month to month, until on the fatal 2d of April, Lee, who had only a few weeks before been made Commander-in-Chief, and almost whose first act had been the reinstatement of Johnston in his command, following an extension of Grant’s lines around his flank, which broke his connection with the South and threatened to envelop him, announced to his Government that he could no longer maintain the long line from south of Petersburg to north of Richmond.

On the 29th of March, as he was preparing to evacuate Petersburg and start south to unite with Johnston and attack Sherman, Grant, who was apprehensive of such a movement, began to move around his right to foil it. To prevent this, Lee was forced to withdraw troops from other parts of his line, and Grant promptly proceeded to take advantage of this fact.

On the 1st of April, following a repulse on the evening before in front of Lee’s extreme right, Sheridan attacked and defeated at Five Forks Pickett, who had left a long gap of several miles defended only by pickets between his troops and the nearest line. And Grant, having carried Lee’s outer defences, ordered a general assault for the next day. Lee, knowing the wasted condition of his army and the impossibility of holding against Grant’s contemplated assault his long-stretched line, decided to execute at once, if possible, his plan to abandon the lines he had held for nearly ten months and move southward to effect a junction with Johnston. He notified the Government in Richmond, arranged for provisions to meet him at Amelia Court House, and that night executed with consummate skill the difficult feat of extricating his reduced army from its perilous position and started on a retreat southward.

His letters show his entire appreciation of the difficulty and peril of his situation; but there is not a trace of dismay in all his writing. Never more than now, when he made his last move in the great game of war, did the mens equa in arduis, that mark of noble minds, which ever distinguished him, shine forth in him.

His letter to his wife, on the eve of the movement which was to prove the closing act in the great drama of the war, reflects his serenity amid the rising difficulties which were soon to engulf him. He thanks her for the socks she had knitted for his barefooted and suffering men; encloses for her a life of General Scott, for whom he had a word of old-time affection and esteem, and commends her to God.

That night he executed successfully the difficult movement to which he referred and withdrew his hungry troops from their long-held and historic entrenchments.

Some historians, who under the natural impulse to laud the commanders of the Union armies yet have instinctively felt that on the plain face of the records Lee had the honors as a soldier, have undertaken to assert that “the conditions were not unequal: that Lee might have withdrawn his army and effected a junction with Johnston, but was outgeneraled by Grant.” To support this claim they assign to Lee the highest number of men that by any computation could possibly be assigned to him and take no account of the absent and the disabled.

The latest of these historians, and among the most broad-minded of the class, has assigned to Lee at the beginning of his retreat 49,000 men, against Grant’s 113,000, and declares that with “the game escape or surrender the conditions were not unequal, and Lee was simply outgeneraled.”*

Conditions not unequal! When Grant, as commander of all the Northern armies, had nearly one million men under his command, and Lee, as commander of the Southern armies, had less than two hundred thousand under his command; and when Grant had a great navy to support and transport subsistence for his armies, and Lee had no navy and no means of transportation. If Lee was simply outgeneraled some change must have taken place in the two men, since, with an army never more than ten thousand in excess of the numbers assigned him here, Lee fought through the month of May, 1864, Grant’s army of 140,000, defeated him in battle after battle from the Wilderness to Petersburg, caused him losses of 124,000 men, and must have destroyed him but for his inexhaustible resources of men and munition.

But, by the records, the statement quoted is erroneous, and, laying aside the imperfect records of the Confederate Army, the evidence is beyond question that when Lee began his retreat he had only about half of the number of men assigned to him by these historians. Colonel Walter H. Taylor, of his staff, estimates that Lee had on March 31st 33,000 muskets, and General Lee told General Fitz Lee that he had at that time 35,000 men; “but after Five Forks and in the encounters of March 31st, April 1st and 2d, he had only 20,000 muskets available, and of all arms not over 25,000, when he began the retreat that terminated at Appomattox Court House.”*

Whatever may be the numbers shown on records scatteringly made, and, at best, most imperfect, Lee’s statement for those who know him settles the question.

But even these men were little more than spectres. Ill-fed, ill-clad, kept for ten months on a constant strain in the face of an army that might at any time mass treble their number on either flank; stretched in a line thirty-five miles in length, every point of which it was vital to hold; wasted by hunger, disease and cold, these veterans made no plea of being outnumbered. Under Lee they answered every demand and held Grant at bay until not only subsistence, but hope of subsistence, perished.

Then, as Grant, on the opening of spring, moved to overwhelm them and threatened Lee’s line, Lee led them out, as he had already planned to do should necessity arise and his Government permit. It was a delicate and perilous movement, and one that would have taxed the powers of the greatest general in history. For Grant, with his overwhelming army stretching south of him, lay close against him in a line thirty odd miles long which at many points was not a musket-shot away.

Lee having given Longstreet, who protected Richmond on the north, orders to cross and join him at a given point on the night of the 2d of April, withdrew his men from their trenches, crossed to the north of the Appomattox on the south bank of which rested Grant’s left, and, marching up the north bank, recrossed to the south side beyond Grant’s lines and directed his course for Amelia Court House, to which point he had ordered provisions to be sent to meet him. Had his orders been obeyed, it is the opinion of many competent critics that he might have eluded Grant’s pursuit, prompt and efficient as it was. But no provisions were there. Some one had blundered. It appears that a provision-train had arrived on April 1st, but had been fatuously ordered to Richmond. However it was, a day was lost in the effort to obtain subsistence from the depleted countryside for his famished army, men and horses, and in the interval Grant was enabled to come up, and thenceforth, in the light of subsequent events, further retreat was unavailing. From this moment it was merely a question of whether the endurance of his starving force would hold out to march and fight until he had outstripped Grant with his preponderant force possessed of ample subsistence and baggage trains. So great was the confidence of his men in Lee that many of them believed that the retreat was a movement designed by him to draw Grant from his base of supplies with a view to turning on him and destroying him.

Every step was in face of the enemy massing in force under the able direction of men like Meade, Ord and Sheridan. The fighting was almost hourly, and, while fortune varied, the balance of success was largely with the pursuing forces. At Sailor’s Creek, Ewell’s command was cut off and overwhelmed, as was Anderson’s, with a loss together of nearly 6,000 men. Among the prisoners were six generals, Ewell, Custis Lee, Kershaw, Dubose, Corse and Hunton.

At Farmville, reached on the 6th, provisions were found and the men were served with rations for the first time since they left Petersburg; but for the most part they lived on such scanty fare as they could secure from the already well-swept region which they passed. So denuded was the country of all that would sustain life, that men thought themselves well off when a corn-house was found with grain yet left in it and corn was distributed to them to be parched. Even this was not always to be had, and as corn was necessary for the artillery horses, guards were posted where they fed to prevent the men from taking it from the horses. They were reduced to the necessity of raking up the scattered grains from the ground where the horses had been fed and even to picking the grains from the droppings of the horses. Many of the men became too weak to carry their muskets. Small wonder that they dropped out of the ranks by hundreds. Yet still the remainder kept on, with unwavering courage, unwavering devotion and unwavering faith in their commander, and wherever a chance was presented they gave a good account of themselves.

In their rags and tatters, ill-clad, ill-shod, ill-fed, ill-armed, and, whenever armed, armed for the most part with the weapons they had captured from brave foes on hard-fought battlefields, they were the abiding expression of Southern valor and fortitude; the flower of Southern manhood; the pick of every class; the crystallized residue of the Army of Northern Virginia, with which Lee had achieved his fame and on which to future ages shall rest the fame of the South.

Like a wounded lion that spent and wasted army dragged itself across the desolated land; now turning at bay and at every turn leaving its deep mark on its pursuers, now retreating again without haste or fear, and simply in obedience to the instinct of self-preservation, and at the last, sinking with exhaustion, with crest unlowered, heart undaunted and face steadfastly set to the foe.

The spring rains had made the roads so deep in that region of deep roads as to be well-nigh impassable to the well-equipped troops of Grant, and operations, just before the evacuation of Richmond, had once to be suspended. To Lee’s ill-fed teams they became at times actually impassable and batteries had to be abandoned because the exhausted horses could not longer pull the guns. In some cases the artillery-men armed themselves with muskets picked up on the march and were formed into infantry companies. But in face of Grant’s capital generalship, using his great army to best advantage, attacking and capturing bodies of troops day after day, the end could no longer be doubtful. On the 7th, General Pendleton, chief of Lee’s reserve artillery, at the request of some of the high officers, approached the commander with the suggestion that their united voice was that the situation was hopeless, and that further fighting was useless. Lee, however, was more far-sighted. He had not yet abandoned hope and he replied that he had too many brave men to think of laying down his arms, and that they still fought with great spirit. Furthermore, if he should first intimate to Grant that he would listen to terms an unconditional surrender might be demanded. “And sooner than that,” he added, “I am resolved to die.”*

The end justified his determination. Grant, approaching in his pursuit the limit of what he thought a safe distance to place between his army and his base, the following day opened negotiations with Lee for the surrender of his army.

Long before, in writing to one of his brothers from Mexico where he contributed so much to the brilliant victories which ended in the capture of the Mexican capital, Lee had said, “We have the right, by the laws of war, of dictating the terms of peace and requiring indemnity for our losses and expenses. Rather than forego that right except, through a spirit of magnanimity for a crushed foe, I would fight them ten years; but I would be generous in exercising it.”*

Would it not be likely that this letter should recur to him in this crisis of his life?

In another letter he says, in referring to the terms of peace: “These are certainly not hard terms for Mexico, considering how the fortune of war has been against her. For myself, I would not exact more than I would have taken before the commencement of hostilities, as I should wish nothing but what was just.”

The continuous fighting held Lee back, and enabled Sheridan, followed by Ord, marching by a parallel route, to reach Appomattox Station before him and bar his further progress.

A proposal was made to Lee that the army should scatter and make its way to Johnston by various routes. This plan Lee promptly disposed of. He declared that he would go to General Grant and surrender himself, though he went alone, and take the consequences of his acts.

On the 8th of April orders were issued for a last effort. The artillery was directed to be brought up during the night and massed with a view to breaking through Grant’s forming lines, and steps were taken to deliver battle once more. All night the men toiled, but next morning the officer charged with the task* notified Gordon that his utmost efforts had been able to bring up only two batteries—the rest of the artillery had taken another route and could not be reached—the horses of the other batteries available were gone; the residue of that artillery which had once helped to make the artillery duels of Lee and Grant the fiercest in the records of war was silenced forever.

On this small fragment of his once redoubtable artillery, and on the remnant of his infantry and cavalry, one more call was made by Lee. As the sun rose on the morning of the 9th of April, the worn and wasted squadrons, with a response as prompt and generous as in the best days of his most victorious campaigns, advanced to their last charge to drive for the last time their foes before them. The first onset was successful. Sheridan’s cavalry was driven back in confusion and the situation was possibly saved only, as the supporting general himself stated, by the timely arrival of Ord, the commander of the Army of the James, with abundant troops to bar the way.*

Lee, after his surrender, asked for 25,000 rations, and this is accepted as the number of his army. But the actual number of muskets surrendered on the 9th of April was less than 9,000. Lee had fought his army until it had simply worn away.

Whatever men Lee had on his rolls, whether ten thousand, twenty-five thousand or forty thousand, they were in their famished and spent condition too few to defeat Grant’s ably led force, whether that force were 100,000 or 180,000, and Lee, acting in accord with the views of his general officers who had urged on him this course, at last decided to avail himself of Grant’s generous proposal. He asked and received from him honorable terms for the surrender of whatever remained of the Army of Northern Virginia. A detached portion of the cavalry had broken through and started to make its way to Johnston, but Lee recalled the officer in command and informed him that he was included in his surrender.

The greatness of the occasion appears to have lifted Grant to a higher plane than that of the mere soldier from which he had looked apparently unmoved on the sacrifice of thousands of the gallant men and officers who, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, had died at his biding; and from which he had refused with cold calculation the offers of the South to exchange prisoners and had left men to die like sheep in prisons made noisome largely by their numbers.

In the long vigils before Petersburg, faced by a brave and steadfast foe, his mind had apparently been elevated as it mainly became in the presence of a great crisis—as it became years afterward when, clutched fast in the grip of his last and conquering foe, he held death at bay while he completed the remarkable work on which his family were to depend for their support. However this was, his generosity justified Lee’s declaration that he would give his army as good terms as it had a right to expect, and his correspondence with Lee will bear comparison with that of any victor in history.*

Ten days after Lee’s surrender, Sherman, moved thereto by a more generous impulse than had hitherto appeared to inspire him, and plainly influenced by Grant’s magnanimity, offered to Johnston terms even more generous, if possible, than Grant had proposed to Lee, and after a brief period of negotiation in which Sherman’s far-sighted views were scornfully disavowed and rejected by the authorities in Washington, just unbridled by the tragic death of Lincoln, Johnston surrendered on the same terms that Lee had accepted.

In this convention all the remaining forces of the South were included, and, in so far as the South could effect it, the war was over. The war, however, practically ended when Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox.

The highest tribute to this army is the simple fact that with its surrender the war was over. The fortunes of the Confederacy had been nailed to its tattered standards and with them went down.


* Rhodes’s “History,” Vol. V.

† In fact, the 49,000 was before the great losses at the end of February.

* Fitzhugh Lee’s “Life of Lee,” p. 373.

* Fitzhugh Lee’s “Life of Lee,” p. 392.

* Letter to his brother, Sydney Smith Lee, March 4, 1848, cited in Jones’s “Life and Letters of Lee,” p. 57.

† (Letter cited in Jones’s “Lee,” p. 54.) John Russell Young once told the writer that Grant stated to him that he could not have kept up his pursuit a half day longer.

‡ “Military Memoirs of General E. P. Alexander,” p. 605.

* Colonel Thomas H. Carter, a gallant and efficient soldier, and Lee’s near kinsman.

* “Ord left Petersburg with 20,000 troops, all arms; Fifth Corps, 15,973 (Report of March 31, 1865); Sheridan’s Cavalry, 13,810; to which add 1,000 for the Fifth Corps Artillery, makes 50,783.”—Fitzhugh Lee’s “Life of Lee,” p. 388, note.

*An incident of the surrender told by Grant to Dr. Fordyce Barker was related by him to Dr. Wm. M. Polk. Dr. Barker asked Grant how he felt when he met Lee at Appomattox. Was he not sensible of great elation over his achievement?

Grant replied that on the contrary he was sensible rather of humiliation. When he found Lee in full-dress uniform while he himself was in a simple fatigue-suit: a private’s blouse with only a general’s shoulder-straps to denote his rank, and with his boots spattered to their tops, he was afraid that Lee might imagine that he intended a discourtesy to him because of an incident that had occurred in Mexico. General Scott, he said, was exceedingly particular as to all matters of etiquette, and had given orders that no officer should appear at head-quarters without being in full-dress. On some occasion thereafter Grant had gone to head-quarters in an ordinary fatigue-uniform and that not as neat, perhaps, as it should have been, and had reported to Lee, who was at the time serving on Scott’s staff. After the business had been transacted, Lee said, “I feel it my duty, Captain, to call your attention to General Scott’s order that an officer reporting at head-quarters should be in full uniform.”

This incident, said the general, suddenly flashed across his mind and made him uncomfortable lest General Lee should recall it also, and imagine that he intended to affront him.

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