Four Years With General Lee, by Walter H. Taylor, Chapter 11

Four Years With General Lee

Siege of Petersburg.—General Lee’s Views as to the Removal of General Johnston from the Command of the Army of Tennessee.—Movements of Sherman’s Army.—Inevitable Result of the Persistent Effort to hold Petersburg and Richmond.

HAVING failed to obtain possession of Petersburg by surprise, and General Lee being now well established in his line of defense, General Grant determined upon the method of slow approaches, and proceeded to invest the city and its brave defenders by a line of earthworks and mines. While with his constantly-increasing numbers General Grant undertook to tighten the ligature thus applied to the carotid artery of the Confederacy, General Sherman was sent upon his desolating expedition through the States of Georgia and South Carolina to add the policy of starvation to that of attrition inaugurated a few months previous. After this manner it was proposed to exhaust and wear out the people who could not be beaten in a trial of arms. It is beyond the scope of my undertaking to record, in detail, the events and incidents of that ten months siege. Reduced in numbers as was the Army of Northern Virginia, and limited as it was in supplies of all kinds, it nevertheless dealt many vigorous and destructive blows to its adversary, and contributed much to its already imperishable renown. I note as especially worthy of mention the recapture of our lines, after the explosion of the Federal mine at the “Crater,” by the troops under General Mahone, and the many brilliant sorties made under the direction of that gallant soldier upon the Federal left near the Weldon road; the very successful attack on Hancock, at Reams’s Station, by Heth’s division and a portion of Wilcox’s, on the 25th of August, under the direction of General A. P. Hill; as also the bold and successful exploits of our cavalry under General Hampton; the final charge made upon the Federal lines by General Gordon’s troops, on the 25th of March; and, last but not least, the heroic defense of Fort Gregg, on the 2d of April, by a mixed command of infantry and dismounted artillery—drivers armed with muskets.

In chronological order it is well here to mention a matter about which there has been some misapprehension in the public mind. Reference is made to the part taken by General Lee in the removal of General Johnston from the command of the Army of Tennessee. In the early part of July a telegram was received by General Lee from the President, stating that a heavy pressure was being brought to bear upon him for the removal of General Johnston, asking his views in regard to it, and what he thought of the appointment of General Hood to the command of that army. The reply of General Lee was, in substance, that, while he regarded General Hood as a most capable and deserving officer, he could not recommend the change proposed; and that, in his judgment, it would be unwise, under the circumstances then existing, to make any change in commanders. The telegraphic communication between the President and General Lee was conducted in cipher in all matters of importance. The duty of interpreting these dispatches and put ting them into cipher devolved upon me, and their contents were more positively and permanently impressed upon my memory than would have been the case in the mere reading or copying of an ordinary message.

Conscious that it would be unbecoming on my part to express any opinion concerning the order of the President directing the change alluded to, I touch upon this delicate matter only as it concerns General Lee, and not with the desire of adding a feather’s weight to the arguments for or against the wisdom or propriety of the order relieving General Johnston of command, save that which my former comrades in arms will attach to the opinion of General Lee.

Reverting to the notes from which I have previously quoted, I append additional extracts, whose only value, if any they have, is derived from the fact that they were written by one who was brought into daily and intimate relations with General Lee, and whose position made him thoroughly informed as to all matters of routine in the Army of Northern Virginia; and, therefore, their tone may be regarded as in some measure indicative of the spirit and temper of that army; and the intimations of contemplated changes or probable movements therein made, as the reflex of the views and opinions of General Lee as to what was regarded as expedient or probable:

NEAR PETERSBURG, VA., August 28, 1864.

We have had some irregular but quite severe fighting during the past two weeks, and in summing up the result there is a decided balance in our favor. Still, the enemy retains possession of the Weldon Railroad. To do this, however, has cost General Grant about twelve thousand men.

NORTH SIDE JAMES RIVER, October 27, 1864.

There are indications of a general movement. The enemy is in motion at all points. We may have to move any moment. General Hill, at Petersburg, reports the enemy making a general advance on his right. General Longstreet here reports a demonstration along his entire line, and there is some activity on the river and between the James and Appomattox. The general has gone to the lines alone.

NORTH SIDE, November 1, 1864.

The general informed me last night that he wished to go to Petersburg, and, as he would probably remain a week or more, it would be necessary to take everything along with us. He has gone ahead, and will take a ride by Pickett’s line.

PETERSBURG, VA., November 7, 1864.

On leaving the north side the general left it to me to select an abiding-place for our party here. I, of course, selected a place where I thought he would be comfortable, although I firmly believe he concluded that I was thinking more of myself than of him. I took possession of a vacant house and had his room prepared, with a cheerful fire, and everything made as cozy as possible. It was entirely too pleasant for him, for he is never so uncomfortable as when comfortable. A day or two after our arrival he informed me that he desired to visit the cavalry-lines, and thought it best to move our camp down. So we packed up bag and baggage—books and records—and moved to a point about eight miles distant, pitched our tents, and concluded that we were fixed for some days at least. The next morning, however, the general concluded that we had better return. So back I came to Petersburg, and as I could find no better place—nor a worse one that was suitable—I returned to the house we had vacated, where we are now comfortably established. This is the first time we have been quartered in a house.

NEAR PETERSBURG, VA., November 27, 1864.

While General Lee was in Richmond, I concluded to move headquarters, as a party that proposed to occupy the house as soon as we should vacate had given a gentle hint by sending to inquire “when General Lee would leave the house.” The only other house available was one two miles from the city, kindly offered by the owner, Mr. Turnbull. So here we are at “Edge Hill.” I am finely fixed in the parlor with piano, sofas, rocking-chairs, and pictures; capital surroundings for a winter campaign. After locating the general and my associates of the staff, I concluded that I would have to occupy one of the miserable little back-rooms, but the gentleman of the house suggested that I should take the parlor. I think that the general was pleased with his room, and on entering mine he remarked: “Ah! you are finely fixed. Couldn t you find any other room?” “No,” I replied, “but this will do. I can make myself tolerably comfortable here.” He was struck dumb with amazement at my impudence, and soon vanished.

EDGE HILL, December 4, 1864.

Since the affair at Stony Creek we have had perfect quiet on our lines. The Sixth Corps, which has been with Sheridan in General Early’s front, has started for City Point—so we are informed by telegraph. General Gracie, who showed such tact in getting General Lee to descend from a dangerous position, was killed near the lines a day or so ago. He was an excellent officer, had passed through many hard-fought battles, escaped numberless dangers, and was finally killed while quietly viewing the enemy from a point where no one dreamed of danger. I have just received a telegram from General Ewell reporting great commotion on the part of the enemy in his front this evening. Movements tend to Fort Harrison.

EDGE HILL, December 12, 1864.

We have had much excitement during the past week; nor has the end yet come. Couriers were arriving during the whole of last night—and what a bitter cold night it was! So far the enemy have accomplished but little. The whole movement seems to have been a grand raid on the Weldon Railroad, and, although the bridge was saved by the valor of our troops, the enemy succeeded in destroying about ten miles of the road. There were other movements along the lines, but in results they were trifling. Last night another advance was reported, but it was probably only reënforcements going to the rescue of the first column.

EDGE HILL, December 18, 1864.

We have had comparative quiet since the recent affair on the Weldon road. It is difficult to anticipate events now, but it appears more probable that the vicinity of Wilmington, North Carolina, will be the scene of the next engagement than either Petersburg or Richmond.

EDGE HILL, February 5, 1865.

Instead of a quiet Sunday, we have had one of considerable excitement: the indications are that General Grant is once more moving on us. It is not positively known whether or not he has been reënforced by General Thomas, but, all things considered, it is better that we should fight now than later. The present movement is probably a raid upon our railroads—the South Side and the Richmond & Danville. We are sanguine, and never expect anything but success; but the approaching spring campaign will be a trying one. Sherman may occasion us a great deal of trouble, and it may be necessary to make very important changes in the campaign, and for this army to change its position.

EDGE HILL, February 6, 1865.

After all, yesterday’s excitement resulted in but little. The enemy have not gone after our railroads, having been checked at Dinwiddie Court-House. They have extended their lines somewhat, but as yet show no disposition to attack in force. Richmond is doubtless much excited over the return of the Peace Commission and the result of its mission. Our people now know what they have to expect.

EDGE HILL, February 20, 1865.

Truly matters are becoming serious and exciting. If some body doesn’t arrest Sherman’s march, where will he stop? They are trying to corner this old army, but like a brave lion brought to bay at last it is determined to resist to the death, and if die it must to die game. We are to have some hard knocks, we are to experience much that is dispiriting, but if our men are true (and I really believe that most of them are) we will make our way successfully through the dark clouds that now surround us. Our people must make up their minds to see Richmond go, but must not lose spirit, must not give up. The general left but a few moments ago. My orders are to be in marching order, to lose no time, to begin my preparations to-morrow. These instructions apply to army headquarters only. The army will retain its position still a time longer, but the general-in-chief may soon bid it a temporary adieu and repair to another scene of excitement.

EDGE HILL, February 24, 1865.

Now that General Johnston has been, placed in command of his old army by General Lee, it is not probable that the latter will go to South Carolina at any rate not immediately. . . . It is not to be denied that our condition at this time is a critical one; but, although it is a crisis in our affairs, it is the same with the enemy. Suppose we were to concentrate on Sherman and crush him, would not the aspect of affairs be entirely changed? Well, that is not beyond the range of possibility. Much depends on the check given to Sherman’s career. Richmond may be lost to us—and Sherman may be overwhelmed. The defeat of Sherman would restore Richmond. To be rid of him would more than compensate for such temporary sacrifice. The rumors in Richmond are great exaggerations of facts. Some of our weaker men have deserted their colors, but the desertion is not so great as reported. We are getting something to eat, and most of our brave fellows are in good heart, although grieved to hear of despondency behind them. All at home should send words of cheer and encouragement to the army.

EDGE HILL, March 5, 1865.

I do not, cannot, yet despair; but it is evident that there has been a rapid, radical change in the tone of public sentiment, in which some of our officials participate. Some high in authority tell us that the people are tired, that they are not supported by the people, and that public sentiment has undergone a change. Claiming to be prompted by a desire to prevent the further effusion of blood, these talk of terms and reconstruction. I do not think our military situation hopeless by any means; but I confess matters are far worse than I ever expected to see them.

EDGE HILL, March 23, 1865.

The dread contingency of which some intimation has been given is near at hand. No one can say what the next week may bring forth, although the calamity may be deferred a while longer. Now is the hour when we must show of what stuff we are made. It would be worse than useless to indulge in repinings and regrets, which could only impair our efficiency and tend to dishearten those who look to us for protection.

EDGE HILL, March 27, 1865.

Matters have not improved since the 23d; there is no cause for hope now which did not exist then. The probable contingency is a foregone conclusion. There appears to be an unaccountable apathy and listlessness in high places. It would be better to face the misfortune bravely, and prepare for it in anticipation. There seems to be no preparation for the removal of the several departments of the government; when the pressure is upon us it may be impracticable. I say nothing of our fight; it was gallantly done, as far as it went. [Allusion is here made to the attack made on the Federal lines by a portion of Gordon’s command.]

It is a very simple matter to trace, through the dates here given, the steady progress toward the inevitable doom which, sooner or later, awaited the Confederates in their inflexible purpose to hold the city of Richmond.

General Lee was opposed to that policy winch designated certain points as indispensable to be held, except so far and so long as they possessed strategic value to the armies operating in the field. He maintained that the determination to retain possession of such, under all circumstances and at any cost, caused a fallacious value to attach to success in such endeavor, and, in event of failure, entailed a moral loss on us, and assured an elation to the enemy altogether disproportionate to the material benefit to be derived from continued possession; not that he would not have made an earnest effort to save such points as Vicksburg and Richmond from falling into the hands of the enemy—especially the latter, which had a real value, strategically considered; but when it came to a siege, to settle down behind intrenchments and permit the gradual and complete circumvallation of the place besieged, by an adversary with unlimited resources of men and material, he preferred to move out, to manœuvre, to concentrate, and to fight.

His policy at Petersburg would have been to unite the greater portion of his army—before it wasted away from incessant battle and from desertion1—with that under General Johnston, and to fall upon General Sherman with the hope of destroying him, and then, with the united armies, to return to confront General Grant. Having the interior line, he could move to accomplish such purpose much more quickly than his adversary could to thwart it. Such a policy involved the giving up of Richmond, it is true; but that which was pursued involved the same thing with a certainty more absolute, and left Sherman to over whelm Johnston, and at the same time to destroy the granaries of the Confederacy, from which Lee’s army was supplied.

In my opinion, as a general rule, the Administration was in perfect accord with General Lee in all his designs, and gave a hearty cooperation in all his movements; but I think the exception was furnished in the persistent effort to hold Richmond and Petersburg, after it became evident that it could be but a question of time, and would probably involve the complete exhaustion of the principal army of the Confederacy.

If it shall be the verdict of posterity that General Lee in any respect fell short of perfection as a military leader, it may perhaps be claimed: first, that he was too careful of the personal feelings of his subordinate commanders, too fearful of wounding their pride, and too solicitous for their reputation. Probably it was this that caused him sometimes to continue in command those of whose fitness for their position he was not convinced, and often led him, either avowedly or tacitly, to assume responsibility for mishaps clearly attributable to the inefficiency, neglect, or carelessness, of others. I have heard him express the wish that General A had the command of a certain division instead of General B, when General A was a brigadier in Major-General B’s division, and a recommendation from the general to the department would doubtless have procured the change. The world already knows how prone he was at all times to take upon his own shoulders the responsibility for failure or mishap, and thus shield those from censure who had really failed to execute his orders or designs.

In the next place it may be said that he was too law-abiding, too subordinate to his superiors in civil authority—those who managed the governmental machinery. Brought up in the school of the soldier he had early imbibed the idea that discipline was essential in the military life, and that subordination was the key-stone of discipline. Obedience to orders was, in his judgment, the cardinal principle with all good soldiers of every grade. As a rule, no one can deny the correctness of this view; but those were extraordinary times, and, in some matters, ordinary rules were extraordinary evils. General Lee should have been supreme in all matters touching the movements and discipline of his army, whereas, under the law and the regulations of the Department of War made in conformity thereto, he had not even the power to confer promotion on the field of battle, and thus to recognize and reward meritorious conduct; and in matters concerning the movements of his army he was of course under authority, and more or less controlled by political considerations. Perhaps it could not be otherwise under our peculiar form of government, but it would never be possible to get the full measure of a man’s capacity for military affairs who was thus trammeled.

A month or two before the close of the war the scope of General Lee’s authority was enlarged, and he was made general-in-chief of all the armies of the Confederacy; but the end was then near at hand, and the affairs of the South hopeless.

The traits of character alluded to, excessive generosity and perfect subordination, while they adorned the life of General Lee, are not compatible with the generally accepted notions of perfection in a revolutionary leader.


1 A few words in regard to this desertion: The condition of affairs throughout the South at that period was truly deplorable. Hundreds of letters addressed to soldiers were intercepted and sent to army headquarters, in which mothers, wives, and sisters, told of their inability to respond to the appeals of hungry children for bread, or to provide proper care and remedies for the sick; and, in the name of all that was dear, appealed to the men to come home and rescue them from the ills which they suffered and the starvation which threatened them. Surely never was devotion to one’s country and to one’s duty more sorely tested than was the case with the soldiers of Lee’s army during the last year of the war.

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