Washington and Lee University

Four Years With General Lee

General Grant in Command of the Federal Army of the Potomac.—His Advance.—From the Wilderness to Petersburg.—Strength of the Two Armies.

BY reference to the official returns of the Army of Northern Virginia,1 I find that on the 20th of April, 1864, the Second Corps reported seventeen thousand and seventy-nine and the Third Corps twenty-two thousand one hundred and ninety-nine present for duty; there were also two unattached commands—viz., the Maryland line and the Provost Guard, numbering together eleven hundred and twenty-five effective. Two divisions of the First Corps had but recently arrived from Tennessee, and were not embraced in this return. I am without certain information as to their strength at that time. When the First Corps was detached for service in Tennessee, the effective strength of its three divisions was fourteen thousand six hundred and sixty-eight (see return of August 31, 1863). After the hard service in the West, I am sure that the two divisions under Generals Field and Kershaw, when they rejoined the army, could not have exceeded ten thousand effective. With this liberal estimate, it appears that General Lee's total infantry force was fifty thousand four hundred and three; to which if we add the cavalry corps, eight thousand seven hundred and twenty-seven, and the artillery corps, four thousand eight hundred and fifty-four, as given in the same return, we have a total present for duty, of all arms, of sixty-three thousand nine hundred and eighty-four—in round numbers say sixty-four thousand men—under General Lee, at the opening of the campaign of 1864.

The official return of the Army of the Potomac of the 1st of May, 1864, shows present for duty one hundred and twenty thousand three hundred and eighty men of all arms; to which if we add the Ninth Corps, not embraced in this return, but which joined General Grant before he commenced active operations, and which numbered, according to official returns, twenty thousand seven hundred and eighty, we have a total of one hundred and forty-one thousand one hundred and sixty men of all arms under General Grant at the opening of the campaign.[2]

I have given the relative strength of the two armies at the outset of this campaign, in order that the reader, in following the course of events, may have a proper appreciation of the difficulties which beset General Lee in the task of thwarting the designs of so formidable an adversary, and realize the extent to which his brilliant genius made amends for paucity of numbers, and proved more than a match for brute force, as illustrated in the hammering policy of General Grant.

If one hundred and forty thousand men are made to grapple in a death-struggle with sixty thousand men, of the former twenty thousand should survive the total annihilation of the latter, even though the price exacted for such destruction be in the ratio of two for one. Behold the theory of the Federal commander and an epitome of his conception of strategy, as exemplified on the sanguinary field extending from the Wilderness to James River!

On the 4th day of May General Grant opened the campaign by crossing to the south side of the Rapidan River, with the intention of placing his army between that of General Lee and Richmond, his objective point.

General Lee was fully aware of the great disparity in the strength of the two armies, and of the efforts that had been made, under General Grant's direction, to increase the efficiency of the Army of the Potomac by every possible means, and it was doubtless expected that he would hesitate to give battle against such fearful odds, and proceed to manœuvre to avoid a general engagement, and, by “masterly retreat,” retard the progress of his adversary.

The Federal commanders should by this time have learned to expect, with moral certainty, that, just as soon as they emerged from their own lines, there was an arm uplifted that would inevitably fall upon them with the speed of lightning and with tremendous power.

So soon as the real design of General Grant was disclosed, General Lee advanced to attack him. It was, indeed, a bold movement; but, strange to relate, it appears not to have been expected by the enemy. Moving down on the south side of the Rapidan, the Army of Northern Virginia soon encountered its old adversary, under its new commander, in the Wilderness, and, without parley or delay, grappled it, and took the initiative in what was destined to be a prolonged and bitter struggle.

General Grant, who had started for a march, found it necessary to concentrate for battle. Much hard fighting ensued: for two days there was a murderous wrestle; severe and rapid blows were given and received in turn, until sheer exhaustion called a truce, with the advantage on the Confederate side. Notably was this the case in a brilliant assault made by General Longstreet on the Federal left on the 6th of May; and in a turning movement on their right on the same day, executed by a portion of General Swell's (Second) corps—the brigades of Gordon, Johnston, and Pegram—doubling up that flank and forcing it back a considerable distance.

Mention should also be made of the stubborn and heroic resistance, on the 5th of May, by the divisions of Heth and Wilcox of Hill's (Third) corps fifteen thousand strong[3]—against the repeated and desperate assaults of five divisions of the enemy the four divisions of Hancock's corps and one of Sedgwick's numbering about forty-five thousand men, in which the Confederates completely foiled their adversaries, and inflicted upon them most serious loss.[4]

The Third Division of Hill's (Third) corps, tinder General Anderson, and the two divisions of Longstreet's (First) corps, did not reach the scene of conflict until dawn of day on the morning of the 6th. Simultaneously the attack on Hill was renewed with great vigor. In addition to the force which he had so successfully resisted the previous day, a fresh division of the Fifth Corps, under, General Wadsworth, had secured position on his Bank, and cooperated with the column assaulting in front. After a short contest, the divisions of Heth and Wilcox, who had expected to be relieved, and were not prepared for the enemy's assault, were overpowered and compelled to retire, just as the advance of Longstreet's column reached the ground. The defeated divisions were in considerable disorder, and the condition of affairs was exceedingly critical. General Lee fully appreciated the impending crisis, and, dashing amid the fugitives, personally called upon the men to rally. General Longstreet, taking in the situation at a glance, was prompt to act—immediately caused his divisions to be deployed in line of battle, and gallantly advanced to recover the lost ground.

The soldiers, seeing General Lee's manifest purpose to advance with them, and realizing the great danger in which he then was, called upon him in a beseeching manner to “go to the rear,” promising that they would soon have matters rectified, and begging him to retire from a position in which his life was so exposed. The general was evidently touched and gratified at this manifestation of interest and anxiety on the part of his brave men, and waved them on, with some words of cheer. Their advance under such circumstances was simply irresistible; every man felt that the eye of the commanding general was upon him, and was proud of the opportunity of showing him that his trust in his men was not misplaced. The Federal advance was checked, and the Confederate lines reëstablished.

Not content with this, as soon as the proper dispositions could be made, General Longstreet, as before mentioned, took the offensive, and assailed, with great impetuosity, the force which had overwhelmed Hill's divisions. The Federals were in turn soon compelled to yield all the ground heretofore gained, and, upon being further pressed, to fall back for shelter to a line of works some distance in rear of the line, held by them the day previous, and which had been constructed for the protection of the Brock Road, along which one of their columns advanced on the 4th of May.

So far, complete success had crowned General Longstreet's movement. The necessary orders were given by him to follow up the advantage gained, and dispositions were made to press the dismayed and fleeing enemy. Surely a decisive victory was now to be vouchsafed the Confederate arms, when, lo! by an accident truly calamitous in its results, the Confederates were deprived of their leader. General Longstreet, with his staff, was advancing along the road at the head of Jenkins's brigade, when the latter—mistaken for a body of the enemy by a portion of the flanking column, which continued its advance through the woods—was fired into. General Longstreet was seriously wounded, and General Jenkins fell dead. The forward movement was checked, and thus was time afforded the Federals in which to rally, reënforce, and reform, behind their intrenchments. Thus, by a strange fatality, a second time was Lee's lieutenant stricken down in the tangled mazes of the Wilderness, when in the full tide of victory, and that not by hostile hand!

In these encounters in the Wilderness the Confederates inflicted severe losses upon the enemy, and, besides gaining ground, captured prisoners, artillery, and other trophies. As can be well understood, these results were attained, however, at serious cost to General Lee, who, constrained to spare his men as much as possible, hesitated to assail the enemy in his intrenched position, and hopefully awaited attack. General Grant did not again assume the aggressive, and so the 7th passed in comparative quiet.

General Grant, in pursuance of his original design, then attempted, by a rapid flank movement, to secure possession of Spottsylvania Court-House; but General Lee, on the night of the 7th, anticipated his purpose, and detached a portion of Longstreet's corps, under command of General E. H. Anderson, to move at once to that point. The van of the opposing forces, each making for the same goal, arrived almost simultaneously on the morning of the 8th at the Court-House. The Federals, a little in advance, drove back the Confederate cavalry, but were in turn quickly dispossessed of the strategic point by the opportune arrival of Anderson's infantry. The two armies then swung round, each forming on its advanced guard as a nucleus, and on the 9th confronted each other in line of battle.

General Lee was still between his adversary and Richmond. These movements were necessarily made with great rapidity, and the several commands, as they moved into line, proceeded at once to fortify in the positions in which they found themselves, without due regard to a perfect alignment, and ignoring to a certain extent natural advantages and disadvantages. The line of defense, as thus originally constructed, was consequently imperfect, and at some points quite vulnerable.

On the 10th of May, by a spirited dash, the enemy made a lodgment on the left of General Ewell, obtaining temporary possession of a portion of the lines and a battery of artillery. It was there again that General Lee started for the breach, with the purpose of leading the troops in the effort to regain the lost ground, when his staff and other officers surrounded him and urged him to desist, imploring him not thus to expose himself to an almost certain death. To their expostulations he replied that he would relinquish his purpose if they would see to it that the lines were reëstablished—that that “must be done.” And it was done! The enemy was quickly made to relinquish his temporary advantage, and both guns and ground were recovered.

Upon an examination of the lines, General Lee had detected the weakness of that portion known as “the salient,”to the right of the point assailed on the 10th, to which I have just alluded, and occupied by the division of General Edward Johnson (Ewell's corps), and had directed a second line to be constructed across its base, to which he proposed to move back the troops occupying the angle. These arrangements were not quite completed, when he thought he saw cause to suspect another flank-movement by General Grant, and, on the night of the 11th, ordered most of the artillery at this portion of the lines to be withdrawn, so as to be available to take part in a counter-movement. Toward the dawn of day, on the 12th, General Johnson discovered indications of an impending assault upon his front. He sent immediate orders for the return of his artillery, and caused other preparations for defense to be made; but the enemy, who could advance without discovery to within a short distance of the works under cover of a body of woods, had massed there a large force, and, with the advent of the first rays of morning light, by a spirited assault, quickly overran that portion of the lines before the artillery could be put in position, and captured most of the division, including its brave commander. The army was thus cut in twain, and the situation was one well calculated to test the skill of its commander and the nerve and courage of the men. Dispositions were immediately made to repair the breach, and troops were moved up from the right and left to dispute the further progress of the assaulting column. Then occurred the most remarkable musketry-tire of the war: from the sides of the salient, in the possession of the Federals, and the new line, forming the base of the triangle, occupied by the Confederates, poured forth, from continuous lines of hissing fire, an incessant, terrific hail of deadly missiles. No living man nor thing could stand in the doomed space embraced within those angry lines; even large trees were felled—their trunks cut in twain by the bullets of small-arms. Never did the troops on either side display greater valor and determination. Intense and bitter was the struggle. The Confederates, moving up to fill the gap, fell with tremendous power upon the Federal mass, caused it to recoil somewhat, closed with it in a hand-to-hand conflict, but failed to dislodge it; while the Federal assault, which threatened such serious consequences, was effectually checked, and the advantage to the enemy resulting therefrom was limited to the possession of the narrow space of the salient and the capture of the force which had occupied it. The loss of this fine body of troops was seriously felt by General Lee; but sadly reduced though his army was, by this and a week's incessant fighting, such was the metal of what remained that his lines, thus forcibly rectified, proved thereafter impregnable.

Several days of comparative quiet ensued. The army under General Grant was at this time heavily reënforced from Washington. In his official report of this campaign he says, “The 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th (of May), were consumed in manœuvring and awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from Washington.”[5] In numerical strength his army so much exceeded that under General Lee that, after covering the entire Confederate front with double lines of battle, he had in reserve a large force with which to extend his flank, and compel a corresponding movement on the part of his adversary, in order to keep between him and his coveted prize—the capital of the Confederacy.

On the 18th another assault was directed against the Confederate lines, but it produced no impression. No effort was made after this—the task was a hopeless one, and was reluctantly relinquished.

On the night of the 20th, General Grant started on an other flank-movement in the direction of Bowling Green. General Lee in order to intercept him moved to Hanover Junction.

I again make one or two extracts from notes taken at the time, as illustrating the spirit of the army and the character of the work it was called on to perform:


. . . For the first time since the 4th of the month we were on yesterday spared the sight of the enemy. On the day before it was discovered that he was leaving our front and moving toward Bowling Green. He dared not, as we prayed he would, attack us again at Spottsylvania. With several rivers between his army and ours, he could move to Bowling Green and below without any danger of our intercepting him. He would thus get some miles nearer Richmond, in a geographical sense, but in reality be as far from that city as ever, because this army will still confront him, let him change his base as often as he pleases. To counteract his new design, our army was put in motion for this place. The enemy had the start of us, but by excellent marching we have again placed him in our front. It is probable that he will make still another move to our right, and land somewhere near West Point.

This would of course necessitate our moving between that point and Richmond. Why General Grant did not carry his army to his new base without incurring the heavy losses he has sustained in battle, I cannot say. If Fredericksburg was his destination, he could have attained possession of it without the loss of a hundred men. The same can be said of West Point. After his discomfiture in the Wilderness, he started for Spottsylvania Court-House, hoping to reach there before General Lee. There were but few indications of his intended departure from our front at that time to most of us, but General Lee seemed to divine his intention, and sent a corps to Spottsylvania just in time to meet the enemy at that place. We engaged them and beat them back, thereby securing the Court-House. In commenting upon this, the Northern papers say that we retreated and that Grant pursued us; while the truth is, General Grant was completely outgeneraled. No doubt the entire North is this day rejoicing over our retreat to this point; yet the battle-field was left in our possession, and we marched here without any molestation whatever. This does not look like a retreat. Our army is in excellent condition; its morale as good as when we met Grant—two weeks since—for the first time. He will feel us again before he reaches his prize. His losses have been already fearfully large. Our list of casualties is a sad one to contemplate, but does not compare with his terrible record of killed and wounded: he does not pretend to bury his dead, leaves his wounded without proper attendance, and seems entirely reckless as regards the lives of his men. This, and his remarkable pertinacity, constitute his sole claim to superiority over his predecessors. He certainly holds on longer than any of them. He alone, of all, would have remained this side of the Rapidan after the battles of the Wilderness.

The gage of battle proffered by General Lee at Hanover Junction was declined by General Grant, who, in order to extricate his army from a position of some embarrassment, about the 26th of May, recrossed to the north side of the North Anna River, and made another détour to the east. General Lee moved upon a parallel line. If his army had been of even reasonable proportions in comparison with that of his adversary, his movement would have been of another character, and one of the two wings of the Federal army would have been assailed while on the south side of the river.

On the 30th of May General Lee was in line of battle, with his left at Atlee's Station.

CAMP AT ATLEE'S STATION, early Morning, May 30, 1864.

. . . We are confronting General Grant, and only waiting to have him located—to have his position well developed—before this army is let loose at its old opponent. On yesterday afternoon the enemy appeared to be advancing toward us, and this morning I confidently expected to hear the firing of small-arms before this hour. . . . We have now had three weeks of constant fighting, marching, and watching. . . .

The general has been somewhat indisposed, and could at tend to nothing except what was absolutely necessary for him to know and act upon. . . . He is now improving.

The indisposition of General Lee here alluded to was more serious than was generally supposed. Those near him were very apprehensive lest he should be compelled to give up. To quote the words of one of his greatest admirers and most trusted friends, Lieutenant-General Early:

One of his three corps commanders had been disabled by wounds at the Wilderness, and another was too sick to command his corps, while he himself was suffering from a most annoying and weakening disease. In fact, nothing but his own determined will enabled him to keep the field at all; and it was there rendered more manifest than ever that he was the head and front, the very life and soul of his army.

After feeling the Confederate position, attack was declined by the enemy. By another gyratory movement of the kind so persistently pursued by General Grant in this campaign, the two armies again gravitated east, and were soon (June 3d) face to face on the historic field of Cold Harbor. Here, gallant but fruitless efforts were made by General Grant to pierce or drive back the army under General Lee. The Confederates were protected by temporary earthworks, and while under cover of these were gallantly assailed by the Federals. But in vain: the assault was repulsed along the whole line, and the carnage on the Federal side was frightful. I well recall having received a report after the assault from General Hoke—whose division reached the army just previous to this battle—to the effect that the ground in his entire front, over which the enemy had charged, was literally covered with their dead and wounded; and that up to that time he had not had a single man killed. No wonder that, when the command was given to renew the assault, the Federal soldiers sullenly and silently declined to advance.[6] After some disingenuous proposals, General Grant finally asked a truce to enable him to bury his dead. Soon after this he abandoned his chosen line of operations, and moved his army to the south side of James River. The struggle from the Wilderness to this point covered a period of over one month; during which time there had been an almost daily encounter of hostile arms, and the Army of Northern Virginia had placed hors de combat of the army under General Grant a number equal to its entire numerical strength at the commencement of the campaign, and, notwithstanding its own heavy losses and the reënforcements received by the enemy, still presented an impregnable front to its opponent, and constituted an insuperable barrier to General Grant's “On to Richmond!”

After an unsuccessful effort to surprise and capture Petersburg—which was prevented by the skill of Generals Beauregard and Wise, and the bravery of the troops, consisting in part of militia and home-guards—and a futile endeavor to seize the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, General Grant concentrated his army south of the Appomattox River. General Lee, whom he had not been able to defeat in the open field, was still in his way, and the siege of Petersburg was begun.

General Lee was compelled about this time to detach General Early, with the Second Corps, to check the advance of the Federal force under General Hunter that was moving up the Valley, laying waste as it advanced and threatening our communications with the interior via Lynchburg. It will be well understood that he could not spare any portion of his army, already greatly inferior in numerical strength to its opponent, but no other troops were available.

It has been seen that, at the commencement of this extraordinary campaign, the effective strength of the army under General Lee was sixty-four thousand men, and that under General Grant one hundred and forty-one thousand one hundred and sixty men. The only reinforcements received by General Lee were as follows: Near Hanover Junction he was joined by a small force under General Breckinridge, from Southwestern Virginia, twenty-two hundred strong, and Pickett's division of Longstreet's (First) corps, which had been on detached service in North Carolina; Hoke's brigade of Early's division, twelve hundred strong, which had been on detached duty at the Junction, here also rejoined its division; and at Cold Harbor General Lee received the division of General Hoke, also just from North Carolina the two divisions (Pickett's and Hoke's) numbering eleven thousand men.[7] The aggregate of these reënforcements (fourteen thousand four hundred men) added to General Lee's original strength would give seventy-eight thousand four hundred as the aggregate of all troops engaged under him from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.

When at Spottsylvania Court-House General Grant was reënforced from Washington, but I can only conjecture to what extent. The Secretary of "War states that “the chief part of the force designed to guard the Middle Department and the Department of Washington was called forward to the front”[8] at this time. The same authority puts the effective strength of these two departments on the 1st of May at forty-seven thousand seven hundred and fifty-one men,[9] of which the chief part—let us say, thirty-five thousand—was sent to the aid of General Grant. At Cold Harbor he was joined by General W. F. Smith with four divisions, taken from the Tenth and Eighteenth Corps, numbering sixteen thousand men.[10] Adding these reinforcements to General Grant's original strength, we have one hundred and ninety-two thousand one hundred and sixty men as the aggregate of the troops employed by him in his operations from the Rapidan to the James.

The Federal loss in the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor, is put at “above sixty thousand men” by Mr. Swinton in his history of the “Army of the Potomac.”


1 Now on file in the Archive-Office, War Department, Washington, D.C.

[2] These figures are taken from the “Report of the Secretary of War to the First Session of the Thirty-ninth Congress,” vol. i., 1865–’66, pp. 3–5, 55.

[3] “Return of the Army of Northern Virginia,” April 20, 1864, chap. xiv.

[4] The troops engaged in this assault were, Getty's division (four brigades) of the Sixth Corps; Hancock's corps—viz., Birney's division (two brigades), Mott's division (two brigades), Gibbon's division (three brigades), and Barlow's division) (four brigades): in all, fifteen brigades. The Army of the Potomac embraced but thirty-two brigades, and numbered near one hundred thousand infantry. I therefore estimate that the fifteen brigades here engaged numbered forty-five thousand men.—(See Swinton's “Army of the Potomac,” pp. 425, 426.)

[5] General Grant's “Report,” “Report of the Secretary of War to the Thirty-ninth Congress,“ vol. ii., p. 1106.

[6] " The order was issued through these officers to their subordinate commanders, and from them descended through the wonted channels; but no man stirred, and the immobile lines pronounced a verdict, silent, yet emphatic, against further slaughter. The loss on the Union side in this sanguinary action was over thirteen thousand, while on the part of the Confederates it is doubtful whether it reached that many hundreds.”—(Swinton, “Army of the Potomac,” p. 487.)

[7] The “Monthly Return of General Lee's Army,” of the 30th of June, 1864, shows that at that date Pickett's division numbered four thousand eight hundred and eighty-four, and Hoke's division five thousand two hundred and eighty-six, making together ten thousand one hundred and seventy effective. Hoke was engaged at Cold Harbor, but suffered little loss; Pickett lost a few hundred men in his assault on the enemy's lines between the James and Appomattox Rivers on the 16th of June. The joint loss of the two divisions did not exceed eight hundred men between the time they joined General Lee and the date of the return quoted.

[8] “Report of the Secretary of War, First Session, Thirty-ninth Congress,” vol. i., 1865–’66, p. 7.

[9] Ibid., pp. 5, 6.

[10] Swinton, “Army of the Potomac,” p. 482.

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