General Lee During the Campaign of the Seven Days
By Eben Greenough Scott
Note: The following essay is taken from the April 1894 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (vol. 73, pp. 446–59), published in Boston by the Atlantic Monthly Company. Its author, Eben Greenough Scott (d. 1919), an1858 graduate of Yale University, where he was initiated into the Skull and Bones fraternal order, was a railroad lawyer from Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Scott wrote other essays for the Atlantic, including, “La Nouvelle France” (September 1889, pp. 343–53); “The French-in-Canada” (November 1889, pp. 602–11); and “General McClellan” (July 1892, pp. 1–14). He also was the author of two very popular books, Development of Constitutional Liberty in the English Colonies of America (New York, 1882), and Reconstruction During the Civil War in the United States of America (Boston, 1895), as well as the “Historical Address . . . Delivered at the Wyoming Monument, July Third, 1893, on the Occasion of the Observance of the Anniversary of the Battle and Massacre, Together with the Order of Exercises of the Day” (Wyoming Commemorative Association, 1893). From May 1861 to April 1863 Scott served as a volunteer in the Union army, in the Fifth Regiment of Artillery, with the rank of 1st lieutenant.
GENERAL LEE DURING THE CAMPAIGN OF THE SEVEN DAYS.
ON the evening of the 31st of May, 1862, during the battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Confederate forces, was wounded so severely that he was borne from the field, and for a long time was incapacitated for service. General Johnston was a man of vigorous intellect, of great experience in the old army, and one who had knowledge of the art of war and skill in its exercise; he was also clear-headed, and, though of aggressive temperament, knew how to abide events. He had, too, a thorough conception of the part to be performed by the Confederate armies in order to make their cause a successful one. Nevertheless, he labored under the disadvantage of being obnoxious to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, who, once an army officer, had vexed several of his generals by his censoriousness. Among these was Johnston, who, moreover, had attributed to Davis injustice in a matter of grade: the two had clashed. It was this commander who had resisted McClellan's advance up the Peninsula, and who now was seeking to overwhelm that part of the Federal army which lay south of the Chickahominy. The fall of General Johnston caused the command of the troops in action to devolve upon General Gustavus W. Smith, who retained it until the appointment of Robert E. Lee, on the day following, to the position of commander in chief. As soon as General Lee took command he desisted from further effort, and withdrew the Confederate forces to their former position in the neighborhood of Richmond. During this battle, therefore, the Confederates fought under three successive commanders.
General Lee assumed command at a moment when the dark outlook of the military situation in Virginia began to brighten for the Confederates. Of the five Federal columns which had been converging in superior force upon the Confederate capital, three had been put hors de combat for the moment by Stonewall Jackson. This general had thrown the plans as well as the troops of the Washington government into confusion, and had succeeded in reducing for a while the effectiveness of McDowell's column from that of coöperation with McClellan's army to that of mere and imperfect reinforcement. The bad blood that had been engendered at the Northern capital gave rise to crimination and recrimination, to exasperating reflections upon the defeated generals, and to bitter taunts at the inaction of McClellan; the whole ignoble brood of politicians, contractors, and speculators filled the corridors of the departments with their clamor, while the silence of consternation fell upon those whose meddling had really wrought this catastrophe. In such a crisis the dislodgment of McClellan would have completed the wreck of Federal hopes and plans. Nothing, therefore, could have been better timed than was Johnston's attack, and had it been pressed to a successful conclusion the moral effect in favor of the Confederates would have been incalculable.
Once reinstated in their former positions, both armies busied themselves in field fortification, and were soon covered by continuous lines of earthworks. The most vital question of the day within the opposing ranks was, “When will McDowell march to reinforce McClellan?” The necessity of anticipating this event had already brought on the indecisive action of Fair Oaks, and this impending juncture was Lee's daily incentive to action. On the other side, McClellan was kept dancing attendance on McDowell, and his advance upon Richmond was retarded by the necessity of maintaining his army in such a position that the wished-for junction of forces could be effected without the interposition of the enemy. The Federal centre and left wing, therefore, held fast to the south bank, threatening Richmond, while the right wing, consisting of Porter's and Franklin's corps, on the north bank, reached out towards McDowell. The arrival of McCall's division by water from Fredericksburg enabled McClellan to unite Franklin's corps to the main body, leaving Porter alone on the left bank. Thus the accession of McCall's force augmented Porter's corps, but the subtraction of Franklin weakened the right wing. General Lee was not blind to the state of affairs within his enemy's camp, nor was he slow in accepting the hint conveyed by McCall's debarkation: it signified that order was taking the place of confusion at Washington, and that the government there was regaining its capacity to resume offensive action. The blow must be struck soon, and the sooner the better. Time, which had been niggardly to McClellan, had been kind to Lee, for it had not only brought reinforcements to Richmond, but, above all, it had set Jackson, flushed with victory, free to coöperate with his chief from a point which would direct him upon the rear of McClellan's attenuated wing. It was upon the enemy's right instead of upon his left, as Johnston had done, that Lee would strike; and after imparting his plans to those who were to carry them out, he made ready for the movement, and on the 26th of June began its execution.
During the period that had elapsed since the battle of Fair Oaks two things had become impressed upon Lee: one was that McClellan intended to attack Richmond by regular approaches, and the other was that the four corps constituting the Federal main body were too strong to be dislodged from their position, covered as it was by fieldworks. It was necessary, therefore, to draw them out of their intrenchments, and to accomplish this several things had to be done: to intrench to such an extent that a fraction of the Confederate forces could hold the mass of the Federals in check while Lee with the greater part of his army could operate in the open field; to gather together all the troops that could be drawn from the South and West; and to bring Jackson's victorious column within such a distance as to enable this general to act in coöperation with him. Accordingly, to use his own words, “as soon as the defensive works were sufficiently advanced General Jackson was directed to move rapidly and secretly from the Valley, so as to arrive in the vicinity of Ashland by the 24th of June.” Jackson, moreover, rode on ahead of his troops as this order was on the point of completion, and on the 23d met Generals Lee, Longstreet, and the two Hills in personal conference, when, upon his own suggestion, the 26th was fixed as the day upon which operations should begin.
The general scope of this plan of campaign embraced the passage of the Chickahominy by Lee, and his action in concert with Jackson upon the north, or left bank. By sweeping down the river on that side, and threatening the Federal communications with York River, it was thought that the enemy would be compelled to retreat, or to give battle out of his intrenchments. General Lee does not say where this battle was to take place, nor does he predict McClellan's line of retreat, but from the fact that the communications with York River were the only ones existing at the time and the only ones he mentions, some point on or covering these lines must have been in his mind, and the retreat foreshadowed would be one down the Peninsula and by the roads up which the Federals had advanced. It is reasonable, then, to conclude that Lee anticipated drawing McClellan to the north bank, and that, in the event of this general's defeat, he would retire upon Fort Monroe.
The Federal forces upon which the blow was to fall immediately lay along Beaver Dam Creek, a mile east of Mechanicsville, which is a hamlet on the left bank of the Chickahominy, five miles to the north of Richmond. A little more than a mile and a half from Mechanicsville Bridge, up stream, is Meadow Bridge, and seven miles further up is still another passage. Three and a half miles below Mechanicsville Bridge is New Bridge. All three bridges are ancient and permanent ones, and at that time their approaches from the north were in possession of the Federals, and those from the south were in possession of the Confederates: these approaches led through a wide and otherwise impassable swamp which borders the stream.
It is evident that, during his march down the north bank, Lee would be separated from Richmond and his forces in its front by a river and an impassable swamp, both of which would be on his right flank, and especially that his line of communication would be much greater than that of the Federal right wing with its main body; that, to use military language, he would be acting upon exterior lines. His first object, then, would be to gain a position which would bring him into shorter and speedier communication with the troops left to defend his intrenched lines: such a position would be one that commanded New Bridge. On the 26th of June, the day fixed upon by Jackson himself, this officer should have reached a point from which cooperation with Lee would have been practicable. Accordingly, at three o'clock on the morning of this day, he was to break camp and to direct his march towards Cold Harbor, a spot in rear of the Federals, five and a half miles by an air line east of Mechanicsville, and one and an eighth mile back of the river. Upon setting out he was to send word of this fact to General Branch, who was occupying the uppermost passage of the Chickahominy, whereupon this general was to cross the stream at once with his brigade, and, clearing away the Federal outposts as he advanced, pursue the road to Mechanicsville. When General A. P. Hill, who would be in readiness upon the Meadow Bridge road, perceived Branch opposite to him, he too was to cross, and, turning to the right, follow in the same path. As soon as A. P. Hill had cleared the northern approaches to the Mechanicsville Bridge, Longstreet and D. H. Hill, who were formed on the southern causeways to the bridge, were to cross; the latter continuing his march to the support of Jackson, but the former keeping in a position that would support A. P. Hill. Thenceforth all four divisions were to march on three separate roads in an echelon, or round-of-ladder formation, of which they would constitute the rounds, and in the following order: Jackson's, the leftmost division, to be in advance; D. H. Hill's coming next, with its head on a line at right angles to Jackson's rear; and A. P. Hill's, the lowest round of the ladder, to advance down the river road. Longstreet was to follow the last-named division as a reserve. It was expected that by the time A. P. Hill was ready to set out from Mechanicsville the effect of Jackson's presence upon the Federals would be manifested by the evacuation of their works on Beaver Dam Creek, and that, pressed on rear and flank, they would fall back below New Bridge, where they would be arrested by Jackson, and be compelled to give battle on a field of Lee's choosing.
All this was to be in full swing before the sun had fairly warmed the earth; by high noon the Confederates were to be in communication with their comrades on the south bank by way of New Bridge. But it has not escaped the observation of the reader that the first of these many steps was to be taken by the most remote of the actors in this drama,—one who was behind the scenes, and therefore was out of sight. He was to send word across country to the nearest general, who, seven miles distant from his next neighbor, was to impart motion to the successive columns by moving in force down a road which, more than likely, he would find obstructed. Rarely in combinations involving the contemporaneous or immediately successive action of separate or distant bodies do things fall out in accordance with a foreordained plan of action. Such was the case in this instance. The sun rose to the zenith without the sound of a gun from Jackson and without a sign of Branch. It had even been on its decline for three hours when A. P. Hill, out of all patience, asked permission to cross the river, which, strange to say, Lee granted; and soon, upon the north bank and turning to the right, Hill pushed past Mechanicsville, and out upon a slope from which he expected to discern the abandoned works of the Federals. He saw nothing of the kind, but, to his vexation, beheld the lines fully manned, and their occupants ready to receive him in a position the strength of which was apparent at a glance. Nevertheless, he made haste to clear the field of them before Longstreet and D. H. Hill should come up; but when these arrived on the ground they found him so fast in the toils, and the Federals so firm in their position, that D. H. Hill, after vainly essaying to pass their flank and go to the support of Jackson, was compelled to remain and reinforce the broken and demoralized column already engaged. This division had attempted to advance over a field where it was exposed to a front and flanking fire of infantry and artillery, which, reserved to the latest moment, opened with effect so deadly as to send the broken ranks in confusion back upon Mechanicsville. Hill, strengthened by reinforcements, again advanced, and passed the rest of the day in futile attempt to reach the further bank of the creek. Night at last put an end to the useless slaughter, the Federals remaining unmoved and almost unharmed, but the Confederates being greatly demoralized. The fact is that Jackson, whose successes in the Valley must have turned his head, had given little heed to Longstreet's caution, at the conference of the 23d, to allow himself plenty of time to remove the obstructions which the Federals would be sure to place in his path. The result of his not taking the enemy into his calculations was that he did not get within striking distance, and did not affect this action by the slightest diversion. Lee's plan, in consequence, miscarried; and thus it was that, at the close of the day, the Confederate commander found himself, like McClellan, astride of the Chickahominy, but, unlike his adversary, he was without defenses, and his progress was barred by an exultant foe. The initiatory step of his grand advance had proved a disastrous failure.
The first thing killed by the Federal fire at Beaver Dam Creek was Lee's plan of campaign, if indeed he himself had not put an end to it when he assented to A. P. Hill's proposal to cross the river, Jackson or no Jackson. All hope of proceeding with the echelon formation was out of the question, and if the general movement was to be prosecuted it would have to be done in conformity with Porter's plan instead of Lee's. The situation was a grave one, and Porter, awake to his advantages, impressed upon McClellan the possibilities embraced in a transfer of the mass of his army to that spot during the night. But McClellan did not accept these suggestions, and when the day broke the tide had turned: Jackson's approach had at last produced the effect desired by Lee, and the Federals were retiring. Porter fell back without molestation to a field beyond Powhite Creek, six miles distant by road, and there the Confederates found the Federal right wing now completely concentrated and quietly awaiting a fresh onset. The approaches to New Bridge were, it is true, in Lee's possession, but the field of battle was of the enemy's choosing. A stubborn and deadly conflict ensued, since styled the battle of Gaines' Mill, and it was not until sunset that 65,000 Confederates succeeded in piercing the line of 27,000 Federals. The losses on both sides were enormous: on that of the Federals every fourth man was gone. Nevertheless, their forces slept on the field until two o'clock in the morning, when they retired without hindrance to the south bank. Lee had not driven them into the river, and now for the first time McClellan's army was compactly brought together. The tables were turned: before Lee set out upon his quest he had been massed on the south bank, and McClellan was astride of the Chickahominy; now McClellan was massed upon the south bank, and Lee was on both sides of the river. It was Turenne's and Montecucculi's famous seesaw, half performed, over again.
But was the position in which Lee found himself one that the leader of an army would occupy of choice, and one which should be the outcome of a plan founded upon sound strategical and tactical principles? He could not boast on taking off his armor: he had neither destroyed nor dispersed the obstinate right wing; he had not drawn the enemy out of his intrenchments; he had not fought his battles on fields other than those chosen by his adversary; instead of bloodless victories his losses had been exceedingly great, and unwarranted by the advantages gained; he had found the coveted dépôt of supplies empty, and the communications, to strike which he was imperiling his own, had been abandoned for another line,—a catastrophe he should have taken into account when dealing with one who had a choice of bases; and, to crown all, he had concentrated the Federal forces, and they lay at that moment between him and his capital, so that, should they advance, he was for the time being powerless to retard them, or to regain his intrenchments and oppose them.
This situation speaks for itself and for the faultiness of the conception which had given it birth. The consciousness that the Confederate army was open to the decisive blow which in all reason should follow the completion of every false movement had only one thing to moderate its bitterness the reflection that this operation had been interfered with, but that the adversary had accepted none of the advantages which this interference had unveiled. There was reason, then, for the hope that the same inertness would withhold the finishing blow.
It is easy to see why the battle of Gaines' Mill was fought by the Confederates they had to fight it, for they could not advance upon the York River communications and leave Porter on their flank. But why did the Federals give battle here? Not because they considered it a decisive point, for in this case they should have reinforced Porter to the last man; nor to gain time for a change of position, for the orders and explanatory details given in execution of the march to the James were not issued until after this action. If the battle of Gaines' Mill was fought neither for the decisive defeat of the enemy nor to gain time, for what purpose was that of Mechanicsville or Beaver Dam Creek fought? One would naturally answer, to hold Lee on the north bank while McClellan pushed forward on the south bank; or, to hold Lee in position while the army, transferred from the south bank, interposed between him and Jackson. But we have General Porter's word for it that McClellan left Beaver Dam Creek about one o'clock in the morning of the 27th (that is, after the battle), “with the expectation of receiving information on his arrival at his own headquarters, from the tenor of which he would be enabled to decide whether I should hold my present position or withdraw.” This evidence is direct to the point that this battle had been fought without a decided purpose; but what information at headquarters could that be which, for inducing decision, was superior to the information that the battlefield itself expressed?
The battles of Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines' Mill were fought with no definite purpose by the Federals, and therefore profited them in nothing; yet the former conveyed a lesson which should have been taken to heart, and this field and its vicinity should have been made the theatre of a decisive action on the morrow. Better still, from the moment that Lee crossed the Chickahominy the Federals should have kept retiring before him until he had completed his false movement, and then, with wholly concentrated and undiminished forces, they should have struck the decisive blow.
The operations on the Chickahorniny by Lee, and those from the Chickahominy to the James by McClellan, must be considered as separate movements of opposing commanders. When the battle of Gaines' Mill was over, Lee's movement was at an end, and that of McClellan began.
On the night of the 27th of June, 1862, five courses were open to General McClellan: (1) to resume his advance on Richmond; (2) to leave the south bank and sustain his communications with York River; (3) to reinforce Porter with the mass of his army and fight a decisive battle at Gaines' Mill; (4) to retreat to Fort Monroe; or (5) to change his base to the James.
The first course was the one expected of the Federal chief by the country, and he should have attempted it at all hazards; the third course was a bold counterstroke which would have been hailed with applause at home, and which promised success: both of these movements were purely aggressive in nature. The second course was a defensive one, with the chance of taking on an offensive character, as it surely would have done in the event of success. This course was open to the objection that it was the very thing his adversary wished him to do. The fourth course was not to be thought of on account of the disheartening effect an open retreat would have upon the North. The fifth course was a compromise; it would relieve the pressure upon Richmond, it is true, but for a while only, when it would be renewed more vigorously than ever. If a retreat to Fort Monroe would indicate abandonment of purpose, a mere change of base would be, on the contrary, significant of persistence in effort; the purpose would be constant, and Richmond would remain threatened. Whether a change of line of communications would involve the withdrawal of the army to the new base might well be doubted. It does not necessarily follow that it would do so, yet in the present case it certainly would require a new position in rear of the existing one; but then this would be sure to do with Lee that which Lee had just failed to do with McClellan,—to draw him out of his intrenchments on to a field of his enemy's choosing. This, we shall see, was actually done, and Glendale or Charles City Cross Roads, above all others, was the field; but, as at Beaver Dam Creek, the advantages offered were not accepted.
On the 28th, Lee dispatched his cavalry to scour the neighborhood in search of Federal troops and to capture the dépêt at White House. Such of the stores as had not been carried off were found smoking. The day was passed in reconstructing New Bridge and in waiting for the next move of the enemy. The general perplexity respecting the Federal movements was not dispelled until the morning of the 29th; then Lee bent every energy to take advantage of the exposure made by McClellan of his right flank. This was not an easy task; for, with the exception of Magruder's and Huger's forces, the whole of the Confederate army was in rear of McClellan, and separated from him by the Chickahominy and its swamps, to pass which the broken bridges would have to be rebuilt, a thing impossible in the presence of the enemy.
Early in the morning of the 29th, Longstreet and A. P. Hill crossed by New Bridge to the south bank, and, passing in rear of Magruder's lines, hurried to Charles City Cross Roads in order to strike McClellan in flank, and Holmes was ordered from the other side of the James to head him off at Malvern Hill: both Holmes and Huger, who was to leave his lines, were to coöperate with Longstreet. D. H. Hill and Jackson were left upon the north bank, with orders to pursue as soon as the withdrawal of the Federal rearguard rendered it possible to reconstruct a bridge. This was not accomplished until sunset, too late to save Magruder from a rude repulse at Savage's Station which he encountered at the hands of Sumner and Franklin. Jackson did not overtake the rearguard until noon of the 30th, after it was in position on the further side of White Oak Swamp, and also of the stream of the same name. He passed the whole day in unavailing efforts to cross the creek and dislodge Franklin, an object which he might have accomplished by way of Brackett's Ford. Longstreet and A. P. Hill, in pursuance of their part, were on time at Charles City Cross Roads or Glendale, but the columns of Holmes, Huger, and Magruder failed to coöperate with them; for Holmes was speedily put to flight, Huger failed to clear his road in time, and Magruder was kept uselessly swinging like a pendulum between Glendale and Turkey Island. And thus, after a hard-contested battle, Longstreet and A. P. Hill had the mortification of seeing the Federal army pass by them and concentrate in safety upon Malvern Hill, the spot which was to have been occupied by Holmes. On the next day, Lee attempted the futile task of driving the united army of the Federals from the unassailable position of Malvern Hill: the result was costly and fruitless, and McClellan could now bid defiance to him. At no time since taking the field had the Confederates dealt the Federal army a blow which had imperiled its existence, or delayed its march even. The position of this army was exceedingly critical on the 30th of June, when its front, right flank, and rear were assailed; but the operations of its enemy, though menacing, were lacking in performance sufficient to touch its vitality. In fact, on this very day McClellan was in condition to turn the tables.
General Lee was over fifty-five years of age when he was called to the head of a great army, and when he took the field against McClellan. He had passed his life, with the exception of the brief interlude afforded by the Mexican war, in the narrow and narrowing life which the United States army presents in time of peace. The relief which frontier service and fighting Indians offer to this most dull existence had been his in scant measure; for most of his days had glided away in the routine of an engineer's duties, in which intellectual activity was restricted to subjects within the range of military need. It may be owing to this that his first plan of campaign (or the one adopted by him at the suggestion of General Longstreet) had not the breadth of conception which should characterize the plans of a man in a position so exalted and responsible as that of the commander of a great army. For this scheme did not contemplate the permanent relief of his capital or the destruction of his adversary, and it did not comprise a field wider than that upon which the two armies were encamped. To draw the enemy out of his intrenchments by threatening his communications, and thus compel him to raise the siege of Richmond, was the utmost object of his design.
Nor did the features of the plan of campaign commend themselves to those versed in the art of war. Imperfectly manned earthworks were to constitute the sole protection of the Confederate capital during the absence of the defending army; this army would be cut off from its base by the swamps and jungles of the Chickahominy, through which, in case of disaster, there were no avenues of retreat except the narrow roads of advance, and these were overhung by high banks that were sure to afford vantage ground to the pursuer; this army, too, was to regulate its movements by those of another army which was out of sight and beyond ready communication, and the junction of these two forces was to take place in the presence of the enemy and under his fire. Every moment after he had passed the Chickahominy, Lee would be liable to one of two things: the interposition between him and Jackson of the whole of McClellan's army, or the advance of the Federals on Richmond through the ill-de-fended lines left in charge of Magruder. Moreover, in the event of the enemy's right wing falling back, or of its being driven from the north bank of the Chickahominy, without the main body coming out of its intrenchments, the farther would Lee's own lines of communication be extended; the greater his success, the greater the concentration of his foes, until at last these foes would be congregated between Richmond and its defenders. Jefferson Davis pointed out that the success of this movement depended upon holding good the earthworks left behind, and that the plan did not take into account the contingency of their capture. Lee was somewhat nettled at the hint that the engineer was predominating over the tactician, but made no change. This criticism of Davis's was a sound one.
In fact, a glaring defect of Lee's plan of operations was its narrowness ; it did not include remote conditions, and, worse than all, it did not provide for contingencies. For instance, it took for granted that McClellan would come out of his intrenchments in order to maintain his existing line of communications; yet McClellan was on a peninsula where the waterways were under his control and afforded him a choice of lines on either side, and it was well known that he preferred the line of the James to any other line. It should have suggested itself, also, that the Federal commander would be glad of an excuse to withdraw his right wing from its perilous position, particularly as, in doing so, he would be removing likewise a bone of contention between him and the politicians at Washington. Yet it does not seem to have occurred to Lee to ask himself, What if McClellan does not come out of his intrenchments? or, What if McClellan does come out, but takes position upon a field not of my choosing?
This reflection is further justified by Lee's conduct on the 28th of June, the day succeeding the battle of Gaines' Mill. McClellan had not reinforced Porter until towards the close of this action, and then had not done so sufficiently to enable his lieutenant to assume the offensive; moreover, during the night succeeding the battle Porter had joined McClellan on the south bank. The inference is that Lee's plan for drawing his adversary to the north bank in order to maintain his communications had failed. The Confederate general was at his wits' end; and the surest evidence of his perplexity is that he sent away his cavalry. Generals do not prepare for completing the execution of their plans by depriving themselves of their eyes and ears, as Cyrus styled the horsemen of an army. Evidently a contingency had arisen for which Lee was unprepared, and not until the night of the 28th–29th was well spent did the truth break upon him, and the unforeseen but now indisputable facts point out his course. Then his procedure became plain: it was to counteract McClellan's movements. But this was not the plan with which he left Richmond; it was the one with which he left the Chickahominy, and it had been prescribed to him by his enemy.
This is not the view taken by the Confederate commanders in their reports, nor by the Southern writers: these all assume that Lee's movements during the seven days were successive steps of a single and coherent plan, and they protest with iteration that Lee forced McClellan to precipitate flight. They protest much, but prove too little, since their “evidences of precipitate flight” are narrowed down to the destruction of supplies at Savage's Station, and the abandonment of the field hospitals there,̵matters preliminary to every perilous movement in war, and evidence, as it turned out, not of flight, but of stripping for fight. If McClellan had been sitting for weeks before Lee's lines in safety, what was to prevent his continuing to do so, now that the weakness of his right wing had been converted into strength, his army had been concentrated, another base had been substituted for the one abandoned, and, more than all, that his enemy had placed himself beyond the Chickahominy, where he could be rendered powerless to strike?
Nevertheless, no one can peruse the writings of the Confederates without seeing that they hug the thought that they had put the Federals to inglorious flight. So far as this notion was a raison de guerre, and had served its turn as such at the proper time and place, it may be allowed to pass without comment. General Lee had the same right to use this artifice in order to stimulate his troops that he had to employ any other stimulus for the same purpose; but if he was weak enough to let it control his action as commander in chief, then he is open to the censure that every one who willfully embraces error is subject to.
General Lee did believe that he had put McClellan to inglorious flight, and did govern his actions accordingly. This assertion has for its foundation not only Lee's order congratulating his troops upon the success of the campaign, but also a positive avouchment of General D. H. Hill, one of his most conspicuous commanders. Hill tells the following story, which throws a strong light on the impulses and spirit of Lee and his generals during the latter part of the movement. He says that on the morning of the day upon which the battle of Malvern Hill was fought he met General Lee at the Willis Church, and, after giving him a description of Malvern Hill as he had received it from one living in the neighborhood, he remarked, “If General McClellan is there in force, we had better let him alone.” At this, Longstreet, who was present, laughed, and said, “Don't get scared, now that we have got him whipped.” Hill adds that “it was this belief in the demoralization of the Federal army that made General Lee risk the attack.”
Such being the case, the loss of 6000 Confederates that very day must be laid at General Lee's door; for what ground had he for this belief? His troops had met the Federals at Mechanicsville, at Gaines' Mill, at Savage's Station, and in the actions of the day before, namely, those of White Oak Swamp, Glendale, and Turkey Island Bridge. Was it at Mechanicsville that he became aware of the demoralization of the Federals? Longstreet himself answers this as follows: “Next to Malvern Hill, the sacrifice (of ‘our somewhat disheartened forces’) at Beaver Dam was unequaled in demoralization during the entire summer;” and neither he nor any one else has ever so much as hinted that the victorious Federals were demoralized. It could not have been at Mechanicsville, then, that Lee acquired his belief. Was it at Gaines' Mill? Porter took into this battle less than 21,000 men; he received no reinforcements until four o'clock in the afternoon, and after this no more until just before dark. Altogether, when the day closed, he had had under him 27,000 men, but at no time could he have had in hand 24,000 with whom to resist nearly thrice this number. Yet he held his position covering the bridges until two o'clock of the following morning, and then, unmolested, retired in perfect order across the river. It was not at Gaines' Mill that General Lee could have conceived the notion that his adversary was demoralized. Nor was it at Savage's Station, where the Federals gained a victory. Was it at White Oak Swamp or at Glendale? At the former place, Stonewall Jackson and D. H. Hill were kept at bay by the Federals, though within the sound of Longstreet's guns; and it was not until late in the evening that Franklin, having accomplished his object, retired, betraying no evidence of demoralization that the Confederate writers have considered important enough to notice. At Glendale, which was a hard-fought battle, the Federals foiled Longstreet and A. P. Hill, and did not retire until after nightfall and after attaining their object. It is significant that Longstreet, though claiming great success, attributes no part of it to the demoralization of his foes. Was it at Turkey Island Bridge? General D. H. Hill best answers this question in his amusing description of Holmes's discomfiture, and of the “fleeing chivalry” and “cowering raw levies.” In this brief action the demoralization of the Confederates was complete and radical.
Thus it appears, by the admission of the Confederates themselves, that in two of these six actions the demoralization of their own forces was glaring; they say nothing of Federal demoralization in respect to the remaining four battles, and the “evidences of precipitate flight” offered by them are restricted to the incidents already noticed. The conclusion is irresistible that General Lee had not sufficient ground for acting upon his belief in the demoralization of the Federals. To underrate one's adversary is as great a fault as to overrate him. At Malvern Hill Lee underrated his enemy; at Gaines' Mill he overrated him, for at the moment when he said that “the principal part of the Federal army is now on the north side of the Chickahominy” Porter was opposing him with barely one fourth of this army.
If General Lee, during this campaign, did not fully satisfy the high-wrought expectations of the hour in breadth of conception, adherence to plan, capacity to see things as they are, fertility of resources, and the prudence which forbids a general ever to underrate his enemy, neither did he give promise of the excellence he attained afterwards in handling troops in the immediate presence of the enemy. He did not make his mark as a tactician.
At Mechanicsville, Lee as well as A. P. Hill lost patience, for he assented to Hill's proposition to open the ball before the signal was given. This was tantamount to discarding his plans; he certainly showed them scant respect. Once on the ground, everything was nervously hurried; and though it was speedily demonstrated that he could neither pierce the Federal front nor turn the Federal left, he did not desist from the attempt to do so as long as daylight was left. The story may be summed up thus: total failure to attain his object; Federal loss 361, Confederate loss (exclusive of two brigades and of the artillery) 1589. General Longstreet estimated the whole Confederate loss “between 3000 and 4000.” The 44th Georgia alone lost within twenty-six of the number of casualties suffered by the entire Federal line of battle, and after nightfall men roamed over the battlefield crying out, “Where's the 44th Georgia?” but getting no answer. Where was the 44th Georgia, indeed? Yet with over 45,000 men within sound of his voice, Lee did not renew the only attempt that he had made to pass Porter's right flank, though every consideration urged him to repeat the effort. This great loss was due to impatience and to persistence altogether useless, inasmuch as there was nothing to prevent his forbearing or withdrawing from this futile task, and quietly leaving the approach of Jackson to have its effect. Neither here nor at Malvern Hill did General Lee display judgment in attacking. He should not have attacked at all; and in both of these battles one quality essential to good generalship was painfully lacking, —that of ceasing to persist in error. He did not know how to forbear.
The battle of Malvern Hill affords a striking illustration of General Lee's shortcomings as a tactician; it does not present a single redeeming feature to the failure of the Confederates. The outcome of this battle was a complete defeat for them, and not a creditable one at that. Everything upon their side was chaotic: there was no concert, no unity, no leadership. Their conduct was that of blind and senseless giants striking out they knew not whither, and hitting at random. A mass of men would rush up a deadly slope, yelling as if there were a Jericho before them to fall by mere sound; another, at a distance and acting independently, would be doing the same thing: both would be sent back torn to pieces. Then a great mass would start forward from another quarter, as if the hour appointed for victory had come, and those who were waving the banners were to be the victors; but the remorseless artillery of the Federals speedily drowned their yells, and they too in hot haste found their way back to the cover whence they had emerged. Then other fractions would take their turns in the same way and with the same results. Their tactics were Chinese tactics, sound and fury, signifying nothing; and the strife was one of reeling, obstinate, dogged masses of ill-disciplined and ill-marshaled infantry against well-posted and well-handled artillery that bided its time, and then coolly administered the coup de grâce. No cavalry tormented the Federal flanks and rear; it had been sent off on a wild-goose chase four days before. Little artillery boomed from the Confederate front; it was smashed to atoms while getting into position. Infantry, nothing but infantry, and this unwelded, incoherent, decomposed; but to the last it yelled.
The operations of General Lee in this battle will always be classed with those of the great Frederick at Torgau; the student of tactics will be rewarded for his pains in studying them by the complete knowledge he will possess of what to avoid doing. The positions taken were such as the Northern general would have chosen for the Southern army; the onslaughts were such as he would have dictated; the plan—but there was no plan; it was a go-as-you-please. Beyond the divisions or an occasional corps there was no leadership. “Armistead . . . . has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same,” is that day's contribution to the literature of Orders of Great Captains; and there was nothing in the incoherent drama, as witnessed by the spectators on the Federal side, to indicate that there was such a being on the field as a commander in chief of the Confederate forces. Longstreet—the Longstreet of Gaines' Mill and of the Glendale of only twenty-four hours before—might as well have been in the moon, for all that the Federals knew of him; Jackson might as well have stayed behind at White Oak Swamp; D. H. Hill, indeed, strutted his brief time upon the stage, and to some purpose, but finding himself unsustained retired to sulk. Holmes was the most sensible man of all: he recognized the fact that a successful attack on the strong position of Malvern Hill from his quarter and with his force was out of the question, and said so. His judgment was approved by the result: he and his men lived to fight another day.
The battle closed with an attack by Magruder at the head of nine brigades. Of the swarm of men in the Federal reserve artillery, which, in anticipation of this onslaught, had been massed within close supporting distance of their line of battle, few gave themselves much concern about the line which they had been sent to support; if it needed more strength, that was already at hand in the masses of infantry that were approaching from the reserves. The scene was brilliant beyond description, and all that is beautiful and grand in battle was in the picture. The Confederates, deployed into line, pressed nearer and nearer, but, for a wonder, had ceased to yell; the order for the day had been forgotten, and they were silent. As they stood in a rapidly thinning line of battle, the Federal reinforcements, accompanied by Porter himself, arrived at their front, and added volume to the roll of musketry. The smoke which rose from the line soon hid friend and foe from view. At last the firing began to die away; there was a movement on the right, another on the left,—the cavalry and horse artillery were going up. The smoke lifted, and objects could be discerned through the dissipating cloud: the Federal line was advancing, the Confederates who had not gone were going, the gunboats were dropping shells where the enemy was supposed to be, a siege battery was assisting in the acceleration of the Confederates' flight, and the show was over. “Pretty, but not war,” was heard on all sides, and yet General Lee gained great fame on that day.
General Lee mentions the lack of accurate knowledge of the region that was to be fought over, and this observation is echoed by D. H. Hill. All the greater need, therefore, of careful reconnoissance; but in this respect the Confederates are open to censure. Thus, the needless slaughter at Mechanicsville might have been spared, if A. P. Hill had reconnoitred the Federal position properly. At Gaines' Mill, Jackson actually posted D. H. Hill's division so that its left flank was exposed to the enemy; ignorance of the lay of the land caused utmost confusion in his own corps while getting into position, and, toward the close of the day, prevented a serious movement on the Federal right in following up the advantage. At Allen's Farm and at Savage's Station, if Magruder had made careful reconnoissances, he would have learned in the morning that there was an interval of more than a mile between General Smith and the troops on his left; and he had a fair chance of learning, too, that the Federals were lacking in reserves. In the afternoon, he seems to have made his attack in ignorance of the fact that the Federal left was en l'air by reason of Heintzelman's premature departure: had he known this, it is not probable that he would have kept his troops which were north of the railroad idle spectators of the fight. On the 30th of June, if Jackson had prosecuted his reconnoissance seriously in the direction of Brackett's Ford, which lay at his right elbow, he could not have failed to perceive the feasibility of crossing there, and by one movement cutting off Franklin at White Oak Bridge and falling upon the right of the Federals then engaged in the battle of Glendale. On the same day, Holmes, who had come all the way from the south bank of the James, stumbled into the presence of Porter's corps and the concentrated fire of thirty pieces of artillery, to his utter discomfiture,—a result that could have been avoided by his taking the trouble to look where he was going. Last of all, if General Lee's reconnoissance of Malvern Hill had been worthy of the occasion, it is not to be believed that he would have rushed forward to the disaster that stared him in the face.
The campaign of the seven days had its surprises in store for the critics, especially in that which related to the qualities of the commanders in chief. Who would have supposed that in the quiet, church-going, self-contained, and orderly man with gray hairs lay a love of fighting with which that only of a Phil Kearny or of an A. P. Hill can be compared, and an audacity in the glare of which that of Stonewall Jackson pales? Yet in deserting his fortifications and courting the chances of the open field General Lee exhibited this high quality of audacity in greater measure than any general has done during the latter half of the present century. Was he warranted in taking the field when he did? Unquestionably: the spur was in his side, and fate kept whispering l'audaee, l'audace, toujours l'audace. No man of Lee's mould was ever deaf to that prompting. Fortune in war loves a daring suitor, and he who throws down the gauntlet may always count upon his adversary to help him, unless that adversary be an Alexander, a Cæsar, a Frederick, or a Napoleon. Men may fill volumes with criticism of this or that plan of campaign, and may set forth by the dozen faults which should have ruined the generals that committed them; nevertheless, he who has studied the campaigns of great men has never failed to be struck with this fact, that in the execution of plans founded upon calm, close, judicial study of the situation it is the chief displaying the greatest audacity who wins. The audacity that is the offspring of judgment is the quality that seasons generalship; this it is which gains the ends of states and makes men heroes. Frederick at Leuthen, Napoleon at Arcola, Washington at Trenton,—no wonder that the Southern people will not hearken to the defects betrayed by Lee in this campaign, when he exhibited from first to last the one trait which atones for all shortcomings.
General Lee deserves great credit for promptitude and vigor. When the perplexity of the 28th of June came to an end, he became aggressive on the instant. He was all action, and echoed Macbeth to the letter: “From this moment the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.” The conditions under which he acted rendered success almost impossible: after recrossing the Chickahominy, the tables were liable to be turned at every step, and in fact the moment when Lee supposed himself to be on the point of a great victory would have been the moment for a Napoleon to annihilate him. Was he aware how critical his affairs then stood, and that, while his adversary had wagered the success of a single campaign only, he had staked his very existence? If so, he did not betray the faintest sign of faltering. It is said that when he found his prey had slipped through his grasp, he did not utter a word of reproach against those who had merited reproach. Thus this campaign closed with success, but, audacity apart, not with success won.
Lord Bacon says, “In meditation all dangers should be seen; in execution none, unless very formidable.” Lee took the latter half of this apothegm to heart, and McClellan the former: between the two, the art of war is beholden to this campaign in nothing.
Eben Greenough Scott.