The first impressions of Robert Edward Lee were military. He drew them from the romantic career of his father, Henry Lee, the “Light Horse Harry” of the Revolutionary War, Lieutenant at 19, Captain at 20, Major and Lieutenant Colonel at 25, Commander of a picked body of partisans, later a student of history, a writer and an author. Washington said that he had “great resources of genius.” Greene admitted that he was “indebted to this officer more than to any other for the advantages gained over the enemy in the operations of the last campaign.” Lafayette said, “If it can be done by any human being it will be executed by Lee.” The last years of his life were devoted to the preparation of a book on “The War in the Southern Department”, which was completed in 1809, but not published till 1824. Both the manuscript and the printed volume must have been accessible to Robert, probably eagerly perused by him, and may have filled him with the military ardor which sent him to the Military Academy at the age of 18 years. During his youth he must have met many old friends and companions of his father in the early days. The father of Joseph E. Johnston, his classmate at West Point, was a member of “Lee's Legion”.
Henry Lee was sent with Greene to the Carolinas in 1780 with a picked command designed for partisan work. The book makes claim that he outpointed the terrible Tarleton on several occasions because his men were better riders and were better mounted than the enemy. Much might be said about his services in minor war, fight and foray, surprise, ruse and stratagem, all of which were quite notable, appropriate to his youth and command and of good record in the annals of that day.
The battle of Guilford Court House, N.C, on March 15, 1781, marks a turning point in the war. The Southern Campaign under Lincoln, Gates and Greene had not given favorable results for two years. Georgia, South Carolina and most of North Carolina were in the hands of the British. Lord Cornwallis was satisfied that his work in those states was completed, so he decided to march back to Virginia.
General Greene planned with the advice and approval of his senior subordinates to continue the former line of action and to follow the Army of Cornwallis as his main objective.
It was then that Lee, the junior in rank and the most youthful in age, proposed a plan which was radically opposed to the one which had already been accepted. It was to leave Cornwallis in the air and to lead the army of Greene back to South Carolina, to break the line of communication between Charleston and the British posts in the interior and then to reconquer South Carolina and Georgia. The idea was adopted.
The result was as Lee had planned and foreseen. The British were expelled from every post in the Carolinas and Georgia. Other considerable results greatly added to the fame of General Greene and perhaps led to the final surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Thus we see that this young Lieutenant Colonel at the age of 25 years, about the age of Napoleon in the first Italian Campaign, had grown from the position of a leader in partisan war into that of an adviser to an army commander. Can we doubt that young Robert, the son, made note of this and put it away for future use?
Among these character building influences of Robert we must give some place to his elder brother Henry Lee, junior, who was about seventeen years his senior in age. This Henry was a major in the War of 1812, served about two years and declined reappointment after the war. He published a number of books, among others, a revised edition of his father's work on the war in the Carolinas. He had a controversy with Thomas Jefferson in reply to the latter's remarks about the father's book, and began a life of Napoleon Bonaparte, of which only one volume was published in 1824. This volume included the events of May, 1796, and was by far the best thing on any part of Napoleon's Campaigns that had been published up to that time. He spent his later years in France and was acquainted with the mother of Napoleon and with many of the prominent soldiers of the Emperor who were then living.
The completion of this work was prevented by the death of the author in 1837. Whether he left any notes or manuscript for future volumes I do not know, although it would be strange if he did not.
Military criticism of that day partook of the psychology of the mob. The greater part of the world was wild with hate of Napoleon. Even Walter Scott descended to low abuse and false history. Henry Lee answered Scott but ignored the balance. His estimate of Napoleon as a soldier may be found in two short paragraphs. Thus, page 114, “Especially memorable is that judgment which enabled him to foreshadow with perfect accuracy of discernment the consequences of a postponed operation in the fears and necessities of the enemy.” And again, page 534, he ascribed to Napoleon an ability “to penetrate the character of your enemy, to inspire him with fear and to act on that fear.”
It calls for no great flight of fancy to picture to ourselves the younger brother reading and rereading these small paragraphs and storing them in his memory for future use.
A master-builder made the plan and laid the foundation of our Military Academy as it has existed to this day. His name was Sylvanus Thayer and his work began in 1817, fifteen years after the first start, and it ended in 1833. Having graduated in 1808, and having examined the military schools of Europe, he was prepared to correct faults and to inaugurate a system of his own. It was simple enough to introduce a Roman discipline and precise forms of drill and maneuver, but his main desire was that the school should be a maker of men.
He sought in every way to build up that cadet spirit which has borne so well the test of camp and court and battle line in this last hundred years. His daily orders were filled with gentle admonition and mild reproof, appeals to a sense of duty, of honor, of gentlemanly conduct. Disreputable acts were boldly stated in such a way as to make comment unnecessary and to invite a healthy sentiment in the entire corps. Punishment was prompt and an order to “leave West Point without delay” would sometimes end a career. In cases of general worthlessness, it was usual to order a Court of “Enquiry” to report on the general conduct of a cadet. If found to be inattentive, unsoldierly and ungentlemanly, he was summarily dismissed. Cadets were cited by name in orders for frequent delinquencies and were warned that a change for the better was expected.
Lee was a model cadet, graduating number 2 in his class, with no demerits in his four years of service. Four others of the class had no demerits. His class began with 87 and graduated 46. There were 26 who were deficient in studies, probably 13 deficient in conduct and 2 not examined but who perhaps resigned to avoid the examination. At that time it appears that cadets with more than 300 demerits in a year were reported to the War Department as deficient in conduct and recommended for discharge, sometimes with a recommendation for clemency in proper cases.
In the Cadet Battalion, Lee had the position of Adjutant, which has always been the prize awarded to the most soldierly man in a class.
In 1818 a textbook on the Science of War and Fortification, written by Colonel Guy De Vernon, Professor of Engineering of the Polytechnic School of France, translated by Captain J. M. O'Conner of the United States Army, was introduced at the Military Academy and used up to an unknown date.
The original text had been submitted to the revision of a board of distinguished Marshals and Engineers and by order of Emperor Napoleon was adopted as a textbook. It was in two volumes with an atlas.
In the introduction, the translator invites attention to the need of a general summary of the principles and maxims of grand tactics and operations “because the works on these and other branches of war are locked up in the French and German languages which few foreigners understand.” He therefore supplies it in an appendix which “contains the best principles and maxims of such writers as Guibert, Lloyd, Tempelhoff and Jomini, particularly of the latter, whose work is considered a masterpiece and as the highest authority. Indeed no man should pretend to be capable of commanding any considerable body of troops unless he has studied and meditated on the principles laid down by Jomini.” He introduces the appendix as “A Summary of the principles and maxims of grand tactics and operations” with a preliminary notice, in which he speaks of Jomini in even higher terms. He says “General Jomini has transcended all writers on war and has exhibited the most extraordinary powers of analyzing and combining military operations. His work forms an epoch in the history of the science and should be read by every person ambitious of extending their knowledge or of understanding military history. The writer has enlightened the annals of his own and future times, by referring events to principles and causes; and he has reduced the hitherto mysterious science of war to a few self-evident principles and axioms. From a work of such excellence the following summary is chiefly taken.”
At that time the chair of Engineering at West Point was filled by Professor Crozet, a native of France, a graduate of the Polytechnic School, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. It was probably on his recommendation that the book was adopted at West Point.
Professor D. H. Mahan was professor of Engineering in 1832 and we find that the De Vernon book was continued as a textbook until his own lithographic notes and books took its place, but we do not know when that occurred. In 1841 he was using his own notes on the composition of armies and strategy. In 1848 he introduced his “Advanced guard and Outposts, with the essential principles of Strategy and Grand Tactics.”
O'Connor's appendix to the science of war contained only 106 pages and as Professor Mahan seems to have shared the common estimate of Jomini it is probable that his own notes and lectures were an amplification of the early textbook, and that it continued to be the gospel and military primer for the future commanders of the armies of the Civil War.
At the beginning of the war with Mexico, Lee was a Captain of Engineers. He was forty years of age and had been an officer for seventeen years. Strictly speaking he had not served with troops. Although there had been continuous war with the Indians, most of that time in Florida and elsewhere, it did not have a place for his special arm of the service. So far as we are informed he had not progressed further in military art and leadership than was indicated by the course of study and discipline in use at West Point during his cadetship.
It is safe to conclude that he was familiar with the two books, one by his father and one by his brother, to which reference has been made. He also had a valuable asset in being an excellent horseman, which was to serve him well in his entire military career.
His first assignment was to the Staff of General Wool on the border, where he soon showed his mettle by making a reconnaissance of forty miles alone at night, followed by another by day with an escort of cavalry, and reporting the strength and position of Santa Anna.
He then joined the Vera Cruz expedition and it soon became evident that he was to be the chief military adviser as well as the Chief Scout of General Scott.
When the army, in the advance on the City of Mexico, had reached Puebla, one hundred and fifty miles from the base of supplies at the seacoast, it was necessary to halt to await reinforcements to replace the troops who had to be discharged on account of the expiration of their term of enlistment. When they arrived the force amounted to about 14,000 men, of whom about 3,000 were either sick or convalescent. To continue the march and to make the necessary detachments to guard the line of communications as well as to guard the line of supplies in an enemy's country, filled with guerillas, would have reduced the army to a negligible strength. It was therefore decided to abandon the line of communications, leaving the sick and convalescents at Puebla and to continue the march on the Mexican Capitol.
To cut loose from your base is supposed to be the most unusual as well as the most dangerous decision in war. Napoleon in his march on Moscow did not do so.
We do not know whether this decision was taken by Scott independently of any suggestion from another. We only know that Lee was his most trusted subordinate, whose advice had been freely taken at the siege of Vera Cruz and at the battle of Cerro Gordo. In any event the decision was very much like that which Lee himself afterwards adopted in his two invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania and at other times during the Civil War when he deliberately uncovered his line of retreat.
The advance on the City of Mexico was a series of flanking operations against an enemy who was able to occupy strong positions against frontal attack and with flanks that seemed to be secure. Roads were scarce and the country was difficult. The frontal attack would have resulted in heavy loss even if successful.
The flank attack was ancient in war, at least as old as Epaminondas, but it had been brought to its highest perfection by Frederick when he fought alone against Europe. The West Point textbook to which we so often refer contained a full description of its use by him in the Seven Years War. His success was due to the superior mobility of his troops due to long training and an iron discipline. Simple as it seems to us at this day it was as much of a surprise to his enemies as the ruses and stratagems of Hannibal had been to the legions of Rome. When Frederick found his enemy in line of battle he formed up as if to attack. Then breaking from line into column he marched by the flank into position across the exposed flank of the enemy, and there wheeled from column into line for the attack. Today it would be just “Squads Right”, “Column half left”, “Squads Left”, “Guide Center”.
This was the method at Prague, Kollin, Rosbach, Leuthen, Zorndorf, Kunersdorf, and by this simple maneuver a great army sometimes in full view, marched around the enemy until ready to form line to attack with the swiftness of lightning. Owing to the difficulty of the country to be passed over the problem was not so simple in Mexico but the principle remained.
Three battles were fought to reach the City of Mexico—at Cerro Gordo, at Contreras, and at Cherubusco. From first to last Lee was the Chief Scout, in fact the Buffalo Bill of the American Army. But Cody did his work on the rolling prairies of our great west; he was familiar with the haunts and hunting grounds of the Indians. Lee was in an unknown land, unmapped, with sheep trails for roads, with mountains, morasses and lava beds in the way. Lee found the weak points of the enemy, reported them to Scott, led the attacking columns and even made a way for the artillery. It is evident that the decisions of Scott were the result of the personal reconnaissances of Lee, by day and at night—sometimes alone or with a few men. The close relation between cause and effect is best shown by his itinerary, thus:
Reconnaissance by Lee, April 15–17, 1847.
In fact he caught the pace of his potent sire at his best, from the start at Vera Cruz untili the storming of Chapultepec, when he “fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries.”
In his reports we find that General Scott distributes much perfunctory praise as is usual in such operations, but when he speaks of Lee he seems at a loss to find a full expression for his thoughts. He never mentions the name of Lee without some characterization such as “constantly distinguished”, “indefatigable”, “daring”, “laborious”, “conspicuous”, “felicitous in execution”. On the whole the Commanding General gives to Lee a higher praise than to any other man in his army. He often gives credit to the subordinate for things which a less generous man would have claimed for himself.
At one time Scott says that he sent seven members of his staff to take an order across the Pedregal (lava beds) before the battle of Contreras but all failed except Lee who went across and back.
The campaign in Mexico gave Lee abundant opportunities to observe the personal characteristics of many men whom he was to find opposed to him later in the war between the states. McClellan was at Scott's headquarters during the entire campaign. Hooker was Adjutant General for General Pillow; Meade, Burnside and Grant were also in the army. The list comprises all the commanders except Pope who led the armies of the North in Virginia. When one considers the small size of the Army and Lee's position at Scott's headquarters, he must have been able to form a fair estimate of each of them, whether by personal contact or by camp rumor. And when in later years he called to mind the wise remark of his brother in his life of Napoleon, that the Emperor had a habit of studying the character of the enemy's commander, he must have searched his memory many times during the Civil War for light upon the habits of thought of these former companions.
After the Mexican War the next event that we note was Lee's detail to duty as Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, 1852–1855. Work of this kind has always been counted as duty with troops. For our purposes here it is of special importance to observe that the officers on duty there had organized a “Napoleon Club” in 1848, for the critical study of the Campaigns of that great master. Meetings were held several times each month in rooms of the Academic building, on the walls of which large-scale maps were painted, showing the various theaters of war, and illustrating the tactical and strategical movements of each campaign. Professor D. H. Mahan, the head of the Department of Engineering, presided. He was five years senior to Lee at the Academy and had spent four years in France, engaged in professional studies. The maps were there in 1876, and probably until the new academic building replaced the former some years later. The professor assigned the subjects and each member was given six weeks in which to prepare his demonstration. The interest of the meetings was enhanced by the lectures of the professor himself, his keen, incisive criticisms, and his instructive analyses of these studies. George B. McClellan had been an active member of the club for three years prior to the arrival of Lee. Among the papers that he had prepared was one of 120 pages on Napoleon's Campaign of 1812, and another on the Campaign of Wagram. Among other campaigns that we know of were Waterloo by B. S. Alexander, Russia by G. W. Smith and 1796 by D. H. Maury. When we consider the number of officers on duty at that time and the frequency of the meetings it is reasonable to conclude that the entire career of Napoleon was discussed in a single year. We have no information on record of any particular activity of Lee himself in these meetings. If at that time he had sufficient curiosity to consult the records of the club he might have found, in McClellan's study of a famous retreat, some light upon the constitutional tendency of that officer as a commander, which would have been useful in 1862.
The Textbook of 1817 had been suggested and approved by Emperor Napoleon and had been used in the principal military school of France. It described the tactics of Frederick and of his predecessors as far back as Turenne in 1675 but was silent on the subject of Napoleon himself. The emperor did not care to have his methods explained and published to the world. He was shocked to find that Jomini had caught the idea in his early volumes published in 1805–6, and he caused the remaining volumes to be suppressed. As a result the really valuable lessons of these campaigns were not available for some years.
After the fall of Napoleon military literature was highly colored by prejudice and passion. Thiers' History of the Consulate and the Empire appeared in France about 1847 but was too romantic for the use of military students. None of Jomini's great works appeared in this country before the Civil War. Henry Lee's Life of Napoleon was never finished. Under these conditions the Napoleon Club at West Point was able to give great opportunities for a correct appreciation of the latest developments in the art of war.
When the Civil War began Robert E. Lee had been commissioned officer for thirty-two years, but his service with troops had amounted to only eight years. Outside of the facts which we have stated we have nothing on which to base statements to show that he had pursued any particular course of military study such as would have fitted him for high command. A close comparison, however, will show many points in common with Napoleonic methods of war which may justify the conclusion that he had studied them well.
It is curious to note also that Napoleon Bonaparte, from the time he became an officer in the Army in 1785 until 1793, was only three years on duty with troops out of eight years. There is, however, good reason to believe that he spent a portion of that time in studying early campaigns in Northern Italy.
In March, 1862, about eight months after the battle of Bull Run General Lee found his opportunity. He was then nominally in command of all the Southern Armies, which meant that he was the military adviser of President Davis, or as we would say it now, the Chief of Staff.
At that time McClellan was starting the Peninsula Campaign. Joseph E. Johnston commanded the armies defending Richmond. Jackson was in the valley of Virginia where he was threatened by several Federal commands. The attack or defense of Richmond was the main point at issue between the North and the South. The former had abundant forces to reach its objective but they were scattered. Both McClellan and Johnston were calling for more men, one on the offensive and the other on the defensive. Lee resolved to change the Federal objective from the capture of Richmond to the defense of Washington, by reenforcing Jackson instead of Johnston. Although at a considerable distance from Jackson, Lee was able to plan the several movements of the Valley Campaign on such broad lines as to get a strategic result while leaving the tactical details to Jackson.
The effect was instantaneous. The attacker was attacked. McDowell's force, upon which McClellan was counting for the capture of Richmond, was held to defend Washington. Stanton telegraphed: “The enemy in great force are advancing on Washington.[”]
The idea of defending a city or a locality by marching away from it recalls the strategy of Frederick in October, 1758. After being badly defeated at Hohenkirchen by the Austrian Army advancing on Saxony, the King marched around the enemy and made for Silesia. In this way he forced the enemy to follow him, saved Saxony and turned his defeat into a victory. This operation also suggested one to Napoleon Bonaparte at the outset of his career. At the siege of Toulon the Generals of the Directory laughed at the proposal of the young Captain who told them that the way to relieve the city was to seize and fortify the entrance to the harbor several miles away, thus getting command of the line of supply of the British fleet which was in the harbor. He finally carried his point and the result was as he had predicted. We find the story well told in the Life of Napoleon by Henry Lee Junior.
Searching further through these leagues of space and years of time to the war in the Carolinas we remember that Henry Lee proposed to Greene that he retrace his steps instead of following Cornwallis into Virginia. “Shall our Army”, he asked, “wait upon the enemy or shall we instantly advance upon Camden?” Again he said: “We must give the law to the enemy”, which states in a few words the policy that Robert, the son, practiced throughout his career. We noted that Henry graduated in 1782 from the school of Minor War and entered the higher field of Grand Tactics. Now, eighty years later we find Robert, the son, former “Chief Scout” of Scott in Mexico, promoting himself into the company which Sir Frederick Maurice names “The Select band of Great Generals”.
After the indecisive battle of Seven Pines, May 31, 1862, Lee replaced Johnston in the command of the army of Northern Virginia. It was still necessary to hasten the withdrawal of McClellan.
The Federal Commander had divided his army in the presence of the enemy by placing Porter's Corps on the north side of the Chickahominy River, which was an unfordable stream.
Lee now planned to overwhelm Porter by bringing Jackson secretly from the valley to join with the divisions of Longstreet, D. H. Hill and A. P. Hill in a surprise attack. The attack was to begin with Jackson on the left and continue by echelon to the right, then to sweep down the Chickahominy. As it turned out Jackson was late, Hill became impatient and attacked too soon, thus making the orderly attack impossible. The result was that Porter escaped at night across the river with heavy losses. Lee had used about 60,000 men against about 34,000 at the north side of the river, while he contained McClellan's main army of 75,000 with about 28,000 in front of Richmond. We observe here the increased power of the defensive due to the rifle and the percussion cap.
Lee had divided his army in the presence of the enemy, ordered a concentration on the battlefield, uncovered his line of retreat, fought with his front to a flank, and ordered an echelon attack, all in one battle. It was too hard a task for a new army. Lee took ventures that had caused the greatest soldiers to pause. But the net result was to cause McClellan to give up his campaign against Richmond.
The main point in this battle was the concentration on the field of battle, with Jackson entering from the valley. In the West Point Textbook of 1817 we find one of the best examples in history of this maneuver. In 1757 Frederick united his army on the field of battle at Prague and won a great victory over the Austrians. At a later period under Moltke in 1866 a greater battle over the same enemy was won at Koniggratz.
Among the Lessons that Lee had studied thirty-three years before was one which appears as a quotation from Jomini, in the West Point textbook. Referring to Frederick it says: “He found in himself that confidence which cannot be defined, and which made up for all that his arms had lost. He was never greater than at this time. His plans, as grand as they were unexpected, stupefied the moral powers of his enemies, he knew how to keep his armies apart a suitable distance, in order to carry his greatest force against that which was most dangerous; whilst with the residue of his troops he maintained an admirable defensive, held the others in check and prevented them from attempting anything decisive. He was able to deceive them by flattering hopes, which made them lose sight of the ensemble and harmony of their operations.”
These words of Jomini were used to introduce the subject of interior lines of operation, used by Frederick against the French, Austrians and others who were closing in upon him in 1758.
Defeated by the Austrians at Kollin in Bohemia, assailed on all sides by the armies of the coalition, he left a portion of his troops as a bait for the Austrians and marched northwest into Saxony against the army of the French and the Germanic body. He defeated them at Rosbach, pursued to Querfurt, and then marched eastward across Saxony into Silesia where the balance of his army had retreated and had been followed and defeated by the Austrians. Here he concentrated his forces, fought the Austrians at Leuthen, beat them and drove them back into Bohemia, with a loss of 50,000 men. These two decisive battles were fought in thirty days.
Lee's use of interior lines against McClellan and Pope in 1862 shows many points in common with this one of Frederick. Having followed McClellan until the Army of the Potomac had committed itself to reembarking at Harrison's landing, he hastened to Gordonsville at the northwest to attack the second army under Pope before he could be reenforced by McClellan.
The two campaigns naturally differ in detail but are alike in conception and result. In the first case Frederick shook off the converging armies of the coalition; in the other case Lee freed Virginia from the Northern invasion. General Halleck the translator of Jomini's Life of Napoleon and author of an “Art of War” was then the “Military Adviser” or Chief of Staff of the Federal Government. Fully aware of the danger of exterior lines of operation he advised against McClellan's plan and was overruled. His scheme of operating from Fredericksburg would have avoided many disasters to the North at this time.
General John Pope was commanding the Northern forces which had been so badly scattered at the northwest, and he was full of fight. He announced a policy of “attack not defense”, “to seek the adversary and beat him when found”.
Those very words were in a few days to be the battle cry of Lee, in effect if not in words.
Pope took up a position in the angle formed by the junction of the Rapidan and Robertson Rivers, and Lee faced him at the south. On one face of the angle there was a long narrow ridge named Clarke's Mountain. Lee planned to march his army, concealed by this height, across the front of Pope, ford the river, and attack the enemy on his left and rear. It had been the favorite move of Frederick in many battles, described in the old West Point book. It was to be on August 18 but as the cavalry had not yet arrived it had to be postponed. Then an aide-de-camp of Stuart was captured with the orders and the plan was revealed to the Northern commander. Pope retreated in a hurry to the Rappahannock River. It was a sore disappointment to the Confederate commander but it changed the mental attitude of Pope.
Lee followed and after several attempts to get the tactical advantage he decided to divide his army in the presence of the enemy and to detach an inferior force against the enemy's rear. We can account for this decision by three facts. First, that McClellan's troops from the Peninsula were near at hand hurrying to join Pope; second, that Pope's morale had been shaken by his retreat from the Rapidan; third, that an attack on the weakest point of an enemy will cause him to abandon his own plans in order to meet that attack—one of the excellent maxims of Jomini. Of course the “weakest point” of an army is always the rear. See the 1st and 2d Maxims as stated in the textbook. Altogether there seems to have been a big factor of safety which was accurately estimated by Lee in this move.
Comparison of this maneuver with four examples from Napoleon's Campaigns shows that the Emperor did not uncover his line of retreat but that his “factor of safety” was small or negligible. He had several failures and one success.
Jackson marched under the mountain's screen through Thoroughfare Gap, 56 miles in two days, debouched upon the rear of Pope, destroyed his base of supplies at Manassas, retreated towards Aldie Gap, took up a defensive position behind the embankment of an unfinished railroad, well fitted to his command, a ready made fortification from which he could stand for the attack of Pope's army, with a safe line of retreat in his rear. Every one who was at the first battle of Bull Run knew about that old embankment, and the details of the whole plan must have been worked out in advance. On August 30 Lee for the second time concentrated his army on the field of battle. The Northern general in his eagerness to “bag Jackson and his whole crowd” gave his antagonist an opportunity to form a line of battle well known of old as the crotchet to the front, that is to say that the front of the Confederate army formed an obtuse angle opening toward the enemy with Jackson on one side, Longstreet on the other side and artillery at the center so placed as to enfilade either the one or the other of the attacking forces. It was the “oblique order of battle” of the old book. When Jackson drew upon himself the attack of the Northern army Longstreet was able to advance with small opposition. A simultaneous advance of Jackson combined with the flank attack resulted in defeat for Pope. Longstreet's inability to estimate a military situation, which he could not see, saved the Federal army from a greater disaster.
The Northern army retreated to Centerville and Lee once again made a detachment with an enferior force to the enemy's rear, sending Jackson from Sudley Springs by the Little River Turnpike toward Fairfax Court House. Pope had suspected this movement so Jackson was met by Northern troops at Ox Hill where the incident was closed at night in a heavy thunderstorm. Pope was now ready to go back to Washington and on September 2 he was relieved from command.
The numerous moves of Lee in dividing his army in the presence of the enemy, sending a detachment in inferior force to the enemy's rear on two occasions, concentrating on the field of battle in the oblique order, shows that he was able to borrow from the great masters some of their best moves in the game.
With the Northern army retreating on Washington a serious problem was presented to the Southern general with an inferior army. It was useless to think of sitting down before Washington. The only alternative was to invade the North.
From the point of view of maneuvering, the possibilities of mountain and valley which Lee had seen so well in Virginia were duplicated at the North of the Potomac, while the political results of victory in that hostile territory would be far greater and perhaps decisive. To transfer the seat of war into the enemy's country would make it necessary to expose or abandon his line of communications, scatter his army for subsistence and concentrate for action. To accept these antagonistic conditions he required a confidence in himself only equalled by Frederick after the battles of Kolin and Hohenkirchen.
Military critics have their “day in court” when a commander is not successful. Extravagant plans have been ascribed to Lee at this time but his correspondence with Davis makes it plain that he looked for results more by maneuvering than by fighting. His condition and his state of mind may have been about the same as they were with Frederick in 1758 at the time of his invasion of Moravia. What Jomini said of Frederick might well apply to Lee, by merely a substitution of the name of one for the other. “It has already been observed that the defensive was not adapted to his state of affairs. In this as in the defense of a fortress, by sheer force of skill and bravery its capture may be retarded, but unless it receive succor, in the end it will have to capitulate.” * * * “Moreover Silesia (Virginia) had born the burden of the preceding campaign and the King (Lee) would still have been forced to make war at her expense. Furthermore a battle lost in his own states must have been attended with far more perilous consequences that a defeat under the walls of Vienna (in Maryland) since the former would have precluded the possibility of retrieving such a disaster.” Again an advance into Maryland would be “giving the law to the enemy” after the manner proposed by Light Horse Harry in 1782.
The Maryland campaign however would leave the Southern line of communications exposed, but it threatened that of the North as well as Washington which he knew was a very sensitive point.
Having made his decision Lee moved promptly, crossed the Potomac and on September 7 was at Frederick, Maryland. His line of communications was by Leesburg, Manassas, Gordonsville, more than 180 miles, of which 55 was a wagon road across a large river and passing within a day's march of Washington. However he planned to abandon this exposed line for a somewhat safer but longer line by Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley, where it would get some protection from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much of it was wagon road.
Lee divided his army in the presence of the enemy, scattering his forces from Hagerstown in Maryland to Loudoun Heights in Virginia, nearly forty miles.
For the second time since the Clarke's Mountain affair, the enemy got a copy of Lee's orders. McClellan saw his chance and moved to attack the widely separated forces of the South. Lee countered by holding the passes of the Blue Ridge while concentrating less than one-half of his army on Sharpsburg, and stood for battle there with his front to a flank, with the Potomac River and a canal in his rear, and with a large part of his army engaged in the capture of Harper's Ferry, seventeen miles away. The Antietam Creek was in front of the position but no attempt was made to hold it. In this case, as at Fredericksburg later, the weakness of a river as a line of defense was rightly estimated while the preference was given to the commanding heights in rear.
McClellan maneuvered in plain view, sending his corps across the creek on one day to get in position to attack on the next, much as the Russians did at Austerlitz when they marched against Napoleon's right.
On the next day Lee's line was about three miles long, from Nicodemus Run to Burnside's Bridge. Counting the whole force that he put into the fight from first to last he had at least 12,000 men to a mile of front, 7 men to a yard, 3 guns to 100 yards, 680 men to 100 yards. It was therefore quite right for him to stand and fight.
First Stage of the battle.
Jackson's first line was a half mile long and was held by 4,400 men at five men to a yard. Hooker attacked with 12,000 men at 15 to a yard. Hood with 2,000 men and three brigades of D. H. Hill with 4,500 made a counter attack, driving Hooker back through the cornfield. Thus Hooker's 12,000 were defeated by Jackson's 11,000.
Second Stage of the battle.
Mansfield came up with 8,000 men. Williams' division struck Hood and drove him back. Grimes' division drove Hill's brigades. Mansfield's front was about the same as Hooker's, so he had about 10 men to the yard. Mansfield was killed and his men did not make a well ordered attack.
The Federals did not use their artillery properly. On the other side the Confederates wasted their strength by making four attacks separately over Hood's ground instead of making one solid attack.
Third Stage of the battle.
Next came Sumner with 15,000 men in 3 divisions, by echelon from the right. Advancing without reconnaissance he reached the west road without being opposed.
Jackson's 11,000 men had now fought 20,000 under Hooker and Mansfield, and had held their own.
Sedgwick's division on the right of Sumner, with 6,000 men, was then attacked by 9,000 under G. T. Anderson, McLaws and Walker. Sedgwick was defeated and driven to the north after Mansfield and Hooker.
So that now 20,000 Confederates had fought 35,000 Federals, going over the same ground repeatedly, and usually making a counter attack with a superior force at each stage of the battle.
This ended the battle on the right.
Fourth Stage of the battle. Center.
French's and Richardson's divisions of Sumner's Corps bore to the left with 10,000 men. Here D. H. Hill had two brigades, parts of three others and two of Walker's regiments. This small force was badly cut up and the Confederate center pierced. R. H. Anderson then made a counter attack with 3,500 and restored the fight.
Fifth Stage of the battle. Left.
Burnside's Corps of 11,000 men crossed the Antietam Creek. He was opposed by four brigades under D. R. Jones which he soon overcame and reached Sharpsburg, thus turning the Confederate right. But just then A. P. Hill galloped up with a battery which he had brought from Harper's Ferry. He was closely followed by 3,500 men which he sent in a counter stroke against Burnside's left flank.
These figures are disputed. The battle was one of the greatest in all history. There were nearly 21,000 killed and wounded, of which 16,500 were on a plot of about 300 acres of ground and three-fourths of it was in about four hours of time.
On the following day both armies remained in position. During the night Lee marched his army in good order across Boteler's Ford on the Potomac in rear of his right flank.
Honors were easy. The superiority of the North, 57,000 against 37,000, was not greater than it should have been to attack an army so placed on the defensive as Lee's army was. Lee's army was not entrenched.
In addition to the military results which might have been anticipated from the invasion of the north there was also a political side of the question which invited consideration.
In England Lord Palmerston had written to Lord John Russell suggesting that the time had come for mediation upon a basis of separation, but the result of the battle of Antietam stopped this scheme. Lincoln too had probably prepared his Emancipation Proclamation which he issued on September 22.
McClellan's good luck in getting possession of Lee's Field Orders of September 9 may have caused the campaign to end as it did.
After retreating from Maryland Lee again divided his forces in the presence of the enemy with Jackson in the valley about Winchester and Longstreet at Culpeper, about forty miles apart, while McClellan with a superior army concentrated around Warrenton equally distant from both. The situation closely resembled that of the Second Manassas, and Lee was plainly inviting McClellan to play the game over again with the advantage of knowing the position of Jackson. Lee says “The enemy is apparently so strong in numbers that I think it is preferable to baffle his design by maneuvering rather than resist his advance by main force.” McClellan decided to accept the challenge but he waited too long and he was relieved from command.
Burnside, the new commander, rejected McClellan's Plan and moved on Fredericksburg which was to be his base for a new advance on Richmond.
Lee posted his troops in detachments along the Rappahannock to watch the enemy. As soon as Burnside showed sign of crossing he concentrated at Fredericksburg on a line of heights facing the river in rear of the town. He had not desired to fight a battle there, preferring elbow room where he could be able to maneuver more freely and take the enemy at a disadvantage. Having been overruled in this matter, apparently for the first time, he stood for battle there. Burnside made a pure frontal attack, slowly executed, without any attempt at surprise, stratagem or strategy, against an enemy well entrenched in a commanding position. He was badly defeated. Lee got no advantage beyond what came from an increase of prestige and a weakening of the
General Hooker relieved Burnside and planned to take the initiative by a turning movement against Lee's left flank. He divided his army, crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers with three corps and took post at Chancellorsville, leaving Sedgwick with a strong force before Fredericksburg and the balance of his army between the two. By this move he threatened Lee's communications and perhaps he thought of duplicating Lee's movement in the second Bull Run campaign. Whatever advantage he won by surprise he quickly lost by lack of energy.
Lee at once conformed to the new conditions and marched on Chancellorsville, leaving a force at Fredericksburg to contain Sedgwick. He fortified a line two miles from Hooker, with flanks secure, and so placed as to deny to Hooker the chance to get out of the Wilderness and to fight in the open as he had intended. Hooker advanced to attack him but decided that he would wait for more troops and so he went back to Chancellorsville.
Lee again divided his army, making three fractions. The third under Jackson numbering 30,000 men was to march around Hooker's right and attack him in rear, while the remaining two detachments were to be played alternately between Sedgwick before Fredericksburg and Hooker at Chancellorsville.
Jackson used the favorite maneuver of Frederick. It had given him many victories and some defeats. In our case the turning force was a detachment and not the entire army as with Frederick. Success depended upon ignorance or supineness on the part of the enemy, both of which were realized in Hooker.
At Leuthen Frederick marched under cover of a line of hills and his attack was a surprise to the Austrian Generals who met with a complete disaster. At Kollin however the King marched in full view of his enemy who attacked him in march and beat him badly. In the same way the Russians at Austerlitz tried to attack Napoleon's right flank but the Emperor attacked them in march and won his greatest victory.
Jackson's march was partly seen and reported to Hooker but its object was not understood. He had his wagon train on another road and his line of march was at least nine miles long, on a winding country road. He formed for attack without being molested, and struck a blow that broke Howard's Corps to bits. A general attack next day made Hooker fall back from Chancellorsville towards the ford of the Rappahannock. Thereupon Lee left a containing force in front of Hooker, marched back towards Fredericksburg, drove Sedgwick across the river and returned to Chancellorsville. Hooker crossed to the north bank of the river at night.
This operation on interior lines, with a detachment to enemy's rear, combined with the use of field intrenchments, will stand as a classic example of an inferior army so maneuvered as to have the most men at each point of attack.
After Chancellorsville, Lee reverted to his plan of the previous year, to maneuver the Federal Army out of Virginia, so as to transfer the seat of war to the north of the Potomac River.
June 27 found him at Chambersburg in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, with two Corps. His third corps was thirty miles beyond on the way to the Susquehanna. Three brigades of his cavalry were on the right of the Federal Army, marching to join the third corps under Ewell. One brigade was with Ewell, one with Lee, two were still in Virginia although they had orders to join Lee as soon as the Federal Army had crossed the Potomac. The Federal Army had crossed the river on the day before and was marching on a broad front toward Frederick. In the evening Lee ordered Ewell back to Chambersburg.
June 28. Lee ordered a concentration of his army at Cashtown, twenty miles to the east. The two corps at Chambersburg obeyed slowly. The Federal Army was around Frederick and Middletown in Maryland. Hooker was relieved by Meade in the afternoon.
At Cashtown Lee would be in a strategic position similar to that of the Second Bull Run and in the days following his retreat to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, when under similar conditions he could invite attack either in front or rear. That this was his intention is shown by his letter to Davis saying that he did “not care to fight a battle so far from his base but hoped by maneuvering to keep the advantage.” This letter when compared with the one written on the previous occasion shows the same idea in both.
June 29. Hill advancing on Cashtown reached Fayetteville. Heth's division went on to Cashtown. Ewell started back. Stuart fought the Federal Cavalry at Hanover in front of Meade. Meade was marching north toward the Susquehanna River on a front of thirty-five miles from Westminster to the west, while Lee was concentrating on his left flank.
June 30. Ewell reached the neighborhood of Heidlersburg with two divisions. His third division was on the valley road in compliance with the first order to return to Chambersburg. One of Heth's brigades marched from Cashtown towards Gettysburg and returned with the report that the place was occupied by Federal cavalry. Hill reached Cashtown with Pender's division and sent word to Anderson to move forward with the trains as soon as possible. Longstreet reached Fayetteville with two divisions and sent Law's brigade with one battery on picket duty to New Guilford, four miles to the south, on a road to Emmittsburg. This detachment seems to have been unnecessary and its delay in reaching Gettysburg was the last excuse of Longstreet for not making his attack untili after 4 o'clock on July 2d.
Lee was now three hundred miles from Richmond, half of the distance being wagon road. He was subsisting in an enemy's country but would have to concentrate for action. His battles would have to be decisive in order to separate again for subsistence. Having abandoned his line of communications he would need sufficient ammunition for at least one great battle. A superior enemy was on the shortest line to his base. In both of his invasions of the north his methods were quite original. Napoleon was always sensitive about his line of supply; Frederick's masterly use of interior lines made it possible to change his base according to circumstances and the sluggishness of his enemies made it safe to do so.
Meade's orders for July 1st were for an advance of about five miles, closing three corps towards Gettysburg, probably because of numerous roads which converged at that place. At the same time he confused his commanders by instructions which contemplated a retreat to Pipe Creek, and both before and after this he sent orders contemplating the double possibility of attacking the enemy or receiving his attack. This with his councils of war on the battlefield was a logical result of the frequent changes in the Federal command.
July 1. At Cashtown Hill sent a division to Gettysburg, six miles away, and followed with a second division, and two out of the five batteries then with him. He found a considerable force in his front which he attacked at once. Ewell continued his march on Cashtown with two divisions but turned towards Gettysburg upon being informed of Hill's action, saved Hill from defeat, and gave an excellent example of concentration upon a field of battle. He also had word from Lee that he did not want to be committed to a general engagement but it was too late. Thirty-two thousand Confederates defeated twenty-four thousand Federals and drove them through the town. The losses were 8,000 Confederates, 9,000 Federals.
On the morning of this day Lee was at Greenwood, eight miles from Chambersburg. He sent word to Imboden to watch the rear of the army with his cavalry brigade and to gather supplies in the valley. He directed Pickett's division to march from Chambersburg at once and to follow his corps. He designated Cashtown as headquarters, and left about noon with Longstreet and others. On reaching Cashtown he heard the sound of the cannonading at Gettysburg. He galloped forward and arrived on the field about 3 P.M.
Anderson's division of Hill's corps marched from Fayetteville at an early hour and reached Cashtown about noon, waited for orders, received them in about an hour, and went forward with the balance of the corps artillery.
Johnson's division of Ewell's corps, which had been marching on Chambersburg in obedience to the orders of the 27th, moved into the same road from Scotland, taking place in rear of Anderson, and reached the field in the evening. Longstreet's two divisions found the road blocked by the other troops and their miles of trains until 4 P.M. Evidently no echo of the fight had yet reached so far when troops marching to battle were not given right of way over wagon trains.
Thus while two of his lieutenants were feeding the fight at Gettysburg Lee himself with a large part of his army was many miles away on a single road. He found that Hill had gathered about himself the greater part of two army corps and forced an issue of battle, without authority and contrary to his desire. He was committed to a battle under the most unfavorable conditions of his career. The situation presented many of the elements of the surprise of an army on the march through a defile. The only solution was to drive the enemy from his front before their converging columns could reach the field.
We have had a great argument over Stuart's cavalry being wrongly placed at this time. Some thought should be given to the fact that if Stuart had been in front of Lee the Federal Cavalry would have been drawn there too, and that Meade's army would have been concentrated instead of marching to the north on a front of thirty-five miles. On the other hand Meade's Cavalry is said to have been well placed although it was ignorant of the position of Lee on the left flank.
July 2. The slow start from Chambersburg had serious effect on the battle of the second day. The men from the rear reached the battlefield, tired by a long march. Kershaw's and Law's brigades went into action after a march of 20 to 24 miles. It appears that Longstreet could have marched by Greencastle on the 29th or by New Guilford and Waynesboro on the 30th and reached the battlefield earlier and in better condition than he did.
In the Federal Army two corps commanders and the commander of a cavalry brigade interpreted their orders for an attack; two others hesitated to do so, under the influence of the same contradictory or confusing instructions.
Meade sent Hancock to Gettysburg with verbal orders to represent him at the front and to report on the situation. He was outranked by one of the corps commanders on the field but no protest was made. Meade seems to have forgotten the advisory character of his orders of the day before, and he appears to have intended to retreat to Pipe Creek up to the time of Hancock's return, when he ordered the army to concentrate at Gettysburg, as advised by the subordinate.
Lee desired to draw in the extended left of Ewell's Corps where it wrapped around Culp's Hill, so as to shorten his line in that direction; to send Longstreet to outflank the Federal left soon after daybreak; to connect the two with Hill at the center. The right and center were to attack by echelon from the right, each command to attack as soon as the unit on its right had done so. Ewell was to begin when Longstreet's guns were heard.
Longstreet had objected to Lee's plan on the day before and he renewed his argument against it at daylight on the 2d. Lee repeated his order. Ewell had also advised against the order that he should close in to his right. As a result Lee delayed his order to attack until 11 A.M. It was then postponed untill 2 P.M., and did not begin untili 4 P.M. He let Ewell have his way.
Longstreet finally formed an oblique line across the Emmittsburg road, attacked and defeated Sickles' Corps. Hill's right division began at 5 P.M. and his third brigade under Wright began at 6.30 P.M.; the fourth brigade hardly moved at all, the fifth brigade was in reserve and was not engaged. Hill's two other divisions did not attack. Sunset was at 7.23 P.M.
Wright's brigade of Anderson's division outstripped them all, penetrated the Federal line at the point held by Gibbon's division of the second corps, but was not supported, was partly surrounded and went back.
Although Ewell had been ordered to open fire as soon as Longstreet's guns were heard he did not do so until 6 P.M. It was then too late. Rodes' division did not attack, two brigades of Early carried Cemetery Hill and had to leave for want of support. Johnson's 3d Division got partly across Rock Creek at dark and retired.
The battle ended with Longstreet holding the ground he had gained on the right, his left drawn back to the Peach Orchard; Hill's men on Seminary Ridge; Ewell about as before.
Longstreet with 20,000 defeated Sickles' 3d Corps with 12,000 but was stopped and driven back by 20,000 reinforcements drawn from the Federal right. The losses were Longstreet 6,000, Federal 9,000.
One of the good rules of war that have come to us from the great masters is that an error of concentration at the beginning of a battle cannot be corrected during the progress of the battle. If Lee's orders had been carried out as he hoped and expected, Meade's error in this respect would have been fatal to his army. On the morning of the 2d the Federal Army had four army corps out of seven placed at the right, one at the center, one at the left, one far to the rear. Two-thirds of the army were on an irregular piece of ground which measured about one and one-half miles by one mile. The main attack was evidently expected there. The delay in the attack of Ewell probably permitted Meade to shift twenty-two brigades from right to left and to concentrate upon the eleven victorious brigades of Longstreet and Hill; also to send his troops back again against the belated attack of Ewell. It was very well done.
The advantage that Longstreet gained by his delays were small compared with the help that they gave to Meade.
We are forced to compare Longstreet's failures to obey either the spirit or the letter of Lee's orders with Jackson's exploit at Chancellorsville, just two months before, marching a greater distance, in a wilderness, partly in sight of the enemy, forming for attack and smashing the Federal right flank. In fact all of the Confederate Corps Commanders, although they ought to have known better, showed a lack of discipline. Hill's recklessness, Ewell's objection to his orders, Longstreet's insistence upon his own plans, were enough to put in jeopardy the best laid scheme of any commander. Even Hood was begging to be allowed to use his division as a detachment to the enemy's rear.
The echelon order of attack was the favorite weapon of Frederick, well suited to the parade-ground soldiers of his army, not possible in the hands of his opponents. The West Point Text Book says that “it possesses many advantages”. * * * “Each echelon covers the flanks of the preceding; the first only requires to be well flanked, unless it be already secured by the nature of the ground upon which it is supported.” * * * “This maneuver offers also the advantages of not engaging the army. If the first echelon is beaten the second covers the retreat, and the General is free to choose between retiring the others in the best order, or directing them to any point that he may select. The nature of this order of attack shows that it is particularly advantageous when the success of the battle depends upon carrying a certain and principal position of the enemy; and as these main points are either in the center or on one of the flanks it is easy to decide whether the head of the echelons should be formed in the center or upon a wing.”
The whole art of Frederick in this maneuver consisted in forming a line oblique to that of the enemy and on his flank. The head of the column formed the first echelon and attacked, being followed by succeeding echelons from the rear elements. At Leuthen he defeated an Austrian army with a loss of 50,000. He was generally successful but was beaten at Kollin with a loss of 14,000 because the enemy had time to thwart his plan, and because he conducted his march in plain view of the Austrians.
A precise maneuver such as an attack by echelon from the flank of a long line was perhaps too much to expect of an American Army of that day. The start was hours too late and the attack was not prolonged to the left in the manner directed. It was not begun by Wright until 6.30 P.M. and it was not continued further.
Each echelon was permitted to exhaust its strength before the next succeeding echelon took up the attack. A well ordered maneuver degenerated into a series of isolated attacks and none of the subordinate commanders seem to have gotten the idea.
Another peculiarity of the undisciplined but valiant volunteer army may have been shown here. There seems to have been a reluctance to attack on two successive days. Victorious troops were disorganized by winning a fight as much as those who were beaten. It seems as if the men had said: “Let some one else do the fighting today. We are tired”. The lack of effort of Hill and Ewell might be explained in this way. The singular omissions of Jackson in the Seven Days Battles seem to have been a puzzle for commentators but they may have been due to the same cause.
Orders issued verbally and often lacking in explicitness, even as in the Waterloo Campaign, seem to have had a similar result.
At 8 A.M. on the morning of the second day the Federal Army had about 80,000 men with 357 guns on a line about 3 miles long. If evenly distributed they would have 15 men to a yard and 1 gun to 15 yards of front. They had more guns than they could use. The Confederates took up a line 5½ miles long with 60,000 men and 272 guns, or 6 men to a yard and 1 gun to 35 yards.
At the close of the day three of seven corps of the Northern Army had been defeated but were still within call and capable of defending themselves if attacked. Two other corps had suffered severely. All of the Southern Army except two divisions had seen hard fighting on at least one day out of two.
At the close of the second day Lee had to decide the serious question whether to continue the attack on the following day or to retreat. The only information that we have on this is his short statement in his report that “The result of the day's operations induced the belief that we would ultimately succeed and it was accordingly determined to continue the attack”.
In the absence of a more definite statement we must search the record to fix the point at which the “result” was obtained. It is certain enough that the success of his Lieutenants on the right and left was not dazzling. The center alone is left.
The old text book had advised that an attack should be on the weakest point of the enemy. It stated that the center is usually the strongest point and therefore to be avoided for many reasons, mainly because it is easiest to reinforce, and from two directions instead of one. The only example given was one of disaster. At Cannae Hannibal pretended that his center was beaten and had it retreat. The Romans followed. Then the Carthaginians closed in on their flanks and rear and massacred their army. It was, however, in high favor with Napoleon.
Lee's report says: “Wright gained the crest of the ridge, driving the enemy down the opposite side”.
The point attacked by Wright was the weakest point of the Federal line. The ridge was so narrow that it could be defended by only a few men to the yard. If it could be captured and held by the Confederates it would divide the Federal Army and permit concentrating against either flank at will.
President Lincoln had written to Hooker June 14, 1863, referring to Lee's widely scattered army after Chancellorsville. “The animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?” Now Wright's attack seems to have shown that Meade's Army was “slim” at the middle, at the time of his attack.
Wright's written report was made some time after the battle but he evidently made a verbal statement to Lee after he made the charge. The final report says that he “drove the gunners from the guns, charged the top, drove the infantry into the rocky gorge on the last slope 80 to 100 yards in rear of the guns”. * * * “We were now masters of the field, having gained the key as it were to the enemy's whole line.”
Although these statements have been disputed it seems to be quite certain that they fixed the decision of Lee. But even if not material to the issue it is interesting to look over some of the evidence in the case. We will quote from Federal sources alone.
General Francis A. Walker, of Hancock's Staff, says, “It looks as if the great contest of the war were here.”
General Doubleday on July 2 commanded a division of the 1st Corps. He moved from the right, passing by the rear of Gibbon, and placed himself on the left. He says: “On this occasion Wright did what Lee failed to accomplish the next day at such a heavy expense of life, for he pierced our center and held it for a short time, and had the movement been properly supported and energetically followed up it might have been fatal to our army.” He quotes General Tidball of the artillery, who rode along the crest from Little Round Top to Culp's Hill so as to become familiar with the lines. “On his return late in the day he found Wright's rebel brigade established on the crest barring his way back.”
General A. R. Williams, commanding the 12th Corps, also passed from right to left about the same time. He says: “We passed large masses of our disorganized men. We saw not one line or body of our troops in position. The enemy seemed to have a clear field in that part of the field and were helping themselves to our artillery.”
The History of the 19th Maine, on the left of the 2d Division, says: “During the battle Heath (Colonel Heath) was told that the enemy was getting around the right.”
The history of the 7th Michigan, at the right of the 2d Division, by Major S. W. Curtis, says: “The line on our left gave way.”
Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, History of the 106th Pennsylvania, says: “We opened fire, formed behind crest. No connecting troops on the left.”
The Confederate dead buried at the east of the stone wall were 128, but that included both days battle.
It really makes little difference whether Wright advanced 100 yards further than he claimed or not. The point at issue is whether the point of attack was weak or not, and why.
These things do not seem to be disputed on either side. Wright with 1,200 men, on a front of 500 yards, or 2½ men per yard, without reserves, not aided by artillery fire, charged across a smooth and open field, 1,400 yards wide, against 3,000 troops including reserves, supported by thousands of men on both flanks, and at least 22 guns, and protected by a formidable breastwork. They got as close as troops ever get in modern battle. Turned on both flanks, they retreated.
General Wright said on July 3, speaking of the position which he had assaulted on the previous day: “It is not so hard to get there as it looks. The trouble is to stay there.” He evidently referred to the “smoke screen” furnished by the artillery of both sides. General Gibbon told of it specifically in his testimony which appears in the “Report on the Conduct of the War.” He said: “I was informed that our troops came back in some confusion. I could not see for the smoke.”
The correctness of Wright's statement is proved by the losses on both sides at the time. He had lost about 40 men killed in the advance and retreat, most of them of course in retreat. The four regiments which received his attack lost about 74 men in killed and wounded, which would mean not more than 20 killed, at the highest proportion usual at that day.
General Gibbon had more men than he could use in that position. Three out of his ten regiments reported no loss. A fourth regiment reported that it did not fire a shot. The infantry in the first line complained of the fire of their own artillery from the crest in rear, which might have been due to the small difference in elevation between the two positions, and to the smoke screen also.
Confederate artillery on reaching the crest would have had command over the Baltimore Pike and the Tenallytown Road at the west, and prevented Meade from reinforcing his beaten left flank. The slope in that direction was abrupt and easily defended against counter-attack. The rear of the troops on Culp's Hill would be under the fire of Confederate artillery on the crest.
The existence of the “Rocky Gorge” mentioned by Wright, as well as the general topography of the country at the west of the ridge could not have been known to either Wright or Lee before the battle, as they are not shown on any of the maps used by either side at that time.
It seems to be probable that the weakness of Meade's line of battle at that point was revealed to the Confederate Commander by Wright's attack, and that this was the “result” referred to by Lee in his report.
The advantages of an attack on the center of an enemy's extended line had been well understood by Frederick and Napoleon. It gave the attacking force the advantage of interior lines of operation, permitting the shifting of troops alternately from right to left and the reverse so as to defeat the enemy in detail. It had been recently used on Lee's suggestion by Jackson in the valley with brilliant results. To drive a wedge into an enemy line on the battlefield is not so easy because the faces of the wedge must move in perfect harmony with the point or cutting edge. If this is not done the attacking force may find itself in the plight of the Roman Army at Cannae. Wright's attack was in fact a small copy of that great disaster.
It is to be regretted that General Lee did not give in greater detail his estimate of the situation at the close of the second day. He referred to it but twice, once when he referred to “results” and again when he wrote to Davis that he still thought that all would have gone well with a proper “concert of action.” These brief remarks however are sufficient to show that he had faith in the feeling that the mistakes of July 2 would not be repeated on the next day and that he would be able to make a lodgment at the center of the Federal Army.
Longstreet and Heth lived long enough to defend their acts in this battle. Hill and Stuart were killed. Lee was silent. Little attention seems to have been given to the source of Lee's inspirations and their application to his decisions at this time.
July 3. The Confederate Army had been weakened by two days of continuous attack. The Federals remained on the defensive, disposed to the best advantage in a commanding position.
Lee ordered a general attack, by echelon from the center, against the point reached by Wright on the day before. He believed that the ordinary arguments against this method were outweighed by the weakness of the enemy at this point as already demonstrated, and he expected that the evident mistakes of his subordinates would not be repeated.
Pickett's division was to take the lead. Support on the right was to be given by two of Heth's brigades, and further on by Longstreet with his two remaining divisions. At the left the attack was to be supported by the other two brigades of Heth and by half of Pender's division. The attack was to be ordered by Longstreet. The remaining brigades of Pender's were joined by Rodes' division in prolongation to the left, probably with the idea of working with Ewell who was to co-ordinate in the general movement as soon as Longstreet's guns were heard.
The artillery bombardment began at the center and continued for an hour, at the end of which time Pickett moved forward and in a few minutes had entered the Federal line with a part of his men. The supporting brigades on his right, sent forward by Longstreet in person, were too late to prevent Pickett's right from being outflanked. The brigades on the left, likewise without support, crumbled away and did not get so far as Pickett's men did. The two divisions of Longstreet on the right, and those of Ewell on the left, with the remaining half of Pender did not move. This was partly because Ewell had made his attack early, in expectation that Longstreet would do the same, and had used up two of his divisions. But this does not explain why the remainder of his line did not support Pickett.
The attack failed again, with greater loss than on the day before, probably because the Federals had improved their means of defense. As usual the losses were greatest in the retreat. The fire of the artillery, as on the other days, seems to have had small effect, except as a smoke screen, and as such should have favored the attack.
In the three days of battle it is now possible to estimate the effect of the artillery of both sides by comparing the number of rounds fired with the loss of the opposing artillery. The opposing artillery must have been the principal target on each day. A man shoots at the man who is shooting at him, and it is the same with guns. As the infantry gets to close quarters the artillery cannot fire at the enemy's front line without reaching both friends and foes.
The artillery fired from first to last, not counting that with the cavalry, a total of about fifty-five thousand rounds. At an average weight of nine pounds of iron per round this would make about five hundred thousand pounds. The total loss in killed in the artillery of both sides was two hundred and thirty-two which would be about two thousand pounds of metal for each.
It has been said of those days that it took a man's weight in lead to kill him in battle. This was supposed to be an exaggeration until the accurate figures of the Russo-Japanese war proved that the estimate must be increased. At Gettysburg it seems to have called for several wagon loads of powder and iron, without counting the lead.
The Confederate artillery must be charged with the failure to enfilade the Federal lines on Cemetery Hill from the north and to silence the Federal guns on Little Round Top during the attack. In the former case they only fired forty-eight rounds when they withdrew although they had produced an excellent effect. In the other case, although the suggestion had been made by Colonel Long of Lee's Staff, it seems to have been ignored. Claims have been made that these omissions lost the battle. The Confederate accounts make frequent reference to a shortage of ammunition in the last attack but it appears that they had enough in the trains at the end for still another day of a great battle. All of the artillery was not employed in the front line on either side. The Federal reports at least speak frequently of the withdrawal of batteries to replenish ammunition and of their being replaced by other batteries.
A fictitious value seems to have been given to the Round Tops. These rocky, heavily wooded eminences were without roads, and were equally difficult of access and egress. Much strength was consumed in attacking them when they might have been neutralized by an inferior force.
Lee himself believed that the important errors committed by the attacking force caused his defeat. On July 31 he wrote to Davis, “it did not win a victory. I thought at the time that the latter was practicable. I still think that if all things could have worked together it would have been accomplished”. * * * “I do not know what better course I could have pursued”. In his official report he said, “The result of the (second) day's operations induced the belief that with proper concert of action we should ultimately succeed”. “The general plan was unchanged. Longstreet, reinforced by Pickett's three brigades was to attack the next morning and Ewell was ordered to assault the enemy's right at the same time”. Wright's report had stated, “I have not the slightest doubt that I should have been able to have maintained my position on the heights and secured the captured artillery if there had been a protecting force on my left, or if the brigades on my right had not been forced to retire”. General John D. Imboden, commanding a cavalry brigade, designated as escort for the wagon train in its retreat, reported to Lee at about 1 A.M., July 4th. Lee said, “if they (Pickett's division) had been supported as they were to have been, but, for some reason not fully explained to me, were not, we would have held the position, and the day would have been ours”. Colonel Long says that the order was given in his presence. He quotes Colonel C. S. Venable, also of Lee's Staff, in these words, “they (McLaws and Hood) were ordered by General Lee to support Pickett's attack for I heard him give the order when arranging the fight and called his attention afterward when there was discussion about it. He said, ‘I know it. I know it’.”
At Waterloo, forty-eight years before, Napoleon closed his career by an attack on the center of a great army well disposed for defense in a formidable position.
It may not have been entirely an accident that Lee should have made one of his last efforts under much the same conditions.
Each planned the same result and each met with a disaster which he could not foresee. Each probably saw that in a long war the victory will be on the side of the heaviest battalions.
Perhaps both had listened to the poet who sang:
He either fears his fate too much, or his desert is small,
After Gettysburg, Lee faced Meade on the battlefield for one more day and then retreated to the Potomac, just as he did after his first invasion.
On reaching the river it was found to be in flood and the pontoon bridge had been destroyed. After several anxious days a second bridge was made out of such materials as could be found and the river at the ford fell sufficiently to be used by footmen holding their guns and cartridge boxes above their heads, without artillery or trains.
Meanwhile Meade arrived with his army, made a careful reconnaissance and was ready to attack after the enemy had left.
The old West Point Text Book cites the passage of the Rhine at Nordheim in 1744, by a retreating army in the presence of the enemy, as the most distinguished of all instances of the kind, worthy to be held up as a model in all similar cases. The Army in retreat had two bridges built, each covered by a bridgehead with outworks arranged in circular fashion and having space enough between them to accommodate the whole army. Thus several concentric fields of battle were presented, gradually narrowing towards the river, so that by successive maneuvers the army could be withdrawn across it. Compare this with Lee's several crossings of the Potomac.
Napoleon's Campaigns present the passage of the Beresina as a horrible example which he could not avoid. At Leipsic, in the presence of the enemy, his retreat across the river was badly managed, and resulted in a loss of 50,000 men and 200 guns.
On the whole the retreat across a river by fords and bridges in the presence of an enemy is shown by history to be one of the most perilous acts of war. Commentators give these two successful examples of Lee's generalship a scant notice or none at all.
Having crossed the Potomac nothing of particular interest happened for several months.
Lee had then been reduced by the detachment of Longstreet's Corps, while Meade had to send two corps to the west and other troops to quell the draft riots in New York City. Lee's force was then about 42,500 and Meade's not less than 65,000. Lee was behind the Rapidan and Meade at Culpeper.
Lee decided to maneuver for a favorable opening, under conditions similar to those which presented themselves in the same terrain at the time of the campaign against Pope in 1862.
Accordingly he abandoned his line of retreat and marched with Hill and Ewell around by Madison Court House and Griffenburg to attack Meade's right flank at Culpeper. Starting on the 9th of October and arriving on the 11th within five miles of his objective he found that Meade had retreated along the Railroad to the north. He started at once on a second turning movement still further to the north. This time he marched by Jefferson, Amissburg, and Warrenton, to strike the enemy's rear at Bristoe Station. Reaching Warrenton on the 12th he had to halt on the 13th to wait for rations, having outstripped his supply trains by long marches on country roads. On the 14th he marched to Bristoe Station by two roads, one corps on each. The concentration on the field of battle was not effected, as so often happens. Ewell's Corps was slow and Hill rushed in too soon as he had done several times before. On this occasion he turned to follow the retreating Federals to the north and was hit square in flank by the rear guard under Porter concealed behind the railroad embankment. It was a serious check. Meade halted at Centerville.
In seven days Meade had given up 60 miles of railroad. Lee had marched about 90 miles by country roads, off the railroad, and would have been well ahead of Meade at Bristoe if he had not been forced to lose a day at Warrenton.
So the campaign ended where the war began two years and a half before and where Pope closed his career in 1862.
Lee considered that the condition of his army would not permit him to pass the winter in that country so he retired once more to the positions on the Rapidan which he left on October 9th. He destroyed the railroad as he went.
On November 28 Meade decided to flank Lee in turn and moved against his right flank which rested on a creek named Mine Run. Lee posted his men to receive the attack and Meade concluded that the position was too strong to be assaulted, so he returned to his former position.
Grant was brought from the west, made Lieutenant General commanding the Armies of the North, with Headquarters in the field, at Culpeper March 26, 1864. Meade was retained nominally in command of the Army of the Potomac, but he was practically in the position now designated as Chief of Staff to the Commanding General. The Corps of Burnside was not included in the Army of the Potomac. On May 4th the Army crossed the Rapidan at the fords used by Hooker in the Chancellorsville Campaign.
On May 2 Lee had met his corps and division commanders at the signal station on Clark's Mountain, just as he did when he planned his attack on Pope in 1862. He pointed towards Germanna and Ely fords where Hooker had crossed the Rapidan to Chancellorsville and he said that he expected Grant to do the same. He announced his plan to attack the enemy in the Wilderness, telling them to be ready for the word and leaving the details to themselves. As the Mine Run movement had been carried out a short time before, the troops moving at 3 A.M., and blocking Meade's plan, it was reasonable to expect equally efficient work on this occasion.
The superiority of the Federal Army was about two to one.
So on May 4th Ewell started at noon, marched to Locust Grove by the turnpike, about four miles from the Germanna Plank Road.
Hill with two divisions got to Verdiersville on the Old Plank Road about 10 miles from the Brock Road.
Longstreet's official report, dated March 23, 1865, says that he started about 4 o'clock from Mechanicsville in the afternoon of May 4, marched sixteen miles to Brock's Bridge.
Stuart with the cavalry was marching towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Lee himself marched with Hill's command.
May 5. Grant was well pleased to get across the river without resistance. His cavalry went after Stuart without watching the two roads leading to Lee's army beyond Mine Run. Instead of retreating as expected the Southern Army was crowding forward on those roads to attack him in flank. Hill moved forward to Parker's store, Ewell passed the night at Locust Grove, Grant ordered a prompt attack. An all day battle was fought with varying success. Burnside's corps was called from the rear and Hancock from Chancellorsville to reinforce the Federal battle line.
According to his report Longstreet marched early on the ( ) and Catharpin Roads and bivouacked at 5 P.M. at Richard's Store on the Catharpin Road near the county line, about due south from Parker's Store. That would have been a march of less than seventeen miles on the second day, according to the map.
Hill's remaining division bivouacked at Verdiersville.
May 6. Longstreet was called up by Lee, marched across country and arrived at Parker's Store at dawn after having started at 12:30 A.M. His arrival restored the fight which had been going against his side. He turned Grant's left and was wounded by his own men at the time when he was making a victorious advance.
On the Federal right, towards dark, an attack by Gordon of Ewell's corps had success for a time and created alarm at Grant's headquarters.
Few modern battles are so beclouded in the main events as this one. Strange contradictions are found in the few official reports that we have, and the same trouble is to be seen in the later accounts. Much discussion centers around the Southern Commander and his principal subordinates, but neither side of the question is fully stated. The main point at issue is, how the concentration on the field of battle was carried out by Longstreet. As Ewell and Hill were not to attack until his arrival, the full success of the movement depended on his promptness, very much as was the case on several other occasions.
Longstreet's command was not well placed for the movement and he seems to have made no effort to correct it.
His book, published thirty years later, says that he only stopped at Brock's Bridge to rest, and that he marched on to Richard's Shop where he arrived at 5 P.M. on the 5th, finding Rosser's Cavalry there engaged with the enemy. The distance was 28 miles. Receiving orders to change direction through the wood to the Plank Road he marched at 1 o'clock on the morning of the 6th on an unused road, over-grown by bushes and entered the Plank Road at daylight.
The march that he describes both times must have been made alone or with his Headquarters party. If he saw a cavalry fight he went five miles further to Craig's Meeting House and retraced his steps to Richard's. Moreover there was a good road from Craig's Meeting House to Parker's Store.
Alexander, commanding the artillery of Longstreet's Corps, wrote a book which was published in 1907. He says that orders to march to Todd's Tavern on the Brock Road arrived near mid-day on May 4, that he started at 4 P.M. with orders to march all night, only stopping to feed and water, and that at sundown on the 5th be bivouacked with the two divisions at Craig's Meeting House on the Catharpin Road, having travelled 36 miles. Orders having come from Lee to cross to the Plank Road at Parker's Store, about six miles away he started at 1 A.M.
It is plain that he retraced his steps to Richard's and that the artillery did not get in action on the following day.
Kershaw, commanding a division of the Corps, reports that in camp near Gordonsville on May 4 he received orders to march, and bivouacked on the Catharpin Road, ten miles from the battlefield, on the afternoon of the 5th. At 1 A.M. on the 6th he marched to the position of Lee on the Plank Road, and reported to Longstreet.
Goode Bryan, commanding a brigade in Kershaw's division, reports on August 14 that he “camped near Verdiersville on the Plank Road on the night of May 5, and at 1 o'clock in the morning of the 6th marched for three hours and reached the road”.
The History of Kershaw's old Brigade by Dickert says that the order to march came on the morning of May 5th while in camp near Gordonsville. “All day we marched along unused roads, through fields and thickets, taking every near cut possible”. “Scarcely stopping for a moment's rest we found ourselves at 5 P.M. 28 miles from our starting point.[”]
On May 6, the book continues, “Promptly at midnight we began to move again along blind roads, overgrown with underbrush, through fields that had lain fallow for years, now studded with brushes and briars, and the night being exceedingly dark the men floundered and fell as they marched”, etc. “Some times the head column lost its way”, “hunted the way back to the middle path”, “at daylight struck the plank road and marched down two miles where firing was heard”, “Longstreet's artillery were far in rear, floundering through blind roads like the infantry”.
Thus the accounts differ as to where Kershaw found Longstreet.
The route prescribed in the first order of Lee would have been about 28 miles.
An article by Field, commanding the remaining division of Longstreet's Corps says that about noon on May 4th he received a signal message to march on ( ) road and reach a point on it—Jack's Shop—early next day. He marched nearly all night and camped on the following evening five miles from the battlefield. He was not with Longstreet at Mechanicsville but was north and west of Gordonsville.
Fitzhugh Lee in 1894 finished a book on the life of his uncle, General Lee, in which he says that Longstreet, “left his camp near Gordonsville at 4 P.M. on the 4th, and marched that afternoon sixteen miles. The next day when Hill and Ewell were fighting, he resumed his march, lost his way, had to retrace his steps, and finally went into camp on the night of the 5th near Verdiersville, some ten miles in rear of where Hill and Ewell had been fighting”. * * * * “By the route he should have marched he could have reached Verdiersville in twenty miles. He consumed one day and a half of precious time in getting there”.
Longstreet made a bitter reply but does not seem to have disproved the material points of Fitzhugh Lee's statement.
We have good maps of Louisa and Orange Counties by Major Jed Hotchkiss the topographical engineer of Jackson and Lee, and one of Spotsylvania County made by the Engineers of the Army of the Potomac in 1863.
We may therefore measure with accuracy the distances covered by the units of this first corps between May 4th and daylight May 6th. They are as follows: from Mechanicsville to Brock's Bridge, 11 miles; from there to Richard's, 14 miles; from there to Parker's Store, 6 miles, of which 2½ miles were across country. Total 31 miles.
By the road that should have been taken Longstreet with the artillery would have marched from Mechanicsville to Gordonsville 5 miles, from there to Verdiersville 20 miles, from there to Parker's Store 8 miles. Total 33 miles. These roads are shown to be good and straight. The Plank Road is entered 8 miles from Verdiersville. If it was as good there as it was at Parker's Store it was wide enough for troops to march in double column. Field's and Kershaw's divisions however, comprising the main command, would have marched about 28 miles or less.
The discussion is now narrowed down to the time of starting which seems to have been 4 P.M.
Longstreet's book says that after 1 P.M. he received the order to move forward by the Plank Road to Parker's Store, that he asked for and received authority to move by a shorter route to Todd's Tavern and that he marched at 4 P.M.
Alexander says that it was near midday on May 4 when orders came to march to Todd's Tavern on the Brock Road.
It would be strange if Lee's first orders did not arrive until after 1 P.M. Even if there was no telegraph or signal service in use the order could have been brought from Lee's Headquarters by a mounted man at a trot in two hours. It is also strange that Longstreet should have been able to get the order changed in such a short time after it had been so long in getting to him in the first place. Lee is known to have started from his headquarters at an early hour, so that it must have been hard to find him and to get a second order after one o'clock. Alexander's statement is more reasonable as to the time when the order was changed to Todd's Tavern. It seems likely that Longstreet received his orders at an early hour and that he spent the best part of the day in getting them changed.
When a battle is impending and when warning has been given two days before, it is usual to expect better work.
The Hotchkiss map gives the name of the road from Mechanicsville to Brock's Bridge as “The Old Marquis Road”, that from Brock's Bridge to Richard's as “The Old Fredericksburg Road” and it seems to be the same as the one marked Catharpin Road on some maps.
A march of 20 to 25 miles on the 4th of May would have brought the Corps of Longstreet within ten miles of the field of battle, if he had obeyed the orders of Lee as first given. Three hours march on the 5th would have brought him there before the arrival of Hancock's Corps.
There seems to have been no doubt that his late start, along with his finding fault with his orders, was the cause of the ruin of Lee's well laid plan to concentrate upon the battlefield.
Chief of Staff.
It is not unusual for a great soldier to be lacking in some of the cardinal virtues, as so often happens with other men. In such a case it has been good policy to provide him with a Chief of Staff who is selected with a view to supplying the qualifications that he may lack. Thus Blucher had a Gneisenau and Ney a Jomini, making excellent team work in each case. The apparent lapses of Longstreet were so frequent as to indicate a habit of slow performance and seem to have called for some corrective influence which Lee himself hesitated to apply.
Longstreet seems to have taken to heart the advice of Polonius:
Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in, so bear it that the opposed may beware of thee.
Objectives and Maneuvers.
President Lincoln said to Hooker, June 10, 1863, “I think Lee's Army and not Richmond is your objective point”. Probably the same words were used to Grant. At any rate Grant said to Meade, April 9, 1864, “Lee's Army will be your objective point”, but the very first move was a maneuver to make Richmond the objective. When the army crossed the Rapidan it was on the shortest road to Richmond, forced Lee to leave his fortified position on that river, and to hasten to defend his Capitol. Lee's solution of the problem was not foreseen by Grant. The Southern Army at the first sign was put in march to attack the right flank of the enemy, to confine him to the Wilderness and thus to neutralize his superiority in numbers and artillery. It was not the first time that Lee had uncovered his line of retreat, sought battle with his front to a flank, and taken the advantage from the enemy.
Grant is said to have remarked, “I never maneuver”. If he ever made such a statement he consistently violated it both at the east and at the west. He said himself that he spent his time from May 13 to 18 in maneuvering. He probably regretted that he did not pursue that policy instead of fighting the battles of Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor.
Popular maxims of war are often as loosely drawn as this one.
Two great roads from Mine Run came in at right angles to the Federal line of march and were not watched by the cavalry, although they were filled with thousands of the enemy hurrying to attack.
One of the best rules of war, carefully observed by Lee, is to study your enemy. Grant expected opposition to his crossing the Rapidan but Lee's practice had never been to defend a river line. At Fredericksburg and Antietam he invited the enemy to cross and attack. Lee's successful use of this same Wilderness in the Chancellorsville Campaign might have been an indication that he would try it again.
The Wilderness Type of Battle.
In the 9th year of the Christian era a young chief of a barbarian tribe, Arminius by name, decided to resist the generous efforts of Imperial Rome to civilize his people. He had been educated in Rome, had been a soldier in her army, but was now a rebel and proceeded to give his former masters some new lessons in the art of war. So when the foreign legions marched into his country and entered the great forest of Teutoburg, somewhere east of Holland he attacked and killed them all. It was one of those original conceptions of war that comes so seldom in many centuries of human conflict. The trained armies of Greece and Rome only knew how to fight in open ground where six thousand soldiers could act as one man, with their disciplined ranks, superior weapons and well fitting armor. Only a few years before under Caesar they had slaughtered millions of Belgians, Gauls, Germans and Swiss with insignificant loss to themselves, but they had never fought in the woods where their mass formations did not count. After several campaigns in the same terrain, the Romans gave it up.
In the centuries that followed many wars were fought under Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough, Turenne, Frederick and Napoleon, but they continued to shun the forest. It remained for Lee, more than 1800 years later, to show the world that a great army in a heavily wooded terrain, could neutralize a splendid army of more than double its size in numbers and artillery.
We cannot claim with certainty that Lee was a disciple of Arminius but both seem to have been inspired with the same idea. By taking the offensive at Chancellorsville and in the Wilderness he gave the law to the enemy and forced him to fight under conditions where he had more men and artillery than he could use.
It was the fault of the art of command at that day not to prescribe in written orders the route of march, the objective and the hours of concentration. These refinements came later, in European wars where the country is accurately mapped and where exact combinations can be made with precision.
The Fortified Line of Battle.
Fortification is one of the most ancient of devices used in war. The walled city dates back to the age of fable. Caesar's legions fortified their camps every night and in the Campaigns of Frederick field fortifications was used by armies on the defensive in active campaign. Up to the time of the Civil War in the United States it was not in high favor with military men.
Jomini said of the Austrian Commander in 1759 that he “carried prudence to ridiculous pusillanimity” and that he showed his troops that he had no confidence in them. Marshal Marmont spoke of Napoleonic wars when he said that “an intrenched army regards itself as inferior, thinks only of retreat, and scarcely ever gets good results”.
Up to the beginning of our Civil War the consensus of opinion seems to have been well stated by Du four who said that “to adopt a continuous line of intrenchments is to confess our own weakness and to chill the ardor of our troops”. He also gave three examples of superior forces who were intrenched but were attacked and defeated by a smaller force.
Lee at Antietam and at Gettysburg stood for battle and did not fortify. In the Wilderness he made short work of the wisdom taught by the book and used intrenchments freely as a help in the attack by a mobile army, equally ready for offense or defense. It was a distinct advance in the art of war, and was the forerunner of the continuous fortified lines of the World War, which supported the Great Drives of 1918. So then the word went forth to intrench for defense and to assault for decision.
The battle of the Wilderness in 1864 was one of the decisive battles of the world. Lee was always watching for an opening but he was never again able to take the offensive on a large scale. Like Hannibal and Napoleon he had seen his opponents continually increasing in strength and resources while his own army was weakening day by day.
Practically the war was ended. We may however continue to find interest in the fine skill with which the Southern Commander postponed the result for many months.
As at Antietam and at Gettysburg a day of rest followed the battle of the Wilderness. Grant could have continued the battle perhaps with advantage but he was anxious to get out of the Wilderness so he preferred to maneuver Lee out of his intrenchments by marching on Spotsylvania Court House which was on the shortest road to Richmond.
On this occasion Grant had two good roads at his disposal and Lee had one poorer and longer road, but Longstreet's corps now under Anderson got there first and with Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, kept Merritt's cavalry and Warren's and Sedgwick's Corps out of Spotsylvania all day. The odds of numbers were about five to one.
A great battle was fought at Spotsylvania and the campaign continued by way of North Anna and Totopotomoy to Cold Harbor. Operations resembled a parallel line of retreat in which each army marched for the same objective which was a point on the shortest road to Richmond. It stands as a model of defensive tactics, for the skill with which Lee saw through the plans of the enemy and met each move by getting at the right place at the right time.
Then came Petersburg and Appomattox. Grant, with a superior force, was able to extend his line of intrenchments until that of Lee reached the breaking point. Richmond was evacuated, retreat was blocked and about 28,000 men, the exhausted remnant of Lee's Army, surrendered.
Military leaders are invariably called before the bar of history to answer for everything that they might have done better. Some of the critics call for notice, some do not. For our purpose here we limit ourselves to a few that have been given the greatest importance.
Perhaps most has been said about Stuart's raid around the Federal Army as a fatal mistake in the Gettysburg Campaign. The principal critics are Lee's staff officers, although the march was made by the orders of Lee and Longstreet. The state of mind of Meade caused by the raid may be seen by his dispatches to Halleck on June 29 at the time when Lee was concentrating on his left flank. He said: “While I move forward I shall incline to the right toward the Baltimore and Harrisburg (railroad) to cover that.” “My communication with the General in Chief is intercepted on my right.” “If Lee is moving for Baltimore I expect to get between his main army and that place.” So it must have been Stuart who caused the dispersion of that army over thirty-five miles of front. If Stuart had been in front of Lee “where he ought to have been”, Meade's cavalry would have been there too, with his army concentrated.
We may freely admit that Lee's orders were often lacking in precision, sometimes the result of verbal understandings, seldom made of record. Such was the practice at that day. The orders of Napoleon were often more defective than those of Lee, as shown by the orders to Ney at Bautzen, for the passage of the Danube at Wagram, to Bernadotte at Jena and Auerstadt, to Vandamme at Kulm, to D'Erlon and Grouchy in the Waterloo Campaign. The systematic issue of orders had indeed been developed by the Prussians at the time of our Civil War but it was not generally understood by military men outside of Moltke's General Staff.
Severe criticisms of Lee are given by J. R. Young as having been made by Grant at the time of his voyage around the World. It will occur to most people who read them that they do not sound at all like Grant, but one of them at least can be put at rest by well known facts. It is as follows: “I never had so much anxiety when Lee was in my front as when Joe Johnston was in front.” We do not know of anything to cause anxiety to Grant during the only campaign in which he was opposed by Johnston, but we do know that he was much disturbed when Gordon by Lee's order attacked his right on the afternoon of May 6, 1864. General James Harrison Wilson says that it was an episode of terrible import, followed by a night of terrible anxiety, the wagon trains were at once started towards Fredericksburg, and the movement was construed as foreshadowing an entire change of base and possibly a retreat to the north side of the Rappahannock. He quotes Rawlins and Bowers of Grant's staff as saying that he "went into his tent, and throwing himself face downward on his cot gave way to the greatest emotion. General Charles Francis Adams was on duty at Headquarters at that time. He said to me, “I never saw a man so agitated in my life.”
Perhaps the most violent criticism of Lee was made by Longstreet, in speaking of the orders to attack at Gettysburg, that the fighting had to go on until “blood enough was shed to appease him.” I oppose this statement by another which I get from General W. C. Brown who as Adjutant of the U.S. Military Academy examined the records of Lee as Superintendent 1852–55. “The custom of General Lee, when a cadet had to leave the Academy without a diploma, was to write a kind letter of hope, and encouragement to the parents of the boy.” A blood-thirsty man should have been made of sterner stuff.
The influence of Jomini is so evident in the early textbooks studied at West Point that it is well to give some thought to the man as a soldier and as an expounder of the conduct of war.
Henry Jomini was born in Switzerland in 1779 and died in 1869, or at the age of ninety years. He devoted himself to military study at an early age, having little military training, but filled with the warlike spirit of the day and possessing literary ability of high order. In 1804 at the age of 25 years he completed the first two volumes of a “Treatise on Grand Tactics”. The expense of publication forced him to seek the patronage of a great personage. After having tried Murat and having been rebuffed by the Russian representative of the Czar he succeeded in awakening the interest of Marshall Ney who furnished him with funds and gave him a place on his staff in 1805. The 1 and 2 volumes were published at this time and contain accounts of the first three years of the Seven Years War—1757–62. His plan was to publish a series of eight volumes, the first four to be devoted to the Seven Years War of Frederick and the remaining four to the wars of the French Revolution. The fifth volume appeared in 1806, giving the first year of the Revolution. By changing the order in which the volumes appeared he hoped to awaken more interest in the work. The remaining volumes were finished about 1810. After the battle of Austerlitz he had the boldness to include the first two volumes in a package of reports which he brought from Ney to Napoleon, with a letter from himself inviting attention to a chapter comparing the strategy of the Emperor with that of Frederick. According to Maret (the Duke of Bassano) Napoleon was surprised to find that a young Swiss officer was able to publish to the world an accurate estimate of his scheme of war. A censorship was established at once, which will explain why small reference to Napoleon's campaigns appears in the subsequent works of Jomini up to 1815 and in the book of DeVernon which was adopted for use in the French Military School in 1805.
Jomini was the author of some thirty volumes, but few of them were published and available at the time of the preparation of the West Point Textbook in 1817. The books on Grand Tactics went through three editions with many amendations until the last in 1857 which was the only one finally approved by the author. It was translated by General S. B. Holabird, U. S. Army during the Civil War.
The Life of Napoleon in six volumes with an Atlas was translated by General H. W. Halleck in 1846 and published in 1864. The Summary of the Art of War was translated by General W. P. Craighill and Captain G. H. Mendell, also during the Civil War. The Campaign of Waterloo was translated by General S. V. Benet in 1853 and a second edition was published during the Civil War. This will show the absorbing interest of our military men in the works of Jomini. Although the translations appeared rather late we have evidence that our officers had shown great interest in the works of Jomini long before the Civil War, and it is quite certain that many had consulted the French editions which had been available for many years. We have no positive evidence that Lee did so.
Generals Halleck, McClellan and perhaps Jackson visited Jomini at his home before the Civil War. In 1868 McClellan repeated the statement of Jomini's biographer that he was the first one to formulate a self evident list of maxims of war, which had stood the test of time as the shortest and best summary of the principles of military leadership. But McClellan added, a little wistfully, “The difficulty in the application still remains. Jomini's book helps but does not create a general”.
Jomini's habit of enunciating maxims and principles for almost every military situation has often been criticized. It would not however be easy to make a clearer statement of rules of war than we find in the last seven pages of the textbook of 1817, which are translated from Jomini. The first and greatest commandment has best been stated in the homely phrase: “Get there first with the most men”. The other rules are like unto it in that they point out the way to choose the objective. Briefly stated they would be about as follows:
When we study the campaigns of Lee we find that these rules of action were in general effectively understood and employed. At Gettysburg and in the Wilderness he attacked both flanks and the center of superior army in position. He thus violated the 3d of the foregoing rules or its implied corollary: “Do not attack both ends of the enemy's line if you have the weaker army.” It is said in his defense that he would have succeeded if his subordinates had observed the 9th rule as he had expected and ordered.
The fault of the maxims is in making them imperative instead of advisory and dependent upon circumstances. Lee seems to have had this in mind and to have made his decisions after striking a nice balance between all the factors in each problem. It was a good rule for Lee, but within the capacity of few, which is evident enough when we consider that Halleck, McClellan, Pope, Hooker, Burnside, Jefferson Davis, J. E. Johnston, and Beauregard, also studied them in the same book. Among them McClellan and Halleck at least have left a record of high appreciation, while Lee seems to have been the only one who deeply drank of that “Pierian Spring”.
It had been said by Polybius many centuries before that Hannibal owed his triumphs to his study of the hopes and fears of the enemy.
Jomini had the idea when he wrote of the march of Frederick into Silesia after his defeat at Hohenkirchen in 1758. “The King saw that in planning to save all he might lose all, but the desperate dilemma only served to nerve his heart to quicker action. Never was he more brilliant than on this occasion. He saw through the character and talents of Marshal Daun and he knew that he could count on greater promptness in the movements of his own army.” “The King knew how to blind them by flattering hopes which made them lose sight of the main point.”
Clausewitz had the idea when he said: “There is only one point which the defender has to look to, and that is the character and situation of his opponent.” And again: “Purchase the right to the initiative and therefore the right to give the law to the enemy.” Light Horse Harry Lee had the identical idea at an earlier day.
General E. P. Alexander said of Lee: “He had read McClellan's inmost soul and he knew he was not to be feared.”
Jomini seems to have been one of the first to use the word “strategy”, which is derived from the Greek word meaning “a general”, which was itself made up from two Greek words, one meaning “an army”, and the other meaning “to lead”; hence, “Generalship” would perhaps be a better word today. In 1804 we find him using it in speaking of the great strategic movements of Frederick in 1758 and at other times, but he seems to contradict himself at a later period when he says that “Strategy and other grand operations of war were unknown in 1762.”
The word was not adopted by the French Academy until long after the Napoleonic wars. It is not in Johnson's English Dictionary of 1812, and not in some English Military Dictionaries of a much later period.
Napoleon probably never heard the word and never used it or anything like it. He made Strategy without knowing it. Jomini was his apostle and Lee was his successor.
Jomini evidently thought himself to be possessed with the divine fire of Military Leadership, but something was lacking. Neither temperamentally nor physically was he suited to high command. He was often obliged to give up his work on account of his health. He often antagonized those associated with him. He quarrelled with Ney, was hated and persecuted by Bertier, sometimes argued with Napoleon, left the army in disgust when he was not promoted, joined the Russians, was snubbed by the allies. Yet he was a man of high principles, wrote books which were not disfigured by the prejudices of his time, and tried to prevent the execution of Ney.
It is the way of the world to seek with eagerness for every detail in the life of its great men. This is usually easy because men like to talk about themselves, justify their acts, expose their enemies. It was not so with Lee. There was no ego in his complex. Deep as were his affections, high his character, and strong his convictions, he seems to have held himself apart. His letters to his family, his conversations with his intimates, seem to show a certain reserve. In no other way can we explain the natural sequence of events in his military career. Nothing that we know of his life up to the age of about forty years gave any indication of the recklessness and dash that he showed in the Mexican Campaign. After that, so far as our record goes, other colorless years intervened from 1848 to 1862, when he appeared upon a greater field, moved by no doubts and ready for the word, like David of old in the valley of Elah. His numerous biographers, close as they were to him by family and official ties, do not seem to bridge these chasms in his life. After the war when others were writing their memoirs he had little to say.
The “Science of War”, as studied at West Point in the early days, had few references to Napoleon, but Lee soon showed that he knew all about him, modelling campaigns upon the best examples of the Emperor, often taking greater chances. At the Second Manassas, Chantilly, and Chancellorsville he made detachments with an inferior force to the enemy's rear, twice with full success and once partially so. Napoleon's experience with this maneuver was disaster at Kulm, partial success at Bautzen and complete success at Auerstadt. No one has ventured it since the Civil War. Lee divided his army in the presence of the enemy when he made these detachments, also when he left McClellan on the Peninsula and marched against Pope, in his two invasions of the North, when he captured Harper's Ferry and stood for battle at Antietam, after his retreat from Maryland when he faced McClellan at Warrenton. He uncovered his line of retreat when he refused to conform to the flanking movements of Meade at Mine Run, and in his two invasions of the North. He fought with his front to a flank at Gaines's Mill, Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. Napoleon at Saint Helena is said to have formulated the principle that these maneuvers should not be used. Lee used converging columns which concentrated on the field of battle at Gaines's Mill, Glendale, Chancellorsville, the Second Bull Run and on the first day at Gettysburg, on which occasions he was justified by results. On the second day at Gettysburg and at the Wilderness the failure was not his. Frederick tried it twice without success. Napoleon thought it best to concentrate before the battle. Moltke has had credit for using this maneuver for the first time at Koniggratz but Lee had done it several years before with many successes and few failures.
On three occasions when flanked by Hooker, Meade or Grant he turned the advantage in his own favor by flanking the enemy.
Napoleon was the first to use the natural features of the terrain to confuse and surprise his enemies when he was preparing to give his hardest blows. When ready to strike it seemed as if it were with the hand of fate. After a battle he was often able to dictate a peace or to overrun a state. In the 47 years following Waterloo the percussion cap replaced the flint and the rifle replaced the smooth bore, thus giving great power to the defense, and making it necessary for the victor to accept results which were not so decisive as before.
Lee's use of the terrain was of Napoleonic type, and although forced to accept a lesser result he was often able to extend its use beyond the limits practiced by the emperor in offensive-defensive strategy. To screen the movements of his army he used a river line in his march to Fredericksburg in 1862 and in his withdrawal in 1863. In the same way he used the Blue Ridge Mountains in his two invasions of the North. When we consider the later improvements in telegraph and railroads his movements stand comparison with those of Napoleon under cover of the Rhine River, the Harz Mountains and the Thuringian Forest.
Lee withdrew his army on two occasions across the Potomac River in the presence of the enemy in good order and without loss. Napoleon met with disaster at Leipsic and at the Beresina.
The Campaign of Chancellorsville, in the use of interior lines to attack the fractions of an enemy's divided force, recalls to mind Napoleon's Italian Campaign of 1796 and the Campaign of Eckmuhl. The same remark may apply to the campaign against McClellan and Pope in 1862.
Lee's capture of Harper's Ferry in 1862 can hardly be compared with Napoleon's campaign of Ulm, but it was done in the face of a great army, Lee's second invasion of the North has been compared with Napoleon's invasion of Russia but Napoleon's line of communications was more secure and his disaster was greater.
Lee's use of the cavalry screen was an advance over that of Napoleon. Later Moltke tried it with some success and Oyama with poor results.
Lee did not hesitate to use his last reserve, as at Antietam and the Wilderness. Napoleon failed at Borodino because he would not do so.
As with Napoleon, Lee's greatest success was due to the inefficiency of his adversaries and like Napoleon he was finally overcome by the hard logic of the heaviest battalions in which losses could be made up after every battle.
The earliest of the great captains were drill masters. Alexander fell heir to the army of Philip of Macedon and conquered the known world. He had about 35,000 well drilled soldiers and his total losses were about one thousand, say three per cent. Hannibal commanded the veteran army of Hamilcar Barca, his father. Next came Caesar with his Roman legions which were an improvement on the Phalanx of the Greeks. He massacred and sold into slavery millions of nobler and braver races than his own. On one afternoon he killed 450,000 men, women and children and only stopped because his man were tired. After a battle he “left but few”, or “slew the rest of them”. Sometimes he “lost a few of his own men”. Sometimes after a battle his men returned to camp, “safe to a man.”
Frederick inherited the parade-ground soldiers of his father. After a victory his opponent seemed to go to sleep while he marched against another enemy.
Napoleon commanded the army of Republican France which had held its own against Europe for several years. Lee made his own army. None of them, except Hannibal and Napoleon at the end of their careers, encountered dangerous enemies. Lee fought soldiers of the same race and generals of the same school as his own. The odds of numbers were greater against Lee in the Wilderness Campaign than they were against Napoleon in the Waterloo Campaign but Lee had his army at the end and Napoleon's disaster was complete. From the Rapidan to the James, Lee inflicted losses in killed and wounded almost as great as the army under his command. Lee made five campaigns in a single year: no other man and no other army ever did so much. Napoleon's “lucky star” sometimes brought victory which his combinations had not prepared and saved him from disaster which he had not foreseen. On the other hand we may well ask where luck and good fortune ever retrieved a mistake of Lee or where the happy inspiration of a subordinate ever gave him victory or saved him defeat. Lee practiced his own theory of the art of war. Like Napoleon he treated each problem as a concrete case which he solved according to circumstances and he had his greatest success when he departed furthest from accepted rules. He owed much to his study of the opposing commander and he is said to have complained that the frequent changes in the Federal generals kept him very busy in this respect. But Lee's art may never vex the soldiers of another day. Field intrenchments reaching from the frontier of a neutral state to the sea may be the grave of strategy and may send us back again to the days of fortress warfare. What the armies of the air may do we cannot say.