Lee’s Last Command II

The pride of the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to the humiliation of a flight, dignified by the name of a “retreat,” through the bleak farm country to the west of Petersburg. The twenty-seven thousand of all arms — wagoneers, doctors, hangers-on — were overhauled at the courthouse town of Appomattox County. There was nothing at Appomattox to defend. It was simply a place-name in the cheerless countryside where the walking skeletons could go no farther.

Before the army of Northern Virginia was officially dissolved on the 10th of April, 1865, in the months of “the long agony” while the Confederacy was disintegrating around the Richmond-Petersburg stronghold, there were thousands of soldiers with Lee who never believed they could be defeated with Uncle Robert. At first there was the hope of the November elections, which gradually faded with the collapse of other fronts. Then, beyond all reason, the men hoped because General Lee was there as the image of invincibility.

When did he know, beyond all outside unreasonable hope, that their second war for independence was doomed? By his own words, he regarded a siege as numbering the days of his own army. But during the summer, while the Federal forces gained no decisions on other fronts and Jubal Early threatened Washington with his small army, Grant’s grinding operations hacked away so slowly that obviously the enemy could achieve nothing definite against him before November. As an approaching finality is difficult for anyone to accept while it is still distant, and as Lee was by instinct a warrior, it is unlikely that he looked ultimate defeat squarely in the face when his army was first immobilized. Though he had said it would be a question of time, with the shape Grant’s army was then in, it could seem possible that time might run out on the enemy before it did on the Confederacy.

Because nothing he said or wrote in his most personal letters, during the remainder of 1864, indicated any change in Lee’s attitude, it would be impossible to select any given date when he recognized that all hope was gone for the Confederacy, when he accepted beyond reprieve the death of the cause for which he had sacrificed everything.

In terms of events, September 30th would be as close as any to the date when nothing remained to support the most desperate hope. By then General Lee had absorbed the news of the surrounding disasters — the fall of Atlanta at the other end of the line and the loss of the Shenandoah Valley at home. And on that day he observed the collapse of his own veteran troops in performing the simplest operation merely to maintain the siege.

When large-scale assault had passed from the Army of the Potomac in June, after the men were rested and the drooping morale rose, Grant began a monotonous pendulum movement of limited attacks south of Petersburg at the railroad to Wilmington and north of the James at the Richmond fortifications. This whittling away at Lee’s men was a focus of attrition directly on the manpower of Lee’s army in the deadliest wearing down of Lee’s ability to maintain a force in the field. In one of these grim mathematical exchanges of replaceable Federal soldiers falling to bring down an irreplaceable Confederate, on September 29th a surprise attack took Fort Harrison, a pivotal link in the chain of fortifications east of Richmond.

These works were manned principally by artillerists on the stationary guns, mostly men unfit for strenuous campaigning, and life on the bluffs near the James River had been relatively easy for these garrison troops. The men tended little vegetable gardens and their camps, cooler and fresher than the trenches, sometimes served as refitting stations for worn-out units, low in numbers and suffering absentees from sickness. While reconditioning, the regulars were available to assist the garrisons in repelling attack.

At the time of the pre-dawn surprise attack on Fort Harrison, only the skeletal brigades of Johnson’s Tennesseans and Gregg’s Texans were north of the James, neither in the fort. The garrison troops in the earthen works, lulled by the quiet tenor of their days, were overwhelmed almost before they knew what was happening, and Johnson’s and Gregg’s veterans were hard put to it to prevent the Federal force from extending the breach and wrecking Lee’s great system of fortifications.

Because of the critical location of the break, on the next day Lee rode personally back to the north side of the river, once more in front of the capital. With him he brought the other survivors of Field’s division, Hoke’s division and some of Pickett’s regiments. As carefully as he planned the masterpiece of Chancellorsville with Stonewall Jackson, the commanding general prepared an attack for retaking Fort Harrison with black-bearded young Hoke and burly, one-legged Charlie Field.

The assault opened on a flat-landed field of a size where General Lee could survey every detail of the waste of valiant life in uncoordinated, futile movements. Field attacked too soon and Hoke waited for the time of the order. Field’s brigadiers acted without concert and their units were cut up separately. As his men fell back in disorder, Hoke’s division advanced to receive alone the concentrated fire of the enemy. Then these brigades retired, considerably shaken.

At the first confused repulse, General Lee could not accept the finality of this breakdown in command in a rudimentary action of such limited scope. One of the soldiers who passed near to him wrote, “I had always thought General Lee was a cold and unemotional man, but he showed lots of feeling and excitement on that occasion.” Then the soldier described the General “imploring the men to make one more effort to take the position for him.”

The men were moved to make the effort, but only the spirit was willing and that briefly. The soldiers were too experienced to advance into concentrated fire, from an enemy behind works, under leaders whose lack of capacity made useless the sacrifice of life. Almost by common consent, the veterans of Lee’s greatest campaigns broke backward and made their way to safety in unapologetic disorder.

The General did not try to rally them again. When he turned Traveler to the river bridge, leading to what was becoming the fort of Petersburg, that may have been the hour when the certainty of the Confederacy’s inevitable defeat came over him. It could scarcely have come later.

On that last day of September, five months after the gathering of all his generals on Clark’s Mountain, the Army of Northern Virginia revealed itself to be little more than an image in the memories of men. The generals of the last pageantry in the spring were dead or scattered on the pleasantly warm day of early autumn.

Broken Ewell remained in the token position of commanding the Department of Richmond. Longstreet, with a partially paralyzed arm from his wound, returned to the mundane assignment of commanding a permanent line outside Richmond north of the James River. The division of Charles Field, the man whom Longstreet had so bitterly opposed, were the only troops of the old First Corps north of the James. The other division in the command was that of Robert Hoke, the disappointment as a major general. Ewell, with the department, and Longstreet, with the line of works, were to last to the end, though poor Dick Ewell was to suffer the final indignity of being captured on the retreat to Appomattox, where he commanded some local defense troops from Richmond and a “battalion” of sailors.

Pickett’s division had enjoyed its last moment of glory in driving Butler’s troops out of the Bermuda Hundred lines. George Pickett became a shadowy figure in the last months, continuing in his baffling withdrawal from Lee’s regard. In time the division, crowded with conscripts, would be pulled out of line and held as a reserve unit.

Dick Anderson, Longstreet’s successor on the First Corps, fell steadily away from his one great hour at Spotsylvania. Defeatism settled on him earlier and more obviously than most, and gradually his “corps” was reduced to the hodgepodge division of Bushrod Johnson, formed at Petersburg in the May battles against Butler.

The Second Corps had mostly disintegrated in the Valley. Jubal Early, contemned and forgotten, was left there with a token force without any of the young division commanders who had flashed so brilliantly in the campaign against Grant. Robert Rodes and Dodson Ramseur were killed, young Ramseur with a letter in his pocket announcing the birth of a new son. John B. Gordon was brought back to Lee’s forces around Petersburg.

Only the Third Corps sustained its entity all the way, despite the increasing absences of A. P. Hill. His lovely wife and two young daughters took a residence in Petersburg, and the physically failing general spent much time at home. Toward the end, when the possibility of evacuating Richmond was discussed, Hill said he would not want to survive the fall of the city, and it would almost look as if Little Powell made sure he did not. When the break came in the lines on Sunday morning, April 2nd, A. P. Hill hurried back from a sick leave to make a personal reconnaissance into the wooded no man’s land beyond the heavy fortifications. He was accompanied only by his favorite courier, Sergeant Tucker. They encountered a couple of Federal stragglers and Hill rode toward them, calling to the men to surrender. They fired on him, and life was gone from the wasted body when Hill, toppled from the saddle, struck the damp earth.

Lee choked up when Tucker brought him the news, and his careworn face reflected the stab of sorrow. Then, controlling himself, the General said, “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.”

In the cavalry, little was required of the reconnaissance for which Jeb Stuart had been famous, and Wade Hampton performed well enough those thankless chores of fighting the enemy off the railroads. Long before the end, the Weldon Railroad was severed beyond repair, and supplies came only by trickles to the island of defense. In 1865, Hampton took Calbraith Butler’s cavalry back to South Carolina, to try to put heart into the hopeless delaying action against Sherman. The highly respected South Carolina grandee was not close to Lee personally, and no one ever took the place in his affections of “my poor Stuart,” as Lee called him, nor of the “great and good Jackson.”

The nearest intimate was John B. Gordon, the patriot soldier who had attracted Lee at the beginning of the campaign. Bringing high gifts of intelligence, devotion and tireless energy to his inspiring physical presence, the Georgian nonetheless reflected the change from the panoplied gathering in May when he, a brigadier at the beginning of the campaign, became the closest companion of the commanding general. Yet so relatively simple were the technical demands in defending fortified positions that Gordon could become the army’s first non-professional corps commander. Like Hampton in the cavalry, he brought to his duties the stout heart which represented the essential element of leadership needed in the trenches.

The ever-lengthening lines, the digging of which exhausted more and more men, were manned by the various units who had defended Petersburg, interspersed with the units whose pride was sustained by the place-names on their battle flags. Except for the marchings out and back forced on Hill’s fading men, the once mobile army acted as a garrison force covering some thirty-odd miles of expanding front. Lee’s army had finally been claimed by the system.

As the days ticked away the life of Lee’s army, the commander in chief was at last undisturbed in his departments. No one importuned him for concentration of forces, no decisions need be made of where to shift troops. His defensive policy had ultimately achieved a totally static defense. Only time, not sudden actions, could change his charts.

Fittingly, one of Davis’s last arrangements was to resolve Beauregard’s second-in-command status by placing him in command of yet another department. This time Old Bory was given the official authority for the area in which driven, goaded John Hood took his Army of Tennessee. Beauregard’s ambitions would not again delude him into trying to recapture glory in one of Davis’s fantasy departments. He accepted the assignment outwardly with good grace, remained blandly detached from involvement with the details of the foredoomed disasters and, playing out his role of the French marshal, settled for the future with his reputation as it then existed.

Lee was at last in sole command of the Richmond area north and south of the James River, now that it was too late to do more than exercise the techniques of a professional soldier in defending a hopeless position until the surviving force was sufficiently weakened for the enemy to storm the walls. He had written to the commander in chief, “I think it is his [Grant’s] purpose to compel the evacuation of our present position by cutting off supplies, and that he will not renew the attempt to drive us away by force. … It behooves us to do everything in our power to thwart his new plan of reducing us to starvation.”

To the end, General Lee anticipated his immediate antagonist. On July 24th he wrote his son Custis his estimate of Grant: “His talent and strategy consists in accumulating overwhelming numbers.” To meet this policy he could only continue to offer suggestions. Davis paid not the slightest heed to anything the General suggested, but Lee wrote letters as carefully composed as those in the earlier years.

He could not have hoped that any action would be taken this late in the day. Back in October of 1862 Lee wrote his wife a strangely ignored letter on the perils to the Confederacy caused by vanity of the spirit. Referring to the “hand of God” in their affairs, he wrote, “If our people would recognize it, and cease from their vain self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success.” Obviously, he could expect no change of spirit in people with the tide running out in 1864.

In dutifully writing suggestions of measures that might be taken, he avoided the one subject which grew in his mind as the last military expedient. This was the abandonment of Richmond, a desperate measure surely enough, but one he preferred to prolonging the ordeal of starvation. Since he knew the President’s answer beforehand, General Lee evidently found it pointless to try any more diplomatic maneuvers.

To his own army, his own front, he brought the best he had each day. Like a great artist, he could only bring everything there was in him. Nothing was withheld, unused or wasted, however futile he might have believed the end. For to recognize the hopelessness of a cause was not for Lee to act on the acceptance of defeat. Realistic evaluation was a proper function of the mind, not of the heart.

To Lee, as a deeply religious man, resignation to an event before it happened would be to anticipate the will of God. In Lee’s concept of man’s relation to life, this would have been inconceivable, a violation of the duty clearly revealed by each new sun.

A military community was dependent upon him for its existence, for the support of its morale and its honor. Small though the sum of the units in comparison with the enemy’s might, more than fifty thousand men of all arms comprised the force from Richmond’s fortifications to the lines southwest of Petersburg. Daily the spirits of some men failed, and they stole away from their former comrades. Some went directly into the enemy’s lines for food, others home to obtain food and provide safety for their families. Daily too the bodies of men proved unequal to the strain, and those who did not die were invalided out of the army. Yet to the end, to all ends, the spirit and the flesh of others would endure as long as he led.

Lee knew that. As his own children, these men had been placed in his care and they gave him the same implicit trust. Yet as a parent who knows he cannot provide food for children whose eyes turn to him in hunger, Lee must have suffered from the inwardly held knowledge that he could not provide these trusting men with what they expected.

He did not want to tell them to surrender; he never wanted that. But, as in his unrevealed preference for abandoning Richmond and breaking out into the open, it would have been his preference to bring the slow agony to a quick end. On this, he wrote an extremely revealing passage.

In his saddlebags, General Lee kept loose sheets of paper, on which he wrote from time to time, without date, various maxims, proverbs and Psalms, selections from standard authors, and occasionally some reflection of his own. These were written in his own clear, strong hand, slanting to the right, with “f’s” heavily shaded in the downward stroke. On one sheet of paper, he wrote this:

The warmest instincts of every man’s soul declare the glory of the soldier’s death. It is more appropriate to the Christian than to the Greek to sing:

Glorious his fate, and envied is his lot, Who for his country fights and for it dies.”

To this the General added another line, as if on further reflection on the subject. “There is a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done, the honor of the integrity of principle.”

This was all left to the man whose vaulting aspirations had carried him to the top of his profession and whom General Winfield Scott called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

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