Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

Through Many Campaigns

Eighteen months of the great war had passed. The world was watching. The brothers, with their hands clutched at each other's throats in awful spectacle, were still strong to fight. Hatred and defiance yet flashed from their eyes. We can scarce believe it now, but the North and the South, it then appeared, could never, after their bloody embraces and fierce struggles, be reconciled. Battles that have been described over and over again had been fought and won and lost. Military reputations had been ruined and had been made. In thousands of graves that dotted the hillsides and valleys of fair Virginia lay her sons and the invaders, side by side. The bloody tide had ebbed and flowed over twice and thrice fought fields, and through it all Robert E. Lee had proved himself a leader of men and a genius in warfare. From the first of the seven days' fighting around Richmond, when his badly equipped and almost untried army had stopped and thrown back the Union advance, blood was spilled every day. During the months of June, July, and August Lee had won victories. And it was now September. The drawn battle of Antietam had been fought, and Lee's advance into Maryland had been checked. With about thirty-five thousand men he had held his own against nearly seventy thousand Northern troops under McClellan, and though halted and compelled ultimately to fall back, in that short campaign he had captured fourteen thousand prisoners, over fifty much-needed guns, and large quantities of stores of various descriptions.

It would be impossible in this writing to go into the details of the military movements, or to discuss the whys and the wherefores of victory or defeat. Over the much-threshed questions volumes have been written, bitter controversies fought in print, reasons given and excuses made. We have but to take occasional glances as if through the eyes of other people, at Lee, to keep the interest and intention of this volume. How fared it with him? Was he changed or altered? Had his powers waned? One day, just after Antietam had been fought and the Confederate forces rested not far from the town of Winchester, there arrived there a young Englishman, a soldier who had already attracted attention to himself by his bravery in battle and his display of military knowledge. He had travelled long distances and had passed through many dangers in order to meet and talk with General Lee. The name of this young Englishman was Wolseley, and he has given such a picture of the great general that to quote it here in full might be the best way to present him to us as he must have then appeared.

After describing the difficulties by which he had at last reached Richmond and his journey out into the surrounding country, traversing many lately fought battle-fields, Lord Wolseley writes of his reaching Lee's army:

"As soon as I could do so," he goes on to say, "I proceeded to General Lee's headquarters, about six miles from the town on the road to Harper's Ferry. Every incident in that visit to him is indelibly stamped on my memory. I have taken no special trouble to remember all he said to me then and during subsequent conversations, and yet it is still fresh in my recollection. But it is natural it should be so, for he was the ablest general, and to me seemed the greatest man I ever conversed with; and yet I have had the privilege of meeting Von Moltke and Prince Bismarck, and at least upon one occasion had a very long and intensely interesting conversation with the latter. General Lee was one of the few men who ever seriously impressed and awed me with their natural, their inherent greatness. Forty years have come and gone since our meeting, yet the majesty of his manly bearing, the genial, winning grace, the sweetness of his smile, and the impressive dignity of his old-fashioned style of address come back to me among the most cherished of my recollections. His greatness made me humble, and I never felt my own individual insignificance more keenly than I did in his presence. He was then about fifty years of age, with hair and beard nearly white. Tall, extremely handsome, and strongly built, very soldier-like in bearing, he looked a thoroughbred gentleman. Care had, however, already wrinkled his brow, and there came at moments a look of sadness into his clear, honest, and speaking dark-brown eyes that indicated how much his overwhelming national responsibility had already told upon him. As he listened to you attentively, he seemed to look into your heart and to search your brain. He spoke of the future with confidence, though one could clearly see he was of no very sanguine temperament. He deplored the bitterness introduced into the struggle, but there was no rancor in his tone when he referred to the Northern government. He had merely 'gone with his State'—Virginia—the pervading principle that had influenced most of the soldiers I spoke with during my visit to the South. His was indeed a beautiful character, and of him it might truthfully be written: 'In righteousness he did judge and make war.'"

Such is the opinion of a man who described himself as an outsider, and yet who recalls his impressions as being so strong that they amount to perhaps the strongest of his life. How much more must Lee's character have influenced and dominated those with whom he was thrown into every-day contact. Perhaps it may be said of him that, like Washington, the greatness of his moral character almost cast into shade the renown of his military genius; it certainly preserved him from personal ambition, and made him as great in defeat as in victory. But we must press on, for this part of the story cannot be regarded as a history of his campaigns or a review of the doings of his army; there is hardly space to hint of them. Yet victory after victory he won over superior forces, making sport of difficulties, triumphing over privations. And at last, with a fierce determination that might have marked a man in desperation (though that was not the case), pressing on northward towards the tempting land of plenty, fighting his way, mile after mile. The news of his coming spread before him, and called forth from the inexhaustible North its greatest effort to repel him. And so his great wave of invasion broke upon the hills of Pennsylvania and dwindled and receded from the Confederate high-tide at Gettysburg. His great effort failed. Let historians tell the reason why. Let them invoke the records of both armies to prove what happened or what might have happened. Let them excuse or defend this one or that. Let them write what they will of the great Virginian, and we will find a grand and heroic figure of a simple man, admired by his enemies and uncensored by his loving followers. There will be left a leader who had naught to say in explanation of his actions, and who took the burden of all responsibility, unflinchingly, upon himself. What reasonable excuse for failure there might have been in relating the delinquencies of his subordinates, he did not indulge in. But his brave spirit was not destroyed nor his bold heart daunted. The masterly retreat that he began on July 4th, and continued for a week, showed his military genius as plainly as his well-planned advance had done.

Month after month was passed in constant fighting, and in May of 1864 Lee found arrayed against him and his veteran army such forces that a man of lesser powers might have become unnerved from the mere pressure of his surroundings. And he was fighting a great general now, for Ulysses S. Grant had assumed command of the Army of the Potomac. There followed the battle of the Wilderness, and then the bloody fighting around Spottsylvania Court-House. And just' here a little incident of the two days' fight in the tangled thickets:

On the morning of May 6th, on the second day's fighting, it was going hard with the Confederate forces on the right. Hancock had almost driven General A. P. Hill from his position the evening before, and early in the morning he renewed the assault. Hill was wavering when General Longstreet's forces appeared an hour's delay and they would have arrived too late. Lee, who had been chafing because of the slowness with which some of the brigades were moving, had grown impatient. The thundering volleys of the Union infantry, as they approached, warned him that unless they were quickly checked, the day was lost, and it was at this moment that Gregg's Texas brigade came hurrying up. The old spirit that had animated the general when he was a younger officer in Mexico thrilled him through and through.

"Come, my brave boys, charge, charge!" he cried, riding out to the head of the column.

The men looked up and saw who it was. They began to shout to him first one, bolder than the rest, and then another, until there was a chorus of voices rising all about.

"Go back, general! Go back, General Lee, go back!" They motioned to him with their arms. Lee still pressed on, when suddenly a sergeant, jumping forward, caught his horse's bridle.

"We won't go in till you go back, sir!" he cried. "For God's sake, don't stay here; we can't lose you!"

The man clung to the horse's bridle as he spoke, and Lee gave in.

"My Texas boys, you must charge!" he cried.

And with a cheer the men answered him, plunging at top speed through bushes and timber towards where the Northern volleys were rippling the loudest.

"It was a terrible field for battle—a region of tangled underbrush, ragged foliage, and knotted trunks. You hear the saturnalia, gloomy, hideous, desperate, raging unconfined. You see nothing, and the very mystery augments the horror. Nothing is visible, and from out the depths comes the ruin that has been wrought in bleeding shapes, borne on blankets or on stretchers." Thus wrote an eye-witness in a vivid picture of the day. In one way the Wilderness was the most awful fight of the war, if not of all history. Charges were made and repulsed at point-blank range, and yet men could not see one another. Over the tangle of the thick wood hung for two days a pall of smoke. Wounded, hidden in clefts among the great boulders, could not be found. Dying men crawled away and hid themselves like wounded beasts, the woods caught fire and hundreds of the helpless perished in the flames. After it was over Grant made a dash to get between Lee's army and Richmond, and Lee, by a hurried movement, checked him near Spottsylvania.

In the battle of the Wilderness General Grant lost nearly eighteen thousand men; Lee lost about nine thousand. Again at Spottsylvania was the bloody tragedy to be re-enacted, when the Union loss was great. There followed the many actions that terminated at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, and there Lee stood at the gate of the capital, where for ten long, weary months he was to remain unmoved upon the defensive. While he was there came his tardy appointment as commander-in-chief of the Confederate army, in February, 1865.

After the great attempt at blowing up the Confederate lines by mining, and the bloody battle of the Crater, the operations became reduced to merely advancing of entrenchments. The Union hold was becoming stronger and stronger, and the pressure greater. Lee's flank was turned at last, his rear was threatened, and on April 2d Petersburg was left to the Northern armies and Lee retreated. Then followed the sorrowful news that crushed upon every Southern heart—the news that Richmond had fallen on April 3d.

Lee had long felt that the struggle for the protection of Richmond was utterly hopeless. He might have retreated with his army to the valley, and in the bitterness of his feeling protracted a dreary and useless struggle that would have been costly to his enemies, but he was too great for that. The desire for revenge never dwelt in his heart, but he did not give up until he had made one more legitimate attempt to turn the tide. As a Southern writer has so picturesquely put it:

"Was not the right man in his place amid those wintry, shelterless trenches around Petersburg, as commander of those ragged, frozen, starved, but unconquered troops, who held their thirty-five or forty miles of defences with a thousand men a mile? What other American, save Washington, would have been the right man there? And how can any man or woman who loves courage and genius and unselfishness and gentleness and implicit trust in God, not love Lee, whatever may be thought of the losing cause he served. Who among us does not envy the opportunity of that Richmond lady to show her love, who made him drink the last cup of tea she had, and complacently sipped the muddy water of the James River that he might not detect her sacrifice and refuse to accept her homage?"

And as they read of him, may not the people of the North feel proud that their country has produced a man like Lee? May they not share in the feeling of admiration that is akin to the Southerner's reverence for his memory? And so we come to the last chapter of his martial life—the end that crowned.