On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

In the Hour of Triumph

Great as Lee's reputation had been before the battle of Chancellorsville, it was immensely increased by that unexpected triumph. But no trace of vanity or self-gratulation of any kind marked his reception of the chorus of praise that greeted him. On the contrary, he modestly disclaimed the honors from the very first and insisted that to Jackson belonged the credit of the day. "Could I have directed events," he wrote the wounded General, "I should have chosen to have been disabled in your stead. I congratulate you on the victory which is due to your skill and energy." Indeed, when the news first reached him that Jackson's left arm had been amputated, he sent him a cheery message, saying, "You are better off than I am, for while you have only lost your LEFT, I have lost my RIGHT arm." And when, at last, he learned that "Stonewall" had passed away, he no longer thought of the victory but only of his dead comrade and friend. "Any victory would be dear at such a price," was his sorrowful comment on the day.

Jackson was indeed Lee's "right arm" and his place among the great captains of the world is well indicated by the fact that a study of his campaign is to-day part of the education of all English and American officers. Nevertheless, it was unquestionably Lee's genius that enabled his great Lieutenant to accomplish what he did, and this Jackson himself fully realized. "Better that ten Jacksons should fall than one Lee," was his response to his commander's generous words.

But though Lee had won an international reputation, anyone seeing him in the field among his soldiers might well have imagined that he was wholly unaware that the world was ringing with his fame. He steadily declined all offers to provide comfortable quarters for his accommodation, preferring to live in a simple tent and share with his men the discomforts of the field. Indeed, his thoughts were constantly of others, never of himself, and when gifts of fruit and other dainties for his table were tendered him, he thanked the givers but suggested that they were needed for the sick and wounded in the hospitals, where they would be gratefully received.

"...I should certainly have endeavored to throw the enemy north of the Potomac," he wrote his wife, "but thousands of our men were barefooted, thousands with fragments of shoes, and all without overcoats, blankets or warm clothing. I could not bear to expose them to certain suffering.... I am glad you have some socks for the army. Send them to me.... Tell the girls to send all they can. I wish they could make some shoes, too."

Even the hardships of the dumb animals moved him to a ready sympathy, and he was constantly planning to spare them in every possible way.

"Our horses and mules suffer most," he wrote one of his daughters. "They have to bear the cold and rain, tug through the mud and suffer all the time with hunger."

And again on another occasion he wrote his wife:

"This morning the whole country is covered with a mantle of snow, fully a foot deep.... Our poor horses were enveloped. We have dug them out...but it will be terrible.... I fear our short rations for man and horse will have to be curtailed."

The whole army realized the great-hearted nature of its Chief, and its confidence in his thought and care is well illustrated by a letter which a private addressed to him, asking him if he knew upon what short rations the men were living. If he did, the writer stated, their privations were doubtless necessary and everyone would cheerfully accept them, knowing that he had the comfort of his men continually in mind.

War had no illusions for this simple, God-fearing man. He regarded it as a terrible punishment for the shortcomings of mankind. For him it had no glory.

"The country here looks very green and pretty, notwithstanding the ravages of war," he wrote his wife. "What a beautiful world God, in His loving kindness to His creatures, has given us! What a shame that men endowed with reason and knowledge of right should mar His gifts."

The awful responsibility of his public duty was almost more than any man could bear, but he had also to endure personal anxiety and sorrow of the keenest kind. During his absence in the field one of his daughters died, his wife was in failing health and his three sons were in the army daily exposed to injury and death. Fitzhugh and Custis had been made generals, and Robert had been promoted to a lieutenancy and assigned to his elder brother's staff. Up to the battle of Chancellorsville they had escaped unharmed, but while the contending armies lay watching each other on either side of the Rappahannock, Fitzhugh was severely wounded in a cavalry engagement and Lee's first thought was to comfort and reassure the young man's wife.

"I am so grieved," ...he wrote her, "to send Fitzhugh to you wounded.... With his youth and strength to aid him, and your tender care to nurse him, I trust he will soon be well again. I know that you will unite with me in thanks to Almighty God, who has so often sheltered him in the hour of danger."

Then came the news that the young General had been captured by Federal troops who surrounded the house to which he had been removed, and again Lee sought, in the midst of all his cares, to cheer his daughter-in-law who was herself becoming ill.

"I can see no harm that can result from Fitzhugh's capture except his detention.... He will be in the hands of old army officers and surgeons, most of whom are men of principle and humanity. His wound, I understand, has not been injured by his removal, but is doing well. Nothing would do him more harm than for him to learn that you were sick and sad. How could he get well? So cheer up and prove your fortitude.... You may think of Fitzhugh and love him as much as you please, but do not grieve over him or grow sad."

But the young wife grew steadily worse and, when her life was despaired of, Custis Lee offered to take his brother's place in prison, if the authorities would allow him to visit his dying wife. But, when this was refused and news of her death reached Lee, he refrained from all bitterness.

"...I grieve," he wrote his wife, "...as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son, and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison. May God in His mercy enable him to bear the blow...."

It was in the midst of such severe afflictions that Lee conducted some of the most important moves of his campaign, and while family anxieties were beginning to crowd on him, the condition of his army and the political situation were already demanding another invasion of the North. As far as spirit and discipline were concerned, his troops were never more ready for active service and their numbers had been so considerably increased during the weeks that followed the battle of Chancellorsville that by the 1st of June, 1863, he could count on almost 70,000 fairly well-armed men, supported by over two hundred cannon.

But the question of supplying food for this great array was every day becoming more urgent, and the remark of the Commissary-General that his Chief would soon have to seek his provisions in Pennsylvania was significant of the situation. Lee thoroughly realized that the strength of the Confederacy was waning and that unless some great success in the field should soon force the Union to make terms, the end of the struggle was in sight. Great victories had already been won, but always on Southern soil, and the news that Grant was closing in on Vicksburg demanded that a supreme effort be made to offset that impending disaster in the West.

If the Southern army could force its way into the North and there repeat its triumphs, England and France would probably recognize the Confederacy and the half-hearted supporters of the Union, already murmuring against the war, would clamor for peace. With this idea Lee devoted the month following the battle of Chancellorsville to recruiting his strength and watching for some move on Hooker's part. But Hooker remained quietly within his lines, so on June 3, 1863, his opponent, concealing his purpose, moved rapidly and secretly toward Pennsylvania.