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[317]

Zzzlees faith in Early.

General Early had the satisfaction of retaining the confidence and good opinion of his great commander, R. E. Lee. After all reverses in the Valley, Lee, on the 20th of February, 1865, extended his command to embrace the Department of West Virginia and East Tennessee, previously commanded by General John C. Breckinridge, who had now become the Secretary of War. This brave and excellent officer's service under Early had familiarized him with his merits; he had testified to General Lee in high terms of his capacity and energy, and of his excellent disposition of his troops, and to Early's critics Lee had responded in language which I have already quoted. (See War Records, S. 91, p. 897.) But Early had now to accept the fate of war, for public opinion, unadvised of his difficulties and extremities, clamored for a new leader. Lee, himself, had seen and felt its frequent injustice, and has stated that public opinion is more likely to be erroneous on military affairs than any other, because of their secrecy preventing complete knowledge.

It clamored against him when he did not win victory in West Virginia; against Jackson before the Valley Campaign; against Albert Sidney Johnston before he fell at Shiloh; it demanded Joe Johnston's removal when he retreated before Sherman, and as loudly demanded his restoration when Hood advanced and failed. On the other hand, when Thomas was defeating Hood at Nashville, the message was on its way to supersede him for not fighting, and was drowned out in the shouts of his victory. While he yielded to the current of opinion respecting Early's operations, General Lee, in addressing him the letter relieving him from duty, on March 30, 1865, declared therein his own ‘confidence in his ability and zeal and devotion to be unimpaired,’ and concluding with an expression of thanks ‘for the fidelity and courage with which you have always supported my efforts, and for the courage and devotion you have always manifested in the service of the country.’

One week before that, on March 24, 1865, Lee had made a last effort to break Grant's lines in vain, and the Second Corps, under Gordon, had stormed and taken Fort Steadman. There happened then what would have happened had Early taken Washington, and what did happen at Cedar creek. Our troops were brave enough to take; they were not strong enough to hold. The enemy concentrated numbers and drove them back. On the very day of Early's removal Grant moved on the Petersburg lines; March 31st, Five [318] Forks was lost; Petersburg was carried April 2d, and a week later, April 9th, the matchless Lee and the remnant of his matchless army, surrendered. When Early heard the news he was sick in an ambulance, going home from Wytheville. He said, ‘without the slightest irreverence, I will say that the sound of the last trump would not have been more unwelcome to my ears.’

Comparisons have been made between Jackson's and Early's campaigns, sometimes to the detriment of the latter. The differences in their situations should be remembered.

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