Chapter 1: the situation.
It was a dreamy camp along the lines investing Petersburg
in the winter following the “all-summer” campaign of 1864,--that never-to-be-forgotten, most dismal of years.
Although shadowed at the very beginning by melancholy tokens of futile endeavor and grievous losses,--consolidations of commands which obliterated the place and name of proud and beloved corps and divisions,flags made sacred by heroic service and sacrifice of noble manhood now folded away with tender reverence, or perhaps by special favor permitted to be borne beside those of new assignments, bearing the commanding presence of great memories, pledge and talisman of unswerving loyalty, though striking sorrow to every heart that knew their history,--yet this seemed not to make for weakness but rather for settled strength.
We started out full of faith and hope under the new dispensation, resolved at all events to be worthy of our past and place.
Now all was over.
The summer had passed, and the harvest was but of death.
New and closer consolidations, more dreary obliterations, brought the survivors nearer together.
For this dismal year had witnessed that ever repeated, prolific miracle,--the invisible, ethereal soul of man resisting and overcoming the material forces of nature; scorning the inductions of logic, reason, and experience, persisting in its purpose and identity; this elusive apparition between two worlds unknown, deemed by some to be but the chance product of intersecting vortices of atoms and denied to be even a force, yet outfacing the solid facts of matter and time, defying disaster and dissolution, and, by a most real metempsychosis, transmitting its imperishable purpose to other hearts with the cumulative courage of immortal energies.
Give but the regard of a glance to the baldest outline of what was offered and suffered, given and taken, lost and held, in that year of tragedy.
That long-drawn, tete baissee
(bull-headed), zig-zag race from the Rapidan
to the Appomattox
; that desperate, inch-worm advance along a front of fire, with writhing recoil at every touch; that reiterated dissolving view of death and resurrection: the Wilderness
, the North Anna
, Cold Harbor, Petersburg
; unspoken, unspeakable history.
Call back that roseate May morning, all the springs of life athrill, that youthful army pressing the bridges of the Rapidan
, flower of Northern homes, thousands upon thousands; tested
in valor, disciplined by experience, hearts swelling with manly courage, confident trust, and supreme devotion,--to be plunged straightway into hell-like horrors; the murderous maze where desperate instinct replaced impossible tactics; men mowing each other down almost at hand-reach, invisible each to each till the flaming muzzles cut lurid windows through the matted brush and bramble walls, and underneath the darkened woods low-lying cannon and bursting shells set the earth itself on fire, and wrapped in winding sheets of flame unnumbered, thick-strewn bodies of dead and dying, never to be found or known on earth again.
Then the rushing, forced flank-movements, known and overmatched by the ever alert enemy; followed by reckless front attacks, where highest valor was deepest loss; buffetings on bloody angles; butcherings in slaughter pens,--all the way down to the fateful Chickahominy
once more — a campaign under fire for twenty-seven days and nights together; morning reports at last not called for, and when we asked explanation our superiors answered,--confidentially, lest it seem disloyal: “Because the country would not stand it, if they knew.”
What wonder that men who have passed through such things together,--no matter on which side arrayed,--should be wrought upon by that strange power of a common suffering which so divinely passes into the power of a common love.
A similar fate befell the new hope kindled by Grant
's sudden change to a new base of operations,--a movement bold if not hazardous, being
practically a change of front under fire for the whole army on a grand scale.
Skillfully withdrawing from the enemy's front by secret orders and forced marches, swiftly crossing the James River
on transports and pontoons, hurrying forward to strike a surprise on weakly-defended Petersburg
, and thus cut Lee
's main communications and turn his entire position-seemed good generalship.
But the bold plan and generous following stultified by confusion of understandings and supine delays of subordinates, brought all to nought once more with terrible recoil and reckoning.
Then the long slow fever of profitless minor action and wasteful inaction, with the strange anomaly of a mutual siege; crouching in trenches, skulking under bombproofs and covered ways, lining parapets where to show a head was to lure a bullet, picketing a crowded hostile front where the only tenure of life was the tacit understanding of a common humanity, perpetual harassing by spasmodic raid or futile dash, slow creepings flankward yet never nearer the main objective;--such was the wearisome, wearing experience, month after month, the new year bringing no sign nor hope that anything better could be done on that line than had been so dearly and vainly tried before.
The resultant mood of such a front was not relieved by what reached us from the rear.
The long-suffering, and helpless grief of homes; the sore-tried faith and patience of the whole North
almost faltering; recruiting disenchanted, supplemented by enormous bounties and finally by
draft and conscription; newspapers jeering at the impotence of the army; self-seeking politicians at the Capitol
plotting against the President
; hosts of spoilsmen at all points seizing advantage of the country's distress, enriching themselves out of the generous, hard-earned offerings to meet her needs and repair her losses; cabal and favoritism in places of power, perpetrating a thousand injustices upon officers and soldiers in the field;--through all this, seen and known and felt, from first to last, these men of the Army of the Potomac,--godlike, if something short of sainthood,--this army, on which the heaviest brunt had fallen and was to fall, held up its heart where it could not hold up its head; with loyalty unswerving, obedience unquestioning, courage that asks not cheer, and devotion out-vying all that life holds dearest or death most terrible.
This army-but what army?
Is this identity a thing of substance, or spirit, or of name only?
Is this the army which bright as its colors thronged the bridges of the Rapidan
on that May morning less than a year before, and vanished into the murk of the Wilderness
Or is it scarcely the half of them; stern-faced by realities, saddened and perchance also strengthened by visions of the lost, the places of these filled by fresh youth's vicarious offering, united as one by the comradeship of arms and strong with the contagion of soul?
But perhaps this vein of emotion is tiresome.
Let us seek relief in figures,--which some people regard as the only reliable facts.
The number of men of all arms present for duty equipped in the Army of the Potomac at the opening of Grant
's campaign, as shown by the consolidated morning reports of May 4, 1864, was 97,162.
In the Annual Report
of Secretary Stanton
, November 22, 1865, this total is stated as 120,384.
He evidently takes the number as borne upon the rolls in his office, which by no means always agrees with the field lists of those present for duty equipped, the absent on leave or detail, or otherwise, being usually at a high percentage of the total.
The careful compilation of Adjutant-General Drum
made from official field returns at this time gives the number present for duty equipped at 97,273-in remarkable agreement with the figures taken in the field.1
The number of men available for battle in the Fifth Corps at the start was 25,695.
The character of the fighting in this campaign may be shown, however dimly, by citing here the report of our Corps field hospital for one day only, that of the engagement at Laurel Hill
, May 8, 1864: “Admitted to hospital, 3001; of whom 106 were from other corps; 27 Confederates; 107 sick. Sent to the rear, 2388; fell into the hands of the enemy, 391; died in hospital, 121; left 206, of whom 126 were able to walk in the morning.”
Or take the totals treated in the field hospital alone for the first nine days of the campaign.
Number admitted, 5257; sent to the rear, 4190; died in hospital, 179; fell into hands of the enemy,
Adding to this the number killed outright, not less than 1200, and the “missing,” a list we do not like to analyze, not less than 1555, makes a total loss in the Corps
of more than 7000 men. And the casualties of the six weeks from the Rapidan
to the James
bring the total to 16,245.
This is 3398 more than half the present for duty at the start.
The records of the Medical Inspector
of the Fifth Corps show the number admitted to the field hospitals alone from May 5th to June 19th to have been II,105 of the Corps
, besides many from other corps and not a few Confederates.
Reckoning the killed outright as 2200, and the missing as 4000,--which is quite within the fact,makes a total of casualties for this period 17,305.
Taking another source of information, we find in the Adjutant-General
's Report of losses in the Corps
as given in the official returns of regiments for the same period, the killed as 1670; the wounded 10,150; the missing, 4416,--a total of 16,235.
Taking the additional wounded given in the field hospital records, 955,--who would not appear on the regimental morning reports,--we reach the total of 17,190.
The difference in these figures is remarkably slight considering that they come from sources so distinct.
And the restless, fruitless fighting before Petersburg
during the remainder of that year brought the total loss in the Corps
up to 18,000,--this being almost a thousand more than two thirds of the bright faces that crossed the Rapidan
in the starlight
of that May morning, now gone down to earth, or beneath it,--and yet no end!
Colonel W. H. Powell
in his History of the Fifth Corps
, published since the above was written, gives this total loss as 17,861.
It does not appear whether he takes into account the losses of the Corps
in the assault of June 18th on the salient covering the Norfolk Railroad and the Jerusalem Plank Road
Owing to the casualties among commanders, the action of that day has never been adequately reported.
had no data on which to base a just account of the overture of Forts Sedgwick
and Mahone,--surnamed by the performers Fort Hell and Fort Damnation.
Glance now at the record of the whole army.
Those treated in the field hospitals up to the end of October were officially reported as numbering 57,498, and to the end of December, 68,840.2
Some of these, no doubt were cases of sickness, a no less real casualty; but taking the ratio of one fifth the wounded as indicating the number of the killed outright, we reach a total of 59,000 men killed and wounded in this campaign up to October 31, 1864.
This is to take no account of the “missing,” --a list governed by no law of ratios, but determined by the peculiar circumstances of each battle; always a list sad to contemplate, made up by no means of skulkers and deserters, but mostly of those who had been placed by the incompetence of commanders or thrown by the
vicissitudes of battle into positions where they were helpless, and fell into the hands of the enemy as prisoners, or some too brave spirits that had cut their way through the enemy's lines, or others still who had been left wounded and had crawled away to die. But adding here to the 59,000 killed and wounded given above the 6000 more lost in the various operations around Petersburg
up to March 28, 1865, and counting the missing at the moderate number of 10,000 for this period, we have the aggregate of 75,000 men cut down in the Army of the Potomac to mark the character of the service and the cost of the campaign thus far.
If any minds demanding exactitude are troubled at the slight discrepancies in these reports, they may find relief in a passage in the Report of Surgeon Dalton
, Chief Medical Officer
of Field Hospitals
for this campaign.
He says of his experience with the treatment of disabled men in the field:
It is impossible to convey an accurate idea of the number of sick and wounded who have received attention in this hospital,--that following the army.
Hundreds passed through under circumstances which rendered it impossible to register their names or even accurately estimate their numbers.
So unremitting were the calls for professional duty during the first fortnight that it was impossible to prepare morning reports, and it was not until the Ioth of May that even a numerical report was attempted.
From that date the daily reports show that from the 16th of May to the 31st of October, 1864, there have been received into this hospital and treated for at least forty-eight hours, 68,540 sick and wounded officers and men. 3
I have often thought it would be profitable reading for some if a competent observer would recount the scenes at the rear of a fighting army removing from the field after a great battle.
A glimpse of this was given at Fredericksburg
But to throw light on our present topic by one more comparison, let us turn to the records of the Confederates
for this campaign.
According to the careful investigations of General Humphreys
, the number of effective men in Lee
's army, including cavalry, at the opening of Grant
's campaign, was not less than 62,000; and at the opening of the spring campaign of ‘65, not less than 57,000.
The accuracy of this is undoubted.
The striking fact is thus established that we had more men killed and wounded in the first six months of Grant
's campaign, than Lee
had at any one period of it in his whole army.
The hammering business had been hard on the hammer.
If these conclusions seem to rest too much on estimates (although in every case inductions from unquestioned fact), let me offer the solid testimony of General Grant
in his official report of November 1, 1864.
He gives the casualties in the Army of the Potomac from May 5th to October 30th as: killed 10,572; wounded, 53,975; missing, 23,858;--an aggregate of 88,405, a result far more striking than those adduced, and more than confirming the statement of our losses as by far exceeding the whole number of men in Lee
's army at any time in this last campaign.4
I offer no apology for this long survey of figures.
There is abundant reason for it for the sake of fact, as well as occasion in existing sentiment.
Among other interesting reflections, these facts and figures afford useful suggestions to those easily persuaded persons of the South
or elsewhere, who please themselves with asserting that our Western armies “did all the fighting.”
Lorgnettes will get out of order-especially to the cross-eyed.
The aspect in which the men of our army have been presented has been mainly that of their elementary manhood, the antique virtues that made up valor: courage, fortitude, self-command.
It is not possible to separate these from other personal activities of perhaps higher range than the physical; because, in truth, these enter largely into the exercise and administration of manhood.
It seems now to be an accepted maxim of war that the “moral” forces-meaning by that term what we call the spiritual, pertaining specially to the mind or soul-far outweigh the material.
Few would now claim that “victory is always with the heaviest battalions.”
All great contests are inspired by sentiments, such as justice, pity, faith, loyalty, love, or perhaps some stirring ideal of the rightful and possible good.
Even the commoner instincts partake of this nature: self-respect, sanctity of the person, duty and affection towards others, obedience to law, the impulse to the redress of injury, vengeance for outrage.
Something of this entered into our motive at first.
But deeper tests brought deeper thought.
In the strange
succession of reverses greater reaches were disclosed; sentiments took on their highest sanction.
Our place in human brotherhood, our responsibility not only in duty for Country, but as part in its very being, came impressively into view.
Our volunteer soldiers felt that they were part of the very people whose honor and life they were to maintain; they recognized that they were entitled to participate so far as they were able, in the thought and conscience and will of that supreme “people” whose agents and instruments they were in the field of arms.
This recognition was emphasized by the fact that the men in the field were authorized to vote in the general election of President
of the United States
, and so to participate directly in the administration of the government and the determination of public policy.
The result of this vote showed how much stronger was their allegiance to principle than even their attachment to McClellan
, whose personal popularity in the army was something marvelous.
The men voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln
They were unwilling that their long fight should be set down as a failure, even though thus far it seemed so. The fact that this war was in its reach of meaning and consequent effect so much more than what are commonly called “civil wars,” --this being a war to test and finally determine the character of the interior constitution and real organic life of this great people,--brought into the field an amount of thoughtfulness and moral reflection not usual in armies.
The Roman army
could make emperors of generals, but thoughtful minds and generous hearts were wanting to save Rome
from the on-coming, invisible doom.
But volunteers like ours were held by a consciousness not only rooted in instinctive love and habitual reverence but also involving spiritual and moral considerations of the highest order.
The motive under which they first sprung to the front was an impulse of sentiment,--the honor of the old flag and love of Country.
All that the former stood for, and all that the latter held undetermined, they did not stop to question.
They would settle the fact that they had a country and then consider the reasons and rights of it. There was, indeed, an instinctive apprehension of what was involved in this; but only slowly as the struggle thickened, and they found their antagonists claiming to rest their cause on principles similar to their own, they were led to think more deeply, to analyze their concrete ideals, to question, to debate, to test loyalty by thoughts of right and reason.
We had opportunity to observe the relative merits of Regulars and Volunteers.
Two rather divergent opinions had been common as to the professional soldiers of the rank and file.
One was that they were of inferior grade as men; the other that they were vastly superior as soldiers to any volunteers.
It must be allowed that the trained soldier has the merit of habitual submission to discipline, obedience to orders, a certain professional pride, and at least a temporary loyalty to the cause in which he is engaged.
The superior efficiency of the regular
over the volunteer is generally asserted.
But this is founded more on conditions than on character.
It derives its acceptance from the fact that volunteers are called out in an exigency, and take the field in haste, without experience or preparation, or even knowledge of the conditions pertaining to the art of war. They answer some call of the heart, or constraining moral obligation.
But these volunteers may in due time become skilled in all these requisites: discipline, obedience, and even practical knowledge of the many technicalities of the art of war. Such veterans may become quite the equals of regulars in the scale of military merit.
So, on the other hand, the regular may be as intelligent as the citizen soldier, and animated by motives as high.
As to the regular officers, there can be no question of their superior qualifications.
They are educated for this profession, and specially in all that serves as basis for loyalty to country.
As to the rank and file of regular troops, history sometimes refers to them as mercenaries, workers for pay, and they have been stigmatized as “hirelings.”
But this is abuse, even of history.
The word soldier does indeed mean the man paid for his service instead of being bound to serve by feudal obligation.5
But no one can despise such soldiers who remember the conduct of the Swiss Guard of Louis XVI.
, cowardly forsaken by his
own; but these loyal spirits, for the manhood that was in them and not for pay, stood by him to the last living man of them, whose heroism the proud citizens of their native home have fittingly commemorated in Thorwaldson's Lion of Lucerne.
And we certainly held our regulars dear, from long association, and could only speak their name with honor when we thought of the desperate charge down from the Round Tops
into the maelstrom of death swirling around the “Devil's Den,” from which but half their numbers emerged, and these so wrought upon that they were soon after released from service in the field to recover strength.
These veterans of ours were the equals of regulars even if they received a nominal pay; equals in discipline, in knowledge, skill, and valor.
They were superior in that they represented the homes and ideals of the country, and not only knew what they were fighting for but also held it dear.
The same tendency of thought and feeling was, no doubt, in the hearts of our adversaries, although their loyalty seems to have been held longer by the primal instincts.
This appeared not merely in the fervid exhortations of commanders and officials, but in the prevailing spirit of the men in the ranks, with whom we had occasional conference across the picket lines, or in brief interviews with prisoners.
The prime motive with these men was no doubt, like ours, grounded in the instincts of manhood.
They sprang to arms for the vindication of what they had been accustomed to regard as their rights
by nature and law. By struggling and suffering for the cause this thought was rather intensified than broadened.
But in these lulls reflection began to enlarge vision.
This matter of rights and duties presents itself, as it were, in concentric spheres, within which polarities are reversed as values rise.
The right to property must yield to the right to life; individual happiness must be subordinated to the general well-being; duty to country must outweigh all the narrower demands of self-interest.
So the sight of “the old flag,” which stood for the guaranty of highest human rights, and which they were now striving to beat down in defeat and dishonor, must have affected their sober thoughts.
There was no little evidence of this as the winter and the weary siege wore on. It came to our knowledge in the early months of the new year that heavy desertions were going on every day in Lee
's army,--especially among the Virginians.
We had reason to believe that it was the personal magnetism of their great commander that kept alive the spirit of that brave army.
The chivalrous sense of personal loyalty was strong with those men.
Our acquaintance had been peculiarly intimate and deep, and we had for them a strong personal regard.
The “causes” were wide apart, but the manhood was the same.
We had occasion to observe their religious character.
More free thought and wider range of code no doubt prevailed in our Northern army; but what we are accustomed to call simple, personal piety was more manifest in
ranks than in ours.
Not presuming to estimate the influence of particular cases of higher officers, like Stonewall Jackson
or General Howard
, making prominent their religious principles and proclivities, but fully recognizing the general religious character of most of the officers and men from our Northern homes, it must be admitted that the expression of religious sentiment and habit was more common and more earnest in the Confederate
camp than in ours.
In one thing we took “the touch of elbow.”
It was no uncommon incident that from close opposing bivouacs and across hushed breastworks at evening voices of prayer from over the way would stir our hearts, and floating songs of love and praise be caught up and broadened into a mighty and thrilling chorus by our men softening down in cadences like enfolding wings.
Such moments were surely a “Truce of God.”
I have said the men kept up heart.
So they did, --exactly that.
It was a certain loyalty of soul, rather than persistence of vital energies.
The experiences which had hardened the spiritual nerve, had relaxed the physical fiber.
The direct effects of bodily over-strain reach to the nervous centers and the boundaries of spirit.
Exhausting forced marches, through choking dust, burning suns, stifling heat even in the shade, swampy bivouacs, malarious airs laden with the off-castings of rotting vegetation, or worse at times, from innumerable bodies of men and animals dead or living; strange forms of sickness, unexampled and irremediable,
experiences borne only by stubborn patience or heroic pride,--such things tell at last.
Then the battles, horrible scenes, shocking the senses, burrowing in memory to live again in dreams and haunting visions, all these things together work upon the inner, vital, or spiritual forces which relate us to the real persistent substance-whether ethereal or of some yet finer form not yet dreamed of in our philosophy.
But men are made of mind and soul as well as body.
We deal not only with exercises of the senses, but with deeper consciousness; affections, beliefs, ideals, conceptions of causes and effects, relations and analogies, and even conjectures of a possible order and organization different from what we experience in the present world of sense.
All these powers and workings have part in the makeup of manhood.
Men are not machines; although it is said the discipline of army life tends to make them such, and that this is essential to their efficiency.
A remark which needs to be set in larger light.
The men of the rank and file in our army of volunteers before Petersburg
besides being seasoned soldiers were endowed and susceptible according to their spiritual measure.
Their life was not merely in their own experiences but in larger sympathies.
Their environment, which is thought to determine character so largely, consisted for them not only in material things but also much in memories and shadowings.
Things were remnants and reminders.
Lines stood thinner; circles ever narrowing.
fought down to divisions; divisions to brigades; these again broken and the shattered regiments consolidated under the token and auspices of their States,--as if reverting to their birthright, and being “gathered to their fathers.”
Old flags,--yes, but crowded together not by on-rush to battle, but by thinning ranks bringing the dear more near.
Then the vacant places of lost comrades, seen as “an aching void” both as to fact and suggestion.
And even the coming in of new, fresh faces was not without its cast of shadow.
The officers, too, who had gone down were of the best known, trusted, and beloved.
What has gone takes something with it, and when this is of the dear, nothing can fill the place.
All the changes touched the border of sorrows.
The strength of great memories, pride of historic continuity, unfailing loyalty of purpose and resolve held these men together in unity of form and spirit.
But there seemed some slackening of the old nerve and verve; and service was sustained more from the habit of obedience and instinct of duty, than with that sympathetic intuition which inspires men to exceed the literal of orders or of obligations.
Curious people often ask the question whether in battle we are not affected by fear, so that our actions are influenced by it; and some are prompt to answer, “Yes, surely we are, and anybody who denies it is a braggart or a liar.”
I say to such, “Speak for yourselves.”
A soldier has something else to think about.
Most men at the first, or at some tragic moment, are aware of the present peril,
and perhaps flinch a little by an instinct of nature and sometimes accept the foregoing confession,as when I have seen men pin their names to their breasts that they may not be buried unknown.
But any action following the motive of fear is rare, --for sometimes I have seen men rushing to the front in a terrific fire, “to have it over with.”
But, as a rule, men stand up from one motive or another-simple manhood, force of discipline, pride, love, or bond of comradeship-“Here is Bill; I will go or stay where he does.”
And an officer is so absorbed by the sense of responsibility for his men, for his cause, or for the fight that the thought of personal peril has no place whatever in governing his actions.
The instinct to seek safety is overcome by the instinct of honor.
There are exceptions.
This is the rule and law of manhood: fearlessness in the face of all lesser issues because he has faced the greater-the commanding one.
This exposition of the state of mind and body among our officers and men in the later operations along the Petersburg lines
may help to find a reason for their failure.
For instance, the fiasco of the mine explosion of July 30th, where well-laid plans and costly and toilsome labors were brought to shameful disaster through lack of earnest co-operation, and strange lethargy of participants.
For another instance, the unexampled reverses of our renowned Second Corps at Ream's Station, August 24th, where, after every purpose and prospect of success, these veterans
were quickly driven from their entrenchments, even abandoning their guns,--conduct contrary to their habit and contradictory of their character.
But these were exceptional even if illustrative cases.
Along our lines reigned a patient fortitude, a waiting expectation, unswerving loyalty, that kind of faith which is the “evidence of things unseen.”
Among these men were some doubly deserving-comrades whom we thought lost, bravely returning.
Many of those earlier wounded, or sickened, and sent to general hospital, proving to be not utterly disabled, and scorning the plea of the poltroon, came back to their appointed place.
So others, too, with like spirit, from the starving, wasting, and wearing experience of prisons, passing though the valley of the shadow of death, came to answer again the names that honored our roll-call,--those who could stand up to do it.
Such were the remnants of that great company of heroic souls named the Army of the Potomac.
Knowing full well the meaning of such words as hardship and suffering, facing unknown fields of sorrows yet to come, they stood fast by their consecration, offering all there is in manhood for the sake of what is best in man. If sometimes a shadow passes over such spirits, it needs neither confession nor apology.
Within a short time now the term of enlistment of not a few regiments had expired, and they were mustered out of service with honor.
It was a time when they were sorely needed; but we can scarcely
blame those who thought duty did not call them to prolong their experiences.
Many, however, straightway enlisted in other regiments, new or old, and thus rendered a double service-material force and inspiring example.
In some instances whole regiments had reenlisted, under the old name or a new one.
Such were five noble Pennsylvania
regiments of my own brigade of June, 1864.
Remnants of regiments also, left from casualties of the field or by term of enlistment, were consolidated into one, named and numbered by its State order.
Such were the 1st Maine Veterans, made up of the 5th, 6th, and 7th, of glorious record.
Others, too, had come in to replace and reinforce, with like brave spirit, and perhaps with severer test,--heavy artillery regiments, full to the maximum in numbers, from important positions in the rear, as the defenses of Washington, and not expecting to be called to the front.
With the advantage of military discipline and acclimatization, their ponderous lines rolled on the astonished foe, with swift passages to glorious death and undying fame.
Witness the action of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, losing in one fight at Spottsylvania
264 men, and again more than 600 in stern obedience to orders which should not have been given in the first futile charge on the lines of Petersburg
New regiments of infantry also came in, necessarily assigned to duty at the front,--high hearts, brave spirits; some of them rushed into the field without instruction in arms or training in practice
of endurance, the fiber of their bodies for a time not equal to the sincerity of their resolution.
But with the quickening of sharp demand and compelling need, spirit soon transformed body to its likeness, and meantime cheered and braced other hearts beating their old rhythm beneath the iron breasts of veterans.
No jeering now for newness and niceness; but silent welcome, of respect and almost reverence, seeing that the young men had come willingly at such a time to such a front.
The last two years had brought prismatic colors down to plain monotone.
Names of things were charged with deeper definitions.
War was no longer a holiday excursion; it was “hard-shelled” business; not maturing in three months, nor nine, nor twelve, nor twenty-four.
And the way of it was more bitter than the end. The regiments passing to the front marched not between festoons of ladies' smiles and waving handkerchiefs, thrown kisses and banner presentations.
They were looked upon sadly and in a certain awe, as those that had taken on themselves a doom.
The muster rolls on which the name and oath were written were pledges of honor,--redeemable at the gates of death.
And they who went up to them, knowing this, are on the lists of heroes.
It is true not all who came in now were strictly “volunteers.”
Some may have enlisted from shame of staying comfortably at home while manly men were at the front.
Some may have preferred this to standing “draft” under terrors of the lot; for so the free will is sometimes bound.
may have been persuaded by the large local bounties, which the stern realities adverted to above induced many loud loyalists to offer to “substitutes,” to whom life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not quite so dear.
Glory had come to exemplify the altruistic virtues, and in such honor as “dying for your country,” self-regarding men scripturally “preferred one another” !
But there were those coming last who represented the heroism of homes.
For wives, who had early offered the fathers of their children, house-bonds of human well-being, as sacrifices for their country's redemption, sent now their sons, to share their father's honor and perchance his grave.
Mothers, who had given their first-born, held not back their youngest now; the strongest first, and then the dearest.
And the converse of this, the father following the son. Well might the lip of veteran quiver as his quick eye, scanning a squad of newcomers, caught the figure of some father, gray and grim, still so erect and eagle-eyed, straining for every semblance of youth, that he might be permitted to stand beside his boy whom he could not let come alone.
Nor is this sympathy unmarked in higher grades.
What has come over the spirit of that stern officer, pushing his column with relentless energy on the terrible forced march, that with furtive side-look as if half-ashamed, he draws the back of his sword-hand across his compressed eyelids, like the swift sign of the cross over the face of a prayer?
He has turned in his saddle to order the ambulance, or his own headquarters' wagon to
pick up from the trodden wayside some fallen, fainting boy, overweighted by the heavy armor of his country's defense, whose soul has carried him already far beyond his body's strength.
Some home-loved boy; and so soon, so nearly lost!
God help us all!
The exercise of thought that had been invited and sanctioned naturally fostered indulgence in some “free thinking.”
Some liberties were taken in canvassing the merits not only of commanders but rather more freely of campaigns,--particularly this reductio ad absurdum
of the siege of Petersburg
And they would have been something less than rational human beings if they did not indulge in some criticisms.
Too free expression of unfavorable opinion, it is true, might render one liable to the counter charge of conduct to “the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”
But wisdom was also brought to use. Our soldiers had well learned the lesson that it is sometimes necessary to reverse the maxim of public law, and subordinate civil rights to military rules.
Evil-minded people were trying to make our men believe that Grant
were making this long delay in front of Petersburg
in order to secure their continuance in office.
But this was an outrage upon those noble characters, and an insult to the common sense of every man among us. We knew that the surest way for our high officials to hold their place was by no means to court delay, but to strike a quick, bold blow at the enemy.
's change of base from the Rappahannock
to the James
, and his immediate objective from the front of Richmond
to its rear by way of Petersburg
, called for no adverse criticism.
There were deep-felt reasons for acquiescence.
Nor could it be fairly criticized on purely military grounds.
Although technically a change of base, it was not a change in his grand purpose,--“to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
That meant there was to be no retreating.
And this might justly be considered a master stroke of grand tactics in the continuous movement to turn Lee
's right, and also cut his communications.
When we understood the purpose of this move we believed it to be good tactics, and we took it up with hope and cheer.
Sober second thought justified the first impression.
It was a well-planned and well-executed movement.
Our army was skilfully withdrawn from the front of a watchful and active enemy, and the main body of our army was before Petersburg
knew it had crossed the James
The first blow was well delivered; but a series of shortcomings, for which it must be said neither the men nor their immediate commanders were responsible, brought all to nought.
Successive assaults on the enemy's lines were made as corps after corps extended leftward; but gallant fighting left little to show but its cost.
Especially did we hold in mind the last of these made by the Fifth Corps on the second day, when an assault was ordered, by my fine veteran Brigade on the strong entrenchments at Rives
' Salient commanding the important avenue of communication, the
Norfolk Railroad and Jerusalem Plank Road. By this time it was too late; all Lee
's army were up and entrenched.
We encountered a far outnumbering force of veteran troops well entrenched and a cross-fire of twenty guns in earthworks planted with forethought and skill.
Desperate valor could accomplish nothing but its own demonstration.
Our veterans were hurled back over the stricken field, or left upon it-I, too, proud witness and sharer of their fate.
I am not of Virginia
blood; she is of mine.
So ended the evening of the second day. And the army sat down to that ten months symposium, from which twenty thousand men never rose.
The development of this campaign led many to compare Grant
They marched their armies over much the same ground, with much the same result.
was brought to Washington
was permitted to remain at City Point
and the Appomattox
The rumor ran that McClellan
had also proposed to cut across the James
and around Lee
Many still believed in his soldiership, but broader elements now entered into the estimate.
Something in the nature of the man and something in his environment caused his failure.
With great organizing power, he failed in practical application.
The realities of war seemed to daze him. He lacked dash, resolution; he hesitated to seize the golden moment, to profit by his own openings, to press his advantage, to solve doubt by daring.
With all that marvelous magnetism which won the
love and enthusiasm of his subordinates, he lacked the skill, or the will, to gain the sympathy of his superiors.
It is as much the requisite in generalship to secure the confidence and co-operation of the Government
as to command armies and over come opposing force.
It was unfortunate for him, also, that he allowed himself to be drawn into politics, which paid him in its own kind.
The foreshadowing thought of this created in his mind a “double objective,” which confused his purpose and benumbed his fighting energy as against possible fellow citizens.
But many circumstances were against him. Few seemed to realize that this was war. And many who influenced his surroundings thought they knew as much of war as he. At that time the North
was in a craze; nobody would accept the suggestion that it would be a long and costly task to put down the rebellion, or even to break up the Southern
was as arbitrary as the South
Strong in its conviction of right, proud of its sponsorship for the old flag; stung, too, by the sharp rebuff to its assumption and its authority, the North
did not count patience as the chief of virtues.
Its cry was “On
to capture the rebel capital so impudently set up in face of our own, and thus wipe out that pretended token of independence and sovereignty which gave pretext for foreign recognition.
For this had become an element in the contest,--the hostility of the French Emperor
, and the “nobility” of England
with difficulty held back from recognizing
the Southern Confederacy through the moral courage of John Bright aid the royal wisdom of the Queen
and Prince Consort of England
The impatience of the North
is perhaps to be pardoned for the reason of its impelling motive; but it demanded of General McClellan
And these were created quite as much by forces in his rear as by those in his front.
As for Grant
, he was like Thor
, the hammerer; striking blow after blow, intent on his purpose to beat his way through, somewhat reckless of the cost.
Yet he was the first one of our commanders who dared to pursue his policy of delay without apology or fear of overruling.
He made it a condition of his acceptancy of the chief command that he should not be interfered with from Washington
That gave him more freedom and “discretion” than any of his predecessors.
He had somehow, with all his modesty, the rare faculty of controlling his superiors as well as his subordinates.
He outfaced Stanton
, captivated the President
, and even compelled acquiescence or silence from that dread source of paralyzing power,--the Congressional Committee on the conduct of the war.
The Government and the country had to exercise patience,--with us no doubt, and even with General Grant
He had to exercise it also, with himself.
It must have been a sore trial to his pride, and a measure very foreign to his temperament to have to sit down so long before Petersburg
; to abandon the tactics of main force and commence a series of sporadic harassments on the enemy's
weak spots, and adopt for his main strategic plan the attempt to tire and starve him out. That was what things looked like now. There was all the while the ever increasing risk that, with this seeming long irresolution, influences from within might induce the country to concession and compromise at cost of the vital point of the whole contention, the supremacy of its proclaimed ideal,--the guaranty of human rights.
We all had to learn the bitter but salutary lesson, taught by adversity and humiliation,--that instant advantage is not always lasting achievement; that mere good intentions will not win victories, and that the conditions and cost of undertakings must be considered and prepared for body and spirit.
We had the discipline of adversity.
We found patience an active force and not merely an endurance of suffering.
The brave Saint Paul
declares that “tribulation worketh patience; and patience experience; and experience hope.”
But we found things turned a little otherwise; experience demanded patience, and both sorely tried hope.
Those who believe there is a divine appointment or mysterious overruling purpose in the prolonged struggles of human history might see in these repeated reverses of ours an intimation that greater things were in issue here than the taking of Petersburg
, or the destruction of Lee
's army, or even the quick overthrow of the rebellion.
Should our success come according to our hopes there might be danger of too ready a compromise with the forces that had brought on the
war, and so the winnowings of life and death must go on till the troubles be sifted to the core.
's proclamation, though looked upon by our old-school officers as unadvised and unwarranted by the Constitution
, had sent thoughts wider and higher than the range of army regulations or text-books of the law. It was a time of travail with the new birth of the nation.
Time and tide wait for no man; but man must wait for them.
With all Grant
's reticence, we felt sure that he was preparing some great movement, and this must be still to the left, to cut Lee
's communications and envelop his existing lines, or as the wiseacres said, to take Richmond
in something like Joshua's way with Jericho
,--sounding trumpets all around its walls.
We had, indeed, been rehearsing for this performance from time to time all winter, and had already cut several of Lee
's best communications.
Our established line now extended some sixteen miles. Occasional dashes had broken in upon them for some four or five miles farther westward, to near Burgess' Mill on Hatcher's Run
, at the junction of the Boydton Plank Road
and the White Oak Road
; but these points could not be strongly held by us, and were more strongly guarded by the enemy, as almost their last avenue of sea-coast communication.
had two railroads: the Richmond
, leading to important connections in North Carolina
; and the Petersburg
, known to us as the “Southside
,” making a junction with the
former at Burkeville
, about fifty miles from Petersburg
, as also from Richmond
On our part, as we gained ground we had unrolled a military railroad, up hill and down, without much grading, and hence exhibiting some remarkable exploits in momentum of mind and machinery.
This terminated at the Vaughan Road
on the north branch of Rowanty Creek
had made his masterly march from the Great River
to the Sea
, and the even more masterly movement north to Gouldsboro, North Carolina
, where with his alert and dashing army he threatened Lee
's sea communication and also the flank and rear of his position.
It was a curious element in the situation that the astute Confederate General “Joe Johnston
” should come in north of Sherman
and interpose his army between Sherman
's and ours.
This sort of “voltaic pile” generated some queer currents of conjecture and apprehension.
Disquieting rumors came across the picket lines that Johnston
was coming up to strike our flank and rear, and thus between his army and Lee
's we should be caught in the jaws of a leviathan.
But we believed Sherman
would give Johnston
something else to do. We were more troubled by the rumor that Lee
, presuming on our inertness, was preparing to make a master movement; to occupy our attention by feints in front while he should withdraw his main army, pass around our left and join Johnston
, knock Sherman
out, then turn back and attend to the “sick lion” of the Army of the Potomac.
was evidently anxious lest Lee
should manage to get away from our front and effect a junction with Johnston
for some bold stroke.
That would be a shame for us. We would far rather fight, even if unsuccessful as usual.
Then we were much annoyed by rumors coming around from Washington
, that Sherman
was coming up with his power and prestige to take our business out of our hands and the glory of success to his army.
But in the depth of our doubts and apprehension word came that Grant
had brought Sherman
to a conference at his headquarters, and had invited Sheridan
as a participant, on the evening of March 27th, and we knew now that something was to be done on a grand scale.
Soon came the thrilling General Order
It announced one more leftward movement, but it woke new courage and inspired confidence.
Its very style and manner was new. It seemed to take us all into confidential relations with the commander; the whole object and plan set forth in a manner clear, circumstantial, and complete, so that each subordinate knew the part he was expected to take.
The colonels, on whom the brunt of battle so heavily falls, felt that they were appreciated, and they were quickened in soldierly pride and manly resolution.
And the younger generals, who had become veterans in experience, especially in the practical working of the felicitous provision in the Army Regulations
that, while their proper position is habitually a hundred and fifty yards in rear of the center of their commands, they
may, nevertheless, in time of action, “go to any place where they deem their presence necessary,” and had found that was anywhere but in the rear, took new assurance now that permission was expressly given that when they got the enemy to “going” they might “push things” at their discretion.
So when on the last evening of the old dispensation we prepared to break camp before the dawn, silently and unseen, without blast of bugle or blow of axe, or sight of fire to betray unusual movements to the ever watchful foe so near, and each one who could dashed off his little farewell message home, there was in his heart a strange mingling of emotion, the vision of a great joy, in which, perhaps, he was to lie silent and apart, a little shadow on the earth, but overhead a great light filling the sky. This lifted him to the surpassing joy that, however it should be with him, his work and worth had entered into the country's life and honor.
Now the solemn notes of the last tattoo rang “Lights out!”
through the deepening shades, echoed from point to point of wooded hill and earth-piled parapet, floating away northward over the awful powers lying hushed beneath the twilight semblance of peace,--northward, toward the homes our hearts reached after, the lingering echoes sweeping the heartstrings as they died away.
But the same heart told that the evening bugle would not sound “Lights out!”
again till the nights of the tremendous tragedy were over; that whatever of him or his should be of the returning, never
would return that awful, long repeated scene: two armies, battered, broken, blood-bathed from brow to foot, but still face to face in unconquerable resolve.
No, but in the far sky another vision: calm in triumph, thinking not of mastery over man, but of right for all; and in God's heaven the old flag redeemed from shame and scorn, standing for a regenerated people and a new covenant of brotherly love for the world's hereafter.