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Chapter 18: Campaign of 1864-the Wilderness

  • Grant
  • -- his rough chivalry -- his imperturbable grit -- his theory of attrition -- its effect upon the spirit of Lee's Army -- an artilleryman of that Army in Campaign trim -- sundown prayer-meetings -- the Wilderness an infantry fight -- a cup of coffee with Gen. Ewell in the forest -- Ewell and Jackson-Longstreet struck down.

Without recanting the statement that Chancellorsville is the most brilliant of Lee's single battles, I do not hesitate to say that in my opinion — that is, if and so far as I am entitled to an opinion on the subject — the campaign of 1864, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, inclusive, is the greatest of all Lee's campaigns-incomparably the greatest exhibition of generalship and soldiership ever given by the great leader and his devoted followers.

Manifestly, one of the indispensable elements in any estimate of this campaign is the man now, for the first time, opposed to us. I do not propose to enter upon any extended discussion or analysis of General Grant's powers. In common with the majority of the more intelligent soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, I thought and think well of him as a soldier, both as to character and capacity. We all felt that he behaved handsomely, both to General Lee and to his men, at Appomattox, and that, later, in standing between Lee and his leading officers and the threatened prosecutions for treason, he exhibited strong manhood and sense of right. Many of us, too, have heard of other instances in his career of a rough chivalry always attractive to men.

Just before the surrender, on my way to Petersburg as a prisoner of war, I was standing on the roadside near General Custis Lee when he was shocked by a report of the death of [239] his mother. I reminded him that, at such times, the wildest rumors were apt to be in circulation, and suggested his applying, by field telegraph, to Grant for leave to go to Richmond to ascertain the truth. He did so, and at once received leave, with transportation to Richmond. Upon finding there was nothing in the rumor, he reported promptly at the office of the provost marshal, but was there told that orders had been sent by General Grant that General Custis Lee should not be received as a prisoner of war, and he never succeeded in getting back into prison or any sort of captivity, though he made earnest efforts to do so.

As to Grant's grit and determination, all his predecessors together did not possess as much of these manly qualities, and we used to hear fine tales, too, of his imperturbability; for instance, that soon after he crossed the Rapidan in 1864, when someone dashed up to his headquarters and announced with great excitement the capture of his pontoons, everyone else seemed to be shattered; but Grant deliberately removed his cigar from his mouth, blew a very fine smoke wreath or ring, and said quietly, “If I beat General Lee I sha'n't want any pontoons; and if General Lee beats me I can take all the men I intend to take back across the river on a log.”

As to his capacity and our estimate of it, we did not think much of him as a strategist, but we did credit him with the vigor and trenchancy of mind that cut right through to the only plan upon which, as I believe, we ever could have been overcome-and the nerve to adhere to that plan relentlessly, remorsely to the very end, in spite of all the suffering and shrinking and weeping of the people. That plan was the simple but terrible one of attrition. As Colonel Taylor says:

If one hundred and forty thousand men are made to grapple in a death struggle with sixty thousand men; of the former, twenty thousand should survive the total annihilation of the latter, even though the price exacted for such destruction be in the ratio of two to one. Behold the theory of the Federal commander and an epitome of his construction of strategy, as exemplified on the sanguinary field extending from the Wilderness to James River. [240]

But there were two other subordinate or rather preparatory points that were indispensable to the efficient working of this scheme, and these also were settled by Grant, as we understood at the time, before he would consent to take charge of the main Federal army, the Army of the Potomac. These points were, first, that he should have all the men he wanted to fight the Army of Northern Virginia, and to that end should control all the armies and levies of the Union, as well as have access to all the recruiting grounds of the world; and second, that the Confederate armies should not be recruited from the only ground from which they could possibly draw reinforcements — the military prisons of the North-and to this end there should be no exchange of prisoners; that he did not wish to be reinforced from a source that must give Lee man for man with him; that it would be cheaper and more merciful in the end that Northern soldiers should starve and rot in Southern prisons, the Confederate authorities, as he well knew, not having the resources to prevent this result. And so he held right on to- Appomattox.

If anyone deems this a shallow or weak or self-evident scheme, then I for one do not agree with him. It is not the scheme or plan of a great military genius, and it is one as to the moral justification of which I feel serious question; but upon this basis, such as it is, we all felt Grant's power, and I for one am willing tb admit his greatness.

So much for the new theory of the struggle and the ironnerved and iron-souled man who had now taken charge of its enforcement, and at the same time of our old antagonist, the Army of the Potomac.

What effect, if any, did the new scheme, so far as it was divulged or foreshadowed, have upon the spirits of our soldiery before the first shot was fired? I find my comrades differ radically as to this — I mean the more intelligent, observant and thoughtful of them, those whose views upon such a subject should be worth most. Willy Dame, one of the best men of the old battery,--No. 4 at the fourth gun, now the Rev. William M. Dame, D. D., of Baltimore, Md.,who has written a charming reminiscence or personal narrative [241] of this campaign, which ought to be in print, is emphatic in stating that the same old familiar spirit of lighthearted jollity and fun characterized the men of the battery, and of the commands they encountered and passed on the 4th and 5th of May, as we all poured from our winter quarters down into the Wilderness fight.

Billy, on the contrary,--my Billy, who has already appeared frequently in these reminiscences,--is of very different mind and memory touching this point. His recollection is that he was deeply impressed with the change, and as he had just made his way back from furlough through the army, and passed the night with an infantry regiment from his own county that contained many of his former schoolmates and friends and neighbors, he had enjoyed rather unusual opportunities for testing the matter. He did not detect any depression, or apprehension of disaster, or weakness of pluck or purpose; but he says he did miss the bounding, buoyant spirit, the effervescent outbursts, the quips, the jests, the jokes, the jollities, such as had usually characterized the first spring rousings of the army and the first meetings and minglings of the different commands as they shouted their tumultuous way to battle. He says that there seems to have sifted through the ranks the conviction that the struggle ahead of us was of a different character from any we had experienced in the past — a sort of premonition of the definite mathematical calculation, in whose hard, unyielding grip it was intended our future should be held and crushed.

Billy mentions as a fact, which tends to demonstrate that his analysis of the views and feelings of the men is correct, that every man in our battery who was absent on furlough the 1st of May, 1864, returned instantly, some of them having just reached home. I cannot forbear mentioning that Billy was one of these latter, and my youngest brother, who had joined us from Georgia some months before, another. Some of these men arrived before we left camp at Morton's Ford; and others walked many hours, following the solemn sound of the firing, and found us in the midst of the sombre Wilderness, and two at bloody Spottsylvania. One of these two, a Petersburg boy, was delayed because of having fought [242] at home one day under Beauregard against Butler. To this I may add the fact that another man of the battery, wounded during the campaign, apologized humbly to the captain for the imprudence which led to his wound, because, as he said, he well understood what the loss of one man meant to us now.

Upon the whole, while not formally deciding, as the Supreme Court of Texas recently did in a telegraph case,--as to the inherent difference between “Willy and Billy,” --yet I am inclined to think in this particular that Billy is rightthat in the spring of 1864 there was very generally diffused throughout the army a more or less definite realization or consciousness that a new stage in the contest had been reached and a new theory broached; the mathematical theory that if one army outnumbers another more than two to one, and the larger can be indefinitely reinforced and the smaller not at all, then if the stronger side will but make up its mind to stand all the killing the weaker can do, and will keep it so made up, there can be but one result. Billy says the realization of this new order of things did not affect the resolution of the men, but that it did affect their spirits. I can only say I believe he is exactly correct.

Willy Dame, in his reminiscences above mentioned, gives a graphic account of the break up on the 4th of May of the winter camp of the Howitzers at Morton's Ford, in the course of which he presents this excellent picture of the full dress of a Confederate artilleryman in campaign fighting trim:

In less than two hours after the order was given, the wagon was gone and the men left in ‘campaign trim.’ This meant that each man had one blanket, one small haversack, one change of underclothes, a canteen, cup and plate of tin, a knife and fork, and the clothes in which he stood. When ready to march, the blanket, rolled lengthwise, the ends brought together and strapped, hung from left shoulder across under right arm; the haversack-furnished with towel, soap, comb, knife and fork in various pockets, a change of underclothes in the main division, and whatever rations we happened to have in the other-hung on the left [243] hip; the canteen, cup and plate, tied together, hung on the right; toothbrush, at will, stuck in two button holes of jacket or in haversack; tobacco bag hung to a breast button, pipe in pocket. In this rig. into which a fellow could get in just two minutes from a state of rest, the Confederate soldier considered himself all right and all ready for anything; in this he marched and in this he fought. Like the terrapin, ‘all he had he carried on his back,’ and this ‘all’ weighed about seven or eight pounds.

It will be noted that I have prefaced this catalogue by the expression “full dress.” If I may be allowed, I would criticise the list as a little too full. I cannot recall ever having eaten out of a plate, or with a knife and fork, or having owned any or either of these articles while a private soldier, certainly not after the first few months of the war. And even after I became an officer, as adjutant of the battalion, I never carried plate, knife, or fork with me on my horse after the campaign opened. Colonel Cabell and I often ate out of the same tin cup or frying pan. Indeed, I carried nothing on my horse save a pair of very contracted saddle pockets and the cape of my overcoat, and Colonel Cabell carried his pockets, his overcoat, and an oil cloth. We slept together, lying on his oil cloth, he wearing his overcoat when cold, and both of us covered with my cape.

Another feature of Willy Dame's account of the Howitzer good-by to winter quarters, at the opening of the campaign of 1864, is well worthy of record. He says that the very last public and general act of the men was, of their own account, to gather for a farewell religious service,--Bible reading, singing of a hymn, prayer, words of exhortation and cheer, --and that this meeting closed with a solemn resolution to hold such a service daily during the campaign when practicable, and as near as might be to the sunset hour, and then he adds:

But however circumstanced, in battle, on the battle-line, in. intervals of quiet, or otherwise, we held that prayer hour nearly every day, at sunset, during the entire campaign. And some of us thought and think, that the strange exemption our battery experienced, our little loss in the midst of [244] unnumbered perils and incessant service during that awful campaign, was that in answer to our prayers the God of Battles ‘covered our heads in the day of battle,’ and was merciful to us, because we ‘called upon Him.’ If any think this is a ‘fond fancy,’ we don't.

Lee's ready acceptance of the gage of battle flung down by Grant, his daring and unexpected attack upon him in the thickets of the Wilderness, while it appeared to be the height of reckless audacity, was really the dictate of the wisest and most balanced prudence. In such a country the advantage of Grant's overwhelming preponderance of numbers was reduced to a minimum, and his great parks of artillery were absolutely useless. Besides, to retire and fall back upon an inner line was just what Grant desired and expected Lee to do, and would have been in exact furtherance of Grant's plans. In this instance, as usual, Lee's audacity meant the exercise of his unerring military instinct and judgment.

As just intimated, the Wilderness was essentially, yes, almost exclusively, an infantry fight, and we of the artillery saw, in fact, next to nothing of it, but hovered around its edge, thrilled and solemnized by the awful roar and swell and reverberation of the musketry and by the procession of wounded men and prisoners that streamed past.

The first incident of the march or the battle-field that impressed itself upon my memory is that early on the morning of the 5th of May, while riding ahead of the battalion, I came upon my old friend, General Ewell, crouching over a low fire at a “cross roads” in the forest, no one at the time being nigh except the two horses, and a courier who had charge of them and the two crutches. The old hero, who had lost a leg in battle, could not mount his horse alone and never rode without at least one attendant, who always followed close after him, carrying his “quadruped pegs,” or rather his tripod pegs. The General was usually very thin and pale,unusually so that morning,--but bright-eyed and alert. He was accustomed to ride a flea-bitten gray named Rifle, who was singularly like him-so far as a horse could be like a man. I knew Rifle well and noted that both he and his master [245] looked a little as if they had been up all night and had not had breakfast.

I have before mentioned the General's great kindness to me. When we were alone he often called me “My child,” and he embarrassed me by repeated recommendations for promotion. We were captured very late in the war, in the same battle and about the same time, and he not only honored and touched me greatly by expressing on the field and in the presence of several general officers, also prisoners, his high estimate of and strong affection for me, but he wrote me in prison one or two kind letters giving me earnest advice as to my immediate future.

On this morning he asked me to dismount and take a cup of coffee with him. He was a great cook. I remember on one occasion, later in the war, I met him in the outer defenses of Richmond, and he told me someone had sent him a turkey leg which he was going to “devil;” that he was strong on that particular dish; that his staff would be away, and I must come around that evening and share it with him. I willingly accepted on both occasions, and on both greatly enjoyed a chat with the General and the unaccustomed treat. On this Wilderness morning, while we were drinking our coffee, I asked him if he had any objection to telling me his orders, and he answered briskly, “No, sir; none at all-just the orders I like — to go right down the plank road and strike the enemy wherever I find him.”

It is glory enough for any man to have been Stonewall Jackson's trusted lieutenant. Ewell simply worshiped his great commander; indeed, it was this worship that led him to the highest. He worshiped Jackson, and yet they were not exactly kindred spirits. The following little story, which I quote from Dr. McGuire, but which I heard many times before reading it in print, well illustrates one of the points of difference between them.

At the battle of Port Republic an officer commanding a regiment of Federal soldiers and riding a snow-white horse was very conspicuous for his gallantry. He frequently exposed himself to the fire of our men in the most reckless way. So splendid was this man's courage that General Ewell, one of the most chivalrous gentlemen I ever knew, at some [246] risk to his own life, rode down the line and called to his men not to shoot the man on the white horse. After a while, however, the officer and the white horse went down. A day or two after, when General Jackson learned of the incident, he sent for General Ewell and told him not to do such a thing again; that this was no ordinary war, and the brave and gallant Federal officers were the very kind that must be killed. “Shoot the brave officers and the cowards will run away and take the men with them?”

I do not say Jackson was not right, but I do say that in this double picture dear Old Dick's is the most lovable.

It is a little singular that though nominally attached to his command longer than any other, yet I probably had less acquaintance and association with General Longstreet than with any other of the more prominent generals of the Confederate army in Virginia. Indeed I do not recall ever having spoken to him or having heard him utter so much as one word. True, he was several times sent off on detached service, upon which we did not accompany him, and while nominally of his corps we had just been for some five months under Ewell's command; yet, after making allowance for all this, I could not but feel that there must be something in the nature of the man himself to account for the fact that I knew so little of him. Colonel Freemantle, of the Cold Stream Guards, who wrote a very charming diary entitled, I think, “Two months in the Confederate lines,” says, however, if I rightly remember, that the relations between Longstreet and his staff were exceptionally pleasant, and reminded him more of those which obtained in the British service than any others he observed in America. In this Wilderness fight I was suddenly brought in contact with a scene which greatly affected my conception of the man under the regalia of the general.

It may not have been generally observed that Jackson and Longstreet were both struck down in the Wilderness, just one year apart, each at the crisis of the most brilliant and, up to the moment of his fall, the most successful movement of his career as a soldier, and each by the fire of his own men. I had been sent forward, perhaps to look for some place where we might get into the fight, when I observed an excited [247] gathering some distance back of the lines, and pressing toward it I heard that General Longstreet had just been shot down and was being put into an ambulance. I could not learn anything definite as to the character of his wound, but only that it was serious — some said he was dead. When the ambulance moved off, I followed it a little way, being anxious for trustworthy news of the General. The members of his staff surrounded the vehicle, some riding in front, some on one side and some on the other, and some behind. One, I remember, stood upon the rear step of the ambulance, seeming to desire to be as near him as possible. I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen more deeply distressed. They were literally bowed down with grief. All of them were in tears. One, by whose side I rode for some distance, was himself severely hurt, but he made no allusion to his wound, and I do not believe he felt it. It was not alone the general they admired who had been shot down — it was, rather, the man they loved.

I rode up to the ambulance and looked in. They had taken off Longstreet's hat and coat and boots. The blood had paled out of his face and its somewhat gross aspect was gone. I noticed how white and dome-like his great forehead looked and, with scarcely less reverent admiration, how spotless white his socks and his fine gauze undervest, save where the black red gore from his breast and shoulder had stained it. While I gazed at his massive frame, lying so still, except when it rocked inertly with the lurch of the vehicle, his eyelids frayed apart till I could see a delicate line of blue between them, and then he very quietly moved his unwounded arm and, with his thumb and two fingers, carefully lifted the saturated undershirt from his chest, holding it up a moment, and heaved a deep sigh. He is not dead, I said to myself, and he is calm and entirely master of the situation-he is both greater and more attractive than I have heretofore thought him.

Some years after the war I read in a newspaper a short paragraph which brought this scene vividly to my mind. Longstreet, at the Wilderness, was wounded in the shoulder, [248] fighting Hancock's corps; Hancock had previously been wounded in the thigh, fighting Longstreet's. One evening while Hancock was in command in New Orleans, he and Longstreet entered Hancock's theatre box together. The entire audience rose and burst into enthusiastic cheers, and refused to be seated or to be quiet until the two generals advanced together to the front of the box, when Hancock said: “Ladies and Gentlemen — I have the pleasure of presenting to you my friend, General Longstreet, a gentleman to whom I am indebted for an ungraceful limp, and whom I had the misfortune to wing in the same contest.”

Both sides suffered severely in the Wilderness, but except perhaps upon the basis of Grant's mathematical theory of attrition, the Confederates got decidedly the best of the fighting. Next came the race for Spottsylvania Court House, and the checkmate of Warren's corps by Stuart's dismounted cavalry. Such were the prominent features of the entire campaign. It was a succession of death grapples and recoils and races for new position, and several times during the campaign the race was so close and tense and clearly defined that we could determine the exact location of the Federal column by the cloud of dust that overhung and crept along the horizon parallel to our own advance.

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