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Chapter 35: the upper and nether millstones.

  • “crushing the spine of rebellion”
  • -- Grant's quadruple plan -- the western giant -- why its back broke -- Delenda est Atlanta! -- Grant becomes the upper Millstone -- men and means Unstinted -- Dahlgren's raid -- the South's feeling -- the three Union corps -- war in the Wilderness -- rumors North and South -- Spottsylvania -- still to the left! -- Cold Iarbor again -- the “open door” closed -- glance at Grant's campaign -- cost of reaching McClellan's base -- sledge -- hammer strategy -- solemn joy in Richmond.
    From the earliest moment General Grant assumed command in the West, the old idea of bisecting the Confederacy seems to have monopolized his mind. The oft-tried theory of “drilling the heart of the Rebellion” --by cutting through to the Atlantic seaboardhad never been lost sight of, but in Grant's hands it was to be given practical power and direction.

    To effect that object, it was essential to make North Georgia the objective point; and North Georgia-now as ever-offered a stubborn and well-nigh insurmountable barrier. But the northern War Department was now fully impressed with the importance of crushing the spine of the Confederacy; and the fact was as clearly realized in the North, as in the South, that the vital cord of Confederate being ran from Atlanta to Richmond! Therefore, every facility of men and material was furnished the commander, who at that moment stood out — in reflected lights from Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge --as the military oracle of the North; and he was urged to press this design of the campaign to a vigorous and speedy issue.

    During the winter of 1863-64, General Grant incubated his grand scheme, and with the month of February brought forth a quadruple brood of ridiculous mice.

    His plan — in itself a good and sound one--was to secure a permanent base nearer than the Mississippi. To accomplish this he must first secure Mobile, as a water base, and connect that with some defensible point inland. At the same time that this attempt was made --and while the troops guarding the passway into Georgia might be diverted-Thomas, commanding the Chattanooga lines, was to advance against that point.

    The plan was undoubtedly sound, but the general's want of balance caused him to overweight it, until its own ponderousness was its destruction. On the 1st of February, Sherman, with a splendidlyap-pointed force of 35,000 infantry, and corresponding cavalry and artillery, marched out of Vicksburg; to penetrate to Mobile, or some [328] other point more accessible, on the line of the proposed new base. Simultaneously a heavy force approached the city from New Orleans; Smith and Grierson, with a strong body of cavalry, penetrated Northern Mississippi; and Thomas made his demonstration referred to.

    Any candid critic will see that four converging columns, to be effective, should never have operated so far away from their point of convergence, and so far separated from each other. The enterprise was gigantic; but its awkwardness equaled its strength, and its own weight broke its back.

    Sherman, harassed by cavalry and skirmishers-advanced in solid column; while Polk, with his merely nominal force, was unable to meet him. But the latter fell back in good order; secured his supplies, and so retarded his stronger adversary, that he saved all the rolling-stock of the railroads. When he evacuated Meridian, that lately busy railroad center was left a worthless prize to the captor.

    Meantime Forrest had harassed the cavalry force of Smith and Grierson, with not one-fourth their numbers; badly provided and badly mounted. Yet he managed to inflict heavy loss and retard the enemy's march; but finally-unable to wait the junction of S. D. Lee, to give the battle he felt essential-Forrest, on the 20th February, faced the Federal squadrons. Confident of an easy victory over the ragged handful of dismounted skirmishers, the picked cavalry dashed gaily on. Charge after charge was received only to be broken-and Forrest was soon in full pursuit of the whipped and demoralized columns. Only once they turned, were heavily repulsed, and then continued their way to Memphis.

    This check of his co-operating column and the utter fruitlessness of his own march, induced a sudden change of Sherman's intent. He fell rapidly back to Vicksburg; his army perhaps more worn, broken and demoralized by the desultory attentions of ours, than it would have been by a regular defeat.

    Meantime the New Orleans-Pensacola expedition had danced on and off Mobile without result. Thomas had been so heavily repulsed on the 25th, that he hastily withdrew to his lines at Chickamaugaand the great campaign of General Grant had resulted in as insignificant a fizz as any costly piece of fireworks the war produced.

    On the contrary, history will give just meed to Forrest, Lee and Polk for their efficient use of the handfuls of ill-provided men, with whom alone they could oppose separate and organized armies. They [329] saved Alabama and Georgia-and so, for the time, saved the Confederacy. There could be no doubt that the sole safety of the invading columns was their numerical weakness. General Grant's practice of a perfectly sound theory was clearly a gross blunder; and had Polk been in command of two divisions more-had Lee been able to swoop where he only hovered-or had Forrest's ragged boys been only doubled in number — the story told in Vicksburg would have been even less flattering to the strategic ability of the commander.

    As it was, he had simply made a bad failure, and given the South two months respite from the crushing pressure he was yet to apply. For the pet scheme of the North was but foiled — not ruined; and her whole power sang but the one refrain-Delenda est Atlanta!

    And those two months could not be utilized to much effect by the South. Worn in resources, supplies — in everything but patient endurance, she still came forth from the dark doubts the winter had raised, hopeful, if not confident; calm, if conscious of the portentous clouds lowering upon her horizon.

    Meanwhile, Grant, elevated to a lieutenant-generalcy, had been transferred to the Potomac frontier; and men, money, supplieswithout stint or limit-had been placed at his disposal.

    On the 1st February, Mr. Lincoln had called for 500,000 men; and on the 14th March for 200,000 more!

    General Grant, himself, testified to the absolute control given him, in a letter to Mr. Lincoln, under date of 1st May, 1864-from Culpeper C. H., which concludes: “I have been astonished at the readiness with which everything asked for has been granted without any explanation being asked. Should my success be less than I desire and expect, the least I can say is, that the fault is not with you.”

    With these unlimited resources, he was given almost unlimited power; and the jubilant North crowed as loudly as it had before Manassas, the Seven Days, or Fredericksburg.

    In Richmond all was quiet. The Government had done all it could, and the people had responded with a generous unanimity that ignored all points of variance between it and them. All the supplies that could be collected and forwarded, under the very imperfect systems, were sent to the armies; all the arms that could be made, altered or repaired, were got ready; and every man not absolutely needed elsewhere — with the rare exceptions of influence and favoritism openly defying the law — was already at the front. [330]

    And seeing that all was done as well as might be, the Capital waited — not with the buoyant hopefulness of the past-but with patient and purposeful resolve.

    And the ceaseless clang of preparation, cut by the ceaseless yell of anticipated triumph, still echoed over the Potomac-ever nearer and ever louder. Then, by way of interlude, on the 28th March, came the notorious Dahlgren raid. Though Kilpatrick was demoralized and driven back by the reserves in the gunless works; though Custar's men retired before the furloughed artillerists and home guards; and though Dahlgren's picked cavalry were whipped in the open field by one-fourth their number of Richmond clerks and artisans!-boys and old men who had never before been under firestill the object of that raid remains a blot even upon the page of this uncivilized warfare. It were useless to enter into details of facts so well and clearly proved. That the orders of Dahlgren's men were to release the prisoners, burn, destroy and murder, the papers found on his dead body showed in plainest terms.

    No wonder, then, that many in Richmond drew comfort from soothing belief in special Providence, when three trained columns of picked cavalry were turned back in disgraceful flight, by a handful of invalids, old men and boys!

    The feeling in Richmond against the raiders was bitter and universal. Little vindictive, in general, the people clamored that arson and murder — as set forth in Dahlgren's orders-merited more serious punishment than temporary detention and highflown denunciation. The action of the Government in refusing summary vengeance on the cavalrymen captured, was indubitably just and proper. Whatever their object, and whatever their orders, they were captured in arms and were but prisoners of war; and, besides, they had not really intended more than dozens of other raiders had actually accomplished on a smaller scale.

    But the people would not see this. They murmured loudly against the weakness of not making these men an example. And more than one of the papers used this as the handle for violent abuse of the Government and of its chief.

    At last all preparations were complete; and the northern army-as perfect in equipment, drill and discipline as if it had never been defeated-came down to the Rapidan.

    Grant divided his army into three corps, under Hancock, Warren [331] and Sedgwick; and on the 5th May, his advance crossed the river, only to find Lee quietly seated in his path. Then commenced that series of battles, unparalleled for bloody sacrifice of men and obstinacy of leader — a series of battles that should have written General Grant the poorest strategist who had yet inscribed his name on the long roll of reverses. And yet, by a strange fatality, they resulted in making him a hero to the unthinking masses of his countrymen.

    Lee's right rested on the Orange road; and an attempt, after the crossing, to turn it, was obstinately repulsed during the entire day, by Heth and Wilcox. During the night Hancock's corps crossed the river, and next morning received a fierce assault along his whole line. The fighting was fierce and obstinate on both sides; beating back the right and left of Hancock's line, while sharply repulsed on the center (Warren's). Still his loss was far heavier than ours, and the result of the battles of the Wilderness was to put some 23,000 of Grant's men hors de combat; to check him and to force a change of plan at the very threshold of his “open door to Richmond.” For next day (7th May) he moved toward Fredericksburg railroad, in a blind groping to flank Lee.

    It is curious to note the different feeling in Washington and Richmond on receipt of the news. In the North--where the actual truth did not reach — there was wild exultation. The battles of the Wilderness were accounted a great victory; Lee was demoralized and would be swept from the path of the conquering hero; Grant had at last really found the “open door!” In Richmond there was a calm and thankful feeling that the first clinch of the deadly tug had resulted in advantage. Waning confidence in the valor of men, and discretion of the general, was strengthened, and a somewhat hopeful spirit began to be infused into the people. Still they felt there would be a deadlier strain this time than ever before, and that the fresh and increasing thousands of the North could be met but by a steadily diminishing few-dauntless, tireless and true-but still how weak! Yet there was no give to the southern spirit, and — as ever in times of deadliest strain and peril — it seemed to rise more buoyant from the pressure.

    Next came the news of those fearful fights at Spottsylvania, on the 8th and 9th--in which the enemy lost three to our one-preceding the great battle of the 12th May. By a rapid and combined attack the enemy broke Lee's line, captured a salient with Generals Ed Johnson [332] and George H. Stewart and part of their commands, and threatened, for the time, to cut his army in two. But Longstreet and Hill sent in division after division from the right and left, and the fight became general and desperate along the broken salient. The Yankees fought with obstinacy and furious pluck. Charge after charge was broken and hurled back. On they came again-ever to the shambles! Night fell on a field piled thick with bodies of the attacking force; in front of the broken salient was a perfect charnelhouse!

    By his own confession, Grant drove into the jaws of death at Spottsylvania over 27,000 men! But his object was, for the second time, utterly frustrated; and again he turned to the left-still dogged and obstinate-still seeking to flank Lee.

    On the 14th, Grant was again repulsed so sharply that his advance withdrew; and then the “greatest strategist since Napoleon” struck out still for his cherished left; and, leaving “the open door,” passed down the Valley of the Rappahannock.

    Lee's calm sagacity foresaw the enemy's course, and on the 23d Grant met him face to face, in a strong position near the North Anna. Blundering upon Lee's lines, throwing his men blindly against works that were proved invincible, he was heavily repulsed in two attackswith aggregate loss amounting to a bloody battle. Failing in the second attack (on the 25th) Grant swung off-still to the left-and crossing the Pamunkey two days later, took up strong position near Cold Harbor on the last day of May.

    Lee also moved down to face Grant, throwing his works up on a slight curve extending from Atlee's, on the Central Railroad, across the old Cold Harbor field-averaging some nine miles from Richmond. Our general was satisfied with the results of the campaign thus far; the army was buoyant and confident, and the people were more reliant than they had been since Grant had crossed the Rapidan. They felt that the nearness of his army to Richmond in no sense argued its entrance into her coveted defenses; and memories of Seven Pines, and of that other Cold Harbor, arose to comfort them.

    In the North, great was the jubilee. It was asserted that Grant could now crush Lee and capture his stronghold at a single blow; that the present position was only the result of his splendid strategy and matchless daring; and the vapid boast, “I will fight it out on this line if it takes all summer” --actually uttered while he was blindly [333] groping his way, by the left, to the Pamunkey!-was swallowed whole by the credulous masses of the North. They actually believed that Grant's position was one of choice, not of necessity; and that Lee's movement to cover Richmond from his erratic advancethough it ever presented an unbroken front to him, and frequently drove him back with heavy loss — was still a retreat!

    Both sides can look now calmly and critically at this campaignseemingly without a fixed plan, and really so hideously costly in blood. When Grant crossed the Rapidan, he could have had no other intention than to sweep Lee from his front; and either by a crushing victory, or a forced retreat, drive him toward Richmond. Failing signally at the Wilderness, he abandoned this original plan and took up the Fredericksburg line. Here again the disastrous days of Spottsylvania foiled him completely; and he struck for the Tappahannock and Fort Royal line. Lee's emphatic repulse of his movement on the North Anna again sent Grant across the Pamunkey; and into the very tracks of MecClellan two years before

    But there was one vast difference. McClellan had reached this base with no loss. Grant, with all McClellan's experience to teach him, had not reached this point at a cost of less than 70,000 men!

    Had he embarked his troops in transports and sailed up the river, Grant might have landed his army at the White House in twentyfour hours; and that without the firing of a shot. But he had chosen a route that was to prove him not only the greatest strategist of the age, but the most successful as well. The difference of the two was simply this: he took twenty-six days instead of one; he fought nine bloody engagements instead of none; he made four separate changes in his digested plan of advance; and he lost 70,000 men to gain a position a condemned general had occupied two years before without a skirmish!

    But the people of the North did not see this. They were only allowed partial reports of losses and changes of plan; they were given exaggerated statements of the damage done to Lee and of his dire strait; and the fact of Grant's proximity to the Rebel Capital was made the signal for undue and premature rejoicing. He was already universally declared the captor of Richmond, by a people willing to accept a fact with no thought of its cost; to accept a result for the causes that produced it.

    But Grant was now in a position when he could not afford to await [334] the slow course of siege operations. He could not allow time for the hubbub at the North to die away and reflection to take its place. Blood to him was no thicker than water; and he must vindicate the boasts of his blind admirers-cost thousands of lives though it might. Once more he marshaled his re-enforced ranks, only to hurl them into the jaws of death. For though worn away by the fearful friction of numbers-melted slowly in the fiery furnace of battle — the little Confederate force sat behind its works, grim, defiant-dangerous as ever!

    Could Grant crush out that handful by the pure weight of his fresh thousands-could he literally hurl enough flesh and blood against it to sweep it before him-then the key of every road to Richmond was in his hands! So, on the morning of the 3d of June, Hancock's corps rushed to the assault.

    Impetuous and fierce, the charge broke Breckinridge's line. Fresh men poured in and, for a moment, the works were in the enemy's hands. But it was only for a moment. They rallied, relief camethe conflict was fierce and close-but it was short. When the smoke rose, Hancock's line was broken and retreating. Again and again he rallied it splendidly, only to be hurled back each time with deadlier slaughter. On the other points Warren and Burnside had been driven back with terrible loss; and along the whole southern line the death-dealing volley into the retreating ranks rang the joyous notes of victory. Grant had played the great stake of his campaign and lost it!

    He had lost it completely, and in an incredibly short time. Near 30,000 men told the horrid story of that ferocious hurling of flesh and blood against earthworks. Near one-fifth of his whole force had paid for his last great blunder, while the Confederate loss was less than one-tenth his own!

    Even McClellan's line had failed the sledge-hammer strategist, and nothing was left but to transfer his army to the south side of the James. Lingering with dogged pertinacity on his slow retreatturn-ing at every road leading to the prize he yearned for, only to be beaten back-Grant finally crossed the river with his whole force on the 13th of June.

    The great campaign was over. It had been utterly foiled at every point; had been four times turned into a new channel only to be [335] more signally broken; and had ended in a bloody and decisive defeat that left Grant no alternative but to give up his entire plan and try a new one on a totally different line. For the southern arms it had been one unbroken success from the Rapidan to Cold Harbor; for though sometimes badly hurt, the Confederates had never once been driven from an important position; had never once failed to turn the enemy from his chosen line of advance-and had disabled at the least calculation 120,000 of his men at the cost of less than 17,000 of their own!

    Such was the southern view, at the moment, of this campaign of invasion; as unparalleled in the history of war, as was that of Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. Such is the view of southern thinkers, to-day; and it is backed by the clearest judgment and calmest criticism of the North.

    That success was made the test of merit; that attrition at last wore away unre-enforced resistance; that highest honors in life, and national sorrow in death, were rewards of a man — truly great in many regards, if justly measured; all these are no proof that General Grant was either a strategist, or a thinker; no denial that his Rapidan campaign --equally in its planning and its carrying out — was a bald and needlessly-bloody failure!

    And, realizing this at the supreme moment, can it be wondered that the people of Richmond, as well as the victorious little army, grew hopeful once more? Is it strange that-mingled with thanksgivings for deliverance, unremitting care of the precious wounded, and sorrow for the gallant dead of many a Virginia home-there rose a solemn joyousness over the result, that crowned the toil, the travail and the loss?

    And so the South, unrefreshed but steadfast, girded her loins for the new wrestle with the foe, now felt to be implacable 1

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