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Chapter 36: “the land of darkness and the Shadow of death.”

  • Comparison of numbers
  • -- the ratio of loss -- the process of attrition -- Stuart's last fight -- the river approaches -- Beauregard “bottles” Butler -- Grant sits down before Petersburg -- “Swapping with boot” -- feeling of the southern people -- the lines in Georgia -- military chess -- different methods of Sherman and Grant -- southern view -- public confidence in Johnston -- Hood relieves him -- how received by the people -- the army divided -- “the back door” opened at last! -- Mr. Davis visits Hood's army -- the truce and the chances -- on the rack.
    It is essential to a clear understanding of the events, directly preceding the fall of the Confederacy, to pause here and glance at the means with which that result was so long delayed, but at last so fully accomplished.

    From official northern sources, we learn that General Grant crossed the Rapidan with three corps, averaging over 47,000 men. Therefore, he must have fought the battles of the Wilderness with at least 140,000 men. At that time the total strength of General Lee's morning report did not show 46,000 men for duty. Between the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, Grant was re-enforced to the extent of near 48,000 picked men; and again at Cold Harbor with near 45,000 more. Northern figures admit an aggregate of 97, 00000 reen-forcement between the Rapidan and the James! In that time, Lee, by the junction of Breckinridge and all the fragments of brigades he could collect, received less than 16,000 re-enforcement; and even the junction with Beauregard scarcely swelled his total additions over 20,000.

    Grant's army, too, was composed of the picked veterans of the North--for his Government had accepted large numbers of hundred day men for local and garrison duty, that all the seasoned troops might be sent him. Yet with an aggregate force of 234,000 men, opposed to a total of less than 63,000, General Grant failed signally in the plan, or plans of his campaign-losing in twenty-six days, and nine heavy fights and several skirmishes, seven men for one of General Lee's!

    Can any candid thinker analyze these results and then believe Grant a strategist — a great soldier-anything but a pertinacious fighter? Can one realize that anything but most obstinate bungling could have swung such an army round in a complete circle-at a loss of over one-half of its numbers — to a point it could have reached in [337] twenty-four hours, without any loss whatever? For the soldiers of the North, in this disastrous series of blunders, fought with constancy and courage. Beaten day after day by unfailing troops in strong works, they ever came again straight at those impregnable positions, against which obstinate stolidity, or blind rage for blood, drove them to the slaughter. Hancock's men especially seemed to catch inspiration from their chivalric leader. Broken and beaten at the Wildernessdeci-mated at Spottsylvania, they still were first in the deadly hail of Cold Harbor-breaking our line and holding it for a moment. Sedgwick and Warren, too-though the victim of unjust prejudice, if not of conspiracy-managed their corps with signal ability, in those ceaseless killings into which Grant's “strategy” sent them.

    Nor was the immense superiority of numbers already shown, all. For this main advance-like every other of General Grant's-had cooperating columns all around it. Add to the men under his immediate command, those of the adjunct forces under his inspiration-Butler, 35,000, Hunter, 28,000 and Sigel, 10,000-and there foots up a grand total of 307,000 men!

    We may, therefore, consider that General Lee, in the summer campaign of 1864, kept at bay and nullified the attack of 307,000 men with scarcely one-fifth their number; not exceeding 63,000!1

    While Grant was engaged in his pertinacious failures to flank Lee, General Sheridan-whose fame as a cavalry leader was already in the mouths of men in such pet names as “Little Phil” and “Cavalry Sheridan” --made a raid of considerable proportions toward Richmond. Flanking Lee upon the right, he proceeded over the North and South Anna, damaging the railroads at Beaver Dam and Ashland stations. Thence he moved toward Richmond, but was met at Yellow Tavern by General Stuart with a small body of his cavalry and a hastily-collected force of infantry. A sharp engagement resulted in forcing the enemy off; when he passed down the James to Turkey Island, where he joined Butler's forces. [338]

    But the fight had one result far more serious to the South-the Death of General J. E. B. Stuart--the gallant and popular leader of Confederate cavalry; so ill to be spared in those days of watchful suspense to come, when General Lee keenly felt the loss of “the eyes of the army.”

    During the whole fight the sharp and continuous rattle of carbines, broken by the clear boom of field artillery, was distinctly heard in Richmond; and her defenseless women were long uncertain what the result would be. They knew nothing of the force that was attacking, nor of that which was defending their homes; every man was away save the aged and maimed-and the tortures of doubt and suspense were added to the accustomed strain of watching the end of the fight. When the news came there was deep thankfulness; but it was solemn and shadowed from the sorrow that craped the victory.

    Meantime, General Sigel had threatened the Valley with a heavy force; but, in mid-May he had been met by General Breckinridge and was defeated with such loss of men and munitions, that he retreated precipitately across the Shenandoah. The co-operation of Sigel was virtually at an end.

    But the more important co-operation had been equally unsuccessful. Simultaneously with Grant's passage of the Rapidan, General Butler, with an army of 35,000 men and a fleet of iron-clads, double-enders, gunboats and transports sufficient for a war with England, sailed up the James. This force was intended to proceed direct to Richmond, or to march into undefended Petersburg, as the case might seem best to warrant. The land forces disembarked at Bermuda Hundred and, after fortifying heavily on the line of Howlett's House, made serious demonstrations direct on Drewry's Bluff. Butler supposed that, the defenses being entirely uncovered by the drain of men for Lee's army, he could carry them with ease. In this hope he relied much upon the powerful aid of the fleet; but Admiral Lee, ascending in a double-ender, lost his pioneer-boat, the “Commodore Jones” and very nearly his own flag-ship, by a torpedo, opposite Signal Station. This stopped the advance of the fleet, as the river was supposed to be sown with torpedoes.

    Nowise daunted, General Butler-like the true knight and chivalrous leader his entire career proves him to be-drew his line closer round the coveted stronghold. But on the 16th of May, Beauregard sallied out and struck the hero of New Orleans so suddenly and so [339] sharply that he drove him, with heavy loss and utter demoralization, clear from his advanced lines to Bermuda Hundred. Only the miscarriage of a part of the plan, entrusted to a subordinate general, saved Butler's army from complete destruction.

    As it was, he there remained “bottled up,” until Grant's peculiar strategy had swung him round to Petersburg; and then the “bottleimp” was released.

    Seeing himself thus foiled on every hand-his magnificent plans utterly crushed, and his immense numbers unavailing-Grant struck into new combinations. Hunter had already penetrated into West Virginia as far as Staunton; and hounding on his men with the savagery of the bloodhound, was pushing on for Lynchburg and the railroad lines of supply adjacent to it. Grant at once detached Sheridan with a heavy force, to operate against the lines from Gordonsville and Charlottesville.

    Simultaneously he, himself, was to strike a resistless blow at Petersburg; and thus with every avenue of supply cut off, the leaguered Capital must soon — from very weakness-drop into eager hands stretched out to grasp her.

    On the 16th and 17th June, there were sharp and heavilysup-ported attacks upon portions of the Confederate line before Petersburg. The expectation evidently was to drive them in by sheer weight; for it was known only that part of Lee's forces had crossed the river, and the line was one of immense extent-requiring three times his whole force to man it effectively.

    But, as ever before, General Grant underrated his enemy; and, as ever before, his cherished theory of giving six lives for one to gain his point failed. Both attacks were heavily repulsed. Still holding to that theory, however, Grant attacked the whole Confederate front at dawn of the 18th. Driven back with heavy slaughter, the men were again sent in. Four times that day they rallied and came well up to the works; and four times they were sent back reeling and bleeding. Even Grant's obstinacy could not drive them again into certain destruction; and the assault on Petersburg had failed utterly, at the cost of 14,000 men for the experiment.

    On that same day, Hunter was driven back from an assault on Lynchburg, and sent in disgraceful rout through West Virginia.

    Hampton, too, had done his share as ever in the long war. He had caught Sheridan at Trevellian's Station, and compelled him to [340] retreat and entirely abandon his part of Grant's new programme; and a little later he came upon Kautz and Wilson — in a railroad raid below Petersburg-and defeated them disastrously, capturing their trains, artillery and a large proportion of their men.

    Thus, by July, these rough and repeated lessons had taught even General Grant that hammering with flesh and blood upon earthworks was too costly; that barn-burning and railroad-tearing cavalry were not effectual to reduce the city that had so laughed to scorn his brilliant tactics of the left flank!

    A more disgusted, if not a wiser man, he sat down and fortified for a regular siege; as fully convinced as ever that the blood of the soldiers was the seed of the war; as fixed in his theory that he could spare seven lives for one and gradually by this fearful “swapping, with boot,” reduce the capital he had failed to win by soldierly methods or skillful combination.

    And the southern people felt that was the test to be applied to them now. Bayonet and steel, rapine and torch had failed; but now the process of pulverizing was to come. “Southern blood!” was General Grant's war-cry-“Southern blood by the drop, if it take rivers of ours. Southern lives by the score-and we can well pay for them with the hundred!”

    And, looking the alternative squarely in the face, the southern people for the last time girded their loins for the shock; feeling they could do what men might and when they could no longer dothey could die!

    Once more the tide of battle had rolled away fiom Richmond; but it surged up, redder and rougher, against her sister city. And staunch little Petersburg braced herself to meet its advancing waves --ever offering to them her dauntless breast and ever riding above them, breathless but victorious. Old men with one foot in the grave --boys with one foot scarce out of the cradle, stood side by side, with the bronzed veterans of Lee's hundred fights. Women sat quiet, the shells of Grant's civilized warfare tearing through their houses and through the hospitals. And fearless for themselves, they worked steadily on, nursing the wounded and the sick; giving from their daily-decreasing store with self-forgetfulness; encouraging the weak by their presence and their courage.

    But not alone the fierce sounds immediately around them claimed the attention of the people of the Capital. From North Georgia [341] came the hoarse echo of renewed strife; and they felt, in sober truth, more immediate anxiety for the result there than at their own doors. Inured to danger and made familiar with its near approach, the people of Virginia looked calmly forward to the most fearful shock of battle, if it was nothing more. They knew the crushing force of Grant's numbers, but the danger was tangible and they could see a possible issue out of it, through blood and sacrifice. But they knew and felt that Atlanta was the back door to Richmond. Let the enemy once enter that and divide the spinal column of the Confederacy, and what hope was there! For a brief space the maimed and dying body might writhe with final strength; the quivering arms strike fierce, spasmodic blows; but no nourishment could come-the end must be death-and death from inanition!

    The people knew and felt this fully. They were perfectly aware that, should Atlanta fall and the enemy penetrate to our rear lines of communication, the cause was lost. We might make a fierce resistance for the moment; but without supplies, all organized plan must cease. And the wildest hope indulged in that event was the possibility of a detached and guerrilla warfare that would make the country untenable.

    Therefore, every eye was turned toward Dalton, where Johnston's little army now was-every ear was strained to catch the first echo of the thunder about to roll so ominously among the Georgia mountains.

    Upon General Grant's elevation to the chief command, General W. T. Sherman had been left in charge in the West. Not discouraged by the failure of Grant's quadruple advance, two months before, Sherman divided his army-like that operating on the Rapidaninto three corps. Thomas, leading the center, or direct advance; Schofield, the left on the North-east, and McPherson the right on the South-west-he moved upon Dalton, almost simultaneously with Grant's passage of the Rapidan. And like Grant, he essayed a flank movement; but with far different result.

    There was another point of similarity — the great disparity of numbers. Sherman could not have had in all, far short of 80,000 men; while Johnston's greatest exertions could not collect at Dalton an effective force of 35,000. Many of these, too, were local troops and raw levies, green and undisciplined; while Sherman's forces were the flower of the western army.

    Such were the points of similarity; but there was one great difference [342] known to the Confederate leaders and people. Sherman would use every advantage of strategy and combination, rather than attempt the sledge-hammer style of attack developed by Grant. And there was more to be dreaded from his quiet and cautious approach-with its accompanying care for human life, that would preserve his army --than from any direct assault, however vigorous. This was proved at the very outset; for his advance on Dalton was a piece of military tact that-unlike Grant's at the Wilderness — was founded upon sound calculation. McPherson was thrown so far round to the South-west as seriously to threaten Johnston's communications; and by the 8th of June, the latter was forced to evacuate Dalton and retire down Resaca Valley toward the line of the Etowah river.

    This movement was accomplished with quiet and perfect ease;, keeping ever a steady front to the enemy, pressing rapidly on.

    Feeling that the fate of the whole cause was now vested in the little army left him to defend the great key-Atlanta-Johnston was great enough to resist the opportunities for glorious battle; to give up, without a struggle — which could only entail resultless waste of men — the rich tracts so valuable to us; to offer himself to the condemnation of unthinking censure-all to insure the safety of that vital organ of Confederate life.

    On the 14th June, the enemy pressed heavily against temporary works in Resaca Valley and was twice repulsed, with heavy loss. Then Johnston turned upon him and gained a decisive advantagedriving him two miles. On the two succeeding days, his attempts amounted to scarcely more than skirmishes; and on the third our troops resumed, unmolested, their retreat along the line of the Etowah. By the end of the month Johnston had taken up a strong position, with his center resting upon Kenesaw Mountain; while the enemy had thrown up works, at some points nearer even than those at Petersburg.

    At dawn on the 27th, Sherman attacked along the whole line, directing his main strength to Kenesaw Mountain. He was repulsed decisively on both flanks and with especial slaughter in the center; losing over 3,500 men. Next day Cleburne's division defeated McPherson's corps in a severe fight, inflicting even heavier loss than it had sustained at Kenesaw Mountain. But these fights-while retarding the enemy's advance and causing him a loss three times our ownwere all nullified by Sherman's effective use of that flanking process, [343] so strangely misused by his rival in Virginia. Those movements were but those of pawns upon the board; while the serious check to Johnston at Dalton — the flank movement upon his right — was repeated here. On the 4th of July he was flanked out of his mountain fastnesses and was falling back upon Atlanta.

    There is no stronger proof of the hold General Johnston had upon the masses of the people and of their respectful confidence in his great ability, than their reception of this news. They had watched his long retreat almost without a fight; had seen the enemy penetrate almost to the heart of Georgia, occupying rich tracts of our most pro-, ductive land, just ready for the harvest; and finally had heard him thundering at the very gates of Atlanta — to enter which they felt were death to us. And yet the people never murmured at their general, nor at the army he commanded. There was an unshaken conviction that he was doing his best; that his best was the best. But the Government had not forgotten nor forgiven General Johnston; and for wholly inexplicable reasons, he was summarily transferred from his command and replaced by General Hood, on the 18th of July.

    People could not see the ground for Johnston's removal; for he had followed the very same line that had earned General Lee the wildest enthusiasm of the people, even while it gave him almost supreme control of the military power of the Confederacy. Lee had fallen back to his proper base-so had Johnston. The former had faced far greater odds and had inflicted far heavier punishment upon the enemy; but the latter had contended against strategic ability rather than blind force-against human sagacity rather than brute courage. And if Johnston had inflicted less damage, his wise abstinence from battle had saved many lives, invaluable now; and in the end he had placed his army in almost impregnable works around the great prize he was to guard. Foreseeing the result of his opponent's strategy, he had nullified it by seeking the position into which he would finally have been forced.

    So far, the Virginia and the Georgia campaigns had been markedly similar in conduct and result. Both armies, driven by overwhelming numbers, had drawn their lines around their last strongholds; and there kept their enemy at bay. And had General Johnston been allowed to reap the reward of his clear foresight and patient abstinence — who can tell but the festering Lazarus might yet have risen whole, and defied the vast wealth of aggression hurled against it? [344]

    The universal and outspoken disgust of the people at the removal of Johnston, was in no sense referable to their objection to his successor. General Hood had forced their highest admiration, and bought their warmest wishes, with his brilliant courageous and his freely-offered blood. They knew him to be dauntless, chivalrous and beloved by his men; and, even if untried in a great command, they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His first movements, too-seemingly so brilliant and dashing, compared to the more steady but resultful ones of Johnston-produced a thrill of pride and hope with all the people, save the thoughtful few, who felt we could not afford now to buy glory and victory unless it tended to the one result-safety.

    On the 20th July Hood assumed the offensive. He struck the enemy's right heavily and with success; repeating the blow upon his extreme left, on the 22d. The advantage on both days was with the Confederates; they drove the enemy from his works, captured several thousand prisoners, and killed and wounded over 3,000 men. But there was no solid gain in these fights; and, the enemy shifting his line after them further to the east, there was another furious battle on the 28th day of July.

    In this Hood was less successful, losing heavily and gaining little or no ground. The results of the fights at Atlanta were briefly these: Hood had broken the long and sagacious defensive course; the people were perhaps inspirited at the cost of over 4,000 invaluable men; and the enemy was taught that we were too weak to drive him from his line, or even to make any solid impression on him.

    Feeling this-and secure in a line of communication with his base --Sherman sat doggedly and grimly down before Atlanta. He felt he could wait.

    But the end came, before even the Federal leader could have expected. After the fights at Atlanta, Hood feared the cutting of his communications. He was fearful, lest the system that had forced Johnston from Dalton and Kenesaw Mountain might be made available against him here; and the very means he had adopted to prevent it precipitated the disaster. He divided his forces into two distinct armies-sending one, under Lieutenant-General Hardee, to Jonesboro, twenty-two miles away!

    Sherman, aware of the movement — which had in fact resulted from his threatening of Hood's flank-forced his superior numbers [345] wedge-like into the gap, and effectually separated the wings. Then he struck in detail. Hardee, at Jonesboro, failed to make any impression upon him on the 1st of September, while Hood-weakened and unable to check his movements on the left — was forced, on the 31St August, to decide upon the evacuation of Atlanta!

    This fatal movement was accomplished on the evening of the 1st of September, without further loss; but the key to the Confederate cause — the sole barrier to the onward sweep of Sherman to the ocean --was in his hands at last!

    There may have been causes operating on General Hood that were not known to the people; for the results and their motive was shrouded in silence. His dispatch announcing the fall of the most important point was very brief; stating in a few lines that Hardee, having failed against the enemy at Jonesboro, while he could not oppose his flank movement at Atlanta, he had given up that city. Even later-when General Hood published his report of the Atlanta campaign-he differs in essential points from General Johnston, and neither his theories nor their carrying out are made comprehensible to the public.

    There was a terrible shock to the people of the South in the fall of Atlanta. They knew its importance so fully that its loss was the more keenly felt. There came sudden revulsion from the hope that had begun once again to throb in the public pulse. The loud murmurs that had arisen after other defeats were wanting now; but a sullen and increasing gloom seemed to settle over the majority of the people. It was as though they were stunned by the violence of the shock and felt already its paralyzing influence. It was in vain that a ten days truce was granted by the victorious enemy, during which Mr. Davis visited the army and spoke brave words of future victory. The people had now lost all faith in Mr. Davis and his methods; and they sullenly refused to accept the happy auguries of victory he drew from crushing defeat. Even the army itself-while still doggedly determined to strike its hardest to the bitter end-began to feel that it was fighting against hope.

    And in that ten days truce there was little chance for those worn and wasted battalions to recuperate. There were no fresh men to send to their aid; few, indeed, were the supplies that could be forwarded them. But they looked into the darkness ahead steadily and calmly; they might not see their path in it, but they were ready to march without the path. And even as they watched and waited, [346] so at Petersburg and Richmond a small but sleepless David watched the grim Goliath, stretched in its huge bulk before their gates. Ceaselessly the trains flashed back and forth over the iron link between those two cities-now Siamese-twinned with a vital bond of endurance and endeavor. Petersburg, sitting defiant in her circle of fire, worked grimly, ceaselessly — with what hope she might! and Richmond worked for her, feeling that every drop of blood she lost was from her own veins as well.

    And so for many weary months the deadly strain went on; and the twin cities-stretched upon the rack-bore the torture as their past training had taught the world they must-nobly and well!

    1 Some time after the notes were made, from which these figures are condensed, two articles on Grant's campaign appeared in print-one in the New York World, the other, by Mr. Hugh Pleasants, in The land we love magazine. Writing from diametrically opposite standpoints, with data gathered from opposing sources, Mr. Pleasants and the World very nearly agree in their figuring; and it was gratifying to this author to find that both corroborated the above estimates to within very inconsiderable numbers. Later historical papers have not materially changed them; save, perhaps, some southern claims, still further to reduce Lee's army.

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