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Chapter 26.

  • Burnside
  • -- Fredericksburg -- a Tangle of cross -- purposes -- Hooker Succeeds Burnside -- Lincoln to Hooker -- Chancellorsville -- Lee's second invasion -- Lincoln's criticisms of Hooker's plans- -- Hooker relieved -- Meade -- Gettysburg -- Lee's retreat -- Lincoln's letter to Meade -- Lincoln's Gettysburg address -- autumn strategy -- the armies go into winter quarters
    T was not without well-meditated reasons that Mr.

    Lincoln had so long kept McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac. He perfectly understood that general's defects, his want of initiative, his hesitations, his delays, his never-ending complaints. But he had long foreseen the difficulty which would and did immediately arise when, on November 5, 1862, he removed him from command. Whom should he appoint as McClellan's successor? What officer would be willing and competent to play a better part? That important question had also long been considered; several promising generals had been consulted, who, as gracefully as they could, shrank from the responsibility even before it was formally offered them.

    The President finally appointed General Ambrose E. Burnside to the command. He was a West Point graduate, thirty-eight years old, of handsome presence, brave and generous to a fault, and McClellan's intimate friend. He had won a favorable reputation in leading the expedition against Roanoke Island and the North Carolina coast; and, called to reinforce [364] McClellan after the Peninsula disaster, commanded the left wing of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. He was not covetous of the honor now given him. He had already twice declined it, and only now accepted the command as a duty under the urgent advice of members of his staff. His instincts were better than the judgment of his friends. A few brief weeks sufficed to demonstrate what he had told them — that he “was not competent to command such a large army.”

    The very beginning of his work proved the truth of his self-criticism. Rejecting all the plans of campaign which were suggested to him, he found himself incapable of forming any very plausible or consistent one of his own. As a first move he concentrated his army opposite the town of Fredericksburg on the lower Rappahannock, but with such delays that General Lee had time to seize and strongly fortify the town and the important adjacent heights on the south bank; and when Burnside's army crossed on December II, and made its main and direct attack on the formidable and practically impregnable Confederate intrenchments on the thirteenth, a crushing repulse and defeat of the Union forces, with a loss of over ten thousand killed and wounded, was the quick and direful result.

    It was in a spirit of stubborn determination rather than clear, calculating courage that he renewed his orders for an attack on the fourteenth; but, dissuaded by his division and corps commanders from the rash experiment, succeeded without further damage in withdrawing his forces on the night of the fifteenth to their old camps north of the river. In manly words his report of the unfortunate battle gave generous praise to his officers and men, and assumed for himself all the responsibility for the attack and its failure. But its secondary consequences soon became irremediable. [365] By that gloomy disaster Burnside almost completely lost the confidence of his officers and men, and rumors soon came to the President that a spirit akin to mutiny pervaded the army. When information came that, on the day after Christmas, Burnside was preparing for a new campaign, the President telegraphed him:

    I have good reason for saying you must not make a general movement of the army without letting me know.

    This, naturally, brought Burnside to the President for explanation, and, after a frank and full discussion between them, Mr. Lincoln, on New Year's day, wrote the following letter to General Halleck:

    General Burnside wishes to cross the Rappahannock with his army, but his grand division commanders all oppose the movement. If in such a difficulty as this you do not help, you fail me precisely in the point for which I sought your assistance. You know what General Burnside's plan is, and it is my wish that you go with him to the ground, examine it as far as practicable, confer with the officers, getting their judgment and ascertaining their temper; in a word, gather all the elements for forming a judgment of your own, and then tell General Burnside that you do approve, or that you do not approve, his plan. Your military skill is useless to me if you will not do this.

    Halleck's moral and official courage, however, failed the President in this emergency. He declined to give his military opinion, and asked to be relieved from further duties as general-in-chief. This left Mr. Lincoln no option, and still having need of the advice of his general-in-chief on other questions, he indorsed on his own letter, “withdrawn because considered harsh by General Halleck.” The complication, however, [366] continued to grow worse, and the correspondence more strained. Burnside declared that the country had lost confidence in both the Secretary of War and the general-in-chief; also, that his own generals were unanimously opposed to again crossing the Rappahannock. Halleck, on the contrary, urged another crossing, but that it must be made on Burnside's own decision, plan, and responsibility. Upon this the President, on January 8, 1863, again wrote Burnside:

    I understand General Halleck has sent you a letter of which this is a copy. I approve this letter. I deplore the want of concurrence with you in opinion by your general officers, but I do not see the remedy. Be cautious, and do not understand that the government or country is driving you. I do not yet see how I could profit by changing the command of the Army of the Potomac; and if I did, I should not wish to do it by accepting the resignation of your commission.

    Once more Burnside issued orders against which his generals protested, and which a storm turned into the fruitless and impossible “mud march” before he reached the intended crossings of the Rappahannock. Finally, on January 23, Burnside presented to the President the alternative of either approving an order dismissing about a dozen generals, or accepting his own resignation, and Mr. Lincoln once more had before him the difficult task of finding a new commander for the Army of the Potomac. On January 25, 1863, the President relieved Burnside and assigned Major-General Joseph Hooker to duty as his successor; and in explanation of his action wrote him the following characteristic letter:

    I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it [367] best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it; and now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.

    Perhaps the most remarkable thing in this letter is the evidence it gives how completely the genius of President Lincoln had by this, the middle of his presidential [368] term, risen to the full height of his great national duties and responsibilities. From beginning to end it speaks the language and breathes the spirit of the great ruler, secure in popular confidence and official authority, equal to the great emergencies that successively rose before him. Upon General Hooker its courteous praise and frank rebuke, its generous trust and distinct note of fatherly warning, made a profound impression. He strove worthily to redeem his past indiscretions by devoting himself with great zeal and energy to improving the discipline and morale of his army, recalling its absentees, and restoring its spirit by increased drill and renewed activity. He kept the President well informed of what he was doing, and early in April submitted a plan of campaign on which Mr. Lincoln indorsed, on the eleventh of that month:

    My opinion is that just now, with the enemy directly ahead of us, there is no eligible route for us into Richmond; and consequently a question of preference between the Rappahannock route and the James River route is a contest about nothing. Hence, our prime object is the enemy's army in front of us, and is not with or about Richmond at all, unless it be incidental to the main object.

    Having raised his effective force to about one hundred and thirty thousand men, and learning that Lee's army was weakened by detachments to perhaps half that number, Hooker, near the end of the month, prepared and executed a bold movement which for a while was attended with encouraging progress. Sending General Sedgwick with three army corps to make a strong demonstration and crossing below Fredericksburg, Hooker with his remaining four corps made a somewhat long and circuitous march by which he crossed both the Rappahannock and the Rapidan above [369] the town without serious opposition, and on the evening of April 30 had his four corps at Chancellorsville, south of the Rappahannock, from whence he could advance against the rear of the enemy. But his advantage of position was neutralized by the difficulties of the ground. He was in the dense and tangled forest known as the Wilderness, and the decision and energy of his brilliant and successful advance were suddenly succeeded by a spirit of hesitation and delay in which the evident and acknowledged chances of victory were gradually lost. The enemy found time to rally from his surprise and astonishment, to gather a strong line of defense, and finally, to organize a counter flank movement under Stonewall Jackson, which fell upon the rear of the Union right and created a panic in the Eleventh Corps. Sedgwick's force had crossed below and taken Fredericksburg; but the divided Union army could not effect a junction; and the fighting from May I to May 4 finally ended by the withdrawal of both sections of the Union army north of the Rappahannock. The losses suffered by the Union and the Confederate forces were about equal, but the prestige of another brilliant victory fell to General Lee, seriously balanced, however, by the death of Stonewall Jackson, who was accidentally killed by the fire of his own men.

    In addition to his evident very unusual diminution of vigor and will, Hooker had received a personal injury on the third, which for some hours rendered him incapable of command; and he said in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War:

    When I returned from Chancellorsville I felt that I had fought no battle; in fact, I had more men than I could use, and I fought no general battle for the reason that I could not get my men in position to do so; [370] probably not more than three or three and a half corps on the right were engaged in the fight.

    Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville had not been so great a disaster as that of Burnside at Fredericksburg; and while his influence was greatly impaired, his usefulness did not immediately cease. The President and the Secretary of War still had faith in him. The average opinion of his qualities has been tersely expressed by one of his critics, who wrote: “As an inferior he planned badly and fought well; as a chief he planned well and fought badly.” The course of war soon changed, so that he was obliged to follow rather than permitted to lead the developments of a new campaign.

    The brilliant victories gained by Lee inspired the Confederate authorities and leaders with a greatly exaggerated hope of the ultimate success of the rebellion. It was during the summer of 1863 that the Confederate armies reached, perhaps, their highest numerical strength and greatest degree of efficiency. Both the long dreamed of possibility of achieving Southern independence, and the newly flushed military ardor of officers and men, elated by what seemed to them an unbroken record of successes on the Virginia battlefields, moved General Lee to the bold hazard of a second invasion of the North. Early in June, Hooker gave it as his opinion that Lee intended to move against Washington, and asked whether in that case he should attack the Confederate rear. To this Lincoln answered on the fifth of that month:

    In case you find Lee coming to the north of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the south of it. If he should leave a rear force at Fredericksburg, tempting you to fall upon it, it would fight in intrenchments and have you at disadvantage, and so, man for man, worst you at that point, while his main [371] force would in some way be getting an advantage of you northward. In one word, I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.

    Five days later, Hooker, having become convinced that a large part of Lee's army was in motion toward the Shenandoah valley, proposed the daring plan of a quick and direct march to capture Richmond. But the President immediately telegraphed him a convincing objection:

    If left to me, I would not go south of the Rappahannock upon Lee's moving north of it. If you had Richmond invested to-day, you would not be able to take it in twenty days; meanwhile, your communications, and with them your army, would be ruined. I think Lee's army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. If he comes toward the upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your lines while he lengthens his. Fight him, too, when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him and fret him.

    The movement northward of Lee's army, effectually masked for some days by frequent cavalry skirmishes, now became evident to the Washington authorities. On June 14, Lincoln telegraphed Hooker:

    So far as we can make out here, the enemy have Milroy surrounded at Winchester, and Tyler at Martinsburg. If they could hold out a few days, could you help them? If the head of Lee's army is at Martinsburg, and the tail of it on the plank road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?

    While Lee, without halting, crossed the Potomac [372] above Harper's Ferry, and continued his northward march into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Hooker prudently followed on the “inside track” as Mr. Lincoln had suggested, interposing the Union army effectually to guard Washington and Baltimore. But at this point a long-standing irritation and jealousy between Hooker and Halleck became so acute that on the general-in-chief's refusing a comparatively minor request, Hooker asked to be relieved from command. The President, deeming divided counsel at so critical a juncture more hazardous than a change of command, took Hooker at his word, and appointed General George G. Meade as his successor.

    Meade had, since Chancellorsville, been as caustic a critic of Hooker as Hooker was of Burnside at and after Fredericksburg. But all spirit of insubordination vanished in the exciting stress of a pursuing campaign, and the new and retiring leaders of the Army of the Potomac exchanged compliments in General Orders with high chivalric courtesy, while the army continued its northward march with undiminished ardor and unbroken step. When Meade crossed the Pennsylvania line, Lee was already far ahead, threatening Harrisburg. The Confederate invasion spread terror and loss among farms and villages, and created almost a panic in the great cities. Under the President's call for one hundred thousand six months militia, six of the adjoining States were sending hurried and improvised forces to the banks of the Susquehanna, under the command of General Couch. Lee, finding that stream too well guarded; turned his course directly east, which, with Meade marching to the north, brought the opposing armies into inevitable contact and collision at the town of Gettysburg.

    Meade had both expected and carefully prepared [373] to receive the attack and fight a defensive battle on the line of Pipe Creek. But when, on the afternoon of July I, 8163, the advance detachments of each army met and engaged in a fierce conflict for the possession of the town, Meade, on learning the nature of the fight, and the situation of the ground, instantly decided to accept it, and ordering forward his whole force, made it tile principal and most decisive battle-field of the whole war.

    The Union troops made a violent and stubborn effort to hold the town of Gettysburg; but the early Confederate arrivals, taking position in a half-circle on the west, north, and east, drove them through and out of it. The seeming reverse proved an advantage. Half a mile to the south it enabled the Union detachments to seize and establish themselves on Cemetery Ridge and Hill. This, with several rocky elevations, and a crest of boulders making a curve to the east at the northern end, was in itself almost a natural fortress, and with the intrenchments thrown up by the expert veterans, soon became nearly impregnable. Beyond a wide valley to the west, and parallel with it, lay Seminary Ridge, on which the Confederate army established itself with equal rapidity. Lee had also hoped to fight a defensive battle; but thus suddenly arrested in his eastward march in a hostile country, could not afford to stand still and wait.

    On the morning of July 2, both commanding generals were in the field. After careful studies and consultations, Lee ordered an attack on both the extreme right and extreme left of the Union position, meeting some success in the former, but a complete repulse in the latter. That night, Meade's council of war, coinciding with his own judgment, resolved to stand and fight it out; while Lee, against the advice of Longstreet, [374] his ablest general, with equal decision determined to risk the chance of a final and determined attack.

    It was Meade who began the conflict at dawn on the morning of July 3, but only long enough to retake and hold the intrenchments on his extreme right, which he had lost the evening before; then for some hours an ominous lull and silence fell over the whole battle-field. But these were hours of stern preparation. At midday a furious cannonade began from one hundred and thirty Confederate guns on Seminary Ridge, which was answered with promptness and spirit by about seventy Union guns from the crests and among the boulders of Cemetery Ridge; and the deafening roar of artillery lasted for about an hour, at the end of which time the Union guns ceased firing and were allowed to cool, and to be made ready to meet the assault that was sure to come. There followed a period of waiting almost painful to officers and men, in its intense expectancy; and then across the broad, undulating, and highly cultivated valley swept the long attacking line of seventeen thousand rebel infantry, the very flower of the Confederate army. But it was a hopeless charge. Thinned, almost mowed down by the grape-shot of the Union batteries and the deadly aim of the Union riflemen behind their rocks and intrenchments, the Confederate assault wavered, hesitated, struggled on, and finally melted away before the destructive fire. A few rebel battle-flags reached the crest, only, however, to fall, and their bearers and supporters to be made prisoners. The Confederate dream of taking Philadelphia and dictating peace and separation in Independence Hall was over forever.

    It is doubtful whether Lee immediately realized the full measure of his defeat, or Meade the magnitude of [375] his victory. The terrible losses of the battle of Gettysburg-over three thousand killed, fourteen thousand wounded, and five thousand captured or missing of the Union army; and twenty-six hundred killed, twelve thousand wounded, and five thousand missing of the Confederates-largely occupied the thoughts and labors of both sides during the national holiday which followed. It was a surprise to Meade that on the morning of July 5 the Confederate army had disappeared, retreating as rapidly as might be to the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry. Unable immediately to cross because the Potomac was swollen by heavy rains, and Meade having followed and arrived in Lee's front on July 10, President Lincoln had the liveliest hopes that Meade would again attack and capture or destroy the Confederate army. Generous praise for his victory, and repeated and urgent suggestions to renew his attack and end the rebellion, had gone to Meade from the President and General Halleck. But Meade hesitated, and his council of war objected; and on the night of July 13 Lee recrossed the Potomac in retreat. When he heard the news, Mr. Lincoln sat down and wrote a letter of criticism and disappointment which reflects the intensity of his feeling at the escape of Lee:

    The case, summarily stated, is this: You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg, and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated, and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg, while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit, and yet you stood and let the [376] flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.... Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect [that] you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

    Clearly as Mr. Lincoln had sketched and deeply as he felt Meade's fault of omission, so quick was the President's spirit of forgiveness, and so thankful was he for the measure of success which had been gained, that he never signed or sent the letter.

    Two memorable events are forever linked with the Gettysburg victory: the surrender of Vicksburg to Grant on the same fourth of July, described in the next chapter, and the dedication of the Gettysburg battle-field as a national cemetery for Union soldiers, on November 19, 1863, on which occasion President Lincoln crowned that imposing ceremonial with an address of such literary force, brevity, and beauty, that critics have assigned it a high rank among the world's historic orations. He said:

    Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing [377] whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate-we cannot consecrate-we cannot hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    Having safely crossed the Potomac, the Confederate army continued its retreat without halting to the familiar camps in central Virginia it had so long and valiantly defended. Meade followed with alert but prudent vigilance, but did not again find such chances as he lost on the fourth of July, or while the swollen waters of the Potomac held his enemy as in a trap. During the ensuing autumn months there went on between the opposing generals an unceasing game of strategy, a succession of moves and counter-moves in which the opposing commanders handled their great armies with [378] the same consumate skill with which the expert fencing-master uses his foil, but in which neither could break through the other's guard. Repeated minor encounters took place which, in other wars, would have rated as heavy battles; but the weeks lengthened into months without decisive results, and when the opposing armies finally went into winter quarters in December, 1863, they again confronted each other across the Rapidan in Virginia, not very far south of where they lay in the winter of 1861.

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