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Chapter 19

General Grant listened with manifest interest to the report which I brought of the situation at Atlanta, and of Sherman's feelings and intentions, and asked many questions as to the condition of the great army of the West. I found that during my absence the general-in-chief had paid a visit to Sheridan. He had started from City Point on the 15th of September, had passed through Washington without stopping, and had gone directly to Charlestown, where Sheridan then had his headquarters. He went from there to Burlington, New Jersey, where it was arranged to place his children at school, and returned to City Point on the 19th. He spoke with much pleasure and satisfaction of his visit to Sheridan, and said: “I was so anxious not to have the movement made in the Valley unless I felt assured of its success that I thought I would go and have a talk with Sheridan before giving a decided answer as to what should be done. I had written out a plan of campaign for his guidance, and did not stop at Washington for the reason that I thought there might be a disposition there to modify it and make it less aggressive. I [297] [298] first asked Sheridan if he had a plan of his own, and if so, what it was. He brought out his maps, and laid out a plan so complete, and spoke so confidently about his ability to whip the enemy in his front, that I did not take my plan out of my pocket, but let him go ahead. I also decided not to remain with him during the movement, which was to begin in a day or two, for fear it might be thought that I was trying to share in a success which I wished to belong solely to him.”

In speaking of his visit to the Middle Military Division, General Grant said: “I ordered Sheridan to move out and whip Early.” An officer present ventured the remark: “I presume the actual form of the order was to move out and attack him.” “No,” answered the general; “I mean just what I say: I gave the order to whip him.”

Sheridan advanced promptly on September 19, and struck Early's army at Winchester, where he gained a signal victory, capturing five guns and nine battle-flags. He pursued the enemy the next day as far as Fisher's Hill, and on the 22d attacked him again in front and flank, carried his earthworks at every point, captured sixteen guns and eleven hundred prisoners, put him to flight, and completed his destruction. This left Sheridan in possession of the valley of Virginia. He had obeyed to the letter his orders to whip Early.

General Grant sent cordial congratulations to the victorious commander, and ordered a salute of one hundred guns in honor of each of his victories. No events had created more rejoicing in the mind of the general-in-chief than these brilliant triumphs of Sheridan. The general had taken the sole responsibility of bringing Sheridan East and placing him in command of a separate, important army, amid the doubts of some of the principal officials at Washington, and these victories on the part of the young commander were an entire vindication [299] of Grant's judgment. The spirits of the loyal people of the North were beginning to droop, and the disloyal element had become still more aggressive, and such victories just at this time were of inestimable value.

During Grant's visit to Sheridan the enemy's cavalry had made a bold dash round the left of Meade's line, and captured over two thousand head of cattle. One evening after Grant's return, at the close of a conversation upon this subject, a citizen from Washington, who was stopping at City Point, inquired of him, “When do you expect to starve out Lee and capture Richmond” “Never,” replied the general, significantly, “if our armies continue to supply him with beef-cattle.”

The general-in-chief was still planning to keep the enemy actively engaged in his own immediate front, so as to prevent him from detaching troops against distant commanders. He telegraphed Sherman September 26: “I will give them another shake here before the end of the week.” On the 27th he sent a despatch to Sheridan, saying: “. . . No troops have passed through Richmond to reinforce Early. I shall make a break here on the 29th.” All these despatches were of course sent in cipher. Definite instructions were issued on the 27th for the “break” which was in contemplation. Birney's and Ord's corps of Butler's army were to cross on the night of September 28 to the north side of the James River at Deep Bottom, and attack the enemy's forces there. If they succeeded in breaking through his lines they were to make a dash for Richmond. While the general did not expect to capture the city by this movement, he tried to provide for every emergency, thinking that if the enemy's line should be found weak, there would be a bare chance, after having once broken through, of creating a panic in Richmond, and getting inside of its inner works. [300]

Ord and Birney moved out promptly before daylight on September 29. General Grant left a portion of his staff at City Point to communicate with him and Meade, and rode out, taking the rest of us with him, to Butler's front. Ord moved directly against Fort Harrison, a strong earthwork occupying a commanding position, carried it by assault, captured fifteen guns and several hundred prisoners, and secured possession of an entire line of intrenchments. Everything promised further success, when Ord was wounded so severely in the leg that he had to leave the field, and proper advantage was not taken of the important success which had been gained. Birney moved with his colored troops against the line of intrenchments on the New Market road, promptly carried it, and drove the enemy back in great confusion. General Grant was with Birney's command in the early part of the day. His youngest son, Jesse, had obtained permission that morning to go up the river on the boat which carried his father, and had taken along his black Shetland pony called “Little Reb.” The boy was then only a little over six years old, and was dressed in kilts, probably in honor of his Scotch ancestors. When the party reached the north side of the river, and mounted and rode out to the front, Jesse got on “Little Reb” and followed along. His father was so busy in supervising the movement that he did not notice the boy until he got under fire, when, on looking around, he saw his enterprising heir moving about as coolly as any of the others of the group, while the shots were striking the earth and stirring up the dust in every direction. “What's that youngster doing there?” cried the general, manifesting no little anxiety; and turning to the junior aide, added, “Dunn, I wish you would take him to the rear, and put him where he will be safe.” But Jesse had too much of his sire's blood in his veins to [301] yield a prompt compliance, and at first demurred. Dunn, however, took hold of “Little Reb's” bridle, and started him on a gallop toward the river; and the boy, much to his mortification, had to beat an ignominious retreat. Dunn was more troubled than any one else over this masterly retrograde movement, for he was afraid that the troops who saw him breaking for the rear under fire might think that he had suddenly set too high a value on his life, and was looking out for a safe place.

After the capture of the works by Birney's troops, the general-in-chief rode over to Fort Harrison to push matters in that direction. He was greatly gratified at the handsome manner in which the fort had been carried, and the pluck which had been shown by the troops. The fort was an inclosed work, and formed a salient upon the enemy's line. There were batteries in its rear, however, which still commanded it. The general rode up to a point near the ditch, and there dismounted, and made his way into the work on foot. The ground gave ample evidence of the effects of the assault, and was so torn with shot and shell and covered with killed and wounded in some places that the general had to pick his way in stepping over the dead bodies that lay in his path. He turned his looks upward to avoid as much as possible the ghastly sight, and the expression of profound grief impressed upon his features told, as usual, of the effect produced upon him by the sad spectacle. Upon entering the fort, he climbed up and looked over the parapet on the north side, and remained there for some time, viewing the surrounding works and taking a look at Richmond, while the enemy's batteries continued to shell us. This was the nearest view of the city he had yet obtained, and the church spires could be indistinctly seen. He made up his mind that both corps should move forward promptly, and sat down on the [302] ground, tucked his legs under him, and wrote the following despatch to Birney, dating it 10:35 A. M.: “General Ord has carried the very strong works and some fifteen pieces of artillery, and his corps is now ready to advance in conjunction with you. General Ord was wounded, and has returned to his headquarters, leaving General Heckman in command of the corps. Push forward on the road I left you on.” The enemy's projectiles were still flying in our direction, and when the general had reached the middle of the despatch a shell burst directly over him. Those standing about instinctively ducked their heads, but he paid no attention to the occurrence, and did not pause in his writing, or even look up. The handwriting of the despatch when finished did not bear the slightest evidence of the uncomfortable circumstances under which it was indited.

General Butler had ridden up to the fort, his face flushed with excitement; and in an interview which followed with General Grant, the commander of the Army of the James grew enthusiastic in lauding the bravery of the colored troops, who had carried so handsomely the work which Birney had assaulted that morning.

General Grant had not heard from Meade since early in the morning, and feeling somewhat anxious, he now made his way out of the fort, mounted his horse, and rode over to Deep Bottom, at which point he could communicate by a field telegraph-line with the commander of the Army of the Potomac. About half-past 1 o'clock the general received a telegram at Deep Bottom from the President, saying: “I hope it will lay no constraint on you, nor do harm any way, for me to say I am a little afraid lest Lee sends reinforcements to Early, and thus enables him to turn upon Sheridan.” It will be seen that the President did not pretend to thrust military advice upon his commander, but only modestly [303] suggested his views. The general replied immediately: “Your despatch just received. I am taking steps to prevent Lee sending reinforcements to Early, by attacking him here” ; and closed with an account of the successes of the morning.

But little further progress was made during the day north of the James. General Grant remained on the north side of the river until after 4 P. M., and then returned to City Point so as to be within easy communication with Meade, and to determine what should be done the next day. It was long after midnight before any one at headquarters went to bed, and then only to catch a nap of a couple of hours. General Grant set out again for Deep Bottom at five o'clock the next morning; and after consulting with Butler, and finding everything quiet on the part of the enemy, he decided that no movement should be made on that front at present, and returned to City Point, starting back at 8 A. M.

The activity this day was on Meade's front. His troops moved out two miles west of the Weldon Railroad, and captured two redoubts, a line of rifle-pits, a gun, and over one hundred prisoners. Three times that afternoon the enemy made vigorous efforts to recover the works which had been captured by Butler's army the day before, for they commanded the shortest road to Richmond. So important was the movement deemed for their recapture that Lee was present in person with the troops who made the attack. Every assault, however, was handsomely repulsed. Meade threw up a strong line of intrenchments from the Weldon Railroad to the advanced position which he had captured, and his left was now only about two miles from the South Side Railroad.

In these movements no little advantage had been gained. The ability to carry strong works had encouraged the troops, and the circle had been closed in still [304] further upon Lee, both on our right and left, and the effect upon the enemy was shown by the consternation and excitement which prevailed in Richmond. From refugees, scouts, and other sources of information it was learned that there was a feeling prevailing among the inhabitants that the city would very soon have to be abandoned. Provost-marshal's guards seized all available citizens, young and old, and impressed them into the service, whether sick or well-government clerks, and even the police, being put in line in Butler's front. All business was suspended, as there was no one left to attend to it; publication of the newspapers was interrupted; shops were closed; and alarm-bells were rung from all the churches.

In the mean time the enemy was having no rest in the Shenandoah Valley. On the 9th of October, Sheridan's cavalry, under Torbert, had an engagement with the enemy's cavalry, which it completely routed, capturing eleven guns and a number of wagons, and taking over three hundred prisoners. Our loss did not exceed sixty men. The enemy was pursued about twenty-six miles.

In the forenoon of October 16 a steamer arrived from Washington, having aboard the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton; the new Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Fessenden, who had succeeded Chase; and several of their friends. They came at once to headquarters, were warmly received by General Grant, and during their short stay of two days were profuse in their expressions of congratulation to the general upon the progress he had made with his armies. They wanted to see as much as they could of the positions occupied by our forces, and the general proposed that they should visit the Army of the James that afternoon, and offered to accompany them. He telegraphed Butler to this effect, and the party started up the river by boat. I was invited to [305] join the excursion, and was much interested in the conversations which occurred. Stanton did most of the talking. He began by saying: “In getting away from my desk, and being able to enjoy the outdoor air, I feel like a boy out of school. I have found much relief in my office from the use of a high desk, at which I at times stand up and sign papers. It has been said that the best definition of rest is change of occupation, and even a change of attitude is a great rest to those who have to work at desks.”

He then gave a graphic description of the anxieties which had been experienced for some months at Washington on account of the boldness of the disloyal element in the North and the emissaries sent there from the South. Sheridan's name was mentioned in terms of compliment. General Grant said: “Yes; Sheridan is an improvement upon some of his predecessors in the valley of Virginia. They demonstrated the truth of the military principle that a commander can generally retreat successfully from almost any position — if he only starts in time.” Stanton laughed heartily at the general's way of putting it, and remarked: “But in all retreats I am told that there is another principle to be observed: a man must not look back. I think it was Caesar who said to an officer in his army who had retreated repeatedly, but who afterward appeared before his commander and pointed with pride to a wound on his cheek: ‘Ah! I see you are wounded in the face; you should not have looked back.’ ” At Aiken's Landing General Butler joined the party, and pointed out the objects of interest along his lines. Mr. Stanton then spoke with much earnestness of the patient labors and patriotic course of the President. There had been rumors of disagreements and unpleasant scenes at times between the distinguished Secretary of War and his chief; but there evidently was [306] little, if any, foundation for such reports, and certainly upon this occasion the Secretary manifested a genuine personal affection for Mr. Lincoln, and an admiration for his character which amounted to positive reverence.

Mr. Stanton wore spectacles, and had a habit of removing them from time to time when he was talking earnestly, and wiping the glasses with his handkerchief. His style of speech was deliberate, but his manner at times grew animated, and he presented a personality which could not fail to interest and impress all who came in contact with the great Carnot of our war.

The next morning, after breakfast, the Secretary's party went by the military railroad to our lines about Petersburg, where they had pleasant interviews with Meade, Hancock, Warren, and Parke, and returned in the afternoon to City Point. After some further consultation with General Grant about the military situation, particularly in the valley of Virginia, the Secretary, with his friends, started back to Washington.

Sheridan had been ordered to Washington to consult with the authorities there; and as no immediate attack on the part of the enemy was expected, he started for that city on October 16. Early, however, had concentrated all the troops that could be brought to his assistance, and was determined to make a desperate effort to retrieve the defeats which he had suffered in the Valley. Sheridan arrived in Washington on the 17th, and started back to his command at noon of that day. The next day he reached Winchester, which was twenty miles from his command, and remained there that night.

At three o'clock on the afternoon of October 20 General Grant was sitting at his table in his tent, writing letters. Several members of the staff who were at headquarters at the time were seated in front of the tent discussing some anticipated movements. The telegraph operator came across the camp-ground hurriedly, stepped [307] into the general's quarters, and handed him a despatch. He read it over, and then came to the front of the tent, put on a very grave look, and said to the members of the staff: “I'll read you a despatch I have just received from Sheridan.” We were all eager to hear the news, for we felt that the telegram was of importance. The general began to read the despatch in a very solemn tone. It was dated 10 p. M. the night before: “ ‘ I have the honor to report that my army at Cedar Creek was attacked this morning before daylight, and my left was turned and driven in confusion; in fact, most of the line was driven in confusion, with the loss of twenty pieces of artillery. I hastened from Winchester, where I was on my return from Washington, and joined the army between Middletown and Newtown, having been driven back about four miles.’ ” Here the general looked up, shook his head solemnly, and said, “That's pretty bad, is n't it?” A melancholy chorus replied, “It's too bad, too bad!” “Now just wait till I read you the rest of it,” added the general, with a perceptible twinkle in his eye. He then went on, reading more rapidly: “ ‘ I here took the affair in hand, and quickly united the corps, formed a compact line of battle just in time to repulse an attack of the enemy's, which was handsomely done at about 1 P. M. At 3 P. M., after some changes of the cavalry from the left to the right flank, I attacked with great vigor, driving and routing the enemy, capturing, according to last reports, forty-three pieces of artillery and very many prisoners. I do not yet know the number of my casualties or the losses of the enemy. Wagon-trains, ambulances, and caissons in large numbers are in our possession. They also burned some of their trains. General Ramseur is a prisoner in our hands, severely, and perhaps mortally, wounded. I have to regret the loss of General Bidwell, killed, and Generals Wright, Grover, and Ricketts, wounded-Wright [308] slightly wounded. Affairs at times looked badly, but by the gallantry of our brave officers and men disaster has been converted into a splendid victory. Darkness again intervened to shut off greater results. . . . ’ ” By this time the listeners had rallied from their dejection, and were beside themselves with delight. The general seemed to enjoy the bombshell he had thrown among the staff almost as much as the news of Sheridan's signal victory. In these after years, when this victory is recorded among the most brilliant battles of the war, and “Sheridan's ride” has been made famous in song and story, one cannot help recalling the modesty with which he spoke of his headlong gallop to join his command, and snatch victory from defeat. He dismissed it with the sentence: “I hastened from Winchester, where I was on my return from Washington, and joined the army. .. .” Further news brought the details of the crushing blow he had struck the enemy. General Grant, in referring to the matter at headquarters, commented at great length upon the triumph which Sheridan had achieved, and the genius he had displayed. He telegraphed to Washington: “Turning what bid fair to be a disaster into a glorious victory stamps Sheridan what I have always thought him-one of the ablest of generals” ; and said in conversation: “Sheridan's courageous words and brilliant deeds encourage his commanders as much as they inspire his subordinates. While he has a magnetic influence possessed by few other men in an engagement, and is seen to best advantage in battle, he does as much beforehand to contribute to victory as any living commander. His plans are always well matured, and in every movement he strikes with a definite purpose in view. No man would be better fitted to command all the armies in the field.” He ordered one hundred guns to be fired in honor of Sheridan's decisive victory.

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