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Chapter 22: from Cold Harbor to evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg

  • Grant's change of base
  • -- Petersburg Proves to be his immediate objective -- Lee just in time to prevent the capture of the city -- our battalion stationed first in the Petersburg lines, then between the James and the Appomattox -- the writer commissioned Major of artillery and ordered to Chaffin's Bluff -- the battalion there greatly demoralized -- Measures adopted to tone it up -- rapid downward trend of the Confederacy -- “a kid of the Goats” gives a lesson in pluck.

The repulse at Cold Harbor marked a crisis in the campaign. If Richmond was to continue to be Grant's immediate objective, there was but one thing for him to do, and that was to fight, to renew his attack upon Lee's lines. He was as close to Richmond as he could get by the old process of sliding southward and eastward. Every foot of further progress in that direction would be progress away from the goal. He must decide, then, between another effort to force his men to the imminent deadly breach and the abandonment of Richmond as his immediate objective. It took him nine days to decide, and then he folded his tents, like the Arabs, and silently stole away-at night, the night of June 12th.

He was just in time. It was not Lee's habit to give his adversary the choice of moves, especially if he took long to choose. He seldom abandoned the initiative — that is where at all practicable for him to retain it. He had only seemed to abandon it this time. It would have been, even for him, an astounding piece of audacity, with his worn and wasted little army, to march out from his intrenchments and attack Grant's overwhelming numbers, yet he had determined to do this very thing. On page 37 of his address, so often quoted, General Early says: [308]

Notwithstanding the disparity which existed, he was anxious, as I know, to avail himself of every opportunity to strike an offensive blow; and just as Grant was preparing to move across James River, with his defeated and dispirited army, General Lee was maturing his plans for taking the offensive; and in stating his desire for me to take the initiative with the corps I then commanded, he said: “We must destroy this army of Grant's before he gets to James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

It was the startling intelligence of Hunter's operations in the Valley which prevented the contemplated movement against Grant. It became necessary to detach, first Breckenridge, and then Early, to meet this new peril threatening Lee's communications. As Early's corps was to have led the attack, and because it was worse than hopeless to attack at all with his army thus seriously reduced, Lee was compelled to abandon his cherished plan, and Grant retired unmolested from Lee's front on the very night that Early received his orders to move at three o'clock next morning for the Valley; so close and critical was the sequence of events in these later days of the struggle.

When we waked on the morning of the 13th and found no enemy in our front we realized that a new element had entered into this move — the element of uncertainty. Thus far, during the campaign, whenever the enemy was missing, we knew where, that is, in what direction and upon what line, to look for him; he was certainly making for a point between us and Richmond. Not so now-even Marse Robert, who knew everything knowable, did not appear to know what his old enemy proposed to do or where he would be most likely to find him.

I remember I went across to the Federal works and was surprised to see what a short distance they were from ours, and how enormous and elaborate they looked in comparison. I have been all over the opposing lines at Cold Harbor since the war,--so far as they remain undisturbed,--and this latter impression has been confirmed and strengthened. At some points it really seems as if the Federal army had anticipated attack from every point, except the skies, and fortified against them all. [309]

I have little or no recollection of our search for Grant, except that there was nothing about it calculated to make an impression — that it seemed rather a slow, stupid affair. Of course we crossed the Chickahominy, and then we worked down toward Malvern Hill. I am not even sure, however, whether we left the vicinity of Cold Harbor on the 13th or waited a day or two in that neighborhood. We did not cross the James River, I think, until the night of the 17th; but from that time everything seemed to have waked up, and though we saw no enemy, yet we knew where he was, and that Petersburg was his immediate objective and not Richmond, nor any point on James River.

We made a rapid all-night march, which was a very trying one, on account of the heat and the heavy dust which covered everything and everybody and rendered breathing all but impossible. We stopped an hour or so to rest the horses-we did not so much regard the men-and arrived in Petersburg in the early morning, our division and our battalion being among the first of Lee's troops to arrive. We were just in time to prevent Burnside from making an assault, which would probably have given him the city. General Beauregard had made admirable use of the scant force at his command and had successfully repulsed all previous attacks, but he did not have a garrison at all adequate to resist the countless thousands of Grant's main army, which had now begun to arrive, and which seems to have been deterred from the assault by the knowledge of our arrival.

The whole population of the city appeared to be in the streets and thoroughly alive to the narrow escape they had made. Though we had done nothing save to come right along, after we found out where to come, they seemed to be overflowing with gratitude to us. Ladies, old and young, met us at their front gates with hearty welcome, cool water, and delicious viands, and did not at all shrink from grasping our rough and dirty hands. There is nothing more inspiring to a soldier than to pass through the streets of a city he is helping to defend, and to be greeted as a deliverer by its women and children. He would be a spiritless wretch [310] indeed who could not be a hero after passing through a scene like this. Grant's men did not seem to yearn for close contact with us immediately after such an experience, and they did wisely to defer that pleasure.

We were not at once placed upon the lines, and some of us witnessed scenes yet more intense when a command passed through the streets which had in it what was left of several companies originally recruited in Petersburg. Every now and then along the line of march some squalid, tattered fellow, with dust-begrimed and sweat-stained face, would dart out of the column, run up the steps to the pillared porch of a fine old mansion arid fling his arms about some lovely, silver-haired matron, and fairly smother her with kisses; she fervently returning his embrace, and following him with her blessing as he hurried to catch up with the command and resume his place in the ranks.

My recollection is that we were placed in the works about noon and remained only a few hours, never firing a shot nor seeing an enemy; and then followed an experience unparalleled since — we left Leesburg in the spring of 1862. Our guns were withdrawn late in the night and we passed back through Petersburg, recrossed the Appomattox River, and were stationed on the lines, between that and the James, near the Dunn house, the Howitzers quartered in the house; and there the battalion remained from say the 20th of June, 1864, until the 2d of April, 1865, without ever so much as firing a shot or being fired at by an enemy, except that I have an indistinct recollection of our taking a rifled gun, I think of Manly's battery, a little in advance and to the left of our regular position, and taking a shot or two at the astronomer or observer in General Butler's tower. This was really a little hard on that gentleman, as I am confident he never did us any harm; but then I am equally confident we did not do him any. On the contrary, we gave him a little respite from his high and exalted position and his exhausting observations.

I said the experience was unparalleled. I refer of course to our being placed in such a safe and easy position. Both the preceding winters we had passed upon the advanced picket [311] line of the army-while most of the artillery was quartered on the railroad in comfortable winter camps. We were not responsible for being now, as it were, “mustered out of service;” yet we could not repress a vague feeling that, somehow, we were not doing our full duty. Especially was this feeling intensified when, a few months later, Mahone's division, which had been manning a very trying part of the Petersburg lines, was brought over between the Appomattox and the James to relieve Pickett's, which was sent north of the James. We thought we had before seen men with the marks of hard service upon them; but the appearance of this division of Mahone's, and particularly of Finnegan's Florida brigade, with which we happened to be most closely associated, made us realize, for the first time, what our comrades in the hottest Petersburg lines were undergoing. We were shocked at the condition, the complexion, the expression of the men, and of the officers, too, even the field officers; indeed we could scarcely realize that the unwashed, uncombed, unfed and almost unclad creatures we saw were officers oi rank and reputation in the Army It was a great pleasure, too, to note these gallant fellows, looking up and coming out, under the vastly improved conditions in which they found themselves.

Sometime, I think in December, 1864,--strange as it may appear, I am not certain of the date — I was promoted to be major of artillery, and ordered on duty with the battalion of heavy artillery at Chaffin's Bluff, on the north side of the James River, about ten or twelve miles below Richmond, and about a mile below Drewry's Bluff, which was on the south side. There were batteries of heavy guns on the shore at both these points, the battalions manning them being also armed with muskets, and our iron-clads were anchored in the river about and between the two land batteries. These iron-clads were manned by a body of marines and seamen under command of Admiral Tucker. At the close of the campaign proper of 1864 all the troops manning the defenses of Richmond who were not strictly of the Army of Northern Virginia were under command of Lieutenant-General Ewell, who was in charge of the Department of Richmond. The [312] heavy artillery battalions on the river — the Chaffin's Bluff battalion among them-and the local troops manning the parts of the line adjacent thereto constituted the division of Gen. Custis Lee, eldest son of Gen. Robert E. Lee, a man of the highest character and an officer of the finest culture and a very high order of ability. He did not have a fair opportunity during the war, President Davis, of whose staff he was a member, refusing to permit him to go to the field, though he plead earnestly to do so. He was a most sensitive and modest gentleman, and would have rejoiced to command even a regiment in his father's army. After he was sent to the field, in the modified way in which he was sent near the close of the war, he more than once told me that every time he met one of his father's veteran fighting colonels he felt compromised at having the stars and wreath of a major-general on his collar.

When I first went to Chaffin's, Colonel Hardaway, of the Field Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia, was in command, but, as I remember, he left very soon. Some time before the end, Major Gibbes, who had served with our battalion (Cabell's) during a part of the campaign of 1864, was sent there, and of course ranked me; but for a considerable time I was in command of the post and of the battalion, and of course was greatly interested in becoming thoroughly acquainted with my duties and my men.

They were splendid soldiers in external appearance and bearing. I had never seen anything approximating to them in the field. Their dress-parades, inspections, reports, salutes, bearing in the presence of officers and on guard were wonderfully regular, accurate, and according to the drill and regulations. The mint, anise, and cumin were most scrupulously tithed; but the weightier matters of the soldier lawpatriotism, devotion, loyalty, fidelity, courage, endurance,how as to these? Perhaps the first day I was in command the sergeant-major and acting-adjutant brought me his report, which I looked over and found very satisfactoryuntil I came to the added foot-note, that a first lieutenant and several non-commissioned officers and men had “disappeared” the preceding day while on a “wood detail” down the river. [313]

I recalled the adjutant and asked him what that entry meant. He seemed surprised and did not answer promptly. Changing the form of the question, I asked if it was possible it meant what it seemed to mean, and he replied that it did. I made him sit down and tell me all he knew of the matter, in the course of the conversation sending for his book of reports and examining them for some time back. I saw no entry quite so shocking as the report of the day, but found that entries of like character were not infrequent; that every few days these details were sent down the river to get wood and were in the habit of meeting emissaries sent by the enemy for the purpose, who offered them every inducement to desert; that these inducements were embodied also in printed circulars, one of which was shown me. I was horrified, and in the course of the next day or two made a careful investigation into the character and condition of the command, the result of which was anything but satisfactory.

I hardly knew what to do, but through the acting-adjutant, who turned out to be an excellent fellow and a trustworthy, useful, and promising officer, I was enabled to secure a conference of the best officers of the battalion, and in a long interview to secure their confidence and co-operation, and we set to work together to change the condition of things. I ingratiated myself, too, with the men by doing away with a number of petty orders and regulations which were annoying and burdensome, and instituting in their place a few which were really important. Among other things I, of course, did away with this down-the-river wooddetail.

It is not worth while to particularize further. Suffice it to say, I endeavored to impress upon the men three things: first, that I already knew a great deal about them and expected and intended to know them thoroughly; second, that I was in command of them and expected and intended to be obeyed implicitly; and third, that I was their friend and expected and intended to do the very best I could for them in every way. I will only add that I was deeply stirred, and put my whole heart and soul into the matter and into my [314] men, and that my efforts ultimately effected more than I had even dared to hope; particularly in the line of securing the respect and confidence and friendly regard of the men. The greatest difficulty was encountered in the fact that not a few of the officers were utterly worthless, and I determined to get rid of these, but as to this was compelled to move slowly.

One other measure adopted certainly ought to be mentioned. There were a good many Christian men in the command, but they seemed to have little or no social or public religious life. I had these assembled for special, informal conference with the commanding officer. I talked with them, in a general way, about the condition of the command, and asked their interest and assistance in doing everything possible to improve it and tone it up, and gave notice that I would myself, whenever it was practicable, conduct a simple religious service on Sunday evenings in our log church, to which all were invited, but none would be compelled to attend. I believe this little service conduced as much as any other means or measure to such success as attended my efforts.

I had but two difficulties with the men. One was a simple, though aggravated, case of open disrespect to some announcement or order having to do with the new order of things, and which was read at dress-parade. This I punished on the spot, and severely, and we never had any repetition of it. The other was a more complicated and troublesome affair.

The weather was very cold, and after I put a stop to the wood-detail down the river, the men began cutting some of the standing timber upon and back of the bluff; but orders were sent me by competent authority forbidding this, and these orders were duly read at dress-parade and also posted. I did the best I could to provide wood, but the supply was inadequate, and the men really suffered. I explained how much I regretted the situation and added that I fared and should fare no better than they. I was compelled, of course, to have fire in the adjutant's office, where writing must be done; but I should have none in my house except when they had it in their houses, and no more wood than [315] they had, and I urged the observance of the regulation against cutting wood on the bluff, to which special importance seemed to be attached by the authorities.

The men were resentful and rebellious about this regulation against felling trees. My order stopping the river wooddetail was the obvious consequence of the disgraceful action of their comrades, and that they did not seem to resent. But, one cold night, soon after my special utterance about the preservation of the timber, while lying awake in bedvery likely from cold — I heard the regular blows of two axes upon a tree. I got up, dressed, and armed myself, and made my way through the snow, guided by the sound, until I was close upon two men who were chopping at a large tree which was about toppling to its fall. I waited until it did fall and then came suddenly upon them; They started to run, but I ordered them to halt, impressing the order with my revolver, and adding that I knew them both. I reminded them that they could not possibly plead ignorance of the order and asked how they thought I ought to punish them, to which, of course, they made no response. I then expressed deep sympathy with them; adding that, though it would break up discipline to allow sympathy with suffering to excuse flagrant violation of orders, yet as it was the first offense, and they were so entirely in my power, and seemed to admit the truth and force of all I had said, I had determined to take no further notice of the matter. They thanked me profusely and were about to return to their quarters, but I ordered them to remain and cut up the tree for use; but that, of course, it should be divided among the command or distributed by the quartermaster with his other wood. I exacted from them a promise not only not to fell any more trees themselves, but to do all in their power to put a stop to tree-cutting by others. The two men told this story around the battalion, with considerable amplification and adornment. It seemed to make an unexpectedly strong and favorable impression and was one of the definite things that aided the accomplishment of my intense desire to get hold of my men.

Of course I greatly missed my old life, and especially its congenial and often charming companionship. This life [316] was comparatively solitary, but it was after all a life of greater power, a life that meant more, and I was becoming deeply absorbed in it. I felt more and more what a tremendous thing it was to have almost absolute power over men and to be in a position where I could well nigh mould them to my will. Billy came over to see me after I had gotten pretty well under way in my work, and seemed thoroughly to agree with me about it; though it was shocking to him to be brought into contact with soldiers of such a stamp and standard as I have described.

Colonel Hardaway's old battalion was composed of as fine material as any in General Lee's army, and I did not wonder that he preferred to return to it. Just before or just after we abandoned our lines, General Alexander requested that both Major Gibbes and myself should be sent to him, one to serve in Hardaway's battalion and one in Haskell's. But Gen. Custis Lee, commanding our division, declined to give up both of us, and as Gibbes ranked me, he had the choice and went to Hardaway, while I remained with my Chaffin's Bluff battalion, not only in command, but the only field officer connected with it.

I recall but one incident of these lines worth relating. After the loss of Fort Harrison in September, 1864, our picket line was retired and the enemy's advanced, in front of the fort; but nearer the river we still held our old line, and upon it a wooded knoll which commanded a full view of the enemy's main line, and so was very important to us and our tenure of it correspondingly annoying to them. The Federal lines at this point were manned by negro troops.

One evening, sitting on the knoll and looking toward Fort Harrison, several hundred yards distant, I observed the negro picket near the intersection of our old picket line and theirs, walking his beat upon our line, instead of theirs, and so coming directly toward me. Then he took his return beat toward the fort, but when he came again he extended his beat further in my direction, and another followed him. So the next time there were three of them upon our line, and I divined their purpose, which was by moral pressure, as it were, to crowd us back from the knoll. [317]

I had only two men with me; but I dispatched one to General Custis Lee, with a brief note of explanation, asking that fifty men be sent me immediately. Meanwhile I mounted my remaining man on our old picket line, faced toward Fort Harrison, and ordered him to walk rapidly — I walking at his side-just inside the little curtain of earth.

When the negroes saw us coming they turned back and I could see the one nearest us was trembling as he heard our steps approaching. When we came close upon him he turned, his face actually ashy, and holding his gun in both hands horizontally, he obtruded it towards us, at the same time backing away and saying:

“‘Tain't my fault. Officer ob de day tell me to come up dis way.”

Noticing this revelation, but not remarking upon it, I picked up a billet of wood and laid it across the top of the little work, between my man and the negro, saying, “If that negro steps across that piece of wood, shoot him; and if he steps off the line, on either side, shoot him.”

This broke up the little scheme. The negroes retired beyond the intersection of the lines and I never saw one of them pass it again.

During the seven months from September, 1864, to March, 1865, inclusive, no intelligent man could fail to note the trend and progress of events. The defeat of Hood, the fall of Atlanta, the unfortunate expedition into Tennessee, the march of Sherman southward through Georgia to the ocean, his march northward through the Carolinas to Goldsboro, the fall of Savannah, of Charleston, of Wilmington-all these and other defeats, losses, and calamities had left to the Confederacy little save its Capital and the narrow strips of country bordering on the three railroads that fed it. Of course I was-we all were-thoroughly aware of this, and yet, though it may be difficult now to realize it, we did not even approximate the failure of heart or of hope. One of our dreams was that Lee, having the inner line, might draw away from Grant, concentrate with Johnston, and crush Sherman, and then, turning, the two might crush Grant. Yet we relied not so much on any special plans or hopes, [318] but rather upon the inherently imperishable cause, the inherently unconquerable man. Fresh disaster each day did not affect our confidence. We were quite ready to admit, indeed we had already contemplated and discounted anything and everything this side of the ultimate disaster; but that-never!

This was emphatically my position. I well remember that after the evacuation and on the retreat,--indeed but one day before Sailor's Creek,--I left the line of march for an hour to see my mother, who was refugeeing in Amelia County, at the country home of a prominent gentleman of Richmond, beyond military age, who, when he saw me, exclaimed:

Ah, Bob, my dear boy; it is all over!

“Over, sir?” said I, with the greatest sincerity; “over? Why, sir, it has just begun. We are now where a good many of us have for a good while longed to be: Richmond gone, nothing to take care of, foot loose and, thank God, out of those miserable lines! Now we may be able to get what we have longed for for months, a fair fight in an open field. Let them come on, if they are ready for this, and the sooner the better.”

One very inclement day in the early spring of 1865 I was leaving Richmond, about four or five o'clock in the evening, for the long, dreary, comfortless ride to Chaffin's Bluff. I cannot recall ever having been so greatly depressed. I passed Dr. Hoge's church and noticed the silent women in black streaming, with bowed heads, from all points, toward the sanctuary, and longed intently to enter with them; but I could not, as it would detain me too long from my post. Every face was pale and sad, but resolute and prayerful; while every window in the church-nay, every one in the doomed city — was shuddering with the deep boom of artillery.

I passed on down Main street and, where the terraced Libby Hill Park now is, then a rough, unsightly place, I observed a little kid cutting some unusual capers on the brink of a precipitous bluff. He was evidently trying to force himself to make the perilous leap to the street below, but shrank from the test. Two or three times he trotted back a little [319] from the brow, and ran forward, but he would swerve upon the very brink, and then would stand, first upon his hind legs and then his fore, and shake his pretty head, and bleat and b-a-a. At last he went back further, and coming on at prodigious speed, tried as before to stop himself on the edge, but failed, and passing clear of the brow and of all obstacles and projections, he did light, sure enough, in the level street, and though a little shaken up, yet seemed to feel that he had done a big thing and that all his troubles were behind him.

The game little fellow curvetted and danced and pranced around the very feet of my horse, seeming to strive to arrest my attention and to say to me: “Do you not see — the jumping-off place is not the end of all things? Never say die! If you must leave your present position and jump off, do it like a man and make the best of it. The end is not yet.”

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