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Chapter 50: Virginia campaign, 1864.

General Grant's theory of war was, “to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy, until, by mere attrition, there should be nothing left.”

Military genius, the arts of war, the skilful handling of troops, superior strategy, the devotion of an army, the noble self-denial of commanders, all must give way before the natural forces of “continuous hammering” by an army with unlimited reinforcements, and an inexhaustible treasury, a well-filled commissariat, and all directed by an unanimous people.

The work of the Federal War Department was based on the need for an army of a million of men. Vast stores were accumulated. Congress, with reckless prodigality, continued to pass the most extravagant appropriations for organizing armies, and for maintaining the countless forces which constituted an army of invasion so vast, that it was hoped it would be invincible.

Grant took command on March 17, 1864. [488] The Army of the Potomac, now massed on the Rapidan, numbered 141,160 men. General Lee, to oppose this vast army, had 50,--403 muskets. The cavalry divisions were weak, neither of them being stronger than a good brigade. His artillery was not as heavy, nor was his ammunition as good in quality, as that of the enemy. Lee's entire effective strength did not exceed 64,000 men of all arms, at the opening of the spring campaign of 1864.

On May 4th General Grant began his march.

It was doubtless expected that Lee would retreat before this vast army, but he, on the contrary, gave Grant such a blow in the Wilderness that he was compelled to halt and deliver battle.

For two days the contest raged, and only ceased from mutual exhaustion. It was during this battle that a notable event occurred:

Heth and Wilcox, who had expected to be relieved, and were not prepared for the enemy's assault, were overpowered and compelled to retire, just as the advance of Longstreet's column reached the ground. The defeated divisions were in considerable disorder, and the condition of affairs was exceedingly critical. General Lee fully appreciated the impending crisis, and, dashing [489] amid the fugitives, called upon the men to rally. General Longstreet, taking in the situation at a glance, immediately caused his divisions to be deployed in line of battle, and advanced to recover the lost ground.1

Lee, with his hat in his hand, spurred his gray charger “Traveller” to the front of his lines to lead them in person to the charge, but the soldiers cried out with one voice: “Go back, General Lee.” “Go back, Uncle Robert.” “To the rear, General, to the rear, and we'll fix everything all right,” and one tall Texan stepped to his horse's side, and taking hold of the bridle, turned him around and led him to the rear, while the men, aroused to enthusiastic frenzy, gave vent to loud yells, pushed the enemy before them, and re-established the Confederate lines.

Longstreet having the enemy much shaken, now received the necessary orders to pursue; but at the moment when a turning movement was being executed, and a complete success was crowning his efforts, he and the officers with him were mistaken, by a flanking party of his own troops, for the enemy, and fired into. General Longstreet was seriously wounded, and General Jenkins, who was [490] riding by his side, fell dead. The forward movement was checked, and the enemy were enabled to rally their forces and reform behind their intrenchments.

Grant's next move was to gain possession of Spottsylvania Court House, but Lee comprehended his purpose and moved off in the night. The heads of the opposing columns arrived almost at the same time at their destination. Both armies then intrenched.

On the 12th, the enemy made a heavy assault on Ewell's front and broke through, but were driven out with great loss. The onslaught was a complete surprise. A redoubt on Ewell's front was stormed at the point of the bayonet, nearly three thousand Confederates were taken prisoners, and eighteen pieces of artillery fell into the hands of the enemy.

General Lee, attributing this success to the want of vigilance or courage of his men, instantly rode to the head of a Texas regiment. Waving his hat in the air, he prepared to lead it forward. Spurring rapidly to his side, General Gordon seized hold of his horse's rein, and exclaimed, “This, General Lee, is no place for you; these are men who never failed you yet, and who will not fail now.”

With unanimous voice the soldiers around them refused to advance, unless General Lee [491] went to the rear, then charging with Gordon leading, the salient was recaptured.2

Although General Grant's army was still so strong that, after covering the Confederate front with double lines of battle, he still had a sufficient force with which to outflank his adversary and compel him to make a countermove to prevent his getting between him and Richmond, he waited from the 13th to the 18th of May for reinforcements.

On the night of May 20th, General Grant again moved away in the direction of Hanover Junction. Here Lee again confronted him and offered battle, but Grant declined.

On May 26th he recrossed to the north side of the North Anna River and made a detour to the east. General Lee moved after him, and offered him battle again at Atlee's Station, and again it was declined. On June 3d, the two armies met on the blood-stained field of Cold Harbor. Here the Confederates threw up a light intrenchment of earth, which Grant assaulted all along the line. The assault was repulsed with extraordinary slaughter. In the short space of one hour 13,000 men were placed “hors de combat.” Grant ordered a second assault in the afternoon. [492] The men sullenly refused to advance.

After this battle General Grant gyrated toward the James River, below Richmond, crossed at City Point, and endeavored to surprise and capture Petersburg.

In this he was thwarted by Generals Beauregard and Wise, with the militia and homeguards. He then concentrated his army south of the Appomattox River and laid siege to the city.

During the campaign reinforcements reached General Lee to the extent of 14,400 men, making 78,400 as the aggregate of all troops engaged under him from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.

General Grant received 51,000 additional men during the same period, bringing his total up to 192, 60 men employed by him from the Rapidan to the James.

The Federal loss in the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor is put at “ above 60,000 men” by Mr. Swinton, in his “History of the army of the Potomac.” 3

The campaign of one month, from May 4th to June 4th, had cost the Federal commander 60,000 men and 3,000 officers, while [493] the loss of Lee did not exceed 18,000 men (of whom few were officers). The result would seem an unfavorable comment upon the choice of route made by General Grant. General McClellan, two years before, had reached Cold Harbor with trifling losses. To attain the same point had cost General Grant a frightful number of lives. Nor could it be said that he had any important success to offset this loss. He had not defeated his adversary in any of the battle-fields of the campaign, nor did it seem that he had stricken him any serious blow. The Army of Northern Virginia, not reinforced until it reached Hanover Junction, and then only by about 9,000 men, had repulsed every assault, and in the final trial of strength with a force vastly its superior, had inflicted upon the enemy, in about an hour, a loss of 13,000 men. 4

When the army drew closer to Richmond, Mr. Davis's visits to General Lee, which had been previously made as often as his executive labor permitted, were paid every day, and the spirits in which the President returned were dependent on the General's account of the progress of the enemy; his temper always became more cheerful as affairs looked darker. Mr. Davis had a childlike faith in [494] the providential care of the Just Cause by Almighty God, and a doubt of its righteousness never entered his mind. Often I have heard him in the night repeating to himself with fervor his favorite hymn,

I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

When things grew darkest, he said, We can conquer a peace against the world in arms, and keep the rights of freemen, if we are worthy of the privilege. If he had despaired of our cause he was too sincere to have spoken words of hope to the soldiers. After the army fell back to Petersburg, he looked forward to personally taking command in the West, and co-operating with General Lee in one great battle which he hoped would be decisive.

On one of the lonely rides he took to General Lee's, headquarters, a very young soldier joined him and went with him some distance on the road. At last the President asked him if he was not too far from camp, considering the close proximity of the enemy. Then the boy told him, with a sheepish look, “I joined you, sir, because you were so near them, and I thought you ought not to be alone. You ought to have aguard with you.” Mr. Davis noticed that he had on broken [495] shoes and proposed to change with him, but the cheerful young patriot laughed and said that was no matter, shook hands warmly, and saying, “Now I think you are safe beyond the enemy's scouts,” bade good-by.

Our soldiers fought for the love they bore to their country, but it was a desperate fight. They had to contend against far more dreadful foes than the Federal army. They fought cold, heat, starvation, and the knowledge that their families were enduring the same privations. One poor fellow from Johnson's Island, who was dying of the want endured there, sent for me and asked me to write to his wife of his last hours and give her his love. “I have a letter from my wife,” he said. “She walked my little girl, who was just a month old when I saw her last, up and down, up and down, and tried willow-tea, and every other remedy she could think of for the baby's chills; but the doctor said nothing but quinine could save her ; and Madam, my wife did not have that, so my three years old baby died, and now I am dying, and my poor, starving wife will have nothing to comfort her; but,” he panted out, “if our folks can quit freemen, it is all right.” This spirit of devotion was manifested by the soldiers and officers of the Confederacy everywhere, and when their hearts failed them from brooding [496] over the needs of their helpless families, the women choked back their tears, tried to forget their bare feet, their meagre fare, their thousand alarms by night, and all the grinding want that pressed them out of youth and life, and wrote of the cheer our victories gave them, of their prayers for success, and their power to endure unto the end.

One noteworthy example of the self-sacrifice of our soldiers is remembered by me with especial pride. On June 15 and 17, 1864, the women and children of Richmond had been suffering for food, and the Thirtieth Virginia sent them one day's rations of flour, pork, bacon, and veal, not from their abundance, but by going without the day's rations themselves. “Yet,” said a journal of that time, “despatches from General Lee show that nearly every regiment in his army has re-enlisted for the war.”

On April 30th, when we were threatened on every side, and encompassed so perfectly that we could only hope by a miracle to overcome our foes, Mr. Davis's health declined from loss of sleep so that he forgot to eat, and I resumed the practice of carrying him something at one o'clock. I left my children quite well, playing in my room, and had just uncovered my basket in his office, when a servant came for me. The most beautiful and brightest [497] of my children, Joseph Emory, had, in play, climbed over the connecting angle of a bannister and fallen to the brick pavement below. He died a few minutes after we reached his side. This child was Mr. Davis's hope, and greatest joy in life. At intervals, he ejaculated, “Not mine, oh, Lord, but thine.” A courier came with a despatch. He 400k it, held it open'for some moments, and looked at me fixedly, saying, “Did you tell me what was in it?” I saw his mind was momentarily paralyzed by the blow, but at last he tried to write an answer, and then called out, in a heart-broken tone, “I must have this day with my little child.” Somebody took the despatch to General Cooper and left us alone with our dead.

1 Taylor's Four Years with Lee.

2 In the Ordnance Museum, at Washington, is the stump of a large tree that had been cut down by bullets, so close and deadly was the musketry fire in the captured and recaptured salient.

3 Taylor's Four Years with Lee.

4 John Esten Cooke, in Eclectic Magazine, May, 1872.

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