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Defence of Petersburg.1

Address of Capt. W. Gordon McCabe (formerly Adjutant of Pegram's battalion of artillery, A. N. V.) before the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, November 1, 1876. [published by request of the Association.]

Comrades of the Army of Northern Virginia:
I am here in obedience to your orders and give you a soldier's greeting.

It has fallen to me, at your behest, to attempt the story of a defence more masterly in happy reaches of generalship than that of Sebastopol, and not less memorable than that of Zaragoza in a constancy which rose superior to accumulating disaster, and a stern valor ever reckoned highest by the enemy.

It is a great task, nor do I take shame to myself that I am not equal to it, for, speaking soberly, it is a story so fraught with true though mournful glory — a story so high and noble in its persistent lesson of how great things may be wrested by human skill and valor from the malice of Fortune — that even a Thucydides or a Napier might suffer his nervous pencil to droop, lost, perchance, in wonder at the surprising issues which genius, with matchless spring, extorted time and again from cruel odds, or stirred too deeply for utterance by that which ever kindles the hearts of brave men — the spectacle of human endurance meeting with unshaken front the very stroke of Fate.

And if intensity of sorrowful admiration might not unnaturally paralyze the hand of the historian, who should undertake to transmit to posterity a truthful record of the unequal contest, what mortal among men could stand forth undismayed, when bidden to trace even the outlines of the story in presence of the survivors of that [258] incomparable army, the followers of that matchless leader — veterans, to whom it has been given to see its every episode emblazoned in crimson letters by the very God of Battles.

And yet it is because of this presence, that I stand here not unwillingly to-night — for when I look down upon these bronzed and bearded faces, I cannot but remember that we have shared together the rough delights, the toils, the dangers of field of battle, and march and bivouac, and feel sure of indulgence in advance from those who are knit to even the humblest comrade by a companionship born of common devotion to that Cause which is yet “strong with the strength” of Truth, and “immortal with the immortality” of Right — born of such common devotion, nurtured in the fire of battle, strengthened and sanctified by a common reverence for the valiant souls who have fallen on sleep.

It is not mine, comrades, to dazzle you with the tricks of rhetoric, nor charm your ear with smooth flowing periods; but even were such mastery given to me, it would scarce befit my theme — for we have now to trace the history of the army to which we belonged, not in its full blaze of triumph, as when it wrote Richmond and Chancellorsville upon its standards, but in those last eventful days when its strength was well nigh “too slender to support the weight of victory” ; we have now to mark the conduct of its leader, not as when, the favored child of Mars, the clangor of his trumpets from the heights of Fredericksburg haughtily challenged the admiration of astonished nations, but in that severer glory which shines round about him as he stands at bay, girt with a handful of devoted soldiery, staying the arm of Fate with an incredible vigor of action and a consummate mastery of his art, and, still unsubdued in mind, delivers his last battle as fiercely as his first.

And in the prosecution of the task confided to me — in my attempts to reconcile the conflicting testimony of eye-witnesses, in sifting hostile reports, and in testing by official data the statements of writers who have essayed the story of this final campaign — although at times it has seemed well-nigh a hopeless labor, and more than once recalled the scene in Sterne's inimitable masterpiece, in which Mr. Shandy, taking My Uncle Toby kindly by the hand, cries out, “Believe me, dear brother Toby, these military operations of yours are far above your strength,” yet, remembering the spirited reply of My Uncle Toby, “What care I, brother, so it be for the good of the nation,” --even so have I been upheld, reflecting that if it should be my good fortune to restore to its true light and bearing [259] even one of the many actions of this vigorous campaign, which may have been heretofore misrepresented through ignorance or through passion, it would be counted as a service, however humble, to that army, whose just renown can never be too jealously guarded by the men who were steadfast to their colors.

That I should attempt a critical examination of that defence in detail, is manifestly impossible within the limits of an address, when it is remembered that, south of the Appomattox alone, thirteen pitched fights were delivered outside the works, beside numberless “affairs” on the part of the cavalry and small bodies of infantry, while each day was attended by a number of minor events, which, taken separately, appear to be of little historical importance, but, when combined, exerted no mean influence on the conduct of the campaign.

Nor, on the other hand, has the time yet come, in the opinion of many officers of sound and sober judment, for that larger treatment of my theme which would necessitate an impartial examination of the measure to which the military operations were shaped by considerations of a political character — in other words, the time has not yet come when one may use the fearless frankness of Napier, who justly reckons it the crowing proof of the genius of Wellington, that while resisting with gigantic vigor the fierceness of the French, he had at the same time to “sustain the weakness of three inefficient cabinets.”

I propose, therefore, to notice some of the leading events of the campaign in its unity, which will indicate the general conception of the defence of Petersburg, animated by no other feeling towards the many brave men and officers of the Army of the Potomac than one of hearty admiration for their courage and endurance, desirous, above all, that truth, so far as we can attain it now, shall be spoken with soldierly bluntness, and error be not perpetuated.

And at the very outset, it is not only pertinent, but essential to a proper appreciation of the conduct of affairs, that we should consider the morale of the two armies as they prepared to move into those vast lines of circumvallation and contravallation, destined to become more famous than Torres Vedras or those drawn by the genius of Turenne in the great wars of the Palatinate. The more so, that the most distinguished of Lee's foreign critics has declared that from the moment Grant sat down before the lines of Richmond, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia saw that the [260] inevitable blow “might be delayed, but could not be averted.” 2 Other writers, with mawkish affectation of humanity, little allied to sound military judgment, have gone still further, and asserted that the struggle had assumed a phase so hopeless, that Lee should have used the vantage of his great position and stopped the further effusion of blood. Let us, the survivors of the Army of Northern Virginia, authoritatively declare in reply, that such was not the temper of our leader nor the temper of his men.

It would, indeed, have been an amazing conclusion for either army or general to have reached as the lesson of the

Campaign from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.

Grant had carried into the Wilderness a well-officered and thoroughly-equipped army of 141,000 men, to which Lee had opposed a bare 50,000.3 Despite these odds, Lee had four times forced his antagonist to change that line of operations on which he emphatically declared he “proposed to fight it out if it took all summer.” He had sent him reeling and dripping with blood from the jungles of the Wilderness, though foiled himself of decisive victory by a capricious fortune, which struck down his trusted lieutenant in the very act of dealing the blow, which his chief, in a true inspiration of genius, had swiftly determined to deliver; barring the way again with fierce and wary caution, after a grim wrestle of twelve days and twelve nights, he had marked the glad alacrity with which the general, who but a few weeks before had interrupted the prudent Meade with the remark, “Oh, I never manoeuvre,” now turned his back on the blood-stained thickets of Spotsylvania, and by “manoeuvring towards his left” 4 sought the passage of the North Anna — seeking it only to find, after crossing the right and left wings of his army, that his wary antagonist, who, unlike himself, did not disdain to manoeuvre, had, by a rare tactical movement, inserted a wedge of gray tipped with steel, riving his army in sunder, forcing him to recross the river, and for the third time abandon his line of attack. Then it was that the Federal commander, urged, mayhap, to the venture by the needs of a great political party, whose silent [261] clamors for substantial victory smote more sharply on his inner ear than did the piteous wail which rose from countless Northern homes for the 45,000 brave men whose bodies lay putrefying in the tangled Golgotha from Rapidan to North Anna — urged by these clamors, or else goaded into unreasoning fury by the patient readiness of his adversary, ordered up 16,000 of Butler's men from south of the James, and at break of day on June the 3d assaulted Lee's entire front — resolute to burst through the slender, adamantine barrier, which alone stayed the mighty tide of conquest, that threatened to roll onward until it mingled with the waves of Western victory, which were even then roaring through the passes of Alatoona — resolute, yet, like Lord Angelo, “slipping grossly,” through “heat of blood and lack of tempered judgment,” for the slender barrier yielded not, but when subsided the dreadful flood, which for a few brief moments had foamed in crimson fury round the embattled slopes of Cold Harbor, there was left him but the wreck of a noble army, which in sullen despair refused longer to obey his orders.5

Confidence of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Such was the retrospect of this thirty days campaign to Lee, as he sat in his simple tent pitched upon the very ground, whence, but two years before, with positions reversed, he had driven McClellan in rout and disaster to the James; and though Lee the man was modest, he was but mortal, and Lee the soldier could but be conscious of his own genius, and having proved the matchless temper of the blade, which Providence, or Destiny, or call it what you will, had placed within his hands, we may be sure that his heart was stirred with high hopes of his country's deliverance, and that through these hopes his pliant genius was inspired to discern in each new difficulty but fresh device. And his veterans of confirmed hardihood, watching the gracious serenity of that noble face, conscious of the same warlike virtues whch made him dear to them, caught up and reflected this confidence, remembering that he had declared to them in general orders after Spotsylvania: “It is in your power, under God, to defeat the last effort of the enemy, establish the independence of your native land, and earn the lasting love and gratitude of your countrymen and the admiration of mankind.” 6

And to an army intelligent as it was resolute, there was surely [262] much to confirm this confidence, outside enthusiastic trust in the resources of their leader.

The sobering consciousness of instant peril had quickened their discernment, and the patient watchers in the swamps of Chickahominy, no longer deluded by the ignis fatuus of foreign intervention, hopes of which had been kindled anew in the Capital by the fiery speech of the Marquis of Clanricarde, regarded only, but with eager exultation, the signs in camp and country of the enemy. Mr. Seward's thirty days draft on victory, though given to a superb army for collection, and endorsed by the credulity of the nation, had gone to protest, and Mr. Lincoln now signified his intention of calling for 500,000 additional men to enforce its payment.7

No censorship of the press could restrain the clamorous discontent which burst forth North and West at this proposed call for half a million more men, and


that unfailing barometer of the hopes and fears, the joy and despair, of a purely commercial people, indicated clearly enough the gloomy forebodings of the nation. Every tick of the second-hand on the dial registered an additional $35 to the national debt, or $2,100 per minute, $126,000 an hour, $3,024,000 a day. Ragged veterans, leaning on the blackened guns in the trenches, reading the newspapers just passed across the picket lines — men who had left their ledgers and knew the mysteries of money — marked, while their faces puckered with shrewd wrinkles of successful trade, the course of the precious mercury. When Grant crossed the Rapidan, gold had gone down with a rush from 1.89 to 1.70,8 and though from the Wilderness on, Mr. Stanton--who was Napoleonic in his bulletins, if in nothing else — persistently chronicled success whenever battle was joined, gold rose with a like persistency after each announcement — a signal example of cynical unbelief in a truly good and great man.

True, for a few days after Cold Harbor, the telegraph wires became mysteriously “out of working order,” “owing,” as he candidly confesses to General Dix in New York, “to violent storms on the Peninsula,” but the dreadful story gradually leaked out, and gold gave a frantic bound to 2.03, to 2.30--before the end of the month [263] to 2.52--while Congress in a flurry passed a silly “gold bill,” and the New York Herald shrieked out curses against “Rebel sympathizers in Wall street” --as if Wall Street ever sympathized with anything save the Almighty Dollar.

Of the temper of the enemy, I myself do not presume to speak, but there are not lacking indications that General Grant's theory of action, which he summed up in the phrase “to hammer continuously,” had become somewhat modified by experience, and that, at this time, his new evangel of “attrition” found but few zealous disciples in the Army of the Potomac.

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