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Chapter 24:

  • Favourable aspects of Confederate affairs after the battle of Chancellorsville.
  • -- alternative of campaigns in Richmond. -- Virginia and Tennessee. -- what decided the campaign into Pennsylvania. -- reorganization of the army of Northern Virginia. -- its grand preparations on the plains of Culpepper. -- Ewell's movement upon Winchester. -- his captures. -- order of Lee's march to the Potomac. -- Hooker out-generalled and blinded. -- Lee's march to Gettysburg, a master-piece of strategy. -- conduct of his troops in the enemy's territory. -- Gen. Lee abstains from “retaliation.” -- comment of the Richmond Examiner. -- Gen. Hooker relieved, and Meade put in command of the Federal army. -- alarm in the North. -- Meade marches towards Gettysburg. -- the battle of Gettysburg. -- a Confederate victory the first day. -- how it was not improved. -- a great errour. -- the critical heights of Gettysburg taken by the enemy. -- Cemetery Ridge. -- “Round Top.” -- the Confederate line of battle. -- why Gen. Lee determined to attack. -- action of the second day. -- Longstreet's desperate engagement. -- temporary possession of “Round Top.” -- successes on the Confederate left. -- action of the third day. -- an ominous silence. -- sudden and terrible cannonade. -- heroic charge of Pickett's division. -- sublime devotion of the Virginians. -- they take the key of the enemy's position. -- the shout of victory. -- Pettigrew's support fails. -- the day lost. -- Gen. Lee rallying his troops. -- his subsequent retreat to the Potomac. -- success of the retreat. -- he retires to the line of the Rapidan. -- Gettysburg the climacteric of the Southern Confederacy. -- history of the peace mission of Vice -- President Stephens as connected therewith. -- an ostensible letter of President Davis. -- how the mission was repulsed. -- the honourable position of the Confederate President

A single day before the fall of Vicksburg occurred, far away, what may be emphatically entitled the most important battle of the war. It was fought on the soil of Pennsylvania, on whose wheat-fields President Davis had declared, on the floor of the United States Senate in Washington, when war was first threatened, should be carried the contest for the rights of the South.

During the few weeks following the brilliant victory of Chancellorsville, never did affairs look so propitious for the Confederates. The safety of Vicksburg was not then seriously questioned; Bragg confronted Rosecrans [402] with a force strong enough to hold him at bay; and the Confederates had the choice of two campaigns: either to reinforce Bragg from Lee's army, over a distance that might be accomplished in ten days, with two lines of railroad as far as Chattanooga, or to change the defensive attitude in Virginia, and make a second experiment of the invasion of the North. The alternative of these campaigns was suggested in Richmond. The latter was decided upon. It was thought advisable to clear Virginia of the Federal forces, and put the war back upon the frontier; to relieve the Confederate commissariat; to counterbalance the continual retreat of the armies of Tennessee and Mississippi by an advance into Northern territory, offer a counterpoise to the movements of the enemy in the West, and possibly relieve the pressure there on the Confederate armies. These reasons determined an offensive campaign of Lee's army.

Gen. Longstreet was recalled from North Carolina; and the Army of Northern Virginia, preparatory to the campaign, was re-organized, and divided into three equal and distinct corps. To Gen. Longstreet was assigned the command of the first corps, consisting of the divisions of McLaw, Hood, and Pickett; to Gen. Ewell, who had succeeded to the command of Jackson's old corps, were assigned the divisions of Early, Rodes, and Johnson; and to Gen. A. P. Hill was the third corps given, consisting of the divisions of Anderson, Pender, and Heth. Each of these three corps numbered about 25,000 men, making the total strength of the army 75,000, irrespective of the cavalry.

On the plains near Culpepper were the preparations made for the grand campaign. It was the beautiful month of May. All was bustle and activity; the freshness of the air and the glow of expectation animated the busy scene. Trains were hurried up filled with munitions of war; new and splendid batteries of artillery were added to the army; the troops, as far as possible, were newly equipped, and ordnance trains were filled to their utmost capacity. The cavalry, 15,000 strong, were reviewed at Brandy Station; crowds of ladies attended the display; and Gen. Stuart, the gallant commander) whose only weakness was military foppery and an inordinate desire of female admiration, rode along the lines on a horse almost covered with bouquets. Nearly a week was consumed in reviewing cavalry, infantry, and artillery. By the first of June all was in readiness, and the advance was ordered.

Gen. Ewell's corps, in the lead, pushed rapidly forward, and marched across the Blue Ridge Mountains, by way of Front Royal, into the Shenandoah Valley upon Winchester. Here he surprised Gen. Milroy, defeated him; and it was with difficulty that the Federal general, with a few of his officers, escaped through the Confederate lines under cover of the night, and succeeded in crossing the Potomac at Harper's Ferry. Three thousand prisoners, thirty pieces of artillery, over one hundred wagons, and a [403] great quantity of stores were captured in and near Winchester, and seven hundred men surrendered to Gen. Rodes at Martinsburg. With this auspicious opening of the campaign, Ewell promptly moved up to the Potomac, where he occupied all the fords.

Longstreet's corps had been directed to march on Culpepper, his right flank guarded by detachments of Stuart's cavalry, which watched the fords of the Rappahannock, while A. P. Hill's corps remained near Fredericksburg, to deceive the enemy by an appearance of strength. These movements were not entirely unobserved by Gen. Hooker. I-e had reason to suppose that some of the Confederate forces had been withdrawn from his front; and accordingly, on the 5th of June, a strong reconnoissance was sent across the river on Lee's right. But the skilful Confederate commander, who was now performing a great master-piece of strategy, succeeded in masking his real strength, and leading Hooker to suppose that his entire army was still in the neighbourhood of Fredericksburg. On the 7th June another reconnoissance was directed, and an expedition of cavalry, which had crossed the Rappahannock at Beverly's and Kelly's Fords, attacked Gen. Stuart at Brandy Station. This force of the enemy was routed by Stuart, and forced to recross the river, after having lost four hundred prisoners and three pieces of artillery. Although this later reconnoissance developed to a certain extent the direction of Gen. Lee's march, Hooker was too dull to comprehend its importance, and, never dreaming of any movement into the Northern territory beyond perhaps a raid for commissary purposes, contented himself with making a disposition of his forces to cover Washington, and taking up a strong position between Manassas and Centreville, so as to interpose his army between the Confederate forces and what he supposed to be the object of their campaign.

Lee marched rapidly forward in pursuance of his plans. He had played with the enemy so as to mislead him entirely. Hooker followed Lee to the passes of the Blue Ridge, but was so uncertain whether he meant to give battle there, or move up the Valley, that time was lost, and instead of bringing the point to an issue at once in Virginia, the Federal commander had to hastily cross the Potomac, and take position in Maryland. Lee crossed the Potomac in the vicinity of Shepherdstown, on the 24th of June. The corps of Ewell had preceded him two days before, and on the 23d had occupied Chambersburg. On the 27th of June the whole of Lee's army was at Chambersburg. An advance on Harrisburg had been contemplated; but the design was abandoned on the 29th, in consequence of the information that the Federal army was moving northwards, and so menacing the communication of the Confederate army with the Potomac. To check the enemy's advance, therefore, Gens. Longstreet, Hill, and Ewell were ordered to proceed to Gettysburg. Thus within twenty days the great Confederate commander had brought his entire army from Fredericksburg, [404] by the way of the Shenandoah Valley to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, without obstruction, and executed a wonderful feat of strategy. It is true that other commanders in the war had made longer marches and accomplished more magnificent distances. But to estimate properly the generalship of Lee, it must be remembered that when he set out on this expedition, he was confronted by one of the largest and best appointed armies the enemy ever had in the field; that Winchester, Martinsburg, Harper's Ferry, and Berryville were garrisoned by hostile forces; that the Federal cavalry were in splendid condition; and yet in the face of all these facts, he had marched along the Rappahannock, over the passes of the Blue Ridge, up the Shenandoah Valley, and across the fords of the Potomac into Pennsylvania, without his progress being arrested.

When the Confederate army obtained a footing on the soil of Pennsylvania, there were many people who supposed that as here there was no friendly disposition of the invaded, no reputation of political sympathy, as in Maryland, to interpose between them and the penalties of war, the troops would be prompt to exact a severe retribution for the cruelties of the enemy displayed in the desolated homes and fields of the South. But no such thing occurred; no such expectation was answered. On the contrary, no sooner had Gen. Lee crossed the line than he announced that private property would be respected, and proceeded, by general orders, to restrain all excesses of his troops, and, in fact, to give to the invaded people of Pennsylvania a protection which even those of the South had not always had against the impressments and other exactions of the war. No house was entered without authority; no granary was pillaged; no property was taken without payment on the spot; and vast fields of grains were actually picketed by Confederate guards, mounted on almost starved horses.

So far as these orders of Gen. Lee maintained the discipline and morals of his troops, prevented them from degenerating into ruffians, and declined retaliation of this sort, they were generally sustained by the public opinion of his countrymen, for exasperated as they were by what they had experienced of the enemy's barbarities in their own homes, the Southern people were so proud of their reputation for chivalry, and plumed themselves so much on this account, that they were willing to sacrifice for it almost any other passion of the war. But there was an obvious distinction in this matter, and the Richmond Examiner indicated it in a striking and powerful censure of Gen. Lee's course. It was said that only a few persons in the South recommended retaliation in kind; that it was not advised that houses should be burned, or robbed, jewelry stolen, and women raped in Pennsylvania, in exact imitation of the acts of Northern troops in Virginia and Mississippi; but that such guard on the discipline and honour of Confederate soldiers was not inconsistent with a devastation of the [405] enemy's country, done with the deliberation of general orders, and by the army acting in line of battle; and that such retribution, while it could have brought no historical discredit on the Confederate arms, was due the suffering people of the South, was necessary to teach the enemy a lesson, and indicated a kind of operation which, removed from the enemy's own barbarity, would equally avoid that weak warfare which irritated instead of alarming an invaded people, and thus strengthened their forces and obtained recruits for them on their own soil. Gen. Lee appears never to have comprehended this argument. We shall see hereafter in what coin his civilities in Pennsylvania were paid back, and how, notwithstanding the constant exertions of the Confederates, for what President Davis termed the reputation of “Christian warriours,” the ingenious falsehoods of an enemy, himself constantly in the commission of the worst atrocities, entitled them the worst of savages, and turned upon them the phrase of “rebel barbarities.” But surely one reflection here cannot escape the world. It is the extreme improbability of such “barbarity” on the part of a people who, in the third year of the war, exhibited this magnanimity in Pennsylvania, and even in the character of an invading army, declined to take advantage of some of the most ordinary penalties of war.

On the 28th of June, Gen. Hooker, at his own request, was relieved from the command of the Federal army, and Gen. Meade, whose antecedents were those of an efficient corps and division commander, was appointed to succeed him. A great alarm pervaded the North. The Governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and Western Virginia called out their militia forces. But these feverish displays were of little consequence. It was easily seen by the intelligent that the security of the North rested upon Meade's army, and on the strongly fortified lines of Washington, and that if this array was once broken, hastily levied militia could afford no protection against Lee's army, and that thus the war was about to culminate in a grand contest of regular arms. It was a sharp, fearful issue. Gen. Meade found himself in command of a splendid army of about one hundred and fifty thousand men. He comprehended the necessity of rapid and decisive action. Rapidly organizing his forces, he marched out to meet the Confederates. Making a disposition of his forces so as to cover both Washington and Baltimore at the same time, he moved forward cautiously until his advance reached Gettysburg. About one mile from the town, a line of entrenchments was thrown up on a range of hills, and a heavy force moved forward through and beyond the town to watch the movements of his adversary.


The battle of Gettysburg.

The great battle opened on the 1st July. The enemy's advance, consisting of the Eleventh Corps, was met by Heth's division, and shortly thereafter Ewell hurled the main body of his corps on the Federal column. When within one mile of the town, the Confederates made a desperate charge. The Federal line was broken; the enemy was driven in terrible confusion; the streets of the small town soon became thronged with fugitives; and Ewell, sweeping all before him, charged through the town, strewing every step of his progress with the enemy's dead, and taking five thousand prisoners. The crowded masses of fugitives poured through the town in rout and confusion, ascending the slopes of a hill towards a cemetery that covered its apex.

It was not later than five o'clock in the evening, but the success was not followed up. As Ewell and Hill prepared for a fresh attack, they were halted by Gen. Lee, who deemed it advisable to abstain from pressing his advantage until the arrival of the remainder of his army. The unfortunate inaction of a single evening and night enabled Meade not only, on his part, to bring up all his forces, but to post them on an almost impregnable line, which the Confederates had permitted a routed detachment of a few thousand men to occupy and hold.

The failure of Gen. Lee to follow up the victory of the 1st, enabled the enemy to take at leisure, and in full force, one of the strongest positions in any action of the war, and to turn the tables of the battle-field completely upon the Confederates. On the night of the 1st July, Gen. Meade, in person, reached the scene of action, and concentrated his entire army on those critical heights of Gettysburg, that had bounded the action of the first day, designated by the proper name of Cemetery Ridge. This ridge, which was just opposite the town, extended in a westerly and southerly direction, gradually diminishing in elevation till it came to a very prominent ridge, called “Round Top,” running east and west. The Confederates occupied an exteriour ridge, less elevated, distant from the lines occupied by the Federals from a mile to a mile and a half. On this sunken parallel was arranged the Confederate line of battle-Ewell's corps on the left, beginning at the town with Early's division, then Rodes' division; on the right of Rodes' division was the left of Hill's corps, commencing with Heth's, then Pender's and Anderson's divisions. On the right of Anderson's division was Longstreet's left, McLaw's division being next to Anderson's, and Hood on the extreme right of our line, which was opposite the eminence upon which the enemy's left rested.

There was long a persistent popular opinion in the South that Gen. Lee, [407] having failed to improve the advantage of the first day, did wrong thereafter to fight at Gettysburg. But this charge must be discussed with care. Gen. Lee, himself, has explained how a battle was forced upon him. He says: “It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such distance from our base, unless attacked by the enemy; but finding ourselves unexpectedly confronted by the Federal army, it became a matter of difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. At the same time the country was unfavourable for collecting supplies, while in the presence of the enemy's main body, as he was enabled to restrain our foraging parties by occupying the passes of the mountains with regular and local troops. A battle thus became, in a measure, unavoidable. Encouraged by the successful issue of the first day, and in view of the valuable results which would ensue from the defeat of the army of Gen. Meade, it was thought advisable to renew the attack.”

It is true that the position of the enemy was one of extraordinary strength. But the Army of Northern Virginia was in an extraordinary state of proficiency; it was flushed with victory; it had accomplished so many wonders in the past that it was supposed to be equal to anything short of a miracle; and when, on the morning of the 2d, Gen. Lee reconnoitred the field, and scanned the heights which looked upon him through brows of brass and iron, he was noticed to rise in his stirrups, and mutter an expression of confidence. He decided to attack.

The action of the 2d July did not commence until about two o'clock in the afternoon. Under cover of a heavy fire from the Confederate batteries, Longstreet advanced against the Federal left, and Ewell, from Gettysburg and Rocky Creek, moved forward Johnson's, Rodes', and Early's divisions against the right, his guns keeping up a continuous fire on the slopes of Cemetery Hill. Whilst the two corps on the flanks advanced to the attack, Anderson's division received orders to be prepared to support Longstreet, and Pender and Heth to act as a reserve, to be employed as circumstances might require.

Longstreet, having placed himself at the head of Hood's and McLaw's divisions, attacked with great fury. The first part of the enemy's line he struck was Sickles' corps, which he hurled back with terrible loss on the heights in its rear. The Confederates delivered their fire at short musket range, then charged up the steep ascent with the peculiar yell of the Southern soldier. Meade, seeing that the real attack was against his left, hurried reinforcements rapidly from his centre. For two hours the battle raged with sublime fury, and on the semi-circle of Round Top trembled the fiery diadem of victory and all the issues of the day. The fire was fearful and incessant; three hundred pieces of artillery belched forth death and destruction on every side; the tumultuous chorus made the earth tremble; and a dense pall of smoke fitly constituted a sulphurous canopy [408] for scenes of infernal horrour. Longstreet, with hat in hand, seemed to court the death which avoided him. At one moment it was thought the day was won. Three brigades of Anderson's division moved up, had made a critical attack, and Wilcox and Wright almost gained the ridge; but reinforcements reached the Federals; and, unsupported by the remainder of Anderson's division, Longstreet's men failed to gain the summit of the hill, or to drive back the enemy from the heights of the Round Top.

On the Confederate left, Ewell's success had been better. He had moved forward to the assault of Cemetery Hill; Johnson's division forced its way across the broken ground near Rocky Creek, sustaining considerable loss from the fire poured down upon it from the higher ground; Early's division advanced to storm the ridge above Gettysburg, and Rodes on the right moved forward in support. But the attack was not simultaneous. Hayes' and Hoke's brigades of Early's division, succeeded in capturing the first line of breastworks, but were driven back by the weight of numbers. Johnson, however, gained important ground, and when night fell, still retained hold of the position he had seized on the right bank of Rocky Creek.

The summary of the second day's action was that the Confederates had obtained some advantage; that the Round Top had, at least, been temporarily in their possession, showing that it was not impregnable; that on the left, important positions had been taken; and so the result was such as to lead Gen. Lee to believe that he would ultimately be able to dislodge the enemy, and to decide the Confederate commander upon a last, supreme effort for decisive victory.

The morning of the 3d July wore away with but little incident of conflict. On the extreme left, where Johnson occupied the right bank of Rocky Creek, there was some desultory action; but Gen. Lee did not attempt to assist this part of the line, hoping to retrieve whatever might occur there by a vigorous movement against the centre of the enemy's position. Early in the morning he ascended the College cupola in Gettysburg to reconnoitre. Pickett's division of three brigades, numbering less than five thousand men, which had been left to guard the rear, reached the field of Gettysburg on the morning of the 3d. This body of Virginia troops was now to play a part the most important in the contest, and on this summer day to make a mark in history, to survive as long as the language of glorious deeds is read in this world.

About noon there was a deep calm in the warm air. Gen. Lee determined to mass his artillery in front of Hill's corps, and under cover of this tremendous fire to direct the assault on the enemy's centre. To this end more than one hundred pieces of artillery were placed in position. On the opposite side of the valley might be perceived the gradual concentration of the enemy in the woods, the preparations for the mighty contest that [409] was at last to break the ominous silence with a sound of conflict such as was scarcely ever before heard on earth. It was a death-like silence. At 12. 30, P. M., the shrill sound of a Whitworth gun pierced the air. Instantly more than two hundred cannon belched forth their thunder at one time. It was absolutely appalling. An officer writes: “The air was hideous with most discordant noise. The very earth shook beneath our feet, and the hills and rocks seemed to reel like a drunken man. For one hour and a half this most terrific fire was continued, during which time the shrieking of shell, the crash of falling timber, the fragments of rocks flying through the air, shattered from the cliffs by solid shot, the heavy mutterings from the valley between the opposing armies, the splash of bursting shrapnell, and the fierce neighing of wounded artillery horses, made a picture terribly grand and sublime.”

Into this scene of death moved out the Confederate column of assault. Pickett's division proceeded to descend the slope of hills and to move across the open ground. The front was thickly covered with skirmishers; then followed Kemper's and Garnett's brigades, forming the first line, with Armistead in support. On the flanks were-Heth's division, commanded by Pettigrew, of Hill's corps, and Wilcox's brigade of McLaw's corps, the former on the left, the latter on the right of the Virginians. Pickett led the attack. The five thousand Virginians descended the hill with the precision and regularity of a parade. As they reached the Emmittsburg road, the Confederate guns, which had fired over their heads to cover the movement, ceased, and there stood exposed these devoted troops to the uninterrupted fire of the enemy's batteries, while the fringe of musketry fire along a stone wall marked the further boundary of death to which they marched. No halt, no waver. Through half a mile of shot and shell pressed on the devoted column. It was no sudden impetus of excitement that carried them through this terrible ordeal ; it was no thin storm of fire which a dash might penetrate and divide. In every inch of air was the wing of death. Against the breadth of each man's body reared the red crest of Destruction.

Steadily the Virginians press on. The name of Virginia was that day baptized in fire, and illuminated forever in the temple of History. There had been no such example of devotion in the war. Presently wild cries ring out; the smoke-masked troops are in the enemy's works; there is a hand-to-hand contest, and again and again the Confederate flag is lifted through the smoke over the shrinking columns of the enemy. Garnett is dead. Misted is mortally wounded. Kemper is shot down. Every brigadier of the division is killed or wounded. But Pickett is unscathed in the storm; his flashing sword has taken the key of the enemy's position, and points the path of the conflict through his broken columns; the glad shout of victory is already heard; and on the distant hill of observation, [410] where a little group of breathless spectators had watched the scene, Longstreet turns to Gen. Lee to congratulate him that the day is won.

Vain! vain! Overlooking the field, Gen. Lee saw that the troops of Pettigrew's division had wavered. Another moment, and they had fallen back in confusion, exposing Pickett's division to attack both from front and flank. The courage of Virginians could do no more. Overwhelmed, almost destitute of officers, and nearly surrounded, the magnificent troops of Pickett gave way. Slowly and steadily they yielded ground, and, under the heavy fire which the artillery poured into their broken ranks, they retraced their steps across the fatal valley.

Gen. Lee was never known to betray on any battle-field a sign, either of exultation or disappointment. As he witnessed the last grand effort of his men, and saw it fail, he was seen for a moment to place his finger thoughtfully between his lips. Presently he rode quietly in front of the woods, rallying and encouraging the broken troops, uttering words of cheer and encouragement. To a foreign military officer of rank, who had come to witness the battle, he said very simply: “This has been a sad day for us, Colonel — a sad day; but we can't expect always to gain victories.” There was no dramatic circumstance about him; no harangue; but nothing could be more affecting, nothing more sublime than to witness that when this plain gentleman rode through the throng of broken troops, saying such simple words as, “Never mind,” “We'll talk of this afterwards,” “Now we want all good men to rally,” every fugitive paused, and badly wounded men took off their hats to cheer him! The Army of Northern Virginia never knew such a thing as panic. It never needed a harangue to stir its blood on a battle-field. It never had a dramatic accessory to its courage. Lee's presence alone was inspiration, order, recovery. An English colonel, who rode by the side of the great Confederate commander, remarks: “Gen. Lee and his officers were evidently fully impressed with a sense of the situation; yet there was much less noise, fuss, or confusion of orders, than at any ordinary field-day; the men, as they were rallied in the wood, were brought up in detachments, and lay down quiet and coolly in the positions assigned to them.”

The enemy did not move from his works, and the new crisis for which Gen. Lee had so quietly prepared, did not come. Night fell over the third scene of bloodshed. The Confederate loss in this frightful series of engagements exceeded ten thousand men. Some of the details of this loss exhibit instances of desperate conflict which shock the heart. In Pickett's division, out of twenty-four regimental officers only two escaped unhurt. The Ninth Virginia went in two hundred and fifty strong, and came out with only thirty-eight men. In another part of the field the Eighth Georgia rivalled this ghastly record of glory. It went into battle with thirty-two officers, out of which twenty-four were killed or wounded. The Federal [411] loss in the engagement proper of Gettysburg is not known. Gen. Meade acknowledged to the total loss during the campaign of 23,186 killed, wounded, and missing. Nearly half of these are to be found in the total of prisoners, including the captures at Winchester.

The morning of the 4th July dawned upon the two armies still confronting each other. They occupied precisely the same ground that each occupied on the first day's fight. No disposition was shown by either to attack the other. About twelve o'clock Lee made preparations to withdraw such of the wounded as could be transported in ambulances and wagons. These were placed in line, and, under a strong escort, sent back towards the Potomac. This consumed the afternoon and night of the 4th. On the morning of the 5th July the Confederate line of battle was drawn in, leaving a heavy skirmish line to confront the Federals. By midnight of the 5th, Lee's rear guard was well out from Gettysburg, and retiring in perfect order. There was no excitement, no panic. The entire wagon and supply trains, every piece of artillery, large herds of cattle and horses, and about seven thousand prisoners, were all brought off safely.

On reaching Hagerstown, Lee found that the recent rain had so swollen the Potomac that the army could not recross in safety. Line of battle was again formed, with the left resting upon Hagerstown, and the right upon the Potomac. Hastily constructed earthworks were thrown up, and every preparation was made to receive the Federals, who, it was reported, were rapidly advancing. Meade followed up the pursuit, but showed no disposition to attack. He was too badly crippled to offer battle. No disposition was evinced on either side to bring on an engagement. Lee continued in this position until the pontoons were constructed for the passage of his army over the river. He crossed over in face of the enemy, who had arrived on the 12th, and taken up position, “with no loss of material, except a few disabled wagons and two pieces of artillery.” 1 [412]

The pursuit of Lee was resumed by a flank movement of the Federal army, crossing the Potomac at Berlin, and moving down the Loudon Valley. The cavalry were pushed into several passes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but despite all efforts of the Federal forces, Gen. Lee succeeded in once more establishing his men on the Rapidan, while the enemy took position on the Rappahannock, and thus terminated the campaign Meade, by the final battle of Gettysburg, had saved the North; but he had yet left unfulfilled the task which his countrymen had allotted to him, of cutting off and destroying the Army of Northern Virginia.

Gettysburg may be taken as the grand climacteric of the Southern Confederacy. It was the customary phrase of John M. Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, that on the 3d July, on the heights of Gettysburg, the Confederates were “within a stone's throw of peace.” The expression is not extravagant, when we reflect what would have been the moral effect of defeating Meade's army, and uncovering New York, Philadelphia, and Washington; when, too, the fate of Vicksburg was not decided, and the vitals of the Confederacy were untouched.

It was in anticipation and in assurance of a victory so decisive that the Confederates had prepared their first distinct proposition of peace. The proper history of “peace negotiations” commences a few days before Gettysburg. When Lee crossed the Pennsylvania line, a mission was prepared in Richmond and entrusted to Vice-President Stephens, who was ordered to proceed to Washington with the following letter, intended to mask his real intentions. This letter, apart from its use as a decoy to the real diplomatic matter in hand, has a certain independent interest:

Sir: Having accepted your patriotic offer to proceed as a military commissioner, under flag of truce, to Washington, you will herewith receive your letter of authority to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.

This letter is signed by me as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate land and naval forces.

You will perceive, from the terms of the letter, that it is so worded as to avoid any political difficulties in its reception. Intended exclusively as one of those communications between belligerents which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between [413] hostile forces, care has been taken to give no pretext for refusing to receive it on the ground that it would involve a tacit recognition of the independence of the Confederacy.

Your mission is simply one of humanity, and has no political aspect.

If objection is made to receiving your letter on the ground that it is not addressed to Abraham Lincoln as President instead of Commander-in-Chief, &c., then you will present the duplicate letter, which is addressed to him as President, and signed by me as President. To this letter objection may be made on the ground that I am not recognized to be President of the Confederacy. In this event, you will decline any further attempt to confer on the subject of your mission, as such conference is admissible only on a footing of perfect equality.

My recent interviews with you have put you so fully in possession of my views that it is scarcely necessary to give you any detailed instructions, even were I at this moment well enough to attempt it.

My whole purpose is, in one word, to place this war on the footing of such as are waged by civilized people in modern times, and to divest it of the savage character which has been impressed on it by our enemies, in spite of all our efforts and protests. War is full enough of unavoidable horrours, under all its aspects, to justify, and even to demand, of any Christian ruler who may be unhappily engaged in carrying it on, to seek to restrict its calamities, and to divest it of all unnecessary severities. You will endeavour to establish the cartel for the exchange of prisoners on such a basis as to avoid the constant difficulties and complaints which arise, and to prevent for the future what we deem the unfair conduct of our enemies, in evading the delivery of prisoners who fall into their hands, in retarding it by sending them on circuitous routes, and by detaining them sometimes for months in camps and prisons, and in persisting in taking captive noncombatants.

Your attention is also called to the unheard — of conduct of Federal officers in driving from their homes entire communities of women and children, as well as of men, whom they find in districts occupied by their troops, for no other reason than because these unfortunates are faithful to the allegiance due to their States, and refuse to take an oath of fidelity to their enemies.

The putting to death of unarmed prisoners has been a ground of just complaint in more than one instance, and the recent execution of officers of our army in Kentucky, for the sole cause that they were engaged in recruiting service in a State which is claimed as still one of the United States, but is also claimed by us as one of the Confederate States, must be repressed by retaliation if not unconditionally abandoned, because it would justify the like execution in every other State of the Confederacy, and the practice is barbarous, uselessly cruel, and can only lead to the slaughter of prisoners on both sides, a result too horrible to contemplate without making every effort to avoid it.

On these and all kindred subjects you will consider your authority full and ample to make such arrangements as will temper the present cruel character of the contest, and full confidence is placed in your judgment, patriotism, and discretion that, while carrying out the objects of your mission, you will take care that the equal rights of the Confederacy be always preserved.

Very respectfully, Jefferson Davis.

Mr. Stephens proceeded only as far as Fortress Monroe, where he was intercepted by a despatch peremptorily forbidding his access to the Federal capital. Whether the authorities there were aware or not of the real nature of his mission it is since ascertained that, apart from the written text [414] which it bore, it was to sound the Washington Government on the question of peace. There could be no other proper conclusion, judging from the importance of the emissary, and the absurd futility of his going to Washington merely to protest against the enemy's cruelties in conducting the war.

The whole explanation of the affair is that Mr. Stephens was fully empowered in certain contingencies, to propose peace; that President Davis had sent him on this extraordinary visit to Washington, anticipating a great victory of Lee's army in Pennsylvania; that the real design of the mission was disconcerted by the fatal day of Gettysburg, which occurred when Mr. Stephens was near Fortress Monroe; and that it was in the insolent moments of this Federal success that he was so sharply rebuffed by the Washington authorities. Considering the conjuncture of the occasion and the circumstances in which the President of the Southern Confederacy sought to signalize what he supposed would be a great victory of his arms, by a distinct and formal proposition of peace at Washington, it may be said that, notwithstanding the disappointment of the event, and the jeer of the enemy, Mr. Davis occupied a proud position in this matter, and one that merited the applause of the Christian world.

1 The following official communication from Gen. Lee makes its own commentary on the unreliability of despatches of Federal generals:

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia, 21st July, 1863.
Gen S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector-General C. S. A. Richmond, Va.:
General — I have seen in Northern papers what purported to be an official despatch from Gen. Meade, stating that he had captured a brigade of infantry, two pieces of artillery, two caissons, and a large number of small arms, as this army retired to the south bank of the Potomac, on the 13th and 14th inst.

This despatch has been copied into the Richmond papers, and as its official character may cause it to be believed, I desire to state that it is incorrect. The enemy did not capture any organized body of men on that occasion, but only stragglers and such as were left asleep on the road, exhausted by the fatigue and exposure of one of the most inclement nights I have ever known at this season of the year. It rained without cessation, rendering the road by which our troops marched to the bridge at Falling Waters very difficult to pass, and causing so much delay that the last of the troops did not cross the river at the bridge until 1 P. m., on the 14th. While the column was thus detained on the road, a number of men, worn down with fatigue, lay down in barns and by the roadside, and though officers were sent back to arouse them, as the troops moved on, the darkness and rain prevented them from finding all, and many were in this way left behind. Two guns were left in the road. The horses that drew them became exhausted, and the officers went forward to procure others. When they returned, the rear of the column had passed the guns so far that it was deemed unsafe to send back for them, and they were thus lost. No arms, cannon, or prisoners were taken by the enemy in battle, but only such as were left behind under the circumstances I have described. The number of stragglers thus lost I am unable to state with accuracy, but it is greatly exaggerated in the despatch referred to.

R. E. Lee, General.

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