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The Virginia campaign of 1864-1865.

A Review of General Humphreys by Colonel William Allan.
The last of the ‘Campaigns of the Civil War,’ issued by the Scribners, forms in every way a fitting and creditable conclusion of the series. This volume has been looked for with unusual interest, because of its author and of the period treated of; nor does it disappoint the public expectation. An officer among the highest in rank in the Army of the Potomac, arid one whose rank was not more distinguished than his services to the Union cause, General Humphreys brings to his task peculiar advantages. As Chief of Staff to General Meade, his official position rendered him familiar with all the Federal movements in the campaign of 1864, while his subsequent career as commander of Hancock's (Second) corps was not less conspicuous and important. His long and eminent service after the war in Washington placed within his easy reach all the official data now extant in regard to the struggle. We are not surprised, then, to find his book a repository of data of the greatest value. The narrative is very clear, concise, and fair in spirit. It is too crowded, and written too much, perhaps, in the style of an official report, to be entertaining to the casual reader; but its interest to the student of the great campaign of 1864-1865 can hardly be exaggerated.

This campaign was incomparably the greatest of the civil war. In the desperate daily struggle, unintermitted for months, in the unparalleled number of fierce battles, in the terrible destruction of life, in the magnitude of the issues at stake, and of the results determined by it, no campaign can compare with it. The history of it, when fully written, will constitute a splendid tribute to the courage and endurance of both armies. This history, too, will bear witness to the qualities of the leaders of those armies—to the determined perseverance, the obstinate tenacity of purpose, the coolness and firmness in the presence of defeat, that characterized the successful General whom his countrymen have ever since delighted to honor, not more than to the boldness, the sagacity, the fertility of resource, [455] the consummate skill which have placed the defeated commander on the roll of great captains.

On May 4, 1864, Grant crossed the Rapidan at the head of about 125,000 men ‘present for duty,’ according to the official reports as analyzed by General Humphreys. Secretary Stanton makes General Grant's effective force to have been over 141,000 men, but General Humphreys shows that this included the ‘extra duty’ men and those under arrest. These amounted to over 16,000 men, and when deducted leave the ‘present for duty’ about 125,000. General Humphreys reduces this number still farther by taking the ‘present for duty equipped’ as the basis of his estimates, but as no such heading existed in the Confederate reports, the number of those ‘present for duty’ is the only one that can be used in comparing the strength of the two armies. Lee held the upper line of the Rapidan with a force of 62,000 ‘present for duty.’ (Colonel Taylor makes General Lee's force nearly 64,000.)

Grant's purpose was to push rapidly through the tangled, wooded wilderness which covered Lee's right flank, and force him to fight in the more open country to the south of it by threatening his communications with Richmond. Lee anticipated his adversary, and leaving his cantonments on the Rapidan, hastened to strike the Federal army while on the march. The 5th and 6th of May were marked by bloody battles in the dense, wooded wilderness, and sometimes miry thickets of this region. Each side was by turn the assailant, but the advantage, especially on the second day, was decidedly with the Confederates. The difficulty of manoeuvring large bodies of men in such a country was immense, and the Federals did not succeed in obtaining the advantage due to their superiority of numbers. The rapidity of Lee's movements and the vigor of his blows disconcerted and staggered his antagonist, and caused the losses inflicted on the Federal army to be altogether out of proportion to those suffered by the Confederates. General Humphreys foots up the Federal losses in the Wilderness as 15,387. This number is probably too small, as it apparently includes only the wounded that had to be sent back to Washington. If the number of wounded be taken from the Federal regimental reports, the total loss appears to have been about 17,000 men. There are no full reports of the Confederate losses.

On May 7th the Federal army again moved on Lee's flank, with the intention of seizing Spotsylvania Courthouse; but here again Grant was foiled. Lee promptly divined his purpose, and Stuart's [456] cavalry opposed his march so stubbornly that the Confederates reached the coveted position first, and held it.

From the 8th to the 20th of May the vicinity of Spotsylvania Courthouse was the scene of many severe and some furious battles, the most memorable of which occurred May 12th, when Grant threw the half of his army, under Hancock and Burnside, against Lee's lines. Burnside was repulsed, but Hancock's attack on the Confederate centre was for a time successful, the Federals capturing a sallient position on Ewell's line with a number of guns and a large part of Johnson's division. All day long raged at this point the sanguinary contest. The ground was piled with dead. A dead tree, nearly two feet in diameter, was cut off some distance above the earth by the terrific hail of musket-balls. The fate of the Confederate army trembled in the balance. Only by the most strenuous efforts and the fiercest fighting was Lee able to force back the greatly superior numbers which had broken his lines and seemed on the point of overwhelming him. But he did it, and the subsequent attacks upon his position were bloody and fruitless to the Federals. The battles at Spotsylvania Courthouse cost the Federals, according to General Humphreys, 17,723 men, which number is almost certainly too small. On May 20th Grant tried the movement by Lee's right flank again, with the hope of being able to attack the Confederates before they could entrench, but he was again thwarted by his skilful antagonist, and in a day or two the armies once more confronted each other near Hanover Junction. Here the position taken up by Lee was so advantageous that Grant drew off without attack. The great disparity of strength prevented Lee from assuming the aggressive. The Union commander, continuing his former strategy, crossed the Pamunkey below the Confederate right. But when he advanced, Lee was again in his pathway, and continued to anticipate his movements until the lines of both armies crossed the famous field of Cold Harbor. Here, on June 3d, Grant having been joined by 16,000 or 18,000 of Butler's troops, made the most bloody and disastrous of his assaults upon the Confederate army. His assault was general, but he was everywhere repulsed with great slaughter, and at comparatively trifling cost to the Confederates. Nearly 6,000 Federal troops, according to General Humphreys (Swinton makes the loss twice as great), fell in this assault, while the Confederate loss was probably not as many hundreds. General Grant's Medical Director puts the Federal loss from the crossing of the Pamunkey to June 12th at over 14,000 men. So fearful was the carnage on June 3d that the Federal lines when ordered to renew the conflict refused to do it. [457]

This ended the campaign against Richmond from the north side of the James, and ten days later the Federal army was on its march to try the approach by way of Petersburg and the Appomattox, where Butler had for some time been ‘bottled up’ by Beauregard. The losses in battle of Grant's army had by this time reached nearly 50,000 men, according to General Humphreys (other Federal accounts make it much larger), and the reinforcements sent him about 28,000. Lee, on the other hand, had received about 15,000 men, which seems to have covered the bulk of his losses. This was a period of great depression in the Federal councils. President Lincoln is said to have been more discouraged and despondent at this time than at any other during the war The Federal Cabinet is said to have seriously considered the question of entertaining proposals for peace. An ordinary commander, in General Grant's place, would have hesitated about continuing this costly and apparently fruitless mode of warfare on the south side of the James. Grant did not. He knew that Lee had been forced to detach Breckinridge and Early to drive Hunter away from Lynchburg. It was easy to maintain the Federal superiority in numbers, and General Grant transferred his army to the Appomattox and attempted to seize Petersburg. A failure and the loss of 8,000 men were the result. A series of attempts against the railroads from the south of Richmond followed, which were completely foiled by Lee, and with heavy cost to the Federals. By the 30th of June the Federal losses in battle had risen to over 68,000, according to General Humphreys (p. 242), or to 75,000 by other authorities. These losses and the detachment of the Sixth Corps to Washington, made necessary by Early's advance on that city, rendered Grant for a time less aggressive. Great preparations were now made for the springing of a mine on the centre of Lee's Petersburg lines. A vigorous demonstration on the north side of the James called off a large part of Lee's forces, and on the morning of July 30, when but three Confederate divisions were at Petersburg, the mine was sprung. The explosion of 8,000 pounds of powder buried a regiment of Confederates and made a fearful gap in their lines. An assault was at once made by Burnside's corps, supported by Hancock, Warren, and Ord. Some preparations had been made by General Beauregard against such a contingency, but only skill of the highest order, and a courage that counted life as nothing worth on the part of the handful of Confederates within reach, enabled them to resist the immense force sent against them. The assault was badly managed, and, notwithstanding the success [458] of the mine and the tremendous momentum of the assaulting columns, ended in complete and disastrous defeat to the Federal arms. This chapter is the most graphic in General Humphrey's book.

The heavy losses and fruitless struggles of the Federal army told severely upon its morale at this time. For more than two months after crossing to the south side of the James it was everywhere outgeneraled and defeated. Fearful were its losses in battle, and severe its sufferings from the climate; but the resources of the North were poured out without stint for its relief, and Grant was able, by a great preponderance of force, to keep his adversary on the defensive.

After another period of comparative rest, Grant renewed his operations against both of Lee's flanks, his numbers enabling him to compel the Confederates to stretch their thin lines in both directions. The Federals thus seized the Weldon railroad in August, and Fort Harrison, on the north side, at the end of September, but all other efforts against Lee's lines during the autumn proved costly and abortive. The winter, however, brought worse enemies to the Confederates than even the splendid army in their front. The signs of exhaustion were everywhere evident in the South. A succession of disasters had given Georgia and South Carolina to Sherman, and Tennessee to Thomas. Sheridan had ruthlessly harried the Shenandoah Valley. For months Lee's men, in the trenches at Petersburg, were but half fed and half clothed, while every letter that came to the camp told of suffering and starvation at home.

The spring came, to find Lee holding thirty-five miles of entrenchments with 57,000 men of all arms (according to General Humphreys), while Grant had 129,000 in his front. Lee's strength was steadily weakening; desertions were numerous; the privations of the winter had broken the spirit of the Confederates. Lee's last effort against Fort Steadman, on March 25th, made to cover his withdrawal from Petersburg, failed, and cost him heavily. Grant moved against Lee's right flank and communications as soon as the roads permitted. Then followed the overthrow of Pickett and Fitz Lee at Five Forks, on April 1st. This Federal victory, and the loss it entailed on Lee, insured his defeat.

General Humphreys thinks the battle at Five Forks a serious mistake; but Lee had good reason to expect success. Forces not greater than those under Pickett had, more than once during the past year, won victory in the face of difficulties not less than those which confronted the Confederates at Five Forks. The blow was fatal to Lee. Next day his thin lines were no longer able to resist [459] Grant's assaults. Petersburg and Richmond were given up on the night of April 2d, and Lee attempted to reach Danville. The failure of the supplies to reach him at Amelia Courthouse destroyed his last chance of effecting this. The delay and exhaustion brought about by this cause, together with the rapidity and overwhelming force of the Federal advance, cut him off from Danville and forced him to turn toward Lynchburg. The sufferings of the winter found a fit sequel in the privations of that march, when for days a little parched corn was the only ration. The 30,000 men or more that had left Petersburg dwindled in a week to 8,000 in ranks at Appomattox. General Humphreys finds it difficult to credit the small number that remained to Lee at the last, and thinks that many men must have thrown away their arms after the surrender became inevitable. He is in error. There were but 8,000 men ready for duty on the morning of the day the surrender was decided upon, and while the Confederate army was still drawn up for battle. The remainder of the 28,000 who were afterward paroled had already fallen out of ranks from utter exhaustion and lack of food, or had been scattered in the combats that marked the preceding days.

Lee has been criticised for his final operations in this campaign; and failure, under whatever circumstances, invites criticism. The difficulties which confronted General Lee in the winter and spring of 1865 were simply insurmountable. Human skill and courage were not adequate to the task of turning back the tidal wave which was rapidly engulphing the Confederacy. After the defeat of Hood at Nashville and the advance of Sherman into North Carolina, the end was inevitable. No movement within General Lee's reach could have changed the result. It was not possible long to delay the catastrophe.

The struggle of Napoleon against the allies in 1814, as he was forced back upon Paris, and finally overwhelmed, is perhaps the best modern parallel to this magnificent campaign, but the efforts of the greatest soldier of any age for his capital and his throne were not more brilliant or tenacious, and were far less protracted, than those of the great Virginian for the government and capital of his native State and of the Confederacy. History contains no finer specimen of the boldness, sagacity and skill with which a comparatively small army may be so handled as to cripple and baffle far larger and better appointed forces. Like Hannibal, Lee, for years, sustained the fortunes of his country by a series of splendid achievements; like Hannibal, he went down at last before the too mighty power of his foe; [460] but, unlike the great Carthaginian, the splendor of his genius shone most brightly as years and difficulties increased, and the solid foundations of his military fame will rest more securely upon his last campaign, which ended in disaster, than upon any of his preceding victories.

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