Confederate Generals—their ability. [from the Richmond, Va., Times, November 11, 1900.]
Did General Lee counsel the abandonment of Richmond after the battle of the Wilderness?[To the imputation of remissness in Southern newspapers generally, ‘in defending the history of the Confederacy’ protest may justly be made. It is felt that there is not one but by whom it is ardently cherished, and that every one is ready, at all times, to defend its history—the motives and actions of its people.—Editor.]
Editor of the Times.Sir—I quote from your beautiful editorial, ‘Robert E. Lee,’ of January 19th, ulto: ‘The other Confederate armies had as good material in their ranks as Lee's army had, but they accomplished little in comparison with what his army accomplished, and why? Because they had no Lee to make the army as one man. This is the highest tribute that can be paid to man, and no other man that ever lived can claim it in the same proportion as Lee can.’ It is most deplorable that Southern newspapers are remiss in defending the history of the Confederacy, and thus the Times becomes conspicuous and endeared to all who value the truth, in the contrast to them, as a rule, which it presents. Your columns alone have lifted the shadow of false report from many of the most heroic and glorious achievement of a citizen soldiery, the armies of the South, the world in any age has known. Let us look upon the parallels presented in the careers of our generals and their great battles and campaigns. Following these up as we know them, how unitive by the ignorant interference of the political head of the War Department. So much for the army in Virginia. A case approximately parallel at that same period, was the movements of General Sterling Price, in Missouri, by which all the territory of the slave States west of the Mississippi and the absolute control of that stream below St. Louis would have fallen under the  military jurisdiction of the Confederacy. Price's movements came sufficiently near a splendid success to vindicate his generalship, and that is the point involved in the parallel. Jackson and Price planned and executed within the sphere of military genius, achievements most honorable to the art of war, and those achievements were reached under quite analogous circumstances, testing the character of the troops under each. A victory at Shiloh would have wrecked the cause of the United States irretrievably. A victory at Gettysburg would have accomplished the same result. At Shiloh, April 5, 1862, General A. S. Johnston had driven Grant's army from three to four miles and crowded the whole broken mass upon the brink of the Tennessee. Two hours more of life to him, had he fallen at 4 P. M. instead of 2 P. M. on that day, the military resources of the United States west of the Potomac would have been annihilated. Beauregard, going on the field on a bed, wasted by protracted illness, never having appreciated or sympathized with the strategy of the occasion as developed by his great commander, recalled the troops from the very arms of victory, and an assured success of the Confederacy. At Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, General Lee planned a battle that stands, as to wisdom and feasibility, second to none which the master mind of Napoleon ever conceived. Not Marengo nor Wagram, nor any other field of the twenty years of Napoleon's career, surpasses in the splendor of the military art Lee's Gettysburg, as his orders read. Longstreet, afflicted as Early told us he was, often with ‘an intellectual and physical inertia,’ point blank refused to execute those orders, and the only thing to show on our side is the incomparable achievement of Pickett's division. Stuart rode around McClellan on the Chickahominy and beat back Hooker's cavalry sent to assist that chieftain's ‘on to Richmond.’ Wheeler rode around Rosecrans' army at Chattanooga, destroyed his wagon train of 1,000 laden wagons, and shot the 4,000 mules that drew it; went nearly to Nashville, destroying depots of supplies all along his route, and shooting army mules—a ride of the Confederate cavalry leader which resulted in the immediate removal of Rosecrans. Forrest, with 4,500 men under him about Tupelo, Miss., found 20,000 cavalry in his front brought out from Memphis. He telegraphed General Maury at Mobile that he stood no chance against such a host in the open field, but if Maury would consent, he would go behind them to Memphis and, destroying their stores there, compel them to retreat. The gallant Maury replied: ‘Go but don't  be gone long!’ Forrest left 1,500 men to play upon the flanks of Dodge's 20,000. He took 3,000, and, starting at a gallop, kept his gait up. He halted to build three bridges over swollen streams on his line of march, but in thirty-six hours he rode the 90 miles, and at daylight the second day out rode into the office of the Gayaso Hotel, Memphis. Dodge was up-stairs asleep. Forrest got his uniform from his chamber. Washburn remarked on the event that he had been removed because he couldn't keep Forrest out of Tennessee, but his successor couldn't even keep him out of his bed-room! Colonel Mosby's generalship in command of 300 mounted men is the most wonderful tale of the war. Beauregard's defence of a long line of seacoast by land forces only, the chief feature being Colonel Rhett's defence of Fort Sumter, has nothing in the literature of war to rival it. Joseph E. Johnston's generalship in ordering Pemberton not to fall back into Vicksburg after he had marched out to fight Grant at Baker's Creek, but to abandon the fortified position completely surrounded by land and naval forces of the enemy and move northward to join him, was generalship indeed. It required a moral courage that was sublime to adopt such strategy in the face of the terrible disappointment of the people at home, the army and the President. We see now how superb the generalship was. The Secretary of War, a politician, countermanded the order of the commanding general direct to Pemberton, and we know a part of the infirmities of our civil government and obtain a slight clew to the cause of our ultimate ruin. I do not find the statement in any biography of the actors, but I am in search, and hope The Times will aid me, of the truth in regard to an alleged proposal made by General Lee to the President to the effect that, while he retreated before Grant from the Wilderness toward the James, the government should abandon Richmond, moving the machinery of the ordnance department, archives, etc., ahead of him. That having been done, he would continue his retreat slowly, weakening Grant as he forced him to lengthen his line, and ultimately calling General Joseph E. Johnston, then retreating before Sherman, into reach, the two united Confederate armies would destroy both Grant and Sherman. This is a profoundly important inquiry into the military ability of General Lee. He must have known in advance that an attempt to defend Richmond as late as the winter of 1864-‘65 was a military solecism. The effort was out of date and hopeless. Lee certainly approved the generalship of Johnston  in his Georgia campaign. Why could he not see that a campaign of almost identical conditions had been forced on him? If he was compelled to fall back from the Wilderness to Petersburg, it was because Grant had limitless resources at a moment's command, while every man who fell out of his own ranks was gone forever and none to be found in his, place. If the retreat from the Wilderness to Petersburg was a military necessity, what were the changed conditions to arrest at Petersburg the policy of retreat and pursuit of the same two armies? Did not General Lee see that the defence of Petersburg for a few months must terminate in the destruction of his army? Did he not suggest to the government a true military avoidance of such a catastrophe by pursuing with the Army of Northern Virginia the same general strategy that General Johnston adopted with the Army of the Tennessee? I put the plain question to Vice-President Stephens, while he was defending Petersburg in view of Johnston's retreat before Sherman, namely: ‘Who of our generals is the greatest in your eyes?’ The reply came promptly: ‘I am decidedly of the opinion that General Joseph Johnston has the clearest understanding of any of the military policy necessary to final success. In this I prefer him.’ I have always regretted that opinion of Mr. Stephens, because I have never been content to believe that the defence of Petersburg was the generalship of Lee as a feature of his strategy. When we come to institute parallels between the generals of our armies—one in Virginia and the other in the more Southern States—we encounter the resistance of President Davis or his government to all. That feature of our history is, for sentimental reasons, thus far suppressed. General Lee's greatness is apparent in the fact that, whatever his grievance, he never permitted the civil government to become openly at war with him. The two Johnstons, Beauregard, Hardee, Forrest, etc., and nearly all the civil leaders—Stephens, Toombs, Yancey, Wigfall, Rhett, etc.—were far from terms of peace with the President or with the War Department.