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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. III
p304
Chapter XVIII

The Bloody Climax of a Hurried Race

(SPOTSYLVANIA, MAY 8‑12, 1864)

Stealthily the Confederate skirmishers wormed their way through the shell-torn Wilderness on the morning of May 8. Cautiously the infantry peered over the rough entrenchments. Anxiously at the Tapp house, Lee waited for word from the outposts. It came quickly. The Federals were gone from the Confederate left and centre — gone, and not in the direction of the Rapidan. At first, the reports indicated that the Federals had moved down the river toward Fredericksburg. Lee so advised the War Department,1 but soon he received a dispatch from General Hampton stating that Channing Smith, one of the most daring and reliable of his scouts, had just returned from a ride within the enemy's lines and was quite positive that the V Corps was on the road toward Todd's Tavern.2 As that resort was on the road to Spotsylvania Courthouse, Lee at once set out for the courthouse and dispatched orders to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell to move the Second Corps to Shady Grove Church.3


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Routes of the opposing armies from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 7‑9, 1864.

On his way Lee learned that A. P. Hill had become so sick overnight that it would not be possible for him to continue in command. That was no small addition to the burden of the commanding general at a moment when his adversary was seeking to outflank him. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet badly wounded on the 6th, Hill incapacitated on the 8th — two of the three corps passing into the hands of new men, and Ewell himself apt to collapse at any time! p305 It seemed as if the high command was to be destroyed in the face of the enemy, for in addition to the disabled chiefs of corps, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.J. M. Jones and General Micah Jenkins had been killed, General L. A. Stafford had been mortally wounded, and Generals Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Pegram and Henry L. Benning had been seriously hurt.4 There could, of course, be no delay in filling Hill's place. Lee designated Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early to act in his stead and arranged it that General John B. Gordon, who had so distinguished himself on the 6th, should have command of Early's division.5

p306 Probably by the time Lee reached Shady Grove Church, he learned that his expectation of a Federal move to Spotsylvania Courthouse had been realized, and more than realized: Anderson had reached that point and was already engaged hotly in defending it. Lee pressed on when he heard this. Leaving behind him Ewell's troops, who were marching wearily through the dust and smoke of the burning forest, he reached the vicinity of the courthouse before 2:30 P.M.6 He then discovered that there had been a race between his army and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant's for Spotsylvania, and that Anderson had won, though by the narrowest of margins. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart had covered the route of Anderson's advance and had guarded the roads by which the Unionists would move toward the courthouse. Fitz Lee had been attacked by infantry on the road leading to Spotsylvania from Todd's Tavern, and Rosser, with one brigade, defending the courthouse proper, had been assailed by a mounted Federal division. Both Fitz Lee and Rosser had fought stubbornly during the early morning of the 8th, but they had been pushed slowly back and had been close to disaster when the head of Anderson's corps had come up on the double-quick and had relieved them. Subsequent Federal assaults had been beaten off with heavy loss to the enemy. It was a close escape from a turning movement that would have cost the Army of Northern Virginia dearly. Anderson deserved high credit, because he had started early and had pushed on vigorously. It was, perhaps, his greatest single service to the Confederate cause.7 Stuart had directed the defense around Spotsylvania with the utmost skill. But behind these reasons for deliverance lay the conclusion of Lee on the afternoon of the 7th that Grant would p307 move toward Spotsylvania. Had Lee not reasoned that his adversary would march in that direction, Grant would have outgeneralled him.8

There was a lull in the fighting after Lee arrived. The Federal cavalry withdrew; Spotsylvania Courthouse was in the hands of Anderson; and the infantry who had attacked him appeared to have been well beaten. Prisoners said the force was the whole of the V Corps. As the anxious afternoon wore on, however, signs of a new effort to destroy Anderson began to multiply. The VI Corps was reported to have come up to join the V in a sharp new assault. At 5 o'clock the storm broke. Over the fields and through the woods, the long, heavy clouds of bluecoats swept. But Confederate artillery was confident, and the attacks were not pushed on a wide front. Only on Lee's extreme right did danger develop. There, the Federal left overlapped for some distance and seemed in a fair way of enveloping the Confederate flank. But Lee's logistics did not fail him. Ewell had been told to hurry on, as Anderson might need support,9 and now, precisely at the moment it was needed, the head of the Second Corps appeared on the road from Shady Grove. Rodes's division was leading and was at once thrown in on Anderson's right. It speedily broke up the enemy's flank attack, drove him back some distance, and put an end to the day's fighting.10 Johnson's division formed on the right of Rodes, and, as night was coming on, was placed in a body of oak timber with instructions to throw up works. With direction indicated chiefly by the Federal camp fires stretched out in front of them, the men dug with much zeal and, ere morning, had a line they steadily strengthened.11 Gordon's division was held in reserve. The Third Corps, which had been the last to leave the Wilderness position, bivouacked for the night northwest of Todd's Tavern.12

On the safe assumption that Early would arrive promptly with this corps, General Lee would have his whole force again in front p308 of the Army of the Potomac on the morning of May 9. The movement from the Wilderness was being completed without difficulty or serious loss. The army still stood between Grant and Richmond. That meant much. At the same time, the enemy was in immense strength and seemed determined to break through and to bear down all opposition. The whole demeanor of the Unionists was far different from what it had ever been in Virginia during any previous campaign. More than that, the other offensives in the state were becoming serious. General B. F. Butler had landed in force on the south side of James River between the Appomattox and Drewry's Bluff and had cut the Richmond and Petersburg railroad.13 A cavalry column had burned a railroad bridge at Stony Creek, between Petersburg and Weldon,14 where it would certainly delay Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard's army, which was coming up slowly from the Carolinas. In the Shenandoah Valley, General Sigel was still at Winchester,15 but could be expected to move at any time. Two forces of cavalry in the southwestern area were threatening the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad as well as the mines on which the state relied for nearly all its salt.16 Nowhere was there any sign that the pressure exerted by the enemy was lightening. Everything, on the contrary, indicated that General Grant intended to fight on.

A long campaign was thus in prospect, with scant hope of reinforcements. It was more necessary than ever to conserve the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee did not intend to abandon offensive strategy, if the enemy gave him an opening, but as long as Grant continued to attack where he could be repulsed without heavy Southern losses, it obviously was to Lee's advantage to maintain the defensive. Provided the enemy could be held at a distance from Richmond and from the vital lines of communication, this course was as safe as it was profitable. "We have succeeded so far," Lee wrote Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis on May 9, "in keeping on the front flank of [Grant's] army, and impeding its progress, without a general engagement, which I will not bring on unless a favorable opportunity offers, or as a last resort. . . . With the blessing of God, I trust we shall be able to prevent Gen. Grant from reaching Richmond, and I think this army could render no p309 more effectual service. . . . We could not successfully resist a larger force than that to which we are opposed, and it is of the first moment that we should have timely information of any increase."17

To prepare the ground for this defensive, Lee was up and eating his breakfast by 3 A.M. on May 9. Longstreet's absence and Hill's illness put upon him such a burden of work that he had to make this his regular hour of rising during the campaign. He was usually occupied, with little or no opportunity for rest, until 9 or 10 or even later in the evening.18

Heavy as were the demands on his physique and on his intellect, the line he drew when Early brought up Hill's corps on the 9th, showed that his engineering skill and military judgment were unimpaired. Spotsylvania Courthouse lies on a ridge between the Po and Ny rivers, two of the small streams that contribute their waters and their names to the Mattapony. This ridge is about three and a half miles wide at Spotsylvania and is a well-secured military position, because the rivers, though they are not wide, are "deep," to quote General Grant, "with abrupt banks, and bordered by heavily wooded and marshy bottoms . . . and difficult to cross except when bridged."19

To cover the courthouse and the three important roads that led southward from it, Lee drew a crude semicircle with the Po as its diameter. Several nights were spent in extending this front. When the line was completed the extreme right was a trifle more than three miles from the extreme left, and the whole position was compact and thoroughly defensible, except for a long salient on the left centre. This was occupied by Johnson's division of the Second Corps and was to play a gloomy part in the conflict. Lee's front, Colonel Henderson wrote, "was exactly adapted to the numbers he had at his disposal; in order to turn the position his adversary would have to cross one of the streams, and so divide his army, giving him an opportunity of dealing with him in detail, and his line was far stronger than that which he had held in the Wilderness."20 Part of the front had open ground in the p310 direction of the Federal advance. Elsewhere the chief weakness of the position was that the woods came close to the line. As far as practicable, abatis were set. The artillery was located with much care. Anderson held the left, Ewell the centre, and Early, when he came up on the 9th,21 occupied the right, which was gradually extended southward.22 The strength of the line was the more remarkable when it is remembered that it was not laid out at leisure but was started from the positions taken up by the infantry on May 8 and was then developed to make the most of the natural advantages of the adjacent terrain. "It was not only the entrenchments," said Henderson, "but the natural features of the ground also on which Lee relied in his defensive tactics. His eye for ground must have been extraordinary."23


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Situation along the Po River
as reported to General Lee on the afternoon of May 9, 1864.

p311 Before Lee's field fortifications were carried as far as he desired, either on the right or on the left, he had need of them. On the afternoon of the 9th, the enemy's skirmishers felt out Anderson's lines with some vigor.24 A little later in the day a strong force was reported on the south side of the Po in the direction of the Shady Grove road. If this force advanced to the bend of the river it would be able to enfilade the extreme left of the Confederate line on the other side of the stream. And, again, if the enemy continued to press eastward, south of the Po, he would reach the highway from Spotsylvania to Louisa Courthouse, along which Lee had placed his wagon train.25

The move, however, placed a relatively small part of the Federal army in a position where it could be attacked before it could be reinforced. Lee made the most of this. First, he ordered Early to send one of his divisions from the extreme right to the extreme left, so as to extend the left flank of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Field's division and to protect it from an enfilade.26 At the same time Lee instructed Early to dispatch another division south of the Po and to assail the enemy advancing eastward on the Shady Grove road. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth's division, chosen for this purpose, moved early on the morning of May 10, found Federals in the vicinity of Waite's Shop that afternoon, and proceeded to attack. The Unionists at once began to withdraw, but some of the force held their ground and repulsed several very hard assaults by Heth. In the end the Federals retired across the Po, leaving one gun and some prisoners in Confederate hands.27


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Advance of Early, May 10, 1864, to meet the Federal manoeuvre south of the Po River.

Meantime, north of the Po, interest shifted to the point where the right of the First Corps joined the left of the Second. This part of the front had given Lee no little concern. On the 9th, General Lee had seen its weakness and, at the instance of General p312 Ewell, had consented to its extension farther to the northward to include some high ground from which it was believed the Federal artillerists could have dominated the Confederate position if they had been allowed to remain there.28 The inclusion of this elevation made that sector a great, irregular angle, with the apex to the north.29 Its average width was about half a mile and its depth approximately one mile. The soldiers promptly dubbed it the "Mule Shoe."30 Lee contemplated the construction of a second line, across the base of the angle, and is said to have issued orders to have the work started.31 This, however, was a rather large undertaking because the greater part of the interior of the angle was wooded. Either the woods had to be cleared, or else the base line had to be located where the enemy would have cover under which to approach unobserved.32 Artillery had been placed at the apex of the angle and the entrenchments had been so strengthened that many officers felt the position could be held until there was leisure to prepare the line in rear of it.33 Nonetheless, Lee was p313 studying the terrain closely and that afternoon had his headquarters within the angle, some 150 yards in rear of Doles's brigade, of Rodes's division. This brigade occupied a position about midway the northwest face of the salient,34 and had a battery of the Richmond Howitzers battalion supporting it. In front of Doles's works were abatis and in rear of them was a partially completed second line. The only condition that made his position especially vulnerable, from the Confederate point of view, was that thick, low-hanging pine woods came within 200 yards of the works.35

During the day several attacks against Anderson's lines were beaten off.36 As the hot afternoon passed37 there were signs of Federal activity nearer the centre. Toward 6 o'clock, heavy guns began to bombard the western face of the salient. On the hour, the firing ceased. In about ten minutes there was a wild cheer, followed quickly by the opening of hot infantry fire.38 Soon a courier hurried up to Lee with the startling news that Doles's lines had been broken, that the howitzers had been captured, and that the enemy was pouring into the salient.39

Lee at once mounted and started forward to rally the men, but his staff officers protested that he must not go where the fire would almost certainly be fatal. When at length they dissuaded him from rushing into the action, he said, "Then you must see to it that the ground is recovered."40 Colonel Taylor flung himself on his horse and galloped into the fury of the fight.41 Colonel Venable hurried off to bring part of Johnson's division to the left.42 Lee sought out the nearest battery and instructed its commander, Captain A. W. Garber, to leave his guns and to take his men forward to serve the captured howitzers, which he was sure the Confederates would recover in a few minutes.43

The fire by this time was as violent as any that had ever been heard in the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia,44 but the Southern troops on either side of the gap began to close in, and p314 those who had been driven out reformed on the second line. Taylor, seizing a flag and still mounted, led the men onward,45 in company with other officers. The Federals, who were admirably handled by Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Emory Upton, resisted with the utmost determination. They received no reinforcements, however, and were slowly pushed out of the works. By nightfall the danger was past, and the line had been restored. The Confederate loss was subsequently estimated at 650, but was probably higher.46 That evening, as if to expiate the butchery, a Confederate band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and a Union band answered with the Dead March from "Saul."47

To the end of the third day at Spotsylvania, then, the attacks of the enemy had been repelled with heavy casualties. The margin of safety had been a little narrower than usual, to be sure, but there had been nothing to indicate any decline in the prowess of the army. The veterans who stood behind their earthworks and mowed the enemy down, suffered far less than did the Federals. Still, it was now a week since the three corps had left their cantonments on the Rapidan — and the enemy showed no disposition to suspend his costly assaults. More than that, ugly news came from the rear. The Federal cavalry, now under a new commander, Major General Phil H. Sheridan, had slipped around the flank of the Confederate army, and on the 9th had struck the Central Railroad at Beaver Dam Creek, where two locomotives, three trains of cars, most of the reserve stores of the army and 504,000 rations of bread and 904,000 of meat had been destroyed. The railroad had been torn up and culverts had been demolished for some distance.48 Then the Union horse had moved on toward Richmond, while Stuart, gathering his scattered units, pushed the endurance of weary men and hungry mounts to the absolute limit in an effort to get between Sheridan and Richmond.49 Lee was accustomed to Federal raids by this time and expected from them p315 a measure of annoyance without serious injury to the army; but in this instance he saw the fulfillment of all the fears he had felt during the winter concerning the cavalry. If the horses did not hold out, so that Stuart could at least protect the scant supplies that were reaching the army, then anything might happen!

May 11 dawned dark. Heth was moved back from the south side of the Po to the vicinity of Spotsylvania, while Mahone remained to guard the extreme left of the First Corps.50 General Lee spent part of the morning examining carefully the rear of Rodes's lines, against which the attack of the previous evening had been directed.51 He was accompanied by General M. L. Smith, chief engineer, and was convinced that the "Mule Shoe" could be held with the help of the artillery. General Edward Johnson, who commanded at the apex of the salient, went out beyond the skirmish line and failed to find the enemy. Lee, however, gave instructions that if the enemy should attack any part of the front in the vicinity of the salient, Gordon should at once advance Early's division in support without waiting for further orders.52

During the early afternoon the rain began to fall heavily,53 and the enemy, who had been silent all morning,54 began to bestir himself. There were renewed demonstrations on the left, as if the Federals were planning to cross the Po again. Lee promptly ordered Early to send troops to the south of the river and told him to occupy Shady Grove.55

Before Early began his move with two brigades of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox's division, surprising dispatches arrived at general headquarters from Rooney Lee, who was in rear of the enemy's left flank. He reported that the Federal wounded had been sent to Belle Plain and that their wagons had been underway all night.56 It was impossible to tell, from the information Rooney forwarded, whether the move was southward in the direction of the Annas, or northward in retreat to Fredericksburg.57 In either case, the information p316 was so circumstantial that Lee felt he should prepare the army for instant movement. Many of the batteries were in advanced positions and would be very difficult to withdraw during the darkness. Lee directed that all guns so situated should be brought off before nightfall, to prevent delay in case of sudden orders to begin the march.58 At the Harrison House, within the "Mule Shoe," Lee conferred with General Ewell and with General Long, corps chief of artillery, and particularly ordered the artillery of Johnson's division withdrawn from the salient, as it had to come through thick woods by a single narrow and winding road.59 It is not certain Lee had subsequent intimation from any quarter that Johnson protested against the withdrawal of these guns, and later notified General Ewell that the enemy was becoming active on his front.60 The suspicions of none of the commanders within earshot seem to have been aroused by the unusual fact that the enemy's bands struck up about 11 o'clock and continued to play, in the rain and darkness, for hours on end.61

The music had scarcely died away, and the black of the night was just beginning to change to the gray of a cold, wet fog, when there came to Lee's headquarters the rattle of heavy infantry fire from the salient. The General had arisen, as usual, at 3 o'clock, and lost no time in mounting Traveller.62 Riding to the front through woods still so deep in shadows that a line of troops could not have been seen a hundred yards away, he soon encountered men running toward the rear. Without attempting to get from p317 them the story of what had happened, he began to rally them. Taking off his hat so that he might be recognized, he exhorted them to halt. "Hold on!" he cried. "We are going to form a new line. Your comrades need your services. Stop, men."63 Some heeded him and halted; others ran wildly past him. "Shame on you men, shame on you," he called out in his deep voice. "Go back to your regiments; go back to your regiments!"64

In a few moments, out of the salient, rode Major Robert W. Hunter, of the staff of General Edward Johnson. Hunter was mounted on an artillery horse, and shouted his message in his excitement: "General, the line is broken at the angle in General Johnson's front!"

Lee's expression changed instantly. Remembering that he had ordered General Gordon to move his division forward to any point of the salient that might be threatened, he reined Traveller in. "Ride with me to General Gordon," he said,65 and he turned to the left and rear. Perhaps on the way, Hunter had breath to tell him more of what had happened — how Johnson had been on the qui vive all night, how the enemy had suddenly burst over the lines held by the Louisiana brigades and by the remnant of J. M. Jones's Virginians, how some of the infantry had found their charges useless because of the rain, how artillery that had been ordered back had arrived just in time for full twenty pieces to fall into the enemy's hands, how General Johnson, hobbling along on a stick, had tried to keep the men together, and how the enemy had captured him and General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George H. Steuart and most of the division. There were thousands of bluecoats in the salient; the lines of the army were split in twain.66

Two hundred yards brought Lee to the point where the left of Pegram's brigade was hurriedly forming. Still farther to the left was Gordon's brigade, under Colonel Clement A. Evans.67 These troops, and Johnston's four regiments, formed the whole of Early's division, which Gordon was temporarily commanding. The three p318 brigades had been scattered when Gordon had ordered them forward to support Johnson, but already Gordon had boldly thrown out the men of Johnston's entire brigade as skirmishers and had ordered them to advance, in the hope that they could hold off the enemy till the other units were ready to charge.68 A few minutes after Lee reached the flank of Pegram's brigade Gordon himself came dashing along the line. Meeting Lee, he pulled up his horse on its haunches and saluted: "What do you want me to do, General?" he asked.69

Lee, of course, approved the dispositions the Georgian had already made and directed him to proceed with the counterattack. His manner was far calmer than it had been on the morning of May 6, when he had witnessed the break in the lines of Heth and Wilcox in the Wilderness, but battle-blood was surging in his veins. As Gordon turned to complete his arrangements, Lee rode to the centre of the line, between the Fifty-second Virginia of Pegram's brigade70 and the Thirteenth Georgia of Gordon's.71 His hat was still in his hand and he quietly turned Traveller's head to the enemy.72

By this time a searching fire was penetrating the woods where the graycoats were taking position. Gordon himself had just escaped death from a bullet that grazed his coat, not an inch from his spine,73 but when he saw Lee's position, he realized that the General was preparing to join in the charge and he broke out dramatically, "General Lee, this is no place for you. Go back, General; we will drive them back. These men are Virginians and Georgians. They have never failed. They never will. Will you, boys?"

"No, no" cried every man within hearing distance.

"General Lee to the rear; Lee to the rear!"

"Go back, General Lee, we can't charge until you go back!"

"We will drive them back, General!"

Gordon and some of his officers placed their mounts between him and the enemy, whose fire had come nearer and had increased p319 ominously during the few seconds of delay. A minute more and the enemy would be upon them. Gordon did not wait on military etiquette. Leaning forward, he caught hold of Traveller's bridle, but in the crowding of the flanks of the two brigades, which were now ready to advance, Gordon was pushed behind Lee. Thereupon a sergeant of the Forty-ninth Virginia seized Traveller by the reins and jerked his head to the rear.74

As Lee rode unwillingly back a few paces, he heard the clear voice of Gordon above the roar of the musketry: "Forward! Guide right!"75

Lee turned to young Robert Hunter, the officer who had brought him the first news of the break on Johnson's front. "Major Hunter," said he, "collect together the men of Johnson's division and report to General Gordon."76

Almost before Lee could say even this, Gordon's line of battle had disappeared in a dense growth of old field pines. There was a wild burst of firing — next, a hoarse, quavering, rebel yell, and then comparative silence as the two lines came to grips, too close together to load and fire.77 To his immeasurable relief, as daylight came, Lee saw that Gordon was driving the Federals up the salient, but he discovered, almost simultaneously, that Gordon's lines were not long enough to cover the whole front on which the enemy was pressing. Others, fortunately, observed this before Lee could issue orders. On the right of the salient, Lane's North Carolinians had already rushed forward and had halted the advance.78 On the left, Rodes threw Ramseur's brigade into action.79 Daniel supported Ramseur. Together they held back the flood for a time, but they were so inferior in number that Rodes began to call for reinforcements. Lee immediately dispatched Colonel Venable to General Mahone, with instructions p320 that one brigade of Mahone be left to cover the crossing of the Po on Field's left flank and that the rest of the division be dispatched forthwith to aid Rodes. It was a dangerous thing to do, for the battle was now spreading along the front, but the salient must be held, and, if possible, the lines must be restored.80 Lee did not concern himself, for the moment, with reinforcing the right of the salient, for he knew that the two brigades of Wilcox's division, which had been sent to the south of the Po the previous day, had found no enemy there, had returned, and would soon be available to strengthen Lane's gallant defense.81

Gordon's troops were fighting like men possessed, and by this time were masters of the centre of the salient. Soon Scales and Thomas of Wilcox's division were with Lane on the right and were pushing the enemy back toward the apex of the angle.82 By 6:30 o'clock it was apparent that the Federals were being held, and more than held, except on the left, in front of Ramseur and Daniel. There the battle was doubtful, for the Federals were still throwing in more and more troops, as if their reserves were inexhaustible. Rodes must have help — and quickly.

To provide it, Lee rode off in search of Mahone's division, which was moving up from the right. Not far from the courthouse, he found Harris's brigade resting by the side of the road. In a few words Lee ordered Harris forward to support Rodes, and took his place by that officer's side to speed the march. The column started briskly forward toward the salient and soon came under artillery fire from long-range Federal batteries that were playing on the approaches to prevent the dispatch of reinforcements. Traveller became excited as shells burst around him, and he began to rear wildly. Lee kept his seat, and sought to quiet his mount. Once more Traveller reared, and as he did so, a round shot passed under his girth only a few inches from Lee's stirrup. If the horse had not been in the air at the moment, the General would almost certainly have been killed. It was the narrowest escape from death that he had experienced since that day, seventeen years before, when the sentinel had fired on him as he and Beauregard had come out of the covered way at Vera Cruz.

Harris's veterans knew and loved Lee well, for they had fought p321 many times under his eye, when Carnot Posey had been their leader. They were quick now to see his danger. "Go back, General," they yelled, "Go back! For God's sake, go back!" And some of them tried to get between him and the enemy's fire, or to turn him to the rear. His anxiety was apparent to all who saw him that day,83 but his battle-ire was aroused, and if he was not personally to have a hand in repelling the enemy from the salient, he must have guarantee that it would be done. So, simply butº stubbornly, he answered their appeal. "If you will promise me to drive those people from our works, I will go back." The men shouted their agreement and started on more vigorously than ever. Lee told Colonel Venable to guide them to Rodes's position, and after watching them for a moment with admiring eye, he turned his horse toward Early's lines, on the right of the salient. Harris's men did not arrive a moment too soon. Just as they reached Rodes at the doublequick, an aide galloped up from General Ramseur to say that he could hold his ground only a few minutes longer unless help was forthcoming.84

Before 9 o'clock McGowan's brigade was sent to support Harris. It gave Rodes enough rifles to halt the Federal advance and to stabilize the fighting on the left side of the salient.85 Then, gradually, as Gordon and Wilcox pressed them on the centre and right of the salient, the Federals were forced back to the apex and ere long were driven over the parapet. In front of this they rallied once more and refused to be moved. The second phase of the battle was ended. The enemy had attacked successfully; the Confederate counterattack had cleared the salient.

What next? Should Lee permit the enemy to remain on the outer side of the parapet, separated from his own men only by the length of a bayoneted gun? He was, said Fitz Lee, "very sensitive about his lines being broken. It made him more than ever personally pugnacious."86 All his impulse prompted him to force the enemy back to the woods. Sound tactics dictated the same course. He could not afford to leave the enemy at his parapet, p322 if it was possible to drive him out. For the Federals, from that position, would certainly renew the assault when they found an opening, and then they might sweep down the salient again. In the face of their attack, it would be impracticable to complete a line in rear of the salient, or to withdraw in daylight to it. At the very least, the men must hold on until they could be brought during the night to the gorge of the salient.87

Word was passed to Gordon and to Rodes to keep their men at the parapet, to contest every new attack, and to hurl the enemy back if they could. Gallantly enough they held to their task while Lee hastily examined the rest of the front to see what he could to aid Ewell's men. He decided very soon that he could not accomplish anything on his left. The Federals were already attacking there. Anderson beat them off, thanks to Alexander's readiness with his artillery,88 but he could not attempt an offensive.89 On the centre and right of Hill's corps, Lee found that no assaults had been delivered. The enemy seemed absorbed in the operations against Ewell. Already Wilcox's work was over, and his part of the line was restored. Both his division and Heth's were available for a counterstroke, for which the ground seemed favorable. On the front on the line of Hill's corps, south of the "Mule Shoe," was a projection styled Heth's salient. Troops moving from the right side of this salient would be unseen by the Federals in front of the "Mule Shoe," and if they reached an oak wood in front of their lines, they would be on the flank of the Federals.

"Captain Nicholson (commanding sharpshooters) of Lane's brigade," General Wilcox subsequently reported, "had explored the woods in front of the right face of the salient on Heth's front and ascertained that the enemy were in line facing the left face of the salient, the right resting in the woods in front of the former face."90 Lane filed quietly into the woods opposite the right face p323 of the salient and soon had his line at right angles to the enemy's front. Mahone's brigade under Colonel Daniel A. Weisiger was in support. The situation was promising.


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The Bloody Angle near Spotsylvania Courthouse, showing particularly the terrain and direction of the proposed flank attack on the Federals from Heth's Salient, May, 1864.

Before the two brigades could strike, the Federals, who proved to be of Burnside's IX Corps, advanced to attack the left face of Heth's salient. Lee watched them come forward. Hill's artillery opened upon them at once, the infantry fired as soon as they could bring down their mark, and Lane, of course, hit the Federals in flank.91 As the front of the advancing line shifted somewhat, Lee rode forward under a hot fire and directed that the artillery change its range. The officer who was to deliver the order to other batteries started out immediately by the route over which Lee had come. "Have that officer take a road nearer the rear of p324 the line of guns," he said rapidly, "it is a safer way." He seemed quite oblivious to the fact that he had done what he did not wish another to attempt.92

Burnside's attack was quickly repulsed in what was the clearest advantage the Confederates had gained that day. By mid-afternoon the right was safe and the left could hold its own. Still the fight raged around the "Mule Shoe," which had now earned its more familiar name of the "Bloody Angle." Successful in itself, the counterattack by Lane and Weisiger failed to shake the grip of the Federals on the outer side of the parapet. From every vantage-point, the Federal artillery, rising to unprecedented violence,93 poured its fire into the salient and plastered Anderson's lines.

The fog gave place to dark clouds that emptied themselves at intervals in violent showers. The Federals held to the outer side of the parapet; the Confederates challenged their grip on it. Men were pulled over the parapet from either side and were made prisoner. Bayonets were thrust through the logs.94 Both forces fought as had their frontier fathers at the stockades. The loss of life was staggering; some of the brigades, wet, bleeding, and decimated, were close to exhaustion. As soon as the attacks on Anderson slackened, Lee called for Humphreys's brigade and for Bratton's95 and sent them from Anderson's lines to support Ewell.96

Then Lee determined to make another effort to force the Federals from the parapet of the Bloody Angle by an advance from Heth's salient. Sending for General Lane, he complimented the conduct of that officer's sharpshooters earlier in the day. He was loath, he said, to send them into action again, but he wished to ascertain the enemy's position on the Fredericksburg road and would be glad if those "fine soldiers" would undertake it. Lane replied that however tired the men might be, he knew they would go wherever Lee ordered them. "I will not send them unless they are willing to go," Lee answered. When Lane p325 introduced Captain Nicholson, Lee repeated what he had said to Lane. The sharpshooters were at once brought forward and greeted Lee with cheers as they passed him.97 They soon discovered, however, that the Federals had entrenched positions in front of Early. Two brigades were then thrown out — only to uncover a still stronger line that would bar any large-scale flanking operation from the Confederate right.

The possibilities had now been exhausted. The battle had to be fought out at the parapet of the salient until the defenders could be withdrawn to the gorge. Lee directed that the line at that point be completed forthwith,98 and late in the evening he went there in person to encourage the men. In Ewell's company he walked among the tired troops as they felled trees, carried them into position and piled earth on them.99 It was 800 yards to the point where the battle was raging.100 If the line could be completed and occupied safely, there would be little danger of another irruption of the enemy.

Long after darkness had engulfed the rear of the salient, the flash of rifles, the roar of the Federal guns, and the appearance of weary, dazed, and bloody men from the front told of the fidelity with which the veterans of the Second Corps were obeying Lee's orders to hold the parapet. They had been fighting now for sixteen hours and more, with no rest, no food. The enemy, still two or three to one, fired ceaselessly through every opening in the parapet, or hurled bayoneted guns, like spears, down on the heads of the Confederates. The dead were so numerous that they filed the ditch and had to be piled behind it in a ghastly parados. The survivors waded in mud and gore, slipping now and then over the mangled bodies of their comrades. In all the bloody story of that mad, criminal war there had not been such a hideous ordeal. When it seemed that the remnant of the brigades could not endure even fifteen minutes longer, word would come that they must hold on — that the line at the gorge of the salient was not yet finished. Then, with a grim setting of jaws, they would bite new cartridges, ram home the charges, fire over the parapet p326 and drop back into the muck of the ditch to do the same thing over again, with trembling fingers and numbed arms. At last, about midnight, when the enemy was as weary as they, Lee sent them orders to fall back slowly to the new line. Even then their discipline was perfect. At a whispered command, one unit would slip away, those on either side would close in, and the fire would be kept up. Had "old Jack" seen them there in the midnight, even his iron countenance would have melted at their misery, but his eyes would have fired in admiration of their valor.

It was nearly dawn on the 13th101 when the last of them passed through the gorge of the salient to new security — but security bought at a ghastly price. Never before, save in the charge of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett and Pettigrew at Gettysburg, had as many soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia been captured as in that salient. Lee did not attempt to give any estimate of their number when he sent a brief report to the President at the end of the day.102 Ewell subsequently put down the number at 2000,103 but the Federals claimed to have taken over 3000.104 The casualties among the commanding officers had been terrific. Major General Edward Johnson and Brigadier General George H. Steuart had been captured, Brigadier General Abner Perrin had been killed, Brigadier General Junius Daniel had been mortally wounded, and Brigadier Generals James A. Walker, Samuel McGowan, R. D. Johnston, and S. D. Ramseur less seriously injured.105 In nine days' fighting, five general officers had been killed or mortally hurt, nine had been wounded and two had been captured.

And this doleful list did not tell the whole story of that dreadful day. In the midst of the battle, when the whole army had been wrestling with the blue thousands that had streamed over the parapets, a messenger had arrived with news of Stuart's movements to head off Sheridan's raid before it reached Richmond. Spurring their worn mounts, the anxious Southern troopers had p327 intercepted the Federals at Yellow Tavern, seven miles north of Richmond and had given battle there. Stuart himself, as always, had been in the fullest of the fight, and, just as the Unionists had turned off to try to force a way into Richmond by some less-contested route, he had been shot through the body by a dismounted blue cavalryman. That had been on the afternoon of the 11th. The wounded Stuart had been borne into Richmond, and, when the dispatch was sent Lee, was believed to be dying.106

Stuart dying! The "eyes of the army" about to be destroyed. It was the worst calamity that had befallen the South since that May day, just a year previously, when "Stonewall" had breathed his last. Lee was surrounded by a number of young officers when he finished reading the dispatch, and he had to steel himself as he announced the news. "General Stuart," he said, as he folded up the paper, "has been mortally wounded: a most valuable and able officer." He paused a moment and then he added in a shaken voice, "He never brought me a piece of false information."107 Later in the night, while the battle had still been frenzied, another message brought the dreaded word: With the cheerful composure that had marked all his acts, Stuart had died after 8 P.M. that evening. Lee put his hands over his face to conceal his emotion, as he heard that his great lieutenant was dead, dead in the crisis of his beloved army's life, dead at the age of thirty-one and before the fullness of his powers had been realized.108 As quickly as he could, Lee retired to his tent to master his grief, and when one of Stuart's staff officers entered, a little later, to tell him of Stuart's last minutes, Lee could only say, "I can scarcely think of him without weeping!"109 To Mrs. Lee he wrote, "A more zealous, ardent, brave and devoted soldier than Stuart the Confederacy cannot have."110 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson dead, Stuart dead, Longstreet wounded, Hill sick, Ewell almost incapacitated — the men on whom he had most relied were going fast! He had to walk alone.

Still another woe that black night brought. In his raid on Richmond, p328 Sheridan had cut the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad precisely as, on the 9th, he had torn up track on the Central. The army's communications with Richmond were thus interrupted. South of Petersburg, on May 7, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Kautz had broken in two places the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad on which both the commissary and the quartermaster general relied for the transportation of grain.111 No supplies were arriving either for the men or for the animals.

The wagon trains had several days' short rations of bread and meat. If this gave out, the soldiers could be counted on to tighten their belts and to endure hunger until the railroads could be repaired. But what of the horses? If they were not fed the guns could not be moved. There seemed no recourse save an uncertain one suggested in a message from the quartermaster-general — to appeal to patriotic farmers behind the battle-front to lend the army corn, on Lee's personal pledge that it would be repaid promptly in kind.112

All this load of death, disaster, and threatened hunger was put on Lee's shoulders that dreadful 12th of May; yet he bore it with so stout a heart that even those who knew him best did not realize that in its agonizing demands upon him the day of the Bloody Angle was second only to the final day at Gettysburg. He did not admit the imminence of ruin or lament the things he could not control. Unafraid, with faith in God, he faced the doubtful morrow.


The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 36, part 2, p974.

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2 W. B. Hackley: Little Fork Ranger, 56‑58, contains Smith's narrative. On the basis of Lee's telegram to the War Department, General Grant based the claim (2 Memoirs, 212, 215) that Lee on the morning of May 8 had not "become acquainted" with his move toward Spotsylvania. It is manifest, however, that Lee could only have been for an hour or so under the impression that Grant was marching toward Fredericksburg, because Smith's report was received soon after sunrise.

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3 O. R., 51, part 2, p902.

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4 O. R., 36, part 1, p1028.

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5 O. R., 36, part 1, p1071, O. R., 36, part 2, p974; O. R., 51, part 2, p902; Early, 351. Hays's brigade was shifted from Early's to Johnson's division, to be consolidated with Stafford's brigade. Johnston's command of Rodes's division was transferred to Early to compensate. General Hill was very loath to leave his troops, and though he was for the time unable even to sit up, he insisted on being transported in an ambulance with his troops and had the vehicle parked immediately behind the line (14 S. H. S. P., 532).

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6 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1028‑29.

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7 It should be observed that Lee's orders to Anderson had been to withdraw his men as soon after dark on the evening of May 7 as possible. They were to retire a safe distance from the line and then were to rest before starting for Spotsylvania Courthouse over the road cut that day. Anderson duly moved his men out of the trenches, but as he subsequently wrote, "I found the woods in every direction on fire and burning furiously and there was no suitable place for rest." Besides, he explained, "The road by which I was conducted was narrow and frequently obstructed so that at best the progress of the troops was slow and the guide having informed me that it preserved the same character until near Spotsylvania I determined to continue the march until I should be within easy reach of that place" (undated letter of R. N. Anderson, in C. Irvine Walker, 162). General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton stated in his report (O. R., 36, part 1, p1041), that Anderson's orders were to march by 3 A.M. of the 8th. Anderson himself did not mention the time-limit set for his departure from the Wilderness. In the diary of the First Corps (O. R., 36, part 1, p1056), there is an account of this move, but it is marred by a hiatus that makes it almost unintelligible.

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8 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1028‑29, 1042, 1056; 14 S. H. S. P., 527, 547; Alexander, 510‑11; Taylor's General Lee, 239‑40.

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9 O. R., 51, part 2, p902.

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10 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1029, 1042, 1056, 1071‑72; Venable in 14 S. H. S. P., 527‑28.

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11 21 S. H. S. P., 232‑33; 33 ibid., 20‑21.

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12 Early, 351‑52; O. R., 36, part 1, p1095.

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13 Cf. O. R., 36, part 2, p972.

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14 O. R., 51, part 2, p903.

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15 O. R., 37, part 1, p407.

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16 O. R., 37, part 1, pp10, 723 ff.

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17 Lee's Dispatches, 176‑77.

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18B. and L., 242; 14 S. H. S. P., 529.

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19 2 Grant's Memoirs, 218.

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20 G. F. R. Henderson: The Science of War, 322. Both Grant (op. cit., vol. 2, p218 ff.) and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Humphreys (op. cit., 72 ff.) pointed out the strength of the Confederate position. Humphreys gave a very detailed description of the ground.

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21 Early, 353.

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22 The course of the line is sketched on p323.

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23 Henderson: Science of War, 333.

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24 O. R., 36, part 1, p1056.

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25 Early, 353.

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26 Early sent Mahone's division for this purpose. It occupied the crossing of the Shady Grove road over the Po.

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27 Early, 353. The Federals were the entire II Corps, but before they could all be deployed for action, General W. S. Hancock, their able commander, was ordered to avoid battle south of the Po and to send back two of his three divisions to the north bank, to be utilized in an attack on General Warren's front. Barlow's division was left to cover the withdrawal of the other units. Having repulsed Heth, Barlow followed the rest of the corps. The Confederates mistook this voluntary withdrawal for a retreat. It was, perhaps, fortunate for Early that the Federals were recalled when they were, because Heth's division was at a distance from any support, except for some of Hampton's cavalry, and doubtless would have fared badly in a fight with the whole of the II Corps, which was then the best in the Army of the Potomac.

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28 O. R., 36, part 1, p1071.

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29 See sketch, p323.

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30 O. R., 36, part 1, p1067; 21 S. H. S. P., 239; 33 ibid., 19‑20; 3 C. M. H., 447.

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31 3 C. M. H., 447.

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32 Taylor's Four Years, 130; 33 S. H. S. P., 23.

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33 Statement of Colonel Thomas H. Carter, in charge of the artillery in the salient, 21 S. H. S. P., 239.

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34 Venable in 14 S. H. S. P., 528.

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35 O. R., 36, part 1, p667.

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36 O. R., 36, part 1, p1029; O. R., 51, part 2, pp910‑11.

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37 Waldrop in 3 Richmond Howitzers, 51.

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38 O. R., 36, part 1, p668.

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39 Taylor's General Lee, 240.

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40 Taylor's General Lee, 240. This is usually regarded as the second "Lee to the rear."

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41 Statement of C. C. Taliaferro, April 25, 1895, Taylor MSS.

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42 14 S. H. S. P., 528.

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43 33 S. H. S. P., 342.

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44 Welch, 97.

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45 Taliaferro statement, loc. cit.

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46 O. R., 36, part 1, p1072. Ibid., part 2, p983. Some intimate details of the recovery of the trenches are given in Richmond Howitzers Battalion, 246.

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47 Thomas, 479.

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48 The loss of transportation was even more serious than the damage to the track, because the Central at this time had only eight engineers and 108 cars in running order (O. R., 51, part 2, p903).

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49 O. R., 36, part 1, pp777, 790; ibid., 51, part 2, p909.

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50 Early, 354.

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51 McHenry Howard: Recollections, 292.

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52 14 S. H. S. P., 529.

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53 Waldrop in 3 Richmond Howitzers, 52; 3 B. and L., 170. Ewell (O. R., 36, part 1, p1072) stated that "it rained hard all day" but all the other authorities agree that the downpour came late and that the temperature fell after dark.

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54 33 S. H. S. P., 22.

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55 Early, 355.

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56 O. R., 51, part 2, pp916‑17.

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57 Ewell (O. R., 36, part 1, p1072) stated the enemy's withdrawal was reported to be toward Fredericksburg. Taylor in his General Lee, 242, said the information was that the enemy was moving to the Confederate right.

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58 O. R., 36, part 1, p1044.

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59 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1044, 1086, 1088‑89. 7 S. H. S. P., 535 ff.

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60 21 S. H. S. P., 240; 33 ibid., 336; O. R., 36, part 1, pp1079‑80; Venable in 14 S. H. S. P., 529. In his paper on this campaign, published in 4 M. H. S. M., 113, McHenry Howard stated that after he had been released from prison General Ewell, or the adjutant general of that officer told him that General Lee was notified of the threat on Johnson's front. Lee is also said to have observed, "See, gentlemen, how difficult it is to have certain information, or how to determine what to do. Here is a dispatch from General Johnson stating that the enemy are massing in his front, and at the same time I am informed by General Early that they are moving around our left. Which am I to believe?" Captain Howard cited Colonel Marshall as authority for General Lee's remark. He added that despite the uncertainty, General Lee ordered the artillery replaced at daybreak. On the other hand neither Ewell, Johnson, nor Long, in their respective official reports, affirmed or even suggested that Lee was informed of Johnson's apprehensions. Long recorded, moreover (O. R., 36, part 1, p1086), that he received at 3:30 A.M. on May 12 an order from General Johnson, endorsed by General Ewell, to send back the artillery. Had that paper referred to General Lee, his endorsement probably would have been noted also. The evidence is thus in conflict, and the question has to be left in the measure of doubt expressed in the text.

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61 21 S. H. S. P., 252.

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62 Venable in 14 S. H. S. P., 529.

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63 Major E. M. Williamson to the writer, June 4, 1932; same author in Danville, Va. Register, May 14, 1930.

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64 Robert Stiles: Four Years under Marse Robert (cited hereafter as Stiles), 259.

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65 33 S. H. S. P., 339.

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66 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1044‑45, 1072‑73, 1079‑80; 21 S. H. S. P., 240‑41, 242‑43; 33 ibid., 252, 338; LaBree, 164‑65.

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67 33 S. H. S. P., 339; O. R., 36, part 1, pp1078‑79.

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68 Gordon, 276; Venable in 14 S. H. S. P., 529‑30.

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69 21 S. H. S. P., 246.

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70S. H. S. P., 34.

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71 G. W. Nichols: A Soldier's Story of His Own Regiment, 151.

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72 Gordon, 278. Cf. Long, 341, for a refutation of the contemporary claim that Lee sought death in this charge because he despaired of success.

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73 Gordon, 277; 21 S. H. S. P., 246.

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74 32 S. H. S. P., 203. There is much confusion as to the exact sequence of events during this familiar episode. The writer has followed chiefly the account of W. W. Smith, who was close at hand, young at the time, and apt to remember (cf. 8 S. H. S. P., 35; 32 ibid., 212). Another excellent contemporary account, from The Richmond Sentinel, is reproduced in Marginalia, 229. For other accounts see 14 S. H. S. P., 530; 21 ibid., 246; 32 ibid., 200 ff.; Gordon, 278 ff. The sergeant who led Lee to the rear is said to have been William A. Compton, of Front Royal, Va. (32 S. H. S. P., 203). There is some disagreement whether the episode occurred in front of the Forty-ninth or of the Fifty-second Virginia (cf. 8 S. H. S. P., 34, and 32 ibid., 212). Both regiments claimed that Lee was led back through their ranks.

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75 21 S. H. S. P., 246‑47.

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76 33 S. H. S. P., 339.

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77 21 S. H. S. P., 247.

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78 14 S. H. S. P., 530.

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79 O. R., 36, part 1, p1082.

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80S. H. S. P., 107.

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81 Early, 355.

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82 Wilcox MS. report, 39.

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83 Sorrel, 246.

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84 This account of the fourth "Lee to the rear" is paraphrased from a letter written to General N. H. Harris, Nov. 24, 1871, by Colonel Charles S. Venable, who was a witness to the whole scene (8 S. H. S. P., 107).

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85 Wilcox's MS. report, 39; O. R., 36, part 1, pp1093‑94.

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86 Fitz Lee, 336. Cf. Rosser, loc. cit., 14: "Of all things, General Lee most disliked to lose ground after taking his position for battle."

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87 Alexander, 525.

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88 Instead of withdrawing his batteries on the evening of May 11, in accordance with general instructions to prepare for a move, Alexander "had his ammunition chests in the trenches mounted on the caissons, and [had the] gun carriages taken to the vicinity of their guns, but retained the latter in position as the safest course" (Pendleton in O. R., 36, part 1, p1044. Cf. ibid., part 1, p1057; Alexander, 518).

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89 Irvine Walker, op. cit., 169, said that after the battle Lee sent R. H. Anderson a letter "thanking him for the masterly handling of his corps and commending his men for their gallantry."

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90 Wilcox's MS. report, 40.

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91 Wilcox's MS. report, 40; Early, 356; Lane's report, which is not printed in the Official Records, appears in 9 S. H. S. P., 145 ff. This has been the least understood incident of the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, but Wilcox's report, which is very clear and explicit, made plain the exact nature of what was planned and executed.

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92 W. W. Chamberlaine, 100. Lee exposed himself so often during the course of the campaign that he drew many protests from the general officers as well as from the men in the ranks. "I wish," he said, in answer to one such protest, "I know where my place is on the battlefield; wherever I go some one tells me it is not the place for me" (Jones, L. and L., 317).

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93 3 C. M. H., 453; Fitz Lee, 355; Welch, 97.

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94 O. R., 36, part 1, p1094.

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95 Bratton had succeeded the able Micah Jenkins, killed in the Wilderness.

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96 O. R., 36, part 1, p1057.

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97S. H. S. P., 156.

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98 Cf. O. R., 51, part 2, p922.

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99 John O. Casler: Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade, 323‑24. Casler stated that Lee remained on the line all night, but may have been mistaken in this.

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100 O. R., 36, part 1, p1073.

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101 3 C. M. H., 454.

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102 O. R., 36, part 1, p1030.

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103 O. R., 36, part 1, p1072.

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104 O. R., 36, part 1, pp14, 192. The report of General M. R. Patrick, provost marshal general, showed that from May 1 through May 12, the number captured was 7078 (ibid., p280). So heavy had Lee's losses been that all the survivors of Johnson's division were united after the battle into one small brigade, which Colonel William Terry was later promoted to command. In this consolidation the remnant of the "Stonewall Brigade," Jackson's first command, lost its identity (O. R., 36, part 3, p813; 21 S. H. S. P., 237).

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105 O. R., 36, part 1, pp1030, 1073, 1079, 1082, 1094.

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106S. H. S. P., 107 ff., 140 ff.

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107 W. Gordon McCabe, an eye-witness, in R. E. Lee, Jr., 124‑25.

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108 37 S. H. S. P., 95.

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109 Cooke, 403; 3 B. and L., 243 n. It is apparent from the latter reference that Lee did not receive the news of Stuart's wounding until the 12th.

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110 R. E. Lee, Jr., 125. The formal announcement to the army of the death of Stuart appears in O. R., 36, part 3, p800.

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111 O. R., 36, part 1, p172.

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112 O. R., 36, part 2, pp989‑90.


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