Anxious as had been the months of November and December, 1864, there had been some hours when Lee could think of other things than troop movements, and after the repulse of the attack on Fort Fisher, while Sherman waited in Savannah, there came a brief respite.1 Fortunately, Lee's health continued good, though he looked much older.2 He rarely showed any sign of his gnawing anxiety and was ceaselessly active.3 After he had completed his inspection of the lines on the right, early in November, he had returned to Petersburg, and then, about November 25, had decided to move headquarters farther toward the right, whither Grant seemed perpetually to be extending his flank in his efforts to reach the Southside Railroad. Lee had wished to remain in a tent, where his visitors would be no disturbance to others,4 but Mrs. Lee and Walter Taylor between them had prevailed on him to accept the invitation of the Turnbull family and to establish himself at their home, Edge Hill, which was •about two miles west of Petersburg, on a healthy, convenient, and accessible site. "After locating the General and my associates of the staff," Taylor wrote at the time, "I concluded that I would have to occupy one of the miserable little back rooms, but the gentleman of the house suggested that I should take the parlor. I think that the General was pleased with his room, and on entering mine he remarked: 'Ah, you are finely fixed. Couldn't you find any other room? 'No,' I replied, 'but this will do. I can make myself tolerably comfortable here.' He was struck dumb with amazement at my impudence, and soon vanished."5 The quarters were, indeed, the best Lee had ever p526 had during his campaigning,6 a fact which probably caused him some inward twinges, for Taylor believed the General was never so well satisfied as when he was living like a Spartan.7 But if the rooms were pleasant, headquarters fare was of the scantiest. When General Ewell visited him, Lee insisted that his guest have his lunch, which consisted of two cold sweet potatoes.8 An Irish M. P. who came to Edge Hill remarked to Mrs. Pryor, who had furnished him a room, because Lee could not, "You should have seen 'Uncle Robert's' dinner today, madam! He had two biscuits and he gave me one!" Another day the Irishman reported, "What a glorious dinner today, madam! Somebody sent 'Uncle Robert' a box of sardines."9
Lee's chief recreation, during many unoccupied hours, was entertaining children. The Federals had ceased bombarding the town during November, but on the 28th they had opened fire again,10 deliberately, Lee thought, for, as he remarked to Reverend Henry C. Clay, "whenever a house was set on fire, we saw the fire of the enemy increased and converging on that point."11 Lee was distressed that the bursting of the shells kept his young friends from playing in the city streets and occasionally he would send in a wagon and bring them out to headquarters, where they could frolic, free of danger. One day he was riding back to town with a party of youngsters, when a young guest began to whip the mules to make them go faster. "Don't do that, my little child," he said. The girl forgot after a few minutes and struck the beasts a second time. "Anne," he said, sternly but sadly, "you must not do that again. My conscience is not entirely at ease about using these animals for this extra service, for they are half fed, as we all are."12 Once he spent a few moments playing with a child who was sick abed,13 and on a Sunday when he entered a crowded chapel and found a plainly dressed little miss vainly looking for a seat, he escorted her to the pew that was reserved for him, and had her remain at his side during the service.14
p527 "Yesterday afternoon," he wrote Mrs. Lee in January, "three little girls walked into my room, each with a small basket. The eldest carried some fresh eggs, laid by her own hens; the second, some pickles made by her mother; the third, some popcorn grown in her garden. . . . I have not had so pleasant a visit for a long time. I fortunately was able to fill their baskets with apples, which distressed poor Bryan, and I begged them to bring me nothing but kisses and to keep the eggs, corn, etc., for themselves."15
Another recreation, though rare, was that of reading a new book. He lingered affectionately, no doubt, over the life‑story of that admiring old friend and chief from whom, in April, 1861, he had found it so difficult to part. "I have put in the bag General Scott's autobiography, which I thought you might like to read," he wrote Mrs. Lee late in the winter. "The General, of course, stands out prominently, and does not hide his light under a bushel, but appears the bold, sagacious, truthful man he is."16
His rides into Petersburg and his visits to Richmond were a comfort to him, of course. In Petersburg he called often on Mrs. A. P. Hill, the young and lovely wife of the commander of the Third Corps. "Gen. Lee comes very frequently to see me," Mrs. Hill wrote her mother, all in a breath, "he is the best and greatest man on earth, brought me the last time some delicious apples."17 When the General "went home" to Richmond, it was always to find Mrs. Lee more and more a cripple, though she was interested in everything and kept her needles busy knitting socks for the soldiers.18
The capital was more crowded than ever, dejected19 and negligently dilapidated.20 Sometimes, from the sad seniors, Lee would turn away to the children. "I don't want to see you," he would p528 say half in jest and half in reproof, "you are too gloomy and despondent; where is ? and he would name the little girl of the family.21 The young belles of the town were much in doubt whether it was proper to have dances at so dark a time, and a committee of them asked his advice, with the assurance that if he disapproved, they would not dance a single step. "Why, of course, my dear child," he answered. "My boys need to be heartened up when they get their furloughs. Go on, look your prettiest, and be just as nice to them as ever you can be!"22
At Christmas time, when Savannah had fallen and the fate of Wilmington seemed to hang by a thread, he went to Richmond to see his family,23 but he could not stay more than a day. On his return he learned that some of his friends had sent him a saddle of mutton to brighten the mess at Edge Hill. It went astray, however, and never reached him. "If the soldiers get it," he said, simply, in report its non-arrival, "I shall be content. I can do very well without it. In fact, I should rather they should have it than I."24 At a Yuletide dinner in Petersburg he was no little embarrassed because he wanted to save his portion of turkey so that he could carry it to one of his staff officers who, as he explained, had been very ill and had "nothing to eat but corn bread and sweet-potato coffee."25 When a barrel of turkeys arrived for himself and his staff he ordered his fowl sent to the hospital, and he announced his purpose in such a tone that the other officers sadly repacked the barrel and sent all its contents to the scanty mess of the convalescents.26 He discouraged personal gifts as far as he could. Daily, for three months after he came to Petersburg, the wife of Judge W. W. Crump, a distinguished jurist of Richmond, sent fresh bread to his mess by a special messenger. "Although it is very delicious," he felt constrained to write her, "I must beg you to cease sending it. I cannot consent to tax you so heavily. In these times no one can supply their families and furnish p529 the Army, too. We have plenty to eat and our appetites are so good that they do not require tempting."27
There was much to be done, during this period and throughout the winter, in maintaining the morale of the officers, for many of them now regarded the Southern cause as lost. In their private speculations as to how long the Confederacy could survive, few affirmed that even the Army of Northern Virginia could resist the enemy longer than July, 1865.28 Carelessness increased, drinking became worse. Lee had constantly to be stirring some of his subordinates to vigilance. Occasionally he would snub a man whom he thought had been needlessly absent;29 sometimes he would present his coldest mien to those he found loafing at headquarters;30 if an officer seemed to be too dainty about his food, Lee would chaff him with exaggerated attention.31 When a man complained of injustice on the part of his superiors, Lee would urge him to his full duty and not to fear the consequences.32 The sick or captured officer was always his special care.33 To the family of wounded or captured men, as well as to the kin of one who was killed, he was quick to send his condolence.34 Furloughs he had to decline, even in a case so pathetic as that of General Pendleton, who wished to go home to baptize the posthumous child of his son "Sandie," who had been killed in Early's Valley campaign.35
So far as circumstances permitted, Lee continued to give encouragement and to administer rebukes by tactful suggestion.36 Riding out one day in January, 1865, he inquired of General John B. Gordon and of General Heth concerning the progress being made on two heavy redoubts that were under construction on Hatcher's Run. Gordon assured him that his fort was nearly finished. Heth said, with some embarrassment, "I think the fort on my side of the run also about finished, sir."
p530 Lee decided to go with them and to see for himself. Gordon's works were in the conditions described. On Heth's front, the digging had scarcely begun.
"General," said Lee, "you say this fort is about finished?"
"I must have misunderstood my engineers, sir."
"But you did not speak of your engineers. You spoke of the fort as nearly completed."
Heth was riding a very spirited horse that had been presented to his wife, and in his humiliation he must have tugged at the reins, for the animal began to prance about excitedly.
"General," said Lee, in his blandest manner, "doesn't Mrs. Heth ride that horse occasionally?"
"Well, General, you know that I am very much interested in Mrs. Heth's safety. I fear that horse is too nervous for her to ride without danger, and I suggest that in order to make him more quiet, you ride him at least once a day to this fort." That was all, but it was a rebuke that sank into the heart of Heth.37
One evening the General came upon a group of young officers who were working over a bit of mathematics, drinking all the while from two tin cups that were replenished at the mouth of a jug that had a guilty, bibulous look. Lee solved their problem for them and went his way with no reference to their refreshment; but the next morning, when one of the group began to recount a very curious dream of the night, Lee quietly observed, "That is not at all remarkable. When young gentlemen discuss at midnight mathematical problems, the unknown quantities of which are a stone jug and two tin cups, they may expect to have strange dreams."38 He was always careful, however, never to rebuke an officer of rank in the presence of others. On a tour of inspection with Gordon he found some earthworks that had been very badly located, and he said so in plain words. Turning, however, he noticed some young officers within earshot; so he added p531 audibly, "But these works were laid out by skilled engineers, who probably know their business better than we do."39
If Lee had on occasion to admonish officers during that dreadful winter, he likewise had occasion to be grateful to some of them, and to none more than to Brigadier General Archibald Gracie for an act of a kind that Lee best appreciated. One day in November he had been on the lines with Gracie, who commanded a brigade in Johnson's division. Being perhaps unfamiliar with the deadliness of the sharpshooting on that part of the front, Lee carelessly stood up on the parapet. Gracie, without a word, instantly interposed his body between that of Lee and the enemy. Both were pulled back over the works before either was hit, but Lee never forgot the spirit Gracie exhibited. A few weeks later, on December 3, Gracie was killed by a fragment of shrapnel on a point on the fortifications where there was not supposed to be any danger.40
Through these anxious days, as always, Lee's reliance was on a Power which, as he wrote Mr. Davis at the time he recalled Rodes's division from the Valley, "will cause all things to work together for our good."41 Again he told Mrs. Lee: "I pray daily and almost hourly to our Heavenly Father to come to the relief of you and our afflicted country. I know He will order all things for our good, and we must be content."42 The type of his prayer book having become too small for his vision, he mentioned the fact one day to Mrs. Churchill J. Gibson, wife of the rector of Grace Church, Petersburg, and said that he intended to give it to some soldier. He remarked, as he spoke, that the volume was the one he had used during the Mexican War. Mrs. Gibson at once offered to give him several new copies of the prayer book in exchange for so interesting a memento. Lee gladly agreed and distributed the new books through one of his chaplains to men who asked for them. In each copy he inscribed a line of presentation.43 Yet, faithfully as he used his new book of devotion, with p532 the humility that marked his every act, he doubted if his own prayers would avail. In an exchange of letters with General Pendleton, during the autumn, when Pendleton explained that he had omitted to say grace at the General's table because he did not know his chief had asked him to do so, Lee said "[I] am deeply obliged to you for your fervent prayers in my behalf. No one stands in greater need of them. My feeble petitions I dare hardly hope will be answered."44
A nation's prayers, and not an individual's only, were needed as January, 1865, passed. Hourly along the line of •thirty-five miles from the Williamsburg road to the unstable right flank on Hatcher's Run the pickets kept their rifles barking, and the sharpshooters watched the embrasures on the reddish-yellow parapet across the fields. Nightly the fuse of each bomb could be traced, like giants' fireworks, from the mouth of the mortar through the high trajectory and back again to earth. Never was there silence, never a day without casualties; yet from the time of the raid on Belfield in December, 1864, until February, 1865, there was no large action on the Richmond-Petersburg front, largely because of the condition of the roads.45 Elsewhere, calamity followed on the heels of disaster. Before the middle of January it became apparent that Sherman would soon start his advance from Savannah toward Charleston.46 There were only scattered forces to oppose him. Kershaw's old brigade, now under General James Conner, was immediately ordered to Charleston.47 Cavalry was much needed there. After conference with President Davis, Lee dispatched Butler's division to the Palmetto State and authorized General Hampton to go thither, also, in the hope that his great reputation in South Carolina would bring new volunteers to the colors.48 In retrospect, Lee regarded this as the great mistake he made during the campaign, because it crippled him in dealing with p533 subsequent Federal operations against his right flank.49 When the movement was ordered there seemed no alternative to it, unless Sherman was to be permitted to advance unhindered up the coast.
Before Butler's cavalry could get under way for South Carolina, a great Federal fleet again appeared off Wilmington, convoying an infantry force on transports. This time there was no delay and no experimentation with powder boats. Under the direction of General Alfred H. Terry, the troops were thrown ashore and on January 13 a bombardment of Fort Fisher were begun. Before the early winter's sun had set, two days later, the Union flag was flying over the shattered works, and the last port of the Confederacy was closed.50
With Wilmington lost and Sherman about to march northward, the alarm in Richmond grew into a frenzy. Davis was blamed, as the executive of a waning cause always is, both for what he had done and what he failed to accomplish. Some of those who had been so insistent on a rigid interpretation of the Federal Constitution in 1860 now began to clamor for a dictator. Lee was to be the man. The President must step aside and place all power in the hands of the one person who had the genius to save the South. Longstreet had hinted at something of the sort in December, and Lee had ignored it.51 To his mind, the very suggestion was abhorrent and a reflection on his loyalty as a soldier and a citizen. So far as the record shows, nobody ever presumed to mention the subject to him personally. At length, as a sort of desperate compromise with Congress, the President consented to the appointment of a general-in‑chief.
As it happened, the nearest approach to an open break between General Lee and the President had occurred only a few days before. Late in January or early in February52 there was an exchange p534 of correspondence regarding the destruction of tobacco in the warehouses of Richmond, to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy. President Davis telegraphed Lee, in effect, "Rumor said to be based on orders given by you create concern and obstruct necessary legislation. Come over. I wish to have your views on the subject." Lee replied in cipher, which Davis had employed, that it was difficult for him to leave Petersburg. "Send me the measures," his telegram concluded, "and I will send you my views." This made Davis very angry. He replied at some length, and ended: "Rest assured I will not ask your views in answer to measures. Your counsels are no longer wanted in this matter." Lee received this in silence when it was decoded, then quietly ordered his horse, rode to the railroad and took the train to Richmond. When he returned he said nothing of what had passed between the President and himself.53 Evidently, however, all misunderstandings were cleared up for, on February 6, Davis named Lee to the newly created office.54 The appointment came just at the time when the negotiations for peace at the so‑called Hampton Roads conference had failed55 and when the Federals were active on Lee's right flank. He had his hands full, more than full, and was under no illusions as to what he could do in general command. He wrote characteristically:
"I know I am indebted entirely to your indulgence and kind consideration for this honorable position. I must beg of you to continue these same feelings to me in the future and allow me to refer to you at all times for counsel and advice. I cannot otherwise hope to be of service to you or the country. If I can relieve you from a portion of the constant labor and anxiety which now presses upon you, and maintain a harmonious action between the great armies, I shall be more than compensated for the addition to my present burdens. I must, however, rely upon the several commanders for the conduct of the military operations with which they are charged, and hold them responsible. In the event of their neglect or failure I must ask for their removal."56
He did not attempt to do more than he indicated in this letter p535 and he did not consider that his appointment conferred the right to assign generals to command armies. "I can only employ such troops and officers," he said, "as may be placed at my disposal by the War Department. Those withheld or relieved from service are not at my disposal."57 It was all he could do to watch Grant, to conserve the strength of his dwindling army, and to combat the dark forces of hunger and disintegration that had long been at work. In December the shortage of provisions had become more acute than ever. No salt meat was available in the depots, and none was arriving from the South.58 In the emergency the navy lent the army 1500 barrels of salt beef and pork,59 but the commissary general confessed himself desperate,60 and a special secret report to Congress bore out his dark view of the South's resources.61
In January heavy rains temporarily broke down transportation on the Piedmont Railroad, which linked Lee's army with the western Carolinas. About the same time floods cut off supplies from the upper valley of the James River. Lee then had only two days' rations for his men62 and already had scoured clean the country within reach of his foragers. In this crisis, at the instance of the War Department, which fell back in every emergency on the magic of his name and on the compelling power of his appeal, he asked the people to contribute food for the army.63 Almost before he could ascertain whether appreciable results would follow this call, he had to march a heavy column to the extreme right to meet new Federal demonstrations on Hatcher's Run. This was on February 5, the eve of the very worst weather of a bad winter.64 p536 The military results were negligible, but for three night and three days a large part of the Confederate forces had to remain in line of battle, with no meat and little food of any sort.65 The suffering of the men so deeply aroused Lee that he broke over the usual restraint he displayed in dealing with the civil authorities. "If some change is not made and the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results," he wrote the Secretary of War. "The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment." He did not demand the resignation of the grumbling Northrop, the commissary general of subsistence, but his reference to the necessity of a change was not lost on President Davis. "This is too sad to be patiently considered," Davis endorsed on Lee's dispatch, "and cannot have occurred without criminal neglect or gross incapacity."66 Within a few days, Northrop was quietly relieved of duty and was succeeded by Brigadier General I. M. St. John, who had much distinguished himself by his diligent management of the mining and nitre bureau.67 St. John was most reluctant to take the post,68 but he immediately organized a system by which supplies were to be collected from the farmers, hauled to the railroad and dispatched directly to the army, without being handled through central depots.69 Lee welcomed the change,70 and was encouraged by it to believe that if communications could be maintained, the army would be better fed.71 The people, he reasoned, "have simply to choose whether they will contribute such . . . stores as they can possibly spare to support an army that has borne and done so much in their behalf, or retain those stores to maintain the army of the enemy engaged in their subjugation."72 This view was at once made the basis of an ingenious appeal for food, addressed to the people of Virginia by a special committee of Richmond ministers and other citizens. A plan was outlined by which a farmer p537 could ration a soldier for six months — much as money was raised in America during the war with Germany to feed Belgian babies and Armenian orphans.73
Anxiously, agonizingly, Lee awaited the response of the people. When he was asked early in March for an appraisal of the military situation, he postulated everything, in his reply, on transportation and on the willingness of the people to make further sacrifices. "Unless the men and animals can be subsisted," he said, "the army cannot be kept together, and our present lines must be abandoned. Nor can it be moved to any other position where it can operate to advantage without provisions to enable it to move in a body. . . . Everything, in my opinion, has depended and still depends upon the disposition and feelings of the people. Their representatives can best decide how they will bear the difficulties and sufferings of their condition and how they will respond to the demands which the public safety requires."74
The representatives of Virginia in the Congress were brought together to answer Lee's question. He was present and told them of lengthened lines and thinning forces, of the privations the soldiers had to meet, and of the scarcity of food for them and for the horses. The Virginians replied that the people of the state, with loyalty and devotion, would meet any new demand made on them,75 but they seemed to General Lee to content themselves with words and assertions of their faith in their constituents. They proposed nothing; they did nothing. Lee said no more — the facts were warning enough — but he went from the building and made his way to his residence with distress and indignation battling in his heart. When dinner was over, Custis sat down by the fire to smoke a cigar and to read the news, but Lee paced the floor restlessly. "He was so much engrossed in his own thoughts," wrote a silent young observer, years afterwards, "that he seemed to be oblivious to the presence of a third person. I watched him closely as he went to the end of the room, turned and tramped back again, with his hands behind him. I saw he was deeply troubled. Never had I seen him look so grave.
p538 "Suddenly he stopped in front of his son and faced him: 'Well, Mr. Custis,' he said, 'I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving. I told them the condition the men were in, and that something must be done at once, but I can't get them to do anything, or they are unable to do anything.' . . . there was some bitterness in his tones. . . .
"The General resumed his promenade, but after a few more turns he again stopped in the same place and resumed: 'Mr. Custis, when this war began I was opposed to it, bitterly opposed to it, and I told these people that unless every man should do his whole duty, they would repent it; and now' (he paused slightly as if to give emphasis to his words) 'they will repent.' "76
It was on this visit to Richmond, or on another about the same time, that he was chatting with a group of gentlemen at the President's house when one of them said: "Cheer up, General, we have done a good work for you today. The legislature has passed a bill to raise an additional 15,000 men for you." Lee, who had been very silent and thoughtful, bowed his acknowledgments. "Yes," he said, "passing resolutions is kindly meant, but getting the men is another matter." He hesitated for a moment, and his eyes flashed. "Yet," he went on, "if I had 15,000 fresh troops, things would look very different."77
Outraged as Lee was by the apparent incapacity of Congress, he warmly encouraged General St. John to do his utmost in applying the same methods of direct appeal the new commissary general had used with notable success in collecting nitre; but as Lee sought to find food for his men he saw new military difficulties added to those of transportation, weather, distress, and growing public despair. The danger of the destruction of all lines of communication with the South and the occupation of the only territory p539 from which he was now drawing supplies were daily brought nearer and nearer. "The perils and privations of the troops," in the opinion of an observant colonel who saw him often, "were never absent from his thought."78
Bound up, now as always, with subsistence for the men was the old, tragic question of provender for the horses during a winter when there was no pasturage. It was the experience of 1862‑63 and 1863‑64 more poignantly repeated. Many of the army wagons were used, during most periods of quiet, to collect food and bring it to the railroad. When the army was in a country that had not been stripped of food the wagons could gather enough to make up for the deficiencies of the regular supply from the depots.79 Now, the territory around Petersburg having been swept of the last provisions, such horses as were not too feeble and too ill-fed to be sent out, had to be used at a long distance from the army, in North Carolina and in western Virginia.80 Those that remained had then to be fed at places where inability to employ them in foraging made the army wholly dependent on what came by railroad. The familiar "vicious circle" thus was rounded more speedily than ever, and the mobility of the army and its range of vision were hourly decreased. There was danger that the troops might remain where they were until, in a literal sense, they had no horses to move their trains. Yet Lee could not circumvent this by an early departure from Petersburg, because the mud was so heavy the teams could not pull the wagons. He had to wait until the roads were better, even if he had to risk immobility then.81
What was true of the wagon trains applied also, of course, to the artillery. The horses had to be taken from most of the guns and scattered throughout the countryside, at a distance from the line, in order to keep them alive. As late as March 20 it had not been possible to call in even the animals of the horse artillery.82 Many commands had to be consolidated and reorganized because there were not enough horses for all the batteries.83
The cavalry suffered with the wagon train and with the artillery. p540 No substantial force could be kept close to the infantry. When Butler's division was sent off, the horses were subsisted in North Carolina.84 Two other divisions were scattered in small units because supplies could not be transported to the places where the troops should have been concentrated. At the time of the operations against Hatcher's Run, in February, W. H. F. Lee's division had to be brought •forty miles, by roundabout roads, from Stony Creek, where forage was being delivered.85 Early in March, when it was necessary to send out cavalry on a forced reconnaissance, five days elapsed before Fitz Lee could get his men together and start after the enemy.86 Rooney Lee, called up at a critical hour, had to be returned to Stony Creek on the very day Lee thought that Grant's cavalry was being heavily reinforced.87 Before the end of the winter Lee was uncertain whether he would be able to maintain even a small cavalry force around Richmond.88 There was virtually nothing he could do to maintain the arm of service on which he had to depend not only for early information of the enemy's movements but also for the protection of his communications and for the safety of his right flank from a sudden turning movement. He urged the government to new endeavor in procuring horses,89 and when it was reported that animals could not be had for lack of money, he frankly advocated the seizure of cotton and tobacco, their sale for gold and the purchase of horses with this medium.90 Nothing coming of this, he was compelled to extemporize new tactics. Infantry were to be stationed as close as possible to any point whence the enemy was expected to start a raid, and were then to be moved rapidly to support the thin cavalry that might be thrown forward — a scheme that seems to have been proposed by Longstreet.91 This meant, of course, that the defensive line had to be weakened, and the danger of a break increased by this detachment of infantry,92 even when p541 troopers who had no horses were put in the trenches. It was a grim plight for an army that once had boasted a Stuart and stout squadrons of faultlessly mounted boys who had mocked the awkward cavalry of McClellan as they had ridden around his army.
Desertion continued to sap the man-power of the army. After Christmas, when the winter chill entered into doubting hearts, and every mail told the Georgia and Carolina troops of the enemy's nearer approach to their homes, more and more men slipped off in the darkness. Desertions between February 15 and March 18 numbered 2934, nearly 8 per cent of the effective strength of the army.93 From Pickett's division alone, a command that had won the plaudits of the world, 512 soldiers deserted about the middle of March, during the progress of a single move.94 There was suspicion that men from different brigades were communicating with one another and were arranging rendezvous.95 When they left, taking their arms with them,96 they usually went home, but not a few of the weaker-spirited joined the enemy. From one division, a good one at that, 178 were reported to have "gone over into the Union," in the language of the trenches.97 Conditions became so bad that when it was necessary to move one of Pickett's brigades through Richmond, Longstreet's adjutant general did not think it safe to let men wait long in the streets.98
The reasons for this wastage in an army that had been distinguished for nothing more than for its morale were all too apparent — hunger, delayed pay, the growing despair of the public mind, and, perhaps more than anything else, woeful letters from wives and families telling of danger or privation at home.99 Lee noted with much distress that the largest number of desertions were among the North Carolina regiments, which previously had fought as valiantly as any troops in his command.100 The army was melting away faster than was the snow.
Lee had been able to do little about subsistence and the supply p542 of horses, but desertion and the conditions it brought about were military problems. He faced them. After offering amnesty,101 he had to enforce very sternly the law for the execution of deserters who were recaptured, and when clemency was shown in a case where a court-martial had decreed the death penalty, he telegraphed: "Hundreds of men are deserting nightly, and I cannot keep the army together unless examples are made of such cases."102 He sent a large detachment to western North Carolina to bring back deserters, and he felt compelled to take from his insecurely held trenches a whole brigade to guard the crossings of the Roanoke River.103 The articles of war on desertion and the regulations forbidding any man to propose such a course, even in jest, were read throughout the army for three days.104 Longstreet issued an order in which he announced that he would recommend for commission with the proposed Negro regiments any man who thwarted the attempt of another soldier to desert.105
Despair had not entered every heart. If hundreds deserted, there were thousands who had resolved that neither hunger nor cold, neither danger nor the bad example of feebler spirits could induce them to leave "Marse Robert." Many of them "came to look upon the cause as General Lee's cause, and they fought for it because they loved him. To them he represented cause, country and all."106 The soldiers' letters of this dark period present a hundred contrasts. One Marylander wrote in January: "There are a good many of us who believe this shooting match has been carried on long enough. A government that has run out of rations can't expect to do much more fighting, and to keep on in a reckless and wanton expenditure of human life. Our rations are all the way •from a pint to a quart of cornmeal a day, and occasionally a piece of bacon large enough to grease your palate."107 A young North Carolinian, in precisely the opposite mood, expressed his regret that the people of his state were despairing because of the loss of Fort Fisher. "If some of them could come up here," he wrote, "and catch the good spirits of the soldiers, I think they p543 would feel better."108 Lee understood the fears of the faint-hearted as much as he valued the courage of those who, knowing the cause to be hopeless, determined to sustain it to the end. In his appeals to all his men, he spoke now as a father to his sons.109 The little that he could do for their comfort, he did with warm affection. One winter's day, as he and his staff were riding along, he met four private soldiers plodding through the mud toward the lines. Stopping, he asked where they were going, and when they explained that they had been to Petersburg and were afraid they would not reach their posts before roll-call, he had some of his officers take the men up behind them on their horses and carry them to the trenches.110 When a sergeant of the fine old Fourth South Carolina came to Lee's headquarters and asked for transportation on a furlough he had earned, the General was distressed that the railroad pass had not been issued with the furlough. "They ought to have given you transportation without putting you to this trouble," he said.111 He was accessible to all his men, even to the cooks. When one Negro attendant presented himself at Edge Hill, Lee had him admitted.
"General Lee," the man began, "I been wantin' to see you for a long time. I's a soldier."
"Ah," Lee answered, "to what army do you belong — to the Union army or to the Southern army?"
"Oh, General, I belong to your army."
"Well, have you been shot?"
"No, sah, I ain't been shot yet."
"How is that?" Lee inquired. "Nearly all of our men get shot."
Of the men to whom the heart of Lee went out, the wounded always came first. One day he was journeying over to Richmond for an interview with the President. As the train neared the city a crippled soldier got up and struggled to put on his overcoat. p544 Nobody in the crowded car did anything to help him. Observing this Lee rose and assisted the veteran.113
After he had seen that he could not count on the employment of the reserves, Lee had exerted himself in the early winter to organize the local defense troops in Richmond, but he found it progressively more difficult to get them out as the weather grew worse.114 He had sought, also, to retain the Negro laborers over the Christmas holidays.115 Although he had previously had a low opinion of the fighting quality of Negro troops, he saw now that the South must use them, if possible. After the beginning of 1865 he declared himself for their enlistment, coupled with a system of "gradual and general emancipation."116 Congress hesitated and debated long, but at last, on March 13, the President signed a bill to bring Negroes into the ranks, though without any pledge of emancipation, such as Lee had considered necessary to the success of the new policy.117 Bad as was the law, Lee undertook at once to set up a proper organization for the Negro troops.118 While Congress had argued, Virginia had acted in providing for the enrollment of Negroes, slave and free, in the military service. On March 24 Lee applied for the maximum number allowable under the statute of the commonwealth.119 "The services of these men," he said, "are now necessary to enable us to oppose the enemy."
He urged on his lieutenants new economy of force and he strengthened his lines against sudden attack.120 Personal appeals were made to returned prisoners of war to waive the usual furlough and to rejoin their commands;121 all able-bodied men were p545 taken from the bureaus;122 all "leaves" for officers were suspended;123 new combat rules and revised marching instructions were issued to meet changed conditions.124 All that Lee had learned in nearly four years of war, all that his quiet energy inspired, all that his associates could suggest or his official superiors devise — all was thrown into a last effort to organize and strengthen the thin, shivering, hungry Army of Northern Virginia for the last grapple with the well-fed, well-clad, ever-increasing host that crowded the countryside opposite Lee's lines.
1 Taylor had concluded on December 20 that the enemy would not again become aggressive during the winter. Taylor MSS.
2 Sorrel, 258. 2 R. W. C. D., 360; James A. Graham Papers, 199; Long, 396‑97; 3 N. C. Regts., 381. Surgeon Monteiro remarked of Lee in October: ". . . I have never looked into such eyes as his. . . . There was a deep meaning in his steady gaze that I have never seen in any other eyes than his" (A. Monteiro: War Reminiscences . . . , 14‑15).
3 Cooke, 428‑29.
4 R. E. Lee, Jr., 140.
5 Taylor's Four Years, 141.
6 Taylor MSS., Dec. 12, 1864.
7 Taylor's Four Years, 141.
8 Jones, 171.
9 Mrs. Roger A. Pryor: My Day, 235.
11 Lay's memoirs in Atlantic Monthly, March, 1932, p340.
12 Mrs. Campbell Pryor's MS. Memoirs, p6.
13 Jones, 410.
14 Ibid., 410.
15 R. E. Lee, Jr., 142‑43. It was characteristic of Mrs. Lee that she began a correspondence with these generous girls, whose mother, Mrs. Nottingham, had "refuged" to Petersburg from the vicinity of Eastville, Northampton County, Va. Photostats of three letters to Miss Fanny Nottingham, one of the trio, are in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society.
16 R. E. Lee, Jr., 147.
17 Magill MSS., n. d. but evidently of the winter of 1864‑65 as the letter was written from Petersburg.
18 Cf. R. E. Lee, Jr., 141. Among the Richmond visits that had not been mentioned in the text was one on Sept. 12‑14, 1864 (Taylor MSS., Sept. 12, 1864; 2 R. W. C. D., 282), and one at the end of December, 1864 (O. R., 51, part 2, p1055).
19 Cf. 2 R. W. C. D., 372, 384.
20 Miss Brock, 315.
21 Mrs. Mary Pegram Anderson, in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907.
22 Mrs. Burton Harrison, 150. For some pathetic and often amusing glimpses of Lee in Richmond during the last months of the war, see 19 S. H. S. P., 382‑83; 20 Confederate Veteran, 279‑81; Harpers Magazine, vol. 122, p333.
23 J. P. Smith in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907.
24 R. E. Lee, Jr., 142.
25 Mrs. Campbell Pryor's MS. Memoirs. p5; Mrs. Roger A. Pryor: My Day, 234.
26 Harpers Magazine, vol. 122, p333.
27 R. E. Lee to Mrs. [W. W.] Crump, Sept. 21, 1864, MS., for a photostat of which the writer is indebted to Miss Henrietta B. Crump, to whose assistance, in a hundred other ways, this book bears witness.
28 History of McGowan's Brigade, 198.
29 Taylor MSS., Dec. 18, 1864.
30 W. W. Chamberlaine, 110.
31 F. W. Dawson, 125.
32 Cf. the case of General E. M. Law in Lee's Dispatches, 304.
33 General Grimes, op. cit., 100, related that when he went to G. H. Q. on March 13, 1865, Lee observed that he was ill and insisted that he drink a glass of wine — one of the few instances where he ever offered even mild stimulants.
34 Cf. Mrs. Roger A. Pryor: My Day, 216.
35 Pendleton, 380‑81.
36 Cf. Sorrel, 269‑70.
37 The version here followed is that of Gordon (op. cit., 379‑80), the only other auditor of this famous colloquy. Gordon did not mention Heth's name, but as he said the officer in question was in temporary command of Hill's corps during the illness of the lieutenant general, only Heth could have been meant. Other versions of the incident appear in Jones, 243, and Long, 388.
38 Jones, 243; Long, 400.
39 Jones, 287.
42 "Early in January, 1865," R. E. Lee, Jr., 143.
44 Pendleton, 375‑76.
45 ". . . now [January 13] the roads are worse than I ever saw them before" (James A. Graham Papers, 206).
48 E. L. Wells, 388 ff.
49 See R. E. Lee to Wade Hampton, Aug. 1, 1865: "The absence of the troops which I sent to North and South Carolina was, I believe, the cause of our immediate disaster. Our small force of cavalry was unable to resist the united cavalry under Sheridan . . ." (E. L. Wells, 361‑62).
50 Terry's report is in O. R., 46, part 1, pp394 ff.; Bragg's appears in ibid., 431 ff. The unfortunate Whiting, grievously wounded, fell into the hands of the Federals, as did Colonel William Lamb, who had been in immediate command of the fort.
51 O. R., 42, part 3, pp1286‑87; Jones, 223‑24; 2 R. W. C. D., 372. Lee had previously stated, in answer to urging, that if the South won its independence, he would not be Mr. Davis's successor. "That I will never permit," he said. "Whatever talents I possess are military talents" (Jones, loc. cit.).
52 Cf. IV O. R., part 3, pp1066‑67.
53 C. S. Venable to W. H. Taylor, MS., March 29, 1878, Taylor MSS.
57 Letter to sundry congressmen, Feb. 13, 1864, in answer to their request that he name Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee (Mrs. D. Giraud Wright: A Southern Girl in '61, pp235 ff.).
58 Lee's Dispatches, 307‑8.
61 McCabe, 568 ff. W. L. Royall (op. cit., 43‑44) stated on the authority of Major Lewis Ginter, of the staff of General A. P. Hill, that after a tour of inspection in North Carolina, Major Ginter reported to Lee that there was an abundance of supplies in the territory he had visited. Major Ginter urged Lee to seize the trains and to collect supplies. Lee is said to have walked up and down the floor for a while and then is alleged to have answered, "No, Major, I can't do that. It would be revolutionary. If the administration chooses to starve the army, it will have to starve." There is no confirmation of this story from any other source, but the words and sentiments are such as Lee might well have voiced.
62 2 R. W. C. D., 384.
64 Lee was in church in Petersburg on Feb. 5 when he received news of this advance. He waited quietly until communion, then, contrary to his custom, went with the first group to the chancel. He received the communion and, taking up his hat and gloves (p536)from the pew, left immediately (Pendleton, 389, Taylor MSS., Feb. 5, 1865). He hurried to the right, where the troops were already engaged. Finding some new recruits in excited disorder, he rode out and endeavored to rally them. One frightened man raised his hands in terror and exclaimed, "Great God, old man; get out of the way! You don't know nothing!" (Sloan, op. cit., 110). For the reports, see O. R., 46, part 1, pp253 ff.; 9 S. H. S. P., 81.
67 1 C. M. H., 622.
68 3 S. H. S. P., 104‑5.
69 1 C. M. H., 622.
73 Printed copy in Lee MSS., I. For the classification of General Lee's military papers, see the Bibliography.
75 John Goode in 29 S. H. S. P., 179. Practically the same account appears in his Recollections, 93, 94.
76 G. T. Lee in 26 South Atlantic Quarterly, July, 1927, 236‑37. It may have been at this conference that Lee was inwardly outraged at the action of a Virginia congressman, John Goode, in presenting him a numerously signed petition from Bedford County, asking that the furlough of a miller be extended. The document, passing through channels, finally reached the Secretary of War and then the President, both of whom approved it. When it reached Lee he wrote on it, "Col. Taylor, give him five days," an extension that must have seemed to the miller a very poor return for all the political pressure he had exerted (C. S. Venable to W. H. Taylor, MS., March 29, 1878 — Taylor MSS.).
77 Life and Reminiscences of Jefferson Davis, by Distinguished Men of His Time, p233.
78 29 S. H. S. P., 93.
81 2 Davis, 648.
92 Cf. Lee to Hampton, Aug. 1, 1865, E. L. Wells, 362.
99 James A. Graham Papers, 210‑11.
106 Colonel Charles Marshall, quoted in R. E. Lee, Jr., 138.
107 29 S. H. S. P., 290.
108 James A. Graham Papers, 207; Jan. 15, 1865.
110 17 Confederate Veteran, 603.
111 J. W. Reid: History of the Fourth South Carolina Volunteers, 129.
112 Gordon, 383.
113 1 Macrae, 175; Jones, 162.
116 IV O. R., part 3, pp1012, 1013, 1175. Lee's previous view was casually expressed in O. R., 29, part 2, p736. On Negro enlistments generally, see Edward Spencer in Annals of the War, 554 ff. For the view that the enlistment of the Negroes hastened the demoralization of the army, because it was interpreted as a formal admission by the government that the Southern cause was hopeless, see History of McGowan's Brigade, 201. "War Clerk" Jones on Jan. 25, 1865, noted in his diary that a prominent Richmonder expressed the opinion that Lee "was always a thorough emancipationist." Jones added: "If it is really so, and if it were generally known, that Gen. Lee is, and always has been opposed to slavery, how soon would his great popularity vanish like the mist of the morning" (2 R. W. C. D., 398).
121 2 R. W. C. D., 435.
122 2 R. W. C. D., 379.
123 James A. Graham Papers, 210.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
The Siege of Petersburg Online
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 17 Mar 11