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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. III
Chapter XXIV

"Rapidan to Petersburg" in Review

The burdens that Lee took up at Petersburg on June 18 occupied him daily. Except for brief visits to Richmond, he was rarely away from the sound of the firing. Visitors' horses were always at his hitching post. Mountains of military papers had to be reviewed. Each morning brought so much of anxiety that the evening found him weary. The crowded present gave him little time to think of the past. Yet there must have been rare hours when he could look back on the bloody wrestle from the Rapidan to Petersburg and would ask himself whether anything that he might have done, or might have left undone, after May 4, could have saved his army from the ordeal of the long and ghastly siege.

Students of military history have been raising the same question ever since and have reviewed the campaign from many angles. Rarely, however, has it been considered adequately for what it fundamentally was — on the one side an example of the costliness but ultimate success of the methods of attrition when unflinchingly applied by a superior force, and, on the other side, an even more impressive lesson in what resourcefulness, sound logistics, and careful fortification can accomplish in making prolonged resistance possible, even on a limited field of manoeuvre, by an army that faces oppressive odds.

Lee's object from the hour Grant started his columns down the Rapidan was clear: He would seek to catch his adversary on the march and to destroy him, or, if that was impossible, to keep him from reaching Richmond. The capital must be saved, and that meant it must be saved from siege.

In seeking to attain his object, Lee was as heavily handicapped as a general well could be: His numbers were scarcely more than half those of his opponent; he had no prospect of any large reinforcements;  p427  his artillery was inferior in weight of metal and in range to that of the enemy; the mounts of his cavalry could not endure hard service and could not be replaced when worn out; because of casualties and illness during the campaign, he had to change the commanders of two of his three corps and the senior officers of more than a third of his brigades; for eleven of the most critical of the forty-five days of the campaign he was himself almost incapacitated; he was once cut off from his base of supplies, lost his reserve food supplies, and, during the early stages of the campaign, had to subsist his men and feed his horses on rations that barely sustained life. At the very crisis of Grant's offensive, Lee was compelled to detach two brigades and then an entire corps. Save for a major disaster in the field, virtually everything happened to him that could operate to prevent the fulfilment of his mission.

When the campaign opened, half of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's infantry and most of his artillery were distant about twenty miles, a long day's march, from the south bank of the Rapidan, where the army was in contact with the enemy. Lee has been criticised for thus disposing the First Corps. The argument is that this prevented his throwing the whole strength of his army against Grant as soon as he encountered him in the Wilderness.​1 Manifestly, it would have been better if Longstreet had been with Lee on the afternoon of May 5. It must be remembered, however, that Longstreet was being held on the Virginia Central as a reserve, to be employed either with the Army of Northern Virginia or against an enemy that might attack Richmond from the east or south. Further, Gordonsville was Lee's intermediate base and was a railroad junction of great importance, connected both with Lynchburg and with the Shenandoah Valley. There was as much probability that Grant would march straight for Gordonsville as there was that he would move by his left flank and cross the Rapidan and the lower fords. Such an advance on Gordonsville was seriously considered by Grant.​2 If it had been undertaken, or even if formidable demonstration had been made against the town, Lee would properly have been subject to criticism to exposing Gordonsville and the railroad.

 p428  When it was certain that Grant intended to cross the Rapidan in the vicinity of Germanna Ford, Lee decided not to dispute his passage of the river but to wait until the Army of the Potomac was spread out in the Wilderness. This undoubtedly was the course of wisdom. Grant's artillery was almost useless in the battle of May 5‑6, and his cavalry could do little. That his great superiority of numbers was offset by Lee's manoeuvre is shown by the fact that in the first day's fighting, Lee with less than five divisions forced Grant to stop and give battle, when it was to Grant's advantage to hurry out of the Wilderness and into open country. The delay cost Grant 17,666 casualties, or at least 10,000 more than Lee sustained. It is true that if Longstreet had been in line on the afternoon of the 5th, Grant would have lost still more heavily and might have been forced back across the Rapidan. But a complete concentration, in all the circumstances, was beyond Lee's power. As it was, Grant lost more men in the Wilderness than Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker did in 1863. Had casualties been the only measure of success, the battle of the Wilderness would have been a greater victory than Chancellorsville.

Lee's handling of his army in the Wilderness involved four debatable acts. First of all, during the afternoon of the 5th and until about midday of the 6th, he fought one battle on the Plank road while Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell fought another on the turnpike. The two were not correlated. A gap of nearly a mile remained between the right of Ewell and the left of Hill. This was, of course, a dangerous situation, though the nature of the ground on Grant's centre made it somewhat less serious than it would appear to be on the map. Lee had to take chances in concentrating along the main highways because the Wilderness was almost impenetrable.

Lee undoubtedly made a mistake in not withdrawing or fortifying the line of the Third Corps during the night of May 5 when Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox's and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Heth's men lay on a broken irregular line in the Wilderness, having the foe, so to say, within bayonet thrust. To be sure, the two divisions were exhausted, and Lee had every reason to assume that Longstreet would arrive before daylight on the 6th and would relieve Hill; but the fact remains that by this, the second debatable act in his conduct of the battle, he left tired troops in a most exposed position under commanders who were  p429  not of the first class. Heth and Wilcox could easily be surprised and might be demoralized, and if they were, then the enemy might readily turn both flanks of the Third Corps. Such incaution on Lee's part can only be explained on the ground of compassion for the weary soldiers of Heth and Wilcox. But if Longstreet had been even an hour later in coming up, compassion might have entailed slaughter.

Beyond doubt, in the third place, Lee lost an opportunity because he was unaware earlier on May 6 that Grant's right was "in the air" between Germanna Ford and the turnpike. Gordon's fine attack was delivered so late that it could not be fully developed. For this, however, the fault rests on Ewell rather than on the commanding general. On the morning of the 6th, Lee had his hands full until Longstreet delivered his attack. He might then have started for the Confederate left, though Longstreet and Hill worked so poorly together that his presence on the right was most desirable at a time when co-ordinated advance by the two corps seemed to hold out the promise of a victory. Even if Lee had galloped off to Ewell's front he would have been recalled immediately by the news that Longstreet had been wounded. He was compelled to entrust the left to Ewell until late afternoon. Had Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson been in Ewell's place, one can imagine how quickly he would have investigated Gordon's report that the flank of the enemy was exposed. Instead of doing this, Ewell deferred to the opinion of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early, who insisted that the Federal right was not "in the air" because it should not have been.

The other act of Lee's in the Wilderness that has been criticised adversely was his failure to continue the flank movement immediately after Longstreet was wounded. On this point, his critic was Longstreet, who naturally wished to put his last great service to the Confederacy in its brightest light. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Field's statement of actual combat conditions​3 is a sufficient answer to Longstreet. With that wing of the army already forming a right angle, the advantage had been pushed to the limit at the moment Longstreet fell. The course Lee took in straightening out his front before resuming the attack doubtless saved the Federals from some casualties but it probably saved the Confederates from still  p430  more. If Lee had continued to advance up the Plank road while another column was parallel to it, flank fire of the sort that brought Longstreet from his saddle would have killed many men.

From the Confederate point of view, the whole of the battle of the Wilderness presented a succession of dangers and difficulties. If they were met by Lee in such a manner as to leave no just ground for criticism except for his failure to fortify or to withdraw from the line of Heth and Wilcox on the night of the 5th, then the result manifestly is a credit to Lee's general­ship. But that is not all. When an army that is numerically to its enemy as six to ten is able to inflict losses that are in the ratio of fourteen to seven, then a question is raised as to the skill with which the larger army is handled. Especially is this the case if most of the fighting occurs outside field fortifications. Once again it must be said that it is beyond the function of a biographer of Lee to criticise the skill of his opponents. But in reaching a fair appraisal of Lee's place as a soldier, the shortcomings of his adversaries must sometimes be taken into account. In this instance, the student of war is apt to ask himself, How was it that Grant exposed his right as he did on the 6th of May? With so large an army at his disposal, why did he not more adequately cover his left flank south of the Plank road? One of three conclusions seems inevitable: General Grant was less skillful in this battle than his previous achievements would have led one to expect, or he was carelessly contemptuous of Lee, or else he relied on his great superiority in numbers to the neglect of the finer qualities of leader­ship.

The transfer of the First Corps from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania on the night of May 7‑8, to anticipate Grant's move to that point, has always been regarded as one of Lee's most brilliant achievements. Colonel Taylor cited the order for this march as an evidence that Lee possessed "the faculty . . . of discovering, as if by intuition, the intention and purpose of his opponent."​4 The quality of fathoming his antagonist's next move Lee undoubtedly displayed many times, but it came from close observation, from careful analysis of his intelligence reports, and from clear reasoning on the general strategy, not from some vague "intuition." On  p431  May 7 the evidence of a move was cumulative from early morning, when it was found that Grant's communications with Germanna Ford had been abandoned. In piecing all his information together, and in deciding that Grant was making for Spotsylvania, Lee did no more than he had done on a dozen occasions. The act was spectacular because the results were. He deserves as much credit for the speed with which he ordered Ewell to follow Anderson as for his decision to send the First Corps to Spotsylvania. A close study of his logistics on May 7‑8 will show them to have been flawless.

Lee's dispositions after he reached Spotsylvania are interesting to soldiers in two particulars. First, as Henderson has pointed out,​5 he most admirably adapted his position to the troops at his command. The student of war who is interested in economy of force can hardly find a better field exercise than to go to Spotsylvania and try to locate, in the face of an imaginary enemy, a stronger line, except for the "Mule Shoe," than Lee drew. At Spotsylvania, as fully as anywhere else, the modern soldier will appreciate the point of the tribute paid to Lee by General R. L. T. Beale of the cavalry, when he said that a pencilled order given him by Lee "showed a familiarity with the topography of the country extending not only to by-roads but even to paths."​6 Thanks largely to the activities of Captain A. H. Campbell of the topographical engineers Lee then had better maps of some parts of Virginia than had previously been available to him, but for Spotsylvania he had only a poor sketch that showed none of the elevations. He must have relied heavily on quick field observation and must have employed the aptitude for collecting data that he had developed long before in Mexico. He was repaid in 1864, and, indeed, throughout the war, for the long hours he had spent in questioning natives and in tracing roads at General Scott's instance.

The ground around Spotsylvania Courthouse is interesting to the soldier, again, because field fortification was there fully developed for the first time in America. Thrown on the defensive with a smaller force, Lee sought to protect his men and to increase the effectiveness of their fire by giving them the full benefit of  p432  temporary earthworks.​a What had been done at Fredericksburg after the battle of December 13, 1862, on the left in the initial stage of the Chancellorsville campaign, in the forest along Mine Run, and in the Wilderness was done more elaborately across the fields and through the woods around Spotsylvania. The field fortifications used in this campaign were often started on piled-up fence rails or felled trees and were raised with great rapidity. When the works were constructed under fire the dirt was always thrown up toward the enemy, so that what would be "the ditch" in more recent warfare was the defending position. Similar defenses, constructed at leisure, had the ditch in front. The infantry works were co-ordinated most carefully with those for the artillery. On occasion, as at the "Mule Shoe," prior to May 12, light ordnance was placed in advance of the infantry fortifications, and, where the ground permitted, it sometimes was located immediately in rear of the trenches. There is a sector at Cold Harbor​7 where the infantry were almost directly under the muzzles of the guns. It is impossible to say how much of the credit for these field fortifications belongs to Lee and how much to General M. L. Smith of the engineers. There was a marked improvement in fortification after General Smith joined the army, but this may have been due to the changed nature of operations and not to the initiative of General Smith, who had learned much and had made many innovations at Vicksburg.

Turning to the details of the battles around Spotsylvania Courthouse, it must be written down that Heth's battle south of the Po on May 10 was not well fought, and that Ewell's advance on the 19th was not well planned. Lee's own shortcomings during this period of the campaign were confined to two things — his acquiescences in the inclusion of the "Mule Shoe" in the Confederate line, and his withdrawal, during the night of May 11‑12, of Johnson's artillery from that salient.

In permitting the occupation of this bad position, Lee was over-influenced by Ewell. He, in turn, was probably led to exaggerate the elevation of the salient by the height of the great trees in it. As operations after May 12 showed very plainly, the ground  p433  around the McCool house did not dominate the line as much as Ewell thought it did. Nothing material would have been lost if the salient had never been taken up.

Lee's decision to withdraw Johnson's batteries from the "Mule Shoe" was a plain instance of his being misled by inaccurate reports of a new movement on the part of the enemy. The case is the more personal if, as seems likely, those reports emanated from Rooney Lee, who was usually careful and undeniably capable. The circumstances have, of course, to be taken into account. Grant had remained but three days in the Wilderness. It was reasonable to assume that he would not waste time by lingering at Spotsylvania after he found Lee entrenched across his front. When the scouts affirmed that the enemy was again on the march, the intelligence fitted in with the probability. If the spies were right, then it was important that the pursuit should not be delayed by the slow withdrawal of the artillery along the narrow roads in the woods. But the scouts were wrong, and the responsibility for accepting erroneous reports falls on Lee. It cannot even be established, though it is probable, that he was uninformed during the night of suspicious activities in front of Johnson's position. If he was not advised of this, the blame is still in some sense his. He should have seen to it that he was notified of all developments, for at that time nothing was more important to headquarters than to know what Grant was doing. Of course, the extreme inclemency of the weather and the uncertainty that usually prevails when wind and rain distort every sound in the darkness are factors clearly to be weighed, but they do not absolve Lee of a mistake of judgment.

At Spotsylvania, as in the Wilderness, Lee was materially helped by the methods his antagonist applied. Grant did not hold literally to his boast, "I never manoeuvre." He did manoeuvre, but he did not manoeuvre well. It is difficult to say how large a success he might have attained if, during the night or at dawn, instead of in the afternoon, he had moved Hancock to the south side of the Po, opposite Anderson's right flank. Lee had taken pains to draw his front in such a way as to permit the quick shifting of his troops from one flank to the other. Hancock might not have been able to shake Lee if he had continued to operate on the right bank  p434  of the river, but his effort was certainly made with the minimum of skillful direction from general headquarters. It is likewise difficult to understand why Grant did not operate against Lee's right flank, which was not extended far to the south of Spotsylvania for several days after both armies were in position. To be sure, the ground on that sector was not altogether favorable, but if the pertinacity shown in fighting for the Bloody Angle had been displayed on the Confederate right, Lee might have been compelled to fall back on the Louisa road. That would have been a serious matter, as Grant might then have been able to seize Hanover Junction.

The chief criticism that must be made of the Federal operations at Spotsylvania, however, is the manner in which Grant on May 12 continued to hurl troops into the Bloody Angle until the captured position was so crowded with men that they got in one another's way. If the front of attack had been extended farther southward, to engage the Third Corps at a time when there was every reason to assume that Lee would weaken other parts of his line in order to reinforce the Bloody Angle, the Confederate commander might have been hard pressed to resist. Of course, Grant had to throw enough force behind the surprise attack to make it effective; but when it is remembered that he outnumbered Lee almost two to one, the situation on the flank of the IX Corps, as uncovered by Lane's reconnaissance, seems scarcely believable.8

The transfer of the Army of Northern Virginia from Spotsylvania Courthouse to the North Anna was in some respects an even finer military performance than the move from the Wilderness that halted Grant at Spotsylvania. Within six hours after Grant began his march toward Bowling Green, Lee was shifting the left wing of his army to the right. Then followed the careful sweeping of the lines in front of Early and Anderson, and then the rapid, orderly retirement to the North Anna.

Lee's reasons for taking that position have been given in full and need not be repeated here, but they involved more than placing the Army of Northern Virginia once more between Grant and Richmond. By moving to the North Anna, and then fortifying so strongly that his opponent did not even attack him there,  p435  Lee deflected to the eastward the line of Grant's advance on Richmond. As has already been pointed out,​9 that was strategically of the greatest consequence, because it meant that the Virginia Central Railroad remained in Confederate hands. Communications with Staunton could be reopened. Co-operation between Grant and Sigel's successor was rendered more difficult. A drive against the Federals in the Valley was facilitated, and the roads for a new invasion of Maryland were restored to the Confederacy. The grand strategy of Grant's advance, to be sure, was based on the sound principle that his mission was to destroy Lee's army, not to capture or to hold any given point; but that mission could have been more readily and quickly performed if he had placed within his lines the most direct route to the Shenandoah Valley. He could then have made himself master of all western Virginia and would have deprived Lee of large supplies. As it was, Grant cut the railroad, but during the whole of the operations on the North Anna and on the Totopotomoy, he was almost within sound of the whistles of the trains on the Virginia Central, and was powerless to hold the streaks of rust that bound Richmond and the Valley together. It is not too much to repeat that Lee's arrival at the North Anna ahead of Grant prolonged the war by saving a large part of Virginia to the Confederacy for another six months.

On the North Anna the only offensive operation that the Army of Northern Virginia could undertake, that of Wilcox north of Noel's Station on the afternoon of the 23d, was undeniably a failure. Hill's handling of the Confederate left, in fact, was at that time far from brilliant. But Lee's choice of the "V" front made his left as impregnable as the right. Concerning this line, the only criticism ever made was that the position was so strong as to discourage Grant from attacking it — a singular tribute, surely, to Lee's engineering.

Confederate authorities have often said that if Lee had not been stricken ill on the North Anna he would have defeated Grant there. This view is hardly justified by the facts. Lee's insistent cry from his tent, "We must strike them a blow,"​10 doubtless echoed his well-established purpose to take the offensive whenever and wherever he found an opening; but even if he had been in  p436  full strength, it is doubtful if he could have accomplished anything on the North Anna, once the Federals had crossed to the right bank and had fortified there. Had he attacked on his left, he would have found that Warren had ample room for manoeuvre. The result might have been to carry the battle up the Central Railroad, which was not desirable, for reasons already given. If, again, Lee had attacked from his right on the North Anna, he would soon have come under artillery fire from the left bank and would have been stopped before he could win a decision, just as Jackson had been at Fredericksburg on the afternoon of December 13, 1862. Lee's position, in short, was defensively ideal, but it could only serve to force Grant to another movement by his left flank.

When that movement was made on May 27, Lee was promptly informed. He had suspected such a manoeuvre and had his cavalry disposed far and the Pamunkey to warn him of any advance in that direction. This employment of his cavalry was a part of Lee's defensive routine. Whenever he was guarding a river line, in a position that could be turned, he always spread his cavalry for a great distance on either flank, twice as far, probably, as most generals would have thought necessary.

Being quickly advised of the appearance of the enemy at Hanovertown, Lee encountered no difficulty in making the move from the North Anna to the Totopotomoy. He was then in familiar country, for which he had a new and excellent map,​11 and he placed his army where he could meet an attack either from the Pamunkey or down the Central Railroad. Nothing of great moment happened until Grant made his shift to Cold Harbor. Whether this was better than a drive for the Central Railroad need not be argued here. Both lines of approach offered advantages. Once Grant had started for Cold Harbor, Lee's task was to reach that point in sufficient strength to thwart Grant's turning movement and, if possible, to double up his left. The only question that arises here is whether Lee concentrated at Cold Harbor on June 1 as heavily as he should have.​12 It is to be noted, in  p437  answer to this, that Lee's projected line, as of June 1, extended from the vicinity of Atlee's, thence to the right in front of the Totopotomoy, on across the Old Church road and southeast to Cold Harbor, a distance of nine miles. To defend this line he had not more than 46,000 men, including Hoke's division, which was just arriving from the south side of the James. This gave Lee a density of only 5000 infantry a mile, whereas his opponent, who had the initiative, could dispose 10,000 men per mile. Lee had more than 10,000 infantry and about 2000 cavalry within striking distance of Cold Harbor by the early morning of June 1. That was all he could do, and he could not have done that much if he had not insisted on the dispatch of Hoke from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard.

The actions at Cold Harbor on June 1 were poorly directed on the Confederate side. The fiasco in the early morning was a discredit both to Anderson and to Hoke. The surprise in the afternoon at the ravine between Hoke and Kershaw may have been excusable. Throughout the day the hand of a master was lacking. Anderson was a new corps commander; Hoke was inexperienced at the head of a division; the shock troops were led by a gallant amateur in the bitter business of war. At no time during the campaign did Lee feel more heavily the losses he had sustained among his general officers in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. Grant may have owed his escape from a serious defeat that day to the recklessness with which Longstreet and others had exposed themselves during the fighting in May.

From the time Lee himself arrived on the Cold Harbor front the battle was well-ordered. He anchored his right on the high ground above the Chickahominy and located his support lines opposite the weakest points in his front. Then he simply waited. When Grant attacked, the Union lines were mowed down with a slaughter worse than that inflicted on Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett and Pettigrew at  p438  Gettysburg. Grant later went on record as saying that he always regretted making the last assault. "At Cold Harbor," he wrote, "no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."​13 The repulse, in his opinion, impaired the morale of his army and raised that of the Confederates.​14 He undoubtedly was correct. The prospect, however, was not so forbidding on June 3 as it seemed in retrospect. He was within nine miles of Richmond, as the crow flies. For a month he had been hammering away at an adversary who could not continue to replace his losses, whereas the Army of the Potomac could draw indefinitely on resources that were, in comparison, almost limitless. Besides, the strength of the Confederate position was deceptive. On that part of the front where the Federal losses were heaviest the approaches were through woods. In rear of the Confederate lines the ground was open, with no trees to give a measure of the elevation. Grant apparently thought, as most historians since his day have assumed, that the whole of the ground of attack was a plain. On the right centre this was true only of the front immediately on either side of the Cold Harbor road. To right and to left, the little streams flow through boggy ravines that offer some exceedingly formidable artillery positions, from which a cross-fire can be directed on an attacking force. It is not remarkable that Grant was deceived as to the strength of Lee's lines or that he was repulsed. It would have been remarkable if he had broken through.

The success of Grant in crossing the James unhindered and the failure of Lee to reinforce Petersburg more quickly and more heavily, after the attack of June 15, have been very generally regarded as the most serious blemishes on Lee's military record, with the possible exception of his order for Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. There was disappointment at the time in Richmond because Grant was not assailed while in motion.​15 Later critics have had much praise for General Grant, because they have credited him with keeping Lee in the dark as to his position and plans until the Army of the Potomac was in front of Petersburg. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Humphreys cited Lee's dispatch of 3 P.M., June 16 to Beauregard — ". . . Have not heard of Grant's crossing the James"  p439  — as if the whole shift to the south side of the James had been unsuspected, and he added, "at that hour only the VI Corps and Wilson's cavalry remained on the north bank."​16 Colonel Thomas L. Livermore went so far as to affirm: ". . . not only was the movement so orderly, silent, and well covered that the enemy did not attack, but the strategy also was so complete that from the 13th, when it began, until the 17th, General Lee did not venture to quit his entrenchments at Cold Harbor."​17 In summarizing the operation General Alexander wrote: "It must be said that Grant successfully deceived Lee as to his whereabouts for at least three days, and thus, at the most critical period of the war, saved himself from a second defeat, more bloody, more signal, and more undeniable than Cold Harbor. For if Beauregard alone, with only 14,000 men, was able to stop Grant's whole army even after being driven by surprise into temporary works, what would Lee and Beauregard together have done from the strong original lines of Petersburg?"18

It is easy, of course, to point out the errors in these criticisms,​19 but, prima facie, the basis of this contention appears valid. Grant began ferrying his army over the James on June 14. He soon completed a superb pontoon bridge from Wilcox's Landing to Windmill Point. Bringing the XVIII Corps by water back from White House to Bermuda Hundred, by daylight of June 15 he had 45,000 to 47,000 on the south side of the James.​20 That force was hourly increased. With the exception of a part of the cavalry corps, the whole of the Federal army, some 110,000 to 113,000, was south of the river before Lee was sure that any part of it, other than the II and XVIII Corps, was there. This looks as if Lee, for once, was outgeneralled.

Much evidence, however, that was not available when these early critics wrote of the campaign has since been published,21  p440  and this reverses the verdict. Instead of appearing as the most serious instance during the war when Lee was outwitted, the operations of June 14‑18 constitute a most informative example of how a limited force may be defensively employed to defend two widely separated positions when a stronger adversary is so placed that he can move unobserved, as must occasionally happen even in modern warfare, though a commander can now utilize aerial observation.

The evidence on the issue has been given in detail in the previous chapter, without breaking the narrative to analyze it in relation to the larger question of Lee's general­ship as compared with Grant's. It must now be reviewed briefly in the light of the conditions that confronted Lee. These conditions were:
    1. In a country as heavily wooded as that below Richmond, Grant, or any other competent general, could steal one march on his opponent.
    2. Lee was weakened by the absence of two of the three divisions of his cavalry, which he had been compelled to send off in order to meet Sheridan's raid up the Central Railroad. This was one of the many prices Lee had to pay for declining man-power and diminished horse-supply. His cavalry, which once had been greatly superior to his adversary's, was now inferior in every respect other than in actual hand-to‑hand combat.
    3. Lee's mobile infantry and artillery, as distinguished from the small force of second-line reservists and heavy artillery in the Richmond defenses, had been reduced by the departure of Breckinridge and of Early to less than 32,000. These detachments were most regrettable, but in a strategical sense they were inevitable. If troops had to be sent to the Shenandoah Valley, it was wise to dispatch them in sufficient numbers to make a demonstration against Washington. The hard subtraction of these troops, however, made it impossible for Lee to take the offensive against the Army of the Potomac which, exclusive of cavalry, numbered at least 93,000 and perhaps more.
    4. Lee's first assigned duty was to keep Grant from Richmond.  p441  The permanent severance of communications with the south would, of course, involve the fall of the city in a very short time;​22 but if the choice lay between the loss of Richmond and the risk of a temporary break in communications, Lee could not hesitate in deciding to defend his capital. It is debatable whether the Confederate administration was right in insisting that Richmond be held at any price, but there can be no disputing the fact that in the summer of 1864 this was the fixed policy of the government. Lee was forced to subordinate everything to that or else should have resigned his commission.

These were the controlling circumstances with Lee when Grant withdrew from the Cold Harbor front and moved by rapid, well-executed marches to Wilcox's Landing. In doing this the Union commander put twenty-two miles of road between himself and Lee. Grant's choice of a place for throwing his pontoons was, perhaps, his best single stroke of the entire campaign. Especial pains were taken to select a point on the river beyond observation by Lee, as it was assumed that the Confederate leader would use his inner lines and would reinforce Beauregard quickly if Grant attempted to construct a bridge at a nearer and more convenient point, such as the flats below Malvern Hill.​23 Lee could not reach Grant at Wilcox's Landing. He could not prevent the return of the XVIII Corps from the White House by water. Nor could he stop the transportation of the advanced units of the II Corps by ship from Wilcox's Landing to Windmill Point.

Three facts, however, are now definitely established, and they cancel most of what has been written about this aspect of the movement:

1. Lee expected Grant to cross the James.

2. He knew the approximate position of his adversary by the early afternoon of June 14.

3. He had ordered Hoke's division to the Confederate pontoon bridge at Drewry's Bluff eight hours before Grant's bridge at Wilcox's Landing was finished.24

Lee was ready, in short, to begin the reinforcement of Beauregard  p442  before Grant had done more than utilize his available transports to strengthen Butler's army.

When new troops began to appear in front of Petersburg on June 15, Lee naturally was forced to rely on Beauregard for information as to their number and identification. Unfortunately, many of the reports that he received from Beauregard were belated, vague, and well-nigh equivocal. This was not altogether Beauregard's fault. That officer had set up what he considered an efficient signal system on the James,​25 but he had no spies and his intelligence service was so rudimentary that even the examination of prisoners seems to have been delayed.​26 He was preoccupied with the defense of a long line and was unable to determine whether the troops that assailed the Petersburg defenses were Butler's or Grant's.

However excusable all this was, it proved a handicap to Lee. The first concern expressed by Beauregard was that he might not be able to hold both Drewry's Bluff and Petersburg. Then he stated that if he had the whole of his original command he would be safe on both sectors. Lee promptly restored it. Beauregard next voiced the opinion that if 5000 or 6000 men were sent to the southside, they would suffice to cover Bermuda Neck while he reconcentrated at Petersburg. Lee forthwith sent Pickett's division of 4500 men and rode with it himself to the Petersburg pike, where Butler had seized Beauregard's abandoned lines. On the afternoon of that same day, June 16, Lee brought over Field's division.

Beauregard was an experienced officer whose rank and judgment were to be respected. He was presumably the best judge of his needs. Not one request for men did he make with which Lee did not comply, from the time of the first threat until Beauregard, becoming optimistic, asked for reinforcements to undertake a counteroffensive that the judgment of Lee did not approve. All this is a most material consideration in determining whether Lee did everything that could have been expected of him.

The substance of all Lee's information from Beauregard on the 16th and during the forenoon of the 17th of June was that he was confronted at Petersburg by the II and XVIII Corps. In answer  p443  to repeated inquiries whether more troops of the Army of the Potomac were south of the James, Beauregard could make no positive answer. Lee knew that these two corps, plus the other forces under Butler, could not exceed 51,000 to 53,000 men. To combat them, 27,000 Confederates were then on that bank of the river. The odds against the Confederates there were no longer than those to which Lee was accustomed during the whole of the campaign. He had, in fact, already sent more reinforcements to Beauregard than he had made available for Ewell when that officer had been holding the base of the Bloody Angle against the concentrated attack of three corps.27

It was after 4 P.M. on the afternoon of June 17 when Lee was told by Beauregard for the first time that he was faced by practically the whole of the Army of the Potomac, as well as by part of Butler's Army of the James. Within twelve hours thereafter, Lee had on the southside, or on the march thither, all his mobile troops except Hampton's cavalry and two battalions of artillery under Colonel Thomas H. Carter.​28 The table on page 444 will exhibit the strength of the opposing forces north and south of James River from June 13 to the morning of June 18. In the last column is Beauregard's estimate of the strength of the enemy in his front.​29 Included are all the cavalry.30

JUNE 13‑18, 1864

(000 omitted)

Northside Southside Beauregard's estimate
of the Federal strength
on the Southside
June 13 [image ALT: a blank space]44.7 to 47.6​32 104 to 111 [image ALT: a blank space]11.3​33 15 to 17
June 14, evening
44.7 to 47.6
74 to 81
45 to 47
25 to 27
June 15, morning
36.9 to 39.8
74 to 81
45 to 47
"large increase," c. 11 A.M.
June 15, evening
36.9 to 39.8
68 to 74
51 to 53
June 16, morning
36.9 to 39.8
56 to 62
63 to 65
June 16, evening
28.9 to 31.8
31 to 37
88 to 90
P.M., 51 to 53
June 17, morning
28.9 to 31.8
25 to 31
94 to 96
11:15 A.M., intimating V Corps was not in his front​36
June 17, evening
24.9 to 27.8
111 to 113
4:30 P.M., 81 to 83
June 18, morning
[image ALT: a blank space]9.8​34
47.2 to 51.1
111 to 113
P.M., "whole army"

Beauregard's troops made a splendid fight in front of Petersburg, and were handled by him with great skill and boldness. Nobody could have done better, favored though he was by some curious delays and by a most singular division of authority among the Federal commanders.​31 He was aided, too, by good initial positions and by a strong force of well-employed artillery. It must be said, however — and in no derogation of his general­ship — that the excellence of Beauregard's battle grew as the story was told. Especially  p444  after Colonel Roman began the preparation of his military biography of Beauregard, the repulse of the Federal attacks on June 15‑17 was glorified into something akin to a rescue of Lee from certain ruin by his comrade on the south side of the James. This view was generally credited by the participants, because many of the troops that shared in the actions had not, until that time, been acquainted with the close and desperate combat by which the Army of Northern Virginia sustained itself in the field.  p445  A soldier's first hard battle is usually his worst — in memory, at least. On the other hand, Lee, his staff, and his veterans were so accustomed to fighting against long odds that they took them as a matter of course. Lee did Beauregard the compliment of assuming that his men could fight equally well and against like odds. A commander who had seen Cooke at Sharpsburg, Jackson at Second Manassas, Barksdale at Fredericksburg, Pickett at Gettysburg, and the Second Corps at the Bloody Angle could hardly become so excited over the attacks on Petersburg that he would risk the capture of Richmond, strip the north bank of the James, and increase a force of 27,000 in order to resist an attack by a force that Beauregard put down at two corps. Lee had heard the cry of "Wolf-wolf" so often from the southside during May that he may have been a little skeptical of Beauregard's reports. No special concern did he have for the safety of Petersburg until Beauregard acquainted him on the afternoon of June 17 with the newly discovered fact that the whole of the Army of the Potomac was confronting him.37

This is the record. It speaks for itself. Lee unavoidably lost contact with Grant on June 13‑14, but he did not misread the intention of his adversary. He reasoned that Grant would cross the James, precisely as he had reasoned that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan would reinforce Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope, Burnside move to Fredericksburg, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant reconcentrate on Spotsylvania. He was not outgeneralled nor taken by surprise. If he did not reinforce Beauregard heavily at Petersburg until the strength of the attacking force became known, he gave Beauregard in every instance the help that general asked  p446  for defense, though his own forces were then dangerously small. He had to be guided by Beauregard's information, which was limited and slowly accumulated, but he sent enough troops to Petersburg to hold it, without neglecting his major mission, that of insuring the safety of Richmond.

To summarize now the entire campaign from May 4 to June 18, the only three serious shortcomings that can be charged against Lee would seem to be, first, that he did not withdraw Heth and Wilcox or strengthen their lines on the night of May 5; second, that he ordered Johnson's artillery from the "Mule Shoe" at Spotsylvania during the evening of May 11; and, third, that he lost contact with Grant on June 13‑14, in the absence of the greater part of his cavalry, and risked the capture of Petersburg until Beauregard got accurate information as to the presence of Grant's army in front of that city. Against these three errors, if they are to be so considered, may be set down his sound decision to give battle in the Wilderness, the swift move to Spotsylvania, the selection of an admirable line there, the shift to the North Anna, the deflection of Grant's advance on Hanover Junction by the construction of an excellent system of field fortifications, the transfer of operations to the Totopotomoy, the concentration at Cold Harbor, the repulse of Grant's general assault there, the relief of Petersburg, and — as a final gauge of the ferocity of the Confederate defense — the infliction of approximately 64,000 casualties, with a loss of about 30,000 men.​38 The Federals lost more men before the guns of Lee's army, with the stout assistance of Beauregard's troops on June 15‑18, than Lee had in the Army of Northern Virginia when the campaign opened.

 p447  The balance of achievement, then, is to Lee's credit, overwhelmingly. So far as general strategy and headquarters tactics could influence the result, his general­ship had never been finer, if, indeed, it had ever been quite so good. Wherever Grant advanced, there he found Lee's bayonets closing the road to Richmond. Yet even before the crossing of the James, time and numbers were having their effect. Lee did not lose the battles but he did not win the campaign. He delayed the fulfillment of Grant's mission, but he could not discharge his own. Lee found few opportunities of attacking the enemy in detail or on the march, and in every instance where he assumed the defensive, except in the turning movement of May 6, he failed to achieve the results for which he had hoped. This was not because the Army of Northern Virginia fought less well than before, but because the Army of the Potomac was relatively stronger and fought better. "Lee's Miserables" never behaved with greater gallantry than in the Wilderness on May 5 and in recovering the Bloody Angle on May 12; but their numbers were smaller, and in some subtle fashion General Grant infused into his well-seasoned troops a confidence they had never previously possessed. There was, likewise, an ominous decline in the standard of Confederate corps, divisional, and brigade command. Too many of the ablest officers had been killed and were replaced by soldiers less skillful. After Longstreet was wounded, every corps commander failed badly, at least once. Two excellent new divisional commanders were developed in Kershaw and Gordon. Ramseur and Mahone showed promise. But some of the others did not fulfill expectations, and a few more were definitely mediocre. The same thing was true of the brigade commanders. There was no remedy for it and there could be no blame on Lee because of this, but the sombre fact remained: troops were no longer led as they had been in the period from Second Manassas through Chancellorsville. In the largest sense, only Lee and the men in the ranks still made the army terrible in battle.

The Author's Notes:

1 Alexander, 498.

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2 Humphreys, 9‑10, and supra, p276, note 44.

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3 See supra, pp295‑96.

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4 Taylor's General Lee, 238.

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5 See supra, p309.

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6 R. L. T. Beale, 119.

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7 On the front of the First Corps and between the first and second ravines north of the Cold Harbor road.

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8 See supra, p323.

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9 See supra, p361.

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10 See supra, p359.

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11 Campbell's admirable map of April 26, 1864, printed as Plate XCII in the Atlas of the Official Records. A reference by Early in O. R., 51, part 2, p997, makes it plain that this map had been issued by the time the army reached the Totopotomoy.

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12 The late Doctor Hartwell Macon of Ingleside, Hanover County, related that General Grant rode into his yard, dismounted and sent off his staff officers and couriers on (p437)various missions. The doctor, who was crippled and unable to do military duty, though he was an ardent Southerner, walked out and invited the General indoors. Grant declined and walked to and fro in the yard. At length he pulled out his watch and said, more to himself than to Doctor Macon, "If I don't hear his guns in fifteen minutes, I've got the opened fox now." As Doctor Macon waited, the minutes seemed interminable, but before a quarter of an hour had elapsed, the echo of artillery came across the fields from the direction of Old Cold Harbor. Grant mounted without a word and rode off. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this story, but it is impossible to fix the exact time, though the incident doubtless occurred on May 31. It shows by how narrow a margin of time Lee was able to protect his right flank.

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13 2 Grant's Memoirs, 276.

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14 Ibid., 276‑77.

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15 McCabe, 504.

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16 Humphreys, 214. Humphreys forgot, incidentally, that the 4th Division of the IX Corps had not crossed.

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17 5 M. H. S. M., 47.

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18 Alexander, 557.

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19 Livermore, needless to say, was mistaken in almost all his assertions. Instead of not venturing "to quit his intrenchments" at Cold Harbor until June 17, Lee left there early on the 13th and, on the evening of June 17, was south of the river, having with him all but 27,800 of the troops he could utilize. Included in the 27,800 were his cavalry and the garrison of Richmond.

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20 Including the troops that had remained with Butler.

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21 Lee's Dispatches was not printed until 1915 and was not available to General Alexander. General Humphreys and Colonel Livermore did not even have O. R., 51, (p440)part 2, which was issued in 1897. It is not certain that General Alexander used the very important telegrams in this volume to fill the gaps in O. R., 40, and it is altogether likely that he over­looked certain messages in the supplement to O. R., 51, part 2, which clear up several obscure points.

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22 Cf. 2 Davis, 640.

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23 Humphreys, 198‑99.

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24 Hoke's orders were issued before 4 P.M. (Lee's Dispatches, 234); the Federal pontoon bridge was not completed until midnight of the 14th (Humphreys, 203).

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25 2 Roman, 244‑45.

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26 Cf. 2 Roman, 575‑76.

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27 B. and L., 246.

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28 Lee's Dispatches, 251.

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29 It should be emphasized once more that these figures are approximations, as the exact strength of neither army can be established.

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30 Sheridan of the Army of the Potomac and Hampton and Fitz Lee, of the Army of Northern Virginia, it will be remembered, were detached at the time. Lee had W. H. F. Lee's division and Gary's brigade, the latter being part of the Richmond garrison; Grant had Wilson's division with him; Butler had Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Kautz's.

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31 Cf. 5 M. H. S. M., 77 ff., 159 ff. The latter reference is to a paper done in the candid manner of the distinguished J. C. Ropes. See also Alexander, 548‑49; 552 ff. Grant prepared the orders for the attack by Smith's XVII Corps on June 15, but did not notify Meade of the time of its march, with the result that Meade could not co-ordinate the attack of the II Corps. Hancock could easily have been in position to support (p444)Smith by noon on June 15, but he was not at hand until evening. Smith's attack on the evening of the 15th could have been pushed through to Petersburg, but was delayed by the unauthorized action of his chief of artillery in sending back the horses to be watered. They were hurriedly returned and the assault was launched, about 7 P.M., but General Smith did not think himself safe in continuing the pursuit after dark. On the 16th and 17th the Federals seem to have had no plan of utilizing their vastly superior numbers against the Confederate right, though it could readily have been turned. From the Federal point of view, the actions of June 15‑17 were as much mismanaged as any that Grant ever fought in Virginia.

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32 Including Richmond garrison, 6400.

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33 Including Drewry's Bluff garrison, 365.

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34 W. H. F. Lee, with about 1000, was moving to the southside, but his precise whereabouts on the morning of June 18 are not determinable (cf. Lee's Dispatches, 249).

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35 At 7:45 A.M., Beauregard reported the II Corps on the southside, but Lee did not receive this telegram.

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36 O. R., 51, part 2, p1079.

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37 It is significant that Colonel Walter H. Taylor, who usually kept his sweetheart informed of all important operations, seemingly regarded the operations of June 15‑18 as little more than routine campaigning. On June 15 he remarked there was "nothing of importance today." On the 18th, instead of describing the struggle for Petersburg as a crisis of the Confederacy, he allowed himself the luxury of a love-letter in which the fighting was not even mentioned (Taylor MSS., June 15‑18, 1864). General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton viewed the whole operation as a normal phase of an unhappy war, and in a letter of June 18 he dismissed it in two sentences: "Grant has taken all his army to the south side. We go to meet him as usual" (Pendleton, 342). The Federals, for their part, had become so accustomed to being repulsed that they accepted the frowning fortifications as a warning against staking too much on an assault. There is, perhaps naturally, no hint in Grant's official report of the operations of June 16‑18 to indicate that he thought the Petersburg defenses inadequately manned on those days (O. R., 36, part 1, p25). When he came to write his memoirs he modified his judgment (op. cit., 2, 296), possibly after reading Roman. Meade wrote: "We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on a siege of Richmond . . ." (2 Meade, 205). He attributed failure on June 18 to the "moral condition of the army" (2 ibid., 207).

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38 Two different totals of the Federal losses are given, one of 63,966 (O. R., 36, part 1, pp133 f.), and the other of 64,216 (ibid., 195). Neither of these included the losses in the Army of the James on June 15‑18. Inasmuch, however, as the figures cover the period to June 20, instead of to June 18, it is probable that subtractions about offset additions. Included are the casualties inflicted by the Confederates of Beauregard's command on June 15‑18, because these cannot be separated from those attributable to the Army of Northern Virginia. Butler's losses of 6215, prior to June 15 (O. R., 36, part 2, pp18, 19) are excluded. The estimate for the Confederate forces assume 5000 casualties in the Petersburg and Bermuda operations of June 15‑18, and 25,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia prior to that time. These figures are based chiefly on a comparison of returns after the operations with the strength of the army at the beginning of the campaign, making proper allowance for reinforcements. The figures may slightly overstate the Confederate losses but they are believed to be approximately correct, though precision, in the absence of official returns of casualties, cannot be claimed for them.

Thayer's Note:

a A classic tactic; maybe Lee was remembering Caesar: see for example Plutarch, Caes. 24.6.

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