The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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Lee was thus left in complete control of the military situation. The transfer of two of his army corps to Culpeper was a threat to Washington and Washington promptly responded – as Lee intended that it should do – by calling upon Hooker for the retirement of his army for the defense of the National capital.
Hooker ordered all his cavalry, under Pleasanton, to move against and assail the Confederate horsemen under Stuart at or near Culpeper. The two forces met at Brandy Station, where for the first time in the history of the Confederate War a strictly cavalry contest of great proportions ensued. The Confederates had distinctly the better of it. They repelled the assault, with losses about equal on either side, and left the Federals with no further information as to the Confederate movement than they had had before the action. As the acquisition of such information was precisely all that Pleasanton had fought to secure, it must be reckoned that he had failed in his purpose. But he had at any rate proved that the Federal cavalry men had at last learned how to ride their horses, an art in which they had proved themselves distinctly inferior to the Confederates in all previous conflicts between horsemen of the two sides.
On the thirteenth of June Ewell's corps was in the Valley of the Shenandoah marching northward; Hill was still holding the entrenchments at Fredericksburg, while Longstreet was in a position near Culpeper, from which he could reinforce either at will.
Hooker had by this time recovered the sanity which he had so completely lost during the campaign of Chancellorsville and he at once asked permission of Washington to push the whole of his vastly superior force in between the separated fragments of Lee's army and destroy them in detail. This was obviously the right thing to do, but Halleck was still in supreme control at Washington, and Hooker, by his phenomenal failure at Chancellorsville, had justly lost Halleck's confidence. Moreover Lee knew all about this situation, and, knowing Halleck quite as well as he knew Hooker, he was reckoning upon that general's character.
Halleck forbade Hooker to make the bold move he proposed, precisely as Lee had expected him to do, and Lee was thus left free to direct the course of the campaign as he pleased.
Hooker, under orders, retired toward Washington, leaving Lee free to add Hill's corps to the forces with which he was advancing northward.
Ewell swept down the valley and assailed Winchester, where he completely broke and destroyed Milroy's force of ten thousand men, capturing four thousand of them and driving the rest into disorderly retreat upon Harper's Ferry.
Lee promptly threw Hill's corps into the Shenandoah Valley, while Longstreet moved northward upon parallel lines, east of the mountains.
Presently the Confederate cavalry crossed the Potomac and reached Chambersburg in Pennsylvania. The infantry and artillery promptly followed, and by the twenty-second or twenty-third of June, the whole Confederate army was in Pennsylvania – threatening Washington, threatening Baltimore, threatening Philadelphia, and gravely menacing even New York.
A great panic ensued among the Northern people, to whom the fact of war had not often before been brought home in this intimate and terrifying fashion.Women and children fled as refugees. Horses and cattle were driven away into hiding. Silverware and jewels were hastily buried, and all food stuffs that could be carried away were hidden. For the first time the people at the North had some small realization of what war means to those who dwell in an invaded country. They suffered no such desolation as that which for years overspread northern Virginia. They learned no such lesson of havoc as that which Sheridan afterwards mercilessly taught the people of that fruitful valley of Virginia over which, after his desolating march, he picturesquely said that "the crow that flies must carry his rations with him." But at the least they learned that to a people whose land is invaded, war is truly "all hell," in General Sherman's phrase.
There was a hurried calling out of militia in the threatened states, quite as if militia could be expected to stand against the veterans who had fought at Richmond, at Antietam, at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville. Half a million of militia, if so many could have been brought together, would have been able to oppose no obstacle to the determined will of such veteran soldiers as these. At that stage of the war, the militia and raw, untrained volunteers on either side, had ceased to be regarded as forces to be reckoned with.
A more important fact was that Hooker was moving with his veteran army to meet Lee, keeping himself always between the great Confederate and the National capital.
Again as during the former invasion, there were eleven thousand Federal troops holding Harper's Ferry. Again, as a year before, the general commanding the Army of the Potomac wanted to save them to his army by ordering them to evacuate the place and join him in the field. Again, as on the former occasion, Halleck refused to sanction this, in spite of the obvious fact that the Confederates must certainly and easily capture the whole of that force unless it should save itself by timely retreat.
About this time Hooker, in disgust at the restraints to which he was subjected, asked to be relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac, and General Meade, a very much abler man, was appointed to succeed him. Meade instantly ordered the evacuation of Harper's Ferry – the very thing that Hooker had been forbidden to order, and thus saved eleven thousand seasoned troops to the Army with which he must presently confront Lee.
On the twenty-eighth of June Lee's army lay at Chambersburg, York, and Carlisle, in Pennsylvania. In that position it threatened Baltimore, Harrisburg and Philadelphia about equally. It might move upon either at will and in either case cut off Washington. The problem of the Army of the Potomac was to find out its adversary's intention and interpose itself at whatever point interposition might seem to be most necessary.
In the course of this advance, Lee made one capital blunder. It was his courteous custom, in giving orders to his higher lieutenants, to leave much to their discretion, if only by way of emphasizing his confidence in them. In this case he left much to the discretion of Stuart, who had no discretion, although he had every other good quality of the soldier. Lee ordered Stuart to make certain movements if they commended themselves to his judgment, but left him in effect free to do as he pleased, assuming that he would please to do that which was discreet, bearing in mind that the cavalry are the eyes and ears of the army.
It was Stuart's chief business to find out and report every movement of the Army of the Potomac, to follow its every march, to learn what it was planning to do, and at every step to find out and report to Lee the force employed in each maneuver. Stuart was an adept in this work. No man then living – probably no man who ever lived – knew better than he did how to find out the purposes of an enemy or to estimate his strength or to determine where and when that enemy meant to strike.
But by virtue of his orders, Stuart was free to do what he pleased; and it pleased him to find out how nearly his cavaliers could ride into Washington, to throw shells into that city and generally to impress himself dramatically and theatrically upon the Federal administration as a terror.
As a consequence Lee was left without that information as to his adversary's movements which he depended upon the cavalry to furnish. While Stuart was trying to throw shells into Washington, Meade was concentrating his forces toward Gettysburg, to meet his opponent there and Lee was left in ignorance of the fact.
Accordingly when the head of Lee's somewhat scattered and straggling column came upon a Federal force occupying a strong position at Gettysburg which it had been Lee's intention that his own advance forces should seize and hold, there were all the elements of surprise in the situation.
Neither army was as yet sufficiently concentrated to deliver a blow that might be decisive. Lee had in all about 73,500 infantry and artillery – the largest army he ever commanded. Meade had about 82,000 effective infantry and artillery. The cavalry on each side numbered ten or eleven thousand sabers, but Lee's horsemen were absent, trying to make a display of themselves, while Meade's were in front, where they ought to have been, trying to secure for their commander full information and promptly to seize upon the best positions that might avail to give him advantage in the approaching fight. This difference gave to Meade about 93,000 fighting men against 73,000 on the other side.
Lee's army was strangely scattered. A part of it was at York; a part of it at Carlisle; a part of it at Chambersburg, and another part in front of Gettysburg. Because of Stuart's aberration Lee knew nothing of his enemy's movements until the head of his column ran against Meade's forces at Gettysburg. He seems to have expected Meade to remain south of the Potomac, or at the most to cross that river and place himself in the northern defenses of Washington. He had ordered the concentration of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg without the smallest expectation of finding the Army of the Potomac there to meet him in full force.
A glance at a map will show the reader how completely the position at Gettysburg dominates the military geography, and how perfectly his mastery of it would have enabled Lee to dictate the further course of the campaign.
It is greatly to the credit of General Meade as a strategist that he quickly saw all this and hurried his army forward to occupy that commanding position before Lee could seize upon and control it.
He did this masterfully. When Lee's advance reached Gettysburg on the first of July, it found itself opposed by a force too great for it to deal with in any summary fashion. And that force had seized upon positions of the utmost strategic value before the Confederates reached Gettysburg.
Here a little topographical information is necessary to a clear understanding. With the aid of any good map of the region it may be condensed into brief space.
The town of Gettysburg was itself of no consequence to either side. The military position among the hills surrounding it was vitally important.
Many roads converge at this point. A trifle over two miles south of the town there are two bold and commanding hills – Round Top and Little Round Top. From these a line of hills extends toward the town, commanding the lower ground to the east and west. This is called Cemetery Ridge, and is not to be confounded with Seminary Ridge, presently to be mentioned. Cemetery Ridge, just before it reaches the town, trends off to the east and ends in Culp's Hill.
West of the town is another and higher ridge, also running north and south, called Seminary Ridge. Just west of these high grounds is Willoughby Run, a little creek which afforded opportunity for attack and defense.
When Lee learned that Meade, instead of sitting down to the defense of Washington, was advancing against his communications, he ordered his army to concentrate at Gettysburg for a decisive battle. Meade in the meanwhile was pushing his columns to that point. Here were two masters of the game of war, who, while opposing each other, were agreed that Gettysburg was the key to the situation. The strategic value of that point was equally apparent to both.
Lee, being left in the dark by Stuart's absence, was slowly advancing in detachments, in order to subsist his army upon the country, confident that his enemy was still lingering around Washington and that he had himself ample time in which to seize the commanding positions in advance of the foe's approach. Meade, meanwhile, was perfectly informed of Lee's movements and was hourly quickening his march.
When the head of Lee's column under Ewell reached the neighborhood of Gettysburg on the first of July, it encountered not only the Federal cavalry, which it had expected to find there and to brush aside without difficulty, but the whole of Meade's advance corps – artillery and infantry – under Reynolds, while another corps under Howard was hurrying up in support.
Seizing upon the line of Willoughby Run the Federals undertook to hold it and the hills in rear of it against the enemy's assault. Ewell, expecting to encounter no resistance except such as the cavalry and perhaps some brigades of Pennsylvania militia, could offer, advanced confidently only to find his way disputed by some of the best veteran corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Reynolds, commanding the Federal advance, was killed early in the action and Doubleday succeeded him. Howard presently superseded Doubleday in chief command and later Hancock replaced Howard.
So completely had Lee been left in the dark by the vagaries of his cavalry leader that in ordering Ewell's advance upon Gettysburg he had intended only that his lieutenant should brush away the cavalry and militia there, seize upon the strategic positions and hold them easily until the Confederate army could come up and plant itself impregnably to receive the attack which the foe must make in sheer desperation. But when Ewell approached the town and found himself confronted by the strongest corps of Meade's army instead of merely having cavalry and militia to deal with, it was imperative upon him to bring on a general action at once, in disobedience of Lee's order to avoid such an action until the other Confederate army corps should come up. Ewell was much too wise a soldier not to see the necessity of striking at once and with all the force he could command in the hope of securing for Lee some at least of the strong positions and thus giving to the Confederates an opportunity to fight the great and inevitable battle with a reasonable hope of winning it.
So Ewell struck hard with what force he had, and the enemy struck back with equal vigor. Hour after hour the conflict endured, the men on both sides fighting with determination and calmly enduring a slaughter that only veterans could have stood.
When Lee heard the roar of the conflict and, with practised ear measured its severity, he hurried forward reinforcements as fast as possible, and meanwhile sent a messenger to ask Ewell "What are you fighting there?" In response Ewell answered, "The whole Yankee army, I think."
Here at last the advance forces of the two greatest and gallantest armies ever assembled on this continent had met, each under a leader in whom it had confidence. Here at last, with approximately equal numbers those two armies faced each other with intent to fight out to a finish the question which of them was the better organized for the work of war. The Federals outnumbered the Confederates by no more than 15,000 men or so, and the ?lan the Confederates had brought with them out of recent victories, together with their limitless confidence in Lee's superiority to any living man as a general, served adequately to offset that small advantage.
The courage of the men on both sides was matchless. Their endurance was superb. Their heroism was such as poets rejoice to celebrate in song. The drama, with all its arts and all its accessories has no "effects" to offer, that can for one instant compare in masterfulness with those presented by the story of this struggle of Americans against Americans for the mastery.
Toward the end of the day, the Confederate onsets proved irresistible and the Federal forces in large part at least, fell into retreat. But with the cavalry standing fast and with a brigade of infantry strongly posted on Cemetery Ridge, Hancock, who had assumed command on the field, succeeded in stopping the flight and forming a new line along the crest of Cemetery Ridge.
Thus ended the first day's fight. The Confederates had had the better of it in certain ways. They had been taken by surprise, not in the usual way by being unexpectedly set upon by an army whose assault they were not anticipating, but by finding in their path, when seeking to occupy an advantageous position, a veteran army skilfully handled and well commanded, where they had expected to meet only light bodies of cavalry and militiamen whose resistance they might regard as lightly as they would the small embarrassment of a field of ripening grain. They had lost heavily in the ensuing conflict, but they had driven their foes – or most of them – into retreat and had occupied positions from which the great battles of the ensuing days might be waged with hope and confidence.
During all the night that followed, as during all that first day of fighting, the army corps and divisions and brigades on both sides marched ceaselessly in an endeavor to put themselves into their places on the line in time for the final struggle. Some of them, on either side, marched eighteen miles, some twenty-five, and one at least on the Federal side tramped wearily over thirty-three miles of distance without sleep or rest, in its eagerness to bear its part in what promised to be the crowning conflict of the war.
But each side having secured a strong position neither desired to bring on the conflict until its forces should be fully up, and so the two armies did not fall a-fighting again until about four o'clock in the afternoon of the second day – July 2, 1863. Then Longstreet with his Confederates fell upon Sickles with a fury that only a seasoned corps could have withstood for a moment. Sickles occupied a line of rather low-lying hills that stretched diagonally across between the Federal and Confederate positions. His left wing having no natural obstacle to rest upon, was bent back toward Little Round Top, thus presenting an angle to the enemy.
Upon this angle Longstreet's veterans were hurled with determination, while a part of his corps – Hood's fierce fighting Texans, and that most desperate of rowdy corps, Wheat's Louisiana Tigers – passing around the flank of it, made a determined attempt to seize Little Round Top, a position from which, had they secured it, their guns could have swept a large part of the Federal line with a destructive enfilade fire. General Warren saw the danger in time and moved a heavy force toward the coveted hill, including a battery whose guns the men dragged by hand up the steep and into position.
Hood's men pressed on in face of the fire opened upon them, and with a desperate determination rarely equaled even in this war, endeavored to conquer the position in a hand to hand struggle. The men on both sides saw the vital importance of the position and fought for its possession like so many war-drunken demons. They fought hand to hand, using bayonets when too close together to load and fire. They brained each other with the butts of their muskets. They assailed each other with bowie knives. They even resorted to the use of stones, hurling them in each other's faces and breaking each other's skulls with heavy boulders.
In the end Hood's attack was baffled, and Warren held the hill. But for his alertness in seeing the necessity and his wonderful determination in seizing the opportunity, the battle must have been lost then and there; for, with his guns planted on Little Round Top, Lee could quickly have compelled the whole Federal line to retire and seek some other field of fighting.
Probably in all the course of the war the margin between victory and defeat was never at any point narrower than it was in that desperate struggle for possession of Little Round Top, about sunset on the second day of July, 1863. Never anywhere, before or since, was there fiercer fighting. Never anywhere did soldiers give a better account of themselves. Officers, from lieutenants to generals, fell in numbers by the side of their enlisted men, and over the whole slope the ground was strewn with the dead and the dying. Some of them wore the blue, and some of them the gray – about equal numbers in each uniform – but all of them were Americans and the memory of their heroism is the common heritage of all the people of the great Republic.
During these two days of terrific fighting the Federals had got distinctly the worst of it. The Confederates had not won a victory, but they had at any rate secured advantages that might well give their adversaries pause.
General Meade called a council of war after the firing ceased on the night of the second. He has himself declared that he had no thought of retreating after the fashion that had been established by usage in the Army of the Potomac. General Meade's truthfulness is wholly above suspicion. But General Doubleday has pretty conclusively shown that General Meade's memory was at fault in this and that his object in calling the council of war was to take the opinions of his lieutenants as to whether he should withdraw from the Gettysburg position – as the Army of the Potomac had withdrawn from so many others after being worsted in battle – or should stay there and fight the matter out.
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