George Eggleston.

The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2

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Very naturally the fighting was at short range at every point. Scarcely anywhere on that tangled field did the opposing forces discover each other's positions until they came within short pistol-shot range. The slaughter was therefore tremendous and at no time could either commanding general fully satisfy himself as to how the battle was going or what its result was likely to be or even what his own or the enemy's position was.

The two greatest fighting machines that America has yet produced had met in battle, in the midst of such a maze of tangled growths as nowhere else exists except in marshes where such a meeting is impossible by reason of a lack of firm ground for the men to stand upon. Here at least, there was firm ground.

Grant had not expected to encounter his enemy here. He had supposed that Lee would move out of the Wilderness and choose more favorable ground upon which to receive the assaults of his enemy. Accordingly, the Federal commander had already pushed a part of his army under Hancock toward the edge of the Wilderness, hoping by a rapid march to place it between the Confederate army and the Confederate capital. No sooner, however, was Lee's assault developed than Grant saw clearly that he must fight a determined battle here on this most unsuitable ground. Lee had decided this in the obvious expectation of finding Grant unready. But readiness under all circumstances was a part and an important part of Grant's character and intellectual make-up. It was his habit of mind to take things as he found them and to do the best he could in every case. He hurriedly called Hancock back and accepted battle in the jungle.

The fighting was desperate throughout the day, and at the day's end no decisive advantage rested with either party. Lee had been fighting with only a part of his army, for the reason that Longstreet with that first corps upon which Lee always relied for the more desperate work of war did not reach position in time to take part in the struggle of that day.

At nightfall it was obvious that the contest must be resumed in the morning and indeed, each of the great commanders intended that it should be, each planning to strike first if possible. In preparation for the coming morning's work both sides spent the night in diligent fortifying with such means as were at hand.

Grant ordered an assault all along the line to be made at five o'clock in the morning. Lee, still more alert, struck out with his left an hour earlier. He was still weak on his right wing, for lack of Longstreet, who had not yet come up. Grant, recognizing this fact, planned to hurl Hancock upon the Confederate right at the appointed hour of five o'clock in the morning. By an adroit handling of Rosser's cavalry, the Confederates managed to deceive Hancock into the belief that Longstreet was making a flank movement against the Federal left, similar to those which Jackson had made with such destructive effect in former battles. To meet this and to avoid a disaster like that which had befallen Hooker at Chancellorsville, Hancock promptly detached a considerable part of his force, and sent it to his left, thus weakening his column of attack.

Nevertheless he struck hard enough to drive back the weak Confederate right for more than a mile.

Then Longstreet, who had undertaken no such flanking expedition as that which Hancock had supposed, came up and threw his veterans precipitately upon his foe.

These two – Longstreet and Hancock – were both old fighters and very stubborn ones, and they had under their command the very best men there were in their respective armies. When they met in direct conflict at close quarters, therefore, the fighting was as obstinate as any that had yet occurred on any field since the beginning of the war.

Hancock was driven back and the losses on both sides were great, including a conspicuously large loss of officers from the lowest to the highest grade. General Wadsworth on the Federal side, and General Jenkins on the Confederate, were killed, and Longstreet himself was shot through the neck and shoulder so that he had to be carried from the field.

Having thus lost his great lieutenant, General Lee went to that quarter of the field and took personal command in Longstreet's place. It was then that one of the most picturesque incidents of the war occurred. Impressed with the desperate necessity of carrying a certain peculiarly difficult position, General Lee seized the colors of a Texas regiment and undertook to lead the perilous assault in person. The troops loudly protested against such an exposure of their beloved general to danger, and the Texas colonel, in behalf of his men and amid their applause, solemnly promised that they would carry the point at all costs and all hazards if Lee would go to the rear. Finally, Lee's bridle rein was seized, and he was forcibly taken to the rear, while the Texans advanced to the charge with the battle cry of "Lee to the rear!" upon their lips. The incident has been exquisitely celebrated in song by the poet John R. Thompson.

Under inspiration of this incident, the Confederates made an assault of desperate determination, and at one point broke through the Federal lines. They captured the position for the recovery of which Lee had sought to sacrifice himself, but the result was achieved at tremendous cost of life, and their further efforts to dislodge Hancock were bloodily repelled.

By some means – probably by reason of the fierce firing on either side – a forest fire now broke out in Hancock's front, and the flames quickly communicated themselves to the log revetments of his fortifications. The heat and the smoke forced the Federals to retreat, fighting as they went against the Confederates who pursued them with fury. Sadly enough, besides the dead there were large numbers of wounded men, both Federal and Confederate, lying among the burning bushes and underbrush of that mile-wide stretch of wilderness over which the flames swept. Here misfortune and sheer accident wantonly added to the necessary horrors of war another horror not contemplated or intended by either commander although that, like all other risks of battle, is included in the contract which the soldier makes with his country. These men, wounded and helpless as they lay amid the flames that circled and enwrapped them, must have realized as nobody unaccustomed to the horrors of war can, the truth of Sherman's statement that "war is all hell."

Night ended the struggle, and the men on both sides retired to their entrenchments to await the events of the morrow. On neither side was there the least suggestion of demoralization or of shrinking from the work that was yet to be done. On neither side were there skulkers in the rear as there had been at Manassas, at Shiloh and at nearly every other great battle of an earlier time. The volunteers who composed the armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia were real soldiers now, inured to war, and desperate in their determination to do its work with out faltering or failure. This fact – this change in the temper and morale of the men on either side – had greatly simplified the tasks set for Grant and Lee to solve. They knew their men. They knew that those men would stand against anything, endure slaughter without flinching, hardship without complaining, and make desperate endeavor without shrinking. The two armies had become what they had not been earlier in the contest, perfect instruments of war, that could be relied upon as confidently as the machinist relies upon his engine scheduled to make so many revolutions per minute at a given rate of horse power, and with the precision of science itself.

It will be remembered that as Jefferson Davis approached the battlefield of Manassas, where the Confederates had won a conspicuous victory, the multitude of panic-stricken fugitives through whom he passed was such as to convince him that Beauregard had been disastrously defeated. It will be remembered that at Shiloh when Grant made his way to the front he was appalled by the presence under shelter of the river banks of a multitude of fugitives, demoralized and panic-stricken, who ought to have been at the front lying on their bellies and firing at the enemy. Nothing of the kind occurred on either side at the Wilderness. The war school had perfectly educated its pupils.

The losses in these two days of fighting in the Wilderness have never been accurately ascertained, and never will be. The best estimates fix them at about 15,000 or 16,000 men on either side. These losses included, as has already been said, a remarkable number of officers of high grade on both sides. Nothing could be more significant than this of the determination with which the battle was fought.

In the strictest sense of the military term this had been a drawn battle. Neither side had overcome the other and neither had driven the other into retreat. Yet each side has claimed it as a victory upon grounds which are logical enough in themselves. The Confederates held that by checking Grant and baffling his plan of marching out of the Wilderness, and forcing Lee to a fight in the open, they had accomplished a very distinct victory. The Federals held, that, as they had succeeded in placing their army securely south of the Rapidan and in a position to carry on a further campaign, and that as they had not been so far damaged in the fight as to feel themselves under compulsion of retreat, they were entitled to regard the general result of the two days' fight as a victory for themselves.

There is no doubt whatever that at the end of this struggle the Confederates expected Grant to retire to the northern side of the river, as all his predecessors had done after similar conflicts. When the next morning dawned and Grant still stood firm in their front they were astonished to find him there. Among the men no explanation of his continued presence in the wilderness was forthcoming. In the mind of Lee there was an explanation ready and sufficient. The great Confederate general is reported to have said to his staff on that morning, "Gentleman, at last the Army of the Potomac has a head."

Spottsylvania and the Bloody Angle

All day during the seventh of May the two armies lay still. There was a little cavalry fighting at Todd's Tavern, but the two great armies did not again engage each other in conflict. They had tried conclusions here, and each was measurably satisfied with the result.

The question now was where next they should meet each other in arms. Lee had chosen the field of the first onset. It was for Grant to choose the next. And in pursuance of his strategy Grant determined to move by his left flank to Spottsylvania Court House, hoping to reach that position before his adversary could get there, and to seize upon its best strategic points. In that position he would still have the great waterways at his back as a support, and a trustworthy source of supply. His desire was throughout the campaign to thrust his army in between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond, and this seemed to be his best opportunity to do so. He had somewhat a shorter line of march, and moreover by taking the initiative he was able to start first. If he was baffled in the attempt it was only by reason of the alertness of Lee's genius which penetrated his purpose, grasped his thought, and promptly acted in contravention of it.

Spottsylvania Court House lay fifteen or sixteen miles southeast of the Wilderness battlefield, and nearly that far southwest of Fredericksburg. In order that the movement might be made without danger of his army being attacked while in motion, Grant adopted the plan of using the troops on his right as the advance force of his movement towards the left. He did this throughout that campaign by the left flank, always withdrawing the forces on his right, passing them in rear of his main army, and thus making of the movement what is technically known as a countermarch. In this way the advancing troops had always the main army between them and the enemy until they cleared the position occupied, and were well on march toward the new one aimed at. After that, of course, they must take care of themselves, but in the meanwhile the march was begun without discovery on the part of the enemy.

The movement on this occasion was begun at nine o'clock in the evening, on the night of Saturday, May 7. With his extraordinary alertness and penetration Lee anticipated it and obstructed it. He threw a force of cavalry across the roads that Grant's head of column must traverse, and directed it to oppose and delay the movement so far as it was possible to do so. He also sent sappers and miners ahead to fell trees across the road over which Grant must march, then with caution, but with boldness, he set his own columns in motion, sending the head of them to seize upon and hold the strongly strategic positions at Spottsylvania until such time as Grant's movement should so far develop itself as to justify him in moving his whole army into that position. The Federal cavalry had occupied these strategic positions before the Confederates got there, but they were quickly brushed away, and by the time that the head of Grant's column of infantry and artillery reached Spottsylvania, Lee's advance was in full possession and everywhere throwing up earthworks. The remainder of Lee's forces were quickly brought up, as were those of Grant, and the two great armies again confronted each other, each with set lips, determined to get the better of the other if human resolution could accomplish that purpose.

In the meanwhile Grant had sent Sheridan with a strong force of cavalry to ride around the Confederates as Stewart had thrice done around the Federal army, to disturb their communications, and obstruct their avenues of retreat in case of disaster. His movement was promptly met by the Confederate cavalry under their great leader J. E. B. Stuart, and the two forces fell a-fighting at a point known as the Yellow Tavern, seven or eight miles north of the city of Richmond. There in fierce conflict Stuart met the death which he had always declared that he longed for. He was mortally wounded at the head of his men while making one of those tremendous onsets which it was the pride of his soul to conduct. With Stuart disabled, the Confederate cavalry was left without a leader capable of making the most of its dash and prowess, and Sheridan succeeded in breaking through the outer lines around Richmond, but not in going farther. He retreated and rejoined the army under Grant on the twenty-fifth of May, seventeen days after the time of his setting out.

The first casualty of importance at Spottsylvania was the killing of General Sedgwick by a Confederate sharpshooter. This one sharpshooter had already sent his bullets through twenty men as the Federals were trying to establish themselves in position. So deadly was his aim that in spite of the distance he seemed to be able to hit anybody that he shot at. After a little experience with him the men who were engaged in erecting fortifications shrank from their work, and General Sedgwick rebuked them, saying that at such a distance the best sharpshooter couldn't hit an elephant. A moment later he fell dead pierced through by a bullet from the sharpshooter's rifle.

By the evening of the ninth of May the two armies confronted each other, each behind its breastworks. A little fighting of a severe character occurred that evening on the Confederate left, both sides losing heavily, and neither gaining any advantage of moment. On the next day the fighting was renewed with desperation upon both sides. Several times the Federalists reached the Confederate breastworks, and held them for a few moments, but upon every occasion they were driven back. In their retreat they carried away some prisoners, some battle flags, and other trophies, but none of the guns that they had temporarily captured.

Thus the fighting on the tenth of May resulted in no advantage to either side. Grant had failed completely in his effort to place himself at Spottsylvania in advance of Lee, and thus to thrust his army in between Lee and Richmond, compelling the Confederate general to make a race for it under disadvantageous circumstances, and by a longer line than that which Grant must follow. Thus when the fight began at Spottsylvania Lee was still between Grant and Richmond, and the fighting itself was an attempt to dislodge him by assault, by an army outnumbering his by two to one or more.

On the eleventh of May throughout the day and night it rained incessantly, and enormously. The whole earth in that region was converted into a quagmire impracticable for the movement of artillery, and almost impassable even by infantry. Lee's men in the trenches were forced to stand upon fence rails and sticks and whatever else they could get to keep themselves from sinking to their knees in the glutinous red clay, softened as it was by the rain. It was impossible even to send couriers with orders in the rear of either line in the rain, and so the orders were passed, particularly during the night, by word of mouth, from one man to another up and down the lines. The conditions were of a kind to try the courage and endurance of soldiers far more severely than either battle or hard marching could. Yet through it all these veterans on either side maintained their courage and resolutely refused to let even the rains of that Virginia springtime wash the starch out of their stamina.

The two lines were so near together at many points that pickets could not be thrown out even into the rifle pits which are customarily placed between works thus closely confronting each other. It was impossible to see for any distance in any direction, and at all hours of that terrible night there was a constant threat of sudden advance and surprise upon one point or another of the Confederate line. These threats were reported by word of mouth, as has been explained, from one soldier to another along the line. A message would come "Look out on the left," or "Look out on the right; enemy advancing." About two o'clock in the morning, after there had been a lull of half an hour in the tremendous downpour, the rain began again in bucketsfull and some wag in the Confederate lines started a message, "Get out of the wet." In spite of their discomforts, of their fatigue, of their exhaustion from sleeplessness, and of their momentary danger, the gallant fellows took it up and passed it from one to another, as they might have passed any order of General Lee's. This incident is related here merely by way of showing into what condition of cheerful endurance the men had been wrought by their soldierly experience. It is of value as showing what stuff these contesting armies were made of in the spring of 1864, when the issues of the war lay in their hands.

The Confederate line at one point presented what is known in military parlance as a salient angle, – that is to say, a bend, the point of which projects toward the enemy, so that the enemy advancing toward it, and upon either side of it, has the advantage of shooting down along the lines of the men defending it on either side. This is called enfilading, and it especially endangers a position of the kind. Grant decided to begin the fighting on the twelfth by an early assault upon this Confederate salient. During the night he carefully disposed his forces with a view to this operation, hoping thus early in the morning to break through the Confederate line, cut it in two and assail each of its divisions in rear and at disadvantage.

In this operation he was greatly favored by a dense fog, which rendered it impossible for his enemy to discover his movements, or even the presence of his moving columns at a greater distance than a few yards. Hancock had charge of this particular movement, and he succeeded before his movement was discovered in gaining a position very near to the exposed salient angle, and from that position his men rushed with a wild hurrah upon the works. The Confederates stood their ground as such veterans were at that time always expected to do.

Hancock's men climbed over the breastworks, and the fighting that ensued was that of desperadoes in mortal conflict. They were foes of a sort that knew no flinching and no fear. They fought hand to hand. They thrust each other through with bayonets. They brained each other with clubbed muskets. Cannoneers on the Confederate side finding the infantry support inadequate used their rammerheads, their linstock points, and even the handspikes of their guns with deadly effect. Those of the artillerymen who had none of these instruments to use did that which is not often done in war. They drew their short artillery swords – blades resembling the bowie knife in shortness – and fought with them to the death.

So sudden was the onset and so overwhelming was Hancock's force that in spite of its desperate resistance the small Confederate body holding the salient was overcome, and the greater part of it captured. It consisted of General Edward Johnson's division of about 3,000 men, together with twenty guns, which were immediately turned upon such of the Confederates as had succeeded in avoiding capture.

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