George Eggleston.

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

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Flushed by this success, and believing that they had finally broken the Confederate line, Hancock's men pushed on towards Spottsylvania Court House, until they encountered a second line of entrenchments, which, in spite of rain and fog and mud had been thrown up during that night of storm across the rear of that dangerously salient angle. Those entrenchments were manned by the flower of Lee's army, and they quickly brought to nought the triumphant march of an enemy who had supposed that his hard work was, for the time being, done, – that the Army of Northern Virginia was broken in two, and must seek safety in flight.

It was here more conspicuously than anywhere else in all the history of the war that the superb staying power of Lee's veterans was illustrated. At the salient their line of battle had been successfully broken, but at a brief distance in rear of the salient that line of battle stood fast and irresistible to any assault that even Hancock's victorious veterans might make upon it. Here we have a single fact which might be multiplied many times over, which serves to show how and why it was that this contest of 1864 was from beginning to end so bloody and so determined. The time had come when the morale of both armies was perfect, and when each was invincible, except by the pressure of utterly overwhelming force. The time had come when the Americans who were fighting on those Virginia fields were perfect soldiers, immeasurably superior in stamina, in courage, and in devotion to any regulars who were ever drilled into obedience and endurance in any country of the world, before or since. This, the historian believes to be a simple statement of fact which should be recorded in history and not forgotten or overlooked by those persons, who in the twentieth century shall study the story of what Americans did during the first hundred years of the Republic's vigorous life.

But the fighting already described was only a shadowy beginning of that which was presently to follow. The Confederates were not content with having hurled back Hancock's assault at the base of their captured salient, but were determined to retake the salient itself, although the difficulty of doing so was appalling. What had been a salient angle in possession of the Confederates became a re?ntering angle as soon as it was held by the Federals. For the Confederates to push their force into it was for them to encounter a destructive fire from either side, not only enfilading their lines, but sweeping them from front and rear at the same moment. Nevertheless, and with a courage too splendid to be fitly characterized by any adjective in the language, they promptly followed Hancock's men as the latter retired under pressure to the entrenchments of the salient angle. At that point the Federal troops leaping over the works to their own side of them, used them as their own in the defensive operation. Time after time – five times in all – the Confederates pressed forward, enduring the bloodiest slaughter in their attempt to retake the angle, amid a fire of hell from the front, both flanks and diagonally from the rear.

All day long this struggle was continued. The Confederates in spite of the slaughter, and despite all their disadvantages, forced their way, step by step, back to the captured works, and there fought hand to hand over the small embankment with their enemy on the other side.

The embankment itself was a frail structure of logs, from which the rain had washed away the greater part of the earth that was intended to give it a power of resistance against fire. Huddled on either side of it – the Federals on the one side and the Confederates on the other – they fought over and through it, throughout the hours of that terrible day. Sometimes they thrust their bayonets through the crevices in the log barrier, and thus ran each other through. Sometimes they fired through those crevices upon enemies less than ten feet away. Sometimes the men on one side or the other would suddenly mount upon the small parapet, and with bullet or bayonet, assail their adversaries on the other side.

This spot in the annals of the war is fitly called "The bloody angle at Spottsylvania." The fighting there lasted throughout the day and until after midnight of the twelfth. It was a fighting of blind fury from beginning to end. It was such a struggle as few wars have ever given birth to, and it illustrated in the most conspicuous way imaginable that American heroism which made our war so terrible in its conduct, and so glorious in its memory. At every point in the bloody angle when the fighting was done dead men lay piled, one upon another, sometimes five deep. Wounded men were often imprisoned under the dead, unable to extricate themselves, at a time when there were none to rescue them. Every bush and every sapling that constituted the thicket there was cut away by a stream of bullets, as grass is before a mower's scythe. Even an oak tree nearly two feet thick was worn in two near its base by the continual and incessant stroke of leaden balls until it fell, crushing some of the Confederates who were fighting beneath its branches.

Is not the question a pertinent one – what did the little charge of the six hundred at Balaklava amount to as an exhibition of human heroism in comparison with such a fight as this? Has the age of poetry passed? And have the poets forgotten their cunning that not one of them has ever yet celebrated in song such American deeds as these, or as Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, or as Grant's assault at Cold Harbor, or as the six matchless advances of the Federals upon Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg? Or is it merely that our poets have been embarrassed by the very richness of our Confederate war in deeds of derring-do?

On neither side have the losses in this struggle at the death angle been separately computed with even such tolerable accuracy as might justify the historian in the use of round numbers. But the slaughter, it is certain, was as terrific as at any other point of fighting during the entire war, with the possible exception of Cold Harbor, a little later.

After midnight the Confederates withdrew from the apex of the angle to their second line at its base, and for that day the fighting was over.

Concerning this struggle Dr. Rossiter Johnson in his "History of the War of Secession" has written a sentence so wise and so just that no apology is needed for incorporating it in the text of the present work. He wrote, "If courage were all that a nation required, there was courage enough at Spottsylvania, on either side of the entrenchments, to have made a nation out of every state in the Union."

Cold Harbor and on to Petersburg

A week of desperate fighting had convinced Grant that he could not break through or overlap or force back Lee's stubborn line of defense at Spottsylvania. After another week devoted to a study of the problem the Federal commander decided to make another movement by his left flank, similar to that which he had made from the Wilderness. He had in the meantime replenished his supplies of food and ammunition, and in spite of continuous fighting in a small way throughout the week of pause, he had succeeded in reorganizing such of his forces as had been broken, and in resting those of them whose previous exertions had been most exhausting.

On the nineteenth the Confederates under Ewell sharply assailed the Federal right, and a considerable conflict ensued. But in its proportions it was insignificant as compared with the fighting done a week before.

Grant's next objective point was the North Anna river at or near Hanover Court House. He moved one corps at a time, keeping them twelve hours apart, by way of confusing his enemy, and if possible bringing on a fight in the open field before Lee could have time to throw up those hasty entrenchments which had hitherto, slender as they were, given him a great advantage in the struggle. This hope was disappointed. Lee was too wily a strategist not to perceive and avoid his enemy's purpose. Moving hurriedly and upon a somewhat shorter line than Grant's he reached and crossed the North Anna before Grant got there, and so established his line that Grant could not assail it without dividing his own army into three parts, each separated from the others by a bend of the river, and each in danger of being crushed before it could be supported. There was some severe fighting at this point, involving a loss of two or three thousand men on either side, but nothing occurred that could be called a pitched battle, or that deserves more than a mention in comparison with the other splendid contests of that campaign.

Having satisfied himself that there was no thoroughfare here, Grant determined upon a still further movement by his left flank, similar to those already made. He moved on the night of the twenty-sixth, and finding Lee still in his pathway he almost immediately moved again, his destination now being Cold Harbor. The Confederates promptly moved in the same direction, and the two armies met at various points in sharp conflict, but no general action resulted. In the end they came face to face at Cold Harbor with Lee again behind hastily constructed breastworks.

Lee instantly called to his aid all the troops that could be spared from the defenses of Richmond, less than ten miles away, while Grant brought heavy reinforcements for himself from Butler's army, south of the James.

Again Lee had beaten his adversary in a race to secure the commanding ground at the place of meeting. He had placed his army in a position where it could be assailed only in front, and the men, who had learned the use of spade and shovel as expertly as they already knew the use of the bullet and the bayonet, had been favored by the nature of the soil in throwing up a line of breastworks which they felt themselves competent to hold against any assault. Lee's right rested on the Chickahominy river, and his left upon a maze of little streams between which there were impracticable swamps. The river in his rear was at that season very low and easily fordable at almost any point at which a crossing might be attempted, so that it offered no barrier to a retreat of the Confederates, if retreat should be forced upon them. Best of all, as a source of confidence to Lee was the superb morale of his army. It might be possible for an enemy to carry his works and force a way through his lines though that was exceedingly improbable in view of the stubbornness with which his Confederates had learned to fight. But even should that improbable thing be accomplished, Lee perfectly knew that his men would none of them run away, but that they would stand fast by their colors, and fall back fighting to the works before Richmond. The time had completely gone by when panic or demoralization was to be reckoned upon as even a possible factor in either of these two veteran armies. They had both of them thoroughly learned the trade of war. They were both composed of as good human material as was ever employed in the construction of an army. They were both commanded from top to bottom by officers who knew their business, and were disposed to do it at their best.

Here, then, were all the conditions for a great battle and it was for Grant to determine whether or not that battle should be fought. His critics have contended that he should have determined that question in the negative – that the position of Lee was too strong to invite direct assault, or to offer his assailant a tolerable chance of victory. It was at any rate certain, that no assault could be made which would not involve tremendous slaughter among the assailants, while no assault unless successful beyond any promise that the conditions held forth could possibly inflict upon the Confederates any compensating loss, even if reckoned upon the arithmetical hypothesis that Grant could afford to lose two or three men to his adversary's one.

Writing near the end of his life, General Grant said in his "Memoirs":

"I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made… At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed the advantages other than those of relative losses were on the Confederate side."

But the assault was made. In spite of the adverse conditions, Grant determined to assail Lee there, and if possible to force a passage through his lines. It should be explained that during all these movements the two armies had kept themselves always within striking distance of each other, and that conflicts between them had occurred at every step – conflicts which earlier in the war would have been reckoned as battles of great moment, but which at this stage of the struggle were regarded merely as passing incidents of a campaign marked by tremendous battles. At Cold Harbor there was very heavy fighting on the second of June, when Lee took the offensive and bent back the right of Grant's line, thus greatly strengthening the Confederate position of defense.

The great battle came, however, on the morning of the third of June, just as the darkness of night began to gray into the dawn. There was no strategy employed in this action. There was nothing in it of tactics, grand or petty. As one historian has said, it was a fierce battle depending for its results "upon the brute strength of the forces engaged." Grant simply hurled nearly his whole army against Lee at a single point. The fighting covered scarcely more than a brigade front of Lee's line, and upon that short front Lee promptly concentrated troops until they stood six deep at the breastworks, the men in rear loading rifles, and passing them to those in front to fire. The Federals were advancing against strong earthworks, and through a tangled mass of abattis or trees felled with their branches toward the enemy, and with their limbs sharpened to obstruct a march.

The action lasted scarcely more than twenty minutes. Yet in that brief time Grant lost, according to his own report, 10,500 men, or at the rate of more than five hundred men per minute, or nearly ten men per second. When General Lee sent a messenger to General A. P. Hill, who commanded at that point, to ask for a report of the results Hill pointed to the dead bodies of Federal troops piled high upon each other, and for answer said, "Tell General Lee it is the same all along my front."

The Confederate loss in this action was reported at about 1,000 men.

This was the most staggering blow that Grant had ever received in battle, and the news of it appalled the authorities at Washington, and greatly depressed the people throughout the North. That a little army like Lee's, reduced by this time to less than 50,000 men, should have inflicted such a defeat upon an adversary whose forces were generally estimated at 120,000 men seemed to those persons who do not understand the conditions of battle to indicate a lack either of commanding capacity on the part of General Grant or of fighting capacity on the part of the army under his command.

Both of these judgments were clearly mistaken. It was perhaps an error on General Grant's part to assail Lee in his strong position at Cold Harbor, but it was a mistake prompted by that boldness which so often achieves conspicuous results in war. In criticizing such operations it is always necessary to bear in mind that "war is a hazard of possibilities, probabilities, luck and ill luck." At Cold Harbor there was, to say the least, a possibility that Grant, with his overwhelmingly superior numbers, might break through the Confederate lines, and force his way into Richmond. There was the hazard of such failure as that which the Federal army in fact met with. For the sake of the possibility Grant accepted the hazard. Had he won there would have been nothing but praise throughout the North for a boldness which had achieved so conspicuous a success. As he lost in the hazard instead, there was bitter criticism which has not ceased even unto this day.

Fortunately for the Federal cause, the administration at Washington had at last learned that uniform, continued, and complete success is a thing not to be expected of any commander in the field. The administration, therefore, did not withdraw its confidence from Grant or put some other in his place because Lee had thus far baffled him in his endeavors, or because in this instance he had met with bloody defeat at Lee's hands. As for Grant himself, he was always a man of calm mind in no way given to hysterical exaltations on the one hand, or morbid depressions of spirit on the other. He accepted his defeat at Cold Harbor as a mere incident in a campaign which he was determined to carry on to the end in the best way he could.

The campaign had now endured for almost exactly one month. During that time Grant had lost about 60,000 men and 3,000 officers. Lee's loss has been estimated at about 18,000 men, with a proportionate number of officers. The campaign in the field was now practically over, and it remained for Grant to settle his army before Richmond and Petersburg as a besieging force. The object of the campaign in the field, as we have seen, and as General Grant has himself declared, was to crush Lee's army if possible, and failing that to cripple it for defense before his own siege of the Confederate capital should begin. He had succeeded, though at enormous cost to himself, in reducing the numerical strength of his adversary by about one third. Such reduction was undoubtedly less than he had hoped for, but at any rate it was something to the good, so far as his operations were concerned, and it left him in better case for the beginning of that siege during which, as he well knew, he could limitlessly reinforce himself while his adversary had no reserves anywhere to draw upon, even sufficiently to make good those daily losses which defensive operations of necessity involve.

After a week of waiting in indecision Grant determined upon his plan of future operations. He decided that to assail Richmond from the north or east was rendered hopelessly impracticable by the demonstrated alertness of Lee in always interposing the Army of Northern Virginia between the Army of the Potomac and its objective. Halleck proposed from Washington that Grant should place himself on the north and east of the Confederate capital, and conduct siege operations from those directions, thus carrying out that traditional and paralyzing policy which had prevailed during the whole of Halleck's term of command, of keeping the Army of the Potomac always interposed between Lee and Washington. If Halleck had been still Grant's superior in command, there is no doubt that he would have insisted to the end upon this plan of operations, dictated as it always had been by an overweening anxiety lest some Confederate force should succeed in entering the Federal capital city. Grant was a man of very different type. He was not given to fearful imaginings. He saw no reason why those in charge of Washington city – fortified and armed to the teeth as that city was – should not themselves defend the capital against any force that Lee might spare from in front of the Army of the Potomac, so long as that army should continue its operations against the Confederate general with vigor, determination and ceaseless activity. He decided, therefore, to transfer his army from the northern to the southern side of the James river, to seize upon Petersburg, if that should prove possible, to invest that town, if it could not be taken by assault, and by continued movements to the left to cut off Lee's communications.

Here a little geographical explanation is necessary. Petersburg lies on the Appomattox river, twenty-two miles due south of Richmond. It was connected with Richmond by a line of railway and this line was extended from Petersburg southward, by way of Weldon, North Carolina. The Weldon railroad constituted Lee's main line of communication with the coast country south of him. From Petersburg west, extended another line of railway to Lynchburg and beyond, while from Richmond a third line, the Richmond and Danville road, extended southwesterly to Danville, crossing the south side railroad at Burkesville, or as the place was more familiarly known, the Junction.

These three lines of railway constituted Lee's sole means of communication with the country south and west of Richmond. It was Grant's purpose, while holding Lee rigidly to his defensive works, to push his own columns around Lee's right and into his rear, threatening and ultimately cutting these three lines of communication.

Grant hoped so far to conceal his purposes from his wily adversary as to take Petersburg by surprise and capture it, thus at once and easily breaking two of the three lines of Confederate communication, and gaining possession of a position which McClellan two years before had seen and declared to be the military key to Richmond. In aid of this purpose of surprise he set men at work, throwing up fortifications to the north of Richmond, and sent large bodies of cavalry to operate destructively on the north and west of that city, while he held at and near Cold Harbor a sufficiently threatening line in Lee's front to give the impression that he had determined upon making his siege approach in the same way in which McClellan had sought to take the city two years before. He transferred his base of supplies to the White House on York river, where McClellan's base had been.

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