George Eggleston.

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

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Perhaps it was in view of this very remote contingency that Mr. Lincoln at that time urged upon Congress the adoption of a constitutional amendment forbidding slavery anywhere within the borders of the Union.

Congress did not act upon the recommendation at that time, and on the first of January, 1863, Mr. Lincoln issued his final proclamation of emancipation, naming the states and parts of states in which rebellion was held then to exist, and declaring free all the slaves within those states and parts of states. It did not apply to those slave states which had not joined the Confederacy, and, except that Maryland voluntarily freed her slaves near the end of the war, the institution remained lawful in such states as had not seceded, and actually continued to exist there until December 18, 1865, when the ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution was officially proclaimed by Mr. Lincoln's successor.

So far as securing actual liberty to slaves within the Confederate lines was concerned, the emancipation proclamations had no effect whatever. They were probably not expected to have any. But they had an important bearing upon the conduct of the war and the state of the public mind. They made an end of all doubt about what Federal commanders in the field should do with slaves escaping to their lines. They satisfied the strong and growing abolitionist sentiment at the North, and they had some effect in alienating war Democrats and a considerable number of Republicans from the Federal cause, thus checking enlistments in some quarters, and impairing the administration's support.

This effect was far less marked than it would have been had Mr. Lincoln issued an emancipation proclamation earlier in the war when he was first urged to do so. Nevertheless the political effect was notable.

In the autumn elections there was a heavy falling off in Republican majorities, while in some important states Democrats relentlessly opposed to the administration and all its policies were elected to replace Republicans in office. This was notably the case in New York, where Horatio Seymour succeeded the Republican governor, E. D. Morgan, and a sentiment in hostility to the administration and to the war itself grew up, which was afterwards reflected in bloody riots when the time came for a draft of men for the army.

In Europe and particularly in England, the emancipation proclamation went far to change a former friendship for the Confederacy, which had at times threatened danger, into a strong moral support for the Federal cause.

But whatever moral and political results, for or against the Lincoln administration, this act may have produced, it had no perceptible effect upon the actual conduct of the war. That was still to be fought out at the cost of millions of treasure and multitudes of lives. Many of its greatest battles were still to come and its most important campaigns were yet to be fought out.

Burnside's Fredericksburg Campaign

It has already been related that at the end of the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, neither army cared to renew the contest.

The two confronted each other within deadly firing distance for the space of twenty-four hours, doing nothing whatever. Apparently each had so far had enough of such fighting that neither cared to take the initiative for its renewal, yet each was ready enough to meet the other should that other care to assail it.

At the end of this waiting time Lee slowly retired towards the Potomac, McClellan not caring to pursue, and finally crossing the river the Confederates went into camp near Winchester.

So far from planning either to press Lee or to move by some other route upon Richmond, McClellan seems to have thought that he had done quite all that could be expected of him, in turning back the Confederate invasion of the region north of the Potomac. It appears from his dispatches to Mr. Lincoln that he purposed with his enormously superior army to take the defensive, post himself on the Potomac and stand ready to meet any second attempt that Lee might make to invade the North or to strike at Washington. Even for such a service he did not deem his army large enough, though it greatly outnumbered Lee's, or sufficiently well equipped, though its equipment was notably superior to any that its adversary ever had, either before or after that time.

Instead of planning a campaign McClellan devoted himself to the making of multitudinous requisitions and ceaseless complaints.

Precious weeks of perfect campaigning weather were thus wasted, McClellan lying idly upon the north bank of the Potomac while Lee rested and reinforced his army near Winchester.

But if McClellan did nothing Lee was not so supine. He did not indeed begin a new campaign or bring on a battle, but he again awakened apprehension of invasion at the North by sending Stuart – the same cavalier who had ridden around McClellan's army near Richmond – to make a raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania which seemed for the time at least to be the precursor of a new movement of invasion by the Confederates.

On the tenth of October, with 1,800 picked cavalry men and some light field-pieces, Stuart crossed the river at Williamsport, above McClellan's position, made a rapid march to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and thence swept eastward and southward, riding unmolested entirely around McClellan and returning to Virginia on the thirteenth by passing the river again below Harper's Ferry.

He brought off a rich store of ammunition, supplies and many valuable horses, but the capture of these was neither the primary object nor the chief result of the daring raid. It was intended for moral effect, and it wrought such effect in a marked degree. It awakened apprehension at the North, and it showed Lee to be still capable of an aggressiveness of which McClellan was obviously very greatly in fear. At the North as well as at the South it gave to the situation, after the late campaign, the appearance of one in which the Confederates seemed in better condition for further operations than their adversaries were.

Mr. Lincoln renewed his urgency for McClellan's advance, and finally succeeded in inducing him to cross the river and to seem at least to take the offensive. But after crossing into Virginia, McClellan did nothing effective. The history of Mr. Lincoln's effort to set the splendid Army of the Potomac in motion again, and the correspondence incident to that effort, are interesting, but they do not come within the purview of this present work.

Wearying at last of the inactivity Lincoln ordered General Burnside to take command of the Army of the Potomac, as McClellan's successor, and the new commander decided to move down the left bank of the Rappahannock and attempt a march upon Richmond by a short route.

Establishing his base of supplies at Acquia creek on the Potomac, only a few miles from Fredericksburg, with a railroad connection between, Burnside sat down on the north side of the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg, the last of his columns reaching that point on the twentieth of November. Lee, moving upon a parallel line, reached Fredericksburg about the same time, and formed his lines to resist his enemy's contemplated advance.

Lee's army at that time numbered about 68,000 men, but before the battle it was swelled by reinforcements to nearly 80,000, and again reduced by detachments, to 68,000 or less. Burnside's force numbered about 120,000, with 147 guns, about twice Lee's strength in artillery.

Fredericksburg lies upon fairly level ground, immediately upon the southern bank of the Rappahannock, which at that point is not fordable at any season. In rear of the town and within cannon range, there is a line of bold hills beginning upon the river above the city and stretching in a curve around the town to the eastward where they gradually diminish in height and finally disappear.

Lee seized upon these hills and hurriedly fortified them, placing his artillery in effective positions and shielding his men with strong earthworks. Here he concentrated the greater part of his army under Longstreet on the left or west, and Jackson on the right or east, while D. H. Hill, with the remainder of the Confederate army was posted at Port Royal, twenty miles further down the river, eastward, to meet and repel any attempt that might be made to cross there and turn the flank of Lee's position.

This detachment of Hill with a strong force to a point so far away as to forbid his direct co?peration with the rest of the army during the battle, seriously diminished Lee's effective strength, but the advantage of position which he possessed and the advantage of fighting behind breastworks which his enemy must assail from the open, compensated him somewhat.

Burnside's first difficult task was to get his army across the river. This he could do only by the use of frail pontoon bridges of which he purposed to lay five – three in front of the city and two below. The pontoon trains were slow in arriving, and when they came it was for a time impossible to put the pontoons into position, owing to the destructive fire of the sleepless sharpshooters Lee had posted along the banks to interfere with the work. In consequence of this and other difficulties it was not until the tenth of December that a crossing was made which Burnside had confidently expected to make more than a fortnight earlier.

In the meanwhile Lee had busied himself night and day in strengthening his position in every possible way, and he was soon fully prepared for the contest.

Burnside's first assault was made about ten o'clock on the morning of December 13. It was made in two columns, striking simultaneously, the one against Lee's right and the other against his left. The assault upon his right was at first attended with a partial success, but Jackson hurried troops to the breach and quickly hurled the assailants back in confusion, pursuing them nearly to the river's bank where a heavy artillery fire checked his progress. The Federal assault on that part of the Confederate line was not renewed during the day.

From official reports and otherwise, it appears that Burnside at first intended to direct his main attack upon this right wing of Lee's army. The hills there were lower and far less defensible than were those on the Confederate left, and offered, certainly, a much more tempting opportunity to the Federal commander. It was without doubt the weakest point in Lee's line – the point which the Federals might have assailed with greatest hope of success or at least of inflicting the heaviest loss upon their foes. But, for some reason which has never been clearly explained, Burnside changed his plan of battle almost at the last moment, and directed his heaviest columns against Marye's Heights, the well-nigh impregnable stronghold of Lee's left wing. Here Lee had his batteries and a host of infantry strongly posted in formidable earthworks on top of the hills, in a position of great advantage.

For a body of troops to charge up Marye's Heights, bristling as they did with hostile and well served cannon, and defended by tens of thousands of veteran riflemen, was a task that might well have appalled even such sturdy fighters as composed the Army of the Potomac. But the matter was made more difficult by another peculiarity of the ground. Looked at from below, the hill seemed to present a smooth surface, ascending gently toward the works that defended it. But this appearance was deceptive. On the side of the hill well in advance of Lee's main line, and running athwart the Federal line of advance, there was a sunken road, faced with a stone wall, which formed as perfect a breastwork as any that an engineer could have constructed there. Into this sunken road Lee threw about two thousand riflemen, who lay there perfectly concealed from view and as well protected against adverse fire as men using rifles can be. Their orders were to withhold their fire until the enemy charging up the slope under a destructive cannonade from above, and thinking of the works at the top as the first obstacle to be encountered, should reach a point a score or so of yards in front of the sunken road, whence they could be swept away like dust before a housemaid's broom. It was as deadly a trap as could be imagined, and its concealment was perfect. Yet when the Federal general decided to make his main attack upon Lee's left, there was no course open to him but to take this doubly defended hill by assault or suffer fearful disaster, as he did, in a futile attempt to do so. For the nature of the ground on Lee's farther left rendered it impossible to turn his flank or try conclusions with him otherwise than by a direct charge upon Marye's Heights.

The first attack was made by French's division. It was already suffering terribly under the fire from the hilltop, when it came upon the sunken road and was instantly swept away by a hailstorm of bullets. Retiring, French left about one half of his men on the field, dead or wounded.

Hancock charged next with five thousand men and was driven back with a loss of two thousand or more.

The exact nature of the case was not even yet understood. The position in the sunken road was still masked to the Federal commanders. But French's and Hancock's attempts had conclusively shown that no courage, no determination, no heroism however high, could enable mortal men to carry that hill by assault. Nevertheless Burnside persisted where a wiser leader would either have withdrawn or have changed his plan of battle. He sent another, and another, and still another division into that fire of hell, only to see them instantly hurled back, shattered fragments of most gallant commands, beaten, broken and well-nigh destroyed by reason of a blundering obstinacy on the part of their commanding general.

Finally Hooker was ordered to make another attempt – the sixth of those futile and bloody charges. He pointed out to Burnside the uselessness of the effort and begged him to abandon without further needless sacrifice of gallant men's lives, an operation which had already been proved to be hopeless.

In a blind rage Burnside seemed unable to comprehend what his subordinates saw clearly enough. He insisted upon sending Hooker's command also into that slaughter pen. They rushed forward, – four thousand as brave fellows as ever fought in battle – and a few minutes later seventeen hundred of them lay stretched upon the field, their bodies riddled with Confederate bullets, while their comrades, unable to achieve the impossible, fell back as the remnants of the other divisions had done before.

The Confederate war furnished two conspicuous manifestations of supreme heroism on the part of large bodies of men – one upon one side, the other upon the other. Pickett's charge at Gettysburg was one of these. This series of six charges up Marye's Heights was the other.

When the sixth assault ended as its predecessors had done, the time had manifestly come to end the battle. A wiser commander would have ended it much earlier, indeed. Having lost 12,353 men in an ill-directed contest Burnside withdrew to the river bank, baffled and beaten beyond recovery.

The Army of the Potomac had won all the glory for itself that heroic conduct can give in the absence of victory, but it had need now of rest, recruitment and a new commander.

Burnside was clearly not equal to the task of commanding such an army in a contest with such an adversary as Robert E. Lee. He had himself passed precisely that judgment upon his own capacities when on three former occasions the command of the Army of the Potomac was offered to him. But now that he had accepted that command and had led to disastrous defeat what somebody at the time characterized as "the finest army on the planet," disappointment and chagrin seem for the moment to have unseated his reason. He refused to recognize the extent of the disaster he had suffered or the conspicuousness and completeness of his defeat. His army was torn and broken as no other great army on either side had been before. It was weary with futile battling, discouraged by a failure that had involved terrible losses, and the fact that it was not demoralized was due only to the splendid courage and devotion of the soldiers themselves. Worse than all it had lost confidence in the capacity of its leader.

Nevertheless Burnside, reckless of any consequences that might follow, was determined that night to renew the battle on the following morning, himself leading his own former corps, the Ninth, in still another desperate attempt to carry Marye's Heights. Earnest protests and persuasions succeeded at last in inducing him to abandon this purpose, and after remaining inactive for a day on the bank of the river, he withdrew his army, under cover of night, to the other side of the river and the fearfully disastrous Fredericksburg campaign was at an end.

Military critics have wondered much that Lee, whose loss in the battle had been only 5,309 men, and whose troops were almost wild with the enthusiasm of victory, permitted his badly beaten adversary to remain unmolested on the southern bank of the stream for twenty-four hours and then quietly to retire. Burnside's position and the condition of his army strongly invited attack. He had a wide and deep river behind him, with only a frail pontoon bridge spanning it. Had he been defeated there by assault on the part of the victors there would have been no way of escape open to him. Destruction or surrender must have followed.

On the other hand, his force still heavily outnumbered Lee's and it was in no way demoralized. Defeated and discouraged as it was its spirit was unbroken, and had Lee left his works and assailed it in the open, the issue of the conflict might have been very uncertain. It is alleged that Lee's lieutenants urged a tempestuous assault, and that Lee's chief reason for rejecting the advice was born of his hope that Burnside would himself on the next day renew the attempt to dislodge the Confederates from their well-nigh impregnable position.

However that may be, Lee did not in fact assume the offensive; Burnside retired during darkness to the farther side of the river and the two armies settled themselves in winter quarters, Lee presently sending large bodies of men to the southwest to reinforce the armies there, where active warfare was in progress, and still more active warfare threatened.

The military operations of the season that thus closed had been in every way remarkable. Four distinct campaigns had been fought, all of them severe, and all marked by brilliant strategy and heroic conduct on the part of the troops on either side. McClellan's siege of Richmond, which had filled the South with gloomy apprehension, had been broken in a series of bloody and impressive battles, and the Army of the Potomac had been forced to withdraw for the defense of Washington.

Pope's campaign with his Army of Virginia had been conspicuously brought to naught by brilliant strategy and desperate fighting.

Lee's invasion of Maryland had for a time reversed the former order of things, putting the Federals on the defensive. It had ended at last in a battle so indecisive that both sides claimed it as a victory. Finally Burnside's well planned but badly executed Fredericksburg campaign had resulted in very conspicuous defeat and failure after one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

The net result of the four campaigns was one of very great advantage to the Confederates. The gloomy apprehension with which they had looked forward to that summer's military operations was changed to exultant joy and confidence as they contemplated the situation when the work of the year was over. They had discovered a commander for whom their adversary had as yet found no match in his mastery of the art of war. They were reinspirited by the results achieved and were full of confidence for the future.

On the other side, the North rejoiced in the splendid fighting quality of the Army of the Potomac, as demonstrated in the Seven Days' battles, at Manassas, at Antietam, and most of all, at Fredericksburg. The danger which at one time seemed so imminently to threaten their capital and the cities farther north, had been averted, and they had confidence that the coming spring would bring results in Virginia as pleasing to them as those that had been achieved by Grant in the west during the year that was coming to an end.

The struggle of the giants had but just begun.

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