George Eggleston.

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

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After all these years the memory of their gallant deeds will be cherished by the whole Republic and all its people, whether the heroism of daring and endurance was shown on the one side or on the other. The men who met in battle there were fighting on the one side and on the other for liberty. Their views differed as to what would best minister to liberty, but their purpose was the same. The questions that divided them were long ago settled, and they no longer vex the Republic. The time has come when we may rejoice as citizens of one country in the devotion and courage that animated both sides in that great struggle for the decision of questions that could be settled only by the arbitrament of arms.

On Sunday, before noon, Hooker was completely driven from the Chancellorsville line and compelled to retire to a new position of extraordinary strength. Lee, with an army much smaller and considerably disorganized, but inspirited by repeated victory, confronted him. It was Lee's purpose to move again to the assault, in the conviction that the delivery of another of his tremendous blows would result in breaking Hooker's resistance and driving him across the river. It is true that Hooker still had a vastly superior force, but events had clearly shown that the Federal commander did not know how to handle his superior forces in a way to make the most of their superiority. Lee confidently believed that even with his smaller numbers he could deliver a blow that would drive his adversary out of the new lines as his previous assaults had already driven him out of the old ones.

The new position taken up by the Army of the Potomac is described by an engineer officer of high authority as "well-nigh impregnable," and the Army of Northern Virginia was very nearly worn out with the work it had done in conquering the former situation. But it was Lee's habit of mind to do and dare, and he had sufficiently tried conclusions now, to know beyond all question, that in the war game he was immeasurably more than Hooker's match.

So about noon on Sunday he began feeling of Hooker's new lines, searching for the most favorable point at which to hurl himself upon them in the hope of breaking them and driving his enemy into final retreat. For Lee's strategy no longer had any element of defensive purpose in it. He was no longer thinking of defense indeed or of securing lines of retreat. It was his bold thought to assail Hooker and destroy him with all his superior forces, or at the very least to drive him back across the river and take into his own keeping the problem of where and how the campaigning of 1863 should be done. Says Colonel Dodge:66
  "The Campaign of Chancellorsville," p. 156.


Hooker still had in line at Chancellorsville, counting out his losses of Saturday, over eighty-five thousand men.

Lee had not exceeding half the number. But every musket borne by the Army of Northern Virginia was put to good use; every round of ammunition was made to tell its story. On the other hand of the effective of the Army of the Potomac, barely a quarter was fought au fond, while at least one half the force for duty was given no opportunity to burn a cartridge to aid in checking the onset of the elated champions of the South.

So much for disparity in generalship. The South had found its great and masterful commander, who knew how to utilize to the utmost such forces as were placed at his disposal. Mr. Lincoln had not yet found a general capable of employing to the full measure of its capacity, the superb army which the North had created by a lavish expenditure of treasure and by the eager volunteering of Northern youth for their country's service. Ulysses S. Grant was still the subordinate of Halleck and the Army of the Potomac was commanded by a general utterly unequal to the task of holding his own in a contest with Robert E. Lee.

In his new position Hooker stood upon the defensive and appealed to Sedgwick, who held the position below Fredericksburg, to come to his rescue and save him from disaster.

Sedgwick responded promptly, as it was his custom to do, though the task set him was a difficult one. He must assail Lee's works at Fredericksburg, drive out the 8,500 confident Confederates who were holding the trenches there, and then by a march of some weary miles fall upon Lee's right and rear, thus rescuing Hooker from the peril of the great Confederate's persistent assaults.

A whole library of controversial literature has been written in conflicting efforts to show who was to blame for the failure of Sedgwick to relieve Hooker in time to save him from the vengeance of Lee. With that controversy the present narrative of facts in no way concerns itself. Let us simply tell what happened.

Already in command of an available force twice as great as Lee's, Hooker, driven from his chosen line, had fallen back to a more concentrated one. Finding Lee disposed, with one man to his two, to assail him on this new line, he called upon Sedgwick as already stated, to come to his relief, against enormous obstacles. The order was received late at night. Its execution required a complete change in Sedgwick's dispositions, which had been made with the entirely different purpose of cutting off Lee's retreat after Hooker should have broken the Confederate resistance at Chancellorsville. So far from breaking that resistance Hooker had been forced to yield to it and retire before it.

Sedgwick changed front, drove Lee's 8,500 men out of the works at Fredericksburg, and pushed on to assail Lee's flank. Lee detached, to meet him, all of his small force except the Jackson corps of 19,000 men, with which he undertook, personally, to hold in check any movement that Hooker might make with the 80,000 or more of hardened veterans whom the Federal commander had under his immediate orders. But Hooker made no determined movement. On Sunday a fierce battle was fought between Sedgwick and those of Lee's forces which were engaged in trying to check his movement. It ended in the Confederates holding their ground and defeating Sedgwick's purpose of coming to the relief of his commander.

Early on Monday morning the Confederates succeeded in reoccupying the Fredericksburg Heights in Sedgwick's rear, which left him, in case of defeat, with no course open to him except to retreat across the river and give up the contest.

To compel this the Confederates, falling upon him at six o'clock in the evening, pressed him at every point while Hooker, with the main body of the Federal army, lay quite inert in rear of Chancellorsville. Soon after nightfall Sedgwick crossed the river, leaving the Confederates in full possession of the Fredericksburg Heights and of all the region east of the fords upon which Hooker depended for retreat in case of necessity.

Lee next set about the task of compelling that retreat. With full confidence in the willingness and the abundant ability of his men to respond to any demand he might make upon them for activity, he quickly ordered the reinforcements with which he had strengthened his right wing for the day's work, to return, and with the bulk of his force thus reunited, after having disposed of Sedgwick he was ready to fall upon Hooker.

During these operations against Sedgwick Lee's army had been for the second time divided. A great part of it had been sent half a dozen miles or more away to force Sedgwick back to the river and across it. In the meanwhile Lee, with a mere fragment of his force, had lain in front of Hooker. Why Hooker did not fall upon him and destroy him with the eighty thousand men whom he could easily have brought to bear against less than twenty thousand, is a question that can be answered only by the reminder that Hooker was not equal to the task of successfully handling the marvelous fighting machine which the North had so successfully created. Great as he was as a fighter under some other and abler man's direction, Hooker in command of 120,000 men seems to have been paralyzed by the magnitude of his task. He left it to Lee, with his greatly smaller force to determine when and where the fighting should be done. He lay still and let Lee alone while the greater part of Lee's army was detached upon the mission of driving Sedgwick across the river and recapturing the heights at Fredericksburg. He lay still while Lee was bringing back the troops thus detached and putting himself in readiness to strike that final blow that should break the Federal lines, drive them back across the river, and make an inglorious end of Hooker's superbly planned but phenomenally ill-executed campaign.

On Monday, May 4, he had 80,000 men (Dodge) under his immediate command at Chancellorsville, with more than 20,000 under Sedgwick within easy call, as an available reinforcement. At the very most Lee could bring less than 30,000 to bear against him even if every movement in concentration should be successfully made. Yet according to his own testimony, given two years later, Hooker decided on Monday to retreat across the river. He called his major generals together "not as a council of war" he says in his testimony, but merely to find out how they felt with regard to the alternative policy of making what Hooker himself regarded as "a desperate move against the enemy in our front." That "desperate move" was the assailing of less than 30,000 men by more than 80,000 of as good soldiers as ever pulled a trigger, while 20,000 more remained within call as reinforcements.

It was decided by Hooker, against the nearly unanimous advice of his lieutenants not to make that "desperate move," and the history of war records no more lame and impotent conclusion than that. It was decided by Hooker that the great army which had made a splendid strategic movement for the purpose of fighting Lee in the open and destroying him by overwhelming numbers, should run away from him and escape beyond the river if he should graciously permit it to do so.

To that end – to render possible the escape of 80,000 resolute men from the assault of less than 30,000 of the enemy, all the engineering skill that the Army of the Potomac could command was brought to bear. It protected the roads with abattis and the bridge heads with batteries which the aggressively insistent Confederates shelled persistently. A sudden rise in the river for a time threatened the retreat with failure and placed a part of the force in danger of destruction or capture. But in the end Hooker succeeded in extricating his army from its position. Early on the morning of May 6, the last battalions of the Army of the Potomac withdrew across the river.

Thus ended in failure the most brilliantly planned attempt that had yet been made to destroy Confederate resistance, conquer the Confederate capital and make a mercifully early end of a fratricidal war of stupendous proportions.

Hooker reported his losses during the campaign at 17,285 men; Lee's loss was 12,277.

If Lee could have attacked Hooker's fleeing columns when they were huddled together at the bridge ends on the river, demoralized and without organization as they were, he might easily have multiplied the Federal loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners by two or three. General Schurz once expressed to the present historian his astonishment that Lee neglected to do this. Perhaps the best answer is given in an extract from Colonel Dodge's exhaustive history of the conflict. He writes that Lee "was doubtless profoundly grateful that the Army of the Potomac should retire across the Rappahannock and leave his troops to the hard-earned rest they needed so much more than ourselves; but little thanks are due to Hooker, who was, it seems, on the north side of the river during these critical moments that the casualties of the campaign were not doubled by a final assault on the part of Lee while we lay in this perilous situation… Providentially the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia had expended almost its last round of ammunition previous to this time."

Thus accident alone saved the rear of Hooker's defeated army from a disaster and demoralization comparable with that of Manassas, at a time when, in the urgently expressed opinion of General Sickles, the conspicuous rout of the Army of the Potomac would necessarily have meant the abandonment of the struggle by the North. "If," he alleged, "this army should be destroyed, it would be the last one the country would raise."

Hooker had lost, by his own incapacity, a decisive opportunity to end the war with Federal success, and Lee, because of a lack of ammunition, had lost a still more obvious opportunity to end it by a decisive triumph of the Confederate arms.

The Gettysburg Campaign

When the campaign of Chancellorsville ended in defeat for the Federals, the two armies returned to their former positions at Fredericksburg, confronting each other with a river between – a river which neither of them was for the time being disposed to cross with fighting intent.

Hooker, as his orders issued at that time showed, was content as McClellan had been the year before, that he had saved his great army from disastrous defeat and capture. He was glad to escape with what remained of his army from a position which he had brilliantly achieved in the confident expectation of there completely crushing Lee, compelling his surrender, and marching unopposed into Richmond. His escape had been a very narrow one, made possible only by the exhaustion of the Confederate ammunition, but at any rate he had escaped, and he was disposed to congratulate himself on that.

Lee, on the other hand had good reason to be satisfied with the results of his work. With one man to his enemy's three he had so brilliantly maneuvered as to strike his foe at each point with a superior force; he had, by virtue of superior genius alone inflicted disaster upon an army vastly greater than his own in numbers, and possessed of commanding strategic positions; he had beaten that army in a succession of battles, and driven it into hurried and uncertain retreat; he had saved Richmond and again made himself master of the military situation.

His army needed rest after its arduous work, and to give it rest he lay still for some weeks.

But in the meanwhile he did not lose sight of that supreme purpose which had inspired him from the beginning of his career as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. That purpose was to transfer the seat of war northward, to press the enemy, to protect Richmond by putting Washington on its defense.

There were special reasons for the adoption of this policy now. Operations at the West had been disastrous and discouraging to the Confederates. Their armies had been driven out of Kentucky and Tennessee. The fall of Island Number Ten and Memphis a little later in the northern reaches of the Mississippi and Farragut's capture of New Orleans at its southern end had left the Southerners only a small hold upon the great river at Vicksburg, Port Hudson and the space between. Grant was insistently hammering at Vicksburg, with every prospect of soon capturing that key to the river and completely cutting the Confederacy in twain. But if Lee could capture Washington or compel its evacuation by pushing himself into its rear and perhaps seizing upon Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, the disasters at the West would count for nothing in the reckoning. Europe at least would accept the successful invasion of the North and the conquest of its capital as events decisive of the war in behalf of the South; and European intervention was still the one thing most dreaded at the North and most ardently hoped for at the South.

Again there was a strong party at the North, embracing a minority so great that a small influence might easily convert it into a majority, which was opposed to the war in every way and bitterly antagonistic to the Lincoln administration. That party held the war upon the seceding states to be wrong, wicked and without adequate constitutional warrant. It contended also that the conduct of the war had been recklessly wasteful of life and treasure, and that in point of fact it had failed of its purpose. In support of this view the people opposed to Mr. Lincoln cited the Manassas panic, the defeat of McClellan before Richmond, the utter overthrow of Pope, the drawn battle at Sharpsburg, the defeat of Burnside at Fredericksburg, and finally the all-conspicuous defeat of Hooker at Chancellorsville. If Lee could add to such a list of achievements the conquest of Washington or Philadelphia or if he could win a great battle anywhere north of the Potomac, this minority of protesting and complaining malcontents at the North, must be quickly converted into an overwhelming majority, clamorous for the ending of the war by the concession of all that the Confederates demanded.

Still another influence had its bearing upon Lee's mind. His army, after its experiences in the Seven Days' battles, in the second Manassas campaign, at Antietam, at Fredericksburg, and finally in the campaign of Chancellorsville, had come to regard itself as absolutely invincible when led by Robert E. Lee. It was ready and more than ready for any enterprise that he might direct it to undertake. It believed in itself. Still more confidently it believed in Lee. It wanted to fight. It was restlessly eager for whatever Lee might prescribe of daring and endurance. Probably there was never an army, great or small, whose spirit gave to its leader a stronger inducement to desperate endeavor. Those men wanted war. They courted battle. They welcomed hardship, exposure, fatigue, starvation – if only at the end of it all they might come face to face with the enemy, under the leadership of Lee.

A skilled military critic on the Northern side has characterized them as the best soldiers on earth. The phrase is not an extravagant one, as every close student of the Confederate war must clearly see, and their spirit meant more to the enlightened mind of Lee than a hundred guns and a score of infantry divisions could have signified.

There was still another fact to be taken into account. Under the mistaken system of short-term enlistments which had been adopted at the North, more than thirty thousand of Hooker's best and most seasoned soldiers were about this time going home. Enlistments at the North had well-nigh ceased under the discouragement of repeated failure, while at the South the conscription law – extended as to age – had resulted in putting pretty nearly every able-bodied white man in all that region into the army. The Army of Northern Virginia was being rapidly swelled in numbers, while the Army of the Potomac was losing many of its best fighting regiments and brigades. The Army of Northern Virginia was flushed by recent and conspicuous victory; the Army of the Potomac was sadly disheartened by a defeat which, in view of its vast superiority in numbers, it could in no wise account for or understand. The Army of Northern Virginia had unbounded confidence in itself and limitless belief in its commander; the Army of the Potomac had no longer any reason to trust itself, and it had utterly lost confidence in the general who had so badly handled it as to subject it to humiliating defeat where it had justly expected to achieve victory quick, certain and decisive.

Moved by these considerations Lee at once planned a new invasion of the region north of the Potomac. The enemy confronting him was still superior in numbers, equipment and everything else except spirit and fighting quality and its general. It would not do for Lee to move northward, leaving that army in his rear with full opportunity to destroy his communications, rush upon Richmond and possess the Confederate capital. He must so maneuver as to compel Hooker to fall back upon Washington, precisely as he had done in McClellan's case the year before.

Again he successfully played upon the excessive concern felt at the North for the safety of Washington. Having brought Longstreet with two strong divisions from the south side of the James river for his reinforcement, and having brought up every battery and battalion that could be spared from any other position, Lee played again the game he had played against McClellan. While still strongly and securely holding his position at Fredericksburg, he began detaching forces in a way to threaten Washington with an attack in the rear, and to compel Hooker to retire upon the national capital for its defense.

First he sent Stuart with his splendid cavalry to Culpeper Court House. Then, a little later, he sent Ewell's and Longstreet's corps to the same point, retaining only A. P. Hill's corps to hold the works at Fredericksburg. Should Hooker deem this an opportunity and seek to seize it, it would require fully three days at the very least for him to lay pontoon bridges and push a column across the river for purposes of assault. In the event of such a demonstration two days would amply suffice Lee to bring his two detached corps back to the works at Fredericksburg, there to defend them irresistibly. Hooker was much too discreet a general not to see this, and so he undertook no crossing of the river.

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