July 3, 1863: Lee’s Charge

 

It is the third day.
The morning wears with a stubborn fight at Culp’s Hill
That ends at last in Confederate repulse
And that barb-end of the fish-hook cleared of the grey.

Lee has tried his strokes on the right and left of the line.
The centre remains–that centre yesterday pierced
For a brief, wild moment in Wilcox’s attack,
But since then trenched, reinforced and alive with guns.
It is a chance.  All war is a chance like that.
Lee considers the chance and the force he has left to spend
And states his will.
                    Dutch Longstreet, the independent,
Demurs, as he has demurred since the fight began.
He had disapproved of this battle from the first
And that disapproval has added and is to add
Another weight in the balance against the grey.
It is not our task to try him for sense or folly,
Such men are the men they are–but an hour comes
Sometimes, to fix such men in most fateful parts,
As now with Longstreet who, if he had his orders
As they were given, neither obeyed them quite
Nor quite refused them, but acted as he thought best,
So did the half-thing, failed as he thought he would,
Felt justified and wrote all of his reasons down
Later in controversy.
                     We do not need
Such controversies to see that pugnacious man
Talking to Lee, a stubborn line in his brow
And that unseen fate between them.
                                  Lee hears him out
Unmoved, unchanging.
                    “The enemy is there
And I am going to strike him,” says Lee, inflexibly.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Lee’s mistake in ordering the assault on Cemetery Ridge of the third day of Gettysburg, erroneously called Pickett’s Charge since Pickett was merely attempting to carry out an impossible mission, was not an uncommon one in that War even by good generals.  Grant ordered two such hopeless attacks at Cold Harbor and Sherman did so at Kennesaw Mountain. The problem was that such charges occasionally succeeded.  The Army of the Cumberland chased the Army of Tennessee out of an immensely strong position on Missionary Ridge just a few months later.  The improvement in weaponry had made such assaults a bad gamble, but occasionally the gamble did pay off.  At Gettysburg it did not.  The attack produced nothing but 6500 Confederate casualties, 1500 Union casualties, an end to Lee’s Northern invasion and an undying legend.

 

 

Pickett's-Charge

 

As the survivors of the attack came back to the Confederate lines Lee rode out to meet them.  His first words were All my fault.  After Lee got his Army back to the Confederacy, a feat in itself which speaks well of his generalship and poorly of that of General Meade, he wrote a letter offering his resignation to Jefferson Davis: (more…)

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June 30, 1862: Battles of Frazier’s Farm and White Oak Swamp

As June 30th dawned the Union army was in full retreat to the James.  By noon, one-third of the Army of the Potomac had reached the James, while the other two-thirds was strung out on roads leading to the James between Glendale and White Oak Swamp.  This presented a tempting target to General Lee.  Ordering Jackson in the north to cross White Oak Creek and press the Union rear guard, the remainder of the Army of Northern Virginia, some 45,000 men, would attack two miles southwest at Glendale, and inflict what Lee hoped would be a crushing defeat on the Union forces marching to the James.  It was a good plan that fell down almost completely in execution.

Jackson, with that strange lethargy that marred all his operations in the Seven Days, spent all of the day north of White Oak Creek, launching feeble assaults which were easily repulsed by the Union VI Corp under General William Franklin.

The Confederate attack at Glendale fared little better.  Huger’s division failed to participate in the offensive,  slowed by felled trees and the failure of Huger to take an alternative route.  Holmes and Magruder launched a weak attack against the V Corps of General Fitz John Porter, the attack being broken up by Union artillery fire, supplemented by naval bombardment.

At 4:00 PM the divisions of Longstreet and A.P. Hill attacked at Glendale with the fighting centering on Frazier’s Farm, held by the Pennyslvania Reserves division of the V Corps under General George McCall.  Hard fighting continued until 8:30 PM.  The Union line held, and the Union army continued its retreat to Malvern Hill on the James.  The battle resulted in similar casualties for both sides:  Confederate 3,673 and Union 3, 797.  A golden opportunity to do severe damage to the Union army had been missed due to the poor execution which was a hallmark of the inexperienced Confederate command structure during the Seven Days.  Here is General Lee’s report written on March 6, 1863: (more…)

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June 29, 1862: Battle of Savage’s Station

On June 29, 1862, the bulk of the Army of the Potomac had gathered at Savage’s Station, a supply depot on the James River, preparing to pass over the White Oak Swamp.  Lee had again devised a complex plan of attack that his green army would have difficulty carrying out.  AP Hill’s and Longstreet’s division were ordered east towards Richmond and then southeast to take the Glendale crossroads, eliminating the possibility that they could participate in the attack on Savage’s Station. Holmes’ division was sent even farther south towards Malvern Hill.  Left for an attack on Savage’s Station was Magruder’s division to attack from the west and Jackson’s three divisions north of the Chickahominy above Savage’s Station.

Magruder attacked at 9:00 AM in a skirmish.  His main attack was not launched until 5:00 PM, Magruder realizing he was heavily outnumbered, 14,000 to 26,000.  Jackson did not attack, spending his time repairing bridges over the Chickahominy, and confused by a badly garbled order from Lee that caused him to think that he was ordered to stay north of the Chickahominy.  The battle was a bloody stalemate, with about 1500 casualties.  The Union army continued to retreat abandoning 2500 wounded in Savage’s Station.  Jackson got across the Chickahominy at 2;30 AM on June 30, far to late to participate in the battle or prevent the retreat of the Union army.  It is hard to believe that the Jackson who performed so ineptly in the Seven Days was the same man who had performed so brilliantly in the Valley just a few weeks before.

Here is General Lee’s report on the battle of Savage’s Station which was written on March 6, 1863: (more…)

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June 27, 1862: Battle of Gaines Mill

Continuing on with our look at the Confederate offensive of the Seven Days, we come to the battle of Gaines Mill.  After the battle of Mechanicsville, Lee assembled a Confederate attack force of six divisions, 57,000 men, for the largest Confederate attack of the War, aimed at Porter’s V Corps, McClellan neither sending sufficient units from south of the Chickahominy to reinforce Porter, nor attacking against the weak Confederate forces holding Richmond, McClellan paralyzed by his belief that he was massively outnumbered both north and south of the Chickahominy.

McClellan’s order for Porter to withdraw came just before dawn on the 27th.  Numerous men in Brigadier General McCall’s division were captured by the Confederates due to the precipitate retreat necessary to comply with the order.  Porter picked out a good defensive position on a plateau behind Boatswain’s Swamp to make his stand.   He placed two divisions on the line and two divisions in reserve.

The battle began at 1:00 PM with a series of unsuccessful frontal assaults.  Jackson on the Confederate left was late again and not in position to attack until the general assault of 7:00 PM.  By this time the outnumbered Union troops were weary and the Union line crumpled up, Porter withdrawing in good order to the bridges over the Chickahominy, his corps crossing to the south side at 4:00 AM on June 28.  The battle was a clear-cut Confederate victory, although their casualties of 7,933 were slightly greater than the Union casualties of 6, 833.  The victory could have been greater if Jackson had been in position by 1:00 PM.  A retreat by Porter with eight hours of daylight could easily have ended in the destruction of Porter’s Corps.  As it was, McClellan was completely unnerved by the Confederate victory, and ordered a full retreat of his entire army from Richmond, which Lee and his army had saved.

Here is General Lee’s report on the Battle of Gaines Mill and its aftermath which was written on March 6, 1863: (more…)

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June 21-23 1864: First Battle of Weldon Railroad

Petersburg_June21-22

With the War in the East now centering on the siege of Petersburg, Lee faced the daunting problem of protecting the rail lines that kept Petersburg, Richmond and his army supplied.  It took no military genius to realize that if the Union captured those rail lines, Lee’s position would be rendered untenable.  So that is what Grant promptly commenced to do.  The II and VI Corps were tasked with seizing, and destroying as much of the Weldon Railroad as they could take.

Skirmishing occurred on June 21 as the II Corps probed toward the rail line.   On June 22 both the II and the VI corps advanced towards the railroad, with rugged terrain causing a gap to open up between the corps.  Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone concealed his division in a ravine and launched an attack on the rear of the II Corps which wreaked havoc until the lines stabilized by nightfall. (more…)

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June 13, 1865 Lee Requests a Pardon: Lost For Over a Century

I once sent the government a check for some $35,000.00 to pay estate tax on behalf of a client.  The check was lost for several months by the Feds.  At the time I recalled this historical event:

Robert E. Lee was an advocate of reconciliation after the Civil War.  This was demonstrated by his application for a Presidential Pardon on June 13, 1865, high confederate officers having been excluded from President Johnson’s general pardon and amnesty of May 29, 1865 and being required to appeal directly to the President.  Lee wrote:

Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, & full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S. Army April ’61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va. 9 April ’65.

 

Lee was not aware that an oath of loyalty was required and he took such an oath on October 2, 1865:

 

 

“I, Robert E. Lee, of Lexington, Virginia, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

 

The oath went to Secretary of State Seward, and then it vanished from history for over a century until it was found by Elmer O. Parker, an archivist at the National Archives, in 1970 among State Department papers in a cardboard box  clearly indexed V for Virginia and L for Lee.  Lee had inquired frequently about his application over the five years he had to live from 1865-1870.  Whether his application was lost deliberately or lost through ineptitude is unclear.

On August 5, 1975 President Ford restored the citizenship rights of Lee, making these remarks: (more…)

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June 3, 1864: Cold Harbor-Not War But Murder

ColdHarbor-June3

And, after that, the chunky man from the West,

Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved

As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,

Takes you and uses you as you could be used,

Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.

You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,

But at the last you can trust him.  He slaughters you

But he sees that you are fed.  After sullen Cold Harbor

They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,

But you have had other butchers who did not win

And this man wins in the end.

 

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

The main Union assault at Cold Harbor went in on the foggy morning of June 3 at 4:30 AM, the three corps of Smith, Wright and Hancock hitting the Confederate left.  Some of the Union veteran troops, in those pre-dog tag days, pinned white notes with their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their bodies could be identified, they having learned the hard lesson that assaulting fortified lines held by Confederate infantry was bound to cause huge casualties among the attacking force.  The attack went in blind, as, stunningly, no had bothered to reconnoiter the Confederate lines and draw up maps.  One Union soldier in Gibbon’s division had an apt comment on this military malpractice:   “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.”

Smith’s attack on the right quickly bogged down, his men being funneled through two ravines where they were cut down in large numbers.  Wright’s men in the middle, still weary from their attacks on June 1, made little effort, and their attack was pinned down almost as soon as it started.  Hancock’s attack on the Union far left pierced the Confederate lines, but the breach was sealed and the Confederates repulsed Hancock with heavy loss. The attacks were all over by 7:30 AM.  Grant wanted attacks to resume, but by 12:30 PM  he had become convinced that further attacks were simply impossible.

The Union casualties from the assault have been estimated from 3,000-7,000.  I believe the upper estimate is more likely correct.  The Confederates incurred about 1500 casualties.  The armies would remain confronting each other at Cold Harbor until June 12, but there would be no further attacks.  Total Union casualties from all the fighting at Cold Harbor were around 12,000 to 5,000 Confederate, the same disparity as at Fredericksburg, the Cold Harbor assault of June 3 resembling the futile Union assaults of that battle. (more…)

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Palm Sunday 157 Years Ago

 

 

It is poor business measuring the mouldered ramparts and counting the silent guns, marking the deserted battlefields and decorating the grassy graves, unless we can learn from it some nobler lesson than to destroy.  Men write of this, as of other wars, as if the only thing necessary to be impressed upon the rising generation were the virtue of physical courage and contempt of death.  It seems to me that is the last thing we need to teach;  for since the days of John Smith in Virginia and the men of the Mayflower in Massachusetts, no generation of Americans has shown any lack of it.  From Louisburg to Petersburg-a hundred and twenty years, the full span of four generations-they have stood to their guns and been shot down in greater comparative numbers than any other race on earth.  In the war of secession there was not a State, not a county, probably not a town, between the great lakes and the gulf, that was not represented on fields where all that men could do with powder and steel was done and valor exhibited at its highest pitch…There is not the slightest necessity for lauding American bravery or impressing it upon American youth.  But there is the gravest necessity for teaching them respect for law, and reverence for human life, and regard for the rights of their fellow country-men, and all that is significant in the history of our country…These are simple lessons, yet they are not taught in a day, and some who we call educated go through life without mastering them at all.

Rossiter Johnson, Campfire and Battlefield, 1884

I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865.  Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox.  We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history.  The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war.  The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south.  Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated.  All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox.

Grant in his memoirs wrote, “When Lee and I separated he went back to his lines and I returned to the house of Mr. McLean. Here the officers of both armies came in great numbers, and seemed to enjoy the meeting as much as though they had been friends separated for a long time while fighting battles under the same flag.”

Lee so appreciated the generosity of the terms of surrender given by Grant, that for the remainder of his life he would never allow a word of denigration about Grant to be spoken in his presence.

(more…)

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March 30, 1865: Prelude to Five Forks

 

By the 30th it became obvious to both sides that the Confederate right at Five Forks was in jeopardy.  Grant discusses this in his memoirs:

The next day, March 30th, we had made sufficient progress to the south-west to warrant me in starting Sheridan with his cavalry over by Dinwiddie with instructions to then come up by the road leading north-west to Five Forks, thus menacing the right of Lee’s line.  

This movement was made for the purpose of extending our lines to the west as far as practicable towards the enemy’s extreme right, or Five Forks. The column moving detached from the army still in the trenches was, excluding the cavalry, very small. The forces in the trenches were themselves extending to the left flank. Warren was on the extreme left when the extension began, but Humphreys was marched around later and thrown into line between him and Five Forks.    
My hope was that Sheridan would be able to carry Five Forks, get on the enemy’s right flank and rear, and force them to weaken their centre to protect their right so that an assault in the centre might be successfully made. General Wright’s corps had been designated to make this assault, which I intended to order as soon as information reached me of Sheridan’s success. He was to move under cover as close to the enemy as he could get.    
It is natural to suppose that Lee would understand my design to be to get up to the South Side and ultimately to the Danville Railroad, as soon as he had heard of the movement commenced on the 29th. These roads were so important to his very existence while he remained in Richmond and Petersburg, and of such vital importance to him even in case of retreat, that naturally he would make most strenuous efforts to defend them. He did on the 30th send Pickett with five brigades to reinforce Five Forks. He also sent around to the right of his army some two or three other divisions, besides directing that other troops be held in readiness on the north side of the James River to come over on call. He came over himself to superintend in person the defence of his right flank. (more…)

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The Last Confederate Offensive

Fort Stedman

 Few generals in American history have been as aggressive as Robert E. Lee.  Faced with a hopeless military situation in March of 1865, he decided that he had no alternative but to launch an attack.  His starving army was down to 50,000 men, and with the lines around Petersburg and Richmond so extensive, when Grant began to move with an army nearly three times the size of Lee’s it did not take a military genius to realize that he would break Lee’s lines.  However, if Lee could break Grant’s lines first, it might buy Lee time.  Grant would perhaps consolidate his lines around the breakthrough and delay his Spring offensive.  That might give General Joseph E. Johnston sufficient time to march up ahead of Sherman from North Carolina and link up with Lee.  At that time Lee could attempt to defeat Sherman and then Grant seriatim.  The plan relied far too much on hopes and wishes, but other than surrender, it was the best of the bleak options facing Lee.

(more…)

Published in: on March 24, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Last Confederate Offensive  
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