By May 1864, General Robert E. Lee had been transformed from a young soldier into a gray-haired patriarch of the Confederate cause. As Lee struggled to keep his ragged soldiers alive, he faced pressure from two fronts. Grant’s Union Army not only had superior numbers, but a steadfast infra-structure or railroads and industrialized supply routes. Lee’s Last Campaign is a triumph of historic research and elegant writing. In this essential analysis of General Lee’s military strategy, Dowdey follows the triumphs and tragedies of the Army of Northern Virginia as it breathed its last gasps at the end of the Civil War.
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Lee's Last Campaign
The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant â" 1864
By Clifford Dowdey
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 1960 Clifford Dowdey
All rights reserved.
"The Weight of Empire"
IN THAT SPRING the pageantry was not yet, not quite, gone from the war.
Through all privations, general officers in Lee's army managed to turn themselves out well. Though the cadetgray cloth of their uniforms was usually no more than a thread through the motley of the soldiers' makeshifts, when seen in a group, the generals still suggested the panoply of the chivalric tradition.
On May 2, 1864, the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia formed such a spectacle for the first time since Gettysburg, the year before, and for the last time in their lives. Full-bearded, booted and spurred, with gauntleted hands resting on sword hilts and buttons gleaming on double-breasted coats, the generals stood near their saddled horses like the figures in old lithographs and murals. Even the background, a mountaintop in spring, was almost an idealized setting.
April had been a rainy month, and May came with a sudden flowering of the countryside. Grass and leaves turned freshly green, buds were opening, honeysuckle and dogwood grew in the forests, and purple violets along the roadside. Clark's Mountain was not much of an eminence in itself but, in a generally flat countryside averaging less than 500 feet above the tide, its 1100 feet gave the hill a commanding position. From there Lee and his generals surveyed, across the Rapidan River and beyond the devastated farmland of middle Virginia, the endlessly stretching tented city of the enemy.
Soldiers from the mountain signal station had earlier reported stirrings in the Federal camp. And on that Monday in May, General Lee came for a personal look.
Since November the two armies had camped on opposite sides of the brownish stream, waiting for spring. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had fought one another on so many fields that, like two old rivals, each was thoroughly familiar with the potential and the habits of the other. Every soldier in the camps understood as clearly as generals, more clearly than members of their governments, that the invading army waited for spring to attack across the river in the most concentrated blow yet delivered at the Confederate citadel, and that Lee's smaller, physically declining army could only wait for the blow to fall.
Waiting, as General Lee said, "on the time and place of the enemy's choosing" was galling to his nature as a man and antithetical to his principles of warfare. By the fourth year of the war, the resources of the Confederacy had been strained too thin to permit any alternative. Lee's only hope lay in outguessing the opponent and trying to catch the heavily weighted columns at a disadvantage.
From all he revealed, by word or expression, General Lee never appeared more sure of himself than on that second day of May. The General seemed in better health with the turn in the weather and the prospect of action. During the winter he had suffered from "rheumatic pains" and frequently expressed his physical "incapacity." A strongly built and superbly conditioned man, normally possessed of great endurance, his decline had begun the year before. In March of 1863 he had come down with a severe throat infection, his first recorded illness during the war. This was accompanied by what was then diagnosed as a rheumatic attack, but which was probably acute pericarditis. His complexion was florid and he suffered from hypertension which, along with angina pectoris, was to cause his final illness.
Though Lee was unaware of such subsurface undermining as a "heart condition," he had visibly aged at fifty-seven. The classically handsome face of 1861, clean-shaven except for a dark mustache, had become the gray-bearded image of the patriarch. His thinning hair, which had gone from brown to gray, was turning white where it fluffed out over his ears. To the men sharing common cause with him, this patriarchal figure was the "Uncle Robert" or "Mister Robert"— slurred to "Marse" — who rode among them, erect and composed, on the familiar Traveler.
General Lee kept other horses at headquarters during the war, but the seven-year-old Traveler became the favorite of them all. General Lee called him a "Confederate gray," with black mane and tail. A finely proportioned and strongly built middle-sized horse, his feet and head were small, and he was distinguished by a broad forehead and delicate ears. Though he had a smooth canter and a fast, springy walk, Traveler liked to go at a choppy trot, which was harder on a rider than Lee's horsemanship made it appear. He had been with Lee since before the General assumed command of the army in June, 1862, and was inseparably associated with Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia. The pair of them was like a symbol of indestructibility, a reassuring quality that existed outside the mutations of time and circumstance.
This response to the aura of Lee was not only a product of his spectacular successes. At the time of his emergence in the summer of 1862, Hampden Chamberlayne, a scholarly young Richmond lawyer serving with a howitzer battery, wrote his sister: "When by accident at any time I see Gen. Lee, or whenever I think of him, whether I will or no, there looms up to me some king of men, superior by the head, a gigantic figure on whom rests the world,
'With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear The weight of empire.'"
The world of the generals who gathered around Lee on that May Monday was placed on those "Atlantean shoulders" in the simplest directness of discipleship. In unquestioning acceptance of Lee as their leader, rather than as commanding general in a chain of command, his subordinates recognized their role as that of followers. The men could be jealous among themselves, and some used all the customary methods for personal advancement, but there was never any of the angling for army command that characterized the politically dominated Army of the Potomac. This was one of the reasons that the officially designated Army of Northern Virginia entered the people's language as "Lee's army" — or, as an old country lady called it that spring, "Mr. Lee's Company."
As a leader, Lee was seen as the personification of a cause, rather than by the living details in which his contemporaries were viewed. Grant was not forever smoking a big black cigar, nor was Jackson forever sucking a lemon while fixing a subordinate with his steely gaze. These habits characterized men by readily perceived idiosyncrasies. By contrast, Lee was observed nearly always in the abstract, by his effect on his fellows, by their reaction to the aura of the leader.
The most significant element about this image of Lee is that the legendary aspects were always present. There was no later building of the legend, no collections of sayings or anecdotes; the Lee of the legend emerged full-scale, larger than life, during his command of the army.
Countless efforts have been made to "humanize" the mythical figure, and an abundance of material exists on the intimate details of his habits and character. Much can be recorded about the native sweetness of his disposition, his gentleness, the thoughtfulness of his courtesy, the depth of his emotional attachments, and his devotion to the illimitable members of his family. As a woman-raised child, he was at home in and loved the company of women, was unusually dependent on family life, and probably few professional soldiers were forced to bring such a quality of endurance to the unending monotony of camp life.
Less has been made of his enjoyment of physical luxuries. It was his embracing sense of duty, and not a Spartan nature, which caused him to bear with grace the sparse diet, in which cabbage, corn bread and buttermilk frequently constituted the main meal. Both because he liked to do well by himself and because of his sense of the fitness of things, Lee was particular about his dress and wrote his wife in detail of the new style which must be followed in making his collars. His largely neglected letters to Mrs. Lee are extremely revealing of personal tastes of the man within the aura. As illustration, before the complexities of command absorbed most of his time, he wrote his wife and children graphic details of his surroundings, reflecting a deep appreciation of scenes of nature and unexpected response to the weather. He was very oppressed by rain.
Yet Lee cannot be presented through an accumulation of the minutiae of his days. There was an austere quality in the image, as in the genius of Michelangelo. It was the quality of a powerful force, complete and harmonious.
Too much has been made of Lee's humility. As a devout Episcopalian in a believing age, he walked humbly in the sight of God, but among men he was unselfconsciously aware of what he was. There was no more false modesty than a need for self-assertion. Leadership was a natural state for Lee. He was a late, the last, product of that heroic age in which Virginia society was distinguished by the development of the superior individual.
To place Lee understandably in relation to his environment, Virginia must be conceived as it was during his impressionable years. One of the largest and most populous of states, Virginia dominated the formative stages of the Republic. Four Virginians — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe — were Presidents during thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the nation's life, and this was not a remote statistic to Lee. He was born when Jefferson was President, John Marshall was Chief Justice, and his father, his uncles and his cousins had walked among the giants of the Revolutionary generation which produced the Virginia dynasty.
By 1860, when the last of the great generation had passed from the scene and Virginians were living in an afterglow of the period of power and prestige, Lee's contemporaries had no historic perspective on the passing of an age. They were not aware that the state would never regain its recent glory. The older men in Lee's army had seen the masters of the Virginia dynasty, and the younger men had heard of them in intimate terms as of neighbors and kinsmen and not at all as distant historic figures. To Lee's soldiers, then, he was a continuation of this heroic line, and, as such, the epitome of the best in the civilization they were defending.
For these Southern soldiers were defending a land, with all the unarticulated emotional responses of a personal attachment, and Lee became the personification of their attachments. He never once made a speech about the constitutional rights of their position, nor defined what they were defending. His presence was the definition.
This image of Lee truly reflected the man, but the harmonious whole of the man was in turn formed by the image of the heroic generation on which Lee molded himself. The often mentioned composure, the basis of his awesome presence, was the product of a conscious intent, as a work of art is the product of a concept. As multiple elements are arranged in any work of creation, the human conflicts of Lee were resolved within. He had no nervous habits by which he released tension; outwardly, in all circumstances, he revealed a vast capacity for stillness. This is the essence of the statuesque quality in the image of Lee.
The ceaseless inner struggle was reflected in actions which do not seem to express the legendary figure. As a general, he revealed the inner stress by the nature of his orders. Because some of these orders, as revealing actions, do not fit the concept, the tendency has been to explain them away, to place them in a context which permits the image to remain undisturbed. Impulsive actions of Lee in battle which led to failures have been made to appear isolated aberrations, while impulsive actions which led to success have been made to appear the natural result of his self-command.
In his plans, Lee's ability to anticipate the enemy in detail was so consistent that his followers then, and admirers since, tended to regard his foresightedness as a quality of divination. It was, however, the product of intense study. Most painstaking in organizing and analyzing items of information obtained about the enemy, he brought highly developed deductive powers to balancing these indications of the enemy's intentions against a background of known factors.
As the war progressed and high mortality caused a deterioration in command personnel (at a time when losses weakened the army physically), the scope of Lee's counterstrokes became increasingly limited. Inevitably, the more Lee's designed movements were restricted in scope and detail, the more the human element of his surviving generals was exposed to the hazards of extemporized action.
As of May, 1864, a strong factor in Lee's successes was the relationship established between the commanding general and the personnel of the Army of Northern Virginia, from privates to corps commanders. Except for the genius of Stonewall Jackson, the personnel of Lee's army was not necessarily superior to the personnel of other Confederate armies. The difference was in the performance that Lee's leadership could evoke. For, as Lee's men saw him in the patriarchal image, so he led his army more as a patriarch than as the commanding general. In his intuitive understanding of the nature of a patriot army, he recognized that the officers and men were not controlled by an established system.
With his limited source of general officer material, he had to make do with the men he had as they were. In encouraging his generals to exploit their fullest potential, it had been his habit, until the spring of 1864, to give orders designed to promote the men's initiative. Lee's use of these discretionary orders has been cited as a weakness by his critics, but precise orders would have been a denial of the creative participation, the sharing of responsibility, which characterized his army at its best. Stonewall Jackson was the outstanding example of a quick blooming under the discretion given by Lee. (At the Seven Days when Old Jack was forced to operate under precise orders, as a unit in a machine, he fell asleep on the battlefield.) Yet Jackson's response to and achievement under Lee's loose leadership caused Lee to place too much faith in the generals in high command during the period of decline which began in the summer of 1863.
On that Monday, May 2, 1864, when he gathered his ranking generals around him, Lee was caught between his familiar habits of command and a reluctant, incomplete acceptance of the limitations of the generals on whom he depended. These were primarily the three men who commanded his corps.
A corps was a complete military entity in the Army of Northern Virginia and, in Lee's boldest maneuvers of the past, the corps acted separately as semi-independent armies. After Jackson's death, in the campaign which ended at Gettysburg, Lee discovered the flaws in separated corps action without a Jackson.
While he was waiting on Grant's move across the Rapidan, his three corps were of necessity separated by the exigencies of winter assignments. Lee's problem was that in anticipating the enemy, with his limited forces he could only plan countermeasures. Until the coming threat developed, he could not assemble the separated units. Even tentative plans for coordinated action of the three corps must be partly determined by the individual human structures of the men commanding the corps.
These three lieutenant generals were, in order of seniority, forty-three-year-old James Longstreet, forty-seven-year-old Richard Stoddert Ewell, and thirty-nine-year-old A. P. Hill. Each of these three generals had, through a flaw in his human organism, once failed Lee in a crisis. Balanced against the failure were records of stout performance, able administration and devotion. But the inner flaws gave Lee a new unknown factor in his own army as the enemy's vastly expanded invasion program brought a new dimension to the war.
James Longstreet was of all Lee's generals the least like what he appeared to be. There was nothing of Cassius's "lean and hungry look" to hint at secret ambitions within the impassive Dutchman. A powerfully built man, deep in the chest, he glowed with the rugged health that suggested his pleasure in outdoor sports. A huge, bushy beard half-covered his stolid features, and clear blue eyes faced the world in aggressive self-assurance. On the surface, he appeared an uncomplicated physical type, and as such he was accepted then and has been historically.
Longstreet has been taken on his own evaluation. Studies have been based in general on acceptance of the substance of his many versions of his war career, though his accounts contains within themselves conspicuous inconsistencies and contradictions. Weighed against known facts, they contain gross inaccuracies and distortions, demonstrable fancies and inventions, and outright lies. There are several reasons for this acceptance of Longstreet as a competent witness for events involving himself.
Had he been a chronic failure and neurotic, like Braxton Bragg, the perversions of self-justification would have been expected; but hearty Longstreet, forthright and securely planted in a world of fighting men, boasted a superior combat record, a high reputation as a corps leader, and the confidence of General Lee. Then, the bitter, prolonged postwar arguments over Gettysburg tended to focus attention on his behavior in that battle, isolating this controversial action from his total record.
Excerpted from Lee's Last Campaign by Clifford Dowdey. Copyright © 1960 Clifford Dowdey. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 One Against The Gods
I "The Weight of Empire" 3
II "There Will Be Nothing Left for Us to Live for" 34
III "The Army Was Put in Motion Today" 61
IV "Go Down the Road and Strike the Enemy" 83
V "If Night Would Only Come ..." 104
VI "There Are No Ifs" 137
Part 2 "To Command is to Wear Out"
VII "If It Takes All Summer" 179
VIII "The Picture Presented Is One of Ultimate Starvation" 217
IX "Good Health Is Indispensable in War..." 249
X "My Idea Has Been to Beat Lee's Army North of Rich mond" 301
XI "It Will Be a Mere Question of Time" 317
Epilogue: "The Very Best Soldier" 359
Bibliographical Essay 'with Selected Bibliography 377
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