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- On the Trail of Grant and Lee - 20/31 -
more than one soldier shot an apprehensive glance toward the rear during the strange hush as he remembered the terrifying appearance of Jackson on that fearful day.
But no Jackson stood at Lee's right hand, and suddenly two sharp reports rang out from the opposing height. Then, in answer to this signal, came the crash of a hundred and thirty cannon and instantly eighty Union guns responded to the challenge with a roar which shook the earth, while the air was filled with exploding shells and the ground was literally ploughed with shot. For an hour and a half this terrific duel continued; and then the Union chief of artillery, seeing that his supply of ammunition was sinking, ordered the guns to cease firing and the Confederates, believing that they had completely demolished the opposing batteries, soon followed their example. Another awful silence ensued and when the Union troops peered cautiously from behind the stone walls and slopes which had completely protected them from the wild storm of shot and shell, they saw a sight which filled them with admiration and awe.
From the woods fringing the opposing heights 15,000 men [Note from Brett: (circa 2000) just under 12,000 men] were sweeping in perfect order with battle flags flying, bayonets glistening and guidons fluttering as though on dress parade. Well to the front rode a gallant officer with a cap perched jauntily over his right ear and his long auburn hair hanging almost to his shoulders flying in the wind. This was General Pickett, and he and the men behind him had almost a mile of open ground to cross in the charge which was to bring them immortal fame. For half the distance they moved triumphantly forward, unscathed by the already thundering artillery, and then the Union cannon which had apparently been silenced by the Confederate fire began to pour death and destruction into their ranks. Whole rows of men were mowed down by the awful cannonade, but their comrades pressed forward undismayed, halting for a moment under cover of a ravine to re-form their ranks and then springing on again with a heroism unsurpassed in the history of war. A hail of bullets from the Union trenches fairly staggered them, yet on and on they charged. Once they actually halted in the face of the blazing breastworks, deliberately fired a volley and came on again with a rush, seized some of the still smoking guns that had sought to annihilate them and, beating back the gunners in a hand-to-hand conflict, actually planted their battle flags on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. Then the whole Union army seemed to leap from the ground and hurl itself upon them. They reeled, turned, broke into fragments and fled, leaving 5,000 dead and wounded in their trail.
Such was Pickett's charge--a wave of human courage which recorded "the high-water mark of the Rebellion."
In the Face of Disaster
As the survivors of Pickett's heroic legion came streaming back toward the Confederate lines Lee stood face to face with defeat for the first time in his career. His long series of victories had not spoiled him and the hour of triumph had always found him calm and thankful, rather than elated and arrogant. But many a modest and generous winner has proved himself a poor loser. It is the moment of adversity that tries men's souls and revels the greatness or smallness of character, and subjected to this test more than one commander in the war had been found wanting. McClellan, staggering from his campaign against Richmond, blamed almost everyone but himself for the result; Pope, scurrying toward the fortifications of Washington, was as ready with excuses as he had been with boasts; Burnside, reeling from the slaughter-pen of Fredericksburg, had demanded the dismissal of his principal officers, and Hooker hurled accusations right and left in explaining the Chancellorsville surprise.
But Lee resorted neither to accusation nor excuse for the battle of Gettysburg. With the tide of disaster sweeping relentlessly down upon him, he hastened to assume entire responsibility for the result. "It is all my fault," he exclaimed, as the exhausted and shattered troops were seeking shelter from the iron hail, and then as calmly and firmly as though no peril threatened, he strove to rally the disorganized fugitives and present a bold front to the foe. It was no easy task, even with a veteran army, to prevent a panic and restore order and confidence in the midst of the uproar and confusion of defeat, but the quiet dignity and perfect control of their commander steadied the men, and at sight of him even the wounded raised themselves from the ground and cheered.
"All this will come right in the end," he assured the wavering troops, as he passed among them. "We'll talk it over afterwards, but in the meantime all good men must rally."
Not a sign of excitement or alarm was to be detected in his face, as he issued his orders and moved along the lines. "All this has been my fault," he repeated soothingly to a discouraged officer. "It is I that have lost this fight and you must help me out of it the best way you can.... Don't whip your horse, Captain," he quietly remarked, as he noted another officer belaboring his mount for shying at an exploding shell.... "I've got just another foolish horse myself, and whipping does no good."
Nothing escaped his watchful eyes, nothing irritated him, and nothing provoked him to hasty words or actions. Completely master of himself, he rose superior to the whirling storm about him and, commanding order out of chaos, held his shattered army under such perfect control that had Meade rushed forward in pursuit he might have met with a decisive check.
But Meade did not attempt to leave his intrenchments and the Confederate army slowly and defiantly moved toward the South. The situation was perilous--desperately perilous for Lee. His troops were in no condition to fight after battling for three days, their ammunition was almost exhausted, their food supply was low and they were retreating through a hostile country with a victorious army behind them and a broad river in their path. But not a man in the gray ranks detected even a shadow of anxiety on his commander's face, and when the Potomac was reached and it was discovered that the river was impassable owing to an unexpected flood, the army faced about and awaited attack with sublime confidence in the powers of its chief.
Meanwhile Meade, who had been cautiously following his adversary, began to receive telegrams and dispatches urging him to throw himself upon the Confederates before they could recross the Potomac and thus end the war. But this, in the opinion of the Union commander, was easier said than done, and he continued to advance with the utmost deliberation while Lee, momentarily expecting attack, ferried his sick and wounded across the river and prepared for a desperate resistance. Absolute ruin now stared him in the face, for no reŽnforcements of any kind could reach him and a severe engagement would soon place him completely at his opponent's mercy. Nevertheless, he presented a front so menacing and unafraid that when Meade called his officers to a council of war all but two voted against risking an attack.
In the meantime the river began to fall, and without the loss of a moment Lee commenced building a bridge across which his troops started to safety on the night of July 13th, ten days after the battle. Even then the situation was perilous in the extreme, for had Meade discovered the movement in time he could undoubtedly have destroyed a large part of the retreating forces, but when he appeared on the scene practically the whole army was on the other side of the river and only a few stragglers fell into his hands.
Great as Lee's success had been he never appeared to better advantage than during this masterly retreat, when, surrounded by difficulties and confronted by overwhelming numbers, he held his army together and led it to safety. Through the dust of defeat he loomed up greater as a man and greater as a soldier than at any other moment of his career.
Even the decisive victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg failed to offset President Lincoln's bitter disappointment at Lee's miraculous escape, and had it not been for his success on the field of battle, Meade would undoubtedly have been removed from the chief command. As it was, however, he retained his position and for months he lay comparatively idle, watching his opponent who busied himself with filling the broken ranks of his army for a renewal of the struggle.
Meanwhile, the Confederate newspapers began a bitter criticism of Lee, charging that he had displayed bad judgment and worse generalship in attempting to invade the North. A man of different caliber would, doubtless, have answered these attacks by exposing some of the officers whose conduct was largely responsible for the failure of the campaign. Indeed, the facts would have justified him in dismissing more than one of his subordinates from the army in disgrace, and had he chosen to speak the word he might easily have ruined the reputation of at least one distinguished general.
But no such selfish or vindictive thought ever crossed Lee's mind. Keenly as he suffered from the abuse which was heaped upon him, he endured it without a murmur and, when at last he felt obliged to notice it, his reply took the form of a letter to the Confederate President requesting his permission to resign.
"The general remedy for the want of success in a military commander is his removal," he wrote a month after the battle of Gettysburg. "I do not know how far the expressions of discontent in the public journals extend in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it and, so far, the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. I, therefore, beg you to take measures to supply my place, because if I cannot accomplish what I myself desire, how can I fulfill the expectations of others? I must confess, too that my eyesight is not good and that I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled. Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander. A younger and abler man can readily be obtained--one that would accomplish more than I can perform and all that I have wished. I have no complaints to make of anyone but myself. I have received nothing but kindness from those above me and the most considerate attention from my comrades and companions in arms."
This generous, dignified statement, modest to the point of self-effacement, instantly hushed all discontent and, before it, even the newspaper editors stood abashed.
"Where am I to find the new commander who is to possess that greater ability which you believe to be required?" wrote Jefferson Davis in
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