Gettysburg: `Too Bad! Too Bad! Oh! TOO BAD!’
So Lee set himself quite deliberately to lead an exemplary life and redeem the family honor. That was a word he used often. It meant everything to him. He led a blameless existence at West Point and actually saved from his meager pay at a time when Southern cadets prided themselves on acquiring debts. His high grades meant he joined the elite Corps of Engineers in an army whose chief occupation was building forts. He worked on taming the wild and mighty river Mark Twain described so well. Lee served with distinction in the Mexican War, ran West Point, then commanded the cavalry against the Plains Indians. It was he who put down John Brown’s rebellion and reluctantly handed him over to be hanged. He predicted from the start that the ‘War between the States,’ as the South called, and calls, it, would be long and bloody. All his instincts were eirenic and, the son of an ardent federalist, he longed for a compromise which would save the Union. But, as he watched the Union Washington had created fall apart, he clung to the one element in it which seemed permanent-Virginia, from which both he and Washington had come and to which he was honor-bound. As he put it, ‘I prize the Union very highly and know of no personal sacrifice I would not make to preserve it, save that of honor.
Lee was a profound strategist who believed all along that the South’s only chance was to entrap the North in a decisive battle and ruin its army. That is what he aimed to do. With Johnston’s death he was put in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and ran it for the next three years with, on the whole, great success. He ended McClellan’s threat to Richmond (insofar as it was one) in the Seven Days Battle, routed the Unionists at Second Bull Run (August 1862) but was checked at Antietam the following month. He defeated the Unionists again at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and again at Chancellorsville in May 1863. This opened the way for an invasion of Pennsylvania, heart of the North’s productive power, which would force it to a major battle. That is how Gettysburg (July 1863) came about. It was what Lee wanted, an encounter on the grandest possible scale, though the actual meeting-point was accidental, both Lee and General George G. Meade (1815-72), the Unionist commander, blundering into it. Lee had strategic genius, but as field commander he had one great weakness. His orders to subordinate generals were indications and wishes rather than direct commands. As his best biographer has put it, ‘Lee was a soldier who preferred to suggest rather than from confrontation. He insisted on making possible for others the freedom of thought and action he sought for himself.’ This method of commanding a large army sometimes worked for Lee but at Gettysburg it proved fatal. On the first day the Confederate success was overwhelming, and on the second (July 2), General James Longstreet (1821-1904) led the main attack on the Union right but delayed it till 4 P.M. and so allowed Meade to concentrate his main force on the strongpoint of Cemetery Ridge. Some positions were secured, however, including Culp’s Hill. Meade’s counterattack on the morning of July 3 retook Culp’s Hill and confronted Lee with the crisis of the battle. He ordered an attack on Cemetery Ridge but did not make it clear to Longstreet that he wanted it taken at any cost. Jackson would have made no bones about it-take the hill or face court-martial. The charge was led by the division commanded by General George E. Pickett (1825-75), with a supporting division and two further brigades, 15,000 in all. Longstreet provided too little artillery support and the assault force was massacred by enfilading Union artillery, losing 6,000 men. Only half a company of Pickett’s charge reached the crest; even so, it would have been enough, and the battle won, if Longstreet had thrown in all his men as reinforcements. But he did not do so and the battle, the culmination of the Civil War on the main central front, was lost. Lee sacrificed a third of his men and the Confederate army was never again capable of winning the war. ‘It has been a sad day for us,’ said Lee at one o’clock the next morning, ‘almost too tired to dismount.’ ‘I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division … And if they had been supported as they were to have been-but for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not-we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.’ Then he paused, and said in a loud voice’: Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!”
General Meade was criticized for not following up Lee’s retreating forces immediately and with energy, but that was easier said than done-his own men had been terribly mauled. But he was a reliable general and with him in charge of the main front on the Atlantic coast Lincoln could be satisfied. Meanwhile, the war in the West was at last going in the Union’s favor. Lincoln’s strategy was to neutralize as much of the South as he could, divide it and cut it into pieces, then subdue each separately. The naval war, despite the North’s huge preponderance in ships, did not always go its way. The South equipped commercial raiders who altogether took or sank 350 Northern merchant ships, but this was no more than minor attrition. When the Union forces abandoned the naval yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, at the beginning of the war, they scuttled a new frigate Merrimac. The Confederates raised it, renamed it Virginia, and clad it in iron. It met the Union ironclad Monitor in Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862 in an inconclusive five-hour duel, the first battle of iron ships in history. But the Confederates were not able to get the Virginia into the Mexican Gulf, where it might have served a strategic purpose. They stationed more troops guarding its base than it was worth. The South could run the blockade but they never came near breaking it, and the brilliant campaign of Commodore David Farragut in the Gulf finally sealed the mouth of the Mississippi.
To the north, and in the Western theater, General Grant achieved the first substantial Union successes on land when he took Forts Henry and Donelson; and after Shiloh he commanded the Mississippi as far south as Vicksburg. The North now controlled the Tennessee River and the Cumberland and it took New Orleans and Memphis. But the South still controlled zoo miles of the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Vicksburg was strongly fortified and protected by natural defenses. Attempts to take it, in May-June 1862 and again in December January 1863 failed. In May 1863 Grant made a third attempt, and after a fierce siege in which each side lost 10,000, he forced it to surrender the day after Meade won Gettysburg (July 4). Five days later Port Hudson fell, the entire Mississippi was in Union hands, and the Confederacy was split in two.
In Grant Lincoln at last found a war-winning general, and a man he could trust and esteem. Unlike the others, Grant asked for nothing and did not expect the President to approve his plans in advance and so take the blame if things went wrong.’ Grant was an unprepossessing general. Lincoln said: ‘He is the quietest little man you ever saw. He makes the least fuss of any man I ever knew. I believe on several occasions he has been in [the Oval Office] a minute or so before I knew he was there. The only evidence you have that he’s in any particular place is that he makes things move.’ Grant was born in 1822 at Point Pleasant, Ohio. His father was a tanner. In his day West Point was, as he put it, a place for clever, hard-working boys ‘from families that were trying to gain advancement in position or to prevent slippage from a precarious place.’
Lee, an aristocrat of sorts, was unusual. In Grant’s class of ’43 were Longstreet, McClellan, and Sherman, among other Civil War generals-all of them meritocrats. The chief instructor in Grant’s day, Dents Hart Mahan-father of the outstanding naval strategist-taught them that ‘carrying the war into the heart of the assailant’s country is the surest way of making him share its burdens and foil his plans.’ Lee was never able to do this-Grant and Sherman did. Grant was in the heat of the Mexican War, fighting at Palo Alto, Resaca, Monterrey, and Mexico City, and he learned a lot about logistics, later his greatest strength. But he hated and deplored the war, which he regarded as wholly unjust, fought by a Democratic administration in order to acquire more slave states, especially Texas. He saw the Civil War as a punishment on the entire country by God-‘Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.’
Grant was a man with a strong and simple moral sense. He had a first-class mind. He might have made a brilliant writer-both his letters and his autobiography have the marks of genius. He made an outstanding soldier. But there were fatal flaws in his system of self-discipline. All his adult life he fought a battle with alcohol, often losing it. After the Mexican War, in civilian life, he failed as a farmer, an engineer, a clerk, and a debt-collector. In 1861 he was thirty-nine, with a wife, four children, a rotten job, and not one cent to his name, in serious danger of becoming the town drunk. He welcomed the Civil War because he saw it as a crusade for justice. It changed his life. A neighbor said: ‘I saw new energies in him. He dropped his stoop-shouldered way of walking and set his hat forward on his forehead in a jaunty fashion.’ He was immediately commissioned a colonel of volunteers and, shortly after, brigadier-general. He was not impressive to look at. He was a small man on a big horse, with an ill-kept, scrappy beard, a cigar clamped between his teeth, a slouch hat, an ordinary soldier’s overcoat. But there was nothing slovenly about his work. He thought hard. He planned. He gave clear orders and saw to it they were obeyed, and followed up. His handling of movements and supplies was always meticulous. His Vicksburg campaign, though daring, was a model of careful planning, beautifully executed. But he was also a killer. A nice man, he gave no mercy in war until the battle was won. Lincoln loved him, and his letters to Grant are marvels of sincerity, sense, brevity, fatherly wisdom, and support. In October 1863 Lincoln gave Grant supreme command in the West, and in March 1864 he put him in charge of the main front, with the title of General-in-Chief of the Union army and the rank of lieutenant-general, held by no one since Washington and specially revived in Grant’s favor by a delighted Congress.
Nevertheless, the war was not yet won, and it is a tribute to the extraordinary determination of people in the South, and the almost unending courage of its soldiers, that, despite all the South’s handicaps, and the North’s strength, the war continued into and throughout 1864, more desperate than ever. The two main armies, the Army of the Potomac (North) and the Army of Northern Virginia (South) had faced each other and fought each other for three whole years and, as Grant said, ‘fought more desperate battles than it probably ever before fell to the lot of two armies to fight, without materially changing the vantage ground of either’-it was, indeed, a murderous foretaste of the impenetrable Western Front of World War One. What to do, then? Grant, after much argument with Lincoln, who steered him away from more ambitious alternatives, determined on a two-pronged strategy. One army under General William T. Sherman (1820-91), who had taken over from Grant as commander-in-chief in the West, would sweep through Georgia and destroy the main east-west communications of the Confederacy. Grant’s main army would clear the almost impassable Wilderness Region west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in preparation for a final assault on Lee’s army. The Battle of the Wilderness began on May 5-6, 1864, while on the 7th Sherman launched his assault on Atlanta and so to the sea.
The Wilderness battle proved indecisive, though horribly costly in men, and three days later Grant was repulsed at Spotsylvania with equally heavy loss. At the end of the month Grant again attacked at Cold Harbor, perhaps the most futile slaughter of the entire war. In six weeks Grant had lost 60,000 men. Lee, too, had lost heavily-20,000 men, which proportionate to his resources was even more serious than the North’s casualties. Nonetheless, Lincoln was profoundly disturbed by the carnage and failure. The Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, found him pacing his office, ‘his long arms behind his back, his dark features contracted still more with gloom,’ explaining: ‘Why do we suffer reverses after reverses? Could we have avoided this terrible, bloody war? … Is it ever to end?’ Francis B. Carpenter, who was painting his First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, described him in the hall of the White House, ‘ clad in a long morning wrapper, pacing back and forth a narrow passage leading to one of the windows, his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes, his head bent forward upon his breast-altogether … a picture of the effects of sorrow, care and anxiety.’
All the same, the noose was tightening round the South. Davis himself felt it. Even before Gettysburg, he had personally been forced to quell a food riot of hungry women in Richmond. Unionist troops overran his and his brother’s property, taking the whites prisoner and allowing the blacks to go. Some 137 slaves fled to freedom leaving, on Davis’ own estate, only six adults and a few children. His property was betrayed by a slave he trusted, the soldiers cut his carpets into bits as souvenirs, they drank his wine, stabbed his portrait with knives, and got all his private papers, spicy extracts from which duly appeared in the Northern newspapers. In Richmond, Davis had to sell his slaves, his horses, and his carriage just to buy food-ersatz coffee, pones or corncakes, bread, a bit of bacon. Jeb Stuart, Davis’ best cavalry commander, fell, mortally wounded. He had one good general, Lee, marking Grant; but Lincoln had two-and Sherman now took Atlanta, moved through Georgia, burning and slaughtering, and on December 21, 1864 was in Savannah, having cut the Confederacy in two yet again. By Christmas much of the South was starving. Davis had made Lincoln’s job of holding the North together easier by proclaiming, for four years, that he would not negotiate about anything except on the basis of the North admitting the complete independence of the South. Now he again insisted the South would ‘bring the North to its knees before next summer.’ On hearing this rodomontade, his own Vice-President, Alexander Stephens (1812-83), told him in disgust he was leaving for his home and would not return-it was the beginning of the disintegration of the Confederate government.
Much of the South was now totally demoralized by military occupation. Sarah Morgan of Baton Rouge, who kept a diary, described the sacking of her house:
one scene of ruin. Libraries emptied, china smashed, sideboards split open with axes, three cedar chests cut open, plundered and set up on end; all parlor ornaments carried off.
[Her sister Margaret’s] piano, dragged to the center of the parlor had been abandoned as too heavy to carry off; her desk lay open with all letters and notes well thumbed and scattered around, while Will’s last letter to her was open on the floor, with the Yankee stamp of dirty fingers. Mother’s portrait half cut from the frame stood on the floor.
Margaret, who was present at the sacking, told how she had saved father’s. It seems that those who wrought destruction in our house were all officers!
The destruction in Georgia was worse. Like Grant, Sherman was a decent man but a fierce, killer general, determined to end the war and the slaughter as speedily as possible and, with this his end, anxious to demonstrate to the South in as plain a manner as he could that the North was master and resistance futile. He cut a swathe 60 miles wide through Georgia, destroying everything-railroads, bridges, crops, cattle, cotton-gins, mills, stocks-which might conceivably be useful to the South’s war-effort. Despite his orders, and the generally tight discipline of his army in action, the looting was appalling and the atrocities struck fear and dismay into the stoutest Southern hearts.