The bells rang that day in Washington. Wherever there were brick bell towers and whitewashed churches, wherever rows of bells hung in ascending niches, wherever the common people could crowd belfries to take turns pulling the ropes, the bells sang. Bells were part of the American tradition. Cast in iron, bronze, copper, and sometimes silver, they rang with a hundred messages: summoning Americans to Sunday services, marking the harvest and holidays, signaling the prosperity of planting, tolling the sadness of death, chiming the happiness of marriage, clanging warnings of fire or flood, or booming out the celebration of victory. Today, they rang with the hint of promise. It was March 4, 1865. Inauguration Day in the Union.
Abraham Lincoln had been at the Capitol since midmorning, forgoing a traditional celebratory carriage ride up Pennsylvania Avenue to sign a stack of bills passed in the waning hours of the lame-duck Congress. He was determined to make his own mark on them before the vice presidential swearing in, scheduled for noon. Cloistered in the Senate wing, tracing and retracing the letters of his name, Lincoln remained the very picture of exhaustion. His face was heavily lined, his cheeks were sunken, and he had lost thirty pounds in recent months. Though only fifty-six, he could easily pass for a very old man. He was sick, dispirited, and even his hands were routinely cold and clammy. And today, the weather itself seemed to be colluding with his foul and melancholy mood. That morning, heavy clouds moved over Washington, as they had the day before and the day before that, whipping the capital with blasts of rain and wind. Even when the rain let up, the ground didn’t. The streets were a sea of mud at least ten inches deep. Still, the people came.
On the following Monday, the inauguration rush would include a grand ball for 4,000: they would waltz and polka to the beat of a military band; feast on an elegant medley of beef, veal, poultry, game, smoked meats, terrapin, oysters, and salads; finish with an astounding wartime array of ices, tarts, cakes, fruits, and nuts; and then retire for the evening with steaming coffee and good rich chocolate. But that was for official Washington, for Lincoln’s loyalists and Republican Party functionaries. This Saturday was a day for all the Union. And like a great herd, the people were seemingly everywhere.
Their wagons ground to a halt underneath thickets of trees in the distance, and the thud and swish of their feet could be heard along Pierre L’Enfant’s wide, radiating avenues. All along Pennsylvania Avenue, they converged, where the crowd stood at least six and eight deep on the crude sidewalks, around Fifteenth Street past the Treasury, where the stars and stripes hung from second-story windows, past Kirkland House and Tenth Street and the National Hotel, where a clutch of handkerchiefs fluttered and gawkers hung out their balconies, and up the steep slope to the Capitol, past the greening swatch of emerald lawns. At street intersections, military patrols formed a watchful guard. So did the Capitol police. Reporters and photographers crowded the stoops, ready to record the event for posterity. Flags waved; people cheered; and the band played. But mostly, the vast throng jostled for position by the east facade of the Capitol, newly capped by its gleaming dome and the towering bronze statue of Freedom, to be near, even to catch a glimpse of the president himself
Finally, the presidential party moved from the Senate chamber out onto the platform. A roar of applause rose from the crowd as Lincoln made his way to his seat. It dipped and then mounted again as the sergeant-at-arms beckoned, and Lincoln stood, towering over the other men, and made his way to the podium.
As Lincoln rose and moved forward, a blazing sun broke through the gray haze and flooded the entire gathering with brilliant light. Above and below, the collective pulse quickened. (“Did you notice that sunburst?” the president later said. “It made my heart jump.”) But whatever ominous portent that moment may have held, it was overshadowed by the more powerful drama of Lincoln’s speech. Succinct, only 703 words, eloquent, and memorable, it was reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address, and at this crucial stage of the war, every bit as important. Summoning his waning energies, Lincoln began to read.
As he rode into Richmond, Virginia, on that very same March morning, Robert E. Lee was met with none of the same fanfare. Slipping north from the trench lines ringing Petersburg, he must have felt that, on this particular day, Union troops would be loath to undertake any action. But he had a far more specific reason for journeying to the Confederate capital. Today, he harbored a single, daring plan to reignite the waning fortunes of the Confederacy, to somehow push the eleven states toward eventual independence. And he had come to confer with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the insomniac head of the Southern government, who liked to wage war from his dining room, with maps unfurled and instruments scattered across the table.
Lee’s ultimate calculation was as bold as it was simple: abandon Richmond and take his forces south to meet up with General Joe Johnston in North Carolina. Leave U. S. Grant, snugly ensconced in his City Point camp, holding the bag, minus the string. From there, they could continue the war indefinitely.
In the early, predawn hours, Lee had already vetted his options with General John B. Gordon, a shrewd, able warrior and one of his most trusted lieutenants. That meeting had proved to be an eye-opener. A Confederate courier, sent by Lee, had roused Gordon sometime around midnight, and it took the thirty-three-year-old two hours of hard riding in a bitter chill to reach the commanding general at his Edge Hill headquarters, outside Petersburg. There, as Union troops slumbered and Washington celebrated, Gordon found Lee surrounded by a long table strewn with recent reports from every part of the army. One by one, Lee handed Gordon the papers to read. Lee, his face tight, already knew what was in them.
Despite a score of earlier tactical successes, the news was dismal. For nine months now, Lee’s men had been living in a thirty-seven-mile labyrinth of trenches, stretching east of Richmond and southwest of Petersburg. Three times, in July, in September, and again in October, Grant had hurled his troops at Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, only to have them repulsed. In one instance, the battle of the Crater, it was an outright disaster for the Federals. What Grant had hoped in the early spring of 1864 would become a quick war of maneuver, open battle, and offense had instead become a prolonged siege. One surreal month after another, the two exhausted armies shadowboxed from their trenches. Throughout the summer and fall, the earthworks reverberated with abrupt, all-out attempts to break Lee’s lines, sudden unexpected death, and round-the-clock sharpshooting. This pendulum of harassment was punctuated only by the tedium of the siege, which was hardly any more palatable. As winter set in, the coldest in memory, Lee feared that unless his thinly stretched lines could be reinforced, “a great calamity will befall us.” Actually, the first great calamity was the plight of the men themselves. Despite Lee’s efforts to secure food and clothing for his army, little was available. Scurvy, dysentery, and night blindness invaded the Confederate trenches. Simple cuts and small wounds refused to heal. The men lived with rats and lice, amid the stench of urine, feces, and even decaying flesh, staring up at the sky by day and often venturing out only by night. Morale plummeted. Eventually, driven by extreme hunger, assaulted by the biting cold, torn by letters from wives that movingly spoke of starvation and loss at home, deserters mushroomed, reaching a hundred a day during the severe freeze of February. His hands tied, at one point Lee exploded to his son Custis, “I have been up to see the Congress and they don’t seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco while my army is starving.”
When the long, low fever of the Virginia winter finally abated, the situation for Lee’s men was no less desperate. Day after day, silence was punctured by the sporadic signs of war: billowing clouds of dense, roiling smoke, stabbing spurts of gunfire, the steady roar of bursting shells, scattered debris that heaved and shifted with each hit, and disemboweled corpses flying upward and out of the trenches. This Lee could live with. But, as he shuffled field report after report in his headquarters at Edge Hill in early March, what now struck Lee was the destitution of his beloved army: there were no shoes, no overcoats, no blankets, and little food; men scrambled between the legs of horses for dung to sift for undigested corn. There was insanity, exhaustion, wounds gone gangrenous. And of course, there was Grant. At the most, Lee now had 57,000 men in his army; fewer than 35,000 were present for duty. Grant had, he believed, 150,000. Once reinforced by Sherman from the south and Sheridan from the west, Lee feared the Union commander would have 280,000. His calculations were not far off the mark; the Union had near endless resources—although not always the will to use them.
As the minutes had ticked by that night at Edge Hill, and after Gordon had read the reports, Lee asked him for his options. Gordon reluctantly concluded that there were three: make peace between the two sides on the best possible terms; retreat and join General Joe Johnston’s forces in North Carolina; or stand and fight where they were. Of the three, retreat and peace were the most promising ones. Lee agreed. But as he set out for Richmond after that largely sleepless night, the peace option had already been foreclosed. Peace feelers had been tried twice that year, the first culminating in a full-fledged conference on U. S. Grant’s steamer, the River Queen, anchored off Hampton Roads. There, Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward, had met with the diminutive Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and two other Confederate representatives. Ironically, it was the Northerners who would offer the South drastic concessions on slavery and immediate emancipation, but, to the Confederates, their remaining terms smacked of unconditional surrender. Stephens, who had served with Lincoln in Congress and appeared as small and misshapen as Lincoln did large and gangly, said, “Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited our rights, and are prop er subjects for the hangman.” Lincoln in turn responded, “Yes … That is about the size of it.”
The second feeler had come from Confederate General James Longstreet and Union General Edward Ord. They had proposed a meeting of generals, led by Grant and Lee, to “come together as former comrades and friends and talk a little.” Lee had conferred with Davis and subsequently sent a note to Grant offering to meet. Grant had wired Lincoln regarding the plan on March 3, exactly one month to the day after the failed Hampton Roads conference, and Lincoln had wasted no time in killing this new one. No meeting, he chided, “unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army.” So, on that March Saturday, as an exhausted and careworn Lincoln took the podium in Washington and a baggy-eyed Lee trotted through the streets of Richmond, peace looked quite dead indeed.
The Abraham Lincoln who gazed out at the inaugural crowd stretching before him was a distinctively complex and often deeply conflicted man. Complex because the man who had pledged the previous summer in Philadelphia that the war would not end until its “worthy object” was attained, and “Under God, I hope it will never end until that time,” had returned from Hampton Roads in February and suggested to his cabinet that the United States pay the insurgent Southern states $400 million—as compensation for their lost slaves—if they surrendered by April 1. The Union cabinet was unanimous in its rejection. And conflicted because the man who had affixed his name to the unequivocal words of the Emancipation Proclamation had also offered the Southerners the carrot of “compensated” and even delayed emancipation at that meeting, if they would only return to the Union. Now, on this newly minted afternoon, Lincoln seemed to need the power and the firmness of his chosen words as much as did the anxious audience standing before him, or as did the larger, expectant Union nation.
When he started to read from a single sheet of paper printed in two broad columns, the crowd pressed forward slightly, to catch every word; when he spoke, they nodded in silent affirmation; when he addressed his larger themes, they listened with deference, even awe; when he truly touched them, they burst into applause and even tears. Notably lacking from his speech, however, was any stinging attribution of blame for the war. “All dreaded it,” his voice rang out—“and all sought to avert it.” But one of the parties to the conflict “would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept wax rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
Strangely lacking, too, from the speech, after his brief first paragraph, was a reference to anything that he had said and done during the previous four years. His goal today was not to take political credit or to assign blame, but to send a heartfelt message—to the Union and the Confederacy alike. Neither side had expected the war to last as long or grow to such magnitude as it had, he observed philosophically. “Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” On the matter of slavery, he reproached but absolved the South of the ultimate blame: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be judged.”
What was the war’s cause? “Somehow,” he suggested, it was “slavery.” And how long would the war last, the question that was foremost on everyone’s mind? Here Lincoln wearily made no pledge. “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” At the same time, he left no doubt of his intention to fight on—“if God wills that it continue”—until slavery was crushed and the Union was permanently reunited.
He saved his most soaring and trenchant words for the conclusion, the true heart and the indelible spirit of his speech: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln then turned to Chief Justice Salmon Chase, soberly took the oath of office, and ended with an emphatic, “So help me God!” Bowing his head, he kissed an open Bible, and then as he bowed again to the cheering assembly, an artillery salvo exploded in the wind.
The Confederate White House stood several blocks from the state capitol. It was not even designed as a public building, but rather came into being as the private home of a wealthy Richmonder, who had installed in it the mid-nineteenth-century miracles of gas lamps and crude but serviceable plumbing. When the war came, he offered his house for the new Confederate president, replete with its flat front and rear-facing porch, designed to protect the family from the dust and mud and pungent smells of the street. But he was also something of a prudent patriot. In a revealing bit of symbolism, he sold his home to the established City of Richmond and not to the fledgling Confederate nation. Its current occupant, however, harbored no such qualms about the Confederate cause.
Jefferson Davis had used the failure of the Hampton Roads peace conference to rejuvenate Southern pride and nationalistic ardor, and the people had rallied accordingly, from Richmond and Mobile, from Lynchburg and Raleigh, and other cities across the Confederacy. One by one, once passionate critics had also risen up in support of Jeff Davis and the Cause. So, while resources were running scarce, will was, for the moment, growing stronger. New appointments, most notably Robert E. Lee’s recent promotion to commander of all the armies, and administrative changes had also led Southerners to believe again that the war’s tide might yet turn. And everyone knew that the Robert E. Lee who came to Richmond that March morning was not simply the man who commanded an army of men pinned down in their trenches, but was the Southern general who had driven McClellan off the Peninsula, stopped Pope at Second Manassas, hoodwinked Burnside at Fredericksburg, destroyed Hooker at Chancellorsville, and thwarted Grant in the Wilderness—all against overwhelming odds. And while Lee himself understood that the Confederate hegira was at a turning point, perhaps even nearing the end, the Southern general in chief still harbored hopes of staving off disaster.
This was, of course, vintage Lee: ever bold and invariably aggressive. Now, meeting with Jefferson Davis as Lincoln spoke of “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” the two discussed the Confederacy’s options. Peace between the two countries was dead. But another option loomed: withdraw from Richmond, retreat south and join Joe Johnston’s army, and strike hard at Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Lee would have to make the most out of this opportunity. But he also believed that he could rely on the unparalleled endurance of his men, their loyalty, their fight, their overwhelming will in the face of the worst privations. In fact, this was also the opportunity he had long been waiting for; for some time, the commanding general had wanted to be free of Richmond.
In January, Lee had secretly told congressional questioners that the military evacuation of Richmond would actually make him stronger than before. Richmond’s fall, he confided, “from a moral and political viewpoint,” might be a “serious calamity,” but once it happened, he could prolong the war for a good two more years on Virginia soil. In truth, since the war began, precisely because Lee had been saddled with vigorously defending the nation’s capital, he had been forced to let the enemy make strategic plans for him, to dictate far too much of the course of battle, and to determine the pace and time of combat. But, he added, striking a more hopeful pose, “when Richmond falls I shall be able to make them for myself.”
To Lee, one of the most daring and offensive-minded of generals, a war of attrition had always favored the North. As a strategist, Lee chafed under the yoke of defensive tactics. “We must strike them,” he had lamented. “We must never let them pass us again—we MUST strike them a blow!” Yet Lee also knew the harsh reality of the arithmetic of war. He no longer had any men to spare. “If it becomes a siege,” he had gravely told his general, Jubal Early, “then it is just a matter of time.” At last, the time had come for Lee to make his own plans.
Davis listened and did not flinch. Why not withdraw “at once”? he countered.
Lee explained that the army’s horses were too weak to pull the guns and wagons through the thick March mud. But in two or three weeks, the roads would be passable. Then he could make his move. In the meantime, he would make the necessary arrangements.
And here the matter lay: with Robert E. Lee, at fifty-eight, an imposing figure with a strikingly dignified face and an honorable pedigree, who could endure disappointment and frustration with stoic reserve, but who would not accept defeat. And with Jefferson Davis, the austere, ascetic, grim-faced, and obdurate Confederate president, the once poignant nationalist and unremitting Unionist, who now lived for Southern independence, that and seemingly little more. They, every bit as much as Richmond, were the polar stars of the Confederacy, its very embodiment. And on this fateful day, their decision was made. With this new strategy in mind, they would continue to fight. With everything they had.
In Lees words, they would “fight to the last.”
Under the jubilant eyes of Frederick Douglass, who would be ushered into the White House later that evening at the request of Lincoln himself, becoming the first black man to be officially received in the nation’s home, and under the watchful gaze of the dashing young actor John Wilkes Booth, who occupied a prime spot in the balcony above the president, Abraham Lincoln had formally begun his second term. Now he had both a war to win and a “nation’s wounds” to bind. To some, like his congressional critics, these two elusive goals may have been flagrant contradictions, but to Lincoln, they were nothing less than the bedrock of his policies, the true, indefinable purpose of this war. There were, he knew, some propitious signs that the national bloodbath was at last moving toward its preordained conclusion. In February, Sherman’s army had driven into South Carolina, like a tribe of thundering Mongols—and South Carolina, the queen state of Dixie, where the nightmare of secession and rebellion had begun, quickly fell. Civilians deserted their houses and fled their cities before Sherman’s approaching hordes; then Columbia, the state’s capital, lay in flames, incinerated, a smoking ruin, the victim of Sherman’s men and chaos. Meanwhile, in the breadbasket of the Confederacy, the Shenandoah, Union General Phil Sheridan had cut a channel of destruction, wide and long, straight to the Rapidan River. And Grants mighty Army of the Potomac was hunkered down around Petersburg, ready to drive into the heart of the Confederacy, into Richmond, into Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia itself.
But there were also reasons why Abraham Lincoln was the most “tired man” in the world. For nearly every Union success, he could still count a time when Lee had been within their grasp and yet eluded his generals. McDowell, McClellan, Meade, Pope, Burnside, Hooker; each foiled. And Grant, too, decried as a butcher, sending the boys in blue into rebel range like cattle to a slaughter, mauled in the Wilderness, and now pinned down in Petersburg. Certainly, there were, as Lincoln was well aware, indications that the Southern will to fight was waning, that the Confederacy was slowly coming to pieces. But there were also indications that the war could drag on for at least three more months of murderous fighting, perhaps even for another entire year, and, he bristled, how much more could the country take? And then finally, for Lincoln there was the unthinkable: the specter of Lee and his men slipping into the western mountains to wage a prolonged campaign of harassment. As much as any other scenario, this was now his greatest fear. The glory of a restored Union, he believed, must be built on more than butchery, revenge, and retribution. So in the spring of 1865, this, then, was his dilemma: the exigencies of the total war that he was waging against the requirements of reunification and the peace that he hoped to make. Never were two goals more incompatible.
Lincoln was so exhausted after the inauguration ceremonies that he took to his bed for several days. By March 14, he would feel so ill that he would conduct a cabinet meeting in his bedroom.
In the weeks that followed, Lee refined his audacious plan. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, he would attack Grant’s lines below the Appomattox River, seeking to disrupt and disorient the Union commander. In turn, that would free a portion of his troops to quickly join Johnston and later to strike at Sherman. If his offensive failed, he would then abandon Richmond and Petersburg altogether, joining Johnston with his entire army. After a lightning march, he would hope to smash Sherman and then do what he did best—contest Grant in a prolonged war of maneuver.
As the first hint of spring crept north into Virginia, Lee’s strategy had crystallized. After months of stalemate and tense confrontation, he had settled upon this: shock Grant with a sudden assault on Fort Stedman, a federal strongpoint just east of Petersburg. To be sure, given the tattered state of his troops, it was a daring act, but then again, Lee was always at his best when he was daring; his spirits would brighten, his deep black eyes would glow, his carefully cultivated control would give way to a flicker of emotion. Though federal forces outnumbered the Confederates by more than three to one, Lee had repeatedly demonstrated that his men could overcome far larger numbers. Though his army was ragged and exhausted, he would rally it. And though he was a consummate military realist, he was also possessed by a rare compass, a gambler’s sense that military miracles were not to be mocked or eschewed. History had turned on a dime countless times before. So it could again.
The attack on Fort Stedman, employing deception, secrecy, surprise, would take place on March 25. It would be one of the most intricate and brazen assaults of the war.
If successful, some believed it would open up a corridor all the way to Grant’s headquarters at City Point.
If the capture of Fort Stedman was a hope, the abandonment of Richmond was now a certainty, its fate having been sealed along with Lee’s plans. Yet Lee’s plans, of course, begged the question: what about Richmond? To be sure, if ever there was a capital to be hesitantly relinquished by the Confederates and, at the same time, to be eagerly prized by the Union, it was Richmond.
From its earliest years, Richmond had been a city of opposites: simultaneously genteel and seething. It seemed to be a magnet for uprisings, either igniting them or squelching them. Before there ever was a city named Richmond, it was here, along the banks of the James, that Nathaniel Bacon had settled on a spit of land and in 1676 started the revolt that would carry his name. It was here, in St. John’s Church, that another proud son of Virginia, Patrick Henry, lit an inchoate country on fire, exhorting rebellion in 1775, when he declared “give me liberty or give me death”—as Thomas Jefferson, in the audience, watched on. It was also here in 1800 that the slave Gabriel Prosser staged—ultimately in vain—a widespread black insurrection. And it was here, in 1832, that the House of Delegates shook a nation, hotly debating a bill to end slavery in Virginia, only to have it lose by seven votes—and, in a tragic twist, to have the state convention end by further tightening the shackles of bondage. But the divided nature of Richmonders also went only so far. For the most part, Richmonders were scions of the legacy of the first settlers in America, the 105 men and boys who landed in 1607 along the broad sweep at Cape Henry on the Virginia coast. Arriving aboard the Sarah Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, they had already braved harsh, howling winds; mighty gales; and turbulent seas. Now they anchored amid the uncertainty of a new land. Cast in a sturdy English empirical mold of fair-mindedness, united by a common desire to better themselves financially and socially, they were largely a moderate people, wedded to the rites of hierarchy and patriarchy, pragmatic, and deeply steeped in tradition.
One of those traditions, of course, was governance. As early as 1619, the first colonists had set up a miniature parliament when they debated “the Dale’s code.” Within a decade, “sweating and stewing and battling flies,” they had already developed a highly impressive legislative machinery, establishing the House of Burgesses—the first representative body in the New World. More than a century later, by the time the state capital was moved to Richmond in 1780, Richmonders had been proudly and defiantly rooted in the exercise of popular will and the rancorous give-and-take of democracy. In no small measure, they had helped to invent it.
As the capital of Virginia, Richmond also had a heritage of leadership unmatched on either side of the Potomac. It rightly laid claim to being the seat of the great Virginia dynasty, to being the “capital of the Mother of states and Statesmen,” and to being the cradle of democracy; it proudly boasted the authors of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution; and it justly claimed America’s first president. No one cherished the tenets of republican liberty more than Richmonders. To the extent that Richmonders were inclined to view Virginia first and foremost as their “country,” and they did, it was also true that no one was more fervent in the defense of Union in the first years of the new American republic. Indeed, in 1812, when New England Federalists were threatening secession, it was Thomas Ritchie of the Richmond Enquirer who alone unleashed the most stinging criticisms, denouncing the “disloyal elements” who would “dash to pieces the holy ark of the Union of our country.”
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Richmonders built a stunning city, a thriving hybrid of old-fashioned Southern gentility and newfangled urban enterprise. Day to day, Richmond was undergirded by a sharply drawn social structure: an overlay of the old Virginia gentry; an assortment of newcomers, working-class immigrants, Germans, Irishmen, and Jews; and a foundation of free blacks and black slavery. But cast among its seven picturesque hills, this urban enterprise hummed with remarkable vibrancy. Richmond and its suburbs were studded with handsome parks, grassy residential squares, tree-lined avenues, and imposing statues. Red brick town houses ranged in long rows on Marshall, Cary, and Franklin streets, their russet facades displaying a pleasing symmetry. Above, atop the hills, were mansions, belonging not just to genuine aristocrats but also to much of the new wealth, the prosperous bankers, the merchants, and the industrialists, who were vying with the planters for supremacy in the city. Down by the waterfront, the James River teemed with coastal and oceangoing vessels, ships that traded not only with the countryside and the North, but halfway across the world, with Britain and even the far corners of continental Europe. Meanwhile, day in and day out, the Tredegar iron works spewed black smoke; Richmond had the largest iron industry in all of Dixie. And looming over it all was the classical splendor of the capitol building, designed by Jefferson; the elegant governor’s mansion; the beautiful city hall; and the intricate landscaping of Capitol Square.
By 1859, with its population of almost 40,000, Richmond was not the largest city in the South. Slightly smaller than Charleston, it had less than a quarter of New Orleans’s population and even ranked behind Louisville, Kentucky. But it was surely unique. Unlike the Deep South, it was distinctly more diverse: with its commitment to public education, it had six public schools as well as a college for women; with its commitment to religious pluralism, it had thirty-three Protestant churches that were complemented by three Jewish synagogues, three Roman Catholic churches, a Quaker meeting house, and a Universalist church. With its four newspapers jockeying for attention, its political voice was often broad and remarkably lively. Not surprisingly, as the war came, few doubted that the city was anything but an impressive blend of rural provincialism and urban potential; its atmosphere of high breeding and noblesse oblige made it distinctly Southern, but its diverse economy, heterogeneous population, and moderate outlook gave it a lusty, cosmopolitan air that solidly fastened it in the mold of the larger United States—unusual in the antebellum South. And, in a young country still very much struggling with its national identity, Richmond and Richmond alone among the great cities could bask in the golden age of Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison, making it a trenchant portrait of the young American republic.
But when the guns of Fort Sumter sounded on April 12, 1861, and the North-South divide could no longer be papered over, the city was immediately transformed, siding with its longer Southern roots. Having helped create “the United States,” it would now look to dissolve them. With “flushed faces,” “wild eyes,” “screaming mouths,” and “jubilant demonstrations,” Richmonders chose the Confederacy. And in turn, the Confederate States of America soon made Richmond the capital of their new nation.
It was a fateful decision. With the benefit of more than a century of hindsight, it is easy to doubt the wisdom of locating the Confederacy’s capital in Richmond; for one thing, it was a strategic gamble, boldly putting the capital within ready striking distance of the Union. Accessible by water and only a hundred miles from Washington, it was especially vulnerable. And on the fringe of the new nation rather than at its center, it would have great difficulty extending its power over the vast hinterland of the huge, eleven-state Confederacy. But in the end, when the war came, the Southern politicians rapidly tired of Montgomery, Alabama, the site of the first Confederate capital, with its clouds of mosquitoes and its pitiful facilities. After some to-and-fro, Richmond was the logical, if not the only, choice.
The significance of this decision was not lost on the North. As quickly as July 21, 1861, Union soldiers under General Irvin McDowell marched southward to the cry, “On to Richmond.” This was but the first of six massive offenses waged against the rebel capital. And from then on, Richmond would live under the menacing scythe of Union attack. Sixty percent of the war would be fought on Virginia soil.
After the guns sounded, Richmonders’ pride in their heritage was a goad to forbearance. Still, the city could not escape the transforming burdens of being a capital in the eye of a war. In every corner, life was quickly punctuated by the residue of strife. Groaning under the weight of refugees and the new Confederate bureaucracy, the city was often blighted with soot, noise, and darkness. Its once peaceful streets became centers of a garish nightlife; thus came a rash of burlesque houses and saloons, all-night prostitution parlors, pawnshops, thieves, and fences. The streets themselves overflowed with trash, empty liquor bottles, squalor, and vagrants. And of course, there was the more tangible specter of war itself, the gnawing realization that Richmond was now on the frontier of the conflict, an inexorable dividing line between North and South. With a hostile force always at its back, each day, each month, each year, its residents faced the awesome prospect of being overrun by federal armies.
But socially conscious Richmonders refused to be cowed. Amid the ever-increasing stress of total war, they danced, laughed, and somehow thrived. “There is life in the old land yet,” Mary Chesnut observed in 1864. “Go on good people,” wrote the Whig, “it is better to be merry than sad.” For three precarious years, Richmond survived on savvy and sacrifice, indomitable will and sheer tenacity. In the face of hardship, hunger, and disease, its women stoically visited the hospitals and darned socks. As scarcity, impressment, and inflation ravaged the city, crowds still cheerily frequented the theaters, threw merry shindigs, and entertained one another in private gatherings and with intimate games “of charades.” When the roll of cannons and drum of musket fire could be heard in the distance, they stubbornly maintained their faith in Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the Cause. And as the noose tightened, and mothers, wives, and children became “pinched by hunger” or were “dying from broken hearts,” Richmonders somehow pressed on.
Was it all an element of self-delusion? Or stubborn patriotism toward their young country? Surely, it was a bit of both. In 1864, Richmonders could console themselves with this sobering fact: the Confederacy’s mighty Army of Northern Virginia had frustrated the designs and military careers of five separate commanders of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. Indeed, most citizens saw their capital as an “impregnable Gibraltar.” And by 1865, if that winter had been particularly cruel, so had each previous winter. If morale was low, they knew that this was when Lee had always fought most brilliantly. In truth, each year and each spring, the war brought changes in Richmond’s spirit, harboring rousing news of dangers and triumphs, from Fort Sumter, to Seven Days, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor. But their bemused views of the privations of war were underpinned by a quiet confidence in a Southern victory. Grant had jabbed, bruised, and stretched Lee’s lines. He had fought all summer and all winter, yet still Richmond had evaded him. Spring meant a renewed campaign for war, yet one more campaign in which Robert E. Lee might eventually prevail.
Ironically, the more Richmond’s fortunes declined, the more indignities it suffered at the hard hand of war, the more it found salvation in its new Confederate identity. By the time the Petersburg siege began, Richmonders had endured martial law, quelled a seditious bread riot, and survived conscription; they had withstood impressment of property and servants, bureaucratic ignorance, and urban overcrowding; and they had survived star-ding underfeeding and horrendous casualties. And by this point, virtually every family, both the well-to-do and the humble, lived side by side with the shadow of death, as the graves of husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons littered the hillsides of the capital. In the spring of 1865, food was so scarce that many citizens were reportedly forced to eat dogs and even rats. Even this did not deter them. “We are all good scavengers now,” quipped the redoubtable diarist J. B. Jones. “As long as we can hear a dog bark or a cat meow,” roared preacher Ezra Stiles, “know that we will not surrender!”
Against all, Richmonders still rallied. In countless ways, this period represented some of the city’s most stirring hours. “Once more,” said one stoic Virginia maid, “we hugged to our bosoms the phantom of hope.” In fact, the residents did more than that. While their comrades in Petersburg wandered through streets, ducking and dodging federal missiles, balls and social events in Richmond flourished as perhaps never before. It was an amazing sight. Starvation balls became the rage. So did weddings. Church attendance rose. Buoyed by an evangelical fervor, believers flocked to St. Paul’s for daily services and searched to understand why God had chosen to punish them with such severity. They prayed for guidance and wrapped themselves in Scriptures telling of a wandering Israel, seeing the Jews as a prototype for their own nascent Confederate heritage. And more than ever, the first families held on to their Revolutionary War moorings as a way of bracing themselves for the trial now thrust upon them. Some also hoped that they were living through a second, “Southern” revolution.
One noted scholar, John Murrin, has remarked that the Confederate national identity in 1861 was actually far stronger than any collective American national identity alive at the time of the Constitution; there is more than an element of truth to this. And from then on, a new sense of nationality, at once Southern and Confederate, had gathered in volume and strength as Richmonders confronted one of the most daunting armies the world had ever known. The rejoicing, the partying, the riding high on a cloud of euphoria and wishful thinking, the atavistic remembrances of the Revolution, the mystical examination of the Jews, all were merely part of a swelling belief that they were indeed forming a new nation. Their unanimity may be overstated, but there was little doubt that they were now a people united by a sense of common culture and a flickering, but nonetheless real, national spirit.
Thus, Richmond was not, in the spring of 1865, what it was in 1861, or for that matter, in 1776. And like Richmond, much of the Confederate South had also changed. Hardened and toughened by the privations of war, the South now had a very different conception of itself, its identity, and its purpose and reason. Nothing so captured the extent of that change as a debate that had raged for months in the capital city and beyond, from the port of Charleston and the trenches of Petersburg, to the Tennessee backwoods and Louisiana bayous.
The question was simply this: should the Confederacy emancipate slaves and muster them into the ranks of Southern soldiers? Before the guns had sounded over Fort Sumter, it would have been an unthinkable suggestion, a heresy of the highest order. But now, four years later, the South was asking precisely this. Driven in no small measure by the Confederacy’s own desperation; by its dwindling resources, deaths, and desertions; and by an enemy who seemed to have inexhaustible supplies of material and men, this debate would culminate in one of the most momentous decisions of the Confederacy’s life and one of the most fascinating discussions in all of America’s span. It would say much of what the South was and what it had become. The final debate would come to a head in March, shortly after Lincoln’s second inauguration.
And for Union and Confederacy alike, its implications were astonishing.
“About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars,” John Rolfe, a Virginia colonist and soon-to-be husband of the Indian princess Pocahontas, recorded laconically in 1619. The first blacks to enter an English settlement in the New World—as indentured servants who could theoretically be freed in five years—their arrival marked the start of American slavery.
The “Negars” were landed at Old Point Comfort, a sandy wedge that divides the James River from the broad stretch of the Chesapeake Bay. In ensuing years, American slave ships from the Yankee ports of New England—the birthplace of the abolitionist movement—would become a common sight on the Atlantic Ocean. Slaves, bought in Africa for five pounds sterling, brought from thirty to ninety pounds in the West Indies, a sum that laid the footings for many a New England fortune. The colonies of Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, and Britain similarly became strongholds of slavery, and the institution flourished in the American North until 1780, when, beginning with Massachusetts and ending with New Jersey in 1804, the Northern states one by one abolished bondage. It was hoped that the Southern states would do likewise, especially in the Cotton Kingdom of the lower South, but there it stubbornly persisted. After Eli Whitney patented his famous cotton gin in 1794, plantations began to proliferate throughout the Cotton Kingdom—as did the corresponding rise in the demand for slaves. Over the course of 250 years, then, at first unwittingly, even reluctantly, slavery became so intertwined and intermixed with the fabric of the South—even though only one-third of Southerners owned slaves—that any assault on slavery was seen as an assault on Southern institutions, Southern values, and the very Southern way of life.
From the late eighteenth century onward, the ferment over slavery only grew. The North was increasingly stung by the contradictions of its own struggle against Britain and the Souths enslavement of others (“the execrable sum of all villainies,” in the defiant words of Reverend John Wesley), and slavery soon became a matter of deep conscience, particularly as the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening swept the country. By the early to mid-nineteenth century, reform was in the air. Year after year, with evangelic fervor, antislavery advocates kept scratching away with their pens and opening their mouths for freedom for people of all colors. And year after year, Southern politicians and Southern leaders bitterly fought back. Here, of course, was a classic formula for eventual conflict. Where many in the North, notably the abolitionists, clamored for the eradication of slavery (“Shall not our Lord, in due time, have these Heathens also for his inheritance”), Southerners clung ever more tightly to what they saw as the most treasured creed of republican liberty—property rights, including slaves. Where the abolitionists, heirs of the Puritan notion of collective accountability, viewed slavery as the most heinous of all social sins, slaveholders stonily saw only economic ruin, social chaos, and racial war. Where abolitionists regarded slavery as evil against God’s children, pure and simple, Southerners increasingly saw it as nature’s positive good: the foundation for peace, prosperity, and racial comity. And where abolitionists preached slavery as a violation against the higher law, Southerners angrily countered with their own version of the deity, that it was sanctioned by the Constitution.
In the vortex of this debate, once the battle lines were sharply drawn, moderate ground everywhere became hostage to the passions of the two sides. Reason itself had become suspect; mutual tolerance was seen as treachery. Vitriol overcame accommodation. And the slavery issue would not just fade away.
Yet by 1860, after decades of outspoken cries against slavery, this “peculiar institution” had been banned by all the European colonizers, had been eradicated in virtually all of Latin America, and was widely condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. It thrived only in Brazil, Cuba, and, of course, the American South and its border states. But to many Southerners, slavery was so intermingled with life below the Mason-Dixon line—with their independence, their institutions, and their social order—that on the eve of the Civil War, they would defiantly maintain “freedom is not possible without slavery” and “we are either slaves in the Union or freemen out of it.” When the war finally broke out, it was accepted with an insouciance and inevitability and even enthusiasm that is almost impossible to fathom today. Not surprisingly, once the South seceded and drew up a new constitution, unlike the Founding Fathers, it did not waffle on the matter of slavery. Eschewing the tepid evasions over bondage found in the U.S. Constitution (“persons held to service or labor”), the Confederate Constitution outright called a slave a slave, and guaranteed the protection of bondage in any new territory that the Confederacy might acquire.
By the spring of 1865, then, on its surface nothing seemed more ludicrous, or for that matter more treasonable, than to propose the arming of any of the 4 million slaves—approximately one-third of the Souths population—to fight for their masters, let alone for their own emancipation. Indeed, after 1863, Jefferson Davis had denounced the North’s Emancipation Proclamation and recruitment of slaves to fight for its side as “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” But nothing was sacred anymore, and wars have a way of transforming things. And in the dismantling of this tenet, it would be Davis himself, along with Robert E. Lee and a number of other prominent Southerners, who would lead the way.
As early as 1861, however, some Southerners had already privately broached the matter of arming the slaves. “Our only chance is to be ahead of them [the Union],” mused eloquent and discerning Mary Chesnut in December 1861—“Free our Negroes and put them in the army.” Early in the war, a few daring Confederate voices had even openly urged making slaves into soldiers, but these random suggestions were regarded as heresy. But after the fall of Vicksburg and the defeat at Gettysburg, more iconoclasts were prompted to join the fray, wondering aloud whether the Confederacy might also tap this reserve of manpower. “We are forced by necessity of condition,” lamented one Alabama editor with striking candor, “to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war … It is better for us to use the negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us.” An editor of the Jackson Mississippian was even more blunt: “Such a step would revolutionize our whole industrial system … [but] We must… save ourselves from the rapacious North, WHATEVER THE COST.”
In truth, Southern blacks had already been playing a vital role in keeping the Confederate war machine alive. Slaves were used in great numbers to work as military laborers, freeing white males to fight; they also doubled as workers on the home front. Often at great danger to themselves, Southern blacks loaded, transported, and unloaded supplies. In the midst of exploding bombs and enemy gunshots, they dug trenches, erected barricades, constructed fortifications, and repaired and built roads, railroads, bridges, trestles, and tunnels. In between, they cooked and served food. Amid the marches and the fighting, they did backbreaking drudge work, washed uniforms, shined boots, mended clothes and tents, and moved ordnance. And, staggeringly enough, in Louisiana, some well-to-do free blacks outright rallied to the Confederate cause. Caught up in the general Southern view that hostile Northerners were bound and determined to force their way of life on the South, and looking for a more dignified role, they were allowed to form regiments of free blacks, serving as home guards to protect their state against invaders. In 1861, moreover, several other groups of black Southerners also offered themselves as soldiers to the Confederate War Department, only to be turned down. When black men offered to fight for Southern planter and Davis adviser James Chesnut, if he would only arm them, he responded tentatively: “One man cannot do it. The whole country must do it.” On this matter, though, the slaveocracy of the South was still too entrenched, and thus was content to dally, vacillate, and remain engrossed in other issues.
Not so with the North. Lincoln’s stunning twin measures of the Emancipation Proclamation and the arming of African Americans did more than strike a blow at the institution of slavery. They helped spur an estimated 1 million slaves to escape to the Northern side and added hardy troops to the war-weakened Union ranks in the last two and a half years of the conflict. Indeed, at one point, the some nearly 180,000 black troops marshaled on the Union side were greater than the total number of men able to engage actively in combat for the Confederates. And in a number of important tests, the soldiers fought bravely. Witness the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which attained permanent glory with its assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, or the First Kansas Colored, which won broad praise for two fierce engagements at Cabin Creek and Honey Springs in present-day Oklahoma. “I was never much for niggers,” said one Wisconsin cavalry officer after the Cabin Creek engagement, “but beJesus, they are hell for fighting.”
By 1864, one highly regarded Southern general, Patrick Cleburne, was carefully assessing these stark developments. Once an Arkansas lawyer and considered the best division commander in both armies, the Irish-born Cleburne openly informed his fellow generals that the South should follow the North’s example. With his firm-set lip, his erect bearing, and his regal gaze, he was, by all accounts, a rather eclectic warrior: fearless in battle (he had already been wounded three times), forthright in manner, discerning in tactics (many called him the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”), and deeply passionate. He was also prepared to shake up the edifice of the Confederacy.
And he did. The Emancipation Proclamation, he argued forcefully in a January 2, 1864, “memorial” presentation to corps commanders in General Joe Johnston’s western army, had provided the enemy with a moral prerogative that rationalized his attempt at conquest. It had, he charged, rendered the slaves his friends, eroded the Souths own security, and united Europe against the Confederacy. Therefore, Cleburne warned, we are threatened with “the loss of all we now hold most sacred.” He then put the matter squarely: “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter—give up the Negro slave rather than be a slave himself” To save all that they cherished—“property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood,” he concluded that Southerners should transform the “dreaded weakness” of bondage into “a source of strength,” adding that they should recruit an army of slaves and “guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy.” Cleburne’s appeal was smartly tinged with realism: “Ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced, the negro has been dreaming of freedom and his vivid imagination has surrounded the condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes.” It was also shrewd politically: “The measure we propose,” he added, “will strike dead all John Brown fanaticism, and will compel the enemy to draw off altogether or in the eyes of the world to swallow the Declaration of Independence without the sauce and disguise of philanthropy.”
As for the slaves themselves, he minced no words. Recalling “the helots of Sparta” who stood “their masters good stead in battle,” and “those brave galley slaves” who had helped check the spread of Islam over Europe in the “great sea fight of Lepanto,” he maintained that not only would slaves fight for the Confederacy under such incentives, but that they would fight “bravely.” And Cleburne then went even further: freedom should not be granted just to slave soldiers but to the “whole race” that was loyal to the South.
Such words would have horrified antebellum society. Yet these were not the musings of a private diarist or of men retiring to the comfort of their brandies after a warm meal, but the thoughts of a much-respected officer on the front lines of the Confederacy’s defense. In a remarkable departure from the past, twelve brigade and regimental commanders in Cleburne’s division wholeheartedly endorsed his proposal. But if such replies were brave, they were also, at the time, calamitous. Most of the other generals eyed the proposal stonily, and their animosity toward it was palpable. It was “monstrous,” “painful,” and “startling,” one division commander fired back, “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” Another averred that it was “at war with my social, moral, and political principles.” “We are not whipped, & cannot be whipped,” boasted another. “Our situation requires resort to no such remedy.” Touching on the very raison d’être of the Confederacy, the debate was inflammatory, hot, furious, and, on its surface, even seditious. Fearful that it would cause “discouragements” and “dissension,” Jefferson Davis quickly stepped in and squelched the proposal, bluntly ordering the generals to stop even discussing the matter.
But in the face of the Souths increasingly gloomy prospects, the matter would not rest. Nor was it just a Southern concern. Tellingly, there were those in the North, such as the prominent intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, who as early as August 1862 deeply feared that the Confederacy might preempt the Union and adopt emancipation first. In so doing, he believed that the South would appear before the world as the champion of freedom, gaining recognition from France and England, and putting the North in a disastrous position. Emerson’s fears were hardly unfounded. Within months, in the South, the issue did indeed come under serious debate.
As early as 1862—and long before Patrick Cleburne’s presentation—Congressman Warren Akin, speaker of the Georgia state legislature, and later a Confederate congressman, wrote, “It is a question of fearful magnitude.” Yet Akin, a slaveholder himself, now supported enrolling slaves as soldiers with the promise of emancipation. In September 1863, the Alabama legislature followed suit, recommending just that. And this was just the beginning. By mid-1864, Southerners now recognized that they might well have to make a choice between slavery on one hand and independence on the other. In fits and starts, the furious debate continued. That September, Henry Allen, the governor of Louisiana, declared that “the time has come for us to put into the army every able-bodied Negro man as a soldier.” A month later, the governors of six more states, meeting in a conference, urged “a change of policy” concerning the impressment of slaves for public service, “as required.” However much this last clause may have constituted flaccid tiptoeing around the issue, the Rubicon had been crossed. The debate, bordering on flouting much of what the Confederacy stood for, became increasingly passionate. Then, on November 7, Davis cautiously moved a step closer to arming the slaves—although in parts of the South the idea was received with utter revulsion—proposing that Congress purchase 40,000 slaves for work as teamsters, pioneers, and laborers, with the promise of freedom after “service faithfully rendered.” He declared that he opposed arming blacks at that time, but added tantalizingly: “Should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems to be no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.” And perhaps his most striking line was this observation: “The slave,” he ruminated philosophically, “bears another relation to the state—that of a person.”
But in November 1864, this was still too much for the Confederate Congress; they sat on their hands and didn’t act on the president’s request.
Yet the issue would not die. Within three months, the dreaded alternative that Davis had raised now confronted the South, ominously and imminently. “We are reduced,” Davis acknowledged in February 1865, “to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for us or against us.” In the face of the Confederacy’s rising peril, the president had finally made his choice—and it was unacceptable to many of his comrades. Georgian Robert Tooms thundered that “the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves … The day that the army allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers, they will be degraded, ruined and disgraced.” The president pro tern of the Confederate Senate, Robert M. T. Hunter, asked skeptically: “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” And Georgian Howell Cobb, one of the South’s most powerful political generals, summed up much of the debate, fuming that “if slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
Others in high places, however, felt differently. In the weeks and days that followed, the matter continued to be debated endlessly in the Southern press and by Southern politicians, with perhaps the tensest confrontation occurring at noon on February 9, during a mass meeting at the African Church in Richmond, one of the rallies held in the wake of the failure of the North-South meeting at Hampton Roads.
Every seat was taken. After the armory band struck up the Marseillaise and the Reverend Moses Höge said a prayer, Senator Hunter strode to the podium. One of the most powerful foes of Davis’s policy, he used the occasion to reassert the fundamental belief in slavery. “And what is to become of the slave himself?” he boomed rhetorically. “Those best acquainted with the negro’s nature know that perish he must in time off the face of the earth; for in competition with the white man, the negro must go down. The only hope of the black man is in our success.” These were strong words, but they were also to be overshadowed by those of Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin, a Jew and a Louisianan, was a fighter, a savvy debater, probably the closest confidant to Davis, and the most intellectually gifted cabinet member in the Confederacy. Today, he meant to score a few bruises of his own.
It was a pensive moment. Stepping to the rostrum, Benjamin, who personally favored that his government should issue its own Confederate Emancipation Proclamation, countered with a dramatic appeal for freeing and arming the slaves, neither mincing words nor wrapping himself in vague generalities. “What is our present duty?” he asked defiantly, and answered himself with the cry: “We want means! War is a game that cannot be played without men … Where are the men?” Then Benjamin declared, “I am going to open my whole heart to you. Look to the trenches below Richmond. Is it not a shame that men who have sacrificed all in our defense should not be reinforced by all the means in our power?” Next, he thundered, “Is it any time now for antiquated patriotism to argue a refusal to send them aid, be it white or black?” A voice cried out, “put in the niggers!” and cheers erupted. Benjamin continued: “Let us say to every negro who wishes to go into the ranks on condition of being free—Go and fight; you are free!” Now he asked, “What states will lead off in this thing?” A voice called out, “Virginia!” And Benjamin answered, “When shall it be done?” From out of the crowd, “NOW!” came the cry. “Now,” Benjamin answered quickly. “Let your Legislature pass the necessary laws … You must make up your mind!”
As it turned out, the crowd did. Benjamin had scored a great victory, rousing the pews of several thousand to near unanimity; but he didn’t carry the day in the legislative councils of Richmond. With the Confederacy’s fortunes in limbo, some Southerners still didn’t want to make up their minds, precisely because they knew this meant abolition, or, as one Virginia newspaper fumed, “the very doctrine which the war was commenced to put down.” Indeed, for many, on the question of slavery or independence, the dogmas of the day were still too captivating; a number of Confederates preferred to lose the war rather than to win it with the help of their slaves. “Freeing negroes seems to be the latest Confederate government craze … [but] if we are to lose our negroes we would as soon see Sherman free them as the Confederate government,” insisted one Southern woman. “Victory itself would be robbed of its glory if shared with slaves,” protested a Mississippi congressman. It would, stressed the Charleston Mercury, mean “the poor man … reduced to the level of the nigger. His wife and daughter are to be hustled on the street by black wenches, their equals. Swaggering buck niggers are to ogle them and elbow them.” “If such a terrible calamity is to befall us,” sniped the Lynchburg Republican, “we infinitely prefer that Lincoln shall be the instrument of our disaster and degradation, than that we ourselves strike the cowardly and suicidal blow.”
But converts were increasingly found in the unlikeliest of places. Among them, evidently, was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and one of the Souths leading Confederate commanders. He was not the only one. Throughout February, soldiers in the Petersburg trenches flooded Richmond with petitions and letters, undermining the view that white soldiers would not countenance serving alongside blacks. “If the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to [maintain] our government,” wrote the 56th Virginia, “we are willing to make concessions to their false and unenlightened notions of the blessings of liberty.” Henry Allen, the secretary of the regiment, noted that “the resolution” was passed “with great spirit” and “entire unanimity,” adding that its companies came “from the most populous slave districts in Virginia” and its members owned “as many slaves as any other regiment.” And it was not just Virginians. For its part, one Georgia brigade in Lee’s army was adamant: “We care not for the color of the arm that strikes the invader of our homes.” Lee’s Texas brigade was equally adamant, calling on all to “lay aside prejudice” for “independence and separate nationality.” And deeper south, the headquarters of the Fifteenth Alabama Regiment echoed these same sentiments. Composed of “young men of good families” in both “position and property,” they not only endorsed the proposal, but went a step further, chiding some members of Congress for being “tender-footed on this point.”
But Congress was more than tender footed. In secret sessions, it was arguing the matter furiously and endlessly; some members sulked and complained, others wanted to plow ahead. And in turn, from the mud-ridden trenches to the editorial boardrooms of Southern newspapers, from massed town hall meetings to contentious backwoods churches, from the beer-filled taverns and smoke-filled drawing rooms, this imbroglio was now raging across the Confederacy. Reported Francis Lawley of the London Times in February: “The question of putting negroes into the ranks, long and vehemently debated and combated, not only within the walls of congress but also in the corner of every street and round every fireside in the South, is gaining manifestly in opinion.” Gaining in opinion, yes. However, time was running out. And one man had not yet been heard from: Robert E. Lee.
Soon, though, Lee would be in the thick of it.
For months, wild rumors had been circulating that Lee (“a thorough emancipationist,” in the words of one Lee ally) was in favor of arming the slaves. Indeed he was, but discreetly. As early as 1863, he had gingerly let it be known among elite circles that he—along with Jefferson Davis—wholeheartedly supported this measure. In other circles, he was far more blunt. For two years, though, he remained publicly hushed on the subject, even as he privately lobbied, pushed, and praised such an effort. Then, on January 11 (three weeks before the Union Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment codifying the Emancipation Proclamation by the narrowest of margins, and after a contentious protracted debate), Lee wrote to Andrew Hunter, a member of the Virginia state senate, expressing his opinion that “we should employ them without delay” and without regard for “the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions.” For weeks, however, this letter remained largely uncirculated. But as the debate continued, all of the Confederacy began to clamor for “anything emanating directly from General Lee.” At one point, no less than Judah Benjamin directly appealed to Lee for his views. Now all eyes were upon him.
Finally, Lee relented. Actually, at this moment, he skipped nimbly through the corridors of Confederate politics. On February 18, the general in chief broke his silence with a letter to Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale, the congressional sponsor of a Negro soldier bill. “This measure was not only expedient but necessary,” wrote Lee. “The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy.” In fact, he added pointedly, “They furnish a more promising material than many armies of which we read in history.” By any measure, these words were a staggering break from the past. Nor did he stop here. On the crucial question of emancipation, Lee did not equivocate: “Those who are employed,” he wrote rather firmly, “should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise … to require them to serve as slaves.”
The effects of Lee’s declaration, quickly made public, were immediately electrifying. The Mercury derided Lee as “the author of this scheme of nigger soldiers and emancipation” and as “an hereditary federalist and a disbeliever [in] slavery.” It added darkly: “We want no Confederate Government without our institutions. And we will have none. Sink or swim, live or die, we stand by them.” Richmond’s influential daily, the Examiner, went as far as sourly expressing distrust as to whether Lee was “a good Southerner; that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.”
But Lee had forever changed the debate, and most recognized it. The very same newspaper that had called into question his credentials, the Examiner, hastened to add: “the country will not venture to deny General Lee … anything he may ask for.”
On March 13, the Confederate Congress emerged from a round of secret sessions to narrowly pass a bill to enlist black soldiers, a measure that had already been endorsed some ten days earlier by Virginia’s General Assembly, at the prompt urgings of the governor, William Smith. An astonishing number of up to 300,000 black men were to be enlisted. On one critical matter, however, these legislatures hemmed, hawed, and equivocated: in deference to the Confederate constitution, they did not endorse emancipation. But Jefferson Davis himself settled the matter, calling for emancipation by bureaucratic fiat. His General Order Number Fourteen stated flatly: “No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent” and he is to be conferred “as far as he may, the rights of a freedman.”
In many corners of the Confederacy—although most certainly not everywhere—this declaration produced a near sea change. As Mississippi Congressman John T. Lampkin put it, “Slavery is played out.” Congressman Akin’s wife was even more emphatic: “Every one I talk to is in favor of putting negroes in the army and that immediately … I think slavery is now gone and what little there is left of it should be rendered as serviceable as possible.” For her part, Mary Chesnut lamented, “If we had only freed the negroes at first and put them in the army—that would have trumped [the Union’s] trick.” In turn, military men rose to put the plan into practice. The Virginia Military Institute quickly offered to help secure and train black recruits. Soldiers also stepped forward, seeking to make history, like Private James Nelson, formerly of the Sixteenth Georgia Battalion. He volunteered to form a company of blacks. So did one Captain Thomas J. Azy. And similarly, so did Nathan Burwell, Esq. And so did the Forty-ninth Georgia of the Third Corps. And so did thirty of the largest slaveholders near Salem, Virginia, each of whom pledged freedom to his slaves in return for their service. Noted Colonel Willy Pegram, of Lee’s army: “I understand that a large number of the best officers in the army are trying to get commands in the ‘Corps D’Afrique!”’
And in stark contrast to the North, which separated blacks and whites by regiments, Lee proposed to integrate Confederate regiments, with companies of white soldiers serving side by side with companies of black soldiers. By March 22, a Confederate soldier was heartened to glimpse a company of Negro troops encamped near his regiment. “I hope we will be able to accomplish something by the use of negro soldiers,” he commented. This, of course, was now the question. Early in the war, some Southerners had asked pointedly: “could they [slaves] be induced to stand fire on our side?” And now it seemed they could indeed. “The only doubt in this case,” Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune warned its Northern readers, “is not whether the rebels mean to raise a negro force, but whether they have not already raised that force.”
On March 24 and again on March 26, thousands of spectators and an impressive number of Virginia legislators jammed the grassy hills of Capitol Square in Richmond to witness one of the rarest sights in all the South: accompanied by the stains of “Dixie,” a new Confederate battalion made up of three companies of white convalescents from Chimborazo Hospital and two companies of blacks marched up Main Street to begin drilling together. The Richmond papers enthusiastically reported on the newly formed black company: in dress uniforms, black Confederate troops displayed “as much aptness and proficiency… as is usually shown by any white troops we have seen,” boasted the Dispatch. For its part, the Examiner bragged about the “free blacks” who were recruits; it preened about their “remarkable” knowledge of “the military art,” and it noted their “evident pride and satisfaction with themselves.” These units became attached to Lee’s own beloved Army of Northern Virginia; four days later, no less than Lieutenant General James Longstreet, one of the Confederacy’s prized commanders, recommended that five black soldiers be promoted “to the positions of commissioned officers in the first negro organization raised under the late act of Congress.”
In this light, it is a mistake, however, to see the final decision to induct and arm Southern slaves simply as a desperate last-ditch measure by a dying people, a pitiful deathbed conversion. In truth, it was the product not solely of haste but of an extended two-and-a-half-year on-and-off public debate throughout the Confederacy, and a four-year private debate. Some Confederates had been recommending it from the very start. To be sure, it was being done more for utilitarian reasons than for reasons of conscience. And there were a number of opponents, some quite vocal, and others who chose to remain silent. Nevertheless, it had, at times albeit reluctantly, the support of major figures and institutions: from General Lèe to President Davis, from the Virginia Military Institute to newspapers like the Dispatch, from the Virginia assembly and common soldiers to slave owners themselves. The decision was ultimately also a testament to the abomination of the institution itself, which many Southerners only belatedly recognized. Moreover—and perhaps most importantly—in March 1865, neither the South nor the Union knew with certainty when or how the war might end. As the Toronto Globe wondered aloud, would the black soldiers be ready for “the next summers campaign”? That was unclear. But whatever the war’s outcome, the Confederacy had itself, by its own admission, now sounded the beginning of the end of slavery.
Indeed, having gone to war in good measure to preserve the “peculiar institution,” and then having faced the doppelgänger of certain defeat against the specter of abolition, after considerable debate and soul-searching, the Confederacy’s leadership effectively chose abolition. Henceforth, and they all knew it then in their hearts, slavery was forever dead, a fact pointedly made by General Longstreet, who wrote, “such a measure will involve the necessity of abolishing slavery entirely” Or as one Confederate soldier put it so trenchantly in March 1865, “slavery has received its death blow.”
The significance of this could not be underestimated. In the end, what the Confederacy most cherished was its independence. And unwittingly, this produced a supreme irony: as April 1865 approached, the two sides, North and South, were closer on the issue of slavery than perhaps they had ever been since the founding of the republic, and yet it no longer mattered.
On Sunday, March 5, 1865, Robert E. Lee took his seat in the Lee family pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, just across the street from the Virginia State Capitol. The night before, he had paid a rare visit to his family on Franklin Street. Pacing silently in the parlor, his eyes fixed on the floor, he abruptly stopped and told his son Custis, with a hard edge to his voice: “Mr. Custis, when this war began I was opposed to it, bitterly opposed to it, and I told these people that unless every man should do his whole duty, they would repent it; and now …” Lee paused. “And now they will repent.” But that next day after services, Lee bade his wife farewell, mounted his horse, Traveller, and rode back toward Petersburg, to do his duty.
If Lee was not giving up, neither were his men. “I do not think our military situation is hopeless by any means; but I confess matters are far worse than I ever expected to see them,” Lee’s aide, Walter Taylor, wrote. “No one can say what the next week may bring forth, although the calamity may be deferred for a while longer. Now is the hour when we must show of what stuff we are made.” And Lee’s men were resolved to do just that when the order came down from the commanding general to attack Fort Stedman.
Under a moonlit night on March 25, a 300-man assault force, wearing strips of white cloth across their breasts and backs for ready identification in the pitch darkness, prepared to probe the Federal lines. Behind them, lying silently in wait, gathered 12,000 infantrymen. Though other troops may have deserted, these soldiers, the veterans of Lee’s proud Army of Northern Virginia, were determined to “resist to the death.” For the last nine months, they had lived in the damp, cold trenches of Petersburg, angrily eyeing their foes just across the way. But in truth, their emotions were now more complex than that. The slow Petersburg winter had allowed the troops time to pause and reflect on their former countrymen—and the feelings were often a mixed set of not just hatred but of admiration and even begrudging friendship. Conflict along the northern end of the line—by the infamous Crater—was both rancorous and incessant, yet to the south, relations were far more cordial. Notes and newspapers were routinely passed back and forth; pickets exchanged gossip; and warnings of impending action often preceded hostilities. “Get into your holes, Yanks, we are ordered to fire,” was one common call. Another time, a message wrapped around a stone was tossed into a Federal trench, which cautioned: “Tell the fellow with the spy glass to clear out, or we shall have to shoot him.” Such feelings of mutual respect were reciprocated by the Federals. “They are a valuable people,” wrote one Union officer, “capable of a heroism that is too rare to be lost.” If officers—rebel or Yank—passed by, the soldiers cautioned the other side, firing weapons at trees or birds or nothing at all. But not this night. In the predawn darkness, Lee’s men sought to use such feelings of comity to their advantage.
The first stirring of men had the Federal pickets on their feet. “What are you doing over there, Johnny? What is that noise? Answer quick or I’ll shoot.”
“Never mind, Yank,” one rebel infantryman replied. “Lie down and go to sleep. We are just gathering a little corn. You know rations are mighty short over here.”
“All right, Johnny; go ahead and get your corn, I’ll not shoot at you while you are drawing your rations.”
By then, the Confederates were in formation, prepared to charge. At the rear of the trenches, Lee himself mounted Traveller and took a position atop a hill. The sound of a single gun pierced the chill air, the order was given, and the surprised Yankees were quickly overtaken. Before dawn broke, the initial assault had stunningly succeeded; Fort Stedman was taken. Teams hacked through chevaux-de-frise.Then rebel brigades poured through the gap, and, after surging hand-to-hand combat, they soon occupied nearly a mile of Yankee trench systems.
But as the early sun began to climb, the Confederate forces proved pitifully inadequate. They faced a fierce Union counterattack, a converging fire so intense that it was likened to a “metallic storm” or a massing, dark “flock of blackbirds with blazing tails beating about in a gale.” By eight o’clock, Lee’s daring raid had sputtered, and by midmorning, the Confederates had been driven back with a terrible loss of 4,800 men. The attack had gained Lee nothing, nothing except the loss of a solid tenth of his command. And if there were one thing he could ill afford to lose at this point, it was precisely that. Yet, “as if incapable of exhaustion,” noted Lee’s personal physician, “Lee rode erect—and from his perch, never faltered or lost his cool.” But as the reality hit that the assault had failed, and failed badly, even Lee could not mask the “careworn expression” lining his face. He knew time was running short.
“I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a juncture between Grant and Sherman,” Lee admitted rather soberly the next day in his report to Davis. And that was not all. Lee also indicated that the dreaded moment had arrived; Richmond would soon have to be abandoned.
But for Lee, the unspeakable—surrender or defeat—had not arrived. He had foiled his enemies before when the odds were at their longest, and he planned to do so again. His goal was now singular: to quickly get west and then south—south to hook up with Joe Johnston, south to where he could maneuver more freely, south to where he could dictate the time and pace of warfare, south to a breathing spell.
And that was precisely what Lincoln and Grant were determined to prevent.
At this stage, no other figure saw the crisis as clearly as Abraham Lincoln. On March 24, the Union president came to City Point, to meet with his highest lieutenants—General in Chief U. S. Grant, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Admiral David Dixon Porter—to discuss exactly the core of that crisis: how the Federals would corner Lee. It was billed as a vacation. But he also wanted to be near the battle, to see with his own eyes the forces and the weapons, to read the wires, and to visualize the lines. He would stay a full two weeks.
There was an almost odd serenity to City Point, odd given that it was the military nerve center of Grant’s mighty Army of the Potomac. Indeed, at first glance—with its row upon row of office buildings and warehouses; its repair sheds and its sanitary commission headquarters; its guest facilities and its dockworkers, stacking supplies, stacking provisions, stacking building materials—one could have mistaken City Point for a vast commercial metropolis rather than a crucial military outpost. But here at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers, just twenty miles south of Richmond, the sights, sounds, and scars of war were never far away. At night, the lights of Grant’s headquarters winked quietly on a nearby bluff, the telegraph hummed with the latest dispatches, and aides scurried back and forth administering the machinery of war. And below and beyond lay a hodgepodge of scenes, each a monument to the shifting cycles of battle: there was the hospital, with its 4,000 beds and growing; the gunboats coursing down the river, their whistles pealing in the air; and the clank and clatter of City Point’s wharves themselves, where day in and day out laborers unloaded supplies, troop transports docked, and fresh new soldiers arrived. Across the James and off to the north, there were the neat, white tents and gray warehouses lining the Bermuda Hundred and, farther down, were the tree-lined banks of Malvern Hill, blackened by fighting early in the war. And below City Point, across the eastern front of Petersburg, were the Union siege lines, stretching mile after mile toward the south—nearly as far as Baltimore to Washington, D.C., by highway today or from suburban Rye to Manhattan, New York. And back around to the southwest lay Petersburg itself, with its cobweb of ditches and earthworks, strongholds and fortifications, strung along the earth, with Lee’s men tenaciously dug in, and, of course, the headquarters of General Robert E. Lee himself.
So anxious was Lincoln that when he received word of Lee’s failed attempt to break through at Fort Stedman, he rushed out to see the battlefield himself on that very same afternoon. From the inside of a slack, slow-rolling train, he gazed morosely out at the hideous mementos of war creeping by: fresh skeletons of army horses, trees splintered by military fire, flocks of crows and buzzards hovering over the fields. For Lincoln, it was a tragic reminder of the enormous cost of this war. In every direction, it seemed, obscenely mutilated corpses were being carted off for burial; at every vista lay denuded earth; and, at every point, there was no respite from the wounded, men of both armies, blasted and bloodstained and forsaken. Lincoln watched all this and grieved. Whatever exhilaration he may have felt about the morning’s victory—and its auspicious portents for a quicker rather than a slower end to the conflict—was mitigated by a line of rebel prisoners that crossed his view, these exhausted, ghostly men, stumbling in their “sad condition.” In all the war, Lincoln had witnessed nothing like this. He commented that he “had seen enough of the horrors of war,” that he hoped this “was the beginning of the end.”
The beginning of the end was exactly the topic of the two days of discussion aboard Grant’s floating headquarters, the River Queen. It was, arguably, the most important meeting a president has ever held with his combat generals in the history of the country. Grant, now preparing to launch a final assault against Petersburg, assured Lincoln that the end was at last within reach. Sherman, the loquacious, hot-tempered redhead, agreed.
Lincoln desperately wanted to be convinced, but he could not shake his own overriding fears, that somehow victory would slip through their hands, that Lee would break away from Grant and lead his forces into North Carolina to join the remnants of the Confederate army under Joe Johnston, or else fight another great battle and escape south. Or worse still, that Lee’s forces would melt into the western mountains to continue the war indefinitely. Nor did Lincoln’s fears concern Lee alone. “Johnston,” he bluntly told Sherman, might slip out of his grasp and “be off south with those hardy troops of his.” He gloomily continued, warning the general, “Yes, he will get away if he can, and you will never catch him until miles of travel and many bloody battles.”
Lincoln’s lieutenants shared his foreboding. Grant would later describe this time as “the most anxious of my experience,” confessing, “I was afraid every morning, that I would wake from my sleep to hear that Lee had gone … and the war [was] prolonged for another year.” And Sherman, too, was no less tormented by this thought, wondering if whole segments of the Southern army would disappear into the hills and roam the countryside as marauding guerrilla bands.
Even as the days passed at City Point, and Lee remained dug in around Petersburg, Lincoln, sitting in the cramped quarters of the River Queen, envisioned that the two sides were headed for one final, murderous, decisive battle, an Armageddon of their own making. “Must more blood be shed?” Lincoln asked. “Cannot this bloody battle be avoided?” No, came the answer. Both generals thought not. Lee had foiled them before when the odds were longest. And, Lee being Lee, they curtly reminded Lincoln, there was likely to be “one more desperate and bloody battle.”
“My God,” Lincoln instantly interjected, “my God! Can’t you spare more effusions of blood? We have had so much of it.”
But in truth, the answer to that heartfelt question resided with the selfsame man who was doing the asking, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, it had always been Lincoln’s question to ask and answer. For the Union president, who had spent many months pondering this very subject, how the war would end was every bit as crucial as how it had been prosecuted. And its resolution hinged on the most delicate balancing act of the entire conflict: the potentially irreconcilable contradictions of the total war now being waged by Sherman and Grant directly clashing with his cherished notion of “Union”; the moral fervor over slave emancipation and suffrage colliding with the urgent practicality of quickly healing the nation; and the gnawing concern that these two great sets of goals could, in the final months and final weeks and final days, drift dangerously apart rather than unite in tandem.
In fact, if the United States were truly to be reunited as one nation, Lincoln believed deeply that the war must not conclude with wholesale slaughter, nor could it slowly dwindle into barbarism or inquisition or mindless retaliation. All, he felt, would bode ill. To unite the country anew, it must be marked by reconciliation, by the lubricants of civil order, by a rejuvenated sense of what Lincoln termed on the River Queen the “rights as citizens of a common country.” For this reason, as Admiral Porter would later observe, Lincoln now “wanted peace on almost any terms.”
Wringing his hands, Lincoln thus enunciated to Grant and Sherman what would become known as the River Queen Doctrine, offering the South the most generous terms: “to get the deluded men of the rebel armies disarmed and back to their homes … Let them once surrender and reach their homes, [and] they won’t take up arms again.” And, further, “Let them all go, officers and all, I want submission, and no more bloodshed … I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.”
It was farsighted and far-reaching and as eloquent as his inaugural, but its specifics were only enunciated among these few assembled men. There was no written doctrine, no formal démarche to the Confederates, and no public call for anything less than surrender on the most unconditional terms. And its execution would be not just in Lincoln’s hands, but, most prominently, in the hands of his fierce fighting men. And for all of Grant’s and Shermans confidence, no one could—or did—know what would follow in the days to come.
Throughout his war-torn presidency, Lincoln was pilloried by his critics across the political spectrum: he was derided as a “duffer,” mocked as “a rough farmer,” criticized for “ignorance of everything but Illinois village politics.” And as he steered the Union around one obstacle after another, enduring generals who wouldn’t fight and Northerners deeply opposed to “the niggers,” Lincoln was often criticized by the press, scorned by Washington society, held up as the object of lofty condescension by Eastern sophisticates, even defied by his own military men. To his harshest critics, he appeared remarkably clumsy and inept. But the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe was surely more prescient in praising Lincoln as a leader of considerable force, less a mighty, bellicose man, a sort of unswerving Hercules, than a placid one, with the consistency and stamina of an iron cable, swerving this way and that in the storm of war and the swirling winds of politics, but always resolute in pursuing his “great end.” She was right on all counts except one: Lincoln was not passive as much as he was a shrewd master of indirection, speaking in homespun homilies rather than rigid directives, temporizing with characteristic caution until the time came to act. Yet, as Grant set out for Petersburg on March 29 in what Lincoln hoped would be his general in chief’s final, all-out push, Lincoln seemed to be suffering more than ever. His eyes filling with tears, he could only muster one feeble joke and a heartfelt goodbye: ‘Goodbye gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.”
That evening, the president nervously roamed the deck of the River Queen, pacing back and forth, awaiting the latest development. It came shortly. As he stared off in the distance, a tremendous artillery barrage began near Petersburg, accompanied by the incessant crack of gun after gun. Through the darkness and the drizzle, Lincoln could glimpse flashes from cannons silhouetted against the clouds. And so, the last balancing act had finally arrived: weighing the lofty considerations of Union with the dreadful particulars of winning the war, the fear of ongoing chaos and conflict with the necessity for reconciliation. But first things first; Lee must be ensnared.
Anything could still go awry, and in fact it did. The weather took an ominous turn. The sky had darkened. Rain began to fall, hard. And while Grant triumphantly telegraphed to General Phil Sheridan, “I feel now like ending the matter …,” the “matter” remained, delayed by a vile spring storm that first banged incessantly on the roofs of depot warehouses, then turned clay roads into sheets of water, and finally bogged down all Federal advances in mud.
In the meantime, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were doing anything but standing still.
In the early morning hours above the battle-scarred landscape of Petersburg, a thick, gray fog is lifting. It is April 1, 1865.
Three days of pelting rains are nearing an end. And Robert E. Lee, recently named general in chief of the Confederate Armies, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is grimly supervising the final plans for the rebel evacuation from his headquarters at Edge Hill. Amid the day’s slow-growing chaos, this much is clear: for the South, nowhere are promise and peril held in more tantalizing equilibrium than in the lines around Petersburg. Where just three days earlier, Lee thought he had some ten to twelve days to evacuate his army, the latest developments convince him that it must be done immediately. The facts are bleak; this he readily knows. Nearly 1 million men of the North, drawn from a seemingly inexhaustible reserve, are in arms against no more than 100,000–200,000 men whom the South can effectively hurl into battle. His own army is presently outnumbered three to one, and it is just a matter of time—no longer measured in days but in precious hours—before General Grant unleashes his legions in an all-out assault designed to annihilate his battered, shabby units once and for all. Even the Confederate States of America is little more than a shell. The South’s industrial and commercial potential is in shambles, and Richmond is on the verge of being taken. The proud lands of the Confederacy, at one time stretching some 750,000 square miles—from the lush green hills of Virginia to the marshy bayous and magnificent oak-filled woods of Louisiana, to the arid mesquite and chaparral plains of Texas, a landmass larger than all of France and England combined, as large as all of Russia west of Moscow, and double the size of the original thirteen United States—have pitifully shrunk to embattled pockets scattered throughout Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Texas. All that is left is the Confederacy’s spirit, and even that appears to be rapidly flagging.
Nevertheless, the commanding general’s hardened armada of fighting men is more imposing than it appears—he has seen to that. While riding across the battle lines, his head held high, his eyes calm and probing, he has been making his elegant presence known seemingly everywhere, where it is dominant, unrelenting, uncompromising, and, most importantly, inspiring. And as for the plans of retreat, he has meticulously seen to them, too.
His Army of Northern Virginia will have to cross out of Petersburg on the north side of the Appomattox River if it is to elude Grant’s clutches. So he has personally reviewed the order of evacuation, an inordinately complicated ordeal with little easy parallel in history, although its spirit is certainly worthy of the fabled treks of a Hannibal, or an Alexander the Great, or a Napoleon. A logistical and communications nightmare, it will require the unwieldy movement of four separate commands of men, in snaking lines that now extend over a breathtaking arc of thirty-seven miles; in advance, it will demand the harnessing of bulging train-loads of ordnance and the removal of huge cartloads of official papers and countless boxes of state documents that catalog the history of his army; and then it will necessitate the hasty stitching together of a vast array of 1,000 supply wagons, 200 heavy guns, and the roughly 4,000 horses and mules needed to pull them. All told, the supply columns alone will be strung out over a daunting thirty miles of road. And to avoid clogging the escape routes, as well as to hold a pursuing Union army at bay, all of this will have to be flawlessly coordinated, even as each one of these endless streams of men and material moves precariously from five separate locations toward their eventual reunion.
Virtually every key detail has been personally reviewed by Lee. He has fastidiously surveyed the ordnance stores and has directed a detailed examination of the bewildering roads, narrow bridges, and thickening terrain over which his men will escape. Already, he has carefully dispatched pontoons to shore up the dilapidated Genito Bridge—it was washed out by the rains—over which one retreating column must cross. And last, but not least, he has also overseen the critical plan of supplying the army he means to lead to safety—ensuring that 350,000 rations will be sent from Richmond to Amelia Court House, the designated point where his disparate retreating bands will finally join together, eat, and rest, before hastening their march southward toward the North Carolina state line and General Joe Johnston’s army. Large or small, no aspect of this staggering 140-mile journey can be overlooked. He knows this, too. Unless carefully attended, each is potentially fatal to his cause. Therefore, as guns begin to thud and mutter in the background, the plans are patiently yet anxiously rechecked. Now, from his desk at Turnbull House, the commander is conferring with his engineers and carefully preparing the maps for his army’s retreat—never allowing himself to openly speculate whether he or his troops will survive.
Yet, for Lee, yielding is out of the question. He has one single objective remaining, one single loyalty: it is a crusade, with his men of die Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate flag marching lockstep together. “If victorious, we will have everything to hope for in the future,” he wrote to one of his sons earlier in the year. “If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for.” His spirit remains unchanged. This morning, after quickly dispatching a note to Jefferson Davis bearing the news of imminent retreat, he vows to fight on.
So, too, he believes, will his men. He knows so much comes down to these men, the army he loves as much as the Confederacy itself. Already, theirs has been a story of enormous sacrifice and agony so excruciating that only those who have been pushed to extremes of human endurance can comprehend it. For some of the troops, their resolve—and even their sanity—have crumbled during the nearly ten-month siege of Petersburg. Others have succumbed to unspeakable starvation and sickness. Still others, among the living, are little more than emaciated sticks or hollow-cheeked wraiths: their flesh is covered with ugly red sores and ulcers; their gums are swollen; their teeth are falling out; their limbs and their muscles have dwindled to the size of twigs. Many are vomiting from excessive fatigue. A few are too weak even to rise, while others, barely able to stand, hobble bravely but feebly. But remarkably, most of the men—these are his strongest and the heartiest—somehow press on. This, despite the fact that they have no idea of the campaign’s outcome. This, despite the fact that they do not know if they will live or die. This, despite the fact that all they do know is that they will have to fight on, and on, and on. The Army of Northern Virginia is not invincible; Lee is well aware of this fact. But man for man, it is as formidable as any army ever assembled. Even in their weathered condition, his veterans have secured the admiration of their enemy and all the world at large. And even now, they are not to be taken lightly. When the time comes, they will fight and fight valiantly.
But on this morning, as the rain slowly dies down and the slush roads begin to harden and the battle is once again about to open, the question nonetheless is, what drives these men still? Why do they continue? For Lee, the answer is both important and complicated; as their commanding general he knows this all too well. They might fight for flag and country, they might die for the Southern way of life, they might rebel against the tyranny and despotism of the invading Yankees. Yet at this point all would quickly evaporate were it not for the reverence in which they hold Robert E. Lee. It is his iron will that fuels their resolve; it is his single-mindedness that sustains their stamina; it is his leadership that nourishes their determination. He is the red and white thread that binds them together, and this responsibility is, in turn, his cross to bear.
It has not been easy. For days now, Lee has been suffering from a lethal combination of too little sleep, too little nourishment, and too much stress. He is not a young man, and now, at fifty-eight and under the unremitting strain of the last four years of war, he has aged considerably: his body has grown old and tired; unknown to most of the Confederacy, his mane of hair has gone gray; and he suffers from repeated bouts of angina, which he mistakenly believes to be rheumatism. Moreover, that winter, a nagging throat infection had sapped his strength. Yet remarkably, in the heat of battle, his energy does not flag. Too often, he has been tempted to lead a charge himself; already, in 1863, a Yankee sharpshooter grazed his cheek. But he does not fear death. Rather, he has always believed that there is no more noble end for a soldier than dying on the battlefield. “The fame of virtue,” he penned in a letter earlier in the year, “is immortal.”
Proud of his lineage—he is descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his father was a Revolutionary War hero, a favorite officer, and a close personal friend of George Washington himself-—driven, singularly willed, quietly but fiercely ambitious, hot-blooded and bold, Lee is a man who lives within, possessed by a private vision that he shares with no one. Indeed, what so sets Lee apart from the other figures of his day is a hidden side to this seasoned general that would astonish many of his peers, let alone most fighting men of the twentieth century. Underneath that thick skin, he is a dreamer, quite probably the last great romantic of his age. In a time of budding modernity, newly minted political generals, and the burgeoning thrust of an entrepreneurial class, he is driven by an antique sense of honor nearly unfathomable by the standards of today, and even to the cynics of his era. It is both tempting and common to compare Lee to other generals, but this actually tells one little about the essence of the inner Lee or the secret to the magic that he casts over his men. More typically, he is compared with George Washington, his idol. But the better comparison is actually to the medieval knights and warriors of the past, like King Arthur, the mighty English Dux Belhrum who won twelve terrible battles against Saxon invaders from Germany before being slain in A.D. 539. Or the eleventh-century Castilian hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the frontier warlord whose story became the legend of El Cid. Or the fabled Richard the Lion-Hearted, the chivalric king of England, who waged a long crusade in the Holy Land; was captured in battle by Austria and the Holy Roman Empire; was later ransomed amid much fanfare; and who suffered a final, fatal wound fighting for his country in 1199. Indeed, the coda of the courtly knight, chansons ie geste, melding humility with bravery, quaintness with toughness, personal loyalty with ruthlessness, and above all, a gentle heart with devotion to God, aptly fits the nineteenth-century Lee.
Yet, what matters at this point is that each and every decision he makes—small or large—will affect the life and very survival of his army, and in turn, the independence of the Confederacy. There is no longer any room for error. Day after day, the hair-trigger decisions have come with frightening rapidity. And day after day, as Grants men have pushed, probed, and feinted, the action does not stop. So Lee is fastidious, precise, driving himself to the limit. With little respite, he moves quickly from task to task. There are the military matters: reinforce Ewell’s flank, quickly shift Gordons men to the left, now bolster Anderson’s men on the right; there are the matters of administration: requisition 140,000 pounds of rations, lobby the Congress for more food, keep the president apprised of all major developments; there are the matters of intelligence: weed out Grant’s spies, remember to double-check the viability of alternative escape routes, protect the vital Southside Railroad; and there are the matters of morale: hold the loyalty of his men, don’t forget to maintain the élan of his own generals, now fasten the spirit of the Southern people, then deal with deserters. Day after day, night after night, the decisions go on and on. It seems endless, but the commanding general’s intensity never wanes.
Now, however, the Union assaults have again begun in earnest, as he knew they would. This morning Lee wastes little time responding, rapping out the curt order to General George Pickett: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards.” And he adds: “prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad.”
Lee has the latest battlefield reports, but at this point, he instinctively knows Grant’s plans; he surely knows them in his gut. If his weakly held far-right flank at Petersburg should fall, then his entire retreat route from Richmond and Petersburg will be threatened. For four days running, Grant has been harassing and testing him, like the slow dénouement of a hard-fought game of chess, where one player must eventually succumb. Still, Lee has thus far checked Grant at every stage. On March 29, in a drenching downpour, General Pickett and two divisions of infantry already have had it out with the fierce little Union general, Phil Sheridan; there were heated skirmishes at Lewis’s Farm near Gravelly Run and sharp fighting at the juncture of Quaker and Boydton roads. Lee’s men held that day. On March 30, there were yet more skirmishes; this time, Lee’s troops repulsed Sheridan’s cavalry near a place called Five Forks. On the last day of the month, hard fighting by Lee’s forces, following yet another blinding rain, surprised—and again halted—the Federals at a ramshackle site called Dinwiddie Court House. Another tactical defeat for the Union. As of this morning, then, Lee’s men have been defeated nowhere along the critical right side. And by this point, a frustrated General Grant has already quarreled with his chief of staff and lost his temper with Sheridan, and the momentary Union disarray has been labeled by one prominent Federal general as “confused and conflicting.” But Lee is suffering under no illusions. With 10,000 Confederates now warily poised against more than 50,000 Federals on the western part of the line, he is well aware that the Union can afford temporary defeats.
He knows they will come again.
And they do. Grant’s strategy has been transparent: to continue to move to the left and westward, forcing Lee to stretch his lines further. Finally, on this first day of April, the Union forces unleash a massive enveloping attack against Pickett’s isolated forces at Five Forks. “A voice of doom was in the air,” noted a Union general. Yes, but for whom? Sheridan’s rapid-firing troops, storming on foot, attack head-on, buttressed by Gouverneur Warren’s men moving against Pickett’s left flank. Cussing and prodding and inveighing the infantry to hit ever firmer and move ever quicker, the diminutive Sheridan is relentless. But Lee’s rebels are equally relentless, desperately and bravely fighting back. As Sheridan’s men ram forward, Confederate infantry and cavalry defiantly dig in. Suddenly, out comes the cry, “Hooray! Hooray! In Dixie land, I’ll take my stand, to live or die in Dixie!’ They are singing, “Dixie,” and also “Annie Laurie,” as though they were back in First Manassas. Earlier in the day, they have captured some Federal troopers. Hope against hope, they now seek to prevail.
This is hardly the first tight spot Robert E. Lee has been in. After other battles and on other retreats, following Antietam and Gettysburg, each time Lee has given his adversaries the slip. Around noontime today, his eyes gleaming, his face flushed with anticipation, Lee himself rides out to watch the developments firsthand by Burgess Hill.
By four o’clock, the initial reports are that his men may have checked the Federals once again. Across the Virginia hills, the tireless crack of enemy fire could be heard. Moodily, anxiously, he stares off in the distance, waiting for further news.
At long last, as the full import of the day’s events begins to take shape and meaning, the time of reckoning for Robert E. Lee has arrived. But if ever there were a man who could best the daunting odds currently arrayed against him, it was the aging general, the distinguished product not simply of one of the country’s most impeccable pedigrees, but the seeming embodiment of America’s very destiny.
Destiny. The word is large, but unavoidable. All his life, Lee was driven by, forged from, and, to an inescapable degree, haunted by a sense of destiny. By birth and inheritance, he was tied to the Union, to its creation and its preservation. Two of his ancestors, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, had signed the Declaration of Independence; his father, Lighthorse Harry Lee, was a celebrated Revolutionary War general, an ardent Federalist, and the soldier whom President George Washington handpicked to stamp out the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, the young country’s first major secessionist threat. And finally, it was none other than Harry Lee who had eulogized—and immortalized—Washington with the soaring phrase, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
But if destiny called for the Union, so, too, did it sound for Lee’s home state of Virginia. Indeed, Southern history ran equally deep in his blood: he was related to most of Virginia’s first families, the Lees, the Carters, the Randolphs, the Fitzhughs, and the Harrisons. For more than a century, his family—as counselors and burgesses, as aides to the king and then as revolutionary soldiers, as planters and foreign emissaries—had played a leading role in the history of Old Dominion. His own father was at various times a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, three times a governor, and then a Virginia congressman; in fact, former President Washington made a conspicuous show of publicly voting for candidate Lee. And Robert E. Lee was himself born at Stratford, a great brick home overlooking the Potomac, and one of the most famous estates in all of Virginia.
Destiny, however, stalked Lee in one other way: in the lingering black mark upon his family’s name. In truth, Lee’s background was far more mixed than Lee family legend would often have had it. For all his distinguished exploits, his father was also a compulsive land speculator who was desperately in debt, repeatedly in flight from his creditors, and, after the Revolutionary War, was jailed not once, but twice. He eventually (and recklessly) squandered his wife’s fortune before abandoning his family for the West Indies, only to return five years later in the final weeks of his life, a sick and broken man, dying in Georgia, hundreds of miles from his Virginia home. Born in 1807, Robert was just six when Harry deserted his family. He never saw the elder Lee again.
Thus, while his family may have had an exultant family name, which it did; fine social graces, which it also did; and an impressive array of Virginia connections, including senators and presidents, which it did as well; in Robert’s youth, it was left fatherless, nearly broke (the Lees lost Stratford and for a time did not even have a carriage), and its once pristine reputation was deeply soiled. (The family name would be further disgraced by Robert’s oldest brother, whose adulterous exploits with his sister-in-law would earn him the sobriquet of Black Horse Harry Lee).
Despite their privations, Lee’s mother made do, and so did young Robert. From his earliest years, Ann Lee raised him in genteel surroundings. She taught him to revere George Washington and to lead an exemplary life that would redeem the family’s honor. Central to these teachings was emulating not simply Washington’s dignity, but his meticulous practice of “Self denial and self-control.” Ann read and reread Harry Lee’s letters to the children, which, despite his own jaded example, constituted a keen primer on the Founding Father’s philosophy: “Self command is the pivot upon which the character fame and independence of us mortals hang.” And: “fame in arms, or art, however conspicuous, is naught unless bottomed on virtue.” And: “A man ought not only to be virtuous in reality, but he must always appear so.” Lee learned these lessons well, and they would stick with him all his life. (Years later, as a father himself, an older Lee would echo these words, telling his son Custis, who was experiencing problems at West Point: “Shake off these gloomy feelings,” “Drive them away,” “All is bright if you will think it so,” “Do not dream,” “Live in the world you inhabit,” “Make the best of things,” “Turn [things] to your advantage.” And he spoke of “strength,” “fortitude,” “industry,” “resolve,” and “courage.” And he stressed, “I hold to the belief that you must act right whatever the consequences.”)
When responsibility came, he rose to it. As a young man, Lee took over the management of the household (in the phrase of the day, he “carried the keys”) and carefully tended to his sickly mother. He left her side only to attend West Point at the age of eighteen. The separation was not easy: “How can I live without Robert?” Ann Lee mourned. “He is son, daughter, and everything to me.” And even his choice of West Point contained an element of duty and self-sacrifice. Unlike other colleges for young gentlemen, the education at the military academy was free. But Lee was an outstanding cadet, earning not a single demerit, and graduating second in his class in 1829. Cautious and thrifty, he actually saved from his meager pay at a time when most Southern cadets prided themselves on acquiring debts.
He continued to distinguish himself in the military: for his first commission, he was appointed to the prestigious Corps of Engineers; in the years that followed, he was breveted three times for valor in the Mexican War; he ably ran West Point as its superintendent; he effectively led the U.S. cavalry against the Comanche Indians; and he was the commander of the marines who put down John Brown’s rebellion in 1859. By the outset of the Civil War, the fifty-three-year-old Lee was considered the most promising soldier in the country. Lee’s mentor, General in Chief Winfield Scott, had already called his exploits in Mexico “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual.” He further termed Lee a “military genius” and deemed him “gallant,” “indefatigable,” and “the best soldier I ever saw in the field.” Scott even boasted that in the event of war, the U.S. government should insure Lee’s life for $5 million a year.
Lee’s social position seemed equally assured. In 1831, the young officer had married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and through adoption, of George Washington himself. He thus became heir not only to Arlington, the grand mansion overlooking the Potomac that had belonged to Washington’s adopted son, but to everything that Arlington stood for. At the age of twenty-eight, Lee—now the owner of the very china presented to the Founding Father by the Society of Cincinnati, now the guardian of the handsome hardwood bookcase that had once graced the president’s office, now the conservator of the magnificent oil portraits hanging on Arlington’s walls—had come full circle. His family name had been redeemed.
The Lee and Custis match was a wise, enduring, and, by most accounts, reasonably happy one. There were minor tensions: where he was organized, she was quite spoiled; where he was a masterpiece of understatement, and actually quite shy, she invariably insisted on being the center of attention; where he was refined and handsome, she was at once pushy and somewhat homely; and where he was not a habitual churchgoer by the standards of the day—Lee was not confirmed until age forty-six—she was a fervent, evangelical Protestant. Still, there was much they had in common: both shared considerable antislavery sentiments (he had described the institution in 1856 as “a moral and political evil”), and both were equally outspoken against secession (“the framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom and forbearance in its formation if it was intended to be broken up by every member,” Lee had lamented as late as January 1861). Both were also keenly ambitious. And despite long separations, his inveterate flirtations with other women, and her ill health—she was slowly immobilized by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair—each maintained an abiding love for the other.
But beneath the surface, Lee, ever the picture of moderation and restraint, was dissatisfied. He doted on his seven children, bestowing a pet name on each, but he fretted constantly over their futures and worried that they would never amount to much in life. He cherished the military, but, after years of service, grew tired of the constant intrigues, the backbiting politics, and the daily pettiness, leading him at one point to confide to his son, “I wish I was out of the army.” And while he had already achieved considerable fame and glory in the field, he still craved a more active duty befitting a soldier, not postings that smacked of an administrator or bureaucrat. He brooded that the years were slipping by, that he was growing old, rusty, and unappreciated in the service of his country. He did get a field command, in Texas, overseeing the entire Southwest. But for a restless Lee, still eager not just for action, but for a chance to make history, chasing renegade Indians did little to satisfy him. Then came secession.
Once again, destiny was at his door.
One by one, the Southern states began to leave the Union, and, as war loomed, in April 1861, on the same day that Lee learned of Virginia’s withdrawal, U.S. General in Chief Winfield Scott summoned him for an urgent meeting in Washington. It was here that a stunning offer was made, bearing Abraham Lincoln’s seal of approval: command of the new Union army.
All his life, this was the one position that Lee had coveted. It offered him a chance to walk in the footsteps not only of his own father, but also of the father of the country, with a chance for military glory rivaling even Washington’s. In the three tremulous hours that they spoke—of which no record exists—Lee not only declined, surely the most painful decision of his life, but he also resigned his commission from the army. However much this son of an ardent Federalist longed for compromise to save the Union, in the end, the permanency of birth and blood won out: “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children,” he told a friend sadly. And he explained, “Save in defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.” But draw his sword he would. Five days later, Lee accepted an appointment as commander in chief of Virginia’s military forces; three weeks after that he was made a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He did it for “honor,” but with no illusions and the heaviest of hearts: “I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal,” he warned soberly. But in the end, he never openly regretted his decision or its consequences: “I did only what duty demanded … and if it were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.”
Would Lee be equal to the task? He was one of the best-known and most-watched men of his era, yet as the diarist Mary Chesnut, who watched him more closely than most, once asked, “Can anybody say they know the general?” And she was surely right. For a man of such immense discipline, he was filled with paradoxes: all his life, he had stubbornly adhered to the military chain of command, even when it galled him, except once; when he chose Virginia and the Confederacy over the Union. Austere, ascetic, devoted, he neither drank nor swore nor smoked, yet he delighted in such pleasures as music, dancing, and food, especially fried chicken. Forever faithful to his wife, he was a constant flirt with other women and maintained a sensuous and lifelong correspondence with several of them. Never self-righteous, he was a pious man, praying regularly and long. During the war, he resorted to firing squads to cut down on desertions (his father was more brutal; he had once beheaded a man), but he also freely pardoned guilty men. And despite his legendary self-control, his foul moods and his temper were equally well known. Finally, as much as any other general—including Grant, including Sherman, including Stonewall Jackson, and certainly including his hero George Washington—Lee had a true killer instinct; in battle, his audacity, his aggressiveness, his boldness, his intuition were second to none. Yet at the same time, there was a surprising and decidedly unusual feminine side to him: a sweetness, a benignity, a tenderness unthinkable in other great fighting men. Once, during the Petersburg siege, one of Richmond’s citizens sent him a peach, the first he had seen since 1862. He had it hand-carried to his wife.
Physically, he was impressive—and again paradoxical. Nearly six feet tall with a powerful, imposing frame and a striking barrel chest, he nonetheless radiated beauty and grace, accented by his unexpectedly tiny feet (4-C) and a beautifully shaped mouth. His eyes could be large, sad, and brooding; at the same time, when he was angered, his cold stare was unforgettable. Women swooned over him; whenever he visited a barber, they invariably lined up for strands of his gray hair. In 1863, one Union girl, watching Lee pass her Pennsylvania home near Gettysburg, cried out: “Oh! I wish he were ours!” Similarly, when he was a much younger man, his fellow cadets at West Point had called him the “marble Model,” and by his mid-fifties, when his head was at first tinged with gray, then white, he acquired the aura of a Homeric patriarch.
Dignified, humble, gentle, he invariably saved the best not for himself, but for the heat of battle and, most of all, for his men. And in turn, they idolized him. When he rode among them, they did not whoop or cheer, but rather stood quietly, in awe, removing their hats reverently. “I’ve heard of God,” one Southerner remarked, “but I’ve seen General Lee.” Even Stonewall Jackson, who generally rested his confidence only in the Lord, gave him unshakable support: “So great is my confidence in General Lee that I am willing to follow him blindfolded.” Still, Lee struck some of his aides as rigid, inflexible, and, most of all, icy and aloof. But he also earned their admiration. “Ah!” one of his adjutants once rumbled, “but he is a queer old genius.” His men called him affectionately “Uncle Robert,” or “Marse Robert,” or “Granny Lee,” or “the King of Spades,” and for those who knew him well, “Bobby Lee.”
“Bobby Lee” never wrote his memoirs and rarely did he confide in others, even in his many letters; what mark he left of himself was largely on the battlefield. And as a military man, Lee was largely without peer. His genius, whether on offense or defense, was always the same, somehow turning adversity to his advantage. As the war ground on, Lee increasingly lacked troops, lacked resources, and lacked resourceful subordinates. But against enormous odds, he won great battles, halting McClellan’s threat to Richmond, routing Pope at Second Manassas, destroying Burnside at Fredericksburg, and pummeling Hooker at Chancellorsville. He was at once a consummate military realist, coolly gauging his odds before going into battle; at the same time, he took chances as did no one else, gambling, probably rightly, that the South had few other alternatives. This, of course, led him to such maddening, even suicidal, escapades as taking on an army twice his size and actually dividing his own forces and then dividing them again, before concentrating his columns, as he did at Chancellorsville. It was a stunning victory. Or using the mountains as cover while again halving his army and thoroughly baffling the enemy, as he did at Second Manassas, achieving another decisive victory. It also led to his boldest risk of all, his desire to fight one great and grand climatic battle on Northern soil, which produced the disappointment at Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, and culminated in an even greater disappointment, Gettysburg.
Was Lee a born warrior? It is certain that his faith in gallantry ran deep. It is not without significance that he reconstructed the family coat of arms and believed that the family was descended from the legendary Scottish hero Robert the Bruce. Nor is it without significance that at West Point, he assiduously studied the campaigns of Napoleon—in his spare time. And he was most certainly at home with the fanfare of war: the striking of the colors, the rhythmic beat of the drums, the peal of the bugles, the raising of arms, the fixing of bayonets, the turning of the flank. Lee loved war as a profession, accepting bloodshed and destruction with an alacrity that civilians, and even many generals, would find hard to fathom. But it is not clear that he loved war itself. What he cherished was duty. Listen to his words: “It is well that war is so terrible,” he once said, after not a defeat but a victory, “or we should grow too fond of it.” And: “What a cruel thing is war. To separate & destroy families and friends. To fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors & to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.” And: “My heart bled for the inhabitants … the women and children.” Not a Grant, and most certainly not a Sheridan, could have ever uttered those words, but they come naturally from Lee. Indeed, where a Grant or a Sherman or a Stonewall Jackson could leave a swath of destruction in his wake, without openly shedding a tear, Lee never lost sight of the fact that it was a multitude of fellow human beings who were being destroyed. He never became detached toward death, and he could openly weep at the loss of one of his own men, as he did when A. P. Hill died. Indeed, while he was not an overly philosophical man—being a fighter rather than a talker—he was often astonishingly reflective, even eloquent, after the death of one of his own: “[the] loss of our gallant men … causes me to weep tears of blood and wish I never heard the sound of a gun again.”
But one should never mistake this as a sign of vulnerability. As a soldier and a commander, Lee relentlessly went for the enemy’s jugular. In truth, his face never brightened more than at the prospect of military success. Where other Confederate generals may have felt urgency, or even panic, in the swirl of conflict and the prospect of defeat, Lee felt challenged. Where, after setbacks, other commanders would have sunk into gloom, Lee tightly fixed his jaw and resolved never to quit. Throughout the war, he was beset by physical problems: sore throats, heavy colds, coughs, fever, elevated pulse, chest pain, back pain, arm pain, angina pectoris, lumbago, sciatica, extreme diarrhea (confining him to a cot), two sprained hands and broken bones in one of them (leaving him unable to ride for a month), and, predictably, exhaustion; he was also afflicted by constant anxiety (“day and night”) and sorrow (“[it] is wearing me away”). But he never allowed any of it to slow him down or delay his campaigns. Always, he soldiered on.
With greater frequency, he insisted on riding out with his men, or leading them in a charge, flirting nearly each time with death. And as the war progressed, he increasingly salted his speech with the language of military offense, railed against not attacking (“We cannot be idle!”), and spoke fervently about “a battle of annihilation” that would erode Union morale, once and for all.
But as great a fighting man as Lee was, he had his flaws, with many of his virtues as a man becoming vices for a commander. As a general, he was not stern enough with his own men, unlike a Stonewall Jackson, who countenanced no deviation, or a U. S. Grant, whose orders were given as absolutes. Nor was he cruel enough. In contrast to a Sherman or a Sheridan, he refused to burn or plunder enemy property, or engage in selective assassination, declaring it “Unchristian” and “atrocious,” even though the South could have greatly benefited from such tactics. For all his strategic genius and killer instinct, Lee ultimately led not by fear or fiat, but example. Thus, he found it difficult to dismiss incompetent officers, or to settle disputes over authority, or to discipline men who fell out of line; equally, he shrank from confrontation with his own subordinates, guiding them less by outright command than by suggestion, which, of course, proved fatal at Gettysburg.
And he was never much of a hater. Like Lincoln, more often than not, he called the other side “those people,” rather than blindly labeling them “the enemy.” When his house on the Pamunky River was burned to the ground and, later, his mansion at Arlington gutted (even the priceless Washington relics were stolen), he never evinced any bitterness toward the Yankees, still alluding to many of his former friends and companions in “the kindest terms.” In 1865, when the grounds at Arlington were turned into a Union cemetery, perhaps the greatest insult of all, to him as well as to his family name, he issued not one word of protest, not one rebuke, not one bitter rejoinder.
Yet lying beneath all the reserve and dignity and nobility, Lee was a strikingly emotional man. He was fiery, fiercely competitive, at times impulsive, quietly ardent, and certainly passionate. But like his idol George Washington, he carefully controlled these emotions. Still, this passion was always there, just beneath the surface. You could see it in everything he did: in his subtle change of moods, the quick flashes of anger, the occasional hard stare of disapproval, and the sudden twinkle of his eye when pleased; you could see it in his little gestures of affection for his wife and his loved ones; and you could see it in the tears he openly shed at the loss of his comrades. But most of all, you could see it in his face once the battle began anew: Lee fought to win as no one else did. He sought victory until events wrenched it from him. Robert E. Lee, son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, child of Stratford, husband of Mary Custis, scion of the first family, and general in chief of the Confederate Armies, was not about to let destiny slip through his fingers.
U. S. Grant and the Union, of course, learned this the hard way, in 1864 at a place called the Wilderness. By far the six bloodiest weeks of the war, this campaign across a hundred-mile crescent was the crucial prelude to the Petersburg siege. And equally, it was the crucial backdrop to the Grant-Lee cat-and-mouse chase commencing in the first days of April 1865.
It was in the early spring of 1864 that Grant had worked out a coordinated plan for the simultaneous destruction of the Confederate army, massing as much force in as many locations as possible. Sherman would strike out for Chattanooga and make a drive for Atlanta, and, as Grant instructed George Gordon Meade, who was to lead the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, you will go also.” But this was typical understatement, for Grant himself would go there, too—to shadowbox, to fight, and, he hoped, to personally crush Robert E. Lee. He earnestly believed that the North could win the war in a matter of months—a month or two, to be exact.
As Grant assembled his hulk of a war machine over eight weeks, outfitted and armed it, and sent it thumping toward his foe, Lee lay in wait in the steaming green tangle of the Wilderness. There, Grant enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in troops, 115,000 contesting 64,000; but Lee knew the terrain. And if Grant wanted to force Lee into a showdown out in the open, Lee, too, was thinking offensively: his ally here would be the smoke-filled woods where he would seek to ensnare Grant, just as he had done to Hooker at the battle of Chancellorsville, fought some five miles from this very spot just a year before. It would be a defender’s dream—one in which he hoped to turn Grant’s drive into a welter of slaughter.
On May 5, the first hostilities began—along the same fords, the same somber gloom, the same swamp and swale that also told of the savagery of Chancellorsville. Here, shreds of flesh—it was human tissue—and shards of blackened bone now rose from half-finished graves; birds nested in hollow sockets of weathered skulls that bore silent witness to the previous year’s fighting; and horses dug uneasily at decayed legs and arms still swathed in remnants of enemy clothing. Even the low shrubs seemed rotten with bloodstains.
The Wilderness began as did so many other fateful battles—with a chance encounter. But within hours, this battle became something radically different. Under the dense cover of the woods, a savage fighting ruled: soldiers could rarely see the enemy through the twisted expanse of scrub oak and pines. They fired blindly into the smoke and murk, shooting at adversaries and allies alike. By noon, the combat had descended into sheer chaos. Commands separated and scattered. Mistakes went unexploited. And the geometry of conflict was maddening; opposing pockets of men, lost or confused or confounded, were tangled along all points of the compass—and soon the compass was the only instrument by which commanders could find their regiments. Darker than the blackest night, beneath the canopy of smoke and trees, without even stars to steer by, the Wilderness was now plunged into what one veteran described as the “battle of the invisibles with invisibles.” Explained another soldier, “It was a blind and bloody hunt to the death, in bewildering thickets, rather than a battle.” As the fighting raged throughout the afternoon, men crawled feverishly on their bellies, groping their way forward as bullets sliced through the air like a thousand small scythes. Then, suddenly, exploding rounds of shells set the underbrush on fire, and, soon, the crackle of flames intermingled with the wild screams of men and animals roasting alive.
But the Federals kept coming, attacking and attacking, in wave after wave, never surrendering the advantage and never once allowing Lee a chance to maneuver. The fighting seesawed back and forth. By nightfall, a tenuous stalemate reigned, and men lay exhausted, resting fitfully on their muskets, mindful that their closest neighbor—“a biscuit’s toss away”—might be the enemy. After 8 P.M., except for random, anxious gunfire and the moans of the near-dead and dying, it grew strangely quiet. But the lull was only momentary: the Federals had secured a crucial position for attacking Lee’s right. Now they meant to make something of it; before dawn came, Grant ordered the assault.
Lee, too, had planned a dawn assault, but Grant beat him to the punch. In darkness, the hard-fighting Yankees drove the rebels almost a mile through the woods, and then burst right through the Confederate center, converging on a small clearing where Lee had his headquarters. As the peril grew, a red-faced and agitated Lee spurred his horse forward into the confused mass, even as Federals advanced on him, only 200 yards away. In a sense, for Lee this was lunacy. A year before, he had lost his most valued general, Stonewall Jackson, to friendly fire, just three miles away in this same tangled vine and underbrush. This very morning, another of his most vaunted generals, James Longstreet, would be badly wounded by rebel guns, shot through the throat and shoulder by his own pickets. But as a swirl of smoke suddenly surrounded him, Lee was oblivious.
When the smoke cleared, Lee eyed a score of ragged soldiers dashing forward. They were Texans. ‘Attention Texas brigade,” the Confederate General John Gregg shouted, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you.” One of those Texans recalled, “Scarcely had we moved a step when General Lee in front of the whole command, raised himself in the stirrups, uncovered his gray hairs, and with an earnest voice exclaimed: ‘Texans, always move them. ‘“The four words filled the air like a bugle call. Glimpsing Lee, the men unleashed a wild cheer, and the Texans began to fight back stubbornly. “I would charge hell itself for that old man,” cried one soldier, tears coursing down his cheeks, before he plunged into battle.
And charge they did. Of the 673 Texans who went forward, only 223 survived. Moreover, to the horror of the men, Lee stubbornly seemed intent on charging with them. “Go back, General Lee, go back!” shouted the Texans as they swept toward the Yankees. Lee ignored them and continued forward, as minié balls and bullets began to rake the brigade.
“We won’t go on unless you go back!” they cried. Lee continued onward.
“Lee to the rear!” they shouted. “Lee to the rear!”
Finally, Lee did fall back, and the Confederates halted the Union advance. By day’s end, spurred on by Lee, the Confederates and not the Union had prevailed, smashing Grant’s right, seizing two generals and 600 prisoners, and coming close to cutting off the Union supply line. When night fell, the killing and dying continued. Brushfires raged through the Wilderness, consuming some 200 wounded men alive. It was like a scene from the depths of Dante: screams echoed through the forest, the wind screeched through the tops of flaming pines, and the gamy scent of charred flesh filled the air. One officer described that stretch of woods as an “unutterable horror.” But for Grant, it was more than that: he had lost an astonishing 17,500 men in these two days alone. Late that evening, as men roasted and writhed and died unseen, the Union general hunched his shoulders, crawled into this tent, threw himself facedown on his cot—and wept.
Other times, after being thrashed by Lee, previous Union commanders had invariably stuck their tail between their legs, withdrawn, and retreated. But not Grant, not even as panic spread through his own headquarters. “Whatever happens,” he assured Lincoln, “we will not retreat.” He didn’t; Grant kept coming.
In the ensuing days, the shadowboxing continued. At Spotsylvania, a dozen miles away, Lee’s men quickly constructed an elaborate network of trenches, breastworks, artillery emplacements, traverses, and abatis to entangle attackers—the strongest such fieldworks thus far. Grant was left with two options: flank the defenses, or blast through them. He tried both. Both failed. Yet Grant felt that a spot the men called “the Mule Shoe” could be penetrated with a larger force—splitting the weak seam of Lee’s army in two. “A brigade today,” Grant boomed confidently. “We’ll try a corps tomorrow.”
At dawn, after a chill, ill-tempered rain had fallen, Grant hurled a full 20,000 men forward across a mile-wide front. The screaming bluecoats swarmed though the mist and drizzle in a crowded elbow-to-elbow mass and successfully burst through the Confederate trenches. The rebels quickly fell back and the Union men occupied their log breastworks. For Lee, it looked like a debacle. And farther down along the rebel line, another crisis was brewing; here, the fighting turned vicious, producing some of the most frightful combat ever fought on American soil. Along a few hundred yards of muddy trenches, the men slugged it out for hours in the endless rain. In an often frenzied, hand-to-hand contest, skulls were smashed with clubbed muskets; soldiers were slashed by bayonets thrust between the breastwork logs; arms and faces were cut to pieces; and the wounded were entombed alive by slabs of newly dead bodies, sinking down upon them. Blue and gray fired muskets muzzle to muzzle, and, when there were no longer any weapons, they feebly struck at each other with little more than battle flags. Joined in a grisly ballet of death, they hurled their empty guns like spears, reached backward for freshly loaded weapons, and continued firing until gunned down or bayoneted themselves. As one man fell, like Medusa’s locks, another quickly sprang forward to take his place.