Chapter XXIII. In the Face of Disaster
As the survivors of Pickett's heroic legion came streaming back toward the Confederate lines Lee stood face to face with defeat for the first time in his career. His long series of victories had not spoiled him and the hour of triumph had always found him calm and thankful, rather than elated and arrogant. But many a modest and generous winner has proved himself a poor loser. It is the moment of adversity that tries men's souls and revels the greatness or smallness of character, and subjected to this test more than one commander in the war had been found wanting. McClellan, staggering from his campaign against Richmond, blamed almost everyone but himself for the result; Pope, scurrying toward the fortifications of Washington, was as ready with excuses as he had been with boasts; Burnside, reeling from the slaughter-pen of Fredericksburg, had demanded the dismissal of his principal officers, and Hooker hurled accusations right and left in explaining the Chancellorsville surprise.
But Lee resorted neither to accusation nor excuse for the battle of Gettysburg. With the tide of disaster sweeping relentlessly down upon him, he hastened to assume entire responsibility for the result. "It is all my fault," he exclaimed, as the exhausted and shattered troops were seeking shelter from the iron hail, and then as calmly and firmly as though no peril threatened, he strove to rally the disorganized fugitives and present a bold front to the foe. It was no easy task, even with a veteran army, to prevent a panic and restore order and confidence in the midst of the uproar and confusion of defeat, but the quiet dignity and perfect control of their commander steadied the men, and at sight of him even the wounded raised themselves from the ground and cheered.
"All this will come right in the end," he assured the wavering troops, as he passed among them. "We'll talk it over afterwards, but in the meantime all good men must rally."
Not a sign of excitement or alarm was to be detected in his face, as he issued his orders and moved along the lines. "All this has been my fault," he repeated soothingly to a discouraged officer. "It is I that have lost this fight and you must help me out of it the best way you can.... Don't whip your horse, Captain," he quietly remarked, as he noted another officer belaboring his mount for shying at an exploding shell.... "I've got just another foolish horse myself, and whipping does no good."
Nothing escaped his watchful eyes, nothing irritated him, and nothing provoked him to hasty words or actions. Completely master of himself, he rose superior to the whirling storm about him and, commanding order out of chaos, held his shattered army under such perfect control that had Meade rushed forward in pursuit he might have met with a decisive check.
But Meade did not attempt to leave his intrenchments and the Confederate army slowly and defiantly moved toward the South. The situation was perilous - desperately perilous for Lee. His troops were in no condition to fight after battling for three days, their ammunition was almost exhausted, their food supply was low and they were retreating through a hostile country with a victorious army behind them and a broad river in their path. But not a man in the gray ranks detected even a shadow of anxiety on his commander's face, and when the Potomac was reached and it was discovered that the river was impassable owing to an unexpected flood, the army faced about and awaited attack with sublime confidence in the powers of its chief.
Meanwhile Meade, who had been cautiously following his adversary, began to receive telegrams and dispatches urging him to throw himself upon the Confederates before they could recross the Potomac and thus end the war. But this, in the opinion of the Union commander, was easier said than done, and he continued to advance with the utmost deliberation while Lee, momentarily expecting attack, ferried his sick and wounded across the river and prepared for a desperate resistance. Absolute ruin now stared him in the face, for no reenforcements of any kind could reach him and a severe engagement would soon place him completely at his opponent's mercy. Nevertheless, he presented a front so menacing and unafraid that when Meade called his officers to a council of war all but two voted against risking an attack.
In the meantime the river began to fall, and without the loss of a moment Lee commenced building a bridge across which his troops started to safety on the night of July 13th, ten days after the battle. Even then the situation was perilous in the extreme, for had Meade discovered the movement in time he could undoubtedly have destroyed a large part of the retreating forces, but when he appeared on the scene practically the whole army was on the other side of the river and only a few stragglers fell into his hands.
Great as Lee's success had been he never appeared to better advantage than during this masterly retreat, when, surrounded by difficulties and confronted by overwhelming numbers, he held his army together and led it to safety. Through the dust of defeat he loomed up greater as a man and greater as a soldier than at any other moment of his career.
Even the decisive victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg failed to offset President Lincoln's bitter disappointment at Lee's miraculous escape, and had it not been for his success on the field of battle, Meade would undoubtedly have been removed from the chief command. As it was, however, he retained his position and for months he lay comparatively idle, watching his opponent who busied himself with filling the broken ranks of his army for a renewal of the struggle.