Chapter XXIX. At Bay
It would be impossible to imagine a more hopeless situation than that which had confronted Lee for many months. To guard the line of intrenchments stretching around Petersburg and Richmond for more than thirty-five miles, he had less than 30,000 effective men, and starvation and disease were daily thinning their impoverished ranks; the soldiers were resorting to the corn intended for the horses, and the cavalry were obliged to disperse through the country seeking fodder for their animals in the wasted fields; the defenders of the trenches, barefooted and in rags, lay exposed to the cold and wet, day and night; there were no medicines for the sick and no great supply of ammunition for the guns.
Perhaps no one but Lee fully realized to what desperate straits his army had been reduced. Certainly his opponents were ignorant of the real condition of affairs or they would have smashed his feeble defenses at a blow, and the fact that he held over a hundred thousand troops at bay for months with a skeleton army shows how skillfully he placed his men.
But though his brilliant career threatened to end in defeat and disaster, no thought of himself ever crossed Lee's mind. Regardless of his own comfort and convenience, he devoted himself day and night to relieving the suffering of his men, who jestingly called themselves "Lee's Miserables," but grimly stuck to their posts with unshaken faith in their beloved chief who, in the midst of confusion and helplessness, remained calm and resourceful, never displaying irritation, never blaming anyone for mistakes, but courageously attempting to make the best of everything and finding time, in spite of all distractions, for the courtesy and the thoughtfulness of a gentleman unafraid.
His letters to his wife and children during these perilous days reveal no anxiety save for the comfort of his men, and no haste except to provide for their wants. At home his wife - confined to an invalid's chair - was busily knitting socks for the soldiers, and to her he wrote in the face of impending disaster:
..."After sending my note this morning I received from the express office a bag of socks. You will have to send down your offerings as soon as you can, and bring your work to a close, for I think General Grant will move against us soon - within a week if nothing prevents - and no man can tell what will be the result; but trusting to a merciful God, who does not always give the battle to the strong, I pray we may not be overwhelmed. I shall, however, endeavor to do my duty and fight to the last. Should it be necessary to abandon our position to prevent being surrounded, what will you do? You must consider the question and make up your mind. It is a fearful condition and we must rely for guidance and protection upon a kind Providence...."
Shortly after this letter was written Lee made a desperate effort to force his adversary to loosen his grip but though the exhausted and starved troops attacked with splendid courage, they could not pierce the solid walls of infantry and fell back with heavy losses. Then Sheridan, who had been steadily closing in from the Shenandoah, swung 10,000 sabres into position and the fate of Petersburg was practically sealed. But, face to face with this calamity, Lee calmly wrote his wife:
"I have received your note with a bag of socks. I return the bag and receipt. I have put in the bag General Scott's autobiography which I thought you might like to read. The General, of course, stands out prominently and does not hide his light under a bushel, but he appears the bold, sagacious, truthful man that he is. I enclose a note from little Agnes. I shall be very glad to see her to-morrow but cannot recommend pleasure trips now...."
At every point Grant was tightening his hold upon the imprisoned garrison and difficulties were crowding fast upon their commander, but he exhibited neither excitement nor alarm. Bending all his energies upon preparations for a retreat, he carefully considered the best plan for moving his troops and supplying their needs on the march, quietly giving his orders to meet emergencies, but allowing no one to see even a shadow of despair on his face. Concerning the gravity of the situation he neither deceived himself nor attempted to deceive others who were entitled to know it, and with absolute accuracy he prophesied the movements of his adversary long before they were made.
..."You may expect Sheridan to move up the Valley," he wrote the Confederate Secretary of War.... "Grant, I think, is now preparing to draw out by his left with the intent of enveloping me. He may wait till his other columns approach nearer, or he may be preparing to anticipate my withdrawal. I cannot tell yet.... Everything of value should be removed from Richmond. It is of the first importance to save all the powder. The cavalry and artillery of the army are still scattered for want of provender and our supply and ammunition trains, which ought to be with the army in case of a sudden movement, are absent collecting provisions and forage. You will see to what straits we are reduced; but I trust to work out."