Chapter XXVI. A Duel to the Death

For nearly two months after Grant assumed command no important move was attempted by either the Union or the Confederate forces except in Mississippi. Both sides realized that a desperate struggle was impending and each needed all the time it could gain to prepare for the coming fray. Heavy reenforcements were hurried to Grant, until the Army of the Potomac under his immediate command included over 120,000 men; a hundred thousand more were assembled at Chattanooga in charge of Sherman; and two other forces of considerable size were formed to cooperate with Grant - one being entrusted to General Benjamin Butler and the other to General Franz Sigel.

To oppose this vast army Lee had less than 65,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia and the only other formidable Confederate force in the field was that commanded by General Joseph Johnston, who, with some 53,000 men, was stationed in Georgia guarding the cotton states and the far South. If these two armies could be captured or destroyed, all organized resistance to the Union would be at an end, and Grant, accordingly, determined to throw his entire weight upon them, sending Sherman against Johnston, Butler against the City of Richmond and Sigel against the rich Shenandoah Valley which supplied the Confederate armies with food, while he himself attacked Lee with an overwhelming force.

Never before had a Union general undertaken a campaign covering such a vast extent of country and never before had such a united effort been made to exhaust the armies and the resources of the South. With his own forces threatened by superior numbers Lee would not be able to reenforce Johnston with safety and, confronted by Sherman, Johnston would find it impossible to send assistance to Lee. This promised to bring the war to a speedy close, and the supporters of the Union redoubled their praises of the Lieutenant-General as they began to understand his plan. Indeed, the more he avoided publicity and applause and the more indifference he showed for popular opinion, the more the newspapers and the general public fawned upon him, and when, on May 3, 1864, he ordered his armies to advance, the whole North was fairly aflame with enthusiasm.

It was certainly a momentous occasion. Three years earlier Grant had been utterly unknown to the country at large and the small group who acknowledged his acquaintance had regarded him as a rather pitiful failure, while the Government to whom he had offered his services had ignored him altogether. Now, at his nod, hundreds of thousands of men instantly sprang to arms and the most powerful armies that America had ever seen moved forward in obedience to his will, Sherman marching southward, Butler creeping toward Richmond, Sigel advancing into the fertile Shenandoah Valley, and the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan River to renew its struggle with Lee.

Lee had watched the elaborate preparations of his new antagonist with keen interest and no little apprehension, for Grant's record as a fighting man promised a duel to the death and the South had no more men.

The situation was certainly serious but, anxious as he was, the Confederate commander did not by any means despair. He was familiar with every inch of the country through which Grant would have to advance and the chances were that this would, sooner or later, give him not only the advantage of position, but possibly the choice of weapons. With this idea he allowed the Union forces to cross the Rapidan unopposed, hoping that he would soon be able to drive them back and that the river would then be as valuable as cavalry in hampering their retreat. Just beyond the Rapidan lay the dense thickets and waste lands of scrub oak and undergrowth known as the Wilderness, which had witnessed the Chancellorsville surprise and virtually sealed the fate of Hooker's army. If the Union forces advanced directly through this jungle, there was more than a possibility that they might outflank their opponents and gain the road to Richmond, but Lee scarcely dared hope that his adversary would attempt so dangerous a route. Nevertheless, he maneuvered to leave the trap undisturbed, and when he saw the Union columns entering the forests he felt that they were actually being delivered into his hands. Once in those tangled thickets he knew that Grant's artillery and cavalry would be practically useless and without them his superiority in numbers disappeared. Of course, it would be impossible to conduct a scientific battle in such a region, for it would virtually be fighting in the dark, but knowing that his men were thoroughly familiar with the ground, Lee determined to hurl them upon the advancing bluecoats, trusting to the gloom and the terrors of the unknown to create confusion and panic in their ranks.

But the men whom Grant commanded were no longer the inexperienced volunteers who had been stampeded at Bull Run. They were veterans of many campaigns and, though they staggered for a moment under the shock of battle, they speedily rallied and fought with stubborn courage. The conflict that followed was one of the most brutal recorded in the annals of modern war. Whole regiments sprang at each other's throats, the men fighting each other like animals; trees were cut down by the bullets which tore through them from every direction; bursting shells set fire to the woods, suffocating the wounded or burning them to death; wild charges were made, ending in wilder stampedes or bloody repulses; the crackle of flames rose high above the pandemonium of battle and dense smoke-clouds drifted chokingly above this hideous carnival of death. Thus for two days the armies staggered backward and forward with no result save a horrible loss of life. Once the Union forces almost succeeded in gaining a position which would have disposed of their adversaries, but Lee saw the danger just in the nick of time and, rushing a Texas brigade to the rescue, led the charge in person until his troops recognized him and forced him to retire.

It was May 7, 1864, when this blind slaughter known as the Battle of the Wilderness ceased, but by that time nearly 18,000 Union soldiers and 12,000 Confederates lay upon the field. Lee could not claim a victory but he still held his ground and he felt confident that Grant would fall back behind the Rapidan River to recuperate his shattered forces. No Union commander, thus far, had tarried long on Virginian soil after such a baptism of blood, and when the news that Grant's columns were retreating reached the Confederate commander he breathed a sigh of thanksgiving and relief.

To the veterans who had served under McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker, retreats were a wretchedly familiar experience, but they had not been long on the road before they realized that they were not retreating but were marching southward. As the truth of this dawned upon the disheartened columns they burst into frantic cheers for Grant and pressed forward with springy steps, shouting and singing for joy.

A less able commander would have been fatally misled by Grant's apparent retreat, but Lee knew that he might again attempt to swing around his right flank and edge toward Richmond by way of Spotsylvania, and to guard against this a body of troops had been ordered to block that road. Therefore, by the time Grant began his great turning movement, Lee was planted squarely across his path and another series of battles followed. Here the Union commander was able to make some use of his cavalry and artillery, but the Confederates offset this by fighting behind intrenchments and they repulsed charge after charge with fearful slaughter. Again, as at the Battle of the Wilderness, the gray line was pierced, this time at a point known as the "Bloody Angle" or "Hell's Half Acre," and twice Lee sprang forward to lead a desperate charge to recover the lost ground. But each time the troops refused to advance until their beloved leader retired to a point of safety, and when he yielded they whirled forward, sweeping everything before them.

These charges saved the battle of Spotsylvania for the Confederates. But though Lee had again blocked his opponent, the fact that he had thrice had to rally his troops at the peril of his life showed that he had been harder pressed than in any of his other Virginia campaigns. Nevertheless, when the last furious attack had been repulsed and Grant began moving sullenly away, it seemed as though he had at last been compelled to abandon the campaign. But the wearied Confederates had yet to learn that their terrible opponent was a man who did not know when he was beaten, for in spite of his awful losses he had written his government May 11, 1864, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," and his army, instead of retreating, continued to move southward, crossing the North Anna River and circling once more toward the left flank.

Again Grant was on the road to Richmond, but in crossing the North Anna River he left an opening between the two wings of his army and before he could close it Lee threw his whole force into the breach and, completely cutting off one part of the Union army from the other, held both firmly in check. This masterly move might have brought Grant's campaign to a disastrous end, but just as he was planning to take full advantage of it, Lee fell ill and during his absence from the field Grant made his first backward move, recrossing the North Anna River and, bringing the two wings of his army together, rescued it from its perilous position.

The moment he reached a point of safety, however, the persistent commander recommenced his march by the left flank, sidling once more toward Richmond until he reached Cold Harbor, only eight miles from the Confederate capital. Here Lee once more interposed his battered forces, strongly intrenching them in a position that fairly defied attack. With any other adversary against him he would have concluded that the game was won, for by all the rules of war the Union army was completely balked and could not avoid a retreat. But Grant was a man of a different caliber from any he had encountered heretofore. In spite of checks and disasters and unheard-of slaughter he had pushed inexorably forward; foiled in front he had merely turned aside to hew another bloody path. To him defeat only seemed to mean delay, and apparently he could not be shaken from his dogged purpose, no matter what the cost. At Cold Harbor, however, the Confederate position was so strong that to assault it was madness, and Lee could not believe that even his grim opponent would resort to such a suicidal attempt. But retreat or attack offered no choice to Grant's mind, and on June 2, 1864, the troops were fiercely hurled against the Confederate works, only to be repulsed with fearful slaughter. A few hours later orders were issued to renew the assault, and then postponed for a day.

That delay gave the soldiers an opportunity to understand the desperate nature of the work that lay before them and, realizing that charging against murderous batteries and trenches meant rushing into the jaws of death, they offered a silent protest. Not a man refused to obey orders, not one fell from his place in the line, but to their coats they sewed strips of cloth bearing their names and addresses so that their bodies might be identified upon the field.

This dramatic spectacle might well have warned their commander of the hopelessness of his attempt, but fixed in his resolve to thrust his opponent from his path, he gave the fatal order to charge, and twenty minutes later 3,000 of his best troops fell before the smoking trenches and the balance reeled back aghast at the useless sacrifice. This horrifying slaughter, which Grant himself confessed was a grievous blunder, brought the first stage of his campaign to a close. In but little over a month he had lost nearly 55,000 men - almost as many as Lee had had in his entire army, and almost in sight of the spires of Richmond his adversary held him securely at arm's length.

A wave of horror, indignation and disappointment, swept over the North. Another campaign had proved a failure. There were, however, two men who did not agree with this conclusion. One was Grant, pouring over the maps showing the movements of all his armies. The other was Lee, looking in vain for reenforcements to fill the gaps in his fast thinning lines.