Chapter XXVII. Check and Countercheck

The six-weeks' campaign in Virginia had been quite sufficient to check all enthusiasm for Grant, but the fact that he was no longer a popular hero did not trouble him at all. Indeed, he displayed the same indifference to the storm of angry criticism that he had shown for the salvos of applause. He had made no claims or boasts before he took the field and he returned no answers to the accusations and complaints after his apparent failures. Had he posed before the public as a hero or been tempted to prophesy a speedy triumph for his army, the humiliation and disappointment might have driven him to resign from the command. But he had recognized the difficulty of his task from the outset, modestly accepting it with no promise save that he would do his best, and he silently resolved to pursue the campaign he had originally mapped out in spite of all reverses.

Certainly, he required all his calmness and steadfastness to overcome his discouragement and disgust at the manner in which the cooperating armies had been handled. In the Shenandoah Valley Sigel had proved utterly incompetent and the Confederates, instead of having been driven from that important storehouse, had tightened their hold upon it. Moreover, Butler, who was supposed to threaten Richmond while Grant fought Lee, had made a sorry mess of that part of the program. In fact he had maneuvered in such a ridiculous fashion that he and about 35,000 troops were soon cooped up by a far smaller force of Confederates who held them as a cork holds the contents of a bottle; and last, but not least, the Army of Potomac lay badly mutilated before the impassable intrenchments of Lee.

In one particular, however, Grant's expectations bade fair to be realized, for Sherman was steadily pushing his way through Georgia, driving Johnston before him, and inflicting terrible damage upon the country through which he passed. As Grant watched this triumphant advance he silently resolved upon another move. The north or front door of Richmond was closed and firmly barred. There was nothing to be gained by further battering at that portal. But the southern or rear door had not yet been thoroughly tried and upon that he concluded to make a determined assault. To do this it would be necessary to renew his movement around his opponent's right flank by crossing the formidable James River - a difficult feat at any time, but double difficult at that moment, owing to the fact that Butler's "bottled" force might be crushed by a Confederate attack while the hazardous passage of the river was being effected. Nevertheless, he decided to risk this bold stroke, and during the night of June 12, 1864, about ten days after the repulse at Cold Harbor, the great movement was begun.

Meanwhile Lee, confident that he had completely checked his opponent, but disappointed that he had not forced him to retreat, determined to drive him away by carrying the war into the North and threatening the Federal capital. That he should have been able to attempt this in the midst of a campaign deliberately planned to destroy him, affords some of the indication of the brilliant generalship he had displayed. But it does not fully reflect his masterful daring. At the outset of the campaign the Union forces had outnumbered him two to one and its losses had been offset by reenforcements, while every man that had fallen in the Confederate ranks had left an empty space. It is highly probable, therefore, that at the moment he resolved to turn the tables on his adversary and transform the campaign against Richmond into a campaign against Washington, he had not much more than one man to his opponent's three. Nevertheless, in the face of these overwhelming numbers, he maintained a bold front towards Grant and detached General Jubal Early with 20,000 men to the Shenandoah Valley, with orders to clear that region of Union troops, cross the Potomac River and then march straight on Washington.

It was at this moment that Grant began creeping cautiously away toward the rear door of Richmond. To keep a vigilant enemy in entire ignorance of such a tremendous move was, of course, impossible, but the system and discipline which he had instilled into his army almost accomplished the feat. Indeed, so rapidly and silently did the troops move, so perfect were the arrangements for transporting their baggage and supplies, so completely were the details of the whole undertaking ordered and systematized, that over a hundred thousand men, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with their horses, hospital and wagon trains, and all the paraphernalia of a vast army virtually faded away, and when Lee gazed from his intrenchments on June 13, 1864, there was no sign of his opponent and he did not discover where he had gone for fully four days.

In the meantime, Grant had thrown his entire army across the James River and was advancing, horse and foot, on Petersburg, the key to the approach to Richmond from the south, and Butler, whose troops had been extricated from their difficulties, was ordered to seize it. Petersburg was at that moment wholly unprepared to resist a strong attack. Indeed, there were only a handful of men guarding the fortification, the capture of which would case the fall of Richmond, but Butler was not the man to take advantage of this great opportunity. On the contrary, he delayed his advance and otherwise displayed such wretched judgment that the Confederates had time to rush reenforcements to the rescue, and when Grant arrived on the scene the intrenchments were strongly occupied. Notwithstanding this the Union commander ordered a vigorous assault, and for three days the troops were hurled against the breastworks without result. The last attack was made on June 18, 1864, but by this time 10,000 Union soldiers had been sacrificed and Lee had arrived in person with strong support. Grant accordingly, abandoning his efforts to carry the place by storm, began to close in upon it for a grimly sullen siege.

Meanwhile, General Early, to whom Lee had entrusted his counter-move, was sweeping away the Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley with resistless fury, and suddenly, to the intense surprise and mortification of the whole North, advanced upon Washington, threatening it with capture. Washington was almost as completely unprepared for resistance as Petersburg had been, its defenses being manned by only a small force mainly composed of raw recruits and invalid soldiers, while outside the city there was but one body of troops near enough to oppose the Confederate advance. That little army, however, was commanded by General Lew Wallace, later the famous author of "Ben Hur," and he had the intelligence to see that he might at least delay Early by offering battle and that gaining time might prove as valuable as gaining a victory. Accordingly, he threw himself across the Confederate's path and, though roughly handled and at last driven from the field, he hung on long enough to accomplish his purpose and although his adversary attempted to make up for lost time by rapid marching he did not succeed. This undoubtedly saved Washington from capture, for shortly after Early appeared on the 7th Street Road leading to the capital, the reenforcements which Grant had rushed forward reached the city, and before any attack on the intrenchments was attempted they were fully defended and practically unassailable. Seeing this, Early retreated with the Union troops following in half-hearted pursuit.

It was the 12th of July, 1864, when, with a sigh of intense relief, Washington saw the backs of the retreating Confederates, but its satisfaction at its escape was mingled with indignation against Grant for having left it open to attack. Indeed, he was regarded by many people as the greatest failure of all the Union commanders, for he had lost more men in sixty days than McClellan had lost in all his campaigns without getting any nearer to Richmond, and by the end of July another lamentable failure was recorded against him.

In the intrenchments facing Petersburg lay the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers, largely composed of miners from the coal regions of that state. Late in June Colonel Pleasants of this regiment had submitted a plan whereby his men were to dig a tunnel to a point directly under one of the Confederate forts, plant a gunpowder mine there and blow a breach in the defenses through which troops could be poured and the town carried by assault. The scheme was plausible, provided the tunnel could be bored and Grant gave his consent, with the result that within a month an underground passage over 500 feet long was completed, a mine was planted with four tons of powder and elaborate preparations made for storming the Confederate works. Grant's orders were that all obstructions in front of the Union lines should be removed to enable the troops to charge the moment the explosion occurred, and that they should be rushed forward without delay until they were all within the Confederate lines. Accordingly, in the dead of night on July 29th, the assaulting columns were moved into position and when everything was in apparent readiness the signal was given to explode the mine. But though the match was applied no explosion occurred, and in the awful hush that followed Lieut. Jacob Douty and Sergeant Henry Rees volunteered to crawl into the tunnel and see what was wrong. To enter the passage at that moment was almost defying death, but the two men took their lives in their hands and, creeping in, discovered that the fuse had smoldered and gone out. They then relit it and made their escape just as a fearful explosion rent the air and great masses of earth, stones and timbers, intermingled with human bodies, leaped toward the sky.

For a moment the waiting troops watched this terrifying spectacle and then, as the cloud of wreckage apparently swerved toward them threatening to descend and bury them beneath it, they fell back in great confusion and some time elapsed before order was restored and the charge begun. But Grant's orders to clear their path had not been obeyed, and the charging troops had to climb over their own breastworks, causing more delay and confusion. Finally, however, the leading brigades reached the great excavation torn by the mine, and there they halted awaiting further orders. But no orders came, for their terror-stricken commander had sought safety in a bomb-proof and when his hiding place was discovered the miserable cur merely mumbled something about "moving forward" and remained cowering in his refuge. Meanwhile, other regiments rushed forward, tumbling in upon one another, until the chasm was choked with men upon whom the Confederates began to pour shot, shell and canister. From that moment everything was lost and at last orders came from Grant to rescue the struggling mass of men from the awful death trap into which they had been plunged, but despite all exertions fully 4,000 were killed, wounded or captured.

Again his subordinates had blundered terribly but Grant accepted the responsibility and assumed the blame, waiting patiently for the hour, then near at hand, when he would find commanders he could trust to carry out his plans.