The Campaigns of Gen. Robert E. Lee
An Address by Lieut. General Jubal A. Early, before Washington and Lee University, January 19th, 1872.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: MY FRIENDS, COMRADES AND COUNTRYMEN:
Though conscious of my inability to discharge, in a suitable manner, the duty assigned me on this occasion, yet, when asked to unite in rendering homage to the memory of the great Confederate Captain, I did not feel at liberty to decline the call. I have realized, however, most fully and sensibly, the difficulties of the position I occupy. All the powers and charms of eloquence and poetry, combined, have been called into requisition, to commemorate the deeds and virtues of him whose birth-day we celebrate. They are not at my command, and the highest eulogy which I am capable of pronouncing upon the character of our illustrious Chief, must consist of a simple delineation of his achievements, couched in the plain, unadorned language of a soldier, who bore an humble part in the many events which marked the career to which your attention will be called.
I must, therefore, throw myself upon your kind indulgence, and bespeak your patience, while I attempt to give a sketch of those grand achievements which have placed the name of Robert E. Lee among the foremost of the renowned historic names of the world. I do not propose, my friends, to speak of his youth, his early manhood, or his career prior to our late struggle for liberty and independence. These have been, and will continue to be, far better portrayed by others, and I will 37 content myself with the remark that, together, they constituted a worthy prelude to the exhibition, on a larger theatre, of those wonderful talents and sublime virtues, which have gained for him the admiration and esteem of the good and true of all the civilized world.
Most men seem to have a just appreciation of the domestic virtues, the moral worth, the unselfish patriotism and Christian purity of General Lee’s character; but it has occurred to me that very few, comparatively, have formed a really correct estimate of his marvellous ability and boldness as a military commander, however exalted is the merit generally awarded him in that respect. I will, therefore, direct my remarks chiefly to his military career in our late war, though I am unable to do full justice to the subject. I can, however, contribute my mite; and it may, perhaps, not detract from the interest of what I have to say, when you know that I was a witness of much of which I will speak.
I must, necessarily, go over much of the same ground that has been already explored by others, and repeat something of what I have already said in an address before the "Survivors’ Association of South Carolina," and in some published articles. I will, also, have to give you some details and statistics, to show what was really accomplished by our army under the lead and through the inspiration of its great Commander. Flowers and figures of rhetoric may captivate the imagination, but material facts and figures only can convince the judgment, and the latter I will endeavor to render as little tiresome as possible.
After General Jackson’s death, the army was divided into three corps of three divisions each, instead of two corps of four divisions each, the ninth division being formed by taking two brigades from the division of A. P. Hill and uniting them with two others which were brought from the South. These two brigades constituted all the reinforcements to our army, after the battle of Chancellorsville, and previous to the campaign into Pennsylvania. Longstreet’s two absent divisions were now brought back and moved up towards Culpeper C. H., and General Lee entered on a campaign of even greater boldness than that of the previous year.
While Hooker’s army yet occupied the Stafford heights, our army was put in motion for Pennsylvania, on the 4th of June, Hill’s corps being left for a while to watch Hooker. This movement was undertaken because the interposition of the Rappahannock, between the two armies, presented an insurmountable obstacle to offensive operations on our part, against the enemy in the position he then occupied, and General Lee was determined not to stand on the defensive, and give the enemy time to mature his plans and accumulate a larger army for another attack on him.
The enemy was utterly bewildered by this new movement, and while he was endeavoring to find out what it meant, the advance of our army, Ewell’s corps, composed of three of Jackson’s old divisions, entered the Valley and captured, at Winchester and Martinsburg, about four thousand prisoners, twenty-nine pieces of artillery, about four thousand stand of small arms, a large wagon train, and many stores. It then crossed the Potomac, and two divisions went to Carlisle, while another went to the banks of the Susquehanna, through York. The two other corps soon followed, and this movement brought the whole of Hooker’s army across the Potomac in pursuit. The two armies concentrated, and encountered each other at Gettysburg, east of the South Mountain, in a battle extending through three days, from the 1st to the 3d of July, inclusive. On the first day, a portion of our army, composed of two divisions of Hill’s corps, and two divisions of Ewell’s corps, gained a very decided victory over two of the enemy’s corps, which latter were driven back, in great confusion, through Gettysburg, to the Heights, immediately South and East of the town, known as Cemetery Hill. On the second and third days, we assaulted the enemy’s position at different points, but failed to dislodge his army, now under Meade, from its very strong position on Cemetery and the adjacent hills. Both sides suffered very heavy losses, that of the enemy exceeding ours.
Our ammunition had drawn short, and we were beyond the reach of any supplies of that kind. General Lee therefore desisted from his efforts to carry the position, and, after straightening his line, he confronted Meade for a whole day, without the latter’s daring to move from his position, and then retired towards the Potomac, for the purpose of being within reach of supplies. We halted near Hagerstown, Maryland, and when Meade, who had followed us very cautiously, arrived, battle was offered him, but he went to fortifying in our front. We confronted him for several days, but as he did not venture to attack us, and heavy rains had set in, we retired across the Potomac to avoid having an impassable river in our rear.
The campaign into Pennsylvania, and the battle of Gettysburg, have been much criticized, and but little understood. The magnanimity of General Lee caused him to withhold from the public the true causes of the failure to gain a decisive victory at Gettysburg. Many writers have racked their brains to account for that failure. Some have attributed it to the fact that the advantage gained on the first day was not pressed immediately; and among them is a Northern historian of the war, (Swinton,) who says: "Ewell was even advancing a line against Culp’s Hill when Lee reached the field and stayed the movement." There is no foundation for this statement. When General Lee, after the engagement, reached the part of the field where Ewell’s command had fought, it was near dark, and no forward movement was in progress or contemplated. Two fresh corps of the enemy, Slocum’s and Sickels’, had arrived at 5 o’clock, at least two hours before General Lee came to us after the engagement. There was a time, as we know now, immediately after the enemy was driven back, when, if we had advanced vigorously, the heights of Gettysburg would probably have been taken, but that was not then apparent. I was in favor of the advance, but I think it doubtful whether it would have resulted in any greater advantage than to throw back the two routed corps on the main body of their army, and cause the great battle to be fought on other ground. Meade had already selected another position, on Pipe Clay creek, where he would have concentrated his army, and we would have been compelled to give him battle or retire. Moreover, it is not impossible that the arrival of the two fresh corps may have turned the fate of the day against the troops we then had on the field, had we pressed our advantage. General Lee had ordered the concentration of his army at Cashtown, and the battle of this day, brought on by the advance of the enemy’s cavalry, was unexpected to him. When he ascertained the advantage that had been gained, he determined to press it as soon as the remainder of his army arrived.
In a conference with General Ewell, General Rhodes and myself, when he did reach us, after the enemy had been routed, he expressed his determination to assault the enemy’s position at daylight on the next morning, and wished to know whether we could make the attack from our flank – the left – at the designated time. We informed him of the fact that the ground immediately in our front, leading to the enemy’s position, furnished much greater obstacles to a successful assault than existed at any other point, and we concurred in suggesting to him that, as our corps (Ewell’s) constituted the only troops then immediately confronting the enemy, he would manifestly concentrate and fortify against us, during the night, as proved to be the case, according to subsequent information. He then determined to make the attack from our right on the enemy’s left, and left us for the purpose of ordering up Longstreet’s corps in time to begin the attack at dawn next morning. That corps was not in readiness to make the attack until four o’clock in the afternoon of the next day. By that time, Meade’s whole army had arrived on the field and taken its position. Had the attack been made at daylight, as contemplated, it must have resulted in a brilliant and decisive victory, as all of Meade’s army had not then arrived, and a very small portion of it was in position. A considerable portion of his army did not get up until after sun-rise, one corps not arriving until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and a prompt advance to the attack must have resulted in his defeat in detail.
The position which Longstreet attacked at four, was not occupied by the enemy until late in the afternoon, and Round Top Hill, which commanded the enemy’s position, could have been taken in the morning without a struggle. The attack was made by two divisions, and though the usual gallantry was displayed by the troops engaged in it, no very material advantage was gained. When General Lee saw his plans thwarted by the delay on our right, he ordered an attack to be made also from our left, to be begun by Johnson’s division on Culp’s Hill, and followed up by the rest of Ewell’s corps, and also by Hill’s. This attack was begun with great vigor by Johnson, and two of my brigades, immediately on his right, which were the only portion of the division then available, as the other two brigades had been sent off to the left to watch the York road, moved forward promptly, climbed the heights on the left of Gettysburg, over stone and plank fences, reached the summit of Cemetery Hill, and got possession of the enemy’s works and his batteries there posted. One of my other brigades had been sent for, and got back in time to be ready to act as a support to those in front: but though Johnson was making good progress in his attack, there was no movement on my right, and the enemy, not being pressed in that direction, concentrated on my two brigades in such overwhelming force as to render it necessary for them to retire. Thus, after having victory in their grasp, they were compelled to relinquish it, because General Lee’s orders had again failed to be carried out; but one of those brigades brought off four captured battle flags from the top of Cemetery Hill. This affair occurred just a little before dark.
On the next day, when the assault was made by Picket’s division in such gallant style, there was again a miscarriage, in not properly supporting it according to the plan and orders of the commanding General. You must recollect that a commanding General cannot do the actual marching and fighting of his army. These must, necessarily be entrusted to his subordinates, and any hesitation, delay or miscarriage in the execution of his orders, may defeat the best devised schemes. Contending against such odds as we did, it was necessary, always, that there should be the utmost dispatch, energy and undoubting confidence in carrying out the plans of the commanding General. A subordinate who undertakes to doubt the wisdom of his superior’s plans, and enters upon their execution with reluctance and distrust, will not be likely to ensure success. It was General Jackson’s unhesitating confidence and faith in the chances of success, that caused it so often to perch on his banners, and made him such an invaluable executor of General Lee’s plans. If Mr. Swinton has told the truth, in repeating in his book what is alleged to have been said to him by General Longstreet, there was at least one of General Lee’s corps commanders at Gettysburg who did not enter upon the execution of his plans with that confidence and faith necessary to success, and hence, perhaps, it was that it was not achieved. Some have thought that General Lee did wrong in fighting at Gettysburg, and it has been said that he ought to have moved around Meade’s left, so as to get between him and Washington. It is a very easy matter to criticize and prophecy after events happen; but it would have been manifestly a most dangerous movement for him to have undertaken to pass Meade by the flank with all his trains.
In passing through the narrow space between Gettysburg and the South Mountain, we would have been exposed to an attack under very disadvantageous circumstances. I then thought, and still think, that it was right to fight the battle of Gettysburg, and I am firmly convinced that if General Lee’s plans had been carried out in the spirit in which they were conceived, a decisive victory would have been obtained, which perhaps would have been secured our independence. Our army was never in better heart, and when it did retire, it was with no sense of defeat. My division brought up the rear of the army, and it did not leave the sight of the enemy’s position until the afternoon of the 5th. One of Meade’s corps followed us most cautiously, at a respectable distance, and when, at Fairfield, near the foot of the Mountain, I formed line of battle to await it, no advance was made. There was none of the indications of defeat in the rear of the army on the march, and when we took position near Hagerstown to await Meade’s attack, it was with entire confidence in our ability to meet it with success.
Meade’s army at Gettysburg numbered at least one hundred thousand men in position. The whole force in the department of Northern Virginia, at the close of May, four days before our movement North began, was sixty-eight thousand three hundred and fifty-two. No reinforcements were received after that time, and, of course, the whole force was not carried out of Virginia. General Lee’s army at Gettysburg numbered considerably less than sixty thousand men of all arms.
This campaign did not accomplish all that we desired, but, nevertheless, it was not unattended with great and advantageous results. It certainly had the effect of deferring, for one year at least, the advance on the Confederate Capital, and had it not been for the fall of Vicksburg at the same time, and the consequent severance of all the States beyond the Mississippi from the Confederacy, for all practical purposes, the public would not have taken as gloomy a view of the results of the campaign as it did.
In you, my fair countrywomen, I have faith. I know that you will continue to honor the brave dead, and strew flowers on their graves. Your sex, in all the South, may be relied on to instil the sentiments of honor and patriotism into the hearts of the rising and future generations, and teach them to venerate the memory, emulate the virtues, and cherish the principles of those who fell fighting for your homes, your all.
In you and your compeers, my young friends, from all the South, must mainly rest the hope of our country, for restoration to prosperity and happiness. You are fortunate in having the opportunity of being prepared for your future career, here, where lie the remains of two such men as Lee and Jackson, and where you can catch inspiration from the hallowed precincts. Profit by the occasion, and go forth into the world with the determination of following their example and battling for the right, leaving the consequences to your Maker.
And to you, my comrades, survivors of that noble army of which I have spoken, followers of Lee and Jackson, I desire to say a few parting words. I trust it is not necessary for me to urge you to remain true to the memory of your venerated leaders, and the principles for which you fought along with them. If there be any, in all the land, who have proved renegade to their comrades and our holy cause, let them go out from among us with the brand of Cain upon them! But while cherishing the memory of our leaders and our fallen comrades, as a sacred trust, it is not proper that we should indulge in vain regrets or cease the battle of life. Let the holy memories connected with our glorious though unsuccessful struggle, afford stronger incentives to renewed efforts to do our duty; but let us discard all deceptive illusions, and rely upon our own energies and the manhood that, I trust, did not make us unworthy comrades of the illustrious dead. We have a mission to perform and we must not prove recreant to it.
We have also a sacred duty to discharge. It is meet and proper that the tomb of our beloved Commander, in this chapel, shall be suitably decorated and honored. Let it be our especial charge to see that the pious work is accomplished; and let us also see that a monument to his glorious memory is erected at the Confederate Capital, in defence of which his wondrous talents and sublime virtues were displayed, which shall proclaim to all the ages, that the soldiers who fought under him remained true to him in death, and were not unworthy to have been the followers of ROBERT E. LEE.