Memdaof a conversation with Gen.
R. E. Lee, held Feb. 15 1868
On going in to see the Gen, after talking on other matters, he asked me if I had seen a piece in D. H. Hill’s magazine, entitled Lost Dispatch in reference to the first Md. Campaign (1862), and said that there were many mistakes in it. “Hill (the author) says the loss of the dispatch was advantageous to the C. S. cause, but he takes an entirely different view from me.” The Gen then gave an outline of this campaign. He said that after Chantilly (about Sept. 1) he found he could do nothing more against the Yankees unless he attacked them in their fortifications around Washington, which he did not want to do, and he therefore determined to cross the river into Maryland, and thus effect two things—1st To relieve Va. from both armies, as he thought such a movement would forceover the river—and 2nd to live for a time on the abundant supplies in Maryland. That in reference to this he talked to , who advised him to go up into the and cross the Potomac at or above Harper’s Ferry, clearing out the forces at &c. He (lee) opposed this, because it took him too far from McClellan, and might not induce the latter to cross over, which was his main object, and he therefore ordered Jackson to take command in advance & cross in Loudon and move towards Frederick, destroying the canal &c. He sent with him, and had just ordered D. H. Hill, (who had just come up from Richmond) to White’s Ferry in anticipation of this. He told Jackson to take Hill with him. He came on with remainder of the army as soon as he could. At Frederick he made Stuart divide his cavalry and threaten both Baltimore & Washington on both flanks of McClellan, giving out on each flank that he (Lee) was behind with his whole force. Stuart reported McClellan near Rockville, advancing very slowly, meanwhile covering Balt. & Washington, uneasy & uncertain. The Yankees still holding Harpers Ferry &c in the rear. He formed a plan to overwhelm them by sending three columns, Walker, McLaws and Jackson to center at Harpers Ferry and if possible catch them. Jackson was to take his own three divisions only—Lee kept D. H. Hill & Longstreet & Stuart with himself, Stuart still to demonstrate and deceive the enemy. He had the orders sent from his own Head Quarters to Hill, as the latter was now under his immediate command, & it was perfectly proper for Gen. Jackson to do so too, to inform Hill that he was no longer under his (Jackson’s) orders. The orders named the points to be reached by the divisions concentrating at Harpers Ferry, and indicated the purpose, but this had all been fully explained to Jackson, verbally, and no one imagine that the order did not contemplate just what Jackson did. He then retired from Frederick as McClellan advanced, and held the Gap in the mountain with Hill, keeping Stuart to watch and deceive the enemy. He then took Longstreet & went to Hagerstown, to capture flour and stores there which were which were being run off to Pa. Longst did not like marching, and said “Gen. I wish we could stand still and let the d—d Yankees come to us!” The night he was at Hagerstown he recd a dispatch from Stuart, saying that McClellan had taken the advance, & was pushing with his whole force, & that he, (Stuart) was falling back. Later, an alarming dispatch was also received from Hill to same effect. Lee then wakened and began to march back at day light. Hot day & troops tired when they reached Boonesboro but gap was held. Stuart informed him of report of a Md. Gentleman, who said he was at McClellan’s H. Qr.s when Lost Dispatch was found, and that he (McC.) openly expressed his delight. This night Lee found out that Cobb had been pressed back from Crampton’s Gap, and this made it necessary to retire from Boonesboro Gap, which was done next morning and position at Sharpsburg taken. Message was sent to hurry up Jackson, (who was a day later than expected,) & battle was given at Sharpsburg with a tired and weakened force, (about 35000 men) & not all on the ground till late in the day. Had the Lost Dispatch not been lost, and had McClellan continued his cautious policy for two or three days longer, I (Lee) would have had all my troops reconcentrated on Md. Side, stragglers up, men rested & I intended then to attack M c Clellan, hoping the best results from state of my troops & those of enemy. Tho’ it is impossible to to say that victory would have certainly resulted, it is probable that the loss of the dispatch changed the character of the campaign. He spoke very highly of Jackson, said D. H. Hill had such a queer temperament he could never tell what to expect from him, & that he croaked. This was the case around Petersburg in 1864 when Beauregard complained of it to Gen. Lee.
Speaking of Chancellorsville
He said that Jackson at first preferred to attack Sedgewick & Co in the plain at Fredericksburg, that he hold Jackson he feared it was impracticable, as he had thought at the first battle of Fredericksburg Dec 13. Hard to get at the enemy and harder to get away if we drove him into the river. But told Jackson if he (J.) said it could be done he would give orders for it. Jackson asked to be allowed again to examine the ground & enemy, did so during the evening, and at night came to Lee and said he thought He (Lee) was right, it would be inexpedient to attack there. “Then,” said Lee, “move in the morning up to Anderson.” Next day he found Jackson on skirmish line, driving in Yankee Skrimishers around Chancellorsville. He, (Lee) wanted to attack on his right, to cut Hooker off from the river, and rode down & examined Yankee lines all way to the river, but found no place fit for attack, returned at night & found Jackson, and asked him if he had found any place to attack. Jackson said no. Lee said then we must get round on his (Yankee) right. Jackson said he had been enquiring about roads by the furnace. After a while Stuart came and said he would go down to furnace and see what he could learn about rounds. He soon returned with Dr. Lacy who said a circuit could be made round to Wilderness Tavern and a young man living in the country and then in the cavalry was sent for to act as guide.
On Feb 25th (Tuesday) Gen. Lee sent for me, showed a Globe with Cameron’s statement about his conduct at beginning of the war, and read me a letter he had just written to Reverdy Johnson, denying Cameron’s charge. He stated to me all the circumstances connected with his resignation from the old army and his acceptance of command from Virginia.sent for him in the winter, (he was in Texas,) and he reached Washington a day or two after Lincoln‘s inauguration. Scott told him he wanted him to revise (in connection with others) the army regulations. Lee had asked him upon his arrival in Washington what he (Scott) wanted, and stated that he (Lee) could not go on duty against the South. Scott told him as above about revising the regulations, and showed him a mass of correspondence between himself and Lincoln and others, which made Scott think there would be no war. Among other letters shown was that one of Scott about “wayward Sisters” &c., and one from Seward, very pacific in tone. Gen. Lee went to Arlington much relieved, as he had intended resigning if there were any intentions of putting him on War duty, and wanted to do this before any orders should be determined on, as he did not desire to resign under orders. Scott’s talk made him think there wd not be war. He could not realize that the people would fight. Matters went on unchanged, (he waiting for Gen. Smith and other members of the revising board) until in April, on a Thursday which must have been the 18th he went at old Mr. Blair’s request to see him at young B’s house, opposite War Depart. Had long interview with old Blair, who told him Mr. L. and Cabinet wanted Gen. Lee to be Commander in Chief in field, (as Scott was too old) and tried in every way to persuade him to take it. Talked all over the Secession question & the slavery question—appealed to his ambition—spoke of the looking of the country to him as the representative of the Washington family &c. Lee replied courteously all the time, agreed about the folly of Secession, and deprecated War. Said as far as the negro was concerned he would willingly give up his own (400) for peace—spoke kindly of the Govt and how he had never had reason to complain of it &c., but at the same time said distinctly that he would not take arms against the South. After a long interview in which B was very wily and keen, Lee went direct to Scott’s office, who was busy, but at once admitted him and received him kindly. Lee told S. what B. had just said, and that he had declined the place and also stated the reason. Scott expressed his deep regret, but said he had rather expected it from what Lee said on his return from Texas. Lee went home, and thinking over the matter concluded he ought to resign, as he was not willing to obey orders in a certain contingency, wrote his resignation next day, but kept it by him another night to reflect fully, did so, and so Saturday morning enclosed the resignation in a note to Gen. Scott and sent it to him. Thro’ an aid of Scott’s who lived with Lee, (Williams by name) he heard at dinner Saturday that the resignation had been received by Scott, approved & forwarded to the War Depart. and that the Depart. were in a stir over it. He remained at Arlington until Monday. On Sunday night Judge Robinson came to see him, and told him about Secession of Virginia, officially, said Convention had set him to see Scott, and ask him to Richmond to command her forces. Scott had refused, and he (Rob) had been instructed in such a contingency to see Lee and invite him to Richmond. Had little talk as it was Sunday night, (this was first communication ever received about or from the Va. side,) promised to meet Robinson at Alexandria next morning. Did so, taking valise, and after a talk got on the cars and went to Richd was a visit to White House which had been some time contemplated. Never had any conversation about command of U. S. Army with any one except as above, & refused to advise young Williams & brother what to do in the emergency.
Tuesday March 3. Gen. Lee, upon my showing him a letter from Gen. Lilly in which it was stated thathad given $500 to be applied to the increase of his (Lee’s) Salary, said he was obliged to Gen. E but could not accept it, would be glad for the College to have it, but that he already received more than enough for his services. He then talked of Gen. Ewell, of whom he spoke very kindly, said he had known him long in the west, & that he had long known his faults as a military leader—his quick alternations from elation to despondency his want of decision &c. He said that in the campaign of 1863, after he had sent Ewell ahead, and had given full instructions, and told him that he had sent him ahead confiding in his judgment, and that he must be guided by his own judgment in any unforeseen emergency, that at Winchester Ewell, after sending him very encouraging messages about entrapping Milroy, and detailing Rode‘s & ‘s movements, suddenly sent a dispatch stating that upon closer inspection he found the works too strong to be attacked, and asking his (lee’s) instructions! (Gen. Lee had feared the old habit of E. when he assigned him to the Corps, but had hoped he had gotten over it, & talked long and earnestly with him, when he assumed command.) Again at the wilderness of May (5?) 1864, urged Ewell to make the flank attack, made later in the day by Gordon, several times before it was done. He (Lee) intended it to be a full attack in flank, & intended to support it with all Ewell’s corps and others if necessary, and to rout the enemy. Early, Lee thinks kept Ewell from pushing this matter, until very late; when Gordon did go, it was too late in the day, and he was not supported with sufficient force to accomplish anything decisive.
On May 12 Lee found Ewell perfectly prostrated by the misfortune of the morning, and too much overwhelmed to be efficient, and on May 17 or 18 when E. went out on‘s flank, to attack, and did get into a corps or two of troops, he lost all presence of mind, and Lee found him prostrate on the ground, and declaring he cd not get Rodes div. out. (Rodes being heavily engaged with the enemy.) He (Lee) told him to order Rodes back and that if he could not get him out, he (Lee) could. When the Corps was about to come to the Valley E. applied to be reinstated in Command. Lee tried to put him off by sickness, but when E. insisted, he told him plainly he could not send him in command. Rodes had come to Lee and protested against E’s being again placed in command. After this Gen. Lee recd an anonymous letter, appealing to him by his long friendship &c. to reinstate Ewell. Gen. Lee had heard that Ewell thought hardly of his treatment, and he (Lee) was very reluctant to displace him, but felt compelled to do so. He expressed the kindest personal feeling for E. and wrote a kind letter thanking him for his kind offer to increase his salary, but declining it.
March 10. Went into the Gen.’s room on business—After a bit he showed me an extract from some N.Y. Paper that had been sent him, abusing him severely for this conduct in taking the C.S. Side. The said piece evidently from some violent radical sheet wh. was taking as a text the movement on foot by Beecher & Co. for the benefit of the College. The Gen. said he never noticed newspaper reports, nor the speeches of such men as Butler, (who had made he said statements similar to those in the piece he was reading) but that these people repeated the same old falsehoods against him & he supposed wd do so. First, they said he was educated by the Gov. at W.P. True, he says, but he was sent there by Va. who was entitled to this, and he could not see that it all lessened his obligation to obey her. 2d He was never on Gen. Scott’s staff except a little while in the city of Mexico, when Maj. Smith the Chief Engineer wad disabled or removed. 3d He only recollects seeing Scott twice after his return from Texas, (Mar. 1861) before he went to Richd once directly after this return when he reported to Scott, & then the only confidential talk was that he asked Scott what was going to be done, and told him that if he (Lee) was to be placed on duty against the South he wanted to know so that he might at once resign. Scott then showed him Lincoln’s & Seward’s letters, and made him (Lee) believe, and as he (Lee) thinks believed fully himself, that a peaceful solution would be attained. One of Seward’s letters was very emphatic, & stated that he (Seward) would not remain in the cabinet if he thought any thing but peace contemplated. Lee saw no more of Scott, (and was in no manner in his confidence) until the day B. offered him command of the army. Then he went to Scott & told him that he had declined, when S. said “he was afraid so,” & then he (Scott) told him that he intended to remain and gave his reasons for it—that he did not think there would ever be so good a govt. in the country if the present were broken up &c. Lee did not blame Scott, for there were powerful reasons on both sides, and it was a hard thing for him even, thinking as he did that Secession was foolish and the war wrong, to break loose and come South. He knew the country was unprepared—Toldoften and early in the war that the slaves should emancipated, that it was the only way to remove a weakness at home and to get sympathy abroad, and to divide our enemies, but Davis would not hear of it. Thinks highly of Davis, but blames him for not conciliating his opponents & trying to unite all in the Cause. Mr. Davis’ enemies became so many as to destroy his power and to paralyse the country &c.
April 15, 1868
Mema. of conversation just had with Gen R. E. Lee about Gettysburg &c. occasioned by a letter of inquiry addressed to him by W. M. McDonald, and the answer to which he submitted to me. McD. asked—1st Why in 1862 Lee at Frederick City turned round to Harpers Ferry and did not march at once on Baltimore. 2d Whywas not attacked in the plain at Fredericksburg after his repulse—3d Why Gettysburg was fought and lost.
In regard to the first Gen. Lee said—he had never invaded the North with an eye to holding permanently the hostile portions of it. That especially in 1862 his object was not primarily to take Baltimore or to undertake any very decided offensive movement. It was in the first place to get the enemy away from the works in front of Washington, which he tho’t it folly to attack from the Manassas side, next to subsist our own army. He says he could not stay where he was at Manassas, from want of supplies and adequate transportation. He could not go forward for he thought it injudicious to attack the fortifications—To have retired up into Loudon was giving the enemy possession of Fairfax &c. and inviting him to flank him towards Richmond. By crossing the river, and thus threatening Baltimore and Washington, he drew the enemy from their works, thus relieved Va. from their presence, and got ample supplies from Md. for his own troops. Once there, in order to remain for any time or to be in proper position for a battle when he chose or should be forced to deliver it, his communications were to be kept clearn through the Valley, and to clear them, and capture the detached force at Harpers Ferry, was the object of his movement then. He would have fought McC after H’s F. if he had his troops all in hand, and McC out so that he could get at him. Sharpsburg was forced on him by McC. finding out his plans and moving quickly in consequence.
2. In regard to Burnside, he stated as he had said before to me, that it was folly to attack the enemy under the guns on the Stafford side. That the larger part of our losses at Fredericksburg resulted from pursuing the enemy too far into the plain, that he had carefully examined the whole river, and was convinced nothing of that sort could have been judiciously attempted, unless by night when the enemy was retiring. This effort he wd. Have made but did not know of their retreat till morning. He did not expect them to retreat. Hoped they would have tried his lines again.
3rd As for—First he did not intend to give general battle in Pa. if he could avoid it—The South was too weak to carry on a war of invasion, and his offensive movements against the North were never intended except as parts of a defensive system. He did not know the Federal army was at Gettysburg, could not believe it, as Stuart had been specially ordered to cover his (Lee’s) movement & keep him informed of the position of the enemy, & he (Stuart) had sent no word. He found himself engaged with the Federal army therefore, unexpectedly, and had to fight. This being determined on, victory wd. have been won if he could have gotten one decided simultaneous attack on the whole line. This he tried his utmost to effect for three days, and failed. Ewell he could not get to act with decision, Rodes, Early, Johnson attacked and were hurt in detail. Then Longstreet & Hill &c. could not be gotten to act in concert. Thus the Federal troops were enabled to be opposed to each of our corps, or even divisions in succession. As it was, however, he inflicted more damage than he received, and broke up the Federal summer campaign. When he retired he would have crossed the Potomac at once it he could have done so. It was so swollen as to delay him, and hence his works &c. at Hagerstown. He would not have been sorry if Meade had attacked him there, but he did not stop specially to invite it, but because the river was high. Meade’s failure to attack showed how he had suffered. In regard to going into Pa. at all, he thought it was far better than remaining at Fredericksburg. He had twice been attacked there, and succeeded, but he did not wish again to remain there to risk another attempt. The position was to be easily flanked, and the plan Grant afterwards pursued might have been tried at any time. He thought it best to improve the advantage gained by going North, thus drawing away the enemy from the Rappahan exciting their fears for Washington, and, by watching his opportunities, baffle and break up their plans. To have lain at Fredericksg. would have allowed them time to collect force and initiate a new campaign on the old plan. In going into Pa. he diverted their attention, kept them thinking of Washington instead of Richmond, & got ample supplies for his army. He did not want to fight, unless he could get a good opportunity to hit them in detail. He expected however probably to find it necessary to give battle before his return in the Fall, as it would have been difficult to retreat without it. He had no idea of permanent occupation of Pa. He was troubled as it was to forage, so weak was the force he cd spare for this purpose. He expected therefore to move about, to manoeuver & alarm the enemy, threaten their cities, hit any blows he might be able to do without risking a general battle, & then towards Fall return nearer his base.
Stuart’s failure to carry out his instructions forced the battle of Gettysburg, & the imperfect, halting way in which his corps commanders (especially Ewell) fought battle, gave victory, (which as he says trembled for 3 days in the balance) finally to the foe. He says that one day, (I think the second) he consulted Ewell and told him that if he could not carry his part of the line, he would move the 2d Corps to the right of Longstreet and threaten their communications with Baltimore, but that Ed. Johnson and Ewell said the line then held could be carried. Johnston, Rodes, Early however attacked in succession, and were not able to hold any advantage. Gen. Lee talked feelingly of the criticism to which he had been subjected, said ‘critics’ talked much of that they knew little about, said he had fought honestly and earnestly to the best of his knowledge and ability for the ‘Cause’ and had never allowed his own advantage or reputation to come into consideration. He cared nothing for these, success was the great matter. Instanced‘s sensitiveness on this score, and how wrong and unwise it was. He referred to a reported conversation of Longstreet, in which the latter stated that Gen. Lee was under a promise to the Leut. Generals not to fight a general battle in Pa. The Gen. said he did not believe this was ever said by Longstreet. That the idea was absurd. He had never made any such promise, and had never thought of doing any such thing.
Dec. 17. 1868—I went into the Generals office this morning to talk about the proposal of the Ins. Co. and while there urged him to prepare his History. He talked of the difficulties and referred to the many errors which had become rife, and which it would be necessary for him to correct as one of the disagreeable things which stood in his way. He spoke of the mistakes in Dabney’s Life of Jackson, & told me about the campaign of 1862. He said that when he took command, (on Johnston’s wounding,) he found it wd. be necessary to strike a blow, that most of the Genel in the army were opposed to this, that Whiting for instance was for holding the lines and retiring gradually before the enemy. But he (Lee) thought that would never do, and he proposed to Mr. Davis to bring down Jackson, & gather all and make an attack on McClellan. Mr. Davis hesitated and held back, came out to see him and talked the whole matter over, and after considering another day, granted finally his permission. Jackson had written proposing to go into Md. and push for Washington, but Lee told him the movement wd be premature, and that it was necessary first to get rid of McClellan, and that he wanted him to hit the Yankees in the Valley, so as to keep them quiet, and then bring everything down to join him. To deceive the enemy he sent troops to Jackson, sending them round by Lynchburg & knowing that the news wd reach the enemy, and induce the belief that Jackson was to be pushed North. All of Jackson’s movements were in accordance with letters from him, (of which Dabney says nothing.) He sent for Jackson to come to Richmond to see him, met him there, and arranged the plan for the attack on McC’s right. Jackson appointed a certain day to be up, and then Lee was to meet him with the mass of the army before Richmond. Lee told Jackson that he had not given himself time enough, and insisted that he should be allowed 24 hours more. With this under standing he prepared everything, & moved a part of his troops over at Mechanicksville to attack in conjunction with Jackson. He was disappointed in not finding J. Stuart who had been sent over to join him & to assist him, reported him not up. Lee was then uneasy for fear the enemy seeing his movement and the stripping of his Richmond lines, would push forward and reach the city, and so he attacked at Ellyson and Mechanicsville with what troops he had, and spire of the formidable works, in order to occupy the enemy and prevent any counter movement. His Engr reported against attacking there, but he was obliged to do something. So again the next day Jackson was still not up, and now the two Hills &c. all being over the river he was forced to push forward and attack at Gaine’s Mill with all his energy. Otherwise with a large part of his army really father from Richd than McClellan was, disaster was to be apprehended. He had communicated too with Jackson, and hoped to have his attack soon supported. Jackson did not get in till late in the afternoon, hence the severe fight thathad in the morning to himself.
He referred to the pieces lately in the papers about a proposed night attack at Fredericksburg on Jackson’s part. He said this was not so, and that when he and Jackson were talking over the matter the day after the fight, he asked J. if it would be possible to pick a body of troops and attack in the night, and that Jackson advised against it, and said that his (J’s) troops even in the twilight of the evening before, (that of the day of the fight) had gotten into such confusion in the plain as to fire into each other.
He also referred to the fall of Petersburg, and said the immediate occasion was Longstreet’s delay in coming over, that he had written to L. several times telling him that the enemy had mostly left his front and were on the South side, but that L. would not be convinced, and insisted they were still before him. This however only hastened what would soon have come any how.
February 19, 1870
Went by appointment to see Gen Lee, who told me he wished to give me Cutt’s report on the Va. Boundary, which Pierce had just sent him. After this he read me another letter from Fitz John Porter, and his own reply in regard to the. He then talked nearly an hour about that and other battles—said he breakfasted before day on the morning of Aug. 29, on the west side of Thoroughfare Gap & whileat break fast received word from Longstreet that the Gap was open and that he was putting his troops in on the march. The General said that on his arrival there the evening before, he found some Federal troops and artillery ready to dispute his passage, but knowing the country well, he sent a division by a path over the Mountain that night, though the circuit was 5 miles. The division got over and camped on the Washington side, and their presence doubtless induced the enemy to withdraw. He started forward by daylight and passed the gap, and got in the neighborhood of Gainesville he thinks by nine oclock, meeting Stuart & riding on with him. He sent back word to Longstreet to put his troops in order as they came up. Then sent Stuart to the extreme right, who after a while returned and reported a heavy force demonstrating there. He went then himself, and saw troops (Porter’s as it turns out,) did not think them disposed to attack. They were peaceable looking as he expressed it. Told Stuart so, but ordered Longstreet to send some troops to support Stuart, and told the latter to make all the show he could, & prevent the enemy attacking, and if he did attack to hold him in check. Thinks Longstreet was in position by noon. Received after this word from Jackson that he was hard pressed, & asking reinforcements. He then ordered Long. to attack, & Hood & Evans were put in on Jackson’s right. Hood did not like the place and said so, but Lee said he must attack any how and relieve Jackson. Hood and E. did so, and drove the Yankee’s handsomely, and after night returned to Lee delighted & excited, and said the enemy were lying thick “like a bed of roses,” (they were the Zouaves.) Next day ordered everything to attack late in the evening, after the assaults of the enemy had been repulsed, & carried every thing before him. Said he did not care about Pope’s or Porter’s quarrel. That Porter was not a strong man, wd. do well enough with somebody to tell him, but rather timid under responsibility. Anderson’s troops got up during the battle, but were hardly engaged. D. H. Hill did not arrive until after Ox Hill. Knew Porter quite well. He was his Adj. while Supt at West Point, after Gen. Seth Williams left.
Spoke feelingly of Gettysburg, said much was said about risky movements—Everything was risky in our war. He knew oftentimes that he was playing a bery bold game, but it was the only possible one. Said he had urged the Govt. before going to Penn. In 1863, to bring Beauregard to Manasses with all the troops that could be got, & threaten Washington in that quarter. Mr. Davis promised to do so, but it was never done, probably the difficulties were too great. Did not expect much more than a demonstration, but Beauregard with a few troops there, wd. have produced a great diversion, and a great moral effect. Mr. Davis did not like the movement northward said he was afraid Lee could not get away, that the enemy would attack. Lee said he had no fears about getting off, the only trouble was about Richmond, but that he thought by concealing his movements and managing well, he could get so far North as to threaten Washington before they could check him, & this once done he knew there was no need of further fears about their moving on Rich. Succeeded in this, but failed at Gettysburg from a variety of causes. 1. Stuart failed to give him information, and this deceived him into a general battle. Then he never cd. Get a simultaneous attack on the enemy’s position. Often thinks that if Jackson had been there he would have succeeded.
Said that at Chancellorsville, which was another “risky” movement, he told Jackson they must either make a night attack on Sedgewick in front, or move off and attack Hooker at C. Jackson went & reconnoitered & returned & reported against an attack in front, especially against a night attack, & then it was decided to move at once to Chancellorsville.