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The Defeat of General Lee

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1311, p. 365.

April 22, 1865


The gallant Generalissimo of the Confederate forces has sustained what may fairly be regarded as his first, and what will probably prove to be his last, defeat in defensive warfare. As the ablest and most accomplished commander which the civil war has produced, the public, without distinction of parties, is at some loss whether most to admire his long and almost unbroken career of successful defence, or to commiserate him under the inevitable catastrophe that has broken his power. For General Lee's qualities were of that high order, and were so happily balanced, that he not merely won the respect, but elicited the sympathy, of the civilised world. But for the spirit which he breathed into his soldiers and the confidence in his invincibility with which he had inspired the South, the course of Secession would, perhaps, have been a shorter one, but it is doubtful if it would have retained to the close that heroic character which has enlisted so large an amount of feeling in its favour. He put upon the contest the stamp of his nobility. Whether he would have counselled his compatriots to submit their differences with the North to the arbitrement of war may be questioned; but, that decision having been taken, his patriotism instantly prescribed for him his line of duty. Along that line he has unfalteringly marched, not, indeed, to final victory, but to highest glory; and probably, when the din of arms has ceased, and the gaping wounds through which the life-blood of the Republic still flows have been closed and healed, the one name which will be remembered with most pride and veneration in connection with this gigantic struggle will be that of General Lee.

The evacuation of Petersburg and. Richmond has for some weeks past been looked upon as mainly a question of time. Sherman's march northward from Savannah and Sheridan's clearance of the Shenandoah Valley indicated clearly enough that no generalship could ultimately avail to make a single army an equal match for the three that were gathering round it. And yet the event was not foreshadowed, at least in the form in which it happened, by public expectation. Whilst it was easy to foresee that the superior numbers, the larger resources, and the untiring pertinacity of the Federals must, in the end, overbear Lee's position, in spite of the most consummate strategical skill, it was hardly anticipated that he would himself begin the fight which has had for him and for his army such a disastrous termination. The dashing assault of Fort Steadman, early on the 25th ult., which, together with two minor works, the Confederates captured, but were unable to retain, seems to have precipitated the crisis. Whether it was a desperate venture with the hope of seizing Grant's military railway at City Point, and thereby compelling him to abandon the whole of his line south of the Appomattox; or whether political reasons of which we have yet received no information prevailed upon Lee to assume the offensive, the effect appears to have been to produce conviction on Grant's mind that the time had come for him to strike with all the force he could command. This conviction, it may be assumed, was converted into a resolution at the council of war held on the 27th, at which Mr. Lincoln and General Sherman were present. On the 30th, Sheridan, after several ineffectual attempts to cut the Southside railroad, in one of which the Federals were forced back in confusion on the Boydton Plank-road, succeeded in routing the Confederates and gaining the important position at which he had aimed. His success having been reported, Grant ordered an attack along the whole line. The battle raged furiously until the evening of April 2, and during the night Petersburg and Richmond were both evacuated. The losses on both sides were great, but, as might have been expected, the vanquished suffered most severely, especially in the number of prisoners taken.

Since the commencement of the war no battle has been fought the result of which was so calculated to fill the hearts of the Confederates with dismay as the three days' conflict in the neighbourhood of Petersburg. Whilst Lee's army remained unconquered, Secessia naturally refused to give up hope. The capture of Vicksburg, of Atlanta, of Savannah, of Wilmington, of Charleston, successively deepened the gloom which hung over her prospects; but there was one bright spot to which she could always turn with some confidence in her forecast of her probable destiny. Other Generals might be unsuccessful, other armies might be beaten and scattered, but whilst General Lee continued at the head of those troops which he had so often led to victory it was, no doubt, difficult for the Southerners to believe that the cause for which they had made so many sacrifices, and which had lived through so many fluctuations, had become desperate. They looked wistfully towards him as the living freight of a tempest-tossed vessel might look towards the pilot who has weathered the wildest storms, and whilst he grasped the helm and maintained a cheerful countenance, trust in his marvellous sagacity and in the good fortune which had waited upon it served to give buoyancy to their courage and forbade their yielding place to despair. Lee's defeat, with the loss of perhaps half his army, is the heaviest reverse which has ever befallen them, because it throws its ominous shadow so far forward into the future. There is no visible reserve upon which he can fall back; and, although he may yet achieve brilliant military feats, it would appear most unlikely that he will be able to save from dissolution that unity of national organisation, to conserve and consolidate which his heroic energies have hitherto been devoted.

It would appear in the highest degree improbable that the Confederacy can hope to win back by a continuance of the struggle the good fortune they have lost. Late events have strongly indicated that their strength is well-nigh exhausted. For four years they have endured a strain upon their vitality far beyond reasonable expectation. Indeed, until within the last twelvemonth, it seemed that no external force could succeed in piercing the line behind which the non-combatant population was sheltered. Sherman pierced it, and found that the interior of the shell was hollow. His march through Georgia to the coast, and from the coast upward into the heart of North Carolina, demonstrated that the whole military strength of the Confederacy had been placed upon the frontier and that no means of effectual resistance would avail it if General Lee's force were destroyed. That calamity has now befallen it. The North Virginian army, the hope and stay of the Southern States, has at last, after a most gallant resistance, been shattered and driven forth from the capital and its outpost. The defeat seems irreversible--at least, as far as visible probabilities can throw light upon it. The Legislature is scat-

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tered; the President is in flight; the organised force of the nation is disintegrated and, comparatively speaking, dispersed; and, what is worse, should its several parts once more come together, although it might obtain favourable terms, it could hardly restore to the South another momentary chance of establishing her separate independence.

In truth, the most recent tidings from the scene of conflict point with more than common significance to the probability that the end is drawing nigh. Sheridan, followed by Meade, pursued Lee in his retreat with dogged perseverance, and, two or three days after the evacuation of Petersburg, found the Confederates at the intersection of Burkeville-station road with the road upon which they were retiring drawn up to resist him. Connecting his cavalry with two divisions of the 6th Army Corps, he instantly attacked them and forced them from their position, capturing six generals and making several thousand prisoners. General Lee was reported to have posted the remains of his force a little later on the heights beyond Sailor's Creek, having previously destroyed the bridges across the stream. It may be conjectured that he will have reached Lynchburg without further serious molestation, and within its strongly-fortified lines he will have time to survey all the possibilities which late events have left him. His outlook, however, cannot but be a gloomy one, even on the supposition that matters during the next month turn out more fortunately for him than he might feel himself warranted to anticipate. No doubt, if the Southern population, instead of being paralysed by despair, should be roused by the losses they have sustained to new determination, the North would still have a work of immense difficulty before it. But if the conduct of the Congress that lately sat at Richmond can be regarded as furnishing a key to the feelings of the people they ostensibly represented, the inference seems unavoidable that no supreme effort of self-sacrifice is to be expected.

Under such circumstances, the friends of humanity can scarcely desire that the contest should be prolonged. Gallantry has done its best and failed; may not wisdom now step forward and accept the issue? There is no lack of honourable precedents for such a course. Waste of blood is always to be deprecated; and perhaps the most brilliant courage, when unavailing, is most strikingly set off by a frank acquiescence in arrangements which it has tried its utmost to prevent. But it lies chiefly with the North to facilitate a return to peace and unity. There is no hour so favourable for magnanimity as that of decisive victory. There is no generosity which can penetrate the heart like the generosity of superior power in the full flush of success. The occasion is one which devolves on President Lincoln a responsibility commensurate with the glorious opportunity put within his reach by General Grant's triumph. That he will be indisposed to recognise it we have no present reason for suspecting. Words of conciliation will best become his lips at this juncture--words fitted to calm down apprehension, to soothe wounded pride, and to replace a hope that is crushed by another that may be gratefully welcomed.

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