Open main menu

A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Battles of Cold Harbour-Operations of Ewell's Corps

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America





On the 27th, the enemy having withdrawn to the north bank of the North Anna, and commenced another flank movement by moving down the north bank of the Pamunkey, Ewell's corps, now under my command, by reason of General Ewell's sickness, was moved across the South Anna over the bridge of the Central railroad, and by a place called "Merry Oaks," leaving Ashland on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad to the right, and bivouacked for the night at Hughes' cross road, the intersection of the road from Ashland to Atlee's station on the Central railroad with the road from the Merry Oaks to Richmond. Next morning I moved by Atlee's station to Hundley's corner, at the intersection of the road from Hanover Town, (the point at which Grant crossed the Pamunkey,) by Pole Green Church, to Richmond, with the road from Atlee's station, by Old Church in Hanover County, to the White House, on the Pamunkey. This is the point from which General Jackson commenced his famous attack on McClellan's Hank and rear, in 1862, and it was very important that it should be occupied, as it intercepted Grant's direct march towards Richmond. All these movements were made under orders from General Lee.

My troops were placed in position, covering the road by Pole Green Church, and also the road to Old Church, with my right resting near Beaver Dam Creek, a small stream running towards Mechanicsville and into the Chickahominy. Brigadier General Ramseur of Rodes' division, was this day assigned to the command of my division. Ewell's corps, the 2nd of the Army of Northern Virginia, now numbered less than 9,000 muskets for duty, its loss, on the 12th of May, having been very heavy.

On the 29th, the enemy having crossed the Tottopotomoy, (a creek running just north of Pole Green Church, and east-ward to the Pamunkey,) appeared in my front on both roads, and there was some skirmishing, but no heavy fighting.

On the afternoon of the 30th, in accordance with orders from General Lee, I moved to the right across Beaver Dam, to the road from Old Church to Mechanicsville, and thence along that road towards Old Church, until we reached Bethesda Church. At this point the enemy was encountered, and his troops which occupied the road, were driven by Rodes' division towards the road from Hundley's corner, which unites with the road from Mechanicsville, east of Bethesda Church. Pegram's brigade, under the command of Colonel Edward Willis of the 12th Georgia regiment, was sent forward, with one of Rodes' brigades on its right, to feel the enemy, and ascertain its strength; but, meeting with a heavy force behind breastworks, it was compelled to retire, with the loss of some valuable officers and men, and among them were Colonel Willis, mortally wounded, and Colonel Terrell of the 13th Virginia regiment, and Lieutenant Colonel Watkins of the 52nd Virginia regiment, killed. This movement showed that the enemy was moving to our right flank, and at night, I withdrew a short distance on the Mechanicsville road, covering it with my force. When I made the movement from Hundley's corner, my position at that place was occupied by a part of Longstreet's corps, under Anderson.

On the next morning my troops were placed in position on the east side of Beaver Dam across the road to Mechanicsville, but Rodes was subsequently moved to the west side of the creek.

Grant's movement to our right, towards Cold Harbour, was continued on the 31st, and the 1st of June, and corresponding movements were made by General Lee to meet him, my command retaining its position with a heavy force in its front.

On the 2nd, all the troops on my left, except Heth's division of Hill's corps, had moved to the right, and, in the afternoon of that day, Rodes' division moved forward, along the road from Hundley's corner towards Old Church, and drove the enemy from his intrenchments, now occupied with heavy skirmish lines, and forced back his left towards Bethesda Church, where there was a heavy force. Gordon swung round so as to keep pace with Rodes, and Heth co-operated, following Rodes and taking position on his left flank. In this movement there was some heavy fighting and several hundred prisoners were taken by us. Brigadier-General Doles, a gallant officer of Rodes' division, was killed, but otherwise our loss was not severe.

On the next day (the 3rd), when Grant made an attack at Cold Harbour in which he suffered very heavily, there were repeated attacks on Rodes' and Heth's fronts, those on Cook's brigade, of Heth's division, being especially heavy, but all of them were repulsed. There was also heavy skirmishing on Gordon's front, During the day, Heth's left was threatened by the enemy's cavalry, but it was kept off by Walker's brigade under Colonel Fry, which cove-red that Hank, and also repulsed an effort of the enemy's infantry to get to our rear. As it was necessary that Heth's division should join its corps on the right, and my Hank in this position was very much exposed. I withdrew at the close of the day to the line previously occupied, and next morning Heth moved to the right.

My right now connected with the left of Longstreet's corps under General Anderson. The enemy subsequently evacuated his position at Bethesda Church and his lines in my front, and, having no opposing force to keep my troops in their line. I made Two efforts to attack the enemy on his right Hank and rear. The first was made on the 6th, when I crossed the Matadaquean, (a small stream, running through wide swamps in the enemy's rear), and got in rear of his right tank, driving in his skirmishers until we came to a swamp, which could be crossed only on a narrow causeway defended by an intrenched line with artillery. General Anderson was to have co-operated with me, by moving down the other side of the Matadaquean, but the division sent for that purpose did not reach the position from which I started until near night, and I was therefore compelled to retire as my position was too much exposed.

On the next day (the 7th), a reconnaissance made in front of Anderson's line. showed that the greater part of it was uncovered, and, in accordance with instructions from General Lee. I moved in front of and between it and the Matadaquean, until my progress was arrested by a ravine and swamp which prevented any further advance, but a number of pieces of artillery were opened upon the enemey's position in flank and reverse, so as to favour a movement from Anderson's front, which had been ordered but was not made; and at night I retired from this position to the rear of our lines.

Since the lighting at the Wilderness, Grant had made it an invariable practice to cover his front, flank, and rear, with a perfect network of intrenchments, and all his movements were made under cover of such works. It was therefore very difficult to get at him.

On the 11th, my command was moved to the rear of Hill's line, near Gainses' Mill; and, on the 12th, I received orders to move, with the 2nd Corps, to the Shenandoah Valley, to meet Hunter. This, therefore, closed my connection with the campaign from the Rapidan to James River.

When I moved, on the morning of the 13th., Grant had already put his army in motion to join Butler, on James River, position which he could have reached, from his camps on the north of the Rapidan, by railroad and transports, without the loss of a man. In attempting to force his way by land, had already lost, in killed and wounded, more men than were in General Lee's entire army; and he was compelled to give up, in despair, the attempt to reach Richmond in that way.[1]

  1. Grant, in describing his movement from Spotsylvania Gum House to Hanover Junction, says: "But the enemy again having the shorter line, and being in possession of the main roads, was enabled to reach the North-Anna in advance of us, and took position behind it." And when he speaks of his final determination to join Butler, he says: "After the Battle of the Wilderness it was evident that the enemy deemed it of the first importance to run no risk with the army he then had. He acted purely on the defensive, behind breastworks, or, feebly on the offensive, immediately in front of them, and where, in case, of repulse, he could retire behind them. Without a greater sacrifice of life than I was willing to make, all could not be accomplished that I designed north of Richmond."

    Mr. Secretary Stanton, with a keenness of stragetic accumen which is altogether unparalled. says: "Forty-three days of desperate fighting or marching, by day and night, forced back the rebel army from the Rapidan to their intrenehments around Richmond, and carried the Army of the Potomac to the south side of James River. The strength of the enemy's force when the campaign opened, or the extent of his loss, is not known to this Department. Any inequality between Lee's army and the Army of the Potomac, was fully compensated by the advantage of position."

    We are left in the dark whether it was the desperate fighting or the desperate marching which did all this; but, however that may be it was a wonderful achievement, especially when it is considered that the Army of the Potomac might, have been carried to the south side of James river by transports, and Lee's army thereby forced back to the intrenchments around Richmond, without the "Forty-three days of desperate lighting or marching by day and by night," and without the loss of men sustained by Grant. There are some who think Stanton is slyly making fun of Grant; but, if he is not, and is in dead earnest, the question naturally arises, in the mind of one not as gifted as the Federal Secretary of War: How happened it that, if Lee was being constantly forced back, for forty-three days, over a distance, of more than eighty miles, he always had the shorter line, and possession of the main roads, and got the advantage of position, and had time to fortify it?

    I happen to know that General Lee always had the greatest anxiety to strike at Grant in the open field: and I should like to know when it was that the latter operated on the defensive, or offensive either, except behind, or immediately in front of, far better intrenchment than General Lee's army, with its limited means, was able to make. An inspection of the battle-fields, from the Rapidan to the James, will show that Grant's army did a vast deal more digging than General Lee's.

    The truth is, that the one commander was a great captain, and perfect master of his art, while the other had none of the requisites of a great captain, but merely possessed the most ordinary brute courage, and had the control of unlimited number and means. Yet, it is claimed that Grant fights and writes better than Alexander, and Hannibalm and Cesar and Napoleon, and all the rest; and when, in the exercise of his great powers of compostion, he turns the batteries of his rhetoric on Butler. I say, in his own classic language, "Go in!" You can't him a lick amiss. I cannot, however, but he amused at the effort to make Butler the scape-goat: and cannot help thinking that Grant ought to have known, beforehand, that he (Butler) was unfit to make war, except on defenceless women and children, and that the trophies valued by him were not those won at the cannon's mouth.

    Grant, in his report, has enunciated the leading principles of his strategy, and he is certainly entitled to the credit of having practised them, if not to the merit of originality. They were: "First, to use the greatest number of troops practicable again against the armed force of the enemy;" and. Second, to hammer continuously against the armed tone of the enemy, and his resources, until by mere attrition, if by nothing else, there should be nothing left to him but an equal submission, with the loyal section of our common country, to the constitution and laws of the land." (Alas! what has become of the constitution and laws?) This latter principle was more concisely and forcibly expressed by Mr. Lincoln, when he declared his purpose to "keep a pegging." The plain English of the whole ideas to continue raising troops, and to oppose them, in overwhelming numbers. to the Confederate Army, until the latter should wear itself out whipping them, when a newly recruited army might "go in and win." And. this was actually what took place in regard to General Lee's army.

    Grant having established his fame as a writer, as well as a fighter, I presume he will give the world the benefit of his ideas, and publish a work on strategy, which I would suggest ought to be called "The Lincoln-Grant or Pegging-Hammer Art of War."

    He has made some observations, in his report,about the advantages of interior lines of communication, supposed to be possessed by the Confederate commanders, which are more specious than sound. The Mississippi River divided the Confederacy into two parts, and the immense naval power of the enemy enabled him to render communication across that river after the loss of New Orleans and Memphis, always difficult, and finally to get entire possession of it. On the eastern side of it, the railroad communications were barely sufficient for the transportation of supplies and the transportation of troops over them was always tedious and difficult. The Ohio River, in the West, and the Potomac, in the East with the mountains of Western Virgina rendered it impossible for an invading army to march into the enemy's country, except at one of two fords on the Potomac, just east of the Blue Bridge, and two or three fords above harper's Ferry. The possession of the seas and the blockade of our ports, as well as the possession of the Mississippi, the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the railroads through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, enabled the enemy to transport troops from the most remote points, with more ease and rapidity than they could be transported over the railroads under the control of the Confederate Government, all of which were in bad condition. The enemy, therefore, in fact, had all the advantages of interior lines; that is rapidity of communication and concentration, with the advantage, also of unrestricted communication with all the world, which his naval power gave him.