"General Lee to the Rear."*
 

Taken from the Southern Historical Papers
Volume  VIII - March 1880 - No 3. 

CORRECTING THE RECORD - EDITORAL

The Incident with Harris' Mississippi Brigade.

We take great pleasure in publishing the following detailed account of the incident which occurred with Harris' gallant Mississippians on the 12th of May, 1864, and to which we briefly alluded in our paper in the January number as being (alike with the scene with the Texans in the Wilderness, and that with Gordon's division at Spotsylvania) "well authenticated":

Letter from General N. H. Harris.

VICKSBURG, August 24th, 1871.

Colonel CHARLES S. VENABLE,
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.:

Dear Sir - I am about to trespass upon you kind attention in a matter which may seem at first entirely personal, but the contrary will appear to you after a fill and complete statement of my object and wishes. You will recollect, Colonel, that on the morning of the 12th of May, 1864, my brigade (Mississippi), having double-quicked from the left of our lines, was halted on the Court-house road, near Spotsylvania Courthouse; that, after a halt at this point of a half hour, General Lee in person ordered the brigade (I being at the right of the brigade) to an attention, put it on the march, left in front, and himself at the head, moved in the direction of the salient from which the troops of General Edward Johnson had been driven; that, moving at the quick-step, we were soon under a heavy artillery fire from the batteries of the enemy in front and to our right; that, whilst thus advancing, General Lee, yourself, myself and staff at the head of the brigade, a twelve pound (ricochet) shot passed just in front of General Lee, so near as to excite his horse very much, causing him to rear and plunge in such a manner as would have unseated a less accomplished horseman.

The men, seeing the narrow escape of their beloved commander, earnestly urged him to go back, and one or two of them caught hold of the bridle of his horse and turned the animal around. General Lee then spoke to the men and told them that if they would drive the enemy from the captured works, he would go back, The men responded with a hearty "we will!"
The brigade moved forward to the point of attack, drove the enemy from the captured works and held the position until 4 A. M. of the 13th, resisting effectually the repeated efforts of Grants massed forces to dislodge them.

With this statement of facts, which I have no doubt will readily recur to you, I beg to call your attention to an entirely different version of this affair given by Major John Esten Cooke in his life of General R. E. Lee, pages 397 and 398, in which he gives the credit to troops from another States.

Now, as you were an eye-witness of what did take place, and personally knew what troops were this engaged, and occupying the position you did upon the staff of General Lee, I feel that I am warranted in calling upon you for a correction of what may become an error of history. Publications of this kind, often made upon newspaper reports and rumors not always reliable, work a grave injustice.

I have no doubt if General Gordon;s attention was called to this publication, that he, with that noble and high sense of honor that has ever marked his conduct, both as a soldier and civilian, would himself make the proper correction, as he wears too many justly earned honors to desire those which properly belong to others. Personally, I care but little; but for the gallant men whom I had the honor to lead I care a great deal, and I feel that it is imperative upon me to see that justice is done them in the premises.

Almost a similar scene occurred on the 6th of May, 1864, in the Wilderness, between General Lee and Gregg's Texas brigade, and with a great many that has been confounded with the incident at Spotsylvania.

I trust, Colonel, if not demanding too great a concession of your valuable time, you will furnish me a statement of the facts in this matter, in accordance with your recollection.

With my best wishes for your health and prosperity,
I am, Colonel, truly your friend,

N. H. HARRIS.

Letter from Colonel C. S. Venable.

UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, November 24th, 1871.

To General N. H. HARRIS:

My Dear General - Your letter of August 24th was duly received. I sought a copy of Major Cooke's life of General Lee and read therein the myth concerning the battle scene of May 12th, 1864, at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Major Cooke has evidently confounded (in a distorted way) some incidents of the fight on a portion of Rodes' front on the afternoon of the 10th of May, when Gordon and others urged General Lee to retire from the front, with the great battle of May 12th. You do right not to permit so gross a misstatement of facts, which robs the brave Mississippians whom you commanded of their proper meed of glory, to pass unnoticed. 

You ask me to relate the incidents of the twelfth of May,connecting General Lee with your brigade in the bloody battle of that day.

General Rodes had immediate charge of the troops who held the enemy at bay in the angle of our works, which they had captured at dawn, and he may justly be called the hero of the battle at the salient. The enemy, in attempting to press their advantage, massed their troops and made repeated assaults with overwhelming odds on the troops sent to oppose their further progress within our lines. Rodes sent from time to time urgent messages for more troops. Brigade after brigade was ordered to his assistance as they could be spared from other portions of the line. On the receipt of one of these messages from Rodes, General Lee sent me to our extreme right, occupied by General Mahone, to bring up your brigade. You moved rapidly across the open space in rear of the Courthouse. When we had reached a point on the Courthouse road, near General Lee's position on the line, the brigade was halted for a few minutes. General Lee rode up alone during this halt, and gave orders that you should move on at once to General Rodes" assistance; and, as the column moved on, he rode at your side at its head. We soon came under the fire of the enemy's artillery. This excited General lee's horse, and as he was in the act of rearing, a round shot passed under his belly, very near the General's stirrup. The men of the brigade cried out: "Go Back, General! Go Back! For God's sake, go back!"and perhaps some made a motion to seize his bridle. He then said, "If you will promise me to drive those people from our works, I will go back!" The men shouted their promise with a will. General Lee then gave me orders to guide the brigade to General Rodes. We found General Rodes near the famous spring within a few rods of the line of battle held by our exhausted troops. As the column of Mississippians came up at a double-quick, an aide-de-camp came to General Rodes with a message from Ramseur that he could hold out only a few minutes longer unless assistance was at hand. 

Your brigade was thrown instantly into the fight, the column being formed into line under a tremedeous fire and on very difficult ground. Never did a brigade go into fiercer battle under greater trials; never did a brigade do its duty more nobly. The entire salient was not recaptured, but the progress of the enemy was checked, and were driven into a narrow space in the angle which they had occupied.

The disaster of the morning was retrieved, and our troops held their difficult position under a heavy, unceasing fire during the remainder of the day and the entire night. They were withdrawn before daylight on the morning of the 13th to the rifle pits constructed under Gordon's supervision, while the battle was raging a short distance in rear of the old line. The enemy abandoned the captured salient on the same day as useless to them. or perhaps as a ruse preparatory to a grand assault on our left, ordered by General Grant at daylight on the 14th (this we learned from captured copies of his battle orders.) His troops, however, failed to come up to the attack.

The day of the salient, which began in disaster to us, did not close without many shattering blows to the attacking column.

Of the incident of the battle of the Wilderness on the 6th of May, in connection with the Texas brigade (often, as you say,  confounded with the incidents of May 12th, related above),I was also an eye-witness; and I believe that few battle incidents recorded in history rise in grandeur above those two occasions when General Lee went into the charge with the Texans at the Wilderness and when he led the Mississippians into battle at Spotsylvania.

I am, General, very truly, your friend,

CHARLES S. VENABLE.

It may be well to add that there is really no conflict in the several accounts we have published. The incident certainly occurred, under somewhat similar circumstances, upon three occasions, viz: In the Wilderness on the 6th of May with the Texas brigade; at Spotsylvania Courthouse on the 12th of May with Gordon's division; and on the same morning with Harris' Mississippi brigade. 

As completing his account of the three incidents, we quote Colonel Venable's description of the scene in the Wilderness, and with Gordon's division, as given in his address before the Virginia Division, Army of Northern Virginia Association:

THE SCENE IN THE WILDERNESS.

General Lee soon sent a message to Longstreet to make a night march and bring up his two divisions at daybreak on the 6th. He himself slept on the field, taking his headquarters a few hundred yards from the line of battle of the day. It was his intention to relieve Hill's two divisions with Longstreet's, and throw them farther to the left, to fill up a part of the great unoccupied interval between the Plank road and Ewell's right, near the Old turnpike, or use them on his right, as the occasion might demand. It was unfortunate that any of these troops should have become aware they were to be relieved by Longstreet. It is certain that owing to this impression, Wilcox's division, on the right, was not in condition to receive Hancock's attack at early dawn on the morning of the 6th, by which they were driven back in considerable confusion. In fact some of the brigades of Wilcox's division came back in disorder, but sullenly and without panic, entirely across the Plank road, where General Lee and the gallant Hill in person helped to rally them. The assertion, made by several writers, that Hill's troops were driven back a mile and a half, is a most serious mistake. The right of his line was thrown back several hundred yards, but a portion of the troops still maintained their position. The danger, however, was great, and General Lee sent his trusted Adjutant, Colonel W. H. Taylor, back to Parker's store, to get the trains ready for a movement to the rear. He sent an aid also to hasten the march of Longstreet's divisions. These came the last mile and a half at a double-quick, in parallel columns, along the Plank road. General Longstreet rode forward with that imperturbable coolness which always characterized him 
in time of perilous action, and began to put them in position on the right and left of the road. His men came to the front of disordered battle with a steadiness unexampled even among veterans, and with an elan which presaged restoration of our battle and certain victory. When the arrived, the bullets of the enemy on our right flank had begun to sweep the field in the rear of the artillery pits on the left of the road, where General Lee was giving directions and assistant General Hill in rallying and reforming his troops. It was here that the incident of Lee's charge with Gregg's Texas brigade occurred. The Texans cheered lustily as their line of battle, coming up in splendid style, passed by Wilcox's disordered columns, and swept across our artillery pit and its adjacent breastwork. Much moved by the greeting of these brave men and their magnificent behavior, General Lee spurred his horse through an opening in the trenches and followed close on their line as it moved rapidly forward. The men did not perceived that he was going with them until they had advanced some distance in the charge; when their did, there came from the entire lines, as it rushed  on, the cry, "Go back, General Lee! Go back!" Some historians like to put this in less homely words; but the brave Texans did not pick their phrases. "We won't go on unless you go back!" A sergeant seized his bridle rein. The gallant General Gregg (who laid down his life on the 9th October, almost in General Lee's presence, in a desperate charge of his brigade on the enemy's lines in the rear of Fort Harrison), turning his horse towards General Lee remonstrated with him. Just then I called his attention to horse on a knoll to the right of the Texans, directing the attack of his divisions. He yielded with evident reluctance to the entreaties of his men, and rode up to Longstreet of what had just happened, and he, with affectionate bluntness, urged General Lee to go farther back. I need not say the Texas went forward in their charge and did well their duty. They were eight hundred strong, and lost half their number killed and wounded on that bloody day. The battle was soon restored, and the enemy driven back to their position of the night before.
THE SCENE WITH GORDON'S DIVISION.

Gordon soon arranged the left of his division to make an effort to recapture the lines by driving the enemy back with his right. As he was about to move forward with his Georgia and Virginia brigades, in the charge, General Lee, who had reached, the front a few minutes before, rode up and joined him. Seeing that Lee was about to ride with him in the charge, the scene of the 6th of May was repeated. Gordon pointed to his Georgians and Virginians, who had never failed him, and urged him to go to the rear. This incident has passed into history, and
I will not repeat the details here. Suffice it to say Lee yielded to his brave men, accepting their promise to drive the enemy back. Gordon carrying the colors, led them forward in a headlong, resistless charge, which carried every thing before it, recapturing the trenches on the
right of the salient, and a portion of those on the left, recovering some of the lost guns and leaving the rest of them on disputed ground between our troops and the portion of the line still held by the enemy,

Colonel Venable, in this splendid address on "The Campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg," also gives a vivid description of the scene with Harris' brigade; but as it is substantially the same as the account given in his letter to General Harris, quoted above, we will not reproduce it here. He concludes as follows:

The homely simplicity of General Lee in these scenes of the 6th and 12th of May, is in striking contrast with the theatrical tone of the famous order of Napoleon at Austerlitz, in which he said: "Soldiers, I will keep myself at a distance from the fire, if with your accustomed valor you carry disorder and confusion into the enemy's ranks; but if victory appear uncertain, you will see your Emperor expose himself in the front of battle." It is the contrast of the simple devotion to duty of the Christian patriot, thoughtless of sell, fighting for all that men held dear, with the selfish spirit of the soldier of fortune, "himself the only god of his idolatry."

I have been thus particular in giving this incident,
because it has been by various writers of the life of Lee confounded with the other two incidents of a like character which I have before given. In fact, to our great Commander, "so low in his opinion of himself and so sublime in all his actions," these were matters of small moment; and when written to by a friend in Maryland (Judge Mason), after the war, as to whether such an incident ever occurred, replied briefly, "Yes; General Gordon was the General;" - alluding thus concisely to the incident of the early morning of the 12th, when General Gordon led the charge, passing over the similar occurrences entirely, in his characteristic manner of never speaking of himself when he could kept it. But that which was a small matter to him was a great one to the men whom he thus led.


 
 

Taken from the Southern Historical Society Papers, Richmond, Va
Volume VIII - March 1880 - No 3.  March  Paqes 105 -110

Portrait of General Lee from Columbia Record Lp entitled
"The Confederacy" 
 
 

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