Chapter One1. Lee
July 13, 1863
It was a high bluff, overlooking the dark violence of the swollen river. He sat alone, watched as the men fell into line and the columns began moving slowly through the steady rain. He felt the coolness run down his neck, the water soaking every part of him, his hat, his clothes. A vast sea of mud surrounded them all. The Potomac was rising again, was well beyond their ability to ford, as they might have done before the rains. Now, it was angry and swirling. In the darkness, the motion was accented by the small fires that lined the riverbank, a flickering protest to the misery of the weather, the only guiding light the men would have to reach the crossing.
Lee straightened his back, stretched, pulled at the miserable wetness in his clothes. He reached down, patted Traveller gently, said quietly to the horse, "He has given us one more night ... he has not come."
He was thinking now of George Meade, the commander of the vast Federal army he knew was encamped out there, somewhere, deep in the thick darkness. He had expected them to come at him well before now. It had been ten days, and Lee's army had been strung out for miles, moving southwest away from Gettysburg. The army had begun the march away from the bloody fields in a terrible downpour, led away by the wagons of the wounded, and Meade had not pursued. But they reached the Potomac to find the river swollen nearly out of its banks, their one good bridge swept away, and so they would have to try to build another, or wait longer for the river to drop.
When Meade had finally moved, he pushed his army in a more roundabout way, to come at them from downriver. But there was too much time, Lee's men had fortified into a strong defensive line, and so Meade waited again. Lee had known the risk was enormous, and he feared the attack at any time. There was some skirmishing, small outbreaks of musket fire, the feeling out of two great armies close together. The only real assaults had been with cavalry, all along the march, the Federal horsemen thrusting and jabbing, while Stuart held them away from the main lines. When the skies finally cleared and the roads began to dry, Meade moved his army close, and Lee was backed hard against the high water. Now they had dug in, the quick work of men with shovels, because even the foot soldiers knew that they were trapped and a strong push from a healthy enemy could crush them. But Meade did not come.
It was Major Harman, the foul-tempered and foul-mouthed quarter-master of Jackson's old Second Corps, who saved the day. Lee smiled now, remembered Jackson's embarrassment as Harman would ride by, screaming profanities at a line of slow moving wagons. Jackson would glance at Lee like a small boy expecting an angry response from a stern parent, and Lee would look away, would make no issue of it, knew well that Jackson would tolerate the man's harsh outbursts because he was very good at his job. Now Harman was serving new commanders, and still did his job. He'd scouted the countryside, found the abandoned houses and barns, the people far away from this invading army. Harman ordered the houses dismantled and the wood planking thrown into the river, swept downstream to where the engineers waited. The wood was collected and strung together into a snaking mass of ragged timber. They had laid tree branches across the planks, muffling the sounds of the wagons' wheels, and now the ambulances and the guns and the weary soldiers were finally crossing the river.
Lee still watched them, the glow from the fires throwing light and shadows on the faces, some looking up toward him, seeing him on the high knoll. But most stared straight ahead, looked silently at the back of the man in front, or down at the slow rhythm of bare feet, moving slowly, carefully, and they all knew they were marching south.
He thought of Jackson again, closed his eyes and saw the sharp face, the brightness in the clear blue eyes. We miss you, General. No, do not think on that. He opened his eyes, looked around to his staff, saw Taylor, sitting with the others, a cluster of black raincoats.
"Major, have we heard from General Ewell?"
Taylor moved up, pushed his horse through the mud close to Lee. "Yes, sir. He reports his men are crossing well. They should be south of the river by daylight."
Lee nodded, wanted to say more, to break away from the thoughts of Jackson, but the image was still there, would not go. Lee turned back toward the march of the men, felt the wetness again. Taylor waited, watched Lee, could sense his mood through the darkness, backed his horse away.
Below, along the river, a group of horsemen moved out of the woods, and Lee saw the flag of the First Corps. They rode slowly toward the knoll, then one man moved out in front and spurred his horse up the hill, broad thick shoulders slumped against the rain. The wind suddenly began to blow, the rain slicing across them, and the big man leaned into it, held his hat in place with a gloved hand.
"General Longstreet ..."
Longstreet looked up, peered from under the wide wet hat, nodded, saluted. "General Lee. We're moving pretty quick, considering the conditions. The bridge may not hold. We're watching it pretty close ... both sides of the river."
"It is a blessing, General." Lee looked to the water again, the slow march of the troops. "Major Harman may have saved this army."
Longstreet followed Lee's look, and for a moment the wind stopped and there was just the quiet sound of the rain. Suddenly, beyond the trees, there was a rumble, one sharp blast from a big gun. They waited for more, but the silence flowed back around them. Longstreet looked that way, said, "Damned fools ... save your ammunition."
He looked toward Lee, lowered his head, did not like to swear in front of Lee, but Lee did not seem to notice, was again staring at the marching troops. Longstreet saw now that Lee was counting, nodding to the regimental flags as they caught the brief flickers from the fires.
"We'll make it all right, sir. If Meade hasn't hit us by now, heisn't coming at all. Ewell is making good time down below, andthe First Corps is nearly all across. Hill's corps is right behind us."
Lee nodded, looked now out in the darkness, to the far trees. "He should have hit us here. We gave him an opportunity. God ... gave him an opportunity. The rains slowed us, kept us here. Now, God has taken his opportunity away."
Lee paused, and Longstreet waited.
Lee said, "I don't understand His ways.... I thought it would never be like this. The Almighty was with us, the fight was ours ... we should have won the day. But it was not to be. I thought ... I understood. But now, He is allowing us to go back home."
Longstreet looked at Lee for a long moment, said, "I thought Meade would end it. He is making a mistake letting us escape. I suppose ... there will be another day."
Now there was the sharp sound of another gun, a brief flash of light in the trees far downriver, then another gun, closer, the reply. Lee watched, sat up straight.
Longstreet said, "No musket fire. They're just playing ... probably firing at the wind. Meade's cavalry is moving around, but no infantry. They're still in place."
Lee shook his head. "He dug trenches. He came right at us, and then dug trenches."
Longstreet said, "The scouts have been bringing in some numbers.... Word is, he's pretty beat up. Maybe worse than us. They lost some good people.... John Reynolds is dead, that's for certain. I heard Hancock was down, and Dan Sickles. Meade's still new to command, doesn't want to make any mistakes. He won the fight, he knows it. Let those folks in Washington absorb that. They haven't had much to cheer about."
Lee looked at Longstreet, ran the names through his mind. "General, he has not lost what we have lost. We cannot replace what has been taken from us, and this fight has taken too much. I do not understand why we have been ... punished so. We could have ended the war, right over there, if we had prevailed on that ground. The pressure on Washington ... we took the fight to them, it was the only way. And we have paid a terrible price." He paused, said quietly, to himself, "I would have thought ... surely God does not want this to go on."
Longstreet watched the troops again, said, "There were many mistakes."
Lee did not answer, thought again of Jackson, closed his eyes, fought the image. But it would not go away. The image stared hard at him, and Lee knew that Jackson was there, had seen the great fight, the great bloody disaster. Lee thought, If you had been here ... if you had led them ... it would have been very different.
From down below, one of Longstreet's staff moved up the hill, said, "General, excuse me. The last of the corps is on the bridge, sir. General Hill's column is forming on the road, behind those woods."
Longstreet turned, nodded. "Thank you, Major. We'll move acrossin a minute." He turned to Lee, paused, saw Lee's eyes closed, said quietly, "General Lee? With your permission, sir, I will take my staff across the river. I expect General Hill should report to you soon. I'm sure he wants to get across this river as much as we do."
Lee looked at him now, and Longstreet suddenly felt foolish, knew it was the wrong thing to say.
Lee looked into the shadow of Longstreet's face. He felt a small tug of anger, but he would not say anything of it, would not lay blame on anyone. "General Longstreet, you may accompany your corps."
Longstreet bowed slightly, saluted, pulled the horse away. Lee watched him, the staff gathering together, the horses moving in slippery steps down to the bridge head.
Longstreet was right, there were many mistakes. But he would not think on that now, would not see the faces, the commanders who had not done the job, would not think on troop movements and poor cooperation, could not even recall his own orders, the horrors of what he had seen, what they had all seen in those three days. He had tried to understand it, to sort it out, but it was too soon, and he knew the memories would come back in time, and the images would be as sharp and painful as so many of the memories he carried from the fights long before.
Even the great victories held vast horror, but he could not even recall those, the days when you knew you had beaten those people, had driven them from the field, commanders like Pope and Hooker, who by their bluster and profane arrogance invited nothing less than total defeat. And the incompetence of Burnside, who threw his very good army against an impossibly strong position, and so sent his own men to a senseless slaughter. Lee tried to recall the feeling, standing on his hill behind Fredericksburg, hearing the bright yells and joyous shouts from below, his men looking out at the bloody fields in front of them, understanding how utterly complete their victory had been. He tried to remember the chaos at Chancellorsville, the complete destruction of the Federal flank, how Jackson had nearly crushed the Federal army in a panic so complete that had the daylight not run out ... it could have ended the war right there. But Jackson would not be stopped by nightfall, kept moving forward, even when his men could not, and in a dark and terrifying night his own men had panicked at the sound of horses, had fired at silhouettes in the moonlight.
Lee saw the face again. He had not been to see Jackson after he was wounded, but the reports from the doctors, from the staff, were optimistic, just an arm, he would recover. Then suddenly the bright blue light was gone, and not from the wounds, but from pneumo-nia. And it was only ... He tried to think. Two months ago. Or an eternity.
Already now there were letters, reports beginning to move through the army, commanders deflecting the blame they knew was yet to come. There would be the newspapers, of course, and the letters from home, questioning. Some of the officers had already made protests, angry challenges, hot criticisms of the generals Lee trusted so much, men he had to trust. But those men had not performed, and in the maze of faces and names and mistakes, he knew that ultimately no one could be held responsible but him.
Now there was fresh motion on the road, reflections from a new line of troops. It was the Third Corps, A. P. Hill's men. They moved out of the woods, marched down toward the angry water, and again Lee watched, sat quietly on Traveller as his army moved silently through the wet misery of the retreat, knowing once again the war would roll on in a bloody wash of men and machines back into Virginia.
He halted the army south of the Rapidan River, near Orange Court House, and as they slowly gathered together, many of the stragglers and men with light wounds began to return. In the weeks since the start of the retreat, it was the first time Lee could see his army for what it had now become, how badly the impact of Gettysburg had changed the strength, how deep were the wounds.
The fields around the Rapidan were bare now. No farmers workedthe land, the homes and barns were empty, most of the big trees were gone. The war had long since claimed this part of Virginia, and Lee hardly recognized this countryside. He stood at the edge of a wide field of dried mud, knew that this land, this fertile and beautiful ground, had once borne the bounty, the tall corn, the vast green oceans of grain. Now it was gray and barren, wagon tracks cutting through in all directions, the former campsites of both armies, and for now it was his again.
The men were spread out around him, secure in the new camp, and Lee rode along the hard road, away from his own tents, where the staff worked with the papers, sorting out the problems in the regiments, the brigades, the endless fight for supplies.
Taylor had encouraged him to slip away, and Lee was grateful, knew this young man with the boundless energy could handle the business of headquarters, the vast clutter of details. He rode slowly away, did not look back, did not see Taylor watching him, peering past the lengthening line of soldiers, officers, men with complaints or "urgent" business.
He moved down the hard road, past the troops who now stopped to watch him. There were shouts, calls of greeting, and even now, even with the hard wounds of the great defeat, the men still rose up and gathered, still called his name. He reined the horse, lifted his hat, a small salute, looked at the faces and then beyond, saw the numbers, the wide field spread with the men who were still there, still with him. They did not look to him for comfort or pity, and he did not see pain or defeat. They still made the cheerful calls, faces bright with the look that says, We are still your army, and we will fight again.
There had been desertions, many stragglers who were captured or simply disappeared. The muddy roads out of Pennsylvania had swallowed up many who had lost the strength, the energy, for the fight. The casualties were staggering, over twenty thousand men, nearly a quarter of his army gone. But as much as he mourned the loss of the fighting men, it was their commanders, the brigade and regimental officers, who would have to replaced. As the war flowed into its third year, the men who knew how to lead, the capable commanders with an instinct for battle, were becoming more and more scarce.
He thought of the names, saw the faces: Lew Armistead, Jim Barksdale, Pender, Garnett, Pettigrew. They were gone, and there were none better. He thought of young John Bell Hood, the huge blond-haired man from Texas whom he had known so well in the old cavalry, the man who loved chasing Comanches all through the misery of the frontier. Lee had always thought Hood was indestructible, but he was down too, a severe wound, might still lose an arm. And old Isaac Trimble, the man who brought him the news of Ewell's failure to take Cemetery Hill, a catastrophic mistake in a fight with many mistakes. Trimble was a fierce and disagreeable man whom Lee knew he could trust absolutely, but Trimble had been wounded as well, had to be left behind, and so was captured.
You could not train new leaders, you could not replace what a man had brought with him from the battlefields in Mexico. There was no fresh class from West Point or VMI. The new officers were young, very young, and if a man did not have the gut instinct, could not take his men forward with absolute command of himself and his situation, there was no time to teach him, to show him his mistakes. Now, when mistakes were made, the men did not come back.
He spurred the horse again, moved beyond the camp, saw the road turning through a small grove of thick trees. It was hot, growing hotter, and he looked to the shade, moved that way. He heard the sound of water, saw a small stream snaking its way in the dark coolness, flowing close to the road. He reined the horse, watched the thin stream of water rolling over polished rocks, was suddenly very thirsty. He climbed down, and Traveller moved to the water with him. Lee bent low, cupped his hand and took a deep cold drink. He stood, wiped at his face with a wet hand, watched the horse now nosing the edge of the stream. He could still hear the men, the sounds of the camp carrying beyond the fields, and there was even music, a banjo, and he smiled at that, felt a sudden pride. Yes, he thought, they are not beaten. I should take a lesson from that.
He reached into his pocket, felt for the letter, pulled it out. It was the reply, the inevitable response from Jefferson Davis. Lee understood that in this army, in any army, it was the commander who must bear the responsibility. If he did not dwell on that, the newspapers did, great ponderous prose from the fat men in their clean offices in Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, the men who had built up the expectations of their nation with the move northward. They gave their readers the first reports of the glorious invasion of the North, reported outrageous rumors as fact, the defeat of Meade's army, the imminent capture of Washington.
Lee had not seen the papers until after the battle, then read the absurd reports with deep dread, because he knew that when the truth came out, when the reports of the fighting became real, the impact would be far worse. So with the first major accounts from Pennsylvania, the papers that had given the people grand headlines of their mythic victory, the victory that would surely end the war, now gave them the story of crushing defeat. The papers had provided the power behind the myth, and many had come to believe that his army was invincible. Now they had to accept that it was not always so, and many would not accept it. Even the reasonable, moderate voices could not temper what many were saying. Lee had lost the fight. As he absorbed the anger, the reckless calls from the papers, the voices of those quick to place blame, to seek the simple explanation, he responded in the only way he could. In early August his letter of resignation had gone to the president.
The letter had been as much a response to the papers as to the president personally, an effort to relieve any criticism of the army, the men who had done the fighting. And if Lee accepted responsibility for the failure, he also began to accept that his health was becoming an issue, and for the first time he had wondered if his heart problems might have clouded his judgment. So, at least he had provided Davis with an excuse, a reason for accepting his resignation, which would preserve his honor.
Now, as Lee stood beside the big horse in the cool shade, he held Davis's reply in his hand. He opened the letter, read it again. If Davis had become fragile, even suspicious and secretive in his dealings with his other commanders, he could still show Lee the warmth that many never saw, that Lee had often forgotten. He scanned the page, paused at the words "my dear friend," smiled, then read silently.
To ask me to substitute you by one in my judgment more fit to command, or who could possess more of the confidences of the army, or of the reflecting men of the country, is to demand an impossibility.
He looked back toward the sounds from the field, thought, The confidences of the army. He knew Davis was right, he had just seen it again in the faces of the men. He put his hand out, touched Traveller's neck, said aloud, "Well, if they want me to lead them still, then I will lead them. After all, my friend, what else can I do?"
He climbed up, considered moving farther away, exploring the road deeper into the shade of the trees, but before he could tug at the reins, the big gray horse turned its head and began to carry him back to his men.