American History Stories—Volume IV - Mara L. Pratt

On to Richmond!

This was the war-cry for 1864. On to Richmond! had been the cry of the Army of the Potomac ever since the war began; but, as we know, that army had never succeeded in getting there.

Now the Army of the West, having swept the enemy all out of Kentucky and Tennessee over into Georgia, set up as their cry, "On to Atlanta!"

Grant, during this time had come to be spoken of in the papers as "that General in the West who talks little, but does much."

"I should like to talk with that little Western General," said Lincoln. "He seems to be the sort of a man to DO." And so it came about that in the spring of 1864 Grant was made Lieutenant-general of the United States armies, and called to take command of the Army of the Potomac.

Grant came. He knew that it was no easy task he had before him; but he knew, also, that this wretched war could be brought to an end speedily if only some one was wise enough to know the way.

After looking over the ground, Grant said, "Our armies have been acting like balky horses—never pulling together. Now I propose to keep close at Lee's heels. I'll hammer and hammer at him until he is all worn out."

Having visited all the armies to know just what sort of soldiers, and what sort of officers he had to deal with, on the 3d of May, 1864, Grant started out to "hammer" Lee. At nearly the same, time Lee started out. The armies met at a place called "The Wilderness." A terrible battle followed,—one of the bloodiest of the war. Grant had begun his "hammering." All day long the armies fought, and when darkness came, fell back, tired indeed; still neither side was ready to yield. During the night aid came to Lee; but, at the same time, Burnside came to the aid of Grant. Lee planned to make an attack upon Grant's army at two o'clock in the morning; Grant also had planned to make an attack upon Lee's army at two o'clock in the morning.

Another day of terrible slaughter followed. Again night fell, leaving two bruised and broken armies, neither willing to admit itself defeated.

After such a battle as this had been the Army of the Potomac had been in the habit of falling back; so, when the order came from Grant to break up camp, the army supposed they were to fall back as usual. But that was not Grant's way. Although he had not defeated Lee, Grant knew that he had greatly shattered his forces. He therefore proposed to go on—the quicker the better.

When it was understood that Grant intended to go on, the soldiers, tired as they were from the long battle, sent up such a chorus of shouts, that you would have thought the very skies would have fallen.

I wonder what Lee thought when he heard those cheers. Surely it didn't sound as if the army was preparing to slink away like whipped dogs.

On the army went, with faces toward Richmond. "Richmond, Richmond, Richmond," was all Grant seemed to think of. If an officer asked, "What for tomorrow, general?" he said, "Richmond." If an officer came to him full of hope and eager to go on, Grant gave him a good hearty handshake, and said, "Richmond, my man!" If an officer came discouraged and doubting, Grant still said, "Richmond."

It was at this time that Grant sent the telegram to Lincoln which became so famous: "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."

On the 2d of June another terrible battle was fought at Cold Harbor. Lee, who was now no longer strong enough to make an attack, fell back towards Richmond.

After this battle, Grant decided to take his army across the river, and find the weakest point for attack upon the enemy's forces.

He formed a plan of attack on Petersburg, a place only a few miles from Richmond. As soon as Lee knew what his plans were to be, he poured his army into the city to defend it, and made the fortifications doubly strong.

Grant made one attack upon it, but it was a sad failure. He did not, however, retreat, but settled down before the city, determined to wait for another chance.

Meantime Burnside's soldiers set to work digging out an underground tunnel to one of the strongest forts of the city. For a whole month they worked, planning to undermine it and blow it up with gunpowder. On the 30th of July the mine was exploded. A terrible roar was the first warning to the people in the city. Stones, guns, and pieces of cannon were thrown high in the air. The earth shook as from an earthquake.

When it was over, a great hole like the crater of a volcano was seen in the very middle of the defences. Now came the order to "charge!" But so slowly could they advance over the ruins and heaps of rubbish, that before they were upon the defences the Confederates had rallied from the shock, and were ready to fight like madmen. The crater became to the Union soldiers a "pit of death." The great pit was filled with human bodies, black and white; men, trying to climb from the pit, were driven back with muskets and clubs. It was a scene of horror; and, as Grant himself said, "a needlessly miserable affair."

After this, Grant did little more during the fall and early winter than to hold what he had gained. All this time Sherman had been steadily "marching through Georgia," and on towards Richmond from the South. Everywhere the enemy had retreated before his brave army, and Grant was holding Lee firmly in his grasp at Petersburg.

When January of 1865 dawned, the Southern Confederates knew their end was at hand. Grant, with his persistent "hammering," and Sherman, with his brilliant marching, had indeed drawn their snares close around the Confederate Army.

In March, Lee resolved to make one more attack upon Grant's forces. He hoped to get through Grant's lines and join Johnston's forces in North Carolina. Accordingly, a sudden attack was made, and Fort Steadman, the principal point in all Grant's defences fell into Lee's hands.

Grant was indeed surprised. But soon the Union soldiers rallied, and the Confederates were driven back with great loss of men.

Grant, now that the weather was growing warm, and the muddy bogs and roads were becoming firm and dry, sent word to Sheridan that he had now made up his mind to end this matter. Sheridan, always full of hope and bravery. and quick to move, hastened to Grant's quarters with fresh troops from West Virginia.

Lee's forces were stretched in a circle forty miles around Richmond; but the lines were very thin, and Grant made up his mind that it was time to attack them. Sending Sheridan with horsemen to a place called "Five Forks," where Lee's force was especially weak, he himself began his "hammering," as he still called it, on Petersburg.

Lee was in a fix! He needed all his forces at Petersburg. and he needed them all at Five Forks. At four o'clock in the afternoon of April Fool's Day, the charge was made. The Confederates fought bravely enough. Had their cause been a just one, they had certainly deserved to win. But there was no hope! Soon they were in full flight, Sheridan's cavalry at their heels.

Lee was a brave, wise general. He was a hard man to conquer, but he knew when he was conquered. "Leave Richmond at once," he telegraphed to Jefferson Davis, when his soldiers came flying into Petersburg with the news of their defeat.

The telegram reached Davis the following morning, Sunday, and was carried to him at church. Davis rose and quietly left the church. No one knew what the telegram had told him; nor did he intend they should until he had satisfied himself there was no help. Not until afternoon did he allow it to be generally known that the city was lost. The people knew a battle had been going on; but battles as near as Richmond had gone on before when McClellan was in command, and no harm had come to their city from it.