Monday, February 15, 2016

The Charge of General Lee (or did he?).

It is a familiar scene for those of us who study the War. General Lee, concerned about repairing the breach, twice appeared at the head of Confederate troops, prepared to lead them into the heat of the battle. At the Wilderness, it was at the head of the Texas brigade. During the morning fight at Spotsyvlvania Court House, almost a week later, it was Gordon's brigade of Georgians.

Yet, is there a third account that has gone unreported in the annuals of history.

Spotsylvania Court House marker
On the afternoon of May 12, Lee appeared along the line near Heth's Salient. He sent some of the Sharpshooters from Lane's North Carolina brigade forward to ascertain if a Federal battery was supported by infantry. Based upon the intelligence gathered, Lee chose to attack and capture the battery, and roll up Burnside's flank, if possible, relieving the pressure on the Mule Shoe. Lane's brigade, supported by Weisiger's brigade, moved out into the woods , capturing the battery and striking the flank of a new division of Burnside's men being launched towards the Confederate lines. Lane's attack was successful to a degree: the Federal guns were captured, although there was no way to bring them off the field, and Burnside's attack crumbled. Lane might have accomplished more if Weisiger had not become lost in the woods, firing into the rear of the North Carolinians.

Did Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, lead Lane's attack?

Two post-war accounts lean in that direction.

Brig. Gen. James H. Lane wrote about his near capture on June 30, 1983: "That afternoon [May 12, 1864], in obedience to orders from General Lee and under his eye, we crossed the works and entered the oak woods, from which we drove the enemy's skirmishers, and attacked Burnside's corps in flank as it advanced to assault the salient. The General and staff and all of the regimental foot officers were on foot."

Two points about this account. One: Lane writes that they were under the "eye" of General Lee. That simply could mean that Lee watched the brigade advance over the works and into the woods, or that Lee had accompanied them further. Two: All throughout the article, Lane refers to himself in first person. "I was with that part of the line which swept over the Federal battery," he writes. Yet Lane tells us that "The General and staff and all of the regimental officers were on foot." He does not write "[I] and [my] staff and all of the regimental officers."

The second account comes from Octavious Wiggins, a lieutenant in the 37th North Carolina, and was written in 1903. Wiggins chronicles that the men were under artillery fire as they move over the works and into the woods. He then writes: "General Lee was riding very close to us at the time" that the attack started. (Clark, North Carolina Regiments, Vol. 2, 666.)

A third account, written by William W. Chamberlaine, a staff office under Lee, seems to dissuade me of the idea. He writes that as the attack was going forward (totally leaving out Lane, who did the lion's share of the work), Confederate artillery opened fire on Burnside's men, and Lane's brigade got caught up in it. Chamberlaine writes that "soon we saw General Lee galloping on the road towards us. Shells were dropping in the road, but he reached us in safety. He directed General Early to have the Batteries cease firing." Chamberlaine's account was published in 1912.

Three accounts: two that lend support to the idea that Lee was close by Lane's brigade during the attack, and third stating he was not. Sure wish I could find something from 1864 to confirm either account. 

No comments: