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‘Lee to the Rear!’
A Texas private’s long-forgotten account of Robert E. Lee’s brush with death at the Battle of the Wilderness.

On May 6, 1864, following a day of inconclusive fighting in the Wilderness, General Robert E. Lee watched at the edge of the Widow Tapp’s field as the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps drove westward on the Brock Road toward the vulnerable right flank of A.P. Hill’s Corps. Just as a Union breakthrough seemed imminent, Lee spied the approaching van of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps. The famed Texas Brigade of the 1st, 4th and 5th Texas, and the 3rd Arkansas, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Gregg, was near the front of that gray column—and they may very well have saved Lee’s life that day. What happened in the Widow Tapp’s field could have altered the war’s course.

As the Texans reached the battlefield, Lee attempted to lead them into battle. But the men refused to let him take that risk. They forcibly led Lee and his horse Traveller away from danger, then joined the rest of Longstreet’s soldiers in stemming the Federal tide.

The “Lee-to-the Rear” incident has long been regarded as one of the most dramatic episodes in the storied history of the Army of Northern Virginia. Over the years, various eyewitness accounts of the episode have made it into print, dozens of historians have analyzed the meaning of the moment and numerous artists have interpreted the chaotic scene. The recently discovered account excerpted here, first published in Texas Magazine in January 1912 by James H. Cosgrove, a 23-year-old private in Company C of the 4th Texas, sheds new light on the incident. No previous account has made it clear that a man was killed while leading Traveller to the rear, illustrating how close the South came to losing its best general.

As Longstreet’s men approached the Wilderness’ smoky thickets on the morning of May 6, they lagged far behind the schedule that Lee had hoped for. In this instance, unlike at other controversial moments during the war, Longstreet does not deserve blame for the tardiness. The men had moved steadily most of the night—“fast and double quick as much as we could,” one of them wrote. Another called the pace “a turkey trot.”

Near Parker’s Store, not far west of the front lines, two approaching divisions converged and had to share the Orange Plank Road corridor. General Joseph B. Kershaw’s men deployed to contest the virtually unchecked enemy ad­vance on their right (south) of the Plank Road: Georgians under General Goode Bryan; Mississippians of Gener­al B.G. Humphreys’ Brigade; and Kershaw’s old command, now led by Colonel John W. Henagan.

Kershaw’s doughty warriors restored order and bought time for the Texans to arrive at the edge of the Widow Tapp’s field. As the Texas Brigade turned left off the Plank Road and formed along the western edge of the widow’s three-dozen cleared acres, Private Cosgrove was in the ranks, clutching his rifle. His description follows:

What a beautiful morning that was as we met in ascending a long, red Virginia hill….A clear, majestic sun, dispelling lazy fragments of fog, warmed with its beams the chills of the past night….Not a sound of all the first day’s fighting had reached us. We had moved with the rapidity of a forced march from Gordonsville, coursing our way through deep woods….

I am to tell of how I saw General Lee, as he rode at full speed across the front of our brigade, then leading the division, in column of attack…in support of the Canton, Mississippi, battery, firing desperately into the pine thicket a few hundred yards away. These thickets were crowned with the tops of Federal battle flags, showing a large force, which was further evidenced by a musketry fire withering in the extreme….

In this mighty din, with Field’s and McLaw[s]’s divisions…panting in leash, General Lee, accompanied by a single courier—a lad just beyond his teens…Brown, yet living near Canton, Mississippi—spurred up to the battery commander….Around me were dead and falling men and horses and above me the incessant and deafening hiss of a storm of bullets….Near me, lying on a rubber blanket, was the body of a handsome young lieutenant of the artillery company….His features, beautiful in death, will be with me always….Here it was that Lee rode out to lead his army in a charge for the first time!

We were called to attention, and, in moving forward, “arms at right shoulder, guide center,” I saw General Lee somewhere near the center of the brigade front formation, when the cry went up, “Lee to the rear! The general to the rear!” and the brigade halted….

Ordnance Officer Randall of Rusk, Texas, seized General Lee’s bridle and was killed dragging his horse back to the rear. The enemy was at point blank distance and the firing upon us was very, very heavy. Then came that trumpet voice of General Gregg, our brigade commander: “Men, the eyes of your general are upon you; forward, and give them hell!” Into that zone of death headlong went the brigade.

Coming out wounded, some twenty or thirty minutes later, I saw General Lee near where Lieutenant Randall had fallen, and as I passed with a group of others hurt, I heard him say: “Men, everything is prepared for you at the field hospital…..” And the wounded, some of them even unto death, cheered him.

To gaze upon a beloved commander at a moment and upon an occasion which would be particularly marked in history is reserved for but comparatively few, and the impression will be lasting.

This vision at once suggests itself to me when I hear General Lee’s name mentioned, and it is the most vivid mental picture I retained of the general, or of any event of the war coming under my personal observation.”

The details reflected in Cosgrove’s account stand up to investigation. Lieutenant Whitaker P. Randall, acting ordnance officer on General Gregg’s staff, was in fact killed on May 6. He was only 24. The Texas Brigade suffered nearly 600 casualties—including Cosgrove, who was wounded—that day out of a total strength of not much more than 800. Some sorrowing comrade must have marked Randall’s burial spot, because the ordnance officer’s remains were eventually interred in the Confederate Cemetery on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, where a marker spells his name almost correctly.

James Cosgrove had enlisted at Owensville, Texas, on April 19, 1861. He apparently crossed into Texas from Louisiana for the purpose, as the 1860 census did not enumerate a single Cosgrove anywhere in Texas. After the war, Cosgrove returned to Louisiana. He was living in Shreveport in 1913, and as late as 1915 an inquiry about his service went to the Louisiana pension board. His widow, Julia A. Cosgrove, later applied for a pension based on James’ wartime record.

Robert K. Krick is well known for his dogged research, which uncovers gems such as Cosgrove’s account.