Washington and Lee University

The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton

CHAPTER X
IN CHIEF COMMAND

WHEN Lee returned to Virginia from the South, he saw his devoted wife for the first time since they had parted at Arlington. There was little time even now for him to be with his family, for the call for him to go to Richmond as President Davis's chief military adviser came almost at once. Mrs. Lee and her daughters were then at the White House, but, as McClellan advanced in that direction, they also went to Richmond. On the door of her house Mrs. Lee left this card:—

Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.

A grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington.

McClellan chose the place as his headquarters, and one of his officers wrote beneath Mrs. Lee's card: “A Northern officer has protected your property in sight of the enemy.” But when the change of base was made by McClellan, the house was burned. No military operations of importance had taken place in Virginia since the battle of Manassas. General McClellan was busy organizing and training what was to become that superb fighting machine, the “Army of the Potomac.” The North clamored for the capture of Richmond, so the Washington Administration centered its attention upon this. There were four possible ways of reaching the city. An army might go by the Chesapeake and from there up the Peninsula between the Potomac and York Rivers. A second way was by the Chesapeake and the Rappahannock River. Another was by Manassas, which was still the most important point in central Virginia because of the junction of important railroads there. The fourth was by the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville. The Administration favored another attempt at Manassas, where General Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Confederate forces, because that method would keep the Federal army between the Confederates and Washington. McClellan preferred the route by the Rappahannock, but he was forbidden to try it. He then selected that by the Chesapeake and up the Peninsula, and in March, with an army of over one hundred thousand men, he sailed for Fortress Monroe. From there the army advanced slowly up the Peninsula. The small Confederate force at Yorktown, under General Magruder, resisted his advance vigorously and succeeded in delaying him a month. In the meantime General Johnston assumed command and evacuated Yorktown before it could be bombarded. At Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, McClellan attacked the Confederates, now between thirty and forty thousand strong. He was repulsed, and so failed to prevent the successful retreat of the Confederates across the Chickahominy River in the direction of Richmond.

McClellan followed slowly, making only fifty miles in two weeks. He thought Johnston's strength much greater than it really was and continually asked for strong reinforcements. These were not sent because the President feared that Washington would be captured by Jackson. General Thomas J. Jackson, who had won at Manassas the name of “Stonewall,” was in command in the Shenandoah Valley against the forces under Generals McDowell, Banks, and Fremont. Acting upon Lee's suggestion he now began his famous Valley Campaign. With a force of fifteen thousand men, in a space of forty days, he marched four hundred miles, thereby winning for his men the name of “Jackson's Foot Cavalry,” fought three important battles and two minor ones, winning them all and almost destroying three Federal armies whose combined force was more than forty thousand men. He took thirty-five hundred prisoners and also captured valuable supplies. He also prevented the sending of reinforcements to McClellan.

In the meantime Norfolk had been evacuated by the Confederate forces, the Merrimac, undefeated, had been destroyed, and Federal gunboats had taken possession of the James River up to Drewry's Bluff, just outside of Richmond. But in spite of this assistance, McClellan had still delayed. He finally divided his force, and Johnston, taking advantage of this, attacked one wing of his army at Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, and fought an inconclusive battle, in which Johnston was severely wounded. Apparently the Confederates lost this battle only because of General Longstreet's delay in coming up, which turned it into a Union victory. Richmond came near to being taken, McClellan's army coming in sight of its church steeples, and one corps reaching a point only four miles from the city. At this crisis Lee was directed by the President to take personal command, and, on the 1st of June, he joined the army.

The force at Lee's command was only eighty thousand men to oppose the one hundred and fifteen thousand commanded by McClellan, but McClellan, as always, firmly believed that he was outnumbered. Many people still thought that Lee was fitted only for defensive work. He now began to prove his ability along other lines of warfare and showed himself possessed of a dash and daring far beyond that of most commanders. Withdrawing his army nearer Richmond, he immediately threw up strong earthworks, thereby protecting his whole line of defense, and called in all the troops he could get. McClellan was inactive, but Lee had no notion of remaining long within the entrenchments. He prepared for an aggressive campaign to drive the enemy away from Richmond. His first move was to send General J. E. B. Stuart with a small force of cavalry to locate McClellan's right flank. Stuart, who was one of the world's great cavalry leaders, took his force completely around the entire Federal army. Those forces which opposed him were driven back and a great quantity of stores was captured. One corps of the Federal army was on the north bank of the Chickahominy, protecting the line of communication with the base on York River. The breaking of this line would cause a dangerous retreat.

Jackson was now secretly summoned from the Valley to fall on McClellan's right flank and rear, and, in order to deceive McClellan, at the same time troops were detached from the main army in front of Richmond and apparently started for the Valley. The plan was a bold one, for, if McClellan should move forward, he would be much nearer Richmond and in a much stronger position and with only twenty-five thousand troops before him. Lee, however, possessed the gift, which means so much to an army commander, of foreseeing what the enemy would do, and he felt sure that McClellan would once more overestimate the Confederate force. With characteristic boldness he divided his force, and, for a time, the main body of his army was farther from Richmond than the Federal army.

On June 26 there began what are known as the Seven Days' Battles. Jackson had counted on greater speed from his men than was possible for them and was a day late, so that the Confederate attack was repulsed before he arrived. But on the next day, at Gaines's Mills, Jackson and his men having reached the battle-field, the Federal right wing was shattered and the army forced to retreat. McClellan now determined to change his base to the James River and, thus completely deceiving Lee, was able to bring his army together, burn his stores, and retreat in good order. Late the next night the Confederates finally discovered the plan and followed McClellan. Hotly contested battles took place, one at Savage's Station without decisive result, and one at Frazier*s Farm, which was a victory for the Confederates. Finally, the Federal forces in retreat took a strong position at Malvern Hill. Here, after a furious battle, the Confederate attack was repulsed. McClellan, still retreating, however, sought the protection of the Federal gunboats at Harrison's Landing on the James. Lee, with an exhausted but exultant army, returned toward Richmond, having succeeded in his purpose of raising the siege. He had. captured many prisoners as well as a large amount of artillery and small arms and other supplies of great value to his army. It was the failure of those under Lee to obey his orders during these operations which prevented his dealing a crushing blow to McClellan's forces, but the Federal army had fought with superb bravery and splendid dash and daring. It was plain that it was not likely to suffer again such a rout as that at Manassas. Lee on this occasion displayed the weakness—which was his greatest one as a commander—of being inclined, through tenderness of heart, to overlook such failures in obedience from his subordinate commanders and to let them go unpunished. In spite of this repulse of the Federals, Richmond was in grave danger. McClellan was only a few miles away and it was possible for him to cross the river and attack Richmond on the south and also cut the Richmond and Danville Railroad by which Richmond was connected with a valuable source of supplies. President Lincoln now called for five hundred thousand volunteers and appointed General H. W. Halleck commander of the Federal forces. He placed at the head of the army in front of Washington General John Pope, who had gained some small success in the West. Pope, who was boastful, had made much of this and hoped to replace McClellan. Lee now detached Jackson's command from the army and sent him to meet Pope. McClellan, on the other side, was ordered to leave Fredericksburg and join Pope, whereupon Lee sent Longstreet to aid Jackson and he himself followed almost immediately. Before McClellan's army could reach Pope, Lee succeeded in sending Longstreet and Jackson around Pope's right flank to a position between the Federal army and Washington. The second battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, was then fought, in which Lee's army of fifty thousand men overwhelmingly defeated Pope's army of seventy-five thousand and pushed it back to Washington. Pope was at once removed from command.

Lee, after much consideration of the matter, now decided to invade the North. He hoped to draw Maryland to the support of the Confederacy, and he felt, too, that such a move would so alarm the North that the Federal troops would be withdrawn from Virginia in order to defend Washington. The Confederate Army, singing “Dixie” and “Maryland, my Maryland,” crossed the Potomac near Harper's Ferry. They expected the people of Maryland to rally at once to the Stars and Bars, and Lee issued a proclamation urging them to rise against the North. He gained little response, for there was a good deal of Union sentiment in that part of Maryland, and an even stronger desire to keep the war out of the State as far as possible. Lee's army was ragged, barefoot, and hungry. The inhabitants would not sell supplies, and Lee had forbidden foraging, so the half-starved soldiers were tantalized by the sight of orchards hanging with autumn fruit and by food supplies of all sorts; The order against foraging was strictly enforced and Lee went so far as to order the execution of a soldier who had stolen a pig. The urgent need of supplies would be met by the capture of Harper's Ferry and that would also open up communication with the Valley, so Lee sent Jackson to take it, and, on September 15, it fell, and its vast supplies of arms, clothing, and food thus came into the possession of the Confederates.

McClellan was now again placed in command of the Federal forces. At first he acted with great promptness. Then there fell into his hands a copy of Lee's order outlining his plan of campaign. This was found where General D. H. Hill's tent had stood, and it is supposed that it was left there by one of his staff. With this to guide him, McClellan became too confident and acted so slowly that Jackson had captured Harper's Ferry and had turned back to rejoin Lee before McClellan made an attack. The preliminary battle was fought at South Mountain in which the Federal army gained the advantage. This was followed by the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam. For its length this was the bloodiest battle of the entire war, the Federal losses being more than thirteen thousand, and Lee's more than eleven thousand. McClellan's military tactics were not of the best, while Lee's were very skillful; but the Federal army was more than twice the size of Lee's and this was a Federal victory, though not at all a decisive one. Lee's advance was checked, however. He would not cross the Potomac, but waited eagerly for the attack which he believed McClellan would make. He considered renewing the battle himself, but, as McClellan was receiving reinforcements, it seemed at last a wiser policy to retire into Virginia, a movement executed without interference from McClellan. The truth was that McClellan did not dare make the attack, and, during the five weeks that he waited to do so, Stuart again rode around the entire Federal army and captured a thousand horses.

In the North there was strong feeling against McClellan, and he was soon removed. He was succeeded by General Ambrose E. Burnside, who at once recommended a rapid advance toward Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. Lee, who had again divided his army by sending Jackson to the Valley, now reunited his forces at Fredericksburg. Here he mustered about seventy-eight thousand men and took a position of great strength. On December 13 Burnside sent his army of one hundred and sixteen thousand men across the river in three divisions against the Confederates, who inflicted a terrific defeat upon them. The Federal troops fought with the greatest bravery and dash, but they faced an impossible task here and their losses were very great. After the battle both armies went into winter quarters just where they were. Burnside was removed from command and his place filled by General Joseph E. Hooker, known, on account of his readiness to fight, as “Fighting Joe.” He soon had a splendid army of one hundred and thirty thousand men under him, with four hundred and twenty-eight guns, while Lee had only fifty-seven thousand men and one hundred and seventy guns.

In April, 1863, Hooker crossed the Rappahannock to move on Richmond. At Chancellorsville he was confronted by Lee and Jackson, and a furious battle took place. Lee had foreseen Hooker's strategy and was thus able to block it, and the Federal army was driven back across the Rappahannock in confusion and with heavy losses. But Lee and the Confederacy had lost Jackson. He and his staff were returning from a scouting expedition when, through a mistake, his own men fired upon them, wounding Jackson severely. He died a few days later, saying, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” When Lee heard of his wound, he wrote Jackson, “Had I my choice I would for the good of the country have fallen in your place”; later he sent this message to him, “You have lost your left arm, but I have lost my right”; and he sent word to him also that the credit for the victory at Chancellorsville belonged to him. This was a generous message, but the victory was really Lee's, and perhaps it was his greatest one.

Lee now decided to force the fighting and draw the Federal army away from Richmond by again invading the North. He asked that Beauregard be sent to threaten Washington in order to keep the Federal army well divided, but the Confederate Government did not heed this request. Lee first crossed the Blue Ridge and marched down the Valley, then crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry and moved across Maryland into Pennsylvania. Again, he forbade foraging and issued the following general order:—

GENERAL ORDERS NO. 73.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
CHAMBERSBURG, PA., June 27, 1863.

The commanding general has observed with marked satisfaction the conduct of the troops on the march, and confidently anticipates results commensurate with the high spirit they have manifested. No troops could have displayed greater fortitude or better have performed the arduous marches of the past ten days. Their conduct in other respects has, with few exceptions, been in keeping with their character as soldiers, and entitles them to approbation and praise.

There have been, however, instances of forgetfulness on the part of some that they have in keeping the yet unsullied reputation of the army, and that the duties exacted of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory in the country of the enemy than in our own. The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the innocent and defenseless, and the wanton destruction of private property, that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. Such proceedings not only disgrace the perpetrators and all connected with them, but are subversive of the discipline and efficiency of the army, and destructive of the ends of our present movements. It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemy and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, and without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.

The commanding general, therefore, earnestly exhorts the troops to abstain, with most scrupulous care, from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property; and he enjoins upon all officers to arrest and bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders on this subject.

R. E. LEE, General.

Lee was urged to allow reprisals for what the South had suffered, but replied that, if he did such a thing, he could not ask the blessing of God upon his arms. It was the influence of Lee and this order which enables Charles Francis Adams to say, “I doubt if a hostile force of an equal size ever advanced into an enemy's country, or fell back from it in retreat, leaving behind less cause of hate and bitterness than did the Army of Northern Virginia in that memorable campaign which culminated at Gettysburg.” The same writer says that possibly Lee's greatest title to fame was “his humanity in war.”

Lee's advance threatened the rear of Washington, and also Baltimore and Philadelphia. New York, even, was greatly alarmed. This city was now in the midst of the draft riots and thoughtful people all over the country saw in an invasion of the Confederates great danger to the Union cause. Hooker followed on Lee's right, his army rapidly increasing in numbers as he went. On June 28 he was displaced by General George G. Meade, an energetic and soldierly officer, who had, however, never before held an independent command.

On July 1 the two armies came together at Gettysburg, a little town in Pennsylvania. Lee counted on Stuart for information as to the whereabouts of the Federal army, but Stuart had been drawn too far away for a report and the meeting came somewhat as a surprise to Lee. Meade had taken a position on the crest of a range of hills to the south and east of Gettysburg, known as Cemetery Ridge. The Confederate army at once occupied the hills opposite, called Seminary Ridge.

The battle lasted three days. On the first the Confederates swept back a large Federal force through the town and to the hills. On the second day the Confederates again attacked, but Longstreet, who was bitterly opposed to Lee's plans, failed to obey orders, and the attack was made much later in the day than Lee had directed, a delay the Federals did not fail to take advantage of to strengthen their position. There was no decided victory, but Lee was encouraged to hope for success on the following day. On the third day Longstreet again failed to obey orders, still protesting against the battle. But Lee said: “The enemy is here; if we don't whip him, he will whip us.” On that day, after a furious bombardment of some hours, Lee ordered an assault by Longstreet's corps on the center of Meade's line. Three divisions under Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble were to cross the open valley, three quarters of a mile wide, and, after attacking the Federal lines, receive the support of Longstreet's entire force. As they started there was a lull in the artillery firing for a little while, but, as the gray line swept on toward the Federal position, the cannon poured a deadly hail into the advancing line. On they rushed in spite of it. Many of them reached the stone wall behind which the Federals lay pouring a destructive fire upon them; some even crossed the wall and engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict. Longstreet should have come at once to their support, but he failed to advance. The high tide of the charge rolled back and the battle was lost. With the turning of the tide of battle came the turning-point in the. fortunes of the Confederacy. From this time on, in spite of some brilliant successes, the Confederates fought a defensive fight and a losing one. By this defeat hope of foreign recognition was lost and the Confederacy was doomed. The next day the capture of Vicksburg was added to the Federal victories.

Lee, always generous, took the blame of the failure upon himself. A little later he even offered to resign in favor of some younger and abler man. There were many younger men, but where was an abler one than Lee to be found? President Davis, of course, refused this, saying, “To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of the reflecting men of the country, is to demand an impossibility.”

Lee said later, “If I had had Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg, I would have won that battle, and a victory there would have given us Washington and Baltimore, if not Philadelphia, and would have established the independence of the country.” It is to-day, in the light of later knowledge, not at all certain that all that Lee believed would have come to pass, but there is little doubt that, if Jackson had been at Gettysburg, the battle would have been won by the Confederates, and probably decisively won on the second day.

All the day after the battle Lee waited for a Federal attack. None was made, and, as his ammunition was almost gone, he retreated slowly and with great skill across Maryland into Virginia, followed by Meade, who, however, ventured no attack. During the rest of 1863 there were no real battles fought in Virginia. There was much manoeuvering in which Meade showed great skill and Lee even more, but the two armies never tried conclusions. Lee would again have crossed the Potomac but for the fact that his men were without shoes and almost without rations.

In November Lee overcame a plan of Meade's to surprise him, and immediately afterwards went into winter quarters. This was a terrible winter for the Army of Northern Virginia. A large part of the army lacked shoes, blankets, and overcoats; most of them were clothed in rags; and they even lacked sufficient food both for themselves and for their horses. But, having always before them the example of their great commander, they withstood hardship and privation with the fortitude that their ancestors had displayed at Valley Forge; and even with a gayety of spirit, they waited for the renewal of fighting which would come with the spring.

When the Spring came Lee found a new opponent before him. General Ulysses S. Grant, after brilliant successes in the West, had been promoted in March, 1864, to the chief command of the Federal armies, and had at once assumed personal direction of the Army of the Potomac. From this time his was the most dominant figure on the Northern side in the history of the war.


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