The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


THE Federal rout at the second battle of Bull Run was reported to President Davis by General Lee, in his usual modest and restrained manner, from his temporary resting-place at Chantilly, on the 3rd of September. The effect upon the North of the entire failure of the campaign in Virginia was extremely depressing, and roused much impatient criticism of the War Department and its luckless commanders. A further effect of the Federal disasters was to revive national fears for the safety of the capital, besides dread of invasion by the South of the border States which had remained loyal to the Union. Lee informed President Davis that the two days’ conflict at Bull Run cost the enemy a loss of 8,000 men in killed and wounded, among the former being the Union General Kearny, who was left dead on the field; while the Confederates lost five colonels killed and six general officers wounded, among the latter being Generals Ewell and Trimble. He further reported that about 7,000 prisoners had been taken and parolled; while thirty pieces of cannon, many thousand stand of small arms, and a large number of wagons, ambulances, and other stores, were captured, in addition to the large amount of Federal property destroyed by the Union forces in retreat. At this period, General Lee himself suffered an accidental injury to his left hand, which for a short while kept him out of the saddle. He was, nevertheless, anxious to press discomfiture further home upon the North, by crossing the Potomac and invading Maryland, where, doubtless, the South had many sympathizers, though they were naturally under more or less Federal pressure and restraint. His army was at this period, however, indifferently equipped for invasion, lacking supplies of all kinds, alike in the commissary’s and in the quartermaster’s departments, and in need of rest as well as of refreshment. For some months back, it had endured almost continued privation; while the stress of the campaign had been severe on its now greatly depleted ranks. In spite of all this, and of the lack of adequate ammunition, with an inefficient transport service, Lee was eager to prosecute the war across the Potomac; and this he set out to do, leading his immediate command in the direction of Frederick, Md. On arriving there (Sept. 8), followed by the brigades under Jackson, D. H. Hill, and Longstreet, with a scouting force under the vigilant Stuart, Lee issued a proclamation to the people of Maryland, in the nature of a greeting to a sister State, allied to the South by traditional, social and political ties, and assuring them of protection, and, if they desired it, aid in freeing the State from “the condition of a conquered province.” The proclamation was discreetly as well as temperately worded; but those to whom it was addressed seemed loath at present to assert sovereign independence for their State, and, by throwing in their lot with the South, bring upon themselves Federal vengeance. Hence Lee did not get the support he expected in the State, and that chiefly because his hoped-for allies were in Southern and Eastern Maryland, between whom and himself lay a strong force of the Federal army under McClellan, who had once more been given the chief Unionist command. The Southern leader lost no time, however, in vain regret, but presently turned his attention to rid the region to the west of him and the Virginia Valley of Union troops, and get up from Winchester the much-needed supplies for his army.

While McClellan was in search of Lee to bring him again to battle, the great Southern leader desired to keep his old adversary and his freshly-organized army of nearly 90,000 men away from his base of supplies. With this intent, he now withdrew from Frederick, and moved northward via Boonsboro’ towards Hagerstown. But Lee had another purpose in view in making this movement, which was the daring one of capturing the Federal garrisons and occupying Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry. These, posts, General Halleck had ordered still to be held, in spite of McClellan’s suggestion that they should be vacated, while Maryland was invaded by Lee and his army. To secure them, cut off their garrisons’ retreat down the Potomac, and capture the well-stored arsenal, with its munitions of war, of Harper’s Ferry, while clearing the Virginia Valley from all possible interference with his communications, Lee entrusted Jackson and Ewell with the task, giving them the assistance also of Hill’s division, with those of McLaws, Anderson, and Walker. The execution of the project was unexpectedly but gratifyingly successful; for on the approach of Hill’s command the Martinsburg garrison evacuated the place and withdrew to Harper’s Ferry; while the latter, after a stiff fight for the commanding Federal positions on Maryland and Bolivar Heights, overlooking the post, and a hot bombardment, hoisted the white flag of surrender to Jackson and Hill. With the fall of Harper’s Ferry (Sept. 14), the Confederates captured 11,000 Federal troops, over 70 pieces of artillery, 13,000 stand of arms, besides 200 wagons and a large amount of army stores. Leaving Hill to receive the surrender and look after the captured treasure, Jackson hastened back by forced marches with his command to Sharpsburg, in answer to an urgent call from Lee, whose army was suddenly confronted by that of McClellan, the Federal commander having obtained possession of a confidential memorandum of Lee to D. H. Hill, outlining the plan of his projected campaign. The possession of this communication, however obtained, was of great value to McClellan, and for once the latter took instant advantage of it, and urged forward his army to checkmate the Southern chieftain, who was in ignorance of the miscarriage of the memorandum of instructions and of his adversary’s knowledge of his designs and the outlined disposition of his forces.

The appearance of the Federal main body so unexpectedly at Boonsboro’ was at first an embarrassment, not to say a perplexity, to Lee, as well as an alarming menace, considering how his army had been broken up and weakened by the despatch of portions of it on detached expeditions. He, however, summoned Longstreet’s command from Hagerstown to the support of Hill, who by this time was keeping at bay at Fox’s Gap a strong Federal force under Reno, and at Turner’s Gap was also fighting off a furious onset by Hooker, both defensive actions being gallantly maintained through the entire day of Sept. 14. Southward from Turner’s Gap, at another pass in the mountain ridge in the vicinity of Boonsboro’, McLaws’ small contingent was on the same day driven from the Gap (Crampton’s) he sought pluckily to defend against a force of 8,000 belonging to Franklins’ command. The prospect was hence far from cheering to General Lee, who had himself to give way before the advance of McClellan’s main body and retire upon Sharpsburg, to which place he directed McLaws also to retreat with his shattered corps. Here, at Sharpsburg, on the early morning of the 15th, Lee made what disposition of his forces was possible to him under the strained circumstances; though by noon his great heart was relieved by news of Jackson’s success at Harper’s Ferry, and his now rapid approach. Gladdened by the news, Lee at once decided to give McClellan battle at Sharpsburg, though he had, as yet, only a mere handful of men (not over 12,000) to oppose to the advance column (about 60,000 strong) of the Unionist army. The enemy, moreover, was inspirited by their successes and by the losses (close upon 3,000) they had inflicted on the commands of Hill, Longstreet, and McLaws; while their own losses were much smaller, though the Federal General Reno had fallen, and they had captured many prisoners. But the fighting in the region of South Mountain was but the preliminaries of a general engagement, which was now to be fought in the neighborhood of Antietam Creek, in front of Sharpsburg, where General Lee had taken up position.

Here, at Sharpsburg, on the 16th of September, the Federal army came up in strong force, when McClellan at once formed his lines of attack, with Porter in the center, Burnside on his left flank, and Hooker, Franklin, and Sumner on his right. Jackson by this time had arrived with his command, and was assigned to a position on the Hagerstown road, extending towards the Potomac, supported on his left rear by Hood and Stuart, while on his right were the depleted divisions of Hill, Longstreet, and Walker. On the 17th, Hooker’s command, supported by Mansfield (18,000 strong), which had crossed the Antietam, now advanced, covered by a furious cannonade, and sought to get possession of the Hagerstown road. Jackson quickly divined the Federal movement and its purpose, and endeavored to oppose it with his own division, and Ewell’s, under Lawton, a combined force of but 4,000 men. Lee’s entire army was now still under 35,000; but, in spite of the great disparity in numbers, the Confederates once more exhibited their superiority as a fighting force by repulsing, throughout a long day’s sanguinary encounter, every attack of the whole army of the enemy, extending along its entire front for fully four miles.

The chief incidents of the battle, perhaps the most bloody so far of the war, were the desperate defense of the Confederate left line, which brought it a grim harvest of death from the enfilading fire of a Federal battery, commandingly placed, though it was vigorously replied to by the guns under Stuart and S. D. Lee; the falling back of Jackson’s command, on the advance of Sumner, after having heroically repelled both Hooker’s and Mansfield’s corps, and exhausted its ammunition; and the murderous fire that had fallen on Hayes’ and Walker’s brigades from the overwhelming Federal onset. Luckily for the Confederates, Lee was able, at a crisis in the day’s unequal contest, to strengthen Jackson with two brigades from Longstreet’s right, and so save “Stonewall” from rout by or surrender to the fresh forces Sumner had brought up after he had practically driven Hooker and Mansfield from the field. This timely intervention turned the scale in the “rebel” favor, and foiled McClellan’s game of turning Lee’s left. Signal also was the deliverance during the day from Burnside’s repeated attempts to force a passage across the Stone Bridge over the Antietam Creek, with the design of capturing Sharpsburg, and so cutting off Lee from his communications at Shepherdstown. To defend the Bridge and protect Lee’s center during the confiict on the Confederate left, the single division of General D. R. Jones, of Longstreet’s command, and the small brigade of General Toombs (only 400 strong) was all that could be spared to keep Burnside’s large force in check. Late in the afternoon, the latter at length forced his way across the Creek and beat back both Toombs and Jones, when A. P. Hill’s 2,000 men from Harper’s Ferry appeared on the scene, and, by Lee’s orders, rushed to Jones’s assistance, stemmed the retreat, and finally drove Burnside back to the shelter of the Federal batteries across the Antietam. Most opportune was the arrival and prompt, daring service of Hill and his command at the juncture, for serious would have been the result to the Southern army had Burnside succeeded in his attempt, in spite even of the success met with on the Confederate left and in other parts of the bloody field. As it was, dire had been the day’s carnage, and pitiful were the masses of dead, of both armies, which strewed the battlefield when night drew its pall of darkness over the scene. Stubborn, nevertheless, was Lee’s determination to renew the struggle on the morrow, but in this he was indifferently supported by his chief lieutenants, after a council of war, called by Lee at the close of the day’s fighting, for almost entire commands had been annihilated, and the day’s havoc might well make the stoutest heart quail. In spite of this adverse counsel, and the suggestion thrown out by most of his generals to withdraw across the Potomac, Lee held to his decision to renew the fighting with the dawn of a new day. He was led to take this stand from a knowledge of the punishment the Federals had had, and the dread of still more disastrous consequences to “the boys in blue” if the fighting was renewed. He was also encouraged by the accession he had gained during the day in A. P. Hill’s command from Harper’s Ferry, and by the return to their respective corps of several thousands who had been left behind to recruit their strength and provide themselves with new outfits at the period when Lee’s army had entered Maryland.

With the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, as it is also called, the invasion of Maryland came, however, to a close; for though Lee’ remained in possession of the well-contested battlefield during the day of Sept. 18, awaiting a renewal of the fighting, McClellan did not venture again to attack him, but spent the day in reorganizing his shattered army and strengthening it by further reinforcements from Washington. On the night of the 18th, as the Southern army was badly in need of every necessary want, Lee therefore deemed it wiser to fall in with his generals’ suggestion to withdraw across the Potomac and seek rest and refreshment for his wearied and comfortless forces on the Virginia shore. The crossing was effected near Shepherdstown, everything of value, including the spoils of Harper’s Ferry, being withdrawn, save his unburied dead; a rear force being left to guard the ford over which the Confederates retreated and foil any attempt by the enemy in pursuit. The bulk of the army then proceeded to Winchester to await the coming of fresh troops from Richmond, with the return of those who had been left to recruit their strength on the Virginia side of the river, before Maryland had been invaded. On learning of the withdrawal of the Southern army, McClellan despatched Porter’s corps in pursuit, only to be stopped at the ford by Pendleton’s artillery and a small rear-protecting body of infantry. Here, on the night of the 19th, Porter, however, managed to get his command across the Potomac, aided in this by the fire of his own guns from the Maryland shore. When this became known to Lee, he directed a part of Hill’s division to return to the river and drive Porter’s force across it. This was so effectively accomplished that masses of Porter’s men were either captured or driven into the river and drowned—an exploit that so alarmed McClellan that no further pursuit of the Confederates was for the time attempted, and they were thus left to a season of restful quiet at Winchester. How greatly needed was this period of rest may be realized when we recall that the Southern army had within the space of three brief months marched fully 300 miles, for the most part barefooted and in tattered regimentals, with no adequate sustenance; while it had fought in and won a dozen engagements, captured many thousand prisoners, besides 150 cannon, many thousand stand of arms, and a large amount of valuable army stores and material of war. It had also inflicted a loss upon the enemy of nearly 70,000 men, a sixth of whom had fallen at Antietam; while its own loss in the latter was over 8,000, out of a total of 35,000—the entire strength of the Confederate army when it withdrew to Winchester. While quartered there, General Lee, with his usual thoughtfulness, issued the following General Order (dated Headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia, Oct. 2, 1862), reviewing the incidents of the campaign and commending his army for its valiant achievements:

In reviewing the achievements of the army during the present campaign, the Commanding General cannot withhold the expression of his admiration of the indomitable courage it has displayed in battle, and its cheerful endurance of privation and hardship on the march.

Since your great victories around Richmond, you have defeated the enemy at Cedar Mountain, expelled him from the Rappahannock, and after a conflict of three days, utterly repulsed him on the Plains of Manassas, and forced him to take shelter within the fortifications around his capital. Without halting for repose, you crossed the Potomac, stormed the heights of Harper’s Ferry, made prisoners of more than 11,000 men, and captured upwards of 70 pieces of artillery, all their small arms, and other munitions of war. While one corps of the army was thus engaged, the other ensured its success by arresting, at Boonsboro’, the combined armies of the enemy, advancing under their favorite General to the relief of their beleaguered comrades.

On the field of Sharpsburg, with less than one-third his numbers, you resisted, from daylight till dark, the whole army of the enemy, and repulsed every attack along his entire front, of more than four miles in extent. The whole of the following day you stood prepared to resume the conflict on the same ground, and retired next morning, without molestation, across the Potomac. Two attempts, subsequently made by the enemy, to follow you across the river, have resulted in his complete discomfiture, each being driven back with loss.

Achievements such as these demanded much valor and patriotism. History records few examples of greater fortitude and endurance than this army has exhibited; and I am commissioned by the President to thank you in the name of the Confederate States for the undying fame you have won for their arms. Much as you have done, much more remains to be accomplished. The enemy again threatens us with invasion, and to your tried valor and patriotism the country looks with confidence for deliverance and safety. Your past exploits give assurance that this confidence is not misplaced.

R. E. LEE, General Commanding,

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