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

CHAPTER XII.
LEE RETREATS TO VIRGINIA AND WINTERS BEHIND THE RAPIDAN.

After Gettysburg, a period of inactivity ensued, so far as actual strife between the forces of Lee and Meade is concerned, the latter hesitating to renew the attack upon Lee’s command, or in any effective way to frustrate the withdrawal of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Potomac. The inactivity is partly explained by the wet season that had come on and made the roads through the South Mountain range well-nigh impassable; and partly owing to Meade’s caution in not desiring to come so soon again to close quarters with the Confederate forces, even in their retreat to Virginia. The lull and the avoidance of continued fighting enabled the Southern commander-in-chief to withdraw his army through Cashton and by the Fairfield road, via the Cumberland Valley, to the crossings of the Potomac. High water at the latter river delayed his crossing for a week, and made Lee anxious for the safety of his command as well as for its maintenance, as camp supplies were again getting short and ammunition was also now low; while it was known that the Federals, who had moved up from Frederick, Md., were at last close upon them, though still halting in the determination to deliver an attack, which had been ordered by the War authorities at Washington. A crossing was at length made by the 13th of July at Williamsport, and at Falling Waters, the ever-vigilant Stuart, by maneuvering in rear of the retreat, concealing from Meade the withdrawal of the Confederate forces to the Virginia side of the river. That Lee had expected an attack by Meade at the Potomac, or a check by him in conveying his army across the river, is manifest by the General Order issued by him to his soldiers at Hagerstown (his headquarters before crossing the Potomac) on the 11th of July (1863). In that spirited Address, General Lee says: “After the long and trying marches, endured with the fortitude that has ever characterized the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, you have penetrated to the country of our enemies, and recalled to the defense of their own soil those who were engaged in the invasion of ours. You have fought a fierce and sanguinary battle, which, if not attended with the success that has hitherto crowned your efforts, was marked by the same heroic spirit that has commanded the respect of your enemies, the gratitude of your country, and the admiration of mankind.

Once more you are called upon to meet the enemy, from whom you have won on so many fields a name that will never die. Once more the eyes of your countrymen are turned upon you, and again do wives and sisters, fathers and mothers, and helpless children lean for defense on your strong arms and brave hearts. Let every soldier remember that on his courage and fidelity depends all that makes life worth having, the freedom of his country, the honor of his people, and the security of his home. Let each heart grow strong in the remembrance of our glorious past, and in the thought of the inestimable blessings for which we contend; and, invoking the assistance of that Heavenly Power which has so signally blessed our former efforts, let us go forth in confidence to secure the peace and safety of our country. Soldiers, your old enemy is before you. Win from him honor worthy of your right cause, and worthy of your comrades, dead on so many illustrious fields.

R. E. Lee, General Commanding.

The anticipated Federal attack was not, however, realized, though Meade made a show of following Lee by crossing the Potomac and advancing east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the design of pursuing the Confederates, who by this time, had reached Culpeper, and from there had taken up a strong defensive position on the south bank of the Rapidan River, Lee having his headquarters at Orange Court House. Meade, meanwhile, brought up his command to Culpeper Court House, where he established himself for the winter, having the Rapidan between him and Lee. From these several positions tentative movements were made by both sides during the early winter months, but, if we except a demonstration in the region of the Mine Run, nothing of importance came of them. Here both opposing armies were considerably depleted, by having to send parts of their respective forces to other and distant sections of the country, where serious conflicts were then occurring. Meade’s strength was reduced by the despatch from it of a large portion of his army to South Carolina, to take part in the long siege of Charleston, stubbornly held by the Confederates; while another contingent was sent to New York city to assist in suppressing the Draft riots, there being at the time much difficulty in recruiting in the North. Lee’s force was about the same period reduced by Pickett’s brigade being despatched to Petersburg, where, in the following summer, “the last citadel of the Confederacy,” under Beauregard, gallantly withstood the assaults of General Grant and a long further siege until April, 1865, when its stout defenders were withdrawn, just before the surrender at Appomattox. Lee’s army was further depleted by the despatch of General Longstreet with two divisions to General Bragg’s assistance in holding Tennessee against Rosecrans. There he took active and memorable part in the battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863), in which the Federals were routed and driven from the field, and Rosecrans’ army was saved from annihilation only by the strenuous efforts and gallantry of General Thomas. Of Longstreet’s part in the direful battle, which proved so disastrous to the Federals, Lee, on September 25, wrote thus to his old general, Longstreet:

My whole heart and soul have been with you and your brave corps in your late battle (of Chickamauga). It was natural to hear of Longstreet and Hill (D.H.) charging side by side, and pleasing to find the armies of the East and West vying with each other in valor and devotion to their country. . . . Finish the work before you, my dear General, and return to me. I want you badly, and you cannot get back too soon.

Chickamauga was consecutively followed by the battle of Chattanooga (Nov. 25); but in this famous “battle above the clouds,” fought on Lookout Mountain and on Missionary Ridge, Bragg was badly worsted, in spite of the strong natural positions he occupied. This was in the main due to the good generalship of General Grant, who had now come into the region, and had under him, as able lieutenants. Generals Hooker, Thomas, and Sherman; while Bragg was at a disadvantage in not having Longstreet with him, the latter having been assigned the task of besieging Knoxville, then in command of Burnside. The Federal victory at Chattanooga was gained at a loss of between 5,000 and 6,000 men; though about as many Confederates were captured on the field, besides 40 pieces of artillery and 7,000 stand of Southern small-arms.

Matters by this time were going ill for the South, especially in the West. After the rout at Chattanooga of Bragg, the latter was removed from his command, and Joseph E. Johnston was for a while put in his place. Meanwhile, Lee, with his veterans, was putting in a wretched winter on the Rapidan, his army being badly fed and as badly clad, naany of them being without shoes, and without suitable accommodation in the way of shelter. Much of his cavalry, moreover, had to be dispersed, in search of forage for the horses; while the General-in-chief’s wife and daughter, and others of his personal family, had to be depended upon for socks for his barefooted men, and for blankets to cover them in the bitterly cold nights in camp. To add to his anxieties at this time, General Lee had to give paternal thought to his second son, W. H. F. Lee, who in the summer of 1863 had been wounded in battle at Brandy Station, was captured, and held a close prisoner of war by the Federals. While captive in the North, his wife and child, moreover, died, thus adding to General Lee’s solicitude and grief. At the period when these troubles were upon him,
the Commander-in-chief was himself untiring in his attentions to the men under him, caring as far as he could for their material wants and comfort, his own table being often as indifferently supplied as were those of the lowest rank of his command. His ordinary dinner, we are told, was at this trying time nothing more bountiful or appetizing than a head of cabbage boiled in salt water, with a pone of corn bread—meat being eaten not oftener than twice a week. His thoughtfulness at this junctureled him to permit many of his men to go home on furlough for thirty days, to such at least as were able to supply temporarily an able-bodied substitute-recruit, of good moral character. To both sides, in the long-continued strife, recruiting was an irksome and difficult business; even in the North it was that, in spite of the inducements of large bounties, which it could well afford. To the South, on the other hand, it had become almost impossible now to strengthen the Confederate armies in the field, though Lee was urgent in his call for more men, and especially for additions to his cavalry equipment, in view of the opening of a new season and the operations which it would bring with it. With the Spring of 1864, the Federal force under Meade and Burnside on the Rappahannock reached a strength of 145,000 men; while it had now for its chief command and leader General Ulysses S. Grant, who was given the supreme rank of lieutenant-general of the United States army. Against this large Union force, the Army of Northern Virginia, as it prepared for a renewal of hostilities, was under 62,000 men of all ranks; what it lacked in numbers it, however, made good, under the inspiring leadership of Lee, in élan and morale. Included in the total force of the Southern troops on the Kapidan was Longstreet’s command, now returned from Tennessee, though Pickett’s division was still in North Carolina.

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