Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 1

Camp-Fires of General Lee




“GENERAL, I am very glad to see you; I had hoped to meet you sooner.”

“Yes; I was anxious to meet you, but it was impossible.”

The two officers saluted each other, and the thousands of soldiers who witnessed the sight broke into tumultuous cheers.

The first speaker was Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies. He was of striking appearance, sitting erect and graceful in his saddle, his grave, dignified countenance lighted up at the sight of his loved lieutenant. His full beard was rapidly turning gray, and the tremendous weight of the responsibility he carried on his shoulders was already seaming the handsome countenance with deep lines of care and anxiety.

General Lee wore the slouch hat which became so familiar in the years that followed, and the uniform of a major-general in the Confederate army, though its brilliancy was far less than that of many of his subordinate officers. He spoke in measured tones, with the reins of his fine steed resting idly in his left hand while he leaned over the saddle and grasped the palm of the other officer.

The latter formed a remarkable contrast to the illustrious leader of the Southern armies. He was clad in a dilapidated single-breasted coat of rusty gray, sun-scorched about the shoulders until it was almost yellow, and a faded cadet cap was tilted forward on his nose, while he bestrode a rickety sorrel horse and his stirrups were so short that his legs were drawn up in the most awkward position that can be imagined. He looked as if he was crouching behind the head of the animal and peeping at the enemy over his ears. His chief interest for the moment seemed to centre in a lemon, which he held in one hand and occasionally raised to his mouth while squeezing it with his fingers. His words, mumbled and jerked forth, sounded precisely the opposite of the measured, clearly-enunciated sentences of General Lee. His full beard swept over his breast, and the steel-blue eyes that peered out from under the flapping cap were as bright as stars. He was General T. J. Jackson, destined to be known for ever in history as “Stonewall” Jackson.

It was a very hot day in June, 1862, and while the two men closed hands and spoke to each other the air around them throbbed with the roar of battle. Two mighty armies, those of the North and the South, were closing in the desperate grapple of infuriated giants. The officers paused and listened to the uproar. From the woods, where the divisions of Hill and Longstreet were engaged, came the long rattling roll of musketry, while from the direction of Stonewall Jackson’s own troops the clamor was fiercer and more overpowering.

General Lee looked in the face of Jackson and in his measured voice remarked,

“That fire is very heavy; can your men stand it?”

The other stopped squeezing the lemon for the moment, though it was the most attractive delicacy he could raise to his lips, and, leaning his head to one side in a way peculiar to himself, listened like one who is straining to catch the sounds of music in the distance. General Lee was looking into the whiskered countenance and awaiting the reply. A moment later the bright eyes were turned toward him, and Jackson, with a nod of his head, spoke in his jerky fashion:

“My men can stand that; my men can stand almost anything.”

General Lee hastily gave his instructions. Jackson saluted him, and, wheeling his ungainly steed around, galloped rapidly in the direction of his corps, which was so hotly engaged with the enemy, while the commander-in-chief remained at Cold Harbor, opposite the centre of the Federal army.

The situation early in March, 1862, was as follows: On the day succeeding the memorable fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac, General McClellan, an able officer, began a movement against the Confederates, then encamped near Manassas. Through the mud and rain the Unionists forced their way to the old Manassas battleground, only to find that the Confederates had abandoned the position the day before, taking with them all that was worth removing. General McClellan had long urged that the most feasible route to Richmond was by way of the Peninsula. President Lincoln finally yielded consent, and the Army of the Potomac was transported down the river to Fortress Monroe by a fleet of nearly four hundred vessels, and the second “On-to-Richmond” movement began. The army under the command of McClellan was a hundred thousand strong and one of the most magnificent organizations ever known. The officers and soldiers were full of enthusiasm; they had been well disciplined and trained for serious work, and all they asked was an opportunity to prove their courage and ability. McClellan made his way to Yorktown, where he found confronting him Magruder with a Confederate division of about five thousand men, exclusive of the garrisons with which he was guarding a line, thirteen miles long, extending across the Peninsula. The Federal commander began digging, and enormous entrenchments were thrown up; ponderous guns were ordered from Washington; miles of corduroy road were built, and every preparation was made for an extended siege.

Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston had reinforced the Confederates with his army from Manassas, and McClellan, having completed his most elaborate preparations, was ready to open fire. As he was about to do so he awoke to the fact that there were no Confederates in front of him, for General Johnston had withdrawn and taken position nearer Richmond. McClellan immediately started in pursuit. The Confederate rear-guard, reinforced shortly afterward by Longstreet’s division, stationed themselves at Williamsburg, so as to gain time for the baggage-trains to get well in the rear of Fort Magruder, which with thirteen redoubts commanded all the roads leading northward.

Early on the morning of May 5, “Fighting Joe Hooker” arrived and began a furious attack, which lasted most of the day. The loss of the Union troops was heavy, but they remained on the ground, and prepared to renew the attack the next morning. When, however, daylight came, his adversary was invisible; for General Johnston, having accomplished his purpose, fell back, and was beyond reach. McClellan unopposed followed the Confederate army. The roads were frightful, and nearly two weeks were consumed in marching less than fifty miles. But the Unionists were alarmingly close to the capital of the Confederacy. From their camp they could look upon the spires and steeples of Richmond, while every one within the city plainly heard the sounds of firing in the entrenchments. Many of the inhabitants, believing the city was doomed, fled, and the Confederate Congress hastily adjourned.

The situation was most serious indeed. General McDowell, who was at Fredericksburg with thirty thousand men, was daily expected to join forces with General Fitz-John Porter, who had captured Hanover Court-House, and McClellan was evidently only awaiting the arrival of reinforcements before making his final assault on Richmond.

General Joe Johnston understood the great peril and skilfully parried it. The meteoric Stonewall Jackson was sent out with a large force to threaten Washington. He swept up the Shenandoah Valley like a cyclone, captured Front Royal, sent General Banks scurrying from Strasburg in terror toward Washington, his panic-stricken men marching thirty-five miles in one day in order to place themselves securely on the other side of the Potomac.

The appearance of Jackson so close to the national capital threw the Federal government into the wildest excitement and alarm. The fear of the capture of Washington was the incubus which haunted the Union government for years. It was that dread which palsied their military arm more than once and rendered harmless campaigns that otherwise would have been resistless in momentum. Whenever the Confederates found the Union army threatening Richmond, they created a diversion by threatening Washington.

The effect in this instance was all that was intended. The Union government immediately took possession of the railroads; troops were called from all quarters of the compass to protect the capital. Fremont at Franklin, Banks at Harper’s Ferry and McDowell at Fredericksburg, with their sixty thousand men, were ordered to capture Jackson; but that dashing raider was as brilliant on the retreat as on the advance, and he dodged the overwhelming forces with the skill of a fox, doubling on his own trail, and without mishap rejoined General Johnston on the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, stirring events were taking place near Richmond. McClellan had pushed his left wing across the Chickahominy and taken possession of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks. The movement was hardly completed when a terrific storm came up, which overflowed the surrounding swamps and turned the stream into a roaring flood. Seizing the opportunity, General Johnston launched his army against McClellan’s left wing, and would doubtless have captured it had not General Sedgwick’s division of Sumner’s corps crossed the Chickahominy on a tottering bridge and with a strong battery of Napoleon guns plunged into the thickest of the fight and checked the Confederate advance. The Confederates were soon after driven back to Fair Oaks station, where, just at sunset, General Johnston was severely wounded by a shell, and, though the attack was renewed on the next morning, it was repulsed with little difficulty by McClellan.*

McClellan did not attempt to pursue the Confederates, and for nearly a month remained idle. During the three months which had elapsed since his arrival on the Peninsula the Confederates had improved, it may be said, every hour. They had passed their severe conscription law, enrolled their troops and gathered the largest force yet placed in the field.

General Robert E. Lee was assigned to the command of the Confederate army June 3, three days after General Johnston received his wound. Lee was anxious to strike the union army a severe blow. To do so it was necessary to know the weakest and the strongest point of the enemy. This knowledge General Lee secured by means of Stuart’s raid, which was one of the most brilliant exploits of the whole war.


* General Joseph Eccleston Johnston was one of the ablest officers of the Southern Confederacy. He was born in Virginia in 1807, graduated at West Point in 1829, and served in the Seminole war. During the Mexican war he served as captain of topographical engineers under General Scott in all the important action, was twice wounded, and was brevetted colonel. In June, 1860, he became quartermaster-general, with the rank of brigadier-general. He commanded at Bull Run, and after recovering from his severe wound received at Seven Pines was assigned to the command of the Departments of Tennessee and Mississippi. After Bragg’s defeat at Chattanooga he took command of his army, occupying a position at Dalton, Ga, which was turned by Sherman early in May, 1864; whereupon he fell back successively to Resaca, Allatoona Pass, Kenesaw Mountain and Atlanta, in turns fighting and being flanked by the much more powerful Federal army. He was superseded in July by General Hood. In February, 1865, he was assigned to the command of troop to oppose Sherman’s march through the Carolinas. He fought a part of Sherman’s army at Bentonville, N.C., on March 19, and surrendered the forces under his command to that general, April 26, at Durham’s Station, near Greensboro’, N.C. He published a Narrative of Military Operations in 1874.

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