Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 6

Camp-Fires of General Lee



ON the 7th of July a steamer on its way from Fortress Monroe stopped at Harrison’s Landing, and a single passenger stepped ashore. He was tall, angular and of uncouth figure, with strongly-marked features; the eyes and countenance which were wont to light up with original and quaint humor were serious and grave to the last degree. Those who looked at the visitor recognized President Lincoln, who had come to Harrison’s Landing to consult with the commander of the Union army about the measures to be adopted in the alarming crisis. General McClellan believed that all the resources of the government should be used to forward him men and munitions of war. The James River was now open to him as a line of supplies, and he favored the bold design of transferring the Army of the Potomac to the south bank of that stream and destroying the communications of Richmond by way of Petersburg. The wisdom of this plan cannot be questioned in face of the fact that two years later General Grant adopted it, captured Richmond and destroyed the Southern Confederacy.

President Lincoln was much impressed by the views of McClellan; but when he returned to Washington, he was dissuaded by General Halleck, commander-in-chief of the army, from allowing McClellan to execute his plans. McClellan was shortly afterward removed from the command of the Army of the Potomac, which was placed in charge of Major-General John Pope. Pope came from the West with a reputation for vigorous aggressive warfare that promised great results in the East.

General Pope was not afflicted with undue modesty, and was no way backward in proclaiming the mighty things he proposed to do. He dated his “Headquarters in the Saddle”—evident reversal of facts as concerned himself—and announced that he came from a region where they hunted the enemy and when they found him beat him.

A month passed after the visit of President Lincoln to Harrison’s Landing, and the army was still there. Some desultory firing and a few skirmishes broke the idle stillness now and then, but it needed no very observant eye to note beneath all this calm the preparations for a most important movement. Transports were continually coming and going laden with cavalry, war-material and the sick and wounded, and everywhere was the bustle of activity and preparation. The truth was that in spite of McClellan’s protest it had been decided to transfer the army to Fortress Monroe, and the government had decided to take charge of the conduct of the war with a view of teaching the West Pointers that some things could be done as well as others.

General Lee remained before Richmond, watching every movement of McClellan at Harrison’s Landing. It was not long before he learned that another army was advancing from the Upper Rappahannock and had already occupied Culpeper county. There could be no doubt that it intended to capture Gordonsville, the point of junction of the Orange and Alexandria and Virginia Central Railroads, with the purpose of advancing upon Richmond. It was this “Army of Virginia,” numbering fifty thousand men that had formerly served under Banks, McDowell and Fremont, which was placed under the immediate command of Pope. He assured the President and other parties who were interested in the question that they need feel no further concern for the safety of the national capital. He would attend to that; and if Lee presumed to make any demonstration, he would be taught a lesson that he would remember a long time.

General Pope’s next proceeding was the issuance of orders so oppressive and tyrannous to the citizens around him that General Lee, by direction of the Confederate authorities, sent an indignant protest to General Halleck, commander-in-chief of the Union armies. The result was a modification of Pope’s orders so as to bring him within the pale of civilized warfare.

Pope’s army lay at Culpeper, the right extending toward the Blue Ridge and the left almost reaching the Rapidan River. He thus threatened to destroy Lee’s communications with South-western Virginia. The movement of Pope was a wise one, for at the time it was made the main Federal army was at Harrison’s Landing, and Lee could not assure himself as to what part it was intended to play in the great campaign about to open. He therefore determined to remain for the time in front of Richmond; for should he withdraw, the temptation to march in would be too great for the Union army to resist.

On the 13th of July, Lee sent Jackson in the direction of Gordonsville; he led his old division and the fire-tried one of Ewell. They went by railroad to Gordonsville, where they arrived on the 19th of July, and Jackson at once set himself to work to penetrate the design of the Union commander. He found that, as we have stated, General Pope had advanced to the Rapidan and was threatening the railroad connections; furthermore, he quickly learned that the Federal force was so much larger than his own that it would have been folly to attack it. He sent to General Lee for reinforcements, and the Confederate leader immediately forwarded A. P. Hill’s division. General D. H. Hill, who commanded a moderate force on the south bank of the James River, was ordered to create a diversion by opening fire on McClellan’s transports. It was now brain against brain. This state of indecision lasted until nearly the middle of August, when the secret was discovered. It was known that General Burnside had reached Hampton Roads from the southern coast with a large force. The direction taken by his flotilla would settle the question; for if the new advance was intended to be by way of the James, the flotilla would ascend that river; if General Pope was to make the real movement, General Burnside would move in that direction.

One evening early in August a small steamer bearing a flag of truce ascended the James, and, passing the Confederate outpost, halted at Aiken’s Landing, a place designated for the exchange of, prisoners. One of the passengers was noticeable for the extreme anxiety he showed to land. As soon as he touched the shore he made for General Lee’s headquarters, scarcely taking breath until he had made known the important news he carried. He was the famous partisan John S. Mosby, and he had penetrated the secret which General Lee was so anxious to learn. Mosby told the commander that at the very moment he was leaving Hampton Roads that morning the whole of Burnside’s corps was embarking, and he knew beyond all question that its destination was Acquia Creek. This solved the perplexing problem, and Lee’s anxiety now was to strike Pope before Burnside could join him. Jackson was apprised of the important news, and with his usual promptness he started on the 7th of August to attack Pope at Culpeper. Ewell led, followed by Winder and A. P. Hill, forming all together an army of upward of twenty-five thousand men.

So soon as Pope learned of the crossing of the Rapidan he put his troops in motion with a view of concentrating them in front of Culpeper. On the morning of the 8th the Federal cavalry on the north bank were driven back by General Robertson in the direction of Culpeper Court-House. They threatened the train of Jackson’s division, and Lawton’s brigade of Ewell’s division was detached to protect it. As a consequence, it took no part in the conflict which followed. The infantry and artillery, having followed the cavalry across the Rapidan, continued toward Culpeper. The next day they were near Cedar Run, within eight miles of Culpeper Court-House, where the Federals were discovered in strong force.

The Unionists consisted of Banks’s corps, which had been sent forward to meet Jackson’s advance. His command was a powerful one, and was strongly posted. Jackson began at once to form his line. Ewell’s division, the first to arrive, was pushed in advance, so as to secure a position on Slaughter Mountain where he would be able to bring his artillery to bear on the Federal line. Early’s brigade was in the advance, and, forming on the right of the road and charging across an open field, he drove the Federal cavalry to the crest of an adjoining hill. While climbing this hill the Federal artillery opened on him, and many of their cavalry appeared in the fields on the left. Protecting his troops as best he could, Early hurried forward three guns to the crest of Slaughter Mountain and replied with spirit to the Federal artillery. Jackson’s division appearing, a portion of it was sent to Early’s assistance, the rest being held in reserve. While forming in line its leader, General Charles S. Winder, was mortally wounded by a shell, and the command passed to General William B. Taliaferro. During this manœuvre General Ewell occupied the position assigned him, on the north-west termination of Slaughter Mountain, a couple of hundred feet above the valley below. Posting Latimer’s battery in the most available spot, he opened on the Federal guns, and the artillery duel continued for some time between the two armies. Two hours later General Banks advanced his skirmishers, and then his infantry, from the woods to the rear and left of the batteries. A second body of infantry appeared almost at the same moment from a valley where they were unobserved, and moved against Early’s right. Banks’s attack was an impetuous one, and the flame of battle quickly extended along the whole line.

Finding himself sorely pressed, Early called for reinforcements. Banks pressed him still harder, and, massing his infantry on his right, dashed at the Confederate left. Bearing down the forces by his superior numbers, he turned the flank and gained the Confederate rear. Taliaferro’s brigade was rolled back, followed by Early’s disorganized left, and it looked as though the whole line would give way before the cheering and enthusiastic Unionists. But the keen eye of “Stonewall” had detected the peril, and at the critical moment A. P. Hill’s division arrived. The Stonewall brigade, held in reserve, had been called up, and Branch’s brigade from Hill’s division was attached to it. Jackson placed himself at their head, and then the thunderbolt was hurled against the victorious Federals.

“Stonewall Jackson! Stonewall Jackson!” yelled the Confederates, as the well-known figure galloped back and forth through the smoke amid the flying bullets, cheering the men, who were nerved to their utmost by the mere knowledge that he commanded. “This was one of the few occasions when he is reported to have been mastered by excitement. He had forgotten, apparently, that he commanded the whole field, and imagined himself a simple colonel leading his regiment. Everywhere, in the thickest of the fire, his form was seen and his voice heard, and his exertions to rally the men were crowned with success. The repulsed troops reformed”* and the advance of the Federals was checked, and they were forced into the woods, the battle continuing with great fierceness until the arrival of Pender’s and Archer’s brigades, when a general charge was made on the left and in the centre. The Unionists were driven steadily backward over the valley and into the woods beyond. General Ewell joined the impetuous charge, pressing the Federals, who fell back all along the line, until at dark the original position of the Confederates was reoccupied by them.

Jackson was eager to reach Culpeper Court-House before daylight, and he hurried on in pursuit; but the utmost circumspection was necessary, and he had not gone far when he discovered the Federals in his front in large numbers, General Pope having despatched heavy reinforcements to Banks. Jackson sent Field’s brigade and Pegram’s battery forward, which opened an effective fire; but the Federals replied with such success that the assailants were silenced and the battery withdrawn. A careful reconnoissance on the morrow convinced Jackson that the Unionists were too strong to be assailed, and he posted his army so as to resist any attack likely to be made, after which his wounded were sent to Gordonsville, the dead buried, and a general preparation was made for effective operations. The rain fell in torrents all day, and on the morrow the request of General Pope, sent under a flag of truce, for permission to bury such of their dead as had not been interred by the Confederates, was granted. On the night succeeding (August 11), General Jackson retreated to Gordonsville to avoid being attacked by a much larger force than his own, and there awaited reinforcements. Little advantage could be claimed by either side, though two of the Federal generals were wounded and General Prince was made prisoner.

But the vigorous demonstration of Jackson excited the gravest alarm of Halleck, the Federal commander-in-chief, for the safety of the Union army in Virginia. It required no extraordinary sagacity to see that so soon as General Lee could relieve himself of McClellan’s threatening presence he would hurry to the assistance of Jackson, or, rather, would assume personal charge of the campaign in Northern Virginia. Well might the Northern heart tremble for the result! The grisly phantom of the capture of Washington again caused many anxious conferences in that city. Pope was so far advanced on the Rapidan that a sudden assault by Lee would be likely to crush him before any re[in]forcements could go to his assistance. McClellan was urged to hasten the embarkation of his troops at Harrison’s Landing, with a view of giving Pope all the help and reinforcements possible.

General Lee saw that his opportunity had come, and he grasped it with his usual promptness and vigor. General Longstreet with his division and two brigades under General Hood were sent to Gordonsville from Richmond. General Stuart was ordered to leave enough cavalry to menace the Federals at Fredericksburg and to guard the Central Railroad, then to report to General Jackson with the remainder. R. H. Anderson was recalled from the James and despatched after Longstreet. D. H. Hill’s and McLaw’s divisions, a couple of brigades under General Walker and Hampton’s cavalry brigade remained on the James to resist any demonstration from that quarter. On the 15th of August, 1862, Longstreet reached Gordonsville, and General Lee was directly behind him.

Monday morning, August 25, was one of the hottest days of the season. Scarcely a breath of air was stirring and the cool shade of the tree was never more inviting; but great interests were at stake, and it was the time for work. Jackson marched up the south bank of the Rappahannock, dragging his cannon with much labor and difficulty, and crossed at Hinston’s Ford. Close under the shadow of the Blue Ridge, along roads infrequently travelled, the grim hero led his men, aiming in the most direct line possible for Thoroughfare Gap, by which the Manassas Gap Railroad makes its way through the Bull Run Mountains. It was all-essential that this pass should be occupied in advance of the Federals. Passing through Orleans, in Fauquier county, Salem was reached at midnight, after a march of thirty-five miles. The people along the route gazed at the Confederates in amazement and delight. It was a long time since they had seen any of them, and they wondered what it all could mean. Their eager queries, it need hardly be said, were not answered in a very satisfactory manner.

Throughout the day General Stuart had kept his cavalry in motion on the right of Jackson with a view of concealing his movement from the Federals. The exhausted, hungry soldiers threw themselves on the ground and slept soundly until roused at daylight; when they were again in motion. Heading straight for Thoroughfare Gap, Jackson found on his arrival that not a solitary Federal was in sight. Pushing on through Gainesville, Bristoe Station, on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, was reached late in the afternoon. Shortly after, General Stuart and his cavalry arrived, and took position on the right flank of Jackson. This was scarcely done when the rumble of cars was heard approaching from the direction of Warrenton Junction. General Ewell disposed of his forces to take possession of the train, for the capture was likely to be a valuable one. The rumble and roar rapidly increased, and suddenly a heavily-loaded train under full speed thundered around the curve. The engineer caught sight of the Confederates, and he knew what was up. He gave his engine full steam and ducked his head when the Second Virginia Cavalry raked their weapons and fired. The bullets whistled around and through the cars, but the track wm clear, and the terrified fugitives were speedily beyond reach of the Confederates. The train reached Manassas in safety, but it was hardly out of sight when, the increasing rumble and roar down the track announced that other trains were coming. Determined that no more should run the gauntlet, Ewell’s soldiers hastily piled a lot of logs on the track. A minute later the second engine burst into sight around the curve, and the vigilant engineer instantly saw that something wm amiss. He whistled for brakes and reversed, but his momentum carried him forward into the obstructions, which threw the engine off the track and over on its side—fortunately, without injury to him or the fireman. Immediately behind the train came a third, which was also captured. The noise of still others was heard, but from some cause or other the drivers seemed to suspect that everything was not right, The approaching engineer, having halted his train, sent out several ringing blasts from the whistle, which, being interpreted into English, were addressed to the other engineer in advance and asked the question,

“Is it all right ahead?”

Among Ewell’s forces were several railroad-men, who recognized the signal. One of them ran to the prostrate engine, which seemed to be oozing steam from every pore, and, jerking the whistle-cord several times, sent back the signal by way of reply.

“All is right! Come on!”

But there may have been something in the “touch” of the strange hand at the whistle which failed to quiet the fears of the cautious engineer who was seeking information. He did not approach, as he had been signalled, to do, but prudently reversed his engine and lost no time in getting back to Warrenton.

It will thus be seen that the first step in Lee’s plan of the campaign was successful. Jackson had flanked Pope and was now in his rear, where his own situation was far from being secure.

Arriving at Bristoe Station, Jackson ascertained that the Federals had stored an immense amount of supplies at Manassas Junction, only eight miles distant. Appreciating the necessity of capturing these, General Trimble was sent in that direction to make the capture. It was late in the day when he started, and, to make sure of its success, General Stuart was despatched after Trimble with orders to take command of the expedition. A smart engagement took place in the early darkness, when the place was captured with several hundred prisoners and its enormous supplies. Besides the horses, negroes and prisoners, there were hundreds of tents about a dozen locomotives, two railroad-trains, tons of bacon, hundreds of barrels of beef, thousands of barrels of flour, wine, delicacies of every description and a vast supply of forage.

The scene which followed was of so ludicrous a nature that even Jackson smiled when he looked on. There were probably no hungrier men between Maine and Texas than were his soldiers when they arrived the next day. They had been living on roast corn, and their appetites were fierce enough to make a pair of calfskin boob tempting. They snuffed the victuals before they were within reach, and as they marched up were told to help themselves. It is a waste of words to say they accepted the invitation. The splendid bakery, capable of turning out fifteen thousand loaves daily, was instantly put on “double time” and made to do more work than was eves done by it before. Men with rapacious appetites were not particular about a proper degree of baking, and, waiting only until the bread was half done, it was hauled from the oven smoking, but tossed among the famishing Confederates. Whoever caught the prize instantly tore it apart, and his jaws closed in it like those of a steel trap. Ragged, frowsy, barefooted, with spiky hair shooting through the crown of the torn hat, the eyes of the Confederate glowed with delight over the top of the loaf as he endeavored to force half of it at one time between his jaws. Sometimes the tears which filled those projecting eyes were not tears of joy: they were caused by the bread in the mouth, which seemed red hot and fairly sent the steam hissing through ears, nostrils and eyes; but the soldier hung on, for he could not afford to lose a single morsel. Many a bottle of choice wine, jar of canned fruit and jelly which had been sent by mothers, sisters and sweethearts in the North to the boys at the front failed to reach their destination. It would have shocked the heart of the maiden over-much could she have seen the bottle of delicious currant-wine which she had despatched to her own darling Harry grasped by the grimy hand of a shaggy Confederate, who, placing the mouth between his lips, elevated the bottom until it pointed toward the blue sky, and held it there until the contents had gurgled down his capacious throat. Then, after he had clapped his other hand several times against the bottom, to make sure that no stray drop escaped, he reluctantly removed it from between his teeth, smacked his lips, rubbed his stomach, smiled almost to his ears and absolutely groaned with bliss.

How many of the boys who were at Manassas that day and took part in the wild feast, and who are now living, would dare attempt what then was done with impunity? One fellow made a splendid meal from a raw mackerel and a pint of molasses; another washed down some uncooked pork with wine, which, giving out too soon, was supplemented with a gill or so of vinegar; still another smothered a huge chunk of cheese with lard and lobster-salad, and then asked his comrades to hold him down, inasmuch as he felt so good that he was sure the wings were sprouting out of his back. In the division of the spoils the scene could not have been more ludicrous. A participant told Cooke that his share was a toothbrush, a box of candles, a quantity of lobster-salad, a barrel of coffee, and other articles of diversified nature. As one of the happy fellows remarked, it was worth starving half to death for the enjoyment that such a feast gave.


* Cooke’s Life of Stonewall Jackson.

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