Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 7

Camp-Fires of General Lee


GENERAL LEE took with him about seventy-five thousand men, divided into two army corps. His expectation of surprising Pope failed through an intercepted letter which had fallen into Pope’s hands a few days before, and which made known the intended movement. But the Federal commander, when he could almost hear the tramp of the terrible legions, found himself with an effective force of only fifty thousand men. Convinced that certain defeat awaited him if he remained on the Rapidan, he had withdrawn to the Rappahanhock. This course was a wise one, but it did not harmonize with the high-sounding proclamations which he issued on assuming command of the army. The Federal movement, when completed, placed Reno at Kelly’s Ford; Banks, at Rappahannock Station; McDowell, at Rappahannock Ford; with Sigel on the extreme right, farther up the river. It was in front of this formidable array that General Lee presented himself on the morning of the 21st of August. He was at the head of the Confederate army, with Longstreet on his right and Jackson on his left.

The position of the Federal army completely commanded the south bank of the Rappahannock, held by Lee; every crossing was so closely guarded that the Confederate leader did not run the risk of an attempt to force a passage. The two armies spent the day in cannonading each other, and Lee determined to cross at a more favorable place. General Longstreet was ordered into position near the railroad-bridge and Beverly’s Ford, so as to mask the movements of General Jackson, who had been selected to make the crossing at a point farther up stream. Jackson with his three divisions, preceded by Stuart’s cavalry, advanced with his usual celerity; but he was discovered when near Hazel River, which lay on his route. Two Federal brigades hastily crossed and attacked his rear—not with the expectation of defeating, but with the hope of delaying, him. The Confederate leader beat them off, and reached Freeman’s Ford before dark. Sigel, however, was strongly guarding the pass, and, going still farther up, Jackson took possession of Warrenton Springs, which was guarded by only a small outpost. He had scarcely done so when it began raining hard, and the river rapidly rose. Early’s brigade, which had been thrown across the river, found itself cut off from the southern bank by the submergence of the fords. The situation was very dangerous, for, the high water having destroyed the fords in front of Longstreet, the Federals withdrew from his front to concentrate upon Early. General Pope’s preparations for this attack looked as if he thought the whole Confederate army was on the southern shore. While the complicated and elaborate preparations were under way, Stuart and his cavalry appeared in the rear of the Federal forces and created consternation. Stuart captured all the staff-papers of General Pope, including his despatch-book, which contained copies of the general’s correspondence with the government. Among the trophies taken was a new and gorgeous uniform of General Pope. Some days later a burly negro was decked out in this, and as he strutted back and forth with his chest thrust out like a pouter-pigeon the exhibition was one of the most ridiculous that can be conceived. It was as dark as Egypt and raining furiously. Thus it was that Stuart failed to discover a rich convoy parked near him and with a weak guard protecting it. Having demoralized the wagon and railway service, Stuart dodged the forces that were hastily gathering to intercept him.

While these lively proceedings were under way Rosser’s and Brien’s regiments were sent to attack another camp and to destroy the railroad. Before anything could be accomplished all the lights in the camps were put out, and the men scrambled into the wagons. The rain was still pouring in torrents, and the darkness was absolutely impenetrable. The Confederates, under the circumstances, concluded not to attack, but to give their attention to the railroad. When an attempt was made to destroy the bridge, the task was found more difficult than was anticipated. It was so thoroughly saturated that it was impossible to set fire to it. Then, when axes were brought, the high water placed the men at such disadvantage that little could be done. The structure was so strongly built that many hours would be required to cut it down. Meanwhile, the Federals were gathering on the other side the stream and dropping shots among the eager Confederates. Every hour of delay increased the danger, and Stuart withdrew with the same celerity that he had made his advance to the point.

The contrast between the executive ability of Lee and Pope was never more vividly shown than in the movements and manœuvring preceding the general engagement. Early remained in his exposed position at Warrenton Springs all day, and was never molested. Jackson spent the time in erecting a temporary structure, by which communications were reopened, and at daybreak Early rejoined his chief without receiving a hostile shot. Some hours later Buford’s cavalry galloped up to the spot, looked around, and, finding the bird had flown, turned about and galloped back. For three days and nights the Federals were kept marching toward the different points of the compass, here, there, everywhere, through the drenching rain, the frightful mud and water, with insufficient rations, discouraged, disgusted and worn to the last stages of exhaustion. Stragglers lined the roads, and a more miserable set of wretches the mind cannot picture. And during this terrible ordeal the Confederate army for fully one-half the time remained tranquil and at rest, husbanding its strength and making preparations for the impending struggle.

General Stuart sent Pope’s captured despatch-book to General Lee, who sat down at his ease to enjoy its contents. The first interesting item on which the Confederate leader stumbled was the correspondence wherein Pope admitted his inability to hold the Rappahannock and begged for reinforcements. Among the other “tidings of comfort and joy” was an accurate (because “official”) account of the strength and disposition of the Federal army, the views of General Pope, the fact that McClellan had left Westover, that a part of his army was on the way to join General Pope, that the rest were following hard after, and that the army of Cox was withdrawing from the Kanawha Valley for the same purpose. When all these reinforcements should join Pope, he would be at the head of an army of two hundred thousand men. It need not be said that General Lee found this despatch-book “mighty interesting reading,” and that he fully digested all the contents, turning over and scrutinizing the covers to make sure he missed nothing. The conclusion followed as a matter of course that if ever there was a call for promptness on the part of the Confederates, that time had come. It being clear that nothing was to be feared from McClellan, the rest of the force on the James was ordered up to take part in the campaign in Northern Virginia. This force consisted of a portion of D. H. Hill’s command, McLaw’s division, Walker’s two brigades and Hampton’s cavalry.

The tactics adopted by Lee were as brilliant as they were daring. Conscious of the great stakes at risk, he acted on the principle that the more audacious his course, the greater were the results to be attained. Jackson was directed to cross the river above Pope’s right, pass around his flank, gain his rear and cut his communications with Washington; while the movement was under way Longstreet was to occupy Pope’s attention by threatening demonstrations in front; so soon as Jackson had advanced far enough Longstreet was to follow him with all haste. By this strategy Lee hoped to throw his whole army on Pope’s line of communications, and to compel him to fight before reinforcements could reach him. It can readily be perceived that the situation of Jackson would, be a most critical one, for he too would be cut off from immediate help and was liable to be overwhelmed before reinforcements could go to his assistance. But the terrible fighter leaped to the performance of his duty with the eagerness which characterized him on every occasion.

General Jackson on the morning of the 27th moved with all his troops except Ewell’s division to Manassas. Ewell remained at Bristoe’s Station, with orders to delay the advance of the Federals as much as was possible should they withdraw from the Rappahannock, and, if too hard pressed himself, to fall back and rejoin the main body at Manassas.

And what was General Pope doing all this time?

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