Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 16

Camp-Fires of General Lee




THE Confederate army was in a deplorable condition. Cold weather was at hand, and the majority were in rags and without shoes. Still more, they were half starved and subjected to suffering which would have rendered desperate, men with half their courage. General Lee was urgent in his demands that the government should do something at once for the fire-tried veterans who had fought so hard for their country, but the government seemed unable to rise to the occasion, and the citizens of Richmond and Petersburg became so indignant that they forwarded a large supply of shoes to the army. This stirred the authorities to do something.

Meanwhile, the stragglers were rapidly gathered in, and their “vacation” had placed them in the best possible condition. The army rapidly augmented, and in less than a month was in better condition than before. Those were jolly and enjoyable days, and the Confederates were a happy lot, overflowing with rugged health and exuberant spirits, dearly loving a frolic and continually skylarking. Their sport may have been rude and boisterous, but it was honest and gave them the vitality they needed to carry them through the tremendous campaigns yet before them.

“The only useful occupation of this brigade,” wrote one of Jackson’s soldiers, “has been to destroy all the railroads in reach—apparently, too, for no better reason than the fellow had for killing the splendid anaconda in the museum: because it was his ‘rule to kill snakes wherever found.’

“It is when idle in camp that the soldier is a great institution, yet one that must be seen to be appreciated. Pen cannot fully paint the air of cheerful content, hilarity, irresponsible loungings and practical spirit of jesting that obtains, ready to seize on any odd circumstance in its licensed levity. A ‘cavalryman’ comes rejoicing in immense top-boots, for which, in fond pride, he has invested full forty dollars of pay; at once the cry of a hundred voices follows him along the line: ‘Come up out o’ them boots! Come out! Too soon to go into winter-quarters! Boots, where be you going with that fellow?’ A bumpkin rides by in an uncommonly big hat, and is frightened by the shout, ‘Come down out of that hat! ’Tain’t any see to say you ain’t there, for we see your legs sticking out.’ A fancy staff-officer was horrified at the irreverent reception of his nicely-twisted moustache as he heard from behind innumerable trees, ‘Take them mice out o’ your mouth! We see their tails hangin’ out.’ Another, sporting immense whiskers, was urged to ‘Come out of that bunch of har! I know you’re in thar: I see your ears working.’

“Whenever there was great cheering along the line, it used to be said, ‘It’s either Jackson or a rabbit.’ The meaning of this was that whenever a rabbit was started in the bivouac of a brigade the entire complement of officers and men would turn out to pursue Bunny, and, by heading him off here and turning him there, poor Bunny, who in the end would become bewildered by the diabolical yells and cheers which met him at every turn, was generally captured. General Jackson shunned, if he could, the demonstrations which greeted him whenever he passed a camp of his own corps or of Longstreet’s. The men would gather on the roadside waving their hats and yelling like demons, the yells being taken up from camp to camp as ‘Old Jack’ went skurrying along on his old sorrel as fast he could lay feet to the ground. There was a spice of mischievousness in this, for soldiers are like schoolboys, and they knew how badly Jackson hated notoriety; but their admiration and enthusiasm for him were such that they would have charged the very gates of Hades at his bidding. Never were more genuinely sorrowful tears shed than those that fell from the eyes of his army on Jackson’s bier.

“Just before the battle of Fredericksburg (Burnside’s), General J. E. B. Stuart presented Jackson with a brand-new uniform covered with gold lace and stars and as gaudy as a peacock’s train. Jackson had never worn it, but on the morning of the grand assault Stuart had persuaded him to put it on. Accompanied by Stuart and some of his staff, he rode slowly in front of the Confederate lines from right to left; but he was not recognized until he reached Pickett’s division, then placed in the centre of the line. Stuart mischievously pointed out the gorgeous-looking individual to some officer of the division, and it ran down the line like wildfire: ‘Old Jack’s got a new uniform!’ Instantly the men leaped upon the breastworks, yelling wildly and swinging their hats, until Jackson could bear it no longer; but, turning a reproachful look upon Stuart, he clapped spurs to his old sorrel and galloped off to his own command. Suffice it to say he pulled his new duds off as soon as he had an opportunity.

“Now, who can explain the philosophy of it? Neither Johnston nor Beauregard nor Longstreet nor Hill nor Early, nor even Jeb Stuart, was ever looked upon by the army in the same light as Lee and Jackson, and yet all these officers were worthy of enthusiastic admiration and unflinching support. It is one of the mysteries that make us believe that actions and events are largely beyond the ken of the pure reasoning faculties.”

In the month of October, in accordance with an act of the Confederate Congress, the Army of Northern Virginia was divided into two corps, and the command of the First assigned to Major-Genera1 Longstreet and that of the Second to Major-General Jackson. Longstreet’s corps included the divisions of McLaws, Hood, Pickett and Walker; Jackson’s, the divisions of A. P. Hill, Ewell and Jackson’s old division, under General Taliaferro. General D. H. Hill commanded the reserve, General Stuart the cavalry and General Pendleton the artillery. At that time the Army of Northern Virginia numbered about sixty thousand men.

President Davis’s extreme partiality was a great injury to the Confederacy. It was said that any man for whom he had formed a friendship years before was certain of a “soft” position under the new order of things, and the President shut his ears against every complaint made by aggrieved parties, no matter what their rank. He was unjust and severe to those for whom he formed a dislike, and could see no good in them. J. D. McCabe, Jr., as illustrative of this weakness on the part of the President, mentions the case of Colonel Northrop, commissary-general under the Confederate government. More than twenty years before, he and Mr. Davis had been friends in the Black Hawk war; part of the interval had been spent by Northrop as a patient in an insane asylum. His appointment to the important post named caused much surprise and indignation, but the President could not be dissuaded, and he sustained that officer against the whole country. General Lee joined the list of remonstrants and more than once urged the President to remove him for incompetency, but without avail.

The wonder is how the Confederacy stood Northrop. He not only knew nothing of the duties of his office, but he insulted those who came in contact with him, and acknowledged the right of no one besides the President to presume to make a suggestion to him. His mismanagement and brutality starved the army in the midst of plenty, robbed the people and in the end caused all classes to distrust and dislike the government; yet when Senator Orr, on the 18th of January, 1864, when the cause was on the verge of the destruction to which Colonel Northrop had contributed so greatly, waited on Mr. Davis to ask the removal of the commissary-general, the President declared to him that Colonel Northrop was one of the greatest geniuses in the South, and that if he had the physical capacity he would put him at the head of an army. When, finally, he did resign, a general shout of thankfulness went up from the whole South.*

The army, as a matter of course, was paid in Confederate money, which rapidly deteriorated in value; even their pittances reached them only at long intervals. Secretary Memminger showed an incompetency on a par with that of Northrop. Great wars and revolutions are the occasions when bad men flourish and sleek hypocrisy rolls up its ill-gotten gains. In the North men made fortunes in the bounty business, and millions were accumulated by the “trooly loyal” out of their contracts with the government, which were so fat that they fairly exuded oil. They were present in the South. Some of them strutted about in uniform, pretending that trifling wounds were too severe to permit them to join the brave boys at the front; some of them clamored for more vigorous measures on the part of the government, but took care that they received their wages in yellow gold; some of them held back their corn for higher prices and calmly swore that the Federals had ruined their crops, and then looked upon the starving soldiers with assumed pity; some of them locked up thousands of shoes and clothing, while there was nothing between the bare feet of the gray-jackets and the frozen ground. These wretches, in fact, were everywhere, and managed to cast an anchor to windward by sending a good quantity of gold to Europe to await their flight when the “cruel war was over.” It seems inevitable that such shameful accompaniments should mark every revolutionary movement, and no surprise, therefore, should be felt that there was so much of it both north and south of Mason and Dixon’s line during the war.

The Confederate government became uneasy over the preparations of the Federal authorities for a more vigorous prosecution of the war. They asked Lee to fall back to the valley, but he replied he was strong enough to beat McClellan, and said that if he withdrew it would be to yield his means of subsistence to the Federals, because he had not any way of carrying it with him. Instead of retreating before the enemy showed himself, he ordered the cavalry in the neighborhood of Culpeper and Manassas to make more offensive operations.

General Lee organized a diversion with a view of inducing the Federals to draw off some of the troops from McClellan’s army or to cause him to delay his advance into Virginia. General Loring was directed to march from Western Virginia with some eight thousand men, threaten Wheeling, and afterward join the Army of Northern Virginia by way of the Monongahela. Loring concluded that Lee didn’t understand his business, and he therefore declined to make the movement. As a consequence, Loring was removed; but the Confederate government refused to allow Lee to draw any troops from Western Virginia to reinforce his own. Indeed, this policy of scattering was carried to a dangerous point by the government, despite the protests of the leading journals, and of Lee himself. It was utterly beyond the power of the Confederacy to defend its immense line of seacoast or one-half the extended points which were threatened. Its true course was to contract its lines and to concentrate its troops.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was most unfortunately located—that is, for its own welfare. It had been used by both Federals and Confederates, and played an important part in the war. At the beginning of hostilities, Sharp, the superintendent of transportation, whose sympathies were strongly with the South, performed a most remarkable exploit. He ran about a dozen locomotives out to Martinsburg, had them taken from the rails, and under a strong military escort they were dragged by mules across the country over the turnpike to the nearest railroad-line, whence they were taken to Richmond. They did effective service during the war, and after the close of hostilities most of the engines were recovered by the Baltimore and Ohio road. Some of them were found as far south as New Orleans.

Many strange experiences took place along the line of this railway. An engineer told the writer that one night he was running at a high rate of speed, only a short distance out of Baltimore. He had behind him some valuable supplies belonging to the Federal government, and a strong guard was on board. There was little fear of trouble, but of course he kept a vigilant lookout. He was intently watching the rails as the gleam of his headlight struck them, when all at once, to his unspeakable dismay, one of them leaped aside and bounded out of sight. There was no person near it, nor was there any evidence that it had been touched; yet it not only bounded from its position on the ties, but went skipping and plunging down the bank into the woods, where it disappeared. The engineer reversed and applied his brakes, but he was so close to the gap that there was no saving the engine, which the next moment was bumping over the gravel and ties. The engine didn’t upset, but it was badly damaged, and a long delay followed. Investigation showed that the missing rail had been unfastened and then carefully put back in place. Around each end was wound a telegraph-wire, which reached downward into the woods at the side of the track; several men held the concealed ends and waited for the train. At the right instant the unfastened rail was snapped down the bank out of sight, after which those who did it ran back in among the trees and concealed themselves.

As the war progressed this railroad-line became more useful to the Federals than to the Confederates, and Lee determined to damage it to the utmost. Accordingly, some forty miles of it between Sir John’s Run and Harper’s Ferry were destroyed and all the bridges and culverts blown up.


* A Rebel War-Clerk’s Diary.

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