Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 17

Camp-Fires of General Lee


ABOUT this time General Stuart performed an exploit of such a daring nature that it won the admiration of the Federals as well as of the Confederates.

General Lee knew of the vigorous preparations on foot by his adversaries for the prosecution of the war, and he decided to learn something more definite; he therefore ordered “Jeb” (J.E.B.) Stuart to make an excursion into Pennsylvania in quest of this knowledge. General Stuart immediately organized a force of eighteen hundred men and four pieces of artillery, under the command of General Hampton and Colonels W. H. F. Lee (son of General Lee) and Jones. The men were enjoined to exercise propriety and to confine themselves strictly to the objects of the expedition. On the morning of October 9, the command started on its perilous mission, and the following day crossed the Potomac between Hancock and Williamsport, driving off a Federal picket stationed there. A short distance out, on the National road, a dozen men in charge of a signal station were captured with their flags and apparatus. By this means the interesting information was gained that a large Federal force had gone by, scarcely an hour before, in the direction of Cumberland. Stuart was strongly tempted to dash into Hagerstown and secure the immense lot of Federal stores there, but the main object of his expedition would thereby be imperilled, and he kept straight ahead, fully alive to the value of every hour.

Just as it was growing dark the galloping horsemen reined up in sight of Chambersburg. Having no knowledge of the force that might be in the place, Stuart felt that it would not do to wait till morning; but he wished to give the women and children time to take themselves to a place of safety. He therefore sent a summons into the city demanding its surrender under a threat of almost immediate shelling in case of resistance. The officer who rode into the place with the summons hunted high and low for some official to whom to deliver it, but not one could be found. It looked as if all the frightened authorities had “resigned,” but there were plenty of people in the streets, and to a number of these the order was read. Shortly after, the command rode into town and occupied it.

The inhabitants, naturally enough, were in a state of excitement at sight of the Confederate cavalry among them, and for a time general consternation reigned everywhere; but General Stuart assured all that if they would remain in their homes they would not be disturbed. This pledge was kept in spirit and letter. The people at first peeped timidly out from their houses upon the bronzed troopers, but, finding them harmless so long as undisturbed, they viewed them more at leisure, and even ventured to enter into conversation with them. The troopers were models of courtesy and politeness, never intruding into a house without asking permission and returning profuse thanks for the attentions received. Indeed, the Confederates were so scrupulously careful in this respect that they were bitterly denounced by the fiery Daniel in the Richmond Examiner for playing the part of milksops. “Treat them as they treat us!” he insisted. Nearly three hundred sick soldiers were found in the hospital in Chambersburg; they were paroled and left where they were. A large lot of arms were destroyed, the railroad and telegraph wire cut, and the railroad-station, machine-shops and several trains of loaded cars were burned.

By this time the Army of the Potomac, and, indeed, the whole North, knew of the startling raid on which Stuart was engaged. The call to capture the daring troopers came from every quarter, and McClellan resolved that not one of the party should escape him again. He quickly made preparations intended to render it impossible for them to recross the Potomac.

General Pleasanton, at the head of his fine cavalry, was despatched in pursuit of Stuart, under orders to spare neither men nor horses and never to rest until the whole party were destroyed or captured. General Averill, on the Upper Potomac, was also directed to join in the pursuit, while General Crook, who was at Hancock, on his way to Western Virginia, was ordered to place his division on the cars, and to be ready to move to any point above Hancock in the event of Stuart attempting to return in that direction. The commander at Harper’s Ferry was instructed to keep a sharp eye on every ford in his vicinity; General Burnside was to send two brigades on the cars to Monocacy Junction, and to wait there, with steam up, ready to hasten to any point on the line which Stuart might threaten; Colonel Rush, at Frederick, was to keep his lancers ranging through the neighborhood of Chambersburg, so as to warn Burnside of Stuart’s arrival; while General Stoneman, at Poolesville, guarding the fords below the mouth of the Monocacy, was to prevent Stuart from crossing the river.

With all these precautions, it would seem beyond the power of Stuart to extricate himself and his command from the labyrinth of danger in which they were involved. The situation was exciting; for while the cavalry leader knew that everything possible had been done and was under way to bag him, yet he was without definite knowledge of the nature of the measures taken by the Federals. It was not at all impossible, therefore, that he might run into the very trap set for him. He was convinced, however, that General Crook, whom he had so narrowly missed on his entrance into Federal territory, would do everything to head him off from the Upper Potomac. Carefully looking over the ground, the Confederate leader decided to take the most direct route, which led through Leesburg. It was necessary that the Federals should be deceived as to his intentions. When, therefore, Stuart left Chambersburg, on the morning of October 11, he headed for Gettysburg, but after passing the Blue Ridge wheeled about, galloped a half dozen miles in the direction of Hagerstown, and then passed through Emmettsburg, where he was loudly cheered by the inhabitants, who informed him that he was directly behind a party of Rush’s lancers. Scarcely reining up, Stuart galloped in the direction of Frederick, and speedily captured a messenger bearing a despatch from Colonel Rush. An examination of this despatch made known that while the Federals were uncertain of the precise locality of Stuart, yet they were making thorough preparations to secure him. The value of this despatch lay in the fact that it gave him a pretty clear idea of the nature of the arrangements for his capture.

Stuart felt that it was no time to let the grass grow under his feet, and he certainly was in imminent danger of being taken by the enemy. He followed a bee-line toward the Potomac and crossed the Monocacy a short distance from Frederick, pressing onward through Liberty, New Market and Monrovia, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and at break of day on the 13th he was in Hyattstown, which was on McClellan’s line of wagon-communication with Washington. Several wagons were captured, and the troops galloped into Barnesville, out of which a squadron of Federal cavalry had ridden but a short time before.

By this time Stuart had a clear idea of the plans of McClellan. He was aware that a division of five thousand men were vigilantly guarding the fords in front of him. Every passing hour increased his peril, and, believing that the boldest course was the safest, he continued straight for the Potomac, prepared to cut his way through whatever troops might oppose. The point at which he aimed was Poolesville; but when he came in sight of it, he wheeled aside and took to the woods, speedily debouching into the highway leading from Poolesville to the mouth of the Monocacy.

The troopers were no more than fairly in the road when they found themselves confronted by the head of the column of General Pleasanton’s cavalry, who were on their way to Poolesville. Stuart instantly charged and drove them back on their infantry, which boldly advanced to recover the lost ground. The Confederates leaped from their horses and hotly engaged the Federal skirmishers. The latter were held in check until the artillery could be brought up, when Pelham promptly opened with his single piece, which did most effective service. Aided by this “bombardment” and the concealment of the ridge on which Pelham was firing, Stuart hurried his command to White’s Ford, scattering with the rest of his artillery some two hundred Federal infantry on the Virginia shore. As good fortune would have it, the interposing canal was dry, and the Confederates crossed to the south side of the Potomac without the least difficulty.

Stuart was no more than fairly on the Virginia shore when the cavalry and infantry of General Stoneman came forward on the rush. Pelham received them with his guns, favorably located on the proper side of the stream, and held back Stoneman from crossing the stream in pursuit. General Stuart leisurely retired from the river during the day, and on the 14th rejoined the army at Winchester. On the march not a man was killed, though two of them lost their way and two or three others were wounded. An unexpected result from this brilliant raid was the ruin of many Federal horses. Those belonging to Pleasanton and Averill were so completely used up that they were worthless, and the advance of the Army of the Potomac was delayed until they could be replaced.

As evidence of the extraordinary vigor of this raid, it may be stated that Stuart marched between eighty and ninety miles in twenty-four hours, while Pleasanton did almost as well.

The following is the despatch which General Lee sent to Richmond:

WINCHESTER, VA., October 14, 1862.


The cavalry expedition to Pennsylvania has returned safe. They passed through Mercersburg, Chambersburg, Emmettsburg, Liberty, New Market, Hyattstown and Burnsville. The expedition crossed the Potomac above Williamsport, and recrossed at White’s Ford, making the entire circuit, cutting the enemy’s communications, destroying arms, etc., and obtaining many recruits.

R. E. LEE, General.

Late on the night of November 7, General McClellan was sitting in his tent at Rectortown talking with General Burnside. A violent snow-storm was raging, and the particles sifted against the tent like so much fine sand. By and by, when there was a lull in the conversation, General Buckingham was presented as the bearer of despatches from Washington. He handed a letter to McClellan, who opened and read the following:

Washington, November 5, 1862.

General Orders, No. 182.

By direction of the President of the United States, it is ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-General Burnside take the command of that army.

By Order of the Secretary of War.

Assistant Adjutant-General.

McClellan read the despatch through carefully, and then, without the least agitation, passed it over to Burnside with the remark,

“Well, general, you are to command the army now.”

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