Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 18

Camp-Fires of General Lee


AT the time McClellan was relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac he was well advanced on his new campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia. The Federal forces numbered one hundred and ten thousand men fit for duty. McClellan’s plan contemplated an advance up the Shenandoah Valley, directly against Lee, but President Lincoln was strongly in favor of entering Virginia east of the Blue Ridge, in the attempt to cut off the Confederate army from Richmond; he promised McClellan thirty thousand more men if this plan was followed. The advance, however, was deferred until bad weather set in and the roads became almost impassable, but the route east of the Blue Ridge was finally agreed upon.

McClellan’s plan, as stated by himself, was as follows: “To move the army well in hand parallel to the Blue Ridge, taking Warrenton as the point of direction for the main body, seizing each pass in the Blue Ridge by detachments as we approached it, and guarding them after we had passed so long as they would enable the enemy to trouble our communications with the Potomac. We depended upon Harper’s Ferry and Berlin for supplies until the Manassas Gap Railway was reached; when that occurred, the passes in our rear were to be abandoned and the army massed, ready for action or movement in any direction. It was my intention, if, upon reaching Ashby’s or any other pass, I found that the enemy were in force between it and the Potomac, in the Valley of the Shenandoah, to move into the valley and endeavor to gain his rear. I hardly hoped to accomplish this, but did expect that by striking in between Culpeper Court-House and Little Washington I could either separate their army and beat them in detail or force them to concentrate as far back as Gordonsville, and thus place the Army of the Potomac in position to adopt the Fredericksburg line of advance upon Richmond, or to be removed to the Peninsula if, as I apprehended, it was found impossible to supply it by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad beyond Culpeper.”

But the days went by, and still McClellan did not move. Finally the impatient President sent him peremptory orders to advance, and the movement was begun at Berlin, five miles below Harper’s Ferry. On the 2d of November the entire army was across the river.

The very hour that Lee learned of McClellan’s advance he put his own army in motion. He comprehended the Federal plan of campaign, despite the efforts made to mask it, and sent one division of Longstreet’s corps to the neighborhood of Upperville to watch the movements of the Federals. Jackson was ordered to take position on the road between Berryville and Charlestown, to prevent any advance from Harper’s Ferry and to check any movement through the passes of the Blue Ridge into the valley. The cavalry was directed to co-operate with him.

In the latter part of October the Union army began withdrawing from the mountains and moved toward Warrenton. Longstreet’s corps immediately passed the Blue Ridge and posted itself at Culpeper Court-House. In order to delay the Federal army by exciting the fears of General McClellan for the safety of his rear, General Jackson was ordered to remain for some time near Millwood. He advanced one of his divisions to the east side of the Blue Ridge, and remained west of it with his main body. As soon as Longstreet moved to Culpeper the cavalry were withdrawn from the valley and sent after him. The danger to which this separation of the two portions of the Confederate army exposed General Lee was very great, and would have been rashness on the part of any commander had it not been required by the necessities of the case. It is said that both Generals Lee and Jackson were convinced of their ability to foil the designs of General McClellan, in spite of the risk attending a division of the army.*

General Burnside was without the ability to command the Army of the Potomac, and he knew it. He had declined twice before to become its leader, and gladly would he have evaded the great responsibility a third time. He shrank from taking the mantle from McClellan’s shoulders, and it was a bright day for the Confederate cause when he consented to do so. Assuming command of the fine army, he remained quiet at Warrenton for ten days, while he familiarized himself with his new duties. An important step was taken by consolidating the six corps of his army into three grand divisions of two corps each, the right grand division being under General Sumner, the centre grand division under General Hooker and the left grand division under General Franklin.

At this time the Confederate army was divided by two marches, and Burnside was presented with a most inviting opportunity for striking a blow; but he had made “other arrangements,” and did not propose to be diverted from them. His plan was to march direct to Fredericksburg and establish himself on the south side of the Rappahannock before his design could be detected and interfered with. There is good authority for saying that at that time the Federal leader had no fixed campaign in his mind, but he hoped to be able to spend the winter with his army in Fredericksburg, within easy reach of his base of supplies. He did not favor the overland route to Richmond, but hoped, when spring should come, to embark his entire army and repeat McClellan’s attempt to reach the Confederate capital by way of the Peninsula.

When the Union commander explained his plan of operations, it aroused no enthusiasm in Washington; but assent was given, and on the 15th of November the movement in front of Warrenton began. The scheme was that the army should move along the northern side of the Rappahannock to Falmouth, where it would cross by means a ponton-bridge (the boats of which were to be forwarded from Washington) and take possession of the bluffs on the other shore. He had scarcely begun the movement when General Lee detected his purpose, but he made no attempt to interfere with his adversary. As the army of Lee was only about half that of Burnside, his intention was to avoid a battle unless his opponent tempted it by some great blunder on his part, or unless Lee was forced to deliver battle in self-defence; in which event, he meant it should be from his own chosen position. His ultimate intention was to hold the Federal army at bay by a series of manœnuvres and counter-movements until the season was too far advanced for it to attempt anything before spring. Burnside’s purpose being apparent, Lee at once instituted a counter-movement, passing the Rapidan and hurrying in the same direction. A reconnaissance by Stuart left no doubt of the Federal plan, and Lee moved with his accustomed vigor and promptness.

General Sumner with the advance of the Federal army arrived opposite Fredericksburg on the afternoon of November 17. The little town at that time was occupied by a regiment of Virginia cavalry, four companies of Mississippi infantry and a single light battery. It would have been a very easy matter for Sumner to cross and seize the heights back of the place, and he was anxious to do so, but Burnside forbade him. The other two grand divisions speedily followed, and on the evening of the 20th the entire Army of the Potomac was concentrated opposite Fredericksburg; but when Burnside looked across the narrow river to the heights beyond, he saw the crimson flags and the multitudinous gray-coats grimly awaiting him. At that time, too, Stonewall Jackson was hastening thither; so that Lee was confident of having his whole army in hand in time to repel the Federal assault.

Finding himself confronted by the Army of Northern Virginia, under the matchless Lee himself, Burnside could only proceed to establish his communications by way of Aquia Creek and complete his preparations for the tremendous assault upon the Confederate lines. His troops were posted along the northern shore from opposite Port Royal to a point above Falmouth. Aquia Creek was made his base of supplies, and the railroad.

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, Hyattetown 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.”


* Cooke’s Life of Stonewall Jackson.

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