Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 21

Camp-Fires of General Lee


GENERAL BURNSIDE was a valiant and able corps commander, but he demonstrated his utter unfitness to handle an army. Such a disastrous repulse as the Army of the Potomac had suffered could be due only to the incompetency of its leader, for braver and more heroic soldiers never shouldered the musket. We have shown how he disregarded the protests of Hooker when the latter was ordered to make a charge certain to end in frightful disaster, and how he was barely dissuaded by the united voice of all his commanders to withdraw an order for a general movement which would have resulted in another sanguinary defeat. The North was exasperated, and the morale of the army itself was seriously impaired. It was impossible that it should be otherwise: Burnside’s officers had no confidence in his military judgment, and the soldiers themselves looked upon him as incompetent. He keenly felt all this, and, stung to the quick, determined on one more effort to recover his waning, if not lost, prestige.

The first of these movements was undertaken toward the close of December. His intention was to cross the Rappahannock seven miles below Fredricksburg, so as to turn the Confederate position, and at the same time to send a cavalry expedition to cut Lee’s communications with Richmond. All the preparations were complete, and the raiding column had actually started when the commander received a despatch from Washington forbidding him to enter upon active operations without first consulting the President. Naturally enough, Burnside was angered. The cavalry expedition was recalled, and he proceeded to Washington to obtain an explanation of the reason why he was checked on the eve of an important demonstration. The explanation was promptly given him, and it was not calculated to salve his wounded feelings. President Lincoln said that certain general officers of the army had been to see him with the information that another movement was contemplated, and they earnestly urged the President to forbid it, for they were morally certain it could end only in disaster. While the President did not prohibit General Burnside from active operations, yet he gave him to understand that nothing of the kind was to be undertaken until after full consultation with the government.

The general found himself in a humiliating position. The North was clamoring for him to “do something,” and yet his own officers and soldiers had lost faith in his ability, and the commander-in-chief of the army and the navy held him motionless. He saw but the single way out of his galling situation: that was to organize a campaign whose promise of success would win the consent of the President, push it to triumph, and thus reinstate himself in the confidence of the army; but, as Swinton tersely says, “unfortunately, success was already too necessary to him, and he made too much contingent upon it; for if success was needful as the means of recovering the confidence of the army, this very confidence was itself indispensable as a condition of success.”

Burnside’s second plan was to cross the Rappahannock six miles above Fredericksburg, at a point which was fordable in summer, but impassable in winter. He explained his purpose to President Lincoln, and requested him to approve of it or to accept his resignation. The President listened carefully until all the details were made clear, when he told Burnside to go ahead and he hoped better fortune would attend him that time. The general thereupon proceeded to “go ahead.”

As Lee had a force in observation at each point where a crossing was likely to be attempted, it was decided to make several feints both above and below the place selected, so as to conceal the real purpose from the Confederate commander. Sigel’s corps, which had lately joined the Army of the Potomac, was stationed so as to guard the communications with Falmouth, while that of Couch was to draw attention to the lower part of the river. New roads were cut through the forest, to facilitate the movements of the forces, batteries planted, rifle-trenches formed and numerous demonstrations made at different points.

The roads were in excellent condition and the weather was favorable. January 19 the columns were put in motion, and the next night the grand divisions of Franklin and Hooker bivouacked near the proposed crossing. The preparations were speedily completed. The ponton-bridges, which had already more than once done duty, were placed a short distance back of the river, positions for the artillery were selected, and it was decided that the passage should be made the following morning. But the elements mercifully intervened. A fierce tempest of rain swept over the men, who painfully toiled in sleet and darkness, drawing the pontons nearer the river and dragging the guns into position. The weather became biting cold, and all through the long hours of inky gloom the brave men struggled and floundered in the mud, which in that section of the Union assumes a character that renders it the worst on the face of the earth. When the dismal morning light forced its way through the chilling rain, the preparations were not completed; and, besides, the watchful Confederates had discovered what was going on, and were massed ready to repulse the intended crossing. Such being the case and the rain still pouring, it would be supposed that Burnside would be quick to see the utter hopelessness of the enterprise; but not so: he kept his poor fellows at the wretched business. When the mules were hitched to the pontons, they sank to their bellies in the sticky paste, floundered, and gave up exhausted without stirring the boats; then long ropes were attached, and hundreds of men tugged and pulled and tumbled about in the rain and mud, and gave up, panting and exhausted.

While the Federals were thus employed the Confederates called across the river with such unnecessary expressions as “How are you making out, Yanks?”—“All together, now!“—”Here we go!”—“Stop and rest, boys, and we’ll go over in the morning and help you!”

Burnside persisted in keeping his men at the utterly useless toil until the morning of the 22d; the rain was still descending, and he was compelled to see that it was not only impossible to make any advance, but that it would be a herculean task for his army to extricate itself from the fathomless sea of mud in which it was struggling. Not only that, but the three days’ rations with which they set out were nearly gone. Even the commander was compelled to face the hard facts, and the order to withdraw was given. Corduroy-roads were constructed, and by superhuman exertions the cannon and vehicles were dragged away from the river, which, fortunately, was so swollen that the Confederates could not interfere seriously with the retreat, though their stinging taunts accompanied the disheartened Federals until they were beyond hearing.

Burnside was bowed down over the failure of his last undertaking. No doubt he felt that the stars in their courses were fighting against him; but when the elements intervened and prevented the crossing in the depth of winter, it was a merciful intervention indeed. No intelligent person can study the situation without reaching the conclusion that the Union army, under the circumstances, had not the slightest prospect of success, and, with the Rappahannock behind it, it is hard to conceive how it could have been extricated from its exceedingly perilous situation. In writing to the Richmond government, Lee said, “It was fortunate for the Federals that they failed to get over the river.” Knowing how careful and modest Lee was in expressing his views, it is impossible not to grasp the tremendous height and breadth and depth of those few words.

The dismal collapse of the “mud-march,” as it was called, threatened for a time to destroy the morale of the Union army. What little confidence the leading officers possessed at one time in their commander was irrecoverably gone, and the rank and file sought not to conceal their disgust.

It was natural that General Burnside should feel embittered toward the leaders who distrusted his ability; it was natural, also, that he should attribute his failure to their lack of sympathy and co-operation. Feeling that such a state of affairs could not continue, he determined on heroic measures. He therefore made an official request of President Lincoln that he would dismiss Generals Hooker, Brooks, Newton and Cochrane from the service of the United States, and would deprive Generals Franklin, Smith, Sturgis, Ferrero and Colonel Taylor of their respective commands. The only charge that could be brought against these men—known to be among the most competent in the army—was that they lacked confidence in their chief. Had the President done as requested, the Army of the Potomac would have been hopelessly disorganized. When Burnside presented as the alternative the acceptance of his resignation, the President did not hesitate: Burnside was relieved January 25, and the name of his successor was the very first which appeared on the list of those who he demanded should be dismissed from the service of the United States.

The winter of 1862–63 was a very severe one. As early as December a number of the Federal pickets were frozen to death while standing guard on the Rappahannock, and the condition of the Confederate army was deplorable. They were miserably clothed, and Lee himself notified the War Department that several thousand of his men were barefooted. He asked the government to seize all the shoes in the hands of speculators, pay an equitable price and distribute them among the soldiers. The suggestion, however, was not adopted.

Like the illustrious Father of his Country, Lee shared the privations and sufferings of his men, He declined the proffer of a house in which to establish his headquarters, but used what is known as a “house-tent,” scarcely differing from those in which the privates slept. It was pitched in a small opening in the wood, close to the narrow road leading to Hamilton’s Crossing, while the tents of the officers of his staff were grouped near. The only evidence that this was the headquarters of the army was the presence of an orderly, who was there to summon couriers to carry despatches.

“Within, no article of luxury was to be seen; a few plain and indispensable objects were all which the tent contained. The covering of the commander-in-chief was an ordinary army-blanket, and his fare was plainer, perhaps, than that of the majority of his officers and men. This was the result of an utter indifference in Lee to personal convenience or indulgence. Citizens frequently sent him delicacies, boxes filled with turkeys, hams, wines, cordials and other things peculiarly tempting to one leading the hard life of a soldier, but these were almost uniformly sent to the sick in some neighboring hospital. Lee’s principle in so acting seems to have been to set the good example to his officers of not faring better than his men, but he was undoubtedly indifferent naturally to luxury of all descriptions. In his habits and feelings he was not the self-indulgent man of peace, but the thorough soldier, willing to live hard, to sleep upon the ground and to disregard all sensual indulgence. In his other habits he was equally abstinent. He cared nothing for wine, whiskey or other stimulant, and never used tobacco in any form. He rarely relaxed his energies in anything calculated to amuse him, but when not riding along his lines or among the camps to see in person that the troops were properly cared for, generally passed his time in close attention to official duties connected with the well-being of his army or in correspondence with the authorities at Richmond. When he relaxed from this continuous toil, it was to indulge in some quiet and simple diversion, social converse with ladies in houses at which he chanced to stop, caresses bestowed upon children—with whom he was a great favorite—and frequently in informal conversation with his officers. At ‘Hayfield’ and ‘Moss Neck,’ two hospitable houses below Fredericksburg, he at this time often stopped, and spent some time in the society of the ladies and children there. One of the latter, a little curly-headed girl, would come up to him always to receive her accustomed kiss, and one day confided to him, as a personal friend, her desire to kiss General Jackson, who blushed like a girl when Lee, with a quiet laugh, told him of the child’s wish. On another occasion, when his small friend came to receive hi caress, he said, laughing, that she would show more taste in selecting a younger gentleman than himself, and, pointing to a youthful officer in a corner of the room, added, ‘There is the handsome Major Pelham;’ which caused that modest young soldier to blush with confusion. The bearing of General Lee in these hours of relaxation was quite charming and made him warm friends. His own pleasure and gratification were plain and gratified others, who in the simple and kindly gentleman in the plain gray uniform found it difficult to recognize the commander-in-chief of the Southern army.

“No one doubted during the war that General Lee was a sincere Christian in conviction, and his exemplary moral character and life were beyond criticism; beyond this it is doubtful whether any save his intimate associates understood the depth of his feeling on the greatest of all subjects. Jackson’s strong religious fervor was known and often alluded to, but it is doubtful if Lee was regarded as a person of equally fervent convictions and feelings. And yet the fact is certain that faith in God’s providence and reliance upon the Almighty were the foundation of all his actions and the secret of his supreme composure under all trials. He was naturally of such reserve that it is not singular that the extent of this sentiment was not understood. Even then, however, good men who frequently visited him and conversed with him upon religious subjects came away with their hearts burning within them. When the Rev. J. William Jones, with another person, went, in 1863, to consult him in reference to the better observance of the Sabbath in the army, his eye brightened and ‘his whole countenance glowed with pleasure, and as in his simple, feeling words he expressed his delight we forgot the great warrior, and only remembered that we were communing with an humble, earnest Christian.’ When he was informed that the chaplains prayed for him, tears started to his eyes, and he replied, ‘I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am a poor sinner trusting in Christ alone, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me’.”*

One of the several remedies which Lee proposed to his government was adopted. He had suffered much inconvenience in the previous campaigns on account of his inferior artillery and poor fixed ammunition. As he possessed a number of superior guns which had been captured from the Federal army, he replaced his old ones with them, so far as they went, while all his twelve-pounder howitzers and smooth-bore six-pounders were recast into twelve-pounder Napoleon, ten-pounder Parrott and three-inch rifle-guns. As a consequence, the army was soon better supplied in that respect than ever before.

Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac was buckling on its armor for the spring campaign. Beaten though it had been again and again, demoralized and shattered by its repeated change of leaders, abused by those who stayed at home and found their principal employment in criticising the operations in the field, it still retained its vitality to an amazing degree, and was the nucleus around which soon gathered another host, sufficient, it would seem, under capable leadership, of sweeping all resistance from its path.

When General Burnside was relieved of its command, it was necessary to find another, and, as we have intimated, the choice fell upon Joseph Hooker, or “Fighting Joe,” as he had come to be known. He was a soldier of unquestioned ability and courage, as he had proved on more than one bloody field, and; what was of equal importance, he possessed the unbounded confidence of his fellow-officers and the soldiers who were to serve under him. He at once instituted a number of wise reforms in the army. He checked the wholesale desertion by removing the causes for it; he abolished the “grand divisions” and infused his own warm vitality into the different corps, to each of which was given a distinctive badge; to those who were homesick—and, indeed, to all who desired it—he granted furloughs; he united the cavalry under one leader and rendered it what it should have been—one of the most effective arms of the service. He had the good sense to see that no important movement could be made during the tempestuous season, when the atrocious roads were impassable, and the time, therefore, which must elapse before the setting in of spring was wisely occupied in preparing for the momentous campaign which was then to open.

And so it was that when spring came the Army of the Potomac numbered one hundred and twenty thousand men, with twelve thousand finely-equipped cavalry and an artillery force of more than four hundred guns. It was composed of the First Corps, under General Reynolds; the Second, under General Couch; the Third, under General Sickles; the Fifth, under General Meade; the Sixth, under General Sedgwick; the Eleventh, under General Howard; and the Twelfth, under General Slocum.

The Confederate army was much weaker in point of numbers, for General Lee had detached two divisions, under Longstreet, for operations south of the James River, and those which were left showed an effective force of about fifty thousand men.


* J. E. Cooke’s Life of Lee.

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