Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 26

Camp-Fires of General Lee



THE magnificent achievements of the Army of Northern Virginia were not duplicated by the other armed forces of the Confederacy: there was but one Lee, and the Federals had made substantial progress in the West. General Bragg had been discomfited so often that the people clamored for his removal, but President Davis clung all the closer to him. General Pemberton was shut in at Vicksburg, with General Grant grimly waiting till starvation should compel him to succumb, and matters in the Trans-Mississippi Department were in anything but an encouraging shape for the Southern cause.

Profoundly sensible of the gravity of the situation, General Lee visited Richmond and held a long conference with the authorities. At the consultation it was determined to invade the North a second time. There were the best of reasons for such a course. The Army of Northern Virginia was nearly seventy thousand strong, and there were no better soldiers in the world. The splendid triumph at Chancellorsville had roused them to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and their morale was perfect. They were in the finest state of discipline, were excellently armed, and, as Longstreet expressed it, were in a condition to undertake anything. It was known, at the same time, that the Federal army was in worse form than it had been for many months. The best tribute to its discipline and cohesiveness was the fact that after such blundering leadership it still remained an army; but the terms of enlistment of many of the troops were expiring, and the desertions were so numerous that General Hooker notified President Lincoln that his infantry was reduced to an effective strength of eighty thousand men.

Vigorous preparations were instantly set on foot for the invasion of the teeming fields of Pennsylvania, where the Confederate legions saw corn, wine and oil in abundance. General Longstreet’s corps had rejoined the army immediately after Chancellorsville, and General Ewell succeeded Jackson in the command of the Second Corps. A third corps was organized and placed under A. P. Hill, and both he and Ewell were raised to the grade of lieutenant-general. Longstreet’s corps included the divisions of McLaws, Hood and Pickett; Ewell’s corps, the divisions of Early, Rodes and Johnson; and Hill’s corps, the divisions of Anderson, Pender and Heth. Besides these, there were ten thousand cavalry under Stuart. These preparations were not unknown to Hooker nor to the North, whose system of gathering news through the papers made it impossible for such a great movement to be kept secret for any length of time. There were intimations in the journals of a mighty campaign in process of organization south of the Potomac, and something “in the air” prepared every one for the startling tidings which speedily flashed across the border. By the first day of summer everything was in readiness for the advance, and General Lee began manœuvring to draw General Hooker from his position on the Rappahannock. On the 3d of June, Longstreet’s corps marched from its encampments at Fredericksburg and on the Rapidan toward Culpeper Court-House, followed the next day and the succeeding day by Ewell’s corps. A. P. Hill stayed at Fredericksburg with a view of deceiving Hooker into the belief that the entire Confederate army still confronted him.

Though well aware that something unusual was going on, General Hooker had no means as yet of learning the truth. In hope of gaining light, he sent, June 6, Sedgwick’s corps across the Rappahannock at Deep Run. General Hill notified Lee of the movement, but, knowing its meaning, Lee permitted Ewell and Longstreet to continue their march to Culpeper Court-House, where they arrived on the 8th. General Stuart and his cavalry were there awaiting them.


Caution, skill, energy and fine generalship marked the movements of General Lee in marshaling his hosts for the terrific struggle at Gettysburg. His purpose was to manœuvre so as to withdraw the Federal army from Virginia without bringing on a collision between the armies. The first step was to send forward one division of Longstreet’s corps toward Culpeper; this was followed by another, and then all of Ewell’s corps was sent in the same direction. A. P. Hill stayed on the south bank of the Rappahannock, near Fredericksburg, to confront the Federal advance upon Richmond.

It was at this juncture that one of the most impressive scenes of the war took place. On the 8th of June, Lee’s head of column reached Culpeper, and a review of Stuart’s cavalry took place in a broad open space east of the court-house. Above a little knoll rose a tall pole from which floated the Confederate flag, while directly below sat General Lee on his charger; his short cavalry cape fell from his shoulders, and the old slouch-hat half concealed the grave, handsome face beneath. His bright, clear eyes looked out on the long column of eight thousand cavalry, first drawn up in line, and then passing in front of the commander at a gallop, Stuart and his staff at the head, with sabres at tierce-point. Such a display always delighted the chivalrous Stuart, who bounded into battle with the overflowing spirits of a boy let loose from school. A sham-conflict followed—a proceeding so puzzling to the Federals that the next morning they sent two divisions of cavalry, supported by two brigades of picked infantry, to learn what it meant. This force crossed at Kelley’s and Beverley’s fords, and the result was the most remarkable cavalry-fight of the war. It is conceded by both sides that it surpassed any combat of its kind ever fought on this continent. The forces engaged were numerous, the soldiers were veterans toughened in battle, and they fought like heroes from the very opening to the close.

The Federal general Buford launched his division against one of Stuart’s brigades near Beverley’s Ford. It was just as day was breaking, and the assault was made with such fierceness that the Confederates were forced back toward Fleetwood Hill. Stuart had established his headquarters on the crest of this hill, and, seeing how the battle was going, he spurred to the front on a swift gallop, opening with a destructive fire from his artillery and sharpshooters, while Hampton’s division was sent to attack the Federal left. But, at the same time, the Federals were making a most dangerous movement against Stuart’s rear. General Gregg, with the second division of Federal cavalry, crossed at Kelley’s Ford, below, and, ignoring the force there, attacked the rear, behind Fleetwood Hill. At this time the great sabre-fight was at its height, when Stuart was aroused by the assault upon his rear. Falling rapidly back, he met the Federals coming up the hill, repulsed them and charged in turn. Back and forth swung the combatants, as if clinging to the opposite edges of a great pendulum. The Federal artillery was captured and recaptured three times, finally remaining in the hands of Stuart. At this juncture General Gregg made a fierce charge along the eastern slope of the hill, but Stuart had anticipated the movement, and checked it by a furious fire of shell; and the gallant Georgian general P. M. B. Young charged the Federals. This was done with the sabre, and carbine and pistol played no part in the fight. After a determined resistance, the Federals were routed and driven in disorder toward the river.

General W. H. F. Lee bravely met the attack on the left, near the river, and repulsed it. In the fight General Lee, who was the son of the commanding general, was severely wounded, but he drove the Federals back to the river, while Hampton, on the right, did the same, under the fire of Stuart’s guns on Fleetwood Hill. By sunset the whole Federal force had retreated to the other side of the Rappahannock, leaving behind several hundred dead and wounded. Besides General Lee, Genera1 Butler lost a foot, Colonel Williams was killed, Captain Farley was slain, Captain White wounded and Lieutenant Goldsborough captured. The Federal loss was severe, among it being the brave Colonel Davis of the Eighth New York Cavalry.

Many thousand cavalry fought each other in a hand-to-hand encounter from morning till night. It was “give and take” from the beginning to the end, and there were personal encounters, individual exploits and wonderful escapes which, if all told, would fill this volume.

What a significant proof of the prodigious character of the civil war that this tremendous cavalry-contest—the most remarkable, as has been said, that was ever fought in this country—was in reality only a preliminary skirmish, as may be said, of the stupendous shock of arms that was to shake, the continent! It had no perceptible effect on the great contest, and more than one history of those eventful times makes no mention of it.

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