Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 27

Camp-Fires of General Lee


THE most important result of the cavalry-fight at Brandy Station was the discovery by Hooker of Lee’s presence at Culpeper and his plan of invasion. These facts were learned through captured correspondence.

Hooker saw that no time was to be lost. He immediately pushed up the river to Rappahannock Station and Beverley, while the cavalry guarded the fords above. Suspicious as he was of the intention of the Confederate leader, he could not be certain of the form it would take. He supposed he was attempting to repeat the campaign of the previous year in which Pope figured so discreditably; he therefore gave his full attention to protecting his communications and to guarding against a sudden march by the Confederates upon Washington.

Lee was advancing with the greatest secrecy and skill, his eye fixed upon Hooker like the scrutiny of a tiger when stealing upon his prey. He saw that his opponent was completely deceived, and he therefore ventured on another daring move. Ewell’s corps marched swiftly toward Chester Gap, hurried through that defile, and reached Winchester at the close of the afternoon of the 13th, having marched more than seventy miles in three days. By this audacious manœuvre Lee’s line of battle was expanded to a length of one hundred miles, for his right (Hill’s corps) was at Fredericksburg, his centre (Longstreet’s corps) was at Culpeper, and his left (Ewell’s corps) was at the head of Shenandoah Valley. The mere statement of the fact would condemn the military judgment of Lee were it not supplemented by the fact that he knew his man. They had met before, and it was an encounter of a giant and a dwarf.

The wisdom of striking the Confederate army while drawn out in this attenuated fashion could not fail to present itself to Hooker, who suggested it to President Lincoln and General Halleck; but they disapproved of it. The opinion of the President was expressed in his characteristic fashion: “In case you find Lee coming to the north of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the south of it. I would not take any risk of being entangled on the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.” Some days later the President wrote: “I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your true objective-point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, fight him when opportunity offers; if he stays where he is, fret him and fret him.” Still later, when the Confederate advance became definitely known, the President wrote to General Hooker: “If the head of Lee’s army is at Martinsburg and the tail of it on the plank-road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?”

Hooker broke up his camps along the Rappahannock as soon as he learned that Lee had entered the Shenandoah Valley, and headed for Washington, following the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Lee did not hesitate, but pushed his grand campaign with his accustomed brilliancy, boldness and skill.

Hill waited at Fredericksburg until the Union army withdrew, when, his purpose accomplished, he marched for Culpeper, where Longstreet’s corps were still in position, while Ewell, remembering that he was at the head of Stonewall Jackson’s old division, was dashing into the Shenandoah Valley. General Jenkins with his cavalry brigade had been directed to push toward Winchester, and Imboden and his troopers had approached Romney to shut off any reinforcements that might be sent by way of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. They were in position and ready to co-operate with Ewell when he entered the valley.

When Ewell crossed the Shenandoah River near Front Royal, he sent Rodes’s division to Berryville to cut off communication between Winchester and the Potomac, while with the divisions of Early and Johnson he advanced straight upon Milroy in Winchester. This town, from its peculiar position, had a most extraordinary experience during the war. The contending hosts swept back and forth through it time and again, until the inhabitants had to be alert to keep informed as to which authority was over them. It had changed hands as often as four times in one day, and during the war was captured and recaptured more than sixty times.

When Ewell thundered at the gates, General Milroy and about six thousand men were within. well was eager to make a closer acquaintance with this individual, whose outrages in the valley were of such character that the Confederate government had ordered its forces to refuse him the rights of a prisoner of war if captured. When Milroy found who was after him, his chief solicitude was to get away. He had the means of making a splendid defence, but the following night he crept out of Winchester with his command. In their tumultuous flight, however, they were intercepted and most of them captured. Milroy managed to save himself and a handful of men by outrunning their pursuers to the Potomac.* Berryville having been taken, with several hundred prisoners, and the garrison at Harper’s Ferry having withdrawn to Maryland Heights, the valley was entirely cleared of all Federal forces.

Stonewall Jackson’s old corps sustained its reputation for dash, vim and rapidity of movement, for it had captured more than four thousand prisoners, twenty-nine pieces of artillery, two hundred and seventy wagons and ambulances and a large quantity of valuable stores. The loss in the corps was slight, and as a consequence the enthusiasm was unbounded.

When Hill advanced from Fredericksburg to Culpeper, Longstreet left the latter place, marched northward along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge and took position at Ashby’s and Snicker’s gaps. Behind this screen Hill dodged into the Shenandoah Valley, and posted himself at Winchester.

Lee’s consummate strategy improved his situation at every move, until within a couple of weeks from the opening of the campaign he had everything in the shape desired. He was so strongly posted in the valley that he was ready to welcome the attack of his enemy, no matter how great his numbers, while he was at liberty to send a powerful raiding-column into Maryland or Pennsylvania without serious danger of being molested.

But Hooker was in a state of nervous fear, and resolved that he would not be drawn into the trap which Lee had evidently set for him. The spectre of the colossal soldier in the dreaded gray coat still haunted the authorities in Washington, and the Federal commander clung to his position in the neighborhood of Manassas and Fairfax, so as to guard the approach to the capital, while Pleasanton and his cavalry cautiously felt the ground in the direction of the Blue Ridge, where Longstreet was powerfully posted, with Stuart’s troopers on his front. On the 17th of June a brisk collision took place between Pleasanton and two brigades of Stuart near Aldie, and General Pleasanton was driven back. Feeling quite sure of Lee’s position, Hooker now sent forward the Twelfth Corps to Leesburg, the Fifth to Aldie, and the Second to Thoroughfare Gap. While engaged in manœuvring, it suddenly occurred to Hooker that he was wandering about the country precisely as Lee wished him to do; he therefore once more devoted his attention to the protection of the capital and awaited the further development of Lee’s purposes. He was not kept long in waiting.

Hill and Longstreet having relieved Ewell in the Shenandoah Valley, the latter, on the 22d of June, marched into Maryland. At the same time, Imboden’s cavalry, galloping westward, destroyed the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Having done this damage, Imboden captured the city of Cumberland, Maryland.

A week previous, when Ewell invested Winchester, Jenkins’s cavalry were ordered into Pennsylvania in quest of supplies. They were directly on the heels of Milroy’s fleeing wagon-train. The terrified teamsters, with their perspiring horses lashed to a dead run, tore through the streets of Chambersburg, shouting that the whole rebel army would be in town before night. That sort of business was not calculated to exert a soothing effect on the inhabitants, for, allowing for some natural exaggeration, they knew there was a strong substratum of truth in the announcement. Sure enough, the Confederate troopers arrived that evening. The inhabitants were treated with much consideration, and, having gathered a large number of horses and cattle, Jenkins sent them toward the Potomac, while he and his cavalry set out to join Ewell’s force, which, it will be remembered, had entered Maryland on the 22d of June. Ewell advanced by two columns on Hagerstown, and, crossing the border into Pennsylvania, moved up the Cumberland Valley, reaching Chambersburg the next day.

By this time, as may well be supposed, the North was in a state of unprecedented excitement. The Confederates were advancing toward the polar star, and who should say where they would stop? Many believed they would “water their horses in the Delaware,” and that Philadelphia was doomed to fall. The State records and treasures were hastily sent forward to New York, and consternation prevailed such as was never known since the opening of the war. President Lincoln issued a proclamation, calling upon the States of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to furnish one hundred thousand militia, to serve for six months unless sooner discharged, to repel the invasion. Even in New York the people listened tremblingly for the tramp of the armed legions from the South. Major-General Couch had been detached from the command of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac and assigned to the command of the Department of the Susquehanna, with his headquarters at Harrisburg. He issued a stirring appeal to the Pennsylvanians to rally to the defence of their State, and Governor Curtin called on the militia to come forward. The response was so feeble that it was not until several regiments arrived from other States that General Couch was able to make the least pretence of defence. Even then he was compelled to confine his attempts to fortifying the line of the Susquehanna.

On the 27th of June the entire Confederate army was concentrated at Chambersburg. General Lee issued a complimentary address to his soldiers, and strict orders were enforced against the sale of liquors or molestation of persons and private property. Lee felt himself greatly handicapped by the absence of Stuart and his cavalry, for without them he had been unable, since crossing the Potomac, to gain any reliable news of the Army of the Potomac. With the purpose of keeping the Federal army east of the Blue Ridge, so that Lee might preserve his own communications with the Valley of Virginia through Hagerstown and Williamsport, Ewell was sent with a division east of South Mountain. It halted at York, while the rest of the corps proceeded to Carlisle. Lee had his forces well in hand and was about to advance upon Harrisburg, when he was checked by the first authentic tidings of the Army of the Potomac.

Hooker did not dare move to the northern side of the Potomac until Lee fully disclosed his purpose; when he learned that the rear of the Confederate army was entering Maryland, he ventured to move. The Federal army made the crossing of the Potomac at Edwards’s Ferry on the 25th and 26th of June and began concentrating at Frederick. This position was of vast importance, for, as will be seen, it enabled Hooker either to pass South Mountain and intercept Lee’s communications or to move toward the Susquehanna in the event of Lee marching upon Harrisburg. Hooker inclined to the former plan, and accordingly advanced his left wing to Middleton and sent General Slocum with the Twelfth Corps to Harper’s Ferry. At that point was a garrison of eleven thousand men, which it was intended should unite with Slocum and by moving upon Chambersburg threaten the Confederate rear. This proposal, however, was vetoed by General Halleck, whose affection for Harper’s Ferry would not countenance its abandonment. Hooker insisted, and showed the great results promised by his plan. Halleck would not yield, and, exasperated by the stupidity of his superior officer, Hooker resigned. His resignation was accepted, and on the next day, June 28, Major-General G. G. Meade, commanding the Fifth Army Corps, became commander of the Army of the Potomac. Though General Meade never rose to the height of a great soldier, he was a man who understood his profession too thoroughly to fail to do it honor, and his appointment was one of the wisest ever made by his government, which also had the good sense to refrain from trammelling him with instructions to pursue any definite policy, leaving him to be guided by the necessities of the situation.*

When General Meade assumed command, the army was lying near Frederick City, with its left thrown out to Middleton. On the 29th, Lee learned that its advanced force was beyond Middleton, as if it meant to pass over the mountains and assail his rear. Ewell’s troops were at York and Carlisle, while Stuart’s whereabouts were still unknown. Seeking to draw Meade away from the Potomac, Lee began concentrating his army east of the mountains. Longstreet and Hill were ordered to advance from Chambersburg to Gettysburg, while Ewell was directed to march from York and Carlisle to the same point. Feeling keenly the loss of Stuart, Lee proceeded at a leisurely pace, and thus, not knowing the movements of Meade, the latter was enabled to reach Gettysburg first, and to fortify it against the Confederate advance. Stuart had harassed the flanks of the Federal army while it was in Virginia, but he was not able to delay its progress. He crossed the Potomac at Seneca Falls, and, passing east of Meade’s army, arrived at Carlisle just after Ewell had left for Gettysburg.

On the night of June 30, Meade learned that Lee was concentrating his forces east of the South Mountain to meet him. It was beyond Meade’s power to determine where the shock of battle would take place, as that must depend largely on circumstances which could not be foreseen. The general line of Pipe Creek, on the dividing-ridge between the Monocacy and the waters running into Chesapeake Bay, was selected as a favorable position, though its ultimate adoption was held contingent on developments that might arise. Accordingly, orders were issued on the night of the 30th for the movement of the different corps on the following day. The Sixth Corps, forming the right wing of the army, was ordered to Manchester, in rear of Pipe Creek, headquarters and the Second Corps to Taneytown; the Twelfth and Fifth Corps, forming the centre, were directed on Two Taverns and Hanover, somewhat in advance of Pipe Creek; while the left wing, formed of the First, Third and Eleventh Corps, under General Reynolds, as it was closest to the line of march of the enemy, was thrown forward to Gettysburg, toward which, as it happened, Lee was then heading. Strategetically, the position at Gettysburg was of supreme importance to Lee, for it was the first point in his eastward march across the South Mountain that gave command of direct lines of retreat toward the Potomac; but it was not of the same moment to Meade, especially if a defensive rather than an offensive battle was to be fought, and the topographical features of Gettysburg, that make it so advantageous for the defence, were then wholly unknown to him. While, therefore, the left wing, under Reynolds, was thus thrown forward in advance of the rest of the army as far as Gettysburg, it was not with any predetermined purpose of taking up position there, but rather to serve as a mask while the line of Pipe Creek was assumed.

But, while in war commanders propose, fate or accident (so called) often disposes; and at the time these movements were in execution events were occurring that were to lift the obscure and insignificant hamlet of Gettysburg into historic immortality as the scene of the mightiest encounter of modern days.*

On the 29th of June the Federal general Buford and his cavalry occupied Gettysburg, to which point General Reynolds had been ordered. On the following night two divisions of Hill’s corps bivouacked within half a dozen miles of Gettysburg, on the Baltimore and Chambersburg road, while Ewell paused at Heidlersburg, nine miles distant from the little town. General Reynolds with the left wing of the Federal army was on Marsh Creek, four miles south of Gettysburg, his purpose being to occupy the town the next morning. Longstreet’s corps was west of the mountains, and only the two divisions of Hill were east. Such was the situation at dawn of the fateful 1st of July, 1863.


* “Milroy’s defence of the post entrusted to his care was infamously feeble, and the worst of that long train of misconduct that made the Valley of the Shenandoah to be called the Valley of Humiliation.”—Swinton.

“In my opinion, Milroy’s men will fight better under a soldier.”—General Hooker’s letter to President Lincoln.

* J. D. McCabe, Jr.

* Swinton.

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