Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 31

Camp-Fires of General Lee


SO soon as General Meade learned of the retreat of General Lee he made haste to pursue him. Sedgwick’s corps was despatched along the Fairfield road, and his cavalry galloped over the Harrisburg highway. The Confederate rear-guard was overtaken lake in the day at the point where the Fairfield road runs along the South Mountain. Before any attack could be made Sedgwick was recalled by an order from Meade, who had determined on another route: that was to take the one east of the mountains, which was almost twice as long as the road by which Lee was retreating. Hoping to intercept Lee, General French, who was at Frederick with the garrison of Harper’s Ferry, was ordered to seize the lower passes of the South Mountain before they could be occupied by Lee. French was also to occupy Harper’s Ferry. These orders were promptly carried out by French, who sent out a cavalry force as far as Williamsport and destroyed a Confederate ponton-bridge across the Potomac. Meade carefully felt his way, being joined on the march by French’s division and other reinforcements sent from Washington, until his army was nearly, if not quite, as strong as before the battle. On the 7th of July the Federal headquarters were at Frederick, and three days later were at Antietam Creek.

General Lee had from the first a work of extreme difficulty before him, but he went at it with that calm self-confidence which he never failed to display under the most adverse circumstances. One part of his train followed the Fairfield road and the rest went through Cashtown, General Imboden’s cavalry guarding the advance. The immense length of the wagon-trains exposed them to Federal forays, and as they defiled from the mountain-passes they lost a few wagons and ambulances from this cause.

July 6 the Federal cavalry made an attack at Williamsport, but were driven off by Imboden before any substantial injury was inflicted. General Stuart and his cavalry arrived soon after, and not only repelled another assault, but pursued their assailants several miles. The violent rain-storm which had lasted so many hours rendered the roads passable only by great labor, and the army plodded slowly after the wagon-trains. The pursuit by Meade was “from afar,” and was conducted with such extreme circumspection that Lee would not have had the slightest difficulty in getting away but for the fact that on reaching the Potomac it was found so swollen by the recent rain as to be no longer fordable, and the single ponton-bridge he possessed had been destroyed by the enemy. The only thing, therefore, to do was to wait till the river’s volume should subside. Accordingly, he selected a secure position, and the three days which passed before his pursuers appeared were spent in strengthening it against attack. A portion of the old ponton-bridge was recovered, and after great labor a new bridge was finished on the 13th.

The situation of the Confederate army during those days was very critical. Ammunition and supplies were low, and none could be obtained from any source. The river was impassable, and the Federal army, reinforced and exultant, was approaching. It came in sight on the 12th, and Lee gathered his forces for the assault which he was confident would be speedily made; but it was Meade who seemed to think himself in danger, for he began to fortify his line. But at high noon on the 13th those who examined the subsiding Potomac reported that it was fordable, and, everything being in readiness, General Lee ordered the passage to be begun that night. The frightful condition of the roads, however, delayed everything; so that the troops did not arrive until after daylight on the 14th. Ewell’s corps had forded the river at Williamsport, while those of Longstreet crossed on the bridge at Falling Waters.

On the night of the 13th, General Meade determined to attack the Confederate army the following morning. His preparations were elaborated with the care and skill which he always displayed. When, at last, these were completed, the Federal commander awoke to the fact that Lee and all his army were on the other side of the Potomac. They had withdrawn with complete success. Two guns so mired that their horses could not drag them off and several disabled wagons were left, including a number of men, who, throwing themselves in the mud alongside the road and sinking into heavy sleep, were missed in the darkness by the officers sent to arouse them, and thus fell into the hands of the On the 15th of July, General Lee withdrew from the Potomac to the neighborhood of Winchester. Two days later a detachment of Federal cavalry which had crossed at Harper’s Ferry were attacked by General Fitz Lee at Kearnysville and driven back with considerable loss.

General Meade, unwilling to relinquish the great prize almost in his grasp, as it seemed, determined to cut off Lee from Richmond or compel him to fight before he could move east of the Blue Ridge. Crossing his army at Harper’s Ferry on the 17th and 18th of July, he sought to occupy the passes before they could be reached by the Confederates. Thereupon, Lee turned up the Shenandoah Valley, his progress hindered by the high water in the Shenandoah River. Longstreet was ordered on the 19th of July to proceed to Culpeper Court-House by way of Front Royal. He succeeded in moving part of his command over the Shenandoah in time to prevent the occupation of Manassas and Chester Gaps by the Federals. A pontonbridge was laid; the rest of the corps crossed, and marched through Chester Gap to Culpeper, where they arrived on the 24th. Hill’s corps followed, Ewell reaching Front Royal on the 23d and encamping near Madison Court-House on the 29th. A portion of the Federal army entered the valley during this march of Lee, and a capital opening was presented for a flank attack; but it failed through the mismanagement of General French, who was buffeted hither and thither and held back by the Confederates as they willed until the opportunity had passed. Finding, at last, that the Confederate army had successfully eluded him, Meade marched at a leisurely pace toward the Rappahannock, while Lee withdrew to the vicinity of Culpeper.

The failure of the second Confederate invasion of the North was a tremendous blow to the South, accompanied as it was by the fall of Vicksburg and the loss of the Mississippi River; but the Confederacy only buckled on its armor and prepared again for the fiercer conflict that was to come. It was the general belief throughout the South that had a great victory been won at Gettysburg the South and the North would have formed a treaty of peace on terms acceptable to both. The South was none the less determined to win those terms, but the disasters caused her to realize that the struggle would be harder, longer and more sanguinary than before. July 15, President Davis issued his proclamation calling into the military service all persons residing in the Confederacy, and not legally exempt, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years. The 21st of August was appointed a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer. It was observed throughout the South, and nowhere more impressively than in the army.*


* General Lee’s order respecting the observance of this day is worthy of preservation:

August 13,1868.

General Order. No. 83.

The President of the Confederate States has in the name of the people appointed the 21st day of August as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer. A strict observance of the day is enjoined upon the officers and soldiers of the army. All military duties except such as are absolutely necessary will be suspended. The commanding officers of brigades and regiments are requested to cause divine services suitable to the occasion to be performed in their respective commands.

Soldiers! we have sinned against almighty God. We have forgotten his signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in his eyes, that “our times are in his hands,” and we have relied too much on our own arms for the achievement of our independence. God is our only refuge and our strength. Let us humble ourselves before him. Let us confess our many sins and beseech him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism and more determined will, that he will convert the hearts of our enemies, that he will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and that he will give us a name and place among the nations of the earth.

R. E. LEE, General.

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