Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 33

Camp-Fires of General Lee


HAVING withdrawn behind the Rapidan, Lee placed his army in winter-quarters. His position was so strong that he had no fear of successful molestation from the enemy, against whom was opposed only the single corps of Ewell. Hill’s corps was stationed in detached divisions at different points on the Orange and the Virginia Central Railroads, with a view of making it more convenient to subsist it through the winter. Hill’s cantonments stretched almost to Charlottesville, while the artillery was still farther back, but so situated that it could be concentrated at any menaced point. The lower fords of the Rapidan—Ely’s, Culpeper Mine, Germanna and Jacob’s Mill—were left unguarded.

This fact becoming known to Meade, he allowed the clamor throughout the North to tempt him to another effort to deliver an effective blow against the Army of Northern Virginia. His plan was simple enough: he trusted that by crossing the Rapidan at the lower fords he could wedge his army between the corps of Ewell and Hill and overwhelm them in detail. His troops, supplied with ten days’ rations, were to move as follows: “The First Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Culpeper Mine Ford and proceed to Parker’s Store, on the plank-road to Orange Court-House. The Second Corps was to cross at Germanna Ford and proceed out on the turnpike (which runs parallel with the plank-road) to Robertson’s Tavern. To this point, also, the Third Corps, crossing at Jacob’s Mill Ford, and followed by the Sixth Corps, was to march by other routes, and there to form a junction with the Second Corps. With the left at Parker’s Store and the right at Robertson’s Tavern, the army would be in close communication on parallel roads, and by advancing westward toward Orange Court-House would turn the line of Mine Run defences, which, it was known, did not extend as far south as to cross the turnpike and plank-roads.”* The Federal columns started promptly, as intended, on the morning of November 26, and, as the point of concentration was barely twenty miles distant, Meade was confident of having his army in position by noon the next day. The river, however, was not crossed until the following morning, when, in obedience to orders, the army pushed on with all possible haste.

No matter how secret the precautions of such a great movement, it could not be concealed from Lee, who noted the “signs” a couple of days before. All the fords were put under the closest surveillance, and it soon became known where Meade intended to cross. Lee suspected he was making for Chancellorsville, so as to gain his rear, and he vigilantly watched for the first indication of Meade’s purpose. It came in an altogether unexpected manner.

The Second Corps of the Federal army, under General Warren, reached Robertson’s Tavern shortly after noon, and immediately became involved in a brisk skirmish with Ewell, but, under orders to refrain from battle until the arrival of French, no attack was made[.] But French began with a stumble and kept it up all the way. After crossing the Rapidan at Jacob’s Mill, he took the wrong road to Robertson’s Tavern, and, passing far to the right, suddenly ran against Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps. Johnson attacked at once, and a brisk fight followed, which lasted until sunset. By the time French was able to extricate himself and open communication with Robertson’s Tavern it was night.

It was this occurrence which gave Lee the knowledge he wanted, and he made his dispositions with his accustomed promptness and skill. Hill’s corps, scattered here and there south of Orange Court-House, was ordered up, and reached the ground during the night. Thereupon, Ewell was withdrawn to the west side of Mine Run, where preparations were immediately perfected to shut off the Federal advance in that direction. The southern line was of exceptional strength. It followed a range of hills some seven or eight miles in length, extending due north and south, with the Mine Run Creek flowing along its base. Lee superintended most of the engineering operations in person; which statement is all that is required to show they were beyond improvement. He and his officers and men were in the highest spirits, for no one had a doubt of their ability to defend themselves against any assault that could be made.

It was this formidable line of fortifications which barred Meade’s advance on the wintry morning of the 28th of November. Still, the Federal commander had no thought of retiring, and, placing his army in position, he spent the day in hunting the most favorable point of attack. The result of these careful reconnoissances and the council that followed was the decision that General Warren, with some twenty-six thousand men, was to seek to turn the Confederate left, while Sedgwick, with the Fifth and Sixth Corps, was to attempt to turn the right. French, with three divisions, was to take no part, but to hold the line between Sedgwick and Warren. The next day was spent in perfecting preparations. It was agreed that on the morning of the 30th the attack should open. Sedgwick was to deliver a heavy artillery-fire, after which Warren would advance, and an hour later Sedgwick was to make his effort to turn the right. Everything was in readiness at daylight, and the army impatiently awaited the signal. Soon the boom of Sedgwick’s cannon awoke the oppressive stillness, and the thunder rolled along the line, but in the direction of Warren, on the left, the silence continued like that of the tomb. Meade and the rest of the army were astounded, unable to understand the cause of this extraordinary inaction; but the explanation was speedily brought to the leader by an aide from Warren.

General Warren, when he came to inspect the Confederate right, just before attacking, found that Lee had made it absolutely impregnable. He might launch his command against it, but it would be Fredericksburg over again. His men were ready to attempt whatever was required of them, but, with a moral heroism which did him credit, Warren declined to order the assault, preferring to sacrifice himself rather than his men. General Meade immediately rode over to the line and carefully inspected it; he was compelled to acknowledge that Warren was right and it would be a crime to order men to make the assault. It was a bitter disappointment to the Federal commander, but he was too good a soldier not to see the truth as it was. He had advanced in order to satisfy the impatient demands of the North; and now, having marched his army up the hill, it only remained to march it down again. He might move far over to the left in the hope of manœuvring Lee out of his position, but the issue would be very doubtful, as his trains were beyond the Rapidan and supplies were low. Besides, they were on the edge of winter, and the weather was already so severe that a number of soldiers had frozen to death. On the night of December 1, therefore, Meade returned to his old position on the Rapidan. As soon as his flight was discovered Lee started in pursuit, but the Federal army was too active, and crossed over the river before he could overtake it.

Both armies now went into winter-quarters, Lee holding the south bank of the Rapidan, his cantonments extending from the river along the railroad to Orange Court-House and Gordonsville. Meade’s troops were distributed along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad all the way from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock. The feeling was general that the final conflict was approaching, and both governments put forth their utmost efforts to prepare for the life-and-death struggle.

WE were on the Rapidan River where it was a little stream hardly one hundred feet wide. General Lee sent me word I must go out and break up the communication between our pickets and the enemy’s. They had got to trading with each other in newspapers, tobacco, and whatever would vary the monotony of picket-life. They would not shoot at each other, and so it wag not military-like; so I started out one morning on my horse and rode the whole length of the picketline, and just as I came to a certain point I saw that there was confusion and surprise, as if I had not been expected.

“What is the matter, men, here?” I asked.

“Nothing, general; nothing is here.”

“You must tell me the truth,” said I. “I am not welcome, I see, and there must be some reason for it. Now, what is the matter?”

“There has been nobody here, general. We were not expecting you, that is all.”

“I turned to two or three of the soldiers and said,

“Beat down theme bushes here.”

“They had to obey, and there suddenly row up out of the weeds a man as stark naked as he had come into the world.

“Who are you?” asked I.

“I am from over yonder, general.[”]

“Over yonder? Where?”

He pointed to the other side of the river.

“What regiment do you belong to?”

“The One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania, general.”

“What are you doing in my camp?”

“Why, I thought I would just come over and see the boys.”

“See the boys! What boys? Do you mean to nay you have entered my camp except as a prisoner? Now, I am going to do this with you: I am going to have you marched to Libby prison just as you are, without a rag of clothes on you.”

“Why, general, you wouldn’t do that just because I came over to see the boys? I didn’t mean any harm. I felt lonesome over there and wanted to talk to the boys a little, that’s all.”

“Never mind, sir; you march from this spot, clothed as you are, to Libby prison.”

“General,” said the man, “I had rather you would order me to be shot right here.”

“No, sir; you go to Libby.”

Then several of my soldiers spoke up:

“General, don’t be too hard on him; he’s a pretty good fellow. He didn’t mean any harm; he just wanted to talk with us.”

“This business must be broken up,” said I—“mixing on the picketline”

It had not been in my heart, however, to arrest the man, from the beginning. I only wanted to scare him, and he did beg hard.

“I’ll tell you what I will do with you this time,” for I saw he was a brave, good-humored fellow: “if you will promise me that neither you nor any of your men shall ever come into my lines again except as prisoners, I’ll let you go.”

“God bless you, general!” said the man; and without any more ado he just leaped into that stream, and came up on the other side and took to the woods.—General Gordon.


* Swinton.

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