An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
Charles Marshall


I HAVE briefly alluded to the posture of affairs when I joined General Lee’s staff on March 21st, 1862. Manassas had been evacuated, and General J. E. Johnston lay behind the Rappahannock, awaiting the development of the plans of General McClellan. General Jackson had retired up the Valley, Winchester and Front Royal being in possession of the Federal forces under General Banks.1 It was known that General McClellan did not intend to pursue General Johnston or attempt to advance upon Richmond from the north, and it was quite certain that he would transfer his forces to the Peninsula or James River line of approach.2 General Magruder held the Peninsula with a small force, and it was believed that the Virginia or Merrimac would prevent the enemy from using the line of the James, and compel him to advance up the Peninsula, using the York River for his supplies. The enemy on the North Carolina coast had made no formidable attempt to penetrate into the interior. A movement was made in the direction of Norfolk from Roanoke Island, but was foiled at South Mills by Colonel, afterwards Brigadier General, Wright, with less than a regiment of infantry and part of a battery. The troops south of the James River were therefore held in readiness to move to the assistance of General Magruder, except those at Norfolk, which were not withdrawn until some time afterwards.

In the West, General Albert Sidney Johnston had been compelled to evacuate Kentucky and a large part of Tennessee, and the Federal Army, after advancing some distance south of Nashville, turned towards the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing. New Orleans fell,3 the upper Mississippi was abandoned, and there appeared to be no reasonable probability of our being able to oppose successfully the large army of General Buell, advancing southward through Tennessee, except by concentrating the troops that, in pursuance of the policy of making a front against the enemy at every point, had been scattered over a vast extent of country. Our weakness was but too evident, and to add to our trouble, the expiration of the term of service of the greater part of our troops was approaching. Many had not re-enlisted, and large numbers of those who had would, under the operation of the law of December 11th, 1861, to which I have referred, leave their original commands to unite with other entirely new organisations. The recruits obtained under the call of the President upon the Governors of the States did not come forth in adequate numbers, and those that did were not placed in existing organisations, but were permitted to form or assist in forming the new commands authorised by that law which was disorganising the troops we had in the field.4

Such was the unpropitious aspect of affairs. Towards the last of March the army of General McClellan began to arrive at Fortress Monroe, and General J. E. Johnston proceeded to the lines at Yorktown to support General Magruder. As the plans of the enemy were more fully developed, the troops south of the James River were also ordered to join those engaged in holding the Peninsula at Yorktown, but the combined army was scarcely one-third as strong as that of General McClellan.5 In these circumstances it became evident that some more efficacious means must be taken to obtain men than the process of calling upon the Governors of the several States.


About April 1st, or perhaps a few days earlier,6 General Lee directed me to prepare a draft of a bill for raising an army by the direct agency of the Confederate Government. His instructions were to provide that the whole population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five should be placed in the service of the Confederate States for the duration of the war. The President was authorized to call out such parts of the population rendered liable to service by the law, as he might deem proper, and at such times as he saw fit. The bill further provided that the recruits thus obtained should be used in the first instance to fill existing organisations to their complement, and empowered the Government to form new commands, if necessary, whose officers were to be appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. It repealed the act of December 11th, 1861, took from the volunteers the right conferred by that act of organizing and electing their officers, and retained in service for the war the men already enlisted. The men thus made subject to military duty, and not drafted into existing commands or used to form new organisations, were to constitute a reserve and were to be drilled in camps of instruction.

This measure completely reversed the previous military legislation of the South. It was inspired by General Lee’s views of the real nature and object of the war on the part of the United States, and of the corresponding duty of the Southern people. Convinced himself of the rectitude and justice of the Southern cause, ready to make any sacrifice to ensure its triumph, he deprecated the apparent reluctance of Congress to throw itself upon the patriotism and earnestness of the people. The efforts of the Government had hitherto been confined to inviting the support of the people. General Lee thought it could more surely rely upon their intelligent obedience, and that it might safely assume to command where it had as yet only tried to persuade.

He believed that independence could only be achieved by the vigorous use of all the resources of the country, and that the people would support any measures wisely devised to secure the blessings of success, and to avert the incalculable ills of failure. Without disregarding the possible aid to be derived from dissensions among the people of the North, or from European intervention, he maintained that an energetic policy would increase the probability of assistance from those sources. The North, he thought, would be less united in the prosecution of the war in proportion to the difficulties of success, and foreign powers would be more ready to intervene on behalf of a strong and well-prepared people than in favour of those who failed to show that they were able to defend themselves. Therefore he insisted that the South should be prepared, to the extent of its resources, to defend itself without relying upon foreign assistance, and he held it to be a capital error to count upon contingencies, however probable, if the means of success, independently of those contingencies, were not used. He thought that every other consideration should be regarded as subordinate to the great end of the public safety, and that since the whole duty of the nation would be war until independence should be secured, the whole nation should for the time be converted into an army, the producers to feed and the soldiers to fight.7

I accordingly drew up a paper embodying the foregoing provisions and General Lee took it to the President. After a long consultation, the General informed me that the paper had been placed in the hands of Mr. Benjamin, then Secretary of State, to be put in proper form to be recommended to Congress for adoption. I did not see the bill as drafted by Mr. Benjamin, but understood that it did not differ much in its main provisions from that written by me under the direction of General Lee. It was more detailed, contained some special provisions as to the mode of enforcing the law, and I believe repealed the law of December 11th, as General Lee’s paper had proposed.

The bill was laid before Congress early in April, and debated by that body in secret session until about the 15th, when it was adopted,8 with certain grave and most hurtful alterations, the effects of which we felt to the end of the war. I do not hesitate to assert, and I appeal to every officer of experience in the Confederate service to sustain me, that the provisions of the bill as it passed Congress did more to weaken the army, to impair its efficiency, and in fact to prepare the way for disaster, than any single cause.

The whole army was reorganised by the law. It retained the men then in service, for three years or the duration of the war. It gave all those who had received authority to raise new commands under the act of December 11th, 1861, thirty days within which to complete their organisations. It expressly repealed that Act, and placed the arms-bearing population between 18 and 35, with certain exemptions, in the service of the Confederate States for three years or the duration of the war, to be called into the field by the President, and provided that the Secretary of War should devise the mode of compelling their attendance. So far, save for some of the exemptions, to which I shall presently allude, the law was as good as could reasonably have been expected; but it contained the following fatal defects: It provided that the men of the existing commands retained in service should elect their field and company officers, within a certain short time before the expiration of their first enlistment. It further provided that men before enrolment might enlist in any command and in any arm of the service that they might elect, and that vacancies in the lowest grade of commissioned officers should continue to be filled by election by the men. Thus by the provisions of this law the armies in the immediate presence of the enemy, like that of General J. E. Johnston, on the Peninsula, were authorized to change all their officers by a popular election.

Comment on such a law is unnecessary, but I will state that the worst consequences anticipated by the opponents of the elective system were realised. Some of the best field and company officers, who had been in command a year, had acquired experience in their duties, and whom the men were accustomed to obey, were removed, and their places filled with raw and untried men, many of whom possessed no military merit, and only enjoyed the doubtful qualification of personal popularity with the electors. Of course those officers who had been most stringent in enforcing discipline were most unpopular, and not infrequently those men who had required the greatest restraint at their hands were their successors. Encouragement was given to those who wished to retain their commissions to seek favour for popularity at the expense of discipline. I doubt whether a more perilous experiment could have been devised at a moment of such critical danger. Some of the effects of it were visible in the army long after it passed under the command of General Lee. Nothing but the fine spirit and fighting qualities of those who composed the first army and the ability of their superior officers, saved it from total disorganisation and ruin. The elections in General J. E. Johnston’s army actually took place in the Yorktown trenches, and men had to come from the skirmish line to decide by their votes whether the officers who placed them there should continue to command them.

But this was not the worst. Except for a clause authorising promotion for valour and skill, which was interpreted in such a manner by the Department as to render it almost useless and to remove the stimulus to exertion which it was designed to give, the law provided no means for maintaining the supply of officers except by election. When a vacancy occurred in any but the lowest grade of commissioned officers, the promotion was by seniority, but to supply the lowest grades, from which during the progress of the war the higher grades of company and field officers had to be filled, the process was by election by the men. The supply of officers thus depended ultimately upon election, and that fatal feature continued to characterize the service, notwithstanding representations of its baneful effects, until just before the campaign of 1865 opened, when it was repealed, but too late.

It is unnecessary to point out all the ill consequences of this measure, but there is one upon which I have frequently heard General Lee remark with great earnestness, and which was often brought to his attention. That was the effect of the elective system upon the non-commissioned officers. Those officers are, as it were, the hands of military authority; with them the superior officer lays hold upon the men and compels the execution of orders and attention to duty. In camp, on the march, and in battle, good non-commissioned officers are equally essential to an army. They are in immediate contact with the men, and more apt to incur their ill-will than any other class of officers. Under the elective system, it is apparent that these officers not only had no encouragement to do their duty faithfully, but if they desired promotion, they were positively encouraged to neglect it. Strictness with the men would certainly debar them from promotion by their votes, and to gain popularity, they were tempted to tolerate conduct subversive of discipline, or to great indulgence inconsistent with the efficiency of the army. The evils of this state of affairs were much augmented by the fact that the immediate superiors of the non-commissioned officers owed their promotion to the same system to which the latter had to look for advancement, so non-commissioned officers seeking for popularity were only doing what their superiors had done before them, and were not apprehensive of being held to strict account. The consequence was that good non-commissioned officers frequently saw worthless but more popular men elevated over them to fill vacant posts, and in some instances the best non-commissioned officers, whose tried courage and experience qualified them for advancement, remained non-commissioned officers during the war.

I will sum up the matter with the assertion, based upon the experience of many of the most accomplished and able officers in the Confederate army and upon a personal observation which my position enabled me to make extensive, that such discipline as we had, we had in spite of the operation of this law of Congress, and that it was of all the laws passed by that body the most injudicious and hurtful to the efficiency of the service.

When the law was first made public, I asked Mr. Wigfall of Texas why that provision had been incorporated in it. He told me that the friends of the Conscript Law in the Senate were obliged to make the concession in order to get the law passed at all by that body. It is incredible that any body should have fallen into so grievous an error, especially when menaced by such pressing danger. At that moment it was evident that the sole hope of the country was its army, and the utmost efficiency of the army, it would seem, should have been the first object of legislation. If those representatives of the Southern people had read anything on the subject of military organizations, they must have known that the law which they were enacting was in opposition to the experience of the most warlike of modern nations, contrary to the judgment of the greatest masters of the art of war, and unsupported by reason, even without military knowledge. It is difficult to account for their course. They were doubtless influenced to some extent by the consideration that the Conscript Bill contained provisions which might appear harsh and rigorous to the first volunteers, who were retained in service, and they were therefore disposed to give them the privilege of electing their officers by way of compensation. They probably reasoned in the same way as to the new recruits to be brought into the field by the operation of the law. In short, these popular features of the law proceeded from the inherent defect, for military purposes, of the theory of the Southern Confederacy.9 The Confederate Government was always careful to conciliate, rather than to command, the States and the people. Its theory of a league between consenting but independent sovereignties compelled it to pursue this course. Such stringent measures as it was forced to adopt were, when practicable, and often to the emasculation of the measures themselves, accompanied by provisions tending to reconcile the people to them. Congress was always timid of legislating to meet the extraordinary emergencies of the situation, and rarely anticipated the popular voice in its action.

The members of the first Congress under the permanent Government of the Confederacy, inaugurated on February 22nd, 1862, were generally men who had sat in the Federal Congress. The best capacity of the country—I say it without disparagement to Congress —was in the army. The representatives were generally of the class I have before mentioned, who did not anticipate a long war and were confident of European intervention. They had been long accustomed to the peculiar party tactics and legislation of the old Government, and feared for their personal popularity when called upon to enact laws the mere mention of which by any public man before the separation would have sealed his political fate.

I will only notice that one of the exemptions which was most odious to the army and to the people and demonstrates most clearly the spirit and feelings of Congress. It is very certain that the immediate cause of the political agitation which culminated in the dissolution of the Union was the institution of slavery. The controversy arose between the extreme advocates and opponents of that institution, and the moderate people of both sections were drawn into the dispute. While the war raised other issues more vital to the Southern people than the continuance of slavery, there can be no doubt that they were fighting to maintain slavery or prevent its overthrow by the hands of their enemies. It was to be supposed, therefore, that the slaveholders would have been at least as zealous as any other part of the population in supporting the war, and there were reasons why they should have been ready to bear even more than an ordinary proportion of its burdens. At the beginning of the struggle the slave owners did recognize this obligation and strive most nobly to meet it. It was with feeling stronger than surprise therefore, that among the numerous exemptions from the operation of the Conscript Law were found the owners of fifteen slaves.10 It is true that only one able-bodied man was exempted on each plantation for this cause, and that when there was no white person not subject to military duty living on the plantation; but these facts do not relieve the provision from the charge of being partial in its operation and conferring a special privilege upon a favoured class. Apart from other objections, the law of April 16th, 1862, allowed substitution in the army, and it might well be supposed that the owner of fifteen slaves would be able to relieve himself from conscription if he wished to do so by employing a substitute. Other persons of smaller means, whose circumstances rendered it very onerous for them to leave their families or their affairs, could only avoid being conscripted by purchasing the services of a substitute at a price which they were much less able to pay than the owner of fifteen slaves, and it was thought to be unjust that the latter should be placed in a more favourable position under the peculiar circumstances of the case than the former. Why was this peculiar privilege conferred upon this particular class?

It was said in defence of the law that it was necessary to leave at home at least one able-bodied white man to fifteen slaves to direct their labour and preserve order. But this does not explain why the owner should be left rather than anyone else. It is well known that in the South the owner of that number of slaves generally employed an overseer, and it would seem that he might still have done so from among the large number of persons exempted from conscription by reason of their age or for other causes. So far as the preservation of order among negroes was concerned, the neighbours of the owner were as much interested in that, and quite as able to exercise the necessary control over the negroes as the owner. In no aspect is the measure defensible on the grounds of expediency. Its explanation is to be sought, I think, in the controlling influence that circumstances had given to the owners of slaves in the management of affairs in the Southern States. They represented a very large proportion of the wealth of the country, were generally better educated, and had more leisure to devote to public affairs than the non-slaveholders, as a class. Besides, the whole community was interested in the preservation of order among the negroes and the maintenance of due subordination, and for these purposes submitted to legislation which if attempted with respect to any other class would not have been tolerated. I refer now to the rigorous provisions contained in the Southern codes with reference to negroes, and the indulgence always conceded by the law and by public opinion to the exercise of the authority of the master.

But the influence of slavery went further. It not only claimed important modifications of the common law governing social relations in favour of slavery, regarding the institution not only as conferring a benefit upon the owner but as something the whole people were bound to support; it claimed and was allowed many privileges. Slaves were represented in the State legislatures in all the States, being treated as persons for this purpose, while for other purposes, when the interest of the owner required it, they were regarded simply as chattels. They were not taxed as other property, but an arbitrary value was set upon them, without reference to their actual value. All other kinds of property were taxed according to value. The habit of regarding slaves as a peculiar kind of property was fixed in Southern legislation, and the special exemption recognized this in the Act of which I am speaking.11

The effect of the measure upon the army and upon the people was however very injurious. The Federal Government sedulously endeavoured to inculcate the idea that the war was a slaveholders’ war, in which the non-slaveholding people of the South had no interest, while it was generally agreed by the people of the South that the object of the war was to defend slavery. It may well be imagined that, in these circumstances, they viewed with surprise, not to say indignation, the exemption of a part of the class of slaveholders from the common burden of the country. This provision of the law was severely commented upon in the army. I heard the remark made that the slaveholders would have to be taught that they owned naught but their slaves, and that they could not stay at home and send their countrymen to fight their battles. In several applications for indulgence of different kinds forwarded to headquarters, I have seen allusions to this exemption, the applicants referring to the fact that they had not the good fortune to own fifteen slaves and therefore had to ask as a favour what was accorded to the more fortunate slaveholders as a right.

Under the operation of this law, troops began to come forward in considerable numbers, but they were drafted into the existing organizations, and in some cases formed new ones in the midst of an active campaign. They were, of course, without either discipline or experience, and it will ever be regarded as one of the most remarkable facts of the struggle that the first law, passed by the weaker party to provide an army, was adopted after the war had continued for a year and the enemy was in the field with a numerous force, which he had been organizing and drilling within sight almost of the Confederate lines for more than eight months.

I now turn to the history of military events after I joined the staff of General Lee. I have mentioned the movement of General J. E. Johnston to the Peninsula, and must now say a word about the policy of that commander in falling back from Manassas. He certainly had not at his disposal the means to hold the long line from the Blue Ridge to the Potomac. The position could be readily turned by landing troops below his right flank on the Potomac, or even by landing them entirely in his rear on the Rappahannock. It was not to be expected therefore that he would attempt to retain so advanced a position, with a long line of communications consisting of a single railroad; for, abundant in supplies as was the country accessible to the army at Manassas, the Commissary Department decided to feed the army from Richmond. This fatal policy exhausted the supplies in the rear of the army, to which it was bound to resort if compelled to abandon the lines of Centreville, and left the stores of the fruitful regions, accessible to it while holding these lines, to fall into the enemy’s hands when it retired. The wheat, corn, and meat of the lower Valley, and of the rich counties of Fauquier, Warren, and Loudoun were thus lost to us.12

While on this subject, it should also be mentioned, as a remarkable illustration of the blind confidence of the Commissary Department in the ability of our Army to maintain its position, or of the want of judgment and practical foresight that characterised the operations of that Bureau, that a depot for salting meat was established near Thoroughfare Gap within a few miles of Centreville and close in the rear of the army. Many of the animals slaughtered at this depot were driven great distances from the interior of the country, and the salt had also to be brought from Richmond to Manassas and thence by the Manassas Gap road to the Thoroughfare Gap. A large quantity of meat was accumulated at this depot which was destroyed when Centreville was abandoned. I have been informed by the Chief Commissary of the Army of General J. E. Johnston that this measure was adopted by the Commissary Department against the remonstrances of that officer. It would seem not to be justifiable on any consideration of expediency or economy. It was inexpedient to assume, when the assumption was not justified by any circumstances, that the army could retain its position, and the depot would surely have been safer if located farther in the rear. It was not economical, for all the animals slaughtered at the depot could as easily have been driven to Gordonsville or to some safer point in the rear, and many of them were nearer to Gordonsville than to Thoroughfare Gap, while the salt and material used in packing the meat had to be carried a greater distance.

This extraordinary measure has never been satisfactorily explained. The suggestion that the depot was located at such an exposed place to suit the convenience of officers and agents of the Commissary Department residing in the vicinity and desiring to remain at home while discharging their duties, reflects too strongly upon those officers and agents to be accepted without strong evidence. It is, however, the only advantage the depot at Thoroughfare Gap possessed over the safer and equally if not more eligible places in the interior.

The explanation of the policy of refusing to supply the Army at Centreville from the region accessible to it is better known. It arose from a difference between the Commissary General and the producers of that region as to the price that the latter should receive for their grain, flour, and other commodities. It was explained to me by the officer to whom I have above referred, who informed me that he had frequently asked to be allowed to purchase supplies from the country around the army. He told me that the Commissary General considered that, as the farmers of the country referred to had been deprived of their usual market in Alexandria, Washington, and Baltimore and compelled to send their produce to Richmond, they were only entitled to receive for that produce, when sold to the army, the Richmond price less the cost of sending it to Richmond from the place of production. He argued, for instance, that as the miller in Loudoun, if he sent his flour to Richmond, would have to pay, say, one dollar per barrel for the carriage, he should be content to sell it at Manassas or Centreville for the Richmond price, less that charge. The farmers, on the other hand, contended that they were entitled to some benefit for having supplies so near the army. They said that if they took a barrel of flour to Richmond and paid a dollar for carriage, the Commissary Department buying that flour in Richmond would have to pay the same price to get it back to Manassas, and that the Departments would lose nothing if it paid at Manassas, for a barrel of flour delivered there by the neighbouring producer, the full Richmond price, inasmuch as it would thereby save the cost of transportation from Richmond to Manassas. The Commissary General unfortunately adhered to his views, and the consequence was the loss of great quantities of valuable supplies. He was a man of no experience in business, but of great self-consequence. He said to my informant, pointing to the large mills in Richmond, “Here are my magazines; I will bring those gentlemen to terms.” Having never seen as large mills as those in Richmond, he perhaps naturally over-estimated their capacity to control the markets of the country. The interests of the Richmond mills were clearly promoted by the arrangement, but I have seen no proof that this consideration had any weight in determining the policy of the Department.

I shall have occasion to refer again to other singular theories that were put in practice by the Commissary Department during the war to the great loss and injury of the country. I shall do so because it is part of the history of this time, and from no desire to injure the officers concerned, for many of whom I entertain the highest esteem and regard.

But to return to the evacuation of Manassas by General J. E. Johnston. I have already said that his long line was untenable with the force at his disposal, and that to retire was a necessity as soon as the enemy chose to avail himself of his vastly superior numbers by a direct advance, and of his ability to turn the position, or of both advantages at once.

Accordingly, when the army of General McClellan was about to advance. General Johnston fell back without delay behind the Rappahannock, his army extending from Fredericksburg along the south bank of that river to Culpeper Court House. His movement was rapid, and considerable quantities of stores were abandoned or destroyed. It had all the appearance of a hasty retreat. It is well known that immediately after this retreat General McClellan induced the President of the United States to consent to the transfer of the greater part of the Federal Army to the Peninsula, with the design of moving on Richmond by that route. General Johnston immediately proceeded to the support of General Magruder at Yorktown with nearly his whole army, leaving a small infantry force at Fredericksburg and Ewell’s division on the upper Rappahannock. Jackson remained in the Valley, watching the superior forces of General Banks.

It has been remarked of these movements of General Johnston that they were probably too rapid. The President of the Confederate States was of opinion that the movement of McClellan to the Peninsula might have been delayed, if not prevented, by a judicious use of the intense regard manifested by the Federal Government for the security of its capital.13 That anxiety, it was argued, would prevent any considerable diminution of the force around Washington as long as it was thought to be in danger of attack by General Johnston. And it was thought that if, as soon as General McClellan began to transfer his army to the Peninsula, General Johnston had made a demonstration towards Washington, it would have checked that movement and led to the recall of such troops as had already been sent.14

Be this as it may, it is quite certain that the Federal Government always, and especially in the early part of the war, made provision for the defence of Washington rather in proportion to the importance of holding it than to the force which menaced it. General McClellan contends that the promised results of the Peninsula campaign were sacrificed to this extreme sensitiveness, which caused a large part of the troops with which he expected to operate to be detained to meet an imaginary danger. It is equally certain that the prompt and rapid retreat of General Johnston from Manassas on the advance of McClellan enabled that officer to obtain the consent of the Federal authorities to the transfer of his army to the Peninsula, instead of adopting the plan of President Lincoln of moving directly on Richmond from the north, keeping Washington always covered by the advancing army.15

If General Johnston’s position at Manassas was untenable, the Yorktown line was even more difficult to hold. Two wide and deep rivers, the James and the York, offered opportunities to the Federal commander to turn either flank. The passage up the York was defended by the works at Yorktown and Gloucester Point. That up the James was guarded by the works at Jamestown Island and other points higher up, but chiefly by the steamer Virginia, formerly the Merrimac, which made her appearance in Hampton Roads coming out from Norfolk on March 8th, and sunk the U.S. frigates Congress and Cumberland.

The presence of the Virginia in James River, it seems, determined General McClellan to advance by the York, and accordingly he sat down before the Confederate troops at Yorktown and began his approaches before the arrival of General Johnston. General Magruder held the Yorktown lines with his original command of about 7000 men, to which on the approach of McClellan were added some troops from the south of the James.

The history of General Johnston’s operations on the Peninsula is before the public in the official reports. I remember that it was known that General Johnston intended to evacuate Yorktown several days before the movement actually took place. But the notice received by General Lee of the evacuation was not more than twelve hours. As soon as he was advised of it, he telegraphed to General Johnston to know if he could not hold his lines a little longer, to enable proper preparations to be made for the removal of the valuable stores from Norfolk. The necessity of concealing the intention of evacuation rendered it impossible to make the necessary preparations for leaving Norfolk until the last moment, but had the notice been extended a short time, the valuable stores lost in Norfolk might have been saved to some extent.

I remember a despatch from General Johnston to General Lee, after the gunboat Galena and her consorts had passed up James River, in which he said that the approach of the gunboats to Richmond made him anxious for the city and desirous to be nearer to it.16 I pass over the approach of General McClellan to the Chickahominy, and the establishment of his army on the north of the stream.

When General Johnston fell back upon Richmond, the Confederate Government hastened to reinforce him with all its available troops. But the presence of the enemy at various points along the Atlantic coast, endangering an important line of railway between Richmond and the South, and the pressure of superior numbers upon the Confederate army in the Southwest, left the army of General Johnston greatly inferior in numbers to his adversary.

When the battle of Seven Pines was fought,17 General Johnston had received all the accessions that could be made to his army, but his force, exclusive of cavalry, did not exceed 53,000 men. The army at this time was suffering from sickness, the immediate effect of the Conscript Law, as has been before remarked, having been to bring into its ranks as volunteers many who were unwilling to be enrolled under its provisions. The trying service during the latter part of April and the month of May told severely upon this class of troops, unaccustomed to the exposure and privations of military life. General Johnston states that his strength had been reduced, between the time his army went to Yorktown and the battle of Williamsburg on May 5th, by more than 4000 alone from sickness. This was at a time when his whole force, exclusive of cavalry, was only about 50,000 men, and before the operation of the Conscript Law had begun to be much felt.

General McClellan on May 14th, when urging President Lincoln to send him reinforcements, and when it cannot be supposed that he exaggerated his strength, states that after all deductions for “casualties, sickness, garrisons, and guards” he could “bring into actual battle against the enemy not more than 80,000 men at the utmost.” But in addition to the army under General McLellan, General McDowell was at Fredericksburg within two days’ march of Richmond with between 35,000 and 40,000 men, and May 26th was appointed for the beginning of his movement to unite with the army of General McClellan.

Nor in estimating the dangers at this time threatening the Confederate capital should the armies of General Frémont advancing from northwestern Virginia, and of General Banks moving from Winchester, be disregarded. The success of those expeditions would have greatly increased the difficulty of defending Richmond. It would have aided General McClellan in the same way, and probably in no less degree than the subsequent successes of General Sheridan in the same quarter assisted the operations of General Grant in the campaign of 1865. In these circumstances nothing was left to General Lee but to endeavour to prevent the junction of the armies of Generals McClellan and McDowell, and so frustrate the movements of the enemy in the Valley. The execution of this purpose was entrusted to General Jackson.


General Lee had been in constant correspondence with General Jackson during his campaign in the Valley after the battle of Kernstown. He had ordered General Ewell from the Rappahannock, through Swift Run Gap, to join Jackson. It was explained to the latter that he must endeavour by all means to prevent the advance of McDowell from Fredericksburg. About that time, Jackson being at Swift Run Gap, the expedition under Milroy18 was approaching the Valley from the northwest by way of McDowell,19 Banks was at Winchester and its vicinity, and it was supposed would advance to co-operate with Milroy. General Jackson submitted his views. He said that he could attack either, but that he preferred to move against Milroy first. To reach Banks he said he would have to cross the Massanutton Mountain, and in case of disaster the entrance of Milroy into the Valley in his rear might be ruinous. He expressed the opinion that he could fall upon Milroy and drive him back, and then turn on Banks before the latter could make much progress up the Valley. It was left to his discretion which course to pursue, but the importance of making such a demonstration towards the Potomac as would excite the easily-aroused apprehensions of the Federal authorities was impressed upon, and fully appreciated by him.

General Jackson with his own division, aided by the brigade of General Edward Johnson, first checked the advance of the enemy from western Virginia towards Staunton by defeating the command of General Milroy on May 8th at McDowell. Being thus relieved of immediate apprehension of the enemy penetrating the Valley in his rear General Jackson turned rapidly upon General Banks, who had advanced as far up the valley as Strasburg.

On the 23rd May a detachment from the army of General Banks was totally defeated at Front Royal, and the main body retreated rapidly towards Winchester. It was vigorously pursued and attacked at that place on the 25th and driven in confusion through the town.

General Jackson, in obedience to his instructions to produce the impression that he intended to cross the Potomac and thus act upon the excessive anxiety with which the Federal Government watched the slightest approach of danger to Washington, drove Banks in the utmost disorder with heavy loss into Maryland. This movement produced the desired result. On May 24th President Lincoln notified McClellan that, owing to the critical position of Banks, the movement of McDowell had been suspended. Immediately afterwards part of McDowell’s force was sent to Harper’s Ferry by way of Washington, and another part under General Shields moved from Fredericksburg to enter the Valley from the east in the rear of Jackson, and co-operate with the army under Fremont, now rapidly advancing from the west.

It is well known with what consummate skill and courage Jackson extricated his army from these dangers, and by the brilliant actions at Port Republic and Cross Keys,20 frustrated the designs of the enemy, and prevented the union of the forces of Frémont and Shields.

The consequences of the success of Jackson in the Valley were even more important and far-reaching than the immediate relief afforded to the army engaged in the defence of Richmond, great as that relief was. It not only prevented the concentration of an overwhelming force against Richmond and raised the drooping spirits of the Southern people, but it may with truth be said that it controlled the plan of military operations subsequently adopted by the contending armies in Virginia. On the one hand, it secured the final rejection by the Federal Government of the advice of McClellan and caused its adherence during the war to the plan advocated by Mr. Lincoln, while on the other it demonstrated that the Confederate Army could most effectually defend Richmond and relieve the country of the presence of the enemy by availing itself of the sensitiveness of the authorities at Washington with reference to the safety of that city.

McClellan was of opinion that the most certain way to render Washington safe, and the surest means of taking Richmond, were to be found in the use of the easy and secure water communication between the two cities, by which the Federal Government could bring such a powerful naval and land force to bear as would compel the concentration of all the Confederate troops in Virginia for the defence of the capital. This policy would have deprived Richmond in a degree of the military advantages of an interior position, and would have relieved the attacking force of the difficulties and dangers of a long overland march. The opposite policy of Mr. Lincoln, which assumed that the army operating against Richmond should never leave Washington uncovered, enabled the Confederate army to enjoy some of the advantages for manoeuvre which the distance between the two capitals afforded, while the sensitiveness of the Federal Government to a threat against Washington, as evinced by the results accomplished by Jackson’s small force, influenced in a great measure the plans of the leader into whose hands the defence of Richmond, and the protection of the vast interests which depended upon its tenure, were about to pass.

McClellan, finding himself deprived of the co-operation of McDowell, undertook to accomplish his designs with the force at his disposal. Part of his army had crossed the Chickahominy, and the remainder lay on the north of that stream. The old bridges were repaired, and several new bridges were constructed to connect the two wings of the army. McClellan, with a view to opening a way for the expected movement of McDowell, had extended his right wing north of the Chickahominy, had defeated the brigade of General Branch near Hanover Court House, and succeeded in breaking the Virginia Central Railroad connecting Staunton with Richmond, and also in seizing the railway between Richmond and Fredericksburg. The communication by rail between Richmond and northern Virginia was thus interrupted, but McDowell not coming to his assistance, McClellan recalled the troops which had been operating on these roads. During the day and night of May 30th a heavy fall of rain occurred, which it was supposed would carry away the bridges over the Chickahominy and sever the communications between the Federal troops on the right and left banks of the river. General Johnston therefore availed himself of the opportunity to crush the force south of the Chickahominy, and on the following day, May 31st, the indecisive battle of Seven Pines took place.

During the battle I was at General Johnston’s headquarters on the Nine Mile road, while the attack of Longstreet on the Williamsburg road was progressing. General Johnston, General Lee, and President Davis were at a small house on the right of the Nine Mile road, and the troops which were intended to co-operate on that road with Longstreet’s attack were halted on the road in front of those quarters.

We heard the sound of the battle further to our right, but the troops on the Nine Mile road did not begin to move forward for several hours after Longstreet had become engaged. Johnston stated that he was waiting to hear the sound of musketry on Longstreet’s front.21 I remember perfectly, while this delay continued, that I conversed with Surgeon Gailard of General G. W. Smith’s division, and with several other officers. I had never heard the sound of musketry before, and as we stood on the opposite side of the house from that on which General Lee and General Johnston were, I heard the sound for the first time and was told by the other officers that it was musketry. We heard it very distinctly, and conversed about its apparent direction and progress, with a view to forming an opinion as to the result of the attack. This was at least an hour and a half before the troops on the Nine Mile road advanced, and General Johnston himself rode to the front. It was unfortunate that it was not known to us that this was to be the signal for the advance of the troops under G. W. Smith on the Nine Mile road. I am confident that numbers of officers who were present heard the musketry as soon as I did.

General Johnston was severely wounded towards the close of the action, and the command of the army devolved upon General G. W. Smith. On June 1st some severe skirmishing took place, but it being evident that the Federal troops south of the Chickahominy had been reinforced from the north side of the river, attack was abandoned, and the Confederate army withdrew to its former position.

The state of General Smith’s health was such that on June 2nd President Davis directed General Lee to take command, and on the following day he removed from Richmond and assumed the immediate direction of the movements of the army. The order of March 13th was not rescinded, but General Lee was assigned to the command by the Secretary of War on the verbal order of the President.22 He took with him only the small personal staff he had had in Richmond, and nothing could have been less imposing than his introduction to the position which he was to render so illustrious.


The circumstances in which General Lee found himself thus suddenly called to the foremost place in the great contest are full of instruction to those who would form a just estimate of his character and genius. It has been seen that the campaign of 1862 had hitherto been attended with almost uninterrupted success for the Federal arms. The services in which he had previously been engaged had afforded him no opportunity to justify the expectations which his great reputation as an officer in the Federal army had created among the Southern people. At the beginning of the war his duties had detained him at Richmond, and the value of his services was known only to the few with whom he shared the labour and cares of preparing for the contest. From Richmond he had gone to western Virginia, and thence to the southern coast, where the same comparative obscurity and the same impossibility of accomplishing great and striking results awaited him. A whole year had passed, and his name was not yet connected with a single great event. Comparisons injurious to his reputation were made between the part he had taken in the struggle and the achievements of others who had occupied more conspicuous positions, and the opinion generally entertained with reference to the operations in western Virginia had produced in the minds of many an actual distrust of his military capacity. His silence under this censure had confirmed the belief that it was merited, and its injustice was known only to a few who had witnessed the campaign, and to President Davis, to whom alone General Lee had explained its real character. These circumstances had produced such an unfavourable impression that when he was transferred to the southern coast, Mr. Davis deemed it necessary to ask for him the support and co-operation of the authorities and people of South Carolina, by assuring the Governor of that state, in a private letter, of his own unabated confidence in the merit and capacity of the new commander.

It is a remarkable fact, illustrating the effects of alarm and excitement upon the minds of people generally moderate and just in their judgment, that the three men who rendered the most distinguished service to the Confederacy and attained the highest place in the love and gratitude of the country, were each at one time almost universally regarded as unfit for command. The strongest influence ever brought to bear upon the President to induce him to remove the commander of an army occurred in the cases of Albert Sidney Johnston, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. Among all the services rendered by President Davis to the Southern people, none were perhaps greater or more honourable to him than his refusal to yield to that impatience which recognizes success as the only test of merit, and his steadfast support of these great men in the midst of misfortune.

The Southern people were greatly depressed, and their reverses had inspired painful doubts of their ability to cope with their powerful adversary. One after another, the hopes of succour upon which they had relied had been disappointed, and the conviction that they could depend upon them vanished at a moment when they seemed to have reached the crisis of their fate. All eyes were turned to the impending struggle for the possession of Richmond. The army engaged in its defence was inferior in numbers to that of the enemy and imperfectly supplied with arms and equipment. It had been retreating almost continuously since it left Centreville and had now reached a point beyond which it could not retire without the loss of the Confederate capital and the sacrifice of those vital interests which depended upon its possession. It had just undergone a change of officers, and its ranks were filled with raw and inexperienced recruits. Weak in everything but the spirit, intelligence, and patriotism of the men who composed it, it was made weaker by the infirmities of its own organisation. At a time when it most needed all that confidence in its commander could impart, a leader who possessed and deserved that confidence had been stricken down.

It was at this extreme moment, when the exultant North was eagerly and confidently expecting the reward of its great efforts, and the despondent South regarded its cause as almost lost, that a man as yet comparatively unknown caught the standard as it fell from the stricken hand that had carried it so bravely, and bore it resolutely to the front. But it was not only the unpromising condition of affairs or the imminence of the public danger that rendered the position of General Lee difficult and embarrassing. He did not shrink from the grave responsibilities and arduous labours which he knew must be encountered to relieve his country from its danger, but to enable him to perform the task with hope of success he greatly needed the confidence of the people and of the army. It cannot be denied that when he first took command at Richmond he had yet to acquire both.

General Lee had submitted to the unjust judgment of his countrymen without repining. Aware of his ability to direct the greatest affairs, longing to share in the exciting events taking place around him, he never asked for service of his own choice, but was content to perform with all his energies such duties as were assigned to him. His only desire was that the work should be done, he cared not by whom; and in this spirit he endured without a murmur enforced obscurity and unmerited condemnation, and felt an unselfish pride in the exploits of his more fortunate brethren in arms. He pursued the path of duty with equal and unfaltering steps through the unseen labours of the office, and through commands sterile of opportunities for distinction.

Now that path led him to the foremost place in the eyes of his country. His patient waiting at last had its reward; the bloody drama had reached a stage worthy of his intervention; and in the midst of universal despondency, oppressed by the consciousness that he did not possess the confidence of the people or of the army, he entered modestly and humbly, but with unshaken resolution, upon the performance of his arduous task.