Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 18


A Time of Waiting

BY the end of May, Lee had 30,000 men ready for war. In spite of the scarcity of food and the threat of epidemic, they were trained and equipped as well as possible. They had a marching song—Dixie—and a flag of their own. The ladies of Richmond had ripped up their Sunday dresses and their blue and red silk petticoats to make flags for their heroes.

No one is quite sure of the origin of the Stars and Bars but many people think the design was suggested by a painter named Nicola Marschall. At first it had a broad red stripe at the top and one at the bottom, with a white stripe between, and a sky-blue union in the upper left corner and seven white stars in a circle. Later it was changed to a red ground, with a blue Greek cross which was studded with eleven white stars.

Although Jefferson Davis had the title of commander-in-chief, it was Robert E. Lee who planned the campaigns which were to take place and decided upon the strategy to be employed. All his life he had been a student of military history, and with the practical experience of the Mexican War at his command, he realized it; would be important for his units to be able to move quickly. In this way they could overcome some of the advantages of the greater numbers of troops on the enemy’s side. Therefore he organized his men into brigades, each one like a small, independent army.

Early in the conflict Lee had planned Virginia’s line of defense. There was a skirmish near Yorktown on June tenth and a small victory for the Southerners, which gave them much encouragement.

The Federal cry now was “On to Richmond!”

Lee had anticipated this and had inspected the defenses, including General Pierre Beauregard’s command at Manassas, which numbered about twenty thousand men and was the largest force in the field. In the meanwhile, there were Confederate losses in Western Virginia, and Jefferson Davis grew anxious.

On the sixteenth of July the Union troops camped across the Potomac from Washington and marched on the Old Dominion, which would be held at the crossroads by Beauregard—by Beauregard and not by Lee, who had “routine duty” to perform in Richmond!

The first great battle of the War between the States, to be known to history as the First Battle of Manassas or the Battle of Bull Run, took place on Sunday, July twenty-first, about twenty-five miles west of Lee’s old home, Alexandria.

The Union forces were under the command of General Irvin McDowell and the Confederates were led by Lee’s old friend and classmate, Joseph E. Johnston, who was called on by President Davis to reinforce Beauregard.

At first a Union victory seemed assured, but Jeb Stuart, Lee’s comrade at Harper’s Ferry, and Thomas Jonathan Jackson (who was soon to earn his nickname of “Stonewall”) enhanced the strength of the Rebel forces and the Confederates won the battle.

The following day Lee wrote his wife:

That, indeed, was a glorious victory, and has lightened the pressure upon us amazingly. . . . I wish to participate in the struggle, and am mortified at my absence. But the President thought it more important that I should be here. I could not have done as well as has been done, but I could have helped and taken part in a struggle for my home and neighborhood. So the work is done, I care not by whom it is done. I leave tomorrow for the army in Western Virginia.

Never a word did Robert E. Lee say about this new post which had been assigned to him, never a hint that it had been offered first to Joe Johnston, who had announced that he would prefer to remain in the eastern field of action.

Lee packed his belongings immediately and started for his destination, traveling by railroad and horseback, His arrival heartened the troops. There had been an epidemic of measles and many of the boys were ill and dissatisfied, until their new commander’s calm manner and quiet words put fresh life into them.

“Look up there, men!” He pointed to Cheat Mountain where the Federal fort was plainly visible on the middle summit. “Our only chance is to scale the heights and strike a bold blow. Are you brave enough fellows to do that?”

His answer was a mighty cheer.

The attack was planned for dawn of September twelfth and Lee arranged every detail in his usual meticulous fashion. One body of men was to distract the enemy while another group attempted the steep climb.

The strategy was excellent but the maneuver met with failure because of the lack of co-operation on the part of some of the officers and also because, just before the moment of attack, there was a sudden summer storm which dampened the ardor of the men and the efficiency of their weapons.

When news of the failure of General Lee’s plan reached Richmond, there was sharp criticism of his ability and the suggestion that he be replaced by an abler man.

Robert wrote to Mary that it was regrettable that the Army couldn’t keep pace with the expectations of the newspaper editors, that the latter could regulate matters in a manner satisfactory to themselves on paper and he wished they could do it in the field. He added with rare sarcasm, “No one could wish them more success than I do and I would be happy to see them in full swing.”

General Rosecrans, the Federal commander, ceased his pressure and Lee encamped in the valley with his troops. The bad weather continued and the ill-health and ill-temper of his men increased.

Each morning, it seemed to Robert Lee, a new problem presented itself. There was continual quarreling among the officers, many of whom were young and untried men. With the vile weather as an excuse, there had been far too much “medicinal quaffing,” Lee realized.

One night, Bryan, Lee’s Irish cook, reported to him that bottles of moonshine whiskey were being carried into the adjoining tent, and at midnight Lee heard shouting and laughter, and then an hilarious boyish voice singing one of the popular Yankee songs which was going the rounds of the battlefields. Lying there on his cot in the darkness, Robert Lee could distinguish every word of the ridiculous ditty.

Our Jimmy has gone for to live in a tent;
They have grafted him into the army.
He finally puckered up courage and went
When they grafted him into the army.
I told them the child was too young, alas!
At the captain’s forquarters they said he would pass—
They’d train him up well in the infantry class.
So they grafted him into the army.

Now in my provisions I see him revealed,
They have grafted him into the army.
A picket beside the contended field,
They have grafted him into the army.
He looks kinder sickish—begins to cry,
A big volunteer standing right in his eye.
Oh, what if the ducky should up and should die,
Now they’ve grafted him into the army?

Robert; E. Lee chuckled in spite of himself. And then he thought sadly, “Poor lads, if only this were the picnic they’d like it to be. But it is not. Alas, it is not!”

A stern lecture on the morrow wouldn’t remedy the situation, Lee realized. He had learned that; lesson both with his own boys and with the young West Pointers. But there were other ways to choke a dog than on butter, he thought (employing the favorite saying of old Meredith, his body servant). Perhaps where punishment wouldn’t succeed in accomplishing his purpose, a joke might!

The tactic was worth trying, anyway, Robert Lee decided.

Bryan, who could be counted on to further any prank with a serious mien, solemnly invited the officers from the near-by tents to join the General in “a sip of the very best,” and exhibited the large crockery jug under his arm.

“We must have won Gran’pappy over to our way of thinking,” one of the young men said disrespectfully as they joyously trooped over to the General’s tent.

Lee greeted his juniors with his usual courteous friendliness and motioned toward the wooden boxes which served as emergency seats. Bryan handed out sizable tin cups and uncorked the big jug with a flourish. Eagerly the guests proffered their mugs.

With the first sight of the trickle, a half-stifled groan was heard. This “likker” that gurgled from the generous mouth of the jug was thick and white.

“Buttermilk!” The general exclamation was definitely lacking in enthusiasm.

“Yes,” Lee pronounced gleefully, “a bit of the best, Drink it clown!”

Return to Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South