Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 22

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

22
Mid-Stream

IN Richmond there was great rejoicing. For the time being, at least, the city was safe. The enemy had been driven back and General Robert E, Lee was the hero of the hour. Wherever he went he met with cheers and applause.

“Three cheers for Marse Robert!”

“Three cheers for the Good Gray Knight!”

That last title had been given him by a newspaper man and everyone felt it suited him—gray uniform, gray beard and gray horse, Traveler. The silver lining to the cloud. It was the symbol of the Confederacy.

Summer brought the Second Battle of Manassas. Pope against Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Again the Rebels were victorious, and Lee determined to follow up his good fortune and lead his forces into Maryland. He was now better equipped than he had ever been because of the capture of supplies and the men which the Confederate Congress had raised by conscription, following a similar move on the part of the Union.

Lee called Jackson’s men his “foot cavalry,” because they moved almost as fast as mounted soldiers (one brigade marching fifty-two miles in a day). Jackson himself he called his “right arm.”

And well indeed did Jackson deserve that title, for his help to the Confederates was invaluable, Left an orphan at the age of three, he had made his own way in the world. In spite of scanty preparation, he had, by his own determination alone, graduated from West Point. During the Mexican War his exploits had won him rapid promotion, and in the War between the States, after much debate with his Christian conscience, he had “drawn the sword and thrown the scabbard away.”

It was during that First Battle of Manassas (often called Bull Run) that he had won his nickname, when one of the other officers had exclaimed, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.”

From that time on he was known as Stonewall Jackson and took his place among the great leaders. He was described then by one of his men as being thirty-seven years old, six feet tall, with a “rough mouth, iron jaw and nostrils as big as a horse’s.” He rode a raw-boned sorrel which the men said “could not run except toward the enemy.” When the troops saw him ride up, that was the signal for a great shout, ending in the spine-tingling Rebel Yell.

They were in fine fettle now, all the boys in gray. Life was good and victory for their cause seemed just ahead, over the hill there, at the foot of the rainbow. Beyond it waved the Stars and Bars!

For the moment they were well-fed. After weeks of green corn and roadside apples, they feasted royally on the stores of plunder which had fallen into their hands after the last great battle. For the first time in months, they drank real coffee instead of a bitter brew made from parched corn.

Coffee! The glory and the goodness of that coffee! Yankees and Johnny Rebs alike loved it above all creature comforts. Some of the stay-at-home legislators had proposed in Congress the substitution of tea for coffee. They said the soldiers would enjoy the change—that in England. . . .

The men in uniform, both blue and gray, shouted in derision. They told those old men that when a boy couldn’t drink coffee, he couldn’t fight. He was in a bad way, that “feller,” for a tact, he was! They said that first thing after the officers called a halt, the fires began to twinkle. Even after a battle, the minute the storm swept to some other part of the field the kettles began to boil, and though stray bullets and scattered shells still fell once in a while, the call could be heard for “Cookie” to “hurry up that Java!” Five minutes to make that coffee and three to drink it down!

Good food and coffee to sustain the inner man. Victory to cheer the heart!

Lee’s army pushed into Maryland, clad in rags but singing as they went—singing:

Forward march!
Kiss the lips that beg you stay,
Break from clasping arms away.
Sad the hearts that part today,
Men must fight and women pray,
Forward march!

There was a skirmish one hot August afternoon in this year of 1862. Part of the line showed signs of breaking under the rain of lead. It watered like a great flag blown in a tempest of wind. An officer rode up, a gallant, dashing figure mounted on a fiery black stallion. Red saddlecloth and plumed hat. Oh, a very dashing figure, and debonair! The man whom Lee called the “eyes and ears” of the army—Jeb Stuart, of the John Brown raid. He was a man to sing Meet Me Alone by Moonlight to a pretty lady and a man who took his glory jojously where the battle was bloodiest.

With a shout, he seized the flag from the color-bearer, glanced along the faltering line and sung out in a voice that could be heard against the rattle of musketry, “Go back, boys! Go back! But the flag can’t, go with you!”

With the staff in his hand, he wheeled his horse and dashed ahead. The column closed and grew firm, moving forward steadily as a great river.

Another day Robert E. Lee, astride Traveler, was leading a group of men into Hagerstown. Crowds lined the roadside. The feeling of these people standing there watching the approach of the soldiers was mixed. Some were frowning and silent. Some gay and welcoming.

The men marched on with a steady tramp. There, in line, was a man named Sweeny, a little Irishman, round as a button, thumping on his banjo all day long. . . . hay-foot, straw-foot, plunk, plunk, plunk!

There were smiles and cheers. There were sullen looks and curses from the bystanders.

Lee rode calmly on, with that familiar half-smile on his lips. Ahead of him he noticed a small red brick school-house, with the Stars and Stripes flying from its rooftop.

Suddenly the door flew open and an excited young teacher dashed into the road. Behind her panted a group of her children. At her command they lined themselves across the roadway and, led by her enthusiastic voice, burst into The Star-Spangled Banner.

Lee drew Traveler to a halt and made a sign to the men following him. He removed his hat and listened respectfully.

When the “concert” was over, he bowed to the teacher, said, “Madam, your children sing well today, Allow me to compliment you!” and rode quietly ahead as the group fell back.

At the Battle of Sharpsburg (which is also known as Antietam), the Confederates met McClellan’s army and one of the bloodiest encounters of the entire war took place. The Union had more than twice as many troops as the Confederacy, but the victory went to neither side.

General Lee retired for reorganization, while the North recruited new regiments and Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that the slaves in any states in rebellion on January the first of the following year would be free.

The autumn months dragged by and December brought the battle of Fredericksburg, with General Burnside in command of the blue-clad Federal forces. Through the long hours the fighting raged. As evening approached, the heights of Marye’s Hill were stormed again, again and yet again. Fourteen times in that one day fresh groups rushed furiously toward the summit and were driven relentlessly back, till Burnside was at last forced to acknowledge defeat.

Following this, both armies went into winter quarters across the river from one another and made plans for the coming spring,

Although Robert Lee might have been comfortably quartered in a near-by house, he shared the “tent-life” of his troops. Perry had built in the tent a chimney of mud-bricks, with a fireplace, and beside this his master sought comfort and found solace from the whirling wind which piled the snow knee-deep outside.

Every morning Lee, mounted on Traveler, made a routine inspection, returning at noon for the midday meal to be shared with any visitors who might have arrived during his absence.

Again “Marse Robert” had a pet. Not a dog or a cat this time, but a hen. She lived in the tent with him and each day she laid an egg for his breakfast, to the great delight of Bryan, who was finding any sort of food harder and harder to come by, since his master was determined to share-and-share-alike with his brave boys.

On one occasion two beautiful hot-house peaches arrived, accompanied by a card bearing the words “From an Admirer.” With great pleasure Bryan placed these beside the General’s plate. Meredith hovered near, a broad grin on his kindly face as he prepared to serve the simple meal with some ceremony.

As he entered the tent, Lee’s glance took in the situation. He reached for the two peaches and slipped them casually into his pocket, as he remarked, “I know a wounded lad who will relish this treat.” He ignored the deep sighs of his two attendants as he took his place at the head of the table and raised his hand for silence before he said grace, thanking his Heavenly Father for “the benefits he was about to receive.”

These “benefits” were, more often than not, merely corn pone and cabbage, But once, when several high-ranking officers were to share the meal with him, Bryan “trimmed” the platter of cabbage with a generous strip of that delicious Virginia fat-bacon, known as “middlin’-meat.”

Lee, to whom the serving dish was passed first, ignored the titbit and contented himself with a not-too-generous helping of cabbage. Reluctantly his guests followed suit.

After all the guests had left, except one, who was a close friend, Bryan’s round, red face appeared in the tent flap. “I come near to have heart failure, Gineral,” he said familiarly. “I’d forgit to warn you that show-piece of middlin’-meat I striggled over the cabbage was borrowed from down the line. I gave my word t’would be back as good as new afore suppertime, an’ whin I seen your fork flutter an’ your eyes grow big. . . .”

Lee gave one of his rare laughs. “I did think for a minute it. had fallen from heaven,” he admitted. “I was tempted. . . .”

His friend glanced through the open tent flap above Bryan’s head to where the enemy’s encampment could be seen across the river. “I, for one, have had enough of this hardship. I wish those wicked people over there were all dead!”

Lee’s eyes followed the other man’s thoughtfully. “How can you say that?” he asked quietly. “Now I merely wish they would all go home and leave us to do the same!”

But much as Lee and thousands upon thousands of others in both Armies held to this wish, it could not make their dream come true.

It was a time of privation and suffering, of dread, of waiting and of anxiety. Shoes and blankets, underwear and overcoats. All of these were almost-forgotten luxuries. Peacetime—so long ago! And would it ever come again?

On the fourteenth of February, Saint Valentine’s day, one homesick boy wrote these lines (his camp happened to be across the river but the sentiment would have been the same, if not the phrasing, had he been a Johnny Reb!):

Just from the sentry’s tramp,
(I must take it again at ten)
I have laid my musket down and seized,
     instead my pen
For pacing my lonely round,
In the chilly twilight gray,
The thought, dear Mary, came
That this is Saint Valentine’s day.

There was a time—ah, well;
Think not that I repine,
When I dreamed this happy day
Would smile on you as mine;
But I heard my country’s call,
I knew her need was sore;
Thank God no selfish thought
Withheld me from the war.

But when the dear old Flag
Shall float in its ancient pride,
When the twain shall be made one,
And feuds no more divide,
I will lay my musket down,
My martial garb resign,
And turn my joyous steps
Toward Home and Valentine!

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