Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 1

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 6

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner

CHAPTER VI
THE SITUATION WHEN LEE TOOK COMMAND

WHEN McClellan moved on Richmond, the fortunes of the South appeared to be at a lower ebb than they ever were again until the winter of 1864.

The general plan for prosecution of the war on the part of the North was the same that had been laid down at the beginning: that is, to hold the Border States; to blockade the Southern ports and attack by sea; and to seize the navigable rivers running far up into her territory, especially the Mississippi, and thereby cut the South in two. By the end of spring, 1862, nearly the whole of this far-reaching and sagacious plan had been measurably accomplished. Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky had been held firmly, and in all three States, except Missouri, Secession had been forcibly prevented, while Missouri had been substantially conquered.

The very next day, after the rout at Bull Run, Mr. Lincoln, awakening to the gravity of the situation, had called for 500,000 men, and the North had responded with fervor. Between the 4th of August and the 10th of October more than 110 regiments and 30 battalions, comprising at least 112,000 men, were added to the forces in Washington and its neighborhood.* The ablest organizer in the army had been called to the task of organization, and proved to have a genius for it. All autumn and winter he labored at the work and when spring came Washington had been strongly fortified, and McClellan found himself at the head of possibly the largest, best equipped and best drilled army ever commanded by one man in modern times.

The spring of 1862 had been spent by the Government of the United States in preparation for a campaign which should retrieve the errors and disasters of the preceding year and, by making certain the capture of Richmond, “the heart of the Confederacy,” should end the war by one great and decisive stroke. It was well said that without McClellan there had been no Grant.

Several plans for attacking Richmond presented themselves, all of which included the idea of cutting off the city from communication with the Southwest. One was by way of the Shenandoah Valley, striking the Virginia Central Railroad at Staunton or Waynesboro; and marching on Richmond by way of Charlottesville, whence a railway line ran to Southwest Virginia and Tennessee; one by way of Manassas; one by the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Rappahannock; and finally one by way of the Chesapeake Bay and the peninsula lying between the York and the James, which presented the opportunity under certain contingencies of seizing Petersburg and isolating Richmond from the South.

The practicability of all of these plans of invasion had to be considered quite as carefully in Richmond as in Washington, and the possibility of each one of them being adopted had to be provided against. As the junction at Manassas had proved to be the key to the situation in the first effort, and its use had enabled the Valley forces to be brought across the Blue Ridge in the nick of time for the final movement in the battle there, so it still remained the most important point in Central Virginia, and Johnston’s army was placed there to guard it and at the same time keep Washington in a state of anxiety. The Washington authorities were in favor of trying their fortune against this point. McClellan, however, favored the route by the Rappahannock. McClellan’s first plan was to march to Annapolis and then transport army, 140,000 men, to Urbana, on the south bank of the Rappahannock and “occupy Richmond before it could be strongly reinforced.”*

This plan he was forbidden to adopt, though he considered it the best of all the plans, and he thereupon selected the route by way of Fortress Monroe and the Peninsula, against the views of the Government authorities, who greatly desired him to adopt the overland route by Manassas across which Johnston lay with an army then believed to number over 100,000 men; but really containing certainly less than half that number.

Illness during the autumn and early winter of 1861 prevented McClellan’s acting with the efficiency which he might otherwise have shown; but even more disastrous than this was his determination not to move until he had an army sufficiently great and properly organized to make his success assured. For this reason mainly he resisted alike the importunities of the President and the Secretary of War and the clamor of the public until on toward the spring; by which time he had sacrificed the good will of the former and the confidence of both.

Jackson settled the question of the Shenandoah Valley plan by the battle of Winchester and his brilliant retreat between two converging armies down the Valley, followed by the victory of Port Republic. The authorities in Washington decided against the Lower Rappahannock plan and gave McClellan his choice between the overland route by way of Manassas, and the Fortress Monroe plan, and he states that “of course he selected the latter,” adding a jibe at the fears of the administration and a suggestion of their disloyalty to him.*

This decision was reached by him in the first week in March, and on the 9th of March Johnston, under orders from Mr. Davis, withdrew his army from Manassas and fell back to the Rappahannock and thence toward Richmond, immediately on which McClellan occupied Manassas with the greater part of his army, to give them training and with a view to opening the railway from Manassas, where Banks’s headquarters were to be, to Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley. About the, middle of March McClellan began to ship his troops to Fortress Monroe, a movement which proceeded rapidly, and Johnston, thereupon, “his movements controlled by McClellan,” marched to the Peninsula, where Magruder with only some 13,000 men at Yorktown had handled them so ably that McClellan was led to believe his force much larger than it was. Unwilling to leave such a force on his flank McClellan had sat down to besiege Yorktown and was held there unti1 the beginning of May (3d), when, on the eve of his assault, Magruder marched out and fell back on Williamsburg, where a sharp fight occurred, resulting in a victory for the Federal General, though the Confederate Army was withdrawn intact.

The possession of a fleet gave to the Union forces the command of the Chesapeake, of the Potomac, of the York and (after the sinking of the Merrimac by her commander) of the James within a day’s march of Richmond.

In January Thomas had won the battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky, which made the Union forces dominant in that region. In February (6th) Fort Henry, on the Tennessee, had been captured, and four days later (the 10th) Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland, had surrendered unconditionally to a general hitherto almost unknown, to whom the Government had been inclined to turn the cold shoulder, but who was to become better known thereafter. By these victories the upper Mississippi, the Cumberland and the Tennessee came into the control of the Federal forces, and all that was needed was to obtain mastery of the lower Mississippi to leave the Confederacy rent in twain. The forts at Hatteras Inlet had been reduced in August (28th). Hilton Head and Beaufort, in North Carolina had been captured, following Admiral DuPont’s reduction of the forts on Port Royal Inlet; and Roanoke Island and Newberne, N.C., had been captured in the first half of March, 1862. On April 6th, Albert Sydney Johnston, deemed up till now the South’s most brilliant soldier, had substantially won a battle against the captor of Forts Henry and Donelson, but had been shot in the hour of victory, and that night, Buell having reached the field with fresh troops, the Confederate forces had been in turn defeated. It is probable that but for the fall of Johnston, who bled to death through neglecting his wound in his eagerness to push his victory on the 6th, Grant’s fortunate star might have set at Shiloh instead of rising higher and higher in the next three years to reach its zenith at Appomattox. As it was, the upper Mississippi, with its great tributaries, was in complete control of the Union, and on April 24th Flag Officer Farragut, himself a Tennessean, with a powerful fleet, ran up the Mississippi, successfully passing the forts (Jackson and St. Philip) guarding its mouth, and reached New Orleans, which city was soon occupied by Butler (May 1st), its fall being quickly followed by the fall of Pensacola. By this time all the important Florida seaport towns were in the possession of the Federal forces, and all these captures, except Roanoke Island and Newberne had been effected by the navy.* Thus, the Mississippi was open from its mouth to Port Hudson, and even that fort and the yet more threatening forts at Vicksburg could be passed by the Federal gunboats, though not without danger, which it was important to put an end to. The main object of attack now was Richmond.

Thus, as the spring closed the Confederate Capital was menaced by an army which had cleared the Peninsula of its adversaries and was believed to be capable of taking Richmond whenever its general saw fit to deliver his assault. Feeling sure of it, McClellan approached leisurely up the north bank of the Chickahominy and entrenched his army in the positions he secured from time to time, until he was within sight of the spires of Richmond, and on quiet nights his pickets could hear the sound of the city’s bells pealing the hours. McDowell, with 40,000 men, was on the Rappahannock, not seventy miles away, and was under stringent orders to effect a junction with McClellan, who, to get in touch with him and protect his base at West Point on the York, had reached out on the north side of the Chickahominy as far as Hanover Court House and the North Anna. Two armies, one under Banks in the Valley of Virginia, and the other under Fremont to the westward, were keeping Stonewall Jackson so fully engaged that he was making marches which gained for his infantry the appellation of “foot-cavalry,” and to hold his own, he was forced to win two battles in one day. Johnston had, in face of McClellan’s steady advance, fallen back on Richmond, and finding McClellan’s army divided by the swollen Chickahominy had, on May 31st, attacked his left under Keyes at Seven Pines and driven him back to Fair Oaks, possibly missing a complete victory only by reason of Longstreet’s slowness; then having been severely wounded he had been forced to leave the field, and next day a renewal of the attack under General G. W, Smith had resulted in a repulse. And in this crisis Lee was placed in command.

The situation at Richmond, when in succession to Johnston Lee was appointed in command of the army there on the 1st day of June, was substantially this. The Confederate troops lying between Richmond and McClellan’s army numbered about 70,000 men. A steady retreat up the Peninsula had tended to impair their spirit if not their morale. The single check given to McClellan at Williamsburg had resulted in nothing more practical than to allow time for the retirement on Richmond, and to teach McClellan a wholesome lesson of respect for his enemy. The attack at Seven Pines, on the afternoon of May 31st, had been so gallantly pressed that it had resulted in a victory, but not the complete victory that had been expected; for owing to Longstreet’s slowness and possibly to his half-heartedness, which on the 31st led him to wait until the afternoon before making the assault planned for the morning and thereby allowed Sumner to cross the falling Chickahominy and save Keyes, and on the next day led him to attack Sumner with only three brigades instead of his full force, the victory of the 31st had been followed by the repulse at Fair Oaks next day, when General G. W. Smith commanded. In the same way, a few weeks later, as Henderson points out, he became responsible for the frontal battle of Malvern Hill.

The capture of Norfolk, followed by the command of the Peninsula, had opened the James River as high up as Drury’s Bluff only a few miles below Richmond and had given McClellan command of the river to that point, thus opening to him two bases of supply on the York and the James respectively, accessible by water.

The fortunes of the Confederacy in the West and along the seaboard, as we have seen, were at this time at a low ebb, and McClellan now was apparently sure of the capture of the Confederate Capital. Should it fall, Virginia was likely to be overrun by the forces of the Union, and the principal seat of war would be the South or the West. McClellan’s army numbered about 110,000 men, now well organized and fairly seasoned; his equipment was as good as the world could furnish, and he believed himself, and he was believed to be, a young Napoleon. McDowell’s army composed of 40,000 men, until a portion of it was sent to protect Washington, was at Fredericksburg, only sixty miles away, clamorous to join him, and under orders to do so, while already in the Shenandoah Valley, or ready to march thither, was Fremont with 20,000 men, all operating to unite and fall on Richmond.

Such, in brief, was the situation when Lee assumed command on June 1st, 1862. His prestige at this time was far from being what it soon afterward became, or even what it had been previous to the outbreak of the war. His ability as an engineer was recognized; but the proof of a general is victories, and that proof he had not given.

[Notes]

* Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” I, p. 167.

* John C. Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” I, p. 266, citing McClellan’s letter to Stanton. 5 W. R., 45.

† Ibid.

* “McClellan’s Own Story,” p. 227.

† Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” I, p. 255.

* Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” I, p. 182–5.

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