Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 7

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


LEE, thus called from the titular position of Military Adviser to the President* to the command of the army defending Richmond, to take the place of Johnston, found himself in command of about 80,000 men, 70,000 being close by, while McClellan had not less than 110,000. From that moment the army felt a new hand and acknowledged its master. His first act was one which should dispel the delusion that he was great only in defensive operations.

Massing his troops suddenly on the north side of the Chickahominy and calling Stonewall Jackson from the Valley to meet him at a given point at a given hour, he fell upon McClellan’s entrenchments and rolled him back to the upland plain of Malvern Hill. Was it on the defensive or the offensive that he acted when he conceived and carried through to supreme success those masterly tactics? Was he acting on the defensive or offensive when again, dashing upon him on the entrenched uplands of Malvern Hill, he swept him back to his gunboats, and shattered at once his plans and his prestige ? It was a battle fought as Grant fought at second Cold Harbor, mainly by frontal attack; and, like the plan of second Cold Harbor, has been criticised as costing needless waste of life. But, unlike Grant’s futile and costly assaults, Malvern Hill, however bloody it was, proved successful. That night McClellan retreated to the shelter of his gunboats. Lee’s audacious tactics saved Richmond. It was not until nearly three years had passed, and until hundreds of thousands of lives had been spent, and the seed-corn of the Confederate South had been ground in the ever-grinding mills of war, that a Union picket ever again got a glimpse of the spires of Richmond or any Union soldier, other than a prisoner of war, heard her church bells pealing in the quiet night.

It had long been plain to Lee’s clear vision that the best defence of Virginia’s Capital was an offensive movement which should menace the Federal Capital, and as early as April 29th he had suggested to Stonewall Jackson, then operating in the Valley of Virginia, a threatening counter-move, to prevent, if possible, McDowell from crossing the Rappahannock. Two weeks before the battle of Seven Pines he had again prompted Jackson to move on Banks, and, if successful, drive him back toward the Potomac and create the impression that he intended to threaten that line, a movement in which Jackson was completely successful. Thus, Lee had, with the aid of his able Lieutenant, stopped the armies of Fremont and McDowell from any attempt to reinforce McClellan, and was ready when the moment came to carry out his far-reaching plan to defeat and possibly destroy by one swift blow McClellan’s great army now lying at the gates of Richmond and holding both sides of the Chickahominy.

It is no part of the plan of this book to discuss in detail Lee’s consummate tactics; but a bare outline of his far-seeing plan is necessary.

Johnston had attacked on the south side of the Chickahominy and failed to dislodge McClellan. What would Lee do? His first act was to retire his army to the original position held before the assault at Seven Pines and fortify on the south bank of the Chickahominy, to secure that side of the river while he prepared for his coup on the north bank against McClellan’s right wing, commanded by the gallant Fitz John Porter. Thus, he had as his first move withdrawn his army even nearer Richmond than before. But he had no idea of remaining there idle while McClellan prepared to dislodge him. To secure accurate information he dispatched Stuart with a small force (about 1,200 cavalry and a battery of horse artillery)* to investigate around his right flank, and the dashing cavalry leader swept entirely around McClellan’s army in a ride that gave him fame the world over and placed him forever among the great cavalry captains of History. Next, Jackson was instructed to strike a blow in the Valley which should startle Washington, and, while they were still dazed, to hasten and join Lee on the Chickahominy, and with his veterans act as Lee’s left wing in a blow on McClellan’s right, which should drive him from before Richmond. To make sure of this as well as to lull McClellan to a sense of security, several brigades were sent somewhat ostentatiously to Jackson; but time appeared so important that Jackson was summoned to join him without waiting for a stroke in the Valley, and putting his troops in motion the General rode ahead to Richmond to learn the details of Lee’s plans and then rode back to hurry forward his troops, already pushing on by forced marches toward the field where, by Lee’s brilliant plan, the assault was to be delivered at dawn on the 26th by his combined forces.*

With Jackson up, Lee’s army numbered about 80,000 men. His plan briefly was for Jackson, with his veterans, to advance at crack of day on June 26th, with Stuart on his left, and turn the long right wing of McClellan’s army, under Porter, posted at Mechanicsville, in a strong position, commanding the turnpike across the Chickahominy, with Beaver Dam Creek and its upland behind it; for Branch’s Brigade, facing Porter, to keep in touch with Jackson and on his advance to cross the Chickahominy and rejoin his commander A. P. Hill; for A. P. Hill, as soon as he knew Jackson was engaged, to cross the Chickahominy at the Meadow Bridge and force the crossing of the Chickahominy at the Mechanicsville Bridge; for Longstreet to cross to the support of A. P. Hill and for D. H. Hill to cross to the support of Jackson; meanwhile Magruder and Huger were to hold the defences on the south side of the Chickahominy and keep McClellan7s main army well occupied.

Lee’s plan was the consummation of audacity, for it would leave only 25,000 men to confront and hold McClellan’s left wing and centre on the south bank of the Chickahominy, while he assaulted his right wing on the north bank with his main army. The time fixed for the assault was based on Jackson’s conviction that he could be up and ready to attack at daylight on the 26th of June. But for once in his life Jackson was not “up.” He was to have been at the Slash Church near Ashland on the 25th, and was to bivouac near the Central Railway (now the Chesapeake and Ohio), ready to march at three o’clock on the morning of the 26th on the road to Pole Green Church to deliver the assault which was to be the signal to A. P. Hill to cross the Chickahominy. But it was not until late that afternoon that he was able to reach the neighbourhood of the field of battle, where the fight had been raging for several hours, and even then he did not attack, but halted and lay with the roar of the guns to his right distinctly audible.

A. P. Hill having waited all day for news of Jackson, finally, fearful that the whole plan might miscarry, moved at three o’clock, crossed the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge and carried the stoutly defended position of Mechanicsville, several miles below, and pushing forward, assaulted furiously, but in vain, the strongly defended position beyond Beaver Dam Creek. That night, McClellan retired his left wing to his second line above Powhite Creek, Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor. And here Lee attacked him again, and, after terrific fighting, defeated him in the furious battle of Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor, seizing his position; capturing his line of communication to West Point, and driving him across the Chickahominy, forced him to abandon his threatening position on its south side and fall back across White Oak Swamp to Malvern Hill some miles to the rear. It was a brilliant stroke for Lee to have massed 50,000 men on the north bank of the Chickahominy and crushed McClellan’s right wing, while he held the rest of his army with only 25,000 men, and had Jackson attacked on the morning of the 26th, as planned, or possibly even on the morning of the 27th, the victory might have been yet more decisive.* But it was necessary to do more to drive McClellan back from before Richmond.

On the 28th Lee held his army in hand, watchful to see which way McClellan, after his staggering blow, would move, whether by the way he had come, up the Peninsula, or toward the James, and as soon as it became apparent what he would do, ordered his troops to the south side of the Chickahominy and proceeded to attack again at Savage Station on the 29th, and at White Oak Swamp and Frazier’s Farm on the 30th, carrying every position except one, which was held with heroic constancy until night-fall and then abandoned. The failure of some of his lieutenants to grasp the situation prevented the complete success of his plans, and McClellan got safely across White Oak Swamp. On July 1st Lee found McClellan entrenched in a formidable position on the uplands of Malvern Hill, and again flung himself upon him with immense loss to his own army, but with the result of forcing him to abandon his position and retreat precipitately by night to the shelter of his gunboats at Harrison’s Landing.

Thus, Lee had, with less than 80,000 men, by his audacious tactics and masterly handling of his troops, defeated McClellan with more than 105,000 men, and driven him from position after position, relieving Richmond from what had appeared imminent danger of immediate capture.

Military critics have often wondered why Jackson, who both before and after the seven days’ fighting around Richmond, proved himself the most eager, prompt and aggressive lieutenant that any commander had during the war, should apparently have been so slow in the execution of the plan entrusted to him in this critical movement. Old soldiers, who followed and adored him, still discuss the mysterious failure, and admit that “Old Jack” was “not himself” at this crisis.

An explanation has been given that he mistook the road leading toward the field of Cold Harbor, and missed his way.

The writer, as a resident of that region, familiar with the country and with the discussion of the facts, ventures to suggest a simple explanation. As is known, Jackson, after a brilliant but arduous campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, moved his troops from the Valley of Virginia along the line of the Virginia Central Railway, marching some and conveying some on the few railway trains he could procure, and when the latter were far enough ahead of those who were marching, he detrained them and set them to marching, sending the trains back to bring up the others and take them on ahead some distance, when they were in turn detrained and sent forward.

The distance from the valley to the Chickahominy being about 130 miles, the bringing forward of his troops, even with the indifferent assistance of his trains, occupied several days: and the General himself, with a staff officer or two, at a point some sixty odd miles west of Richmond, left the train and rode to Richmond to consult with Lee as to details, and, as I believe, to familiarize himself somewhat with the roads, which through Hanover are very confusing. It is of record that he then thought he could be up and ready to co-operate with Hill on the 25th, but General Longstreet claims that he urged that this was impossible and that if not the 27th, at the earliest the 26th should be set for the attack, which was agreed to. At Beaver Dam Station, on the Railway forty miles from Richmond, the last troops were taken from the train, and, together with those who had been marching the day before, took the road for Richmond by way of Honeyman’s Bridge over the Little River, and then, owing to high water in the South Anna, instead of taking the shorter route by Ground-squirrel Bridge they marched by way of Ashland. From Little River to the field of Cold Harbor, the roads are deep with sand, water is scant, and in the blazing days of late June the progress of the troops was much slower than had been reckoned on, and the move took nearly a day longer than had been counted on. Meanwhile, Jackson, who had left his train and ridden sixty odd miles to Richmond to confer with Lee, rode straight back to bring his men forward, met them at a point more than fifty miles from Richmond, and returned with them. Thus, when he reached the slashes of Hanover, he had been in the saddle almost continuously for several days and nights, and was completely broken down.*

Members of a troop of cavalry, known as the Hanover troop, (Company C, 4th Virginia Cavalry) who came from that region, were detailed to act as guides for the troops, and the man detailed to guide Jackson, on reaching the neighborhood of the battlefield, found so many new roads cut by McClellan’s troops, and so many familiar landmarks gone, that he became confused, and led the column some distance on the wrong road before discovering his error. It then became necessary to retrace their way; but marching the other troops back and turning around the artillery in the narrow road, bordered by forest and thickets, much time was lost. Ewell, who was present, threatened to hang the guide; but Jackson intervened, and bade him guide them back.*

However it was, Lee relieved Richmond, and the war, from being based on the issue of a single campaign, was now a matter of years and treasure.

The results of the battles around Richmond were summed up by Lee as follows:

In his General Order (No. 75, dated July 7, 1862), tendering his “warmest thanks and congratulations to the army by whose valor such splendid results were achieved,“ he says, ”On Monday, June 26th, the powerful and thoroughly equipped army of the enemy was intrenched in works vast in extent and most formidable in character, within sight of our capital.

“To-day the remains of that confident and threatening host lie upon the banks of the James River, thirty miles from Richmond, seeking to recover, under the protection of his gunboats, from the effects of a series of disastrous defeats.

“The immediate fruits of your success are the relief of Richmond from a state of siege, the routing of the great army that so long menaced its safety, many thousand prisoners including officers of high rank, the capture or destruction of stores to the value of millions, and the acquisition of thousands of arms and fifty-one pieces of superior artillery.”

He concludes, after a tribute to the “gallant dead who died nobly in defence of their country’s freedom,” “Soldiers, your country will thank you for the heroic conduct you have displayed—conduct worthy of men engaged in a cause so just and sacred, and deserving a nation’s gratitude and praise.”


* June 1, 1862.

* Walter 3. Taylor’s “General Lee,” p. 58.

† Henderson’s “Stonewall Jackson.”

* Walter H. Taylor’s “General Lee,” p. 60.

† Ibid., p. 62.

*Taylor’s I’ General Lee,” pp. 68–78.

* I remember as a boy seeing Jackson’s columns passing down the road near my home in Hanover, some fifteen miles above Ashland, and every hour or so the men were made to lie down full length on the ground to rest.

† Lincoln Sydnor.

* The fact of Jackson’s complete prostration is mentioned in a letter written at the time by his aide de camp, the gallant Lt. Col. Alexander S. Pendleton, killed later at Fisher’s Hill. The other circumstances I had stated to me in a letter from A. R. Ellerson, Esquire, a member of the Hanover troop, whose home was near Mechanicsville, and who was with Sydnol at Jackson’s headquarters and was sent with dispatches from General Lee. See Appendix B.

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