Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 8

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


HAVING assumed the offensive and won signal success, Lee was not a general to lose the fruit of his victory, and be forced back into a defensive position the perils of which he well knew. McClellan was routed and driven back to the shelter of his gunboats; but he was still within little more than a day’s march of Richmond with an army which, though demoralized, was, in its position, still formidable. And he could at any time cross to the South bank of the James and attack Richmond from that side, and threaten the cutting off of communication with the South by the chief line of communication, the Richmond and Danville Railway, a move he urgently recommended, but as to which he was overruled by Halleck and the authorities in Washington.* McDowell, too, a gallant soldier and gentleman, was still at Fredericksburg and hungry for a chance to atone for his disaster at Bull Run, and Pope, with another army greater than Lee could send against him, was advancing across the Piedmont, dating his letters from “Headquarters in the saddle,” and boasting that he never saw anything but the backs of his enemies.* If he should seize the Virginia Central Railroad he would destroy an important avenue with the southwest, and the one avenue of communication with the Valley of Virginia. If he should unite with McClellan the South would be lost. The situation was not a whit less critical than it had been on the 1st of June, when McClellan was advancing by approaches to shell Richmond.

But Lee was of all men the man to meet the situation. It might well be said of him as Condé and Turenne said of Merci, that he never lost a favorable moment, or failed to anticipate their most secret designs, as if he had assisted in their councils.

Let those who rank General Lee among the defensive captains say whether he acted on the defensive or offensive when, leaving only some twenty thousand men to guard Richmond, with McClellan still at Harrison’s Landing, hurrying troops now to the South side of the James, now to Malvern Hill, he, with rare audacity, turned on Pope advancing across the Piedmont, and sent Jackson to strike him beyond the Rapidan, and then, after the first stroke at Cedar Mountain, sweeping around in a great half-circle through Thoroughfare Gap, struck him at Groveton a staggering blow, and facing him on the rolling plain of Manassas, routed and drove him back to the shelter of the forts around Alexandria, and with his army, ill-clad and ill-shod, so threatened the national capital that McClellan was hastily recalled from the James to its defence.

The manner of it was this:

After a rest of about ten days, spent in watching McClellan, who from time to time was moving troops up to Malvern Hill, or across the James, Lee addressed his attention to Pope, sending Jackson with his veterans, his old division of four brigades and Ewell’s division of three brigades, to Gordonsville, and supporting him with A. P. Hill’s division a little later, while with the remainder of his depleted army he covered Richmond. The effect of this bold movement was what he anticipated. On the 9th of August, Jackson attacked and defeated his old opponent, Banks’s corps at Cedar Run, and then withdrew toward Gordonsville to avoid the attack by Pope’s entire army until Lee should be ready to reinforce him. On the 14th of August, McClellan received orders from Washington to withdraw his army from the Peninsula for the protection of the National Capital. On the 13th day of August, Lee having matured his plans and feeling secure as to Richmond, ordered Longstreet with Hood to Gordonsville, sending thither also Stuart and R. H. Anderson, and on the 19th issued his order for attack on the 20th. He had thus massed quickly some 54,000 men ready for his stroke, leaving only two brigades for the defence of Richmond. But President Davis wrote him, “Confidence in you overcomes the view which would otherwise be taken.* In the interval, however, Pope, who occupied the line of the Rapidan, having captured Stuart’s Adjutant General with a letter on his person from General Lee to General Stuart, setting forth his plans and making manifest to Pope his position and force and his determination to overwhelm the army under Pope before it could be reinforced by the Army of the Potomac, withdrew hastily behind the Rappahannock, which accident Stuart offset partially a few days later when, in a night attack at Catlett’s station, he captured Pope’s headquarters and effects, including his dispatch-book, containing important information throwing light on the strength, movements and designs of the enemy and disclosing General Pope’s own views against his to defend the line of the Rappahannock.*

This “fortunate accident” of the capture of his letter containing his plans saved Pope for the time being, and he hastily withdrew behind the Rappahannock, thereby preventing the cutting off of his army from his base of supplies as Lee had planned. “This retreat,” says Ropes in his history of the campaign, “was made not a day too soon. Pope’s army had been, in truth, an extremely dangerous position. . . . All this is very plain, but apparently it was not seen by General Pope until the capture of one of the officers of Stuart’s staff put him in possession of Lee’s orders to his army.” “Lee was greatly disappointed at Pope’s escape,” continues this able critic, and he proceeds to show how, had Pope not retreated precipitately, he “would have been attacked in flank and rear and his communications severed into the bargain.” “Doubtless,” he adds, “he would have made a strenuous fight, but defeat under such circumstances might well have been ruin. From this disaster Fortune saved Pope through the capture of Stuart’s staff officer.”*

Even thus, Lee determined to attack Pope beyond the Rappahannock, and Jackson was sent up the stream to cross beyond him at Sulphur Springs and turn his right. A great rain, however, raised the river suddenly after he had sent a brigade or two across, leaving them isolated and preventing their relief for several days. This rain, in Ropes’s opinion saved Pope, who was now strictly on the defensive and was being encouraged by Halleck to “fight like the devil.”*

It was after five days spent in trying to reach Pope’s right beyond the swollen Rappahannock, that Lee put in operation his famous flank movement, by which, holding Pope’s front with half his force, he despatched Jackson with a part of Stuart’s cavalry to circle quite around Pope’s right and crossing the Bull Run Mountains at Thoroughfare Gap, strike his line of communication in his rear. Considering that Pope had under him, on the Rappahannock, an army which, making allowance for all losses, “numbered upward of 70,000, when Lee undertook this novel and perilous operation,” one may well agree with Ropes that “the disparity between this force and that of Jackson is so enormous that it is impossible not to be amazed at the audacity of the Confederate General.”*

Lee, however, was now assured of the withdrawal of McClellan’s army as a consequence of his audacious strategy in threatening Washington, and having massed his forces in the Piedmont with a view to attacking Pope in his position along the Rappahannock, he proceeded to carry out his plans, however “novel and perilous,” undisturbed by any forebodings. Sending Jackson up the now swollen stream to find a crossing-place well beyond Pope’s right, and Longstreet after him to demonstrate in Pope’s front and follow Jackson at the proper time, he awaited confidently the result of his audacious plan. Starting from Jefferson and crossing the river at a point four miles above Waterloo, on the morning of August 25th, Jackson marched twenty-five miles a day, bivouacked at Salem, and pushing forward with “his accustomed vigor and celerity,” crossed the Bull Run Mountains at Thoroughfare Gap and about nightfall, on the 26th, while Pope thought he was headed for the Valley of the Shenandoah,* struck the railway at Bristow Station between Pope and the city he was supposed to be covering. At Gainesville, on the day after he started, he was joined by Stuart with two brigades of cavalry, flushed with the recent victory of Kelly’s Ford. He despatched Stuart that night to capture Manassas Junction with its vast stores for Pope’s army, which was successfully accomplished, and next morning, leaving Ewell to guard Bristow Station, he proceeded to Manassas, where he was joined later by Ewell, who had been forced back from Bristow Station after a sharp fight, and who brought the information that Pope had turned on him with his full force. That morning Pope had issued orders to abandon the line of the Rappahannock. This was on the night of the 27th, and the morning of the 28th.

That same night Pope issued orders for his entire army to concentrate at or near Manassas Junction and a manifesto that he would “bag the whole crowd.” Jackson, therefore, moved to the westward of the turnpike and took a position near Groveton, where he could await Longstreet’s arrival by way of Thoroughfare Gap, or himself retire through the Gap should necessity arise.

On the afternoon of the 28th, Jackson, lying near Groveton, almost surrounded by Pope’s army, learned that a large force was moving down the turnpike toward Centreville, where Pope had finally determined to concentrate. This division of McDowell’s command. He immediately sprang upon them, and the result was one of the most obstinately contested of the minor fields of the war.* That night the Federals withdrew and next day it was known that Pope “had taken a position to cover Washington against Jackson’s advance.” Jackson posted himself in a defensive position partially protected by the line of an unfinished railway extending northeastwardly from the Warrenton Turnpike, and awaited Longstreet, (with whom was Lee himself), who, having been relieved by R. H. Anderson, had crossed the river at Hinson’s Mill, the same point where Jackson had crossed several days before, and was pushing forward for Thoroughfare Gap, which he reached on the afternoon of the 28th and, finding it in possession of the enemy, was forced to carry by assault. As Longstreet’s command emerged from the gap next morning (29th) the sound of the guns toward Manassas told that the battle was on. Pushing forward by Gainesville, Longstreet moved to Jackson’s right, where Sigel was striving to hold Jackson in check until Pope could concentrate his full force to destroy him. Other corps were soon put in and for hours the battle raged “with incessant fury and varying success, but Jackson stubbornly held his ground, though the fighting was often hand to hand and the bayonet was in constant requisition.”* In all this fighting Longstreet took little part, though Lee himself three times expressed his wish that he should attack and thus relieve the hard-pressed Jackson. As General Lee did not positively order him in, he determined to wait and attack next day should a weak place be found in the enemy’s lines, and he left Jackson and Hill to hold their position alone except for the aid afforded them by a reconnaissance in force by three gallant brigades—Hood’s and Evans’s with Wilcox in support. The command of Fitz John Porter numbering some 10,000 men, lay near Gainesville, deployed to engage any force in their front and Longstreet thought the enemy was marching on him from the rear and failed to press in to Jackson’s aid. Thus Porter fully performed his task.* Fortunately for Lee, he knew that Pope thought he was in a perilous position and was anxious only to escape, and he disposed his troops to take advantage of this erroneous view, which he did completely. Pope, who claimed to have won the battle of the evening before, was obsessed with the idea that Jackson was in full retreat and he massed his army to destroy or “bag” him, giving McDowell the “general charge of the pursuit.” It was afternoon of the following day (the 30th) before Pope’s gallant lines advanced to the attack along the Warrenton Pike, with Porter leading against Jackson’s front in such force that Jackson called on Lee for reinforcements. Lee immediately ordered General Longstreet in. The fighting was from this time furious. Line after line came on under the leaden sleet with a courage which aroused the admiration of their antagonists and called for the utmost exertion to repel them. But mortal flesh could not stand against the deadly rain of shot and shell poured down on the brigades “piling up against Jackson’s right, centre and left” and they melted away in the fiery furnace. “Their repeated efforts to rally were,” as Lee reported, “unavailing, and Jackson’s troops, being thus relieved from the pressure of overwhelming numbers, began to press steadily forward, driving the enemy before them.” As they retreated in confusion, “Longstreet anticipating the order for a general advance, now threw his whole command against the Federal centre and left, and the whole line swept steadily on, driving the enemy with great carnage from each successive position.”

Thus by Lee’s “novel and perilous movement,” carried out to complete success, was won the great battle of Second Manassas, which completed the campaign by which he relieved Richmond.

During the night Pope withdrew to the north side of Bull Run and occupied a strong position on the heights about Centreville. But by this time the hunter had become the hunted. Lee, driving for the fruits of his dearly won victory, ordered Jackson to push forward around Pope’s right, while Longstreet engaged him in front, and Pope, now thoroughly demoralized, retired first on Fairfax Court House and after a sharp engagement with Jackson at Chantilly, to the secure shelter of the formidable forts at Alexandria. Thus, Lee, with 50,000 men had routed and drawn Pope from his menacing position with 62,000, or as Ropes states 70,000 men, as gallant as any soldiers in the world, captured more than 9,000 prisoners; thirty pieces of artillery, upward of 20,000 stand of small arms, numerous colors, and a large amount of stores.*

It was a proof of Pope’s utter demoralization that he telegraphed that unless something were “done to restore the tone of his army, it would melt away,” and that he attacked, as the cause of his disaster, the gallant Fitz John Porter, with a vehemence which might better have been employed on the field of Manassas, and placed on this fine soldier and honorable gentleman stigma which it took a generation to extirpate.

Such was the fruit of Lee’s bold generalship, and he was now to give a yet further proof of his audacity and skill.


* Ropes, II, p. 238.

* Pope gave his force as 43,000. Taylor’s “General Lee,” p. 86.

* Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” II, p.254. Col. Wm. Alien, p. 199, n. 18 W. R., 928, 945.

† Major Fitzhugh. Pope’s report.

* General Stuart’s report, cited in Taylor’s “General Lee.”

† Ropes’s “Story of the Civil War,” pp. 256–257.

‡ Lee to Jackson, July 23, 1862, W. R., 916.

* Ropes’s, II, pp. 257–258.

† Ropes’s, II, pp. 259–260, 16. W. R., 56–57.

* Ropes’s, II, pp. 261–262. Allen, 212–213.

* 18, W. R., 653, 665.

† 16, W. R., 34, 70. Ropes’s, II, p. 266.

*Allen, 231, Henderson’s “Stonewall Jackson,” II, 179, 235. Ropes’s, II, 272.

* Taylor’s “General Lee,” p. 106.

* Ropes’s, II, 281.

† See Report: Taylor’s “General Lee,” pp. 112–113.

* Lee’s report cited in Taylor’s “General Lee,” p. 117. The Federal losses were 1,738 killed, and 10,135 wounded. Confederate losses, 1,090 killed, and 6,154 wounded. Pope had over 70,000 men. See Ropes’s, cited ante.

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