The Army of Northern Virginia

100 Years Ago

Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907

Note: The following speech is taken from The Spirit of the South: Orations, Essays and Lectures, by Colonel William Henry Stewart (New York and Washington, 1908), pp. 188–94.


[Speech delivered at the seventeenth annual banquet of Picket-Buchannan Camp, Confederate Veterans and Sons of Veterans, in commemoration of the birthday of General Robert E. Lee, on Saturday night, January 19, 1907, at the Monticello Hotel, Norfolk, Va., in response to the toast:

“The peerless host of a peerless leader.”]

GENTLEMEN: I am unable to say anything new of the peerless Army of Northern Virginia, or of its peerless commander, Robert E. Lee, to this audience, and can only hope to refresh your memories with some events which long ago startled the world.

The Department of Northern Virginia was established by general orders No. 15, dated at Richmond, October 22, 1861. It was composed of three districts: the Valley District, commanded by Major-General T. J. Jackson; the Potomac District, commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard, and the Acquia District, commanded by Major-General T. H. Holmes. This department extended from the Alleghany Mountains to the mouth of the Potomac River, and was under command of General Joseph E. Johnston.

It is best for me to repeat the account of an impartial or disinterested writer as to the sum of the achievements and endurance of our army in its great wrestle for Southern independence. The London Evening Herald, an English newspaper, commenting upon our army’s surrender said: “The South is doomed. With the surrender of Lee ends, not indeed the possibility of military defense, still less that of desperate popular resistance, but hope of final success. After four years of war, sustained with a gallantry and resolution that have few, if any, precedents in history; after such sacrifices as perhaps no nation ever made in vain; after losses that have drained the life-blood of the country; after a series of brilliant victories, gained under unequaled disadvantage, courage, skill, and devotion have succumbed to brute force; numbers have prevailed over the bravest and most united people that ever drew the sword in defense of civil rights and national independence. To numbers, and to numbers alone, the North owes its triumph. Its advantages in wealth and resources, in the possession of the sea and the command of the rivers, were neutralized by Southern gallantry. In despite of the most numerous navy in the world, half a dozen cruisers drove its commerce from the seas. In despite of its overwhelming superiority in strength of ships and guns, improvised Southern ironclads beat and drove off its blockading squadrons, and Southern cavalry, embarking on little river steamers, captured its armed gunboats. In defiance of all its power, Southern energy contrived to supply the armies of the Confederate States with everything of which they stood in need.

“When the war broke out, the North had everything of military store in abundance, and could draw unlimited supplies from Europe; the South had scarcely a cannon, had but few rifles, still fewer swords or bayonets, and not a single foundry or powder factory. All these deficiencies were supplied by the foresight of the Confederate Government and the daring of the Confederate armies. The routed forces of the North supplied artillery and ammunition, rifles and bayonets, to the Southerners. The cannon which thundered against Gettysburg, the shot which crushed the brave mercenaries of Burnside on the slopes above Fredericksburg, came for the most part from Northern arsenals.

“No Southern failure is attributed to want of arms or powder; no Federal success was won by the enormous advantages which the North enjoyed in its favor. If their numbers had been equal, long ago would the Federal government have taken refuge at Boston or New York, and every inch of Southern soil have been free from the step of the invader. Numbers, and numbers alone, have decided the struggle. Almost every battle was won by the South, but every Southern victory has been rendered fruitless by the overwhelming numerical superiority of the vanquished. The conquerers found themselves on every occasion confronted by new armies, and deprived of the fruits of victory by the facility with which the broken ranks of the enemy were replenished. The smaller losses of the South were irreparable. The greater sacrifices of the North were of no consequence whatever in the eyes of a government which lavished the lives of hired foreign mercenaries in the knowledge that money could repair all that folly and ferocity might destroy. The South has perished by exhaustion—by sheer inability to recruit her exhausted armies.”

All of this may not be literally true, but few writers, even on the ground, could have more vividly pictured the conditions. Odds did not count with the Army of Northern Virginia. At bloody Sharpsburg 33,000 Confederates repulsed 90,000 Union soldiers; at Chancellorsville 35,000 defeated over 100,000 Federals; in the Wilderness Lee met and whipped 142,000 Federals, the largest single army ever assembled in America, with 50,000 Confederates, and without any reinforcements continued to break and beat back Grant’s army, increased by 60,000 more.

Grant’s columns, which fought from the Wilderness to Appomattox, splendidly equipped and abundantly fed, including reinforcements, numbered 275,000 men, and Lee had to meet his mighty host with not more than 75,000, on short rations, with scanty clothes and poorly armed. At last, during the siege of Petersburg, 33,000 hungry and shivering soldiers held thirty-five miles of defenses from June, 1864, until April, 1865, when the overwhelming reinforcements of the enemy broke the think line and forced the retreat, leading to the end.

The conditions of our army are well described in the following extract from a letter of General Lee to the Secretary of War: “All the disposable force of the right wing of the army has been operating against the enemy beyond Hatcher’s Run since Sunday. Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, they had to be retained in line of battle, having been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of he men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail and sleet. . . . If some change is not made and the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results. The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment. Our cavalry has been dispersed for want of forage. . . . Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.”

Some of you doubtless remember these conditions. I do very vividly, as I happened to be one of the soldiers in the line of battle described by General Lee. It is wonderful with what stout-hearted cheerfulness our soldiers bore their burdens. I remember, while on the retreat from Petersburg, one evening the fires were blazing on a hillside with the men grouped around waiting for their rations, when the commissary sergeants brought for each man three ears of corn to be parched for supper. A great cry arose everywhere. “Bring the long forage, where is my fodder,” all in good nature; and still these dear soldiers obeyed every order with alacrity, inflicting upon the great hosts of their pursuers from the 29th of March to the 9th of April, 1865, a loss of 10,780 men. Thousands of our soldiers failing in physical strength, unable to march, fell by the wayside, and were captured. Our depleted army was fighting and marching day and night on the retreat until its ranks had dwindled down to 7892 muskets, which were stacked in surrender at Appomattox; virtually crushed beneath ponderous numerical weight.

A little boy was reading the story of a missionary having been eaten by cannibals.

“Papa,” he asked, “will the missionary go to heaven?”

“Yes, my son,” replied he father.

“And will the cannibals go there too?”

“No,” was the reply. After thinking the matter over some time the little fellow said: “Well, I don’t see how the missionary can go to heaven, if the cannibals don’t, when he is inside the cannibals.”

Our neighbors over the Potomac with their hosts swallowed us as the cannibals did the missionary, and since they have begun to digest us they have so greatly changed in mind as to conclude that we ought to manage our own internal affairs and even solve the race problem—which we shall do with honor to ourselves and justice to the negroes.

Once on the Petersburg lines two opposite videttes were talking in a bantering humor, when the cook brought up the scant rations of the Confederate. The Federal said:

“Johnnie, do you get full rations now?”

“Oh, yes. ”

“Get any meat? ”

“Yes; plenty. ”

“Well, be sure to save the fat to grease your body well, so you can easily slip back in the Union. ”

This was one on Johnnie, and they joined in a hearty laugh.

Well, after a long struggle, when we were not only meatless and greaseless, but breadless, they did drag us back in the Union, and ever since, according to the advice of General Lee, we have been making the best of the situation and cultivating friendly relations with our late armed foes, working hard to build up the waste places and make our fields bloom like the rose, but we are still proud of the old gray jacket.

Then stand up, oh, my countrymen!
      And unto God give thanks,
On mountains, and on hillsides,
      And by the sloping river banks—
Thank God hat you were worthy
      Of the grand Confederate ranks;
That you who came from uplands
      And from beside the sea,
Filled with love of old Virginia
      And the teachings of the free,
May boast in sight of all men
      That you followed Robert Lee.

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