Washington and Lee University

Camp-Fires of General Lee




THE Confederate army was in a deplorable condition. Cold weather was at hand, and the majority were in rags and without shoes. Still more, they were half starved and subjected to suffering which would have rendered desperate, men with half their courage. General Lee was urgent in his demands that the government should do something at once for the fire-tried veterans who had fought so hard for their country, but the government seemed unable to rise to the occasion, and the citizens of Richmond and Petersburg became so indignant that they forwarded a large supply of shoes to the army. This stirred the authorities to do something.

Meanwhile, the stragglers were rapidly gathered in, and their “vacation” had placed them in the best possible condition. The army rapidly augmented, and in less than a month was in better condition than before. Those were jolly and enjoyable days, and the Confederates were a happy lot, overflowing with rugged health and exuberant spirits, dearly loving a frolic and continually skylarking. Their sport may have been rude and boisterous, but it was honest and gave them the vitality they needed to carry them through the tremendous campaigns yet before them.

“The only useful occupation of this brigade,” wrote one of Jackson's soldiers, “has been to destroy all the railroads in reach—apparently, too, for no better reason than the fellow had for killing the splendid anaconda in the museum: because it was his ‘rule to kill snakes wherever found.’

“It is when idle in camp that the soldier is a great institution, yet one that must be seen to be appreciated. Pen cannot fully paint the air of cheerful content, hilarity, irresponsible loungings and practical spirit of jesting that obtains, ready to seize on any odd circumstance in its licensed levity. A ‘cavalryman’ comes rejoicing in immense top-boots, for which, in fond pride, he has invested full forty dollars of pay; at once the cry of a hundred voices follows him along the line: ‘Come up out o' them boots! Come out! Too soon to go into winter-quarters! Bootscertain of a “soft” position under the new order of things, and the President shut his ears against every complaint made by aggrieved parties, no matter what their rank. He was unjust and severe to those for whom he formed a dislike, and could see no good in them. J. D. McCabe, Jr., as illustrative of this weakness on the part of the President, mentions the case of Colonel Northrop, commissary-general under the Confederate government. More than twenty years before, he and Mr. Davis had been friends in the Black Hawk war; part of the interval had been spent by Northrop as a patient in an insane asylum. His appointment to the important post named caused much surprise and indignation, but the President could not be dissuaded, and he sustained that officer against the whole country. General Lee joined the list of remonstrants and more than once urged the President to remove him for incompetency, but without avail.

The wonder is how the Confederacy stood Northrop. He not only knew nothing of the duties of his office, but he insulted those who came in contact with him, and acknowledged the right of no one besides the President to presume to make a suggestion to him. His mismanagement and brutality starved the army in the midst of plenty, robbed the people and in the end caused all classes to distrust and dislike the government; yet when Senator Orr, on the 18th of January, 1864, when the cause was on the verge of the destruction to which Colonel Northrop had contributed so greatly, waited on Mr. Davis to ask the removal of the commissary-general, the President declared to him that Colonel Northrop was one of the greatest geniuses in the South, and that if he had the physical capacity he would put him at the head of an army. When, finally, he did resign, a general shout of thankfulness went up from the whole South.*

The army, as a matter of course, was paid in Confederate money, which rapidly deteriorated in value; even their pittances reached them only at long intervals. Secretary Memminger showed an incompetency on a par with that of Northrop. Great wars and revolutions are the occasions when bad men flourish and sleek hypocrisy rolls up its ill-gotten gains. In the North men made fortunes in the bounty business, and millions were accumulated by the “trooly loyal” out of their contracts with the government, which were so fat that they fairly exuded oil. They were present in the South. Some of them strutted about in uniform, pretending that trifling wounds were too severe to permit them to join the brave boys at the front; some of them clamored for more vigorous measures on the part of the government, but took care that they received their wages in yellow gold; some of them held back their corn for higher prices and calmly swore that the Federals had ruined their crops, and then looked upon the starving soldiers with assumed pity; some of them locked up thousands of shoes and clothing, while there was nothing between the bare feet of the gray-jackets and the frozen ground. These wretches, in fact, were everywhere, and managed to cast an anchor to windward by sending a good quantity of gold to Europe to await their flight when the “cruel war was over.” It seems inevitable that such shameful accompaniments should mark every revolutionary movement, and no surprise, therefore, should be felt that there was so much of it both north and south of Mason and Dixon's line during the war.

The Confederate government became uneasy over the preparations of the Federal authorities for a more vigorous prosecution of the war. They asked Lee to fall back to the valley, but he replied he was strong enough to beat McClellan, and said that if he withdrew it would be to yield his means of subsistence to the Federals, because he had not any way of carrying it with him. Instead of retreating before the enemy showed himself, he ordered the cavalry in the neighborhood of Culpeper and Manassas to make more offensive operations.

General Lee organized a diversion with a view of inducing the Federals to draw off some of the troops from McClellan's army or to cause him to delay his advance into Virginia. General Loring was directed to march from Western Virginia with some eight thousand men, threaten Wheeling, and afterward join the Army of Northern Virginia by way of the Monongahela. Loring concluded that Lee didn't understand his business, and he therefore declined to make the movement. As a consequence, Loring was removed; but the Confederate government refused to allow Lee to draw any troops from Western Virginia to reinforce his own. Indeed, this policy of scattering was carried to a dangerous point by the government, despite the protests of the leading journals, and of Lee himself. It was utterly beyond the power of the Confederacy to defend its immense line of seacoast or one-half the extended points which were threatened. Its true course was to contract its lines and to concentrate its troops.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was most unfortunately located—that is, for its own welfare. It had been used by both Federals and Confederates, and played an important part in the war. At the beginning of hostilities, Sharp, the superintendent of transportation, whose sympathies were strongly with the South, performed a most remarkable exploit. He ran about a dozen locomotives out to Martinsburg, had them taken from the rails, and under a strong military escort they were dragged by mules across the country over the turnpike to the nearest railroad-line, whence they were taken to Richmond. They did effective service during the war, and after the close of hostilities most of the engines were recovered by the Baltimore and Ohio road. Some of them were found as far south as New Orleans.

Many strange experiences took place along the line of this railway. An engineer told the writer that one night he was running at a high rate of speed, only a short distance out of Baltimore. He had behind him some valuable supplies belonging to the Federal government, and a strong guard was on board. There was little fear of trouble, but of course he kept a vigilant lookout. He was intently watching the rails as the gleam of his headlight struck them, when all at once, to his unspeakable dismay, one of them leaped aside and bounded out of sight. There was no person near it, nor was there any evidence that it had been touched; yet it not only bounded from its position on the ties, but went skipping and plunging down the bank into the woods, where it disappeared. The engineer reversed and applied his brakes, but he was so close to the gap that there was no saving the engine, which the next moment was bumping over the gravel and ties. The engine didn't upset, but it was badly damaged, and a long delay followed. Investigation showed that the missing rail had been unfastened and then carefully put back in place. Around each end was wound a telegraph-wire, which reached downward into the woods at the side of the track; several men held the concealed ends and waited for the train. At the right instant the unfastened rail was snapped down the bank out of sight, after which those who did it ran back in among the trees and concealed themselves.

As the war progressed this railroad-line became more useful to the Federals than to the Confederates, and Lee determined to damage it to the utmost. Accordingly, some forty miles of it between Sir John's Run and Harper's Ferry were destroyed and all the bridges and culverts blown up.


* A Rebel War-Clerk's Diary.

Return to Reference Shelf

Contact Us
Privacy Policy
About this Site
spacing pixel

Washington and Lee University • Lexington, VA 24450 • (540) 458-8400