Washington and Lee University

An Aide-De-Camp of Lee
Charles Marshall

III
GENERAL LEE'S MILITARY POLICY

THE gloomy condition of the affairs of the Confederacy in the first months of 1862 made it apparent that the policy pursued by the Government during the first year of the war had not only resulted in serious losses, but permanently impaired its ability to maintain the contest.

This discovery was made when the real magnitude of the struggle and the fallacy of all expectations of relief, except by arms, began to be understood, and the need of men, arms, and munitions became most urgent. The present relief of Richmond was therefore only a part of the care which devolved upon General Lee when he assumed command, in the circumstances described in the last chapter. He might accomplish that object, but there remained the far more difficult task of devising a system of defence adapted not only to the immediate dangers, but to the inevitable demands which a protracted war on such a great scale would make upon the resources of the country.

Although experience had shown that the attempt made to defend every point exposed to attack had led to our most serious disasters, and although the necessity of concentrating our forces had become evident, there were reasons arising from the relations of the Confederate Government to the people themselves which rendered the adoption of that policy peculiarly difficult. It has been seen that in the beginning of the secession movement its advocates had generally believed that it would be peacefully accomplished, or that, should hostilities ensue, they would speedily be brought to an end by foreign intervention and by dissensions in the North. This belief had become fixed in the minds of the people, who were taught to expect that the new Government would at once confer upon them a greater degree of safety and of liberty than they had enjoyed under the old.

When therefore it became impossible for the Government any longer to doubt that a war of invasion upon a large scale was certain, it attempted to reconcile the people to the disappointment of their hopes of peace by establishing confidence in its ability and readiness to extend to them ample protection. It sought to accomplish this by such a distribution of the forces of the South as would impart a feeling of security at every exposed point, and convince the people that the Confederacy would vigilantly guard them against the dangers of an unexpected war. Unwise as this course was, and disastrous as it proved to be, the peculiar position of the Southern people rendered it extremely difficult for the Government to close its ears to the cry for local protection. The presence of a large slave population exposed them to greater and more serious perils in time of war than those which usually attend invasion by a civilised enemy. The fear of the consequences that might result from the influence of Northern troops on the slaves was naturally keenly felt, and the necessity of a sufficient force to prevent the horrors of a servile insurrection contributed as much as any single cause to the unfortunate dispersion of the Confederate troops during the first year of the war.

Before General Lee left Richmond to take command of the Confederate army he had been made sensible of the strong influence of these considerations upon the minds of the people and their representatives. Repeated and urgent demands were made upon him by some of the most influential members of Congress to furnish troops to protect the people along the navigable waters of Virginia, who had been left exposed to the incursions of the enemy by the withdrawal of General J. E. Johnston from Manassas, and one of the chief objections to the Conscript Law (apart from some doubts as to its constitutionality) was that it would enable the Confederate Government to deprive the states of the means of providing for the safety of their own citizens. The mere existence of slavery gave the Federal Government a great advantage in the prosecution of the war and imposed additional cares and responsibilities upon those charged with the conduct of military operations in the South. It imparted consequence to movements of the enemy otherwise trivial, and enabled a small force to excite apprehension along the whole sensitive border of the South.

In such circumstances and under such influences as these, General Lee was called upon to devise a military policy which would enable the Confederate Government to meet at once the dangers of the present emergency, and allay the just apprehensions of the people. To concentrate the Confederate army, in sufficient numbers to resist the Federal army which threatened Richmond, required the withdrawal of troops detached to guard exposed localities; and to withdraw those troops would expose the Government to the charge of unwillingness or inability to protect the country. But fearful as were the dangers apprehended, the condition of affairs was such that General Lee had no alternative, and he did not hesitate to adopt a policy which in a great measure reversed the course previously pursued by the Confederate Government. This resolution not only brought against him the opposition of persons of influence connected with the Government, but subjected him to the severer trial of having to disregard the safety of those from whom he felt bound, for the public good, to withdraw the protection they so anxiously desired.

The families of the soldiers were among those who were to be exposed to perils in comparison with which the dangers of battle were lightly regarded, and the desire to protect their wives and children sometimes outweighed, even in the army, the sense of obligation to the cause of the whole country.

No man felt greater sympathy for the trials and dangers of the helpless and defenceless than General Lee. No one more earnestly desired than he to allay their fears and mitigate their sufferings. But having a more comprehensive view of the whole problem, directing his energies to secure what he regarded as the real object of the war, he did not permit himself to be diverted from his purpose by considerations which exerted so much influence upon those who perceived less clearly the lamentable consequences of defeat. Instead of sending troops to every exposed locality, he thought it wiser to compel the enemy to concentrate his own forces and thus deprive him of the means of making inroads. This could only be effected by such concentration on our part as would necessitate a like action on the part of the Federal authorities, and the event demonstrated the wisdom of his views. That part of the country which depended for its protection on the troops which he drew together to form the great Army of Northern Virginia was never more exempt from invasion than while that army retained its strength and efficiency. In its formidable presence the enemy did not venture to weaken his own army by detachments for harassing excursions, and the women and children of the South reposed securely under the terror inspired by its name.

To arrive at a correct understanding of the events which marked the history of the three years during which General Lee held command, it is necessary to consider them in relation to the policy of defence which he devised. The battles and strategic movements which attracted so much attention were not separate and distinct events, entirely independent one of the other, but formed parts of one plan of warfare, adopted by General Lee at the time he took command of the army, and steadily pursued until his means were exhausted.

It is neither just to him nor consonant with the truth to measure his success by the issue of each engagement, or to judge of his skill by the consequence of each movement. The war in Virginia with all its chances and changes was in fact one campaign. The battles on the Chickahominy and at Manassas, the invasion of Maryland, and the invasion of Pennsylvania, all had a common object. They were results of a plan of defence based upon a survey of all the circumstances, a plan deemed by General Lee to be the best adapted to meet the necessities of this country, and to secure final success. The necessities of the country required that General Lee's measures should be adapted to its capacity to sustain a war of such magnitude, and that they should neutralize the enemy's great superiority. The population of the South available for military service was less than one-fifth of that of the United States.1 From the former the negro population had to be deducted, as the policy of the Government would only permit the employment of negroes in the army to a limited extent, and those only in the capacity of non-combatants and labourers.

The white population alone could be looked upon for supplying losses by battle and disease, and so great was the drain upon it to furnish a sufficient force to oppose that of the United States in 1862, that very early in the campaign of that year ability to keep the army up to the standard of strength began to be doubted. General Lee thought that to expose our armies to the sacrifices of great battles the object of which was only to disperse or destroy those of the enemy would soon bring the Confederacy to the verge of exhaustion. Even victory in such engagements might prove disastrous. The North could readily raise new armies, while the means of the South were so limited that a few bloody victories might leave it powerless to continue the struggle, and the enemy might derive from our exhaustion the success that he could not win with the sword.

It was therefore desirable not to risk the irreparable losses except as and when battles might become necessary for the accomplishment of the general purpose. For this reason the plan of compelling the enemy to grant peace by a campaign of conquest was impracticable. A few general engagements in the North, however successful, would have soon left the invading army too weak to remain in the enemy country, and the South could not have furnished another.

On the other hand, it was equally imprudent to remain entirely on the defensive, and await the attack of the enemy. Such a policy would reduce the contest to a mere trial of strength and resources, and the issue of such a trial could be easily foreseen. The enemy, if uninterrupted, could bring to bear an overwhelming force upon any position that might be assumed by the Confederate army, and decide the conquest by mere stress of numbers. Especially was this true if Richmond should be the place to be defended, as the command of the large rivers by which it could be approached would enable the enemy to concentrate his troops and transport his supplies with entire safety and freedom from interruption, since his army would have the powerful support of his fleet.

Nor did the policy of retreating before the enemy and drawing him further into the interior of the country promise greater advantages. This system of warfare often practised elsewhere with success was attended with great and serious objections in the case of the Confederate States. Its navigable rivers, penetrating in every direction, afforded the enemy an easy and rapid mode of transportation of troops and supplies into the heart of the country, and the attempt to defend those avenues of approach would require more men than the Confederacy could afford if it would defend them successfully, besides leading to the ruinous dispersal of its forces. Such a policy would give the enemy access to the slave population of the South, and expose more of its people to the dangers which I have already indicated as arising from the first retreat of Manassas. In the case of Virginia, the policy of retreating had in the spring of 1862 been pursued until it could be prosecuted no further without the loss of the whole State. The army was already at Richmond and the next retreat must take it south of the James river. The political consequence assigned by common consent to the capital of a country, and especially the capital of a country struggling for recognition, would doubtless have rendered any place the Confederate Government might have selected for that purpose a prominent object of attack; but Richmond had a value from a military point of view that far exceeded its political importance. The great region of country between the James River and the Potomac has become historic. It was the Flanders of the war, and it is no exaggeration to say that nearly a quarter of a million men perished in the fierce struggle for its possession in which the armies of the North and South were engaged for nearly four years.

This territory was of great use to the Confederacy, on account of the supplies it furnished to the army and the recruits whom its brave and patriotic population sent to our ranks. But it was not the supplies and the recruits which gave it its chief value. The effectiveness of any army of the Confederacy depended in a great measure upon its proximity to the enemy's country, and it soon became apparent that the same number of Confederate troops could not be placed where they would give occupation to so much of the vastly superior force of the enemy as in that region between the James and the Potomac, within reach of the sensitive southern frontier of the United States, where on the extreme border stood the city of Washington, for the safety of which the Federal authorities considered no preparation excessive, no sacrifice too great.

Valuable as Northern Virginia was to the Confederacy, its possession came to depend entirely upon our ability to defend Richmond. Here were established the depots and arsenals of the army operating in Northern Virginia, and through Richmond that army had its chief means of access to sources of supply further south. With Richmond in the hands of the enemy, it is evident that no large army could have been maintained in Northern Virginia. There was no other city in Virginia that had railroad connections with the South sufficient to furnish transportation for the supply of such an army in that part of the country. Lynchburg might have been connected with the railroads in North Carolina, and thus an interior line of communication with the South might have been provided less accessible to the enemy than any which Richmond furnished, but no such communication was made, nor does it profit now to enquire whether it could have been made.

Early in the second year of the war, the Confederacy was compelled to yield to the enemy great possessions on the James River to within a few miles of Richmond. From that time it was always possible for the Federal Government to transport troops from the North and land them within less than a day's march of the city, without the fear or even the possibility of interruption by us. The enemy had too the additional facilities of approach which the York River afforded. The place upon the safety of which so much depended was in fact almost as accessible from the North by water as the city of Alexandria. Its distance from the base of a Federal army operating against it gave it no advantage if that army could almost reach its gates by a safe and rapid water transportation. In attacking a city situated as it was, the powerful flotilla of the enemy was able to co-operate efficiently with his land forces, so that the defenders of Richmond had to resist the combined efforts of the Federal Army and Navy. Nor did Richmond possess any advantages of defence should the enemy, renouncing the facilities which the command of the water afforded him, attempt to approach the city by land.

In these circumstances there was but one course left for General Lee to pursue, if he would save Richmond from the peril which he knew would attend its investment by the large army of the enemy. He must give occupation to that army, and such occupation as would compel the largest concentration of its forces. By this means he might even induce the enemy to withdraw troops from other parts of the Confederacy, and thus obtain additional reinforcements for himself.

So the most marked influence which the situation of Richmond, and the necessity of providing for its defence, exerted upon the conduct of the war in Virginia, is seen in its connection with the expeditions of the Army of Northern Virginia beyond the Potomac. The great advantages which the enemy would have in besieging Richmond were so apparent that it was a saying of General Lee that Richmond was never so safe as when its defenders were absent. His meaning was that the safety of Richmond depended upon our ability to employ the enemy at a distance and prevent his near approach to the city. Such was the policy adopted by him, a policy which procured the comparative security of Richmond, from the time when the Army of Northern Virginia moved northward in 1862 to the time when, worn out with more than two years' exhausting war, it was forced to retire within the entrenchments of its capital.

It was only by acting upon the apprehensions of the enemy that the object of this policy could be obtained with the force under General Lee's command. Unwilling to incur the risks and losses of an aggressive war having for its object the destruction of the enemy, and regarding as equally unwise the policy of remaining strictly on the defensive or of retreating before his advance, General Lee adopted a plan by which he sought to attain some of the advantages of each of the others.

The Government at Washington seemed to be impressed with the importance of bringing the war to a speedy conclusion, and their preparations were directed to attaining that end. They dreaded the effect of protracted hostilities upon their own people, and perhaps were even more apprehensive of complications with other nations. The expenses incurred were so enormous that to put a stop to them became an additional and powerful inducement to make the war a short one. At first the enthusiasm of the people supplied all the demands of the Government for men and money. The troops were not enlisted for long terms of service, and both the army and the people were confident of speedy success. When, however, the first year ended and the North perceived that, notwithstanding the great advantages it had gained, much yet remained to be accomplished, the popular enthusiasm was somewhat abated, and the burden of supporting the war rested more exclusively upon the public credit, which began to show signs of feeling the pressure. As it was the manifest policy of the Federal Government to conclude the war speedily, and to feed the growing impatience of the people with successes which would give assurance of such a result, so on the other hand it became the policy of General Lee to disappoint these hopes and encourage the belief that the war would be of indefinite length.

The means to accomplish this end were to frustrate the enemy's designs; to break up campaigns undertaken with vast expense and with confident assurance of success; to impress upon the minds of the Northern people the conviction that they must prepare for a protracted struggle, great sacrifices of life and treasure, with the possibility that all might at last be of no avail; and to accomplish this at the smallest cost to the Confederacy.

In the opinion of General Lee, Virginia presented the most favourable theatre of war for this plan of operations. He considered that there were circumstances by the judicious use of which he could impart to his army an importance and influence greatly exceeding what was due to its actual strength and numbers. He appreciated fully the importance attached by the Government of Mr. Lincoln to the safety of the Federal capital. Affecting as that Government did to treat the war as the suppression of a rebellion, its inability to defend the city of Washington might have been accepted by other nations as an admission of the superior power of the South, and have justified the recognition of the Confederacy. But even if this consequence had not followed the loss of Washington, the overthrow of an administration which had shown itself unable to defend the capital would have been swift and certain. The disappointment of the promises so often repeated, of a speedy “suppression of the rebellion” would have been overwhelming, and the party headed by Mr. Lincoln would have been driven from office by an indignant and deceived people. As the party of Mr. Lincoln had made the war, its existence depended upon success. Danger to Washington threatened the supremacy of that party, and it was certain that Mr. Lincoln would sacrifice every other consideration to its safety.

General Lee had seen how even the supposed presence of a powerful Confederate army at Manassas, thirty miles from Washington, had detained the strongest army of the United States around the capital. He had remarked with surprise how the Federal Government had neglected for months the easy means of compelling the withdrawal of General Johnston from Manassas by transporting its own army to the vicinity of Richmond, and he had been confirmed in his views of the apprehensions of that Government for the safety of their capital by the effect produced upon its powerful armies by the advance of Jackson down the Valley, when he drove Banks beyond the Potomac and caused the recall of McDowell from Fredericksburg. These results were utterly out of proportion to the Confederate force employed, and satisfied General Lee that the Government of Mr. Lincoln would provide for the safety of Washington in proportion to the political importance attached to its possession, rather than in proportion to the real danger that threatened the city.

It will be seen how the blows struck by General Lee's army upon the northern border of Virginia, and beyond the Potomac, relieved the pressure of the enemy upon the whole Atlantic Coast, paralyzed his efforts in western Virginia, and even diverted troops from the remote regions of the lower Mississippi.

But the people could not foresee all the advantages of the successful prosecution of this system of defence, and regarded with dissatisfaction a policy which seemed to expose them to certain and immediate danger. These circumstances added largely to the difficulties and embarrassments of General Lee, but they did not deter him from pursuing steadily and in spite of all opposition the plan by which alone he believed the war might be prosecuted to a successful issue.