Four Years With General Lee
General Lee retained in Richmond as Adviser to President Davis.—Disaster to the Confederate Forces under General Garnett.—General Lee sent to Northwest Virginia.—Lamentable Condition of Affairs in that Department.
AFTER the transfer of the Virginia forces to the Confederate States, and there being then no suitable command in the field to which General Lee could be assigned, he was retained in Richmond by the President to give the benefit of his counsel and advice in all the important measures involved in the stupendous undertaking of suddenly transforming an agricultural people into a nation of soldiers, prepared for immediate war. During the month of July, 1861, in obedience to the orders of Mr. Davis, he made a personal examination of the troops and defenses around Norfolk, and also paid a visit of inspection to the Army of the Potomac (C.S.A.). At this period the President became very anxious concerning the condition of affairs in the western portion of Virginia. In the northwest the Confederate forces under Brigadier-General Robert's. Garnett (who, when relieved as adjutant-general of the Army of Virginia, had been appointed brigadier-general in the Confederate army, and assigned to the command of the troops in this section) had suffered defeat, and the brave Garnett himself, while endeavoring to rally his troops at Carricksford, had received a mortal wound. Brigadier-General W. W. Loring had been assigned as his successor in the command of this department, and having collected the scattered remnants of Garnett's little army, together with such reinforcements as the Government had been able to send to his relief, had taken position at Valley Mountain. In the southwest Brigadier-Generals Floyd and Wise were operating under great disadvantages; each having an independent command, and neither being disposed to act a part subordinate to the other. It was impossible, under such circumstances, to secure harmonious action or any united and spirited effort to resist the enemy. There was an evident and imperative need in this quarter for the personal presence of some one who could both restore confidence to the troops and compel the respect and subordination of commanders. General Lee, of all men the most fit for this duty, was also the most available. A battle, however, appeared imminent at this juncture between the two armies facing each other in the neighborhood of Manassas: it was a critical time, and the President suspended the execution of his designs as to Western Virginia until that crisis was passed; but immediately after the first battle of Manassas General Lee was dispatched to the scene of operations in that department to reconcile the differences between Brigadier-Generals Floyd and Wise, and to aid Brigadier-General Loring in the reorganization and recruiting of the shattered forces of Garnett, so that, with the aid of the reinforcements sent, the army there collected might be put in such condition as to prevent any aggressive movement of the enemy, and, if circumstances justified it, to take the offensive. Accompanied by two aides-de-camp Colonel John A. Washington and myself—he proceeded by rail to Staunton, and thence on horseback to Valley Mountain. Upon his arrival there he established himself near the headquarters of General Loring, with whom he maintained regular and constant communication. He never assumed immediate personal command of the army, although it was understood that Brigadier-General Loring was subject to his orders.
It is useless to attempt to recount all the difficulties this little army encountered in that most impracticable, inhospitable, and dismal country; only those who participated in that campaign can ever properly estimate the disadvantages under which commanders and troops operated. The season was a most unfavorable one: for weeks it rained daily and in torrents; the condition of the roads was frightful; they were barely passable. It was very seriously debated whether the army could be fed where it was, and it was feared that it would have to retire to some point nearer the railroad. Time and time again could be seen double teams of horses struggling with six or eight barrels of flour, and the axle of the wagon scraping and leveling the road-bed; in other words, the wagons were hub-deep in mud, and could only be moved step by step, and then with the greatest difficulty. At the same time, and doubtless as a result of the excessive rains, the troops were sorely afflicted with measles and a malignant type of fever, which prostrated hundreds of each command; and, being entirely destitute of proper food and other supplies indispensable to the successful treatment of disease, it is not to be wondered at that medical skill failed to arrest the terrible scourge.
In the subsequent campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia the troops were subjected to great privations and to many very severe trials—in hunger often; their nakedness scarcely concealed; strength at times almost exhausted—but never did I experience the same heart-sinking emotions as when contemplating the wan faces and the emaciated forms of those hungry, sickly, shivering men of the army at Valley Mountain! I well recall the fact that a regiment of North Carolina volunteers, under Colonel Lee, that reported with one thousand effective men, was in a very short time reduced to one-third of its original strength, without ever having been under fire. Though not to the same extent, the other commands were all seriously reduced by disease; and it is no exaggeration to say that one-half of the army was ineffective. Moreover, although some of our best and bravest men were from that section, there was great disaffection among that portion of the people who had not responded to the call of the State for troops. Spies lurked around every hill; our weakness, our embarrassments, and our every movement, were promptly reported to the enemy. With some honorable exceptions, there was an utter absence of sympathy on the part of the inhabitants who had remained at home, and, to all intents and purposes, we were in an enemy's country. In the language of another who witnessed this deplorable hostility: “Northwestern Virginia has brought grief and shame to the State and to the South by her woful defection; but by none is that felt more keenly than by those sons of that section who have left their homes, and in many instances their wives and little ones, to battle for the right. They hear jeers and sneers thrown out, even at themselves, and endure them with apparent patience, but with an inward resolve to testify on the battle-field their fidelity to their country's cause.”
How little was this lamentable condition of affairs in that department then appreciated by the public mind!
From the reputation which General Lee enjoyed, even at that date, much was expected of him when he took the field. The difficulties of his situation were not properly estimated, and the press and people of Virginia became, at first, impatient, then indignant, because the Federal army that had defeated the Confederate forces under Garnett and Pegram was not immediately assailed by him and driven out of the State.
To those who realized the situation it was an occasion of pain and mortification to learn from the journals of the day, that occasionally reached them, of the general dissatisfaction that found expression in scathing editorials, abounding in sneers and abuse, and which was both unjust to those charged with the conduct of military operations in that impracticable region, and well calculated to dishearten the men under their command, whose trials were already of no ordinary character.
No one felt this public judgment so keenly as did General Lee; and yet, on one occasion, when his attention had been directed to a fierce newspaper attack, as unjust in its conclusions as it was untrue in its statements, and he was asked why he silently suffered such unwarranted aspersions, he calmly replied that, while it was very hard to bear, it was perhaps quite natural that such hasty conclusions should be announced, and that it was better not to attempt a justification or defense, but to go steadily on in the discharge of duty to the best of our ability, leaving all else to the calmer judgment of the future and to a kind Providence.
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