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Chapter 22: waiting for the ordeal by combat.

  • The North Prepares a New “on to Richmond.”
  • -- Joe Johnston's strategy -- from Manassas to Richmond -- Magruder's lively tactics -- the defenders come -- scenes of the March through -- a young veteran -- public feeling -- Williamsburg's echo -- the army of specters -- ready! -- Drewry's Bluff -- the Geese fly South -- stern resolve!
    If any good fruits were to grow from the conscription, the seed had not been planted a moment too soon.

    The whole power of the Union was now to be exerted against the South; and the Washington idea plainly was to lay the ax at the very root of the rebellion.

    Desultory movement had already begun in the Valley and along the river; but it masked in nowise plain indication of the massing of troops for another, and a greater, “On to Richmond!”

    The separate corps of Banks, Fremont and Shields were hovering about the flanks of the devoted Army of Manassas; and the decisive blow was evidently to be aimed at that point. But the clear-sighted and cool-headed tactician at the head of the bulwark of Virginia saw far beyond the blundering war-chess of his antagonist. He prepared to checkmate McClellan's whole combination; and suddenly-after weeks of quiet preparation, of which the country knew no more than the enemy-Manassas was evacuated!

    To effect this movement, it was necessary to abandon all the heavy river batteries, guarding the Potomac, at immense loss in guns and material; and to destroy large quantities of commissary stores, for which there was no transportation. But, “Joe Johnston” held the movement to be necessary; and, by this time the South had learned to accept that what he thought must be correct. The great disparity in numbers, and the evident purpose of the Federals to make Richmond the focal point of attack, spoke plainly to that perfect soldier the necessity-coute que coute-of bringing his army within easy striking distance of the Capital.

    Stonewall Jackson — with Ewell's and Early's divisions of less than ten thousand men of all arms — was detached to watch the enemy and the retrograde movement was completed so successfully that McClellan never suspected the evacuation. Two days later, his [190] grand array-“an army with banners,” bands braying anti new arms glinting in the sun-moved down to the attack; and then, doubtless to his infinite digust, he found only the smoking and deserted debris of the Confederate camp. The army he had hoped to annihilate was on its steady and orderly march for Richmond.

    Immediately, the baffled Federal embarked his entire force and landed it on the Peninsula-formed by the junction of the York and James rivers — in front of Magruder's fortifications. Failing at the front door, McClellan again read Caesar, and essayed the back entrance.

    Magruder's line of defense — a long one, reaching entirely across the Federal advance — was held by a nominal force, not exceeding 7,500 effective men. Had this fact been known to its commander, the “grand army” might easily have swept this handful before it and marched, unopposed, into the Southern Capital. But “Prince John” was a wily and bold soldier; and, while he sent to the rear most urgent statements of his dire need and pressed the government for re-enforcement, he kept his front covered by ceaseless vigilance, constant shifting of his thinned battalions and continued active advance skirmishing. So effective was this as entirely to deceive the enemy. McClellan sat down before him and began to fortify!

    Amid the anxiety of that moment and the rapid rush of grave events that followed immediately upon it, the great importance of Magruder's tactics on the Peninsula has largely been lost sight of. That they were simply not to be overestimated, it is tardy justice to state. For, there were scores of occasions in those grim four years, when the cant went out-“We might have ended the war right here!” It was ever coupled with-and nullified by — a large and sonorous “if;” but there is no question but that-had Magruder permitted the tactician in his front to estimate his weakness — the “Seven days fights” would never have been won, for Richmond would have been lost!

    It were impossible to describe accurately the state of public feeling, which now prevailed in the Southern Capital. Absolutely in the dark as to the actual movement and its consequences; knowing only that their cherished stronghold, Manassas, was deserted and its splendid system of river batteries left a spoil; hearing only the [191] gloomiest echoes from the Peninsular advance and ignorant of Johnston's plans-or even of his whereabouts — it was but natural that a gloomy sense of insecurity should have settled down upon the masses, as a pall. A dread oppressed them that the recent dramas of Nashville and New Orleans were to be re-enacted on their own central theater; and, ever barometric, the people let the mercury dr9p to zero, as they read the indications in one another's faces. Social pleasures lately so frequent-social intercourse almost — were now known no more. The music one heard was the quick tap of the timing drum; the only step thought of, the double quick to the front.

    But gradually, the army that had been manoeuvering about the Rappahannock began to arrive; and day and night the endless stream of muddy men poured down Main street, in steady tramp for the Peninsula. Grim and bronzed they were, those veterans of Manassas; smeared with the clay of their camp, unwashed, unkempt, unfed; many ragged and some shoeless. But they tramped through Richmond-after their forced march — with cheery aspect that put to flight the doubts and fears of her people. Their bearing electrified the citizens; and for the moment, the rosy clouds of hope again floated above the horizon.

    Even the scanty ration the soldiers had become inured to had been reduced by necessities of their rapid march; and that knowledge caused every corps that passed through to receive substantial tokens of the sympathy and good will of the townspeople. Ladies and children thronged the sidewalks, pressing on their defenders everything which the scanty Confederate larder could supply; while, from many of the houses, gloves, socks and comforters rained down upon the worst clad of the companies.

    Johnny Reb” was ever a cheerful animal, with a general spice of sardonic humor. Thus refreshed, inwardly and outwardly, the men would march down the street; answering the waving handkerchiefs at every window with wild cheers, swelling sometimes into the indescribable “rebel yell!” Nor did they spare any amount of good-natured chaff to those luckless stay-at-homes encountered on the streets.

    “Come out'r that black coat! I see yer in it!” --“I know ye're a conscript ‘. Don't yer want ’ er go for a sojer?” --“Yere's yer chance ter git yer substertoot!” --and like shouts, leveled at the head of some [192] unlucky wight, constantly brought roars of laughter from the soldiers and from his not sympathetic friends. Passing one house, a pale, boyish-looking youth was noted at a window with a lady. Both waved handkerchiefs energetically; and the men answered with a yell. But the opportunity was too good to lose.

    “ Come right along, sonny! The lady'll spare yer! Here's a little muskit fur ye‘!”

    “All right, boys!” cheerily responded the youth, rising from his seat-“Have you got a leg for me, too?” And Colonel F. stuck the shortest of stumps on the window-sill.

    With one impulse the battalion halted; faced to the window, and spontaneously came to “Present!” as the ringing rebel yell rattled the windows of that block. The chord had been touched that the roughest soldier ever felt!

    Then came the calm; when the last straggler had marched through to the front and Johnston's junction with Magruder was accomplished. The rosy clouds faded into gray again; and, though the fluttering pulse of Richmond beat a little more steadily, it was not entirely normal. Rumors came from Yorktown of suffering and discontent. Coupled with exaggerations of the really overwhelming force the enemy had massed before it, they proved anything but encouraging. Still, there was no hopelessness; and the preparations, that had by this time become a matter of certaintystretchers-bandages-lint and coarse, narrow sheets-went steadily on.

    The brave women of the city were a constant reproach, in their quiet, unmurmuring industry, to the not infrequently faint-hearted and despondent men. Constantly they worked on, and tried to look cheerfully on the future by the light of the past. No one among them but knew that real and serious danger threatened; no one among them but believed that it would be met as it had been met before-boldly without doubt; triumphantly if God willed!

    No need for Virginia's sons to read of the Gracchi, with a thousand Cornelias working cheerily and faithfully on the hard, tough fabrics for them. One day an order came for thirty thousand sandbags. Never before did needles fly so fast, for who could tell but what that very bag might stand between death and a heart dearer far than aught else on earth. Thirty hours after the order came, the women of Richmond had sent the bags to Yorktown! [193]

    At length, after three weeks of trying suspense, filled with every fantastic shape of doubt and dread, came news of the evacuation of Norfolk, the destruction of the iron-clad “Virginia,” and of the retreat from the Peninsula. Not appreciating the strategical reasons for these movements, Richmond lost her temporary quiet and again fell to lamenting the dark prospects for the city.

    On the 4th of May, the last of the Confederate forces evacuated Yorktown; reluctantly turning their backs on the enemy, to take up the line of march for Richmond.

    Next day McClellan's advance pressed on; and overtaking their rear, under Longstreet, began heavy skirmishing to harass it, near Williamsburg. Seeing the necessity of checking too vigorous pursuit, and of teaching the Federals a lesson, Longstreet made a stand; and, after a severe conflict — in which he inflicted much heavier loss than he sustained, besides capturing several field pieces and colors-again took up his march unmolested.

    The battle of Williamsburg was the one brilliant episode of that gloomy retreat. Although the main army could not be checked to give him re-enforcement, and his wounded had to be left in the hands of the enemy, Longstreet had gained a decided and effective success. But this one misfortune for the moment dimmed the luster of his achievement in the eyes of the Richmond people; and, perhaps, prevented much of the good effect its decisive character might otherwise have had.

    The appearance of the army, after the retreat from Williamsburg, did not tend to cheer the inexpert. First came squads of convalescent sick, barely able to march, who had been sent ahead to save the ambulances for those worse than they. It was a black Sunday afternoon, when those wan and hollow-eyed men limped painfully through the streets on their weary way to Camp Winder Hospital. Weak-mud-encrusted and utterly emaciated-many of them fell by the roadside; while others thankfully accepted the rough transportation of any chance wagon, or cart, that could carry them to the rest they yearned for.

    But willing and energetic workers were at hand. Orders were obtained; and carriages returning from church, hotel omnibuses-every wheeled thing upon the streets were impressed for the service of mercy. By late afternoon the wards of Winder Hospital were overflowing; [194] but negligent, or overworked, commissaries had neglected to provide food, and many of the men — in their exhausted condition --were reported dying of starvation! Few women in Richmond dined that Sabbath. Whole neighborhoods brought their untasted dinners to the chief worker among them; and carriages and cartsloaded with baskets and hampers and bearing a precious freight of loving womanhood-wended their way to the hospital. By night hundreds of poor fellows had eaten such food as they had not dreamed of for months; gentle hands had smoothed their pillows and proffered needed stimulants; and sympathizing voices had bid them be of good cheer, for to-morrow would dawn bright for all.

    But were these worn and wretched men a fair sample of the army that was to battle for their dear city against the fresh thousands of McClellan? Oh, God! Had toil and privation done its work so thoroughly; and were these the proud array that had marched to Manassas — the hardened, but gallant host that had gone gaily to Yorktown? Were these the only dependence of their hopes and their cause?

    Sad and troubled were the hearts that beat that day, around the wretched cots of the sufferers. But never a hand trembled-never a voice faltered, as those grand women wrought on at their mission of mercy.

    After these came a few stragglers and camp followers in hardly better plight; then the wagon trains; and, finally, the army.

    The roads were in wretched condition. Spring rains and constant use had churned them into liquid red mud. Hungry and worn, the men struggled through it day after day-bearing their all on their backs, unable to halt for cooking; and frequently stopped to labor on a broken-down battery, or a mired wagon. Discipline naturally relaxed. It was impossible to keep the weary and half-starved men to regular routine. They straggled into Richmond muddy-dispirited --exhausted; and, throwing themselves on cellar doors and sidewalks, slept heavily, regardless of curious starers that collected around every group.

    Never had the Southern army appeared half so demoralized; half so unfit to cope with the triumphant and well-appointed brigades pressing close upon it. Had McClellan been at hand, there is little doubt as to what the result would have been; but a few days sufficed to change the appearance of the whole army fabric. [195]

    Renewed discipline — that magnetic “touch of the elbow” atten-tion to the commissariat and the healthy location of their new camping grounds brought the men back to good condition in a time wonderfully short to the lookers — on in the city.

    But they were to have little rest. McClellan advanced to the Chickahominy and strongly fortified his position. Johnston fronted him; and though too weak to attack at this moment, it became apparent that the first move in the game for the great stake must be made in a few days. And it was equally plain that it was to be made under the loving eyes of those all fought best for; within hearing of the Cabinet itself!

    The details of the campaign of this eventful summer are too well known-and have been too minutely and eloquently described, even were there space — for me to attempt their repetition here.

    For a week the armies faced each other, plainly in sight; the shrill notes of “Dixie” mingling with the brazen strains from the Federal bands; and yet no movement was made. Once more Riclmond assumed her old activity and became a vast camp. Busy looking officers hastened from point to point; regiments shifting position passed through town every hour; mounted orderlies dashed in all directions and batteries, wagon trains and ambulances rumbled in and out of town by every road. The reflection of the activity around them, and the improved condition of the army — in physique and morale-inspired the people; and they once more began to feel hopeful, if not overconfident.

    Still the river was undefended. There was no fort. Only a few water batteries-out of which the men could easily be shelled-and a few useless wooden gunboats protected the water approach to the Capital. Up this the heavy fleet of Federal iron-clads was even now carefully sounding its way. Every means had been taken to wake the Government to the necessity of obstructing the river; but either carelessness, or the confusion consequent on the retreat, had rendered them unavailing. Now at the last moment, every nerve was strained to block the river and to mount a few guns on Drewry's Bluff — a promontory eighty feet high, overhanging a narrow channel some nine miles below the city.

    On the 15th of May, the iron-clads approached the still unfinished obstructions. There was just time to sink the “Jamestown” --one [196] of the wooden shells that had done such good work under the gallant Barney —— in the gap; to send her crew and those of the “Virginia” and “Patrick Henry” to man the three guns mounted on the hill above-when the iron-clads opened fire.

    Their cannonade was terrific. It cut through the trees and landed the missiles a mile inland. The roar of the heavy guns, pent and echoed between the high banks, was like continuous thunder, lit by lurid flashes as they belched out 13-inch Shrapnel and scattered ounce balls like hail among the steadfast gunners on the bluff.

    But the terrible plunging fire of Captain Farrand's sea-dogs damaged the plating of the armored vessels and kept the wooden ones out of range; while the galling sharp-shooting of Taylor Wood's men, on the banks below, cleared their decks and silenced their guns. Once more the wager of battle was decided for the South; and the ironclads retired badly damaged.

    This result was most cheering; but, unlike the early success of the war, it was received with a solemn, wordless thankfulness. Then, when the imminent danger was passed, the Government went rapidly to work to improve the obstruction and strengthen the battery at Drewry's Bluff. This became a permanent fort, admirably planned and armed with navy guns, worked by the seamen of the disused vessels. The Federals stuck to the name they first gave it-Fort Darling--for no reason, perhaps, but because of the tender reminiscences clinging around it.

    Then came another season of stillness on the Chickahominy lines, which General McClellan improved to protect his rear communications; and to throw up strong embrasured fortifications along his whole front-indicating his intention to sit down before the city in regular siege; or to fight behind his works.

    Meantime, the course of the Government would have inspired anything but confidence, had not the people placed the deepest and most abiding faith in the mettle and truth of their soldiers.

    Congress, after weak and more than useless debates on the propriety of the step, precipitately adjourned and ran away from the threatened danger. These wise legislators had read history. They felt that the cackling which saved Rome was but one of the miracles of that philosophic Muse who teaches by experience: and that — as they could not save their city — they had better save themselves. [197]

    The Departments were packed in case of necessity for flight; and some of the archives were even put on board canal boats and towed beyond the city. This may have been only a just precaution; but the citizens of Richmond-looking upon its defense as the key to all further resistance-saw in it only acceptance of the worst results; and, when the families of the principal officials and officers fled from the Capital and sought safer homes in North Carolina and Georgia, her people would not accept as the real reason the averred necessity for saving the very small amount of provision they consumed.

    But the Legislature of Virginia and the City Council of Richmond met and resolved that they were willing to stand any loss of property and life-even the destruction of the city-before giving it up to the enemy. They waited upon the President and so explained to him. Mr. Davis solemnly announced his resolution to defend the position while a man remained; and to cast his fate with that of a people who could act so bravely.

    Still, so doubtful was the issue of the contest held by the lukewarm, or cowardly, few that they hesitated not to express their belief that the war was done; and they stored in secret places quantities of tobacco to be used as currency when the invaders came in!

    When the dies irae really came; and burning Richmond sent similarly hidden store,

    With the smoke of its ashes to poison the gale-

    little was the sympathy borne on the breeze for them, who-living early enough-had shamed the money-changers scourged from the Temple!

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