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Chapter 28: across the Potomac and back.

  • Precedents of the first Maryland campaign
  • -- Jackson strikes Pope -- second Manassas -- why was victory not pushed? -- the people demand aggressive warfare -- over the river -- Harper's Ferry falls -- elation at the South -- rosy Prophecies -- Sharpsburg -- the river recrossed -- gloom in Richmond -- Fredericksburg and its effect on the people -- why on pursuit? -- Hooker replaces Burnside -- death of Stonewall Jackson.
    Of such vast import to the southern cause was Lee's first aggressive campaign in Maryland; so vital was its need believed to be, by the people of the South; so varied and warm was their discussion of it that it may seem proper to give that advance more detailed consideration.

    Imperfect and inadequate as such a sketch must be, to the soldier, it may still convey in some sort, the ideas of the southern people upon a momentous question.

    Coincident with the evacuation of the Peninsula by the Federals was General Lee's movement, to throw beyond the Rapidan a force sufficient to prevent Pope's passage of that river. After Cedar Mountain, Jackson had disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him up. It was believed in the North that the advance of Pope's masses had cut him off from the main army and locked him up in the Shenandoah Valley; while the South-equally ignorant of his designs and confident of their success-rested on the rumor that he had said:

    Send me more men and no orders!

    Suddenly a beacon flashed into the sky, telling in the flames from the depots at Manassas and Bristow Stations that the famous passage of Thoroughfare Gap had been made-millions of property, stores and rolling-stock given to feed the flames. Jackson was in Pope's rear!

    This Confederate corps now fronted toward the main army of Lee, and the bragging Federal found himself between the upper and nether millstones. Still he had little doubt that he could turn upon the small force of Jackson and crush it before Lee could advance to his rescue. Following this plan, and depending also upon the heavy masses Burnside was bringing down to him from Fredericksburg, Pope attacked Jackson in detail at Bristow and at Manassas, with no other effect than to be repulsed heavily in both instances. [242]

    The attack, however, warned Jackson of the enemy's purpose and of his own critical position; and, on the night of August 28th, he made a masterly flank movement that put him in possession of the old battle-field of Manassas plains; at the same time opening his communications with Lee's advance.

    In all this, General Stuart gave most efficient aid both in beating back heavy attacks of the enemy's cavalry, and in keeping Jackson advised of the course of Pope's retreat-or advance, as it might be called — from Warrenton to Manassas.

    By the 29th of August, Longstreet's corps had effected the passage of Thoroughfare Gap and united with Jackson; and on that day these corps engaged with Pope's advance in a terrific fight, lasting from midday till dark — the prelude to the great drama that was next day to deluge the field of Manassas a second time with the blood of friend and foe.

    Before daylight next morning, the cannon again woke the wearied and battle-worn ranks, sleeping on their arms on the field they had won; and sent a fresh impulse to the hearts of their brothers, toiling steadily on to join them in the great fight to come. Heavy firing and sharp skirmishing for position filled the forenoon; but then the masses of hostile infantry joined in the shock of battle, more terrible than the one of the year before. The men were more disciplined and hardened on both sides; and the Federal leaders, feeling that their only hope lay in victory now, hurled brigade after brigade against the now vindictive and battle-thirsty Confederates.

    Line after line emerges from enveloping clouds of smoke, charging the fronts that Longstreet and Jackson steadily oppose to them. Line after line melts before that inevitable hail, rolling back scattered and impotent as the spume the angry ocean throws against a granite headland!

    Broken again and again, the Federals, with desperate gallantry, hurl against the unflinching crescent that pours its ceaseless rain of fire through them; while the great guns behind its center thunder and roll

    In the very glee of war,

    sending death-winged bolts tearing and crushing through them.

    Through the carnival of death Hood has sent his Texans and Georgians at a run-their wild yells rending the dull roar of the fight; [243] their bayonets flashing in a jagged line of light like hungry teeth! Jackson has swung gradually round the enemy's right; and Stephen Lee's artillery has advanced from the center-ever tearing and crashing through the Federal ranks, scattering terror and death in its unswerving path!

    The slaughter has been terrific. Federal and Southron have fought well and long. Piles of mangled and gory dead lie so mingled that gray and blue are undistinguished. But the wild impetuosity of the “ragged rebels” --nerved by the memories of this field's old glories --toned up by the Seven Days, and delirious with the glow of present victory-sweeps the Federal back and doubles his line. It breaksfresh regiments pour in with deadly shot and fearful yell; the Federal line melts into confusion-rout! and the Second Manassas is won.

    The victory was as complete as that of the year before; an absolute rout was only saved the Federals by falling back to the reserve under Franklin, when the retreat became more orderly, as there was no pursuit.

    The solid fruits of the victory were the annihilation of all the plans of the gong-sounder, and the complete destruction of the new “Onto-Richmond;” the capture of over 7,000 prisoners-paroled on the field-and his admitted total loss of 28,000 men.

    New glories, too, shone around the names of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Hood, Kemper and Jenkins; and the efficient aid and splendid fighting of the cavalry of Stuart, Hampton and Bev Robinson, here proved that arm to have reached its point of highest efficiency.

    The heart of the South, still throbbing with triumph after the Seven Days and their bright corollary of Cedar Mountain, went up in one wild throb of joyous thanksgiving. So satisfied were the people of the sagacity of their leaders and the invincible valor of their troops; so carried away were they by the splendid reflection from the glory over Manassas plain — that this time they never even stopped to question why there had been no pursuit; why the broken enemy had not been completely crushed. All they felt was that Virginia was free from the invader. For General Loring, in the Kanawha, had driven the enemy before him and entirely cleared that portion of the state; while on this line he was hastening rapidly back to Washington to meet the expected advance of Lee toward the Capital. [244]

    Without resting his army, the latter divided it into three corps, under command of Jackson, Longstreet and A. P. Hill; and moved rapidly toward the accomplishment of that cherished hope of the southern people — an offensive campaign on the enemy's soil.

    Jackson passed with his accustomed swiftness to the occupation of the heights commanding Harper's Ferry and to the investment of that position; while the other corps moved to the river at different points, to cut off the re-enforcements the alarmed Federals might send to its rescue. Great was the alarm and intense the excitement at Washington. The sudden turn of the tables — the cold dash to hopes that the bragging of their new hero had raised to fever heat, and the transformation of the crushed rebel into an avenging invader, created equal surprise as panic. Pope summarily dropped from the pinnacle of public favor into disgrace; and McClellan was the only mainstay the Federal Government could fall back on, to check the victorious Lee.

    Meanwhile, equal excitement reigned in the Rebel Capital, but it was joyous and triumphant. The people had long panted to see the theater of blood and strife transferred to the prosperous and peaceful fields of their enemy. They had a secure feeling that when these were torn with shell and drenched with carnage; when barns were rifled and crops trampled by hostile feet, the northern people would begin to appreciate the realities of a war they had so far only seen by the roseate light of a partial press. Secure and confident in the army that was to work their oracle, the hope of the South already drew triumphant pictures of defeated armies, harassed states, and a peace dictated from the Federal Capital.

    On the 14th of September, D. H. Hill, of Longstreet's corpsstationed at Boonesboro to protect Jackson's flank — was attacked by a heavy force. Heavily outnumbered, Hill fought a dogged and obstinate battle-giving and taking terrific blows, only ceasing when night stopped the fight. It was hard to tell which side had the best of the actual fighting; but the great object was gained and the next day Harper's Ferry, with its heavy garrison and immense supply of arms, stores and munitions, was surrendered to Jackson.

    Great was the joy in Richmond when the news of the brilliant fight at Boonesboro — the first passage of arms on Maryland soiland of the capture of the great arsenal of the North reached her anxious [245] people. It was, they felt, but the presage of the great and substantial triumphs that Lee and his veterans must win. Higher rose their confidence and more secure became their calculations; and the vivid contrast between the ragged, shoeless and incongruous army of the South with the sleek, spruce garrison surrendered to them, only, heightened the zest of the victory and the anticipation of those to follow.

    But a sudden check was to come to this mid-career of anticipation, and a pall of doubt and dismay was to drape the fair form of Hope, even in her infancy.

    Two days after the fall of Harper's Ferry — on the 17th of September-Lee had massed some 35,000 men on the banks of the Antietam, near Sharpsburg — a village ten miles north-east of Harper's Ferry. McClellan, pressing him hard with an army four times his own numbers-composed in part of raw levies and hastily-massed militia, and in part of the veterans of the armies of the Potomacseemed determined on battle. Trusting in the valor and reliability of his troops, and feeling the weakness of being pressed by an enemy he might chastise, the southern chief calmly awaited the attacksend-ing couriers to hasten the advance of A. P. Hill, Walker and McLaws, whose divisions had not yet come up.

    Ushered in by a heavy attack the evening before — which was heavily repulsed-the morning of the 17th saw one of the bloodiest and most desperate fights in all the horrid records of that war. Hurling his immense masses against the rapidly dwindling Confederate line; only to see them reel back shattered and broken-McClellan strove to crush his adversary by sheer strength. No sooner would one attacking column waver, break, retreat-leaving a writhing and ghastly wake behind it-than a fresh host would hurl against the adamantine line that sunk and shriveled under the resistless fire, but never wavered. In all the fearful carnage of the war-whether resulting in gloom, like that of Corinth, or purchasing brilliant victory with precious blood-men never fought better than did that battletorn, service-worn handful that had just saved Richmond-broken the glittering, brazen vessel of destruction; and now sent its defiant yell through hostile mountains.

    All that valor and endurance could do had been done; and at mid-afternoon the battle seemed well-nigh lost. Just then the missing [246] divisions — some 12,000 men-reached the field. Wearied, unfed and footsore, they were; but the scent of battle rested and refreshed them as they went into the thickest of the fight. But even they could not save the day. Outnumbered and shattered, but unconquered still, the Confederates could not advance from the field they had held at such bitter cost. And when night stopped the aimless; carnage, each army, too crippled to renew the fight, withdrew toward its base. McClellan could not pursue; and the Confederates fell back doggedly, sullenly, and recrossed into Virginia.

    As usual in the North, a wild howl went up against McClellan. In response to this brutumfulmen, he was promptly removed by Halleck, for not conquering an army that had proved itself invincible!

    Bitter indeed was the hour that brought to Richmond the story of Sharpsburg. Flushed with hope, undoubting of triumph, her citizens; only listened for the wild cheer that would echo back from conquered Washington. But the sound that reached their ears was the menacing roar from retreating ranks that left near one-third their number stark and ghastly on that grim field, where the Death Angel has so darkly flapped his wings.

    Thus ended the first Maryland campaign.

    It had given the people their wish; it had carried the gray jackets over the border and stricken the enemy sorely on his own soil. But it had left that soil drenched with the blood of some of the bravest and best; the noble Branch and chivalric Starke had both fallen where their men lay thickest-torn and ghastly on that terrible field.

    The details of that field which the Richmond people gathered from the northern papers, deepened their gloom. And through it rose a hoarse whisper, swelling at last into angry query, why had the campaign miscarried? If the army was inadequate in numbers, why had General Lee carried it over that river he had never crossed before, when his own army was better and the enemy less prepared? And if, as stated, the men were ill-provided in munitions and transportation — as they were known to be with clothes and rations-why had Government forced its only bulwark well-nigh to annihilation?

    It mattered little, the people said, that the results had been far more disastrous to the North than to the South-both in prestige and loss. The North could far better afford it. What was the killing of a few thousand raw troops, or the destruction of a few thousand stand [247] of arms, compared to the precious cost of holding the field at Sharpsburg?

    And gradually these complaints, as in all such cases, answered themselves; and then the vials of southern wrath began to empty over the unfortunate Marylanders, who had not risen to aid their brothers in their sore need. How unjust were these charges will soon be shown.

    And so the people murmured to relieve their overfull hearts, until the calm and steady course of the general they had never doubted, quieted them once more.

    The outcry in the North resulted in the choice of General A. E. Burnside to command the new invasion; and he was of course hailed as the augur, who was surely this time to read the oracle. Watchful, calm, and steadfast, the Confederate waited, through the months of preparation, to meet the new advance-so disposing part of his force about Winchester as to prevent the favorite Valley-road Onto-Rich-mond. With a renewed, and splendidly appointed, army, Burnside moved in November toward Fredericksburg; thinking that this time he had really gotten between Lee and Richmond.

    What was his disgust to find, when he reached the Rappahannock, that the Confederate army was not all at Winchester, but was before him to dispute his crossing. After some unavailing maneuvers for position, the Federals sat down on the heights of Stafford, opposite Fredericksburg; made works at their leisure; and spread a perfect city of tents and booths over a line of some five miles. Outnumbered as he was, General Lee could do nothing but watch and wait for the crossing that must come, sooner or later; and meantime he chose his line of battle.

    Just back of Fredericksburg, stretching some two miles southward, is a semi-circular plain bordered by a range of hills. These stretch from Hamilton's crossing beyond Mayre's Hill on the left; and are covered with dense oak growth and a straggling fringe of pines. On these hills, Lee massed his artillery, to sweep the whole plain where the enemy must form, after his crossing; and arranged his line of battle with A. P. Hill holding the right and Longstreet the left. On the night of December 10th, Stafford Heights opened a furious bombardment of the town, tearing great gaps through the thickest populated quarters.

    Into the bitter winter night tender women and young children were [248] driven, shivering with fright and cold, half clad; seeking safety from the screaming shells that chased them everywhere. Under this bombardment, the pioneers commenced their pontoons at three points. The storm of grape and canister was too great to contest the landing, which was effected next day.

    As the heavy fog that had obscured the sun cleared away, the regular lines of the Federals advanced to the attack, raked and torn by batteries. Broken, they were formed again, only to be mowed down afresh; while the scream of a thousand shells from Stafford filled the air with a continuous whoo, amid which the rattle of southern musketry sang ever fiercer and swifter. Then dark masses of blue came out of the town and formed for the charge, under a terrific fire from the Washington Artillery on Mayre's Hill. Steadily and fearlessly did Meagher's First Brigade move to the attack. Crowded into the narrow road, swept by the accurate fire of the Louisianians and McLaws' veterans — the head of the column went down, only to be filled by the gallant fellows behind. Into the jaws of death they came, up to the very works-then, with half their number dead and dying about their feet, they broke, the left gave way-and the bloody field was won at all points. The victory was terrible and complete.

    But it had cost dear, and the rejoicing in Richmond was tempered with sorrow for the loss of such as Maxcy Gregg, Cobb, and many others, lying cold upon the field of victory.

    And with the first feeling of triumph the news brought, came the thought that this time surely the enemy would be pushed-this time he was indeed a prey! Broken and demoralized, with a deep river in his rear that he must cross in pontoons, the people felt that he could surely be destroyed before reaching his Stafford stronghold. But once again, as ever, the shattered and broken legions of Burnside were allowed two days to recover from their demoralization; to pass at leisure, over the trap behind them.

    Great was the amaze, bitter the disappointment of the people; and the inquiry how and why this had been done, became universal. But the southern people above every other feeling had now come to cherish a perfect and unquestioning faith in General Lee; and even while they wondered at a policy that invariably left a beaten enemy to recover, and only become stronger-still they questioned with a firm reliance that there must be some reason, invisible to them but good and potent still. [249]

    There were no active operations immediately succeeding Fredericksburg. Picket fighting; cavalry skirmishes, severe but fruitless; and temporary raids of the enemy to devastate the country around the rear of their army, and to penetrate into that beyond their lines, occupying the winter and early spring. But there was full leisure for the people to look upon the ugliest features of the war. Fredericksburg was a ruin, riddled with shot and shell, tenanted only by the poorest classes. Her once cheerful and elegant population were ruined and starving refugees in Richmond; the smiling tracts stretching back to the Potomac were one broad, houseless waste-browned by fire, and cut with the winding wagon-roads of the enemy. Constant incursions of his cavalry — for “raiding” had now become a feature of the war-harassed the people, everywhere removed from the immediate army lines. These slaughtered and drove off their cattle, stole and consumed their supplies, burned their barns, and destroyed their farming utensils !-a refinement of barbarity to noncom-batants, never before practiced by a civilized race.

    Then, too, the news from the West, heretofore sketched, reacted on Richmond; and the gloom in the Capital grew deep and universal. Burnside had, meantime, been dismissed in disgrace for his shameful failure. The inevitable howl had again gone up in the North; then the inevitable result had come. Joseph Hooker was now the coming man — the war-gong was sounded more loudly than ever; the army was re-enforced to greater size than ever; and so equipped that its general proclaimed it the “finest army on the planet.” Agog with preparation, and stuffed full with promises of certain success this time, the North forgot the many slips between its lips and the coveted cup of triumph, and waited in secure impatience for the moment when the roads would permit Hooker to advance.

    And the South waited, too — not hopefully, nor with the buoyant anticipation of the past, but still with a confidence in its cause and its defenders nowise diminished; with even more fixed determination never to yield, while there were muskets left and hands to grasp them.

    At last the movement came. Late in April, Hooker divided his immense army into two columns, one menacing right crossing below Fredericksburg, to hold the troops at that point; the other crossing above, to flank and pass to their rear, combining with the other wing and cutting communication with Richmond. Taking command [250] in person of his right wing-while the left was confided to General Slocum-Hooker rapidly crossed the river, concentrating not less than 60,000 men on the Chancellorsville road, eleven miles above Fredericksburg. Grasping the situation at once, Lee ordered the small force there back to Mine Run, until re-enforced; and then, on the 2d of May, Stonewall Jackson completed that wonderful and painful circuit of the enemy-so brilliant in conception, so successful in result. Late in the afternoon he reached their extreme right and rear, secure and unsuspecting. Never stopping to rest, the Eldest Son of War hurled himself like a thunderbolt on the confident and intrenched enemy — scattering the eleventh corps (Sigel's) like chaff, and hurling them, broken and demoralized, upon their supports. The very key of the enemy's campaign was driven out; and the “one hour more of daylight!” the hero-general prayed for-or the merciful sparing of his priceless life by the God of Battleswould have shown complete defeat, even annihilation, of Hooker's right.

    But it was not so written in the Book of Life! A wise dispensation, whose object we may see, removed the best and greatest soldier of the war-sorely stricken by the hands of his own devoted men, in the darkness; the routed enemy was given, by this unequaled misfortune, and by fast falling night, opportunity for partial reorganization.

    Hooker's right was turned and doubled upon his center; but he was still strong in numbers, and had the advantage of position and heavy works, abatis and rifle-pits.

    Next morning General Lee assaulted in force, all along the line; and after heavy and bloody fighting, drove him from his position at all points. Sedgwick, however, had crossed the river at Fredericksburg, driving the Confederates from the town and carrying Mayre's Hill by assault. This acted as a check to Lee, who was forced to detach McLaws' division to drive Sedgwick back from his own rear. This he successfully accomplished, and-Anderson reaching McLaws just in time — on the 4th of May, the last of the series of the battles of the Rappahannock resulted in complete defeat of Sedgwick.

    Still, Hooker was permitted to withdraw his army across the river; but the campaign of the week had been successful in utterly breaking his plans and clearly defeating him in every engagement.

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