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Chapter 13:

  • Review of military conditions, Spring of 1862.

In the spring of 1862 the Federal and Confederate armies in northeastern Virginia held nearly the same relative positions as in the early autumn of 1861. The former had, February 7th, again occupied the line of the South branch of the Potomac, which Jackson, by order, had abandoned, and Gen. Edward Johnson, after his victory of December 1 3, 1861, on Alleghany mountain, had fallen back to Shenandoah mountain; but the Confederate army of Northern Virginia still had its center, in command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, on the field of its victory at Manassas, while its right rested at Fredericksburg, in command of General Holmes, and Jackson held its left in the lower Shenandoah valley. Practically its pickets patroled the Potomac from Chesapeake bay up to within the mountains. Not satisfied with a condition of military affairs that still held north of the Potomac the great army—on its rolls, March 1, 1862, 222,000 men—that McClellan had, during more than half a year, been collecting and organizing, President Lincoln ordered that an advance of the whole army of the Potomac, except such a force as was necessary to defend Washington, should be made, on or before the 22d of February, to drive back the opposing Confederates and press on to the capture of Richmond.

This movement was actually begun. Banks marched from Frederick City, Md., toward Harper's Ferry, to attack and drive back Jackson. McClellan advanced his great army, from the intrenched camps around Washington, to attack Johnston at Centreville and Manassas, but when, after floundering through the spring mud of midland Virginia, he reached his objective, he found that Johnston, his able and wily opponent, had anticipated his coming, and, abandoning his intrenched camps and advanced positions at Leesburg and elsewhere, along and near the Potomac, had put his forces behind the Rappahannock. Jackson, preferring fighting to retreating, [209] skirmished with Banks' advance, offering him battle in front of Winchester, but when that was not accepted, reluctantly evacuating that historic town. Sending all his stores up the valley, he fell back to Strasburg, conforming his movements to those of Johnston, but, in the person of Ashby, his famous cavalry leader, constantly punishing every advance of his timid pursuer.

Reaching the conclusion that he had started on the wrong road to Richmond, McClellan, on the 13th of March, called his corps commanders together, at Fairfax Court House, and proposed another plan of advance on Richmond, which they joined in recommending to President Lincoln and which he reluctantly accepted. The commanding general proposed to move a grand and splendidly-appointed army of 120,000 men, by water, from Alexandria down the Potomac and the bay to Fortress Monroe, at the end of the peninsula of Virginia, and from that base of operation and supplies, to march up the peninsula between the James and the York, flanked by a strong naval force on each of these great tidal rivers, by the nearest roads, to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy as well as of Virginia. The defenses of Washington were to be held by some 18,000 men; some 7,000 were to occupy Manassas, that the railway thence to Strasburg might be reopened, and 35,000 were to help Banks look after Jackson in the Valley. The force that had followed Gen. Ed Johnson as he fell back from Alleghany mountain, and that in the South branch of the Potomac valley were soon to be combined, and thus 16,000 men placed in command of Fremont, in the Mountain department, to menace Jackson's left flank and rear, while the 8,000 under Cox, on the Kanawha line, as well as some Pennsylvania reserves, were ordered to Manassas. A grand total of more than 200,000 troops, of all arms, saying nothing of the large supporting naval force, thus began converging on Richmond from a great bordering sweep that extended northeastward along the mountain ranges that border the valley to the Potomac, then down that great tidal river to Chesapeake bay, Virginia's Mediterranean, and thence to the entrance of the grand harbor of Hampton Roads, the gateway to the mouth of the James, a great circle distance of fully 400 miles.

The shipment of McClellan's army from Washington to his new field of operations, began on the 17th of [210] March, and on the 21st of that month, Gen. J. B. Magruder, in command of the Confederate front on the peninsula, reported the landing of large bodies of troops at Fortress Monroe, and asked for 30,000 men to meet the threatening invasion.

The sight of the departure of this great army alarmed Lincoln concerning the safety of the capital, and induced him to modify McClellan's plan of campaign by ordering, April 3d, that McDowell's corps should remain in front of Washington. On the 17th of May he was directed to advance to Fredericksburg, but keeping himself in position so he could be readily recalled to Washington, if necessary, to aid in its defense. McClellan objected to this arrangement, but was compelled to submit to it. McDowell appeared in front of the staunch old city on the Rappahannock near the close of May, when the Confederates, under General Holmes, fell back toward Richmond. Lincoln visited McDowell's camp, on the Stafford heights, May 23d, and it was then decided that McDowell should cross the Rappahannock on the 26th and march toward Richmond.

Fortunately for Virginia and the Confederacy, on the very day that McClellan was conferring at Fairfax Court House concerning a change of base and of plan of campaign, Gen. Robert E. Lee took command, under President Davis, of all the forces of the Confederacy, and, with characteristic energy and foresight, at once began preparations to meet the various oncoming Federal armies that were responding to the ‘on to Richmond’ demand of the North.

To meet the several Federal columns converging from the great outer circle, along which they had been gathering during the preceding eight months, the prospect for Lee, although he held the inner circle and the shorter lines of defense, was by no means reassuring, even to such a stout-hearted and self-reliant commander as himself. Huger, on his extreme right, held Norfolk with some 7,000 men, guarded in front by the ram Virginia, already famous for her 8th of March exploits and great naval victory in Hampton Roads; across Hampton Roads, Magruder was holding the peninsula, before Fortress Monroe and Hampton, with 11,000 men; Holmes held the Rappahannock, at Fredericksburg, with a brigade of 2,000; Johnston held the line of the upper Rappahannock [211] with about 47,000 men that had fallen back from Manassas; Stonewall Jackson safeguarded the lower Shenandoah valley with some 5,000 in his command; while on the extreme left of the sweep of Lee's line of defense, Edward Johnson held the Fort Johnson pass of the Shenandoah mountain, on the Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, with some 3,500 men, the heroes of the Alleghany mountain battle. Lee's whole muster was only about 75,000 to meet the converging invasion of 200,000 or more fully armed and equipped soldiery.

Aware of the gigantic preparations that had been made for this impending campaign by both the contending nations, for such they undoubtedly were at that time, and of the mighty issues involved, not only all the people of the then United States and those of the then Confederate States, but those of all the living historic nations, paused and anxiously awaited the result of the mighty conflict that in the next half year would rage over nearly one-half of the territory of Virginia and an important portion of Maryland, and give to Fame's keeping and to History's records, names and deeds the world will not soon forget.

To the general observer, the result of this grand game of war was in the hands of McClellan, who, for an insignificant victory in the mountains of western Virginia, over a smaller and badly-generaled force, had been, for months, heralded as the ‘Young Napoleon.’ He had at his command, counting sea power as well as land power, three times as many men as his antagonist, and behind him, in his nation's reserve, at least five times as many men of military age, saying nothing of the thousands of Europe's ‘soldiers of fortune’ who were, for a consideration, ready to add, indefinitely, to his numbers. His people were the most ingenious, energetic and resourceful of any in the world, and could furnish an almost unlimited quantity of supplies, of every kind, that could be called for by the emergencies of war. His government, centralized by the war spirit and backed up by a great and determined nation, had apparently but to command victory in the impending contest, with the odds so much in its favor, to win it. Unfortunately for its cause, its commanding general, while a grand organizer, an able planner of campaigns, and the idol of the great army that he, mainly, had created, was a timid leader, and in [212] the hour of conflict ‘took counsel of his fears’—counselors that never make a successful soldier. These, as the sequence of events revealed, constantly in imagination, doubled the number of his foes and helped the success of their strategic movements. McClellan's plan of campaign was to hold back Lee's widely-scattered forces by the armies of observation that his numbers permitted him to place before Johnson, Jackson, Johnston and Holmes, while he landed his great army for active invasion on the peninsula, and, brushing aside Magruder, and Huger, pushed rapidly forward to capture Richmond before Lee could there concentrate men enough to successfully impede his progress to victory. With the sea power at hand to supply the wants of his army, there were abundant reasons why he should succeed.

Lee, the acknowledged first soldier of the old Federal army, who had been tendered by Lincoln and urged to accept the command of the Union army the very day before he resigned his commission and offered his services to Virginia, his native State and that of his ancestors, had a most serious and difficult problem to solve, when, on the memorable 13th of March, before referred to, he assumed command of the Confederate armies in the field and ‘sat down to count the cost’ of the imminent conflict that, in Virginia, he must at once become the leader of on the Confederate side. He knew then, or soon thereafter, as he always did, the numbers and intentions of his adversary; he also knew, as few men of the South did, or realized, the great disparity of the contending nations in men and in resources. The soldiers at his command were, comparatively, few in numbers; they were also widely scattered; some a hundred miles or more, as the crow flies, to the southeast from his headquarters at Richmond; others 175 miles to the northwest, and others from 75 to 100 miles to the north and northeast, and with but limited means of transportation at his call should he desire to concentrate them. More than this, he knew that in a few days the period of the enlistment of most of these men, which had been but for a year, would expire, and no man could tell what they would do now that the stern experiences of war, in camp and field, had dulled the edge of their patriotic fervor. Even if nearly all re-enlisted, he realized that they were poorly clad, badly equipped, ill fed, and, to all human appearances, even leaving out the [213] question of numbers, in no condition to meet the splendidly equipped and supplied army they must soon meet and contend with. But there entered into Lee's calculations factors and forces that are mightier than armies and navies and more potent than resources. Fully satisfied of the righteousness of his intentions and of the cause which he had unhesitatingly espoused and was defending; knowing no line of action but that which duty pointed out, and with a sublime faith that never distrusted an overruling Providence, and therefore ‘never took counsel of its fears,’ he prayerfully and courageously grappled with the situation and prudently prepared for the impending conflict, satisfied and confident that with the army of Northern Virginia, every man of which not only loved but trusted in him, he would be the winner.

Apprised by McClellan's movements of his intentions, Lee increased and strengthened the defenses of Richmond and guarded the water approach to that threatened city by obstructing the ship channel of the James and planting intrenched batteries on Drewry's bluff; at the same time he recalled all but Ewell's division of Johnston's army from the line of the upper Rappahannock, and with these reinforced Magruder on the peninsula, who had already nearly completed a strong line of defense, from the James to the York, in front of Williamsburg and Yorktown, to bar McClellan's way to Richmond.

Having thus outlined the locations and dispositions of the combatants in the fields of action, the narrative now proceeds to follow the fortunes of the five Federal armies —which the compelling genius of Jackson soon made but two—that at the opening of the Virginia campaign of 1862, near the last of March, were co-operating for the capture of Richmond, and those of the opposing Confederate forces. Stonewall Jackson was first in the field of actual combat, and so his famous Valley campaign is the first chapter of the story. [214]

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