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Chapter 24: preparing for the spring of 1863.

Before we were fully settled in our winter quarters, and when just beginning to enjoy our camp theatricals, we heard that General Burnside was looking for another crossing by the lower Rappahannock. We were not greatly concerned about that, however, as we thought the quicksands along the flats, made especially protective by the winter rains, would so delay his march as to allow us ample time to prepare for him. But the Washington authorities having received reports of it through some of the superior officers of the Army of the Potomac, the march was arrested by orders of the War Department.

Another move was set on foot a few weeks later, at a time when General Lee happened to be in Richmond. The information was forwarded to him and the army ordered under arms, prepared to take the field. A few weeks before, General Burnside had ordered material to be hauled to the point below, which he had chosen when preparing for his crossing that had been arrested by the War Department. When we found that his army was in motion, General Jackson insisted that the crossing would be made [323] below, and proposed to march his corps down to meet it. He was told that the neck of land between the Potomac and the Rappahannock was so interlaced with wet-weather streams and ravines that the route leading below was not practicable at that season; that the quicksands on the flats of the west side were formidable obstacles to the march of an army; that the only possible route for crossing the river was by the fords of the highlands, and that he must hold his troops ready to move accordingly. He was not satisfied with the refusal to accept his construction of the enemy's purpose, and demurred against authority less than General Lee's, but found that the order must be obeyed.

Not many hours after the report came, the noise of the army working through the mud was distinctly heard by my picket guards along the upper river. Some of the guards called out derisively, offering help to get the batteries through the mud if they could only be assured that the army would cross. The bottomless roads and severe weather broke up the campaign, and the move back to camp was reported to me before the Confederates marched from their camps. This effort, called by Burnside's soldiers “The mud march,” was followed by the assignment of General Hooker to command of the Army of the Potomac.

Long and close study of the field from the Potomac to the James River, and the experiences of former campaigns, made it clear that the Army.of the Potomac had been drawn into a false position, and it became manifest that there were but two moves left open for its spring campaign,--first, by crossing the upper fords of the Rappahannock; secondly, by detaching forces to the south side of the James, and by that route moving against Richmond.

To guard against the former I laid out lines for fieldworks and rifle-pits covering all approaches by the upper [324] fords as far as the road leading from United States Ford. From that point the line broke to the rear, crossing the Plank road and extending back half a mile to command the road from Chancellorsville to Spottsylvania Court-House. When the lines for these works were well marked, I was ordered, with the divisions of Hood and Pickett and Dearing's and Henry's artillery battalions, to the south side near Petersburg, to be in position to meet the latter move, leaving the divisions of McLaws and R. H. Anderson to finish the work on the lines of defence.

After passing to the south side of James River, assigning the troops to points of observation near Blackwater River, and establishing Headquarters at Petersburg, I learned that there was a goodly supply of produce along the east coast of Virginia and North Carolina, inside the military lines of the Federal forces. To collect and transport this to accessible points for the Confederates, it was necessary to advance our divisions so as to cover the country, and to hold the Federal forces in and about their fortified positions while our trains were at work. To that end I moved with the troops in Virginia across the Blackwater to close lines about the forts around Suffolk, and ordered the troops along our line in North Carolina to a like advance. The movements were executed without serious trouble, and the work was prosecuted up to the time of my recall by General Lee.

While lying near Suffolk a couple of young men dressed as citizens entered my tent one night with letters from Secretary of War Seddon, recommending them as trustworthy and efficient scouts. They were sent off through the swamp to find their way to Norfolk and southward to report of roads or routes for our troops in case we should wish to make a detour for the capture of Suffolk. One of them, Harrison, proved to be an active, intelligent, enterprising scout, and was retained in service.

The accounts that we gained indicated that Suffolk [325] could be turned and captured with little loss, but as we had given it up the year before as untenable, and were liable to be called upon at any moment to give it up again, it appeared that the “cost of the whistle” would be too high.

The only occurrence of serious moment while we had our forces about Suffolk was the loss of Captain Stribling's battery, which had been inadvertently posted by the officer in charge of the artillery on a neck running out into a bend of the Nansemond River. The Federal gun-boats, seeing the opportunity, came into the river and took positions commanding the ground in rear of the battery so as to sweep the field against all succoring parties, while a direct attack was made upon the battery, resulting in its capture.

About this time the soldiers on both sides had considerable amusement over a Federal signal station that was inside our lines as we had laid them. The Union troops had some time previously trimmed up a tall pine-tree and built near the top a platform for use as a signal station, and, coming upon this, to gratify his curiosity a Confederate soldier climbed to the staging and seated himself for a leisurely view of the Federal forces inside their works. An artillerist of the other side, after allowing sufficient time to satisfy a reasonable curiosity, trained one of his rifle guns upon the platform, and sent a shell screaming and bursting too near for the comfort of the “man up a tree.” As he did not care to be seen in precipitate retreat, he thought to wait a little, but a second shot admonished him that hurry, if less graceful, might be more wise than deliberate retreat. Acting under pressure of the situation, his legs, to the amusement of the men on both sides, soon brought him to safe cover. When night closed in over the belligerents this soldier went to work on a scheme by which he hoped to get even with the Yankees. He carefully constructed and equipped a full-sized man, [326] dressed in a new suit of improved “butternut” 1 dry-goods, and, in due form christening him “Julius Caesar,” took him to the platform, adjusted him to graceful position, and made him secure to the framework by strong cords. A little after sunrise “Julius Caesar” was discovered by some of the Federal battery officers, who prepared for the target,--so inviting to skilful practice. The new soldier sat under the hot fire with irritating indifference until the Confederates, not able to restrain their hilarity, exposed the joke by calling for “three cheers for Julius Caesar.” The other side quickly recognized the situation, and good-naturedly added to ours their cheers for the old hero.

About the 28th day of April the Army of the Potomac, under General Hooker, took up its march for the fords of the upper Rappahannock to cross against General Lee at Fredericksburg. At the same time General Grant crossed the Mississippi below Vicksburg, marched against General Pemberton's army in Mississippi, and was driving it back upon its fortifications about Vicksburg.

When General Hooker's movements were so developed as to make sure of his purpose, repeated calls came to me over the wires to pull away from Suffolk and return to General Lee with all speed. These came from General Lee, and also from the Richmond authorities. In reply I despatched that our trains were at the front along the coast collecting supplies; that they would be hurried to our rear, and as soon as safe we would march. The calls became so frequent and urgent, however, that I inquired if we should abandon our trains. To this no answer came; and I was left to the exercise of my own judgment.

As soon as the trains were safely back, we drew off, marched back to the Blackwater, and thence en route for [327] Richmond and Fredericksburg. Before we reached the former place a telegram came announcing the great battle and victory of Chancellorsville.

Passing through Richmond, I called to report to Secretary of War Seddon, who referred to affairs in Mississippi, stating that the department was trying to collect an army at Jackson, under General Joseph E. Johnston, sufficient to push Grant away from his circling lines about Vicksburg. He spoke of the difficulty of feeding as well as collecting an army of that magnitude in Mississippi, and asked my views.

The Union army under General Rosecrans was then facing the Confederate army under General Bragg in Tennessee, at Murfreesboroa and Shelbyville.

I thought that General Grant had better facilities for collecting supplies and reinforcements on his new lines, and suggested that the only prospect of relieving Vicksburg that occurred to me was to send General Johnston and his troops about Jackson to reinforce General Bragg's army; at the same time the two divisions of my command, then marching to join General Lee, to the same point; that the commands moving on converging lines could have rapid transit and be thrown in overwhelming numbers on Rosecrans before he could have help, break up his army, and march for Cincinnati and the Ohio River; that Grant's was the only army that could be drawn to meet this move, and that the move must, therefore, relieve Vicksburg.

It was manifest before the war was accepted that the only way to equalize the contest was by skilful use of our interior lines, and this was so impressed by two years experience that it seemed time to force it upon the Richmond authorities. But foreign intervention was the ruling idea with the President, and he preferred that as the easiest solution of all problems.

The only objection offered by the Secretary was that [328] Grant was such an obstinate fellow that he could only be induced to quit Vicksburg by terribly hard knocks.

On the contrary, I claimed that he was a soldier, and would obey the calls of his government, but was not lightly to be driven from his purpose.

My march was continued, and we joined General Lee at Fredericksburg, where I found him in sadness, notwithstanding that he was contemplating his great achievement and brilliant victory of Chancellorsville, for he had met with great loss as well as great gains. The battle had cost heavily of his army, but his grief was over the severe wounding of his great lieutenant, General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, the head of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia; cut off, too, at a moment so much needed to finish his work in the battle so handsomely begun. With a brave heart, however, General Lee was getting his ranks together, and putting them in condition for other useful work.

At the time of the battle of Chancellorsville the Army of the Potomac, according to its return of a few days before, consisted of officers and men actually available for line of battle, 113,838, with 404 pieces of artillery.2 The return of casualties showed the enormous loss of 17,287. Returns of the Army of Northern Virginia for March, 1863, showed an effective aggregate of 59,681 ;3 batteries in action, about 160 guns. To this may possibly be added one thousand of troops returning during April in time for the battle. The casualties reported by the medical director numbered 10,281, but reports of the commanders showed over 12,000, not including artillery or cavalry, or slightly wounded and missing, which would probably add another thousand.

Chancellorsville is usually accepted as General Lee's most brilliant achievement, and, considered as an independent [329] affair, it was certainly grand. As I had no part in its active conduct, it is only apropos to this writing to consider the plan of battle as projected some four months previous,--i.e., to stand behind our intrenched lines and await the return of my troops from Suffolk.

Under that plan General Lee would have had time to strengthen and improve his trenches, while Hooker was intrenching at Chancellorsville. He could have held his army solid behind his lines, where his men would have done more work on the unfinished lines in a day than in months of idle camp life.

General Hooker had split his army in two, and was virtually in the condition which President Lincoln afterwards so graphically described in his letter addressed to him June 5 following,--viz.:

I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or to kick the other.

My impression was, and is, that General Lee, standing under his trenches, would have been stronger against Hooker than he was in December against Burnside, and that he would have grown stronger every hour of delay, while Hooker would have grown weaker in morale and in confidence of his plan and the confidence of his troops. He had interior lines for defence, while his adversary was divided by two crossings of the river, which made Lee's sixty thousand for defence about equal to the one hundred and thirteen thousand under General Hooker. By the time that the divisions of Pickett and Hood could have joined General Lee, General Hooker would have found that he must march to attack or make a retreat without battle. It seems probable that under the original plan the battle would have given fruits worthy of a general engagement. The Confederates would then have had [330] opportunity, and have been in condition to so follow Hooker as to have compelled his retirement to Washington, and that advantage might have drawn Grant from Vicksburg; whereas General Lee was actually so crippled by his victory that he was a full month restoring his army to condition to take the field. In defensive warfare he was perfect. When the hunt was up, his combativeness was overruling.

It was probably a mistake to draw McLaws away from his position at Marye's Hill, where he and Ransom had successfully held against six or seven severe attacks of the Burnside battle, with three brigades, two of his own and one of Ransom's. General Early was assigned to that position with five brigades. He was attacked by about one-fourth the number of McLaws's assailants, the position was carried, and Early was driven off in confusion, losing, besides large numbers as prisoners, many pieces of artillery. His especial assignment was to defend the Plank road against the enemy's march to attack General Lee's rear. Instead, he retreated by the Telegraph road, leaving the Plank road free for the enemy. After driving Early off, the enemy marched by the Plank road, and Early marched back to his late position at Marye's Hill. So General Lee was obliged to take McLaws and Anderson from his battle at Chancellorsville to drive back the force threatening his rear.

The battle as pitched and as an independent affair was brilliant, and if the war was for glory could be called successful, but, besides putting the cause upon the hazard of a die, it was crippling in resources and of future progress, while the wait of a few days would have given time for concentration and opportunities against Hooker more effective than we experienced with Burnside at Fredericksburg. This was one of the occasions where success was not a just criterion.

After reporting to General Lee, I offered the [331] suggestions made to Secretary Seddon, in regard to the means that should be adopted for the relief of Vicksburg. I thought that honor, interest, duty, and humanity called us to that service, and asked the aid of his counsels with the War Department, and reinforcements from his army for the West, to that end. I suggested that General Johnston, instead of trying to collect an army against General Grant, should be sent to reinforce General Bragg, then standing against the Union forces under General Rosecrans in Middle Tennessee; that at the same time he should send my divisions, just up from Suffolk, to join Johnston's reinforcements to Bragg's army; that the combination once made should strike immediately in overwhelming force upon Rosecrans, and march for the Ohio River and Cincinnati.

He recognized the suggestion as of good combination, and giving strong assurance of success, but he was averse to having a part of his army so far beyond his reach. He reflected over the matter one or two days, and then fell upon the plan of invading the Northern soil, and so threatening Washington as to bring about the same hoped — for result. To that end he bent his energies.

His plan or wishes announced, it became useless and improper to offer suggestions leading to a different course. All that I could ask was that the policy of the campaign should be one of defensive tactics; that we should work so as to force the enemy to attack us, in such good position as we might find in his own country, so well adapted to that purpose,--which might assure us of a grand triumph. To this he readily assented as an important and material adjunct to his general plan. His confidence in making moves threatening Washington and the invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania grew out of the known anxiety of the Washington authorities as to the safety of their capital and of quiet within the Union lines.

In the midst of his work of preparation came the [332] announcement that General Jackson's trouble had taken an unfortunate turn, that he was thought to be sinking, and not many hours after that the news came that he had gone to rest. But the full realization of all that this meant was delayed until, at the railroad station, the train that was to bear his remains to their final resting-place started upon its sad journey. Then officers and soldiers gathered to do last honors to their dead comrade and chieftain seemed suddenly to realize that they were to see “StonewallJackson no more forever, and fully to measure the great misfortune that had come upon them. And as we turned away, we seemed to face a future bereft of much of its hopefulness.

General Jackson's death suggested to General Lee a reorganization of his army into three corps, and R. S. Ewell and A. P. Hill, appointed lieutenant-generals, were assigned to the Second and Third respectively.

As the senior major-general of the army, and by reason of distinguished services and ability, General Ewell was entitled to the command of the Second Corps, but there were other major-generals of rank next below Ewell whose services were such as to give them claims next after Ewell's, so that when they found themselves neglected there was no little discontent, and the fact that both the new lieutenant-generals were Virginians made the trouble more grievous.4 Afterwards, when Early, noted as the weakest general officer of the Army of Northern Virginia, was appointed lieutenant-general over those who held higher rank than he, there was a more serious feeling of “too much Virginia.” Longstreet and Jackson had been assigned by General Johnston.

In our anxious hours and hopeful anticipations the little [333] quarrel was soon lost sight of,--displaced by affairs of greater moment. Reaction began to show the effect of General Lee's strong hand and hard work. Hope and confidence impaired by the failure of the Maryland campaign were restored, and we prepared to abandon all uncomfortable thoughts with the graves of our fallen comrades.

As soon as affairs took such shape as to assure me that the advance northward was inevitable, I sent a requisition down to Richmond for gold coin for my scout Harrison, gave him what he thought he would need to get along in Washington, and sent him off with secret orders, telling him that I did not care to see him till he could bring information of importance,--that he should be the judge of that. He wanted to know where he would find us, and was told that the Headquarters of the First Corps were large enough for any intelligent man to find. With these orders he left us, and after about three weeks was arrested in Pennsylvania and brought under guard to my headquarters.

1 The Confederate dry-goods factories, for want of other dye-stuffs, had long before this resorted to the use of the butternut coloring.

2 Rebellion Record, vol. XXV. part II. p. 320.

3 Ibid., p. 696.

4 General D. H. Hill was next in rank to General Ewell. He was the hero of Bethel, Seven Pines, South Mountain, and the hardest fighter at Sharpsburg. His record was as good as that of “StonewallJackson, but, not being a Virginian, he was not so well advertised.

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