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Chapter37: last days in Tennessee.

It would be difficult to find a country more inviting in agriculture and horticulture than East Tennessee, and its mineral resources are as interesting, but for those whose mission was strategic, its geographical and topographical features were more striking. Our position at Bull's Gap was covered by a spur of the mountains which shoots out from the south side of the Holston River towards the north bend of the Nolachucky, opening gaps that could be improved by the pick and shovel until the line became unassailable. In a few days our line was strong enough, and we looked for the enemy to come and try our metal, until we learned that he was as badly crippled of the cavalry arm as we. General Martin was ordered with his division to General Johnston in Georgia, and Colonel Gary with his legion was ordered to South Carolina to be mounted for cavalry service.

The armies under General Lee in Virginia and General Johnston in Georgia were in defensive positions, with little prospect of striking by their right or left flanks in search of a way to break their bounds, and the army in East Tennessee had been called back to the defensive for want of cavalry, but the latter still covered gate-ways through the mountains that offered routes to Kentucky for strategic [543] manoeuvres. The Trans-Mississippi Department was an open field of vast opportunities, but was lying fallow.

An officer of the Union service had worked his way during three years of severe field service from obscure position with a regiment, to command of armies, and had borne his banners in triumph through battle and siege, over the prejudice of higher officers, until President Lincoln's good judgment told him that Grant was the man for the times. Congress provided the place, and the President sent his commission as lieutenant-general to the United States Senate, where it was promptly confirmed, and the lieutenant-general was presently assigned as commander over half a million of men, to the surprise of many, more than all to the bureau general-in-chief. He was soon at work arranging his combination for the campaign of the coming year. He was a West Point boy, and we had been together during three years of academic service, then two years in the United States Fourth Regiment of Infantry, and later in Worth's division in Mexico.

Forced to extremities, the Richmond authorities began to realize the importance of finding a way out of our pentup borders before the Union commander could complete his extensive arrangements to press on with his columns. They called upon General Lee, General Johnston, and myself for plans or suggestions that could anticipate the movements of the enemy, disconcert his plans, and move him to new combinations. In front of General Lee and on his right and left the country had been so often foraged by both Union and Confederate armies that it was denuded of supplies. Besides, a forced advance of Lee's army could only put the enemy back a few miles to his works about Washington. General Johnston's opportunities were no better, and in addition to other difficulties, he was working under the avowed displeasure of the authorities, more trying than his trouble with the enemy. [544]

I was under the impression that we could collect an army of twenty thousand men in South Carolina by stripping our forts and positions of all men not essential for defence; that that army could be quietly moved north by rail through Greenville to the borders of North Carolina, and promptly marched by Abingdon, Virginia, through the mountain passes, while my command covered the move by its position in East Tennessee. That army passing the mountains, my command could drop off by the left to its rear and follow into Kentucky,--the whole to march against the enemy's only line of railway from Louisville, and force him to loose his hold against General Johnston's front, and give the latter opportunity to advance his army and call all of his troops in Alabama and Mississippi to like advance, the grand junction of all of the columns to be made on or near the Ohio River,--General Beauregard to command the leading column, with orders not to make or accept battle until the grand junction was made. That General Johnston should have like orders against battle until he became satisfied of fruitful issues. The supplies and transportation for Beauregard to be collected at the head of the railroad, in advance of the movement of troops, under the ostensible purpose of hauling for my command. The arrangements perfected, the commander of the leading column to put his troops on the rail at or near Charleston and march with them as they arrived at the head of the road.

With this proposition I went to Virginia and submitted it to General Lee. He approved, and asked me to take it to the Richmond authorities. I objected that the mere fact of its coming from me would be enough to cause its rejection, and asked, if he approved, that he would take it and submit it as his own. He took me with him to Richmond, but went alone next morning to see the President. He met, besides the President, the Secretary of War and General Bragg. Conference was held during the forenoon, [545] but was not conclusive. In the afternoon he called me with him for further deliberation.

At the opening of the afternoon council it appeared that General Bragg had offered a plan for early spring campaign, and that it had received the approval of the President,--viz.:

General Johnston to march his army through the mountains of Georgia and East Tennessee to the head-waters of Little Tennessee River; my command to march through the mountains east of Knoxville to join General Johnston. The commands united, to march west, cross the river into Middle Tennessee, and march for the enemy's line of supplies about Nashville.

When asked an opinion of this, I inquired as to General Johnston's attitude towards it, and was told that he objected; that he thought the sparsely-settled country of the mountains through which he would move could not supply his army; that he would consume all that he could haul before turning westward for the middle country, and would be forced to active foraging from his first step between the two armies of the enemy.

General Lee inquired if General Johnston had maturely considered the matter. I thought that he had, and that the objections of the officer who was to conduct the campaign were, of themselves, reasons for overruling it; but its advocates were not ready to accept a summary disposal of their plans, and it began to transpire that the President had serious objections to General Beauregard as a commander for the field.

But General Lee called us back to business by asking if there was anything more to be added than General Johnston's objections. I called attention to General Bragg's official account of the battle of Chickamauga, in which he reported that a similar move had been proposed for him through Middle Tennessee towards the enemy's line of communication at Nashville early on [546] the morning after the battle; that he rejected it, reported it “visionary” ; said that it would leave his rear open to the enemy, and alluded to the country through which the march was proposed as “affording no subsistence to men or animals.” This at harvest season, too! the enemy demoralized by the late battle, and the Confederates in the vigor of success! Now, after a winter of foraging by the Union armies, the country could not be so plethoric of supplies as to support us, while an active army was on each flank, better prepared to dispute our march.

General Lee wore his beard full, but neatly trimmed. He pulled at it nervously, and more vigorously as time and silence grew, until at last his suppressed emotion was conquered. The profound quiet of a minute or more seemed an hour. When he spoke, it was of other matters, but the air was troubled by his efforts to surrender hopeful anticipations to the caprice of empirics. He rose to take leave of the august presence, gave his hand to the President, and bowed himself out of the council chamber. His assistant went through the same forms, and no one approached the door to offer parting courtesy.

I had seen the general under severe trial before, especially on his Pennsylvania campaign when he found the cavalry under General Imboden had halted for rest at Hancock, at the opening of an aggressive movement. My similar experience with the President in the all-day talk, on Missionary Ridge, six months before, had better prepared me for the ordeal, and I drew some comfort from the reflection that others had their trials. General Lee took the next train for his army on the Rapidan, and I that by the direct route to my command by the Southside Railway.

When ordered from Virginia in September my wife remained in Petersburg with her good friend Mrs. Dunn. On the 20th of October following a son was born, and christened Robert Lee. After continuous field service [547] since the 1st of July, 1861, I thought to avail myself of the privilege as department commander to take a two days leave of absence to see the precious woman and her infant boy. While there it occurred to me to write to the President, and try to soften the asperities of the Richmond council; also to find a way to overcome the objections to General Beauregard. I suggested, too, that General Lee be sent to join us, and have command in Kentucky. In reply the President sent a rebuke of my delay.

On my return to Headquarters at Greenville the other division of General Johnston's cavalry was ordered to him through the mountains. Just then a severe snow-storm came upon us and blocked all roads. Meanwhile, the enemy had mended his ways, secured munitions, and thought to march out from Mossy Creek as far as Morristown. Orders were given for a march to meet him, but we found ourselves in need of forage, so we rested in position, and presently learned that the enemy had retired towards his works.

Our reduced cavalry force made necessary a change of position behind the Holston River, where a small force could at least observe our flanks, and give notice of threatenings on either side.

A letter from the President under date of the 25th ordered that we be prepared to march to meet General Johnston for the campaign through Middle Tennessee. He was informed that we were ready, only needing supplies for the march and his orders; that I had cared for the bridges in that direction, so that there was no reason with us for delay.

On the 7th of April I was ordered, with the part of my command that had originally served with the Army of Northern Virginia, back to service with General Lee on the Rapidan. The move was made as soon as cars could be had to haul the troops, halting under orders at Charlottesville to meet a grand flanking move then [548] anticipated. On the 22d we were ordered down as far as Mechanicsville, five miles west of Gordonsville, watching there for a lesser flank move. On the 29th, General Lee came out and reviewed the command.

Referring to the general officers who had been put under charges while in East Tennessee, General Robertson had been sentenced to suspension, and an excellent officer, General Gregg, had been sent to report, and was assigned to the Texas brigade. In the case of General McLaws, the court-martial ordered official reprimand, but the President disapproved the proceedings, passing reprimand upon the court and the commanding general, and ordered the officer to be restored to duty, which was very gratifying to me, who could have taken several reprimands to relieve a personal friend of embarrassing position. General McLaws was a classmate, and had been a warm personal friend from childhood. I had no desire to put charges against him, and should have failed to do so even under the directions of the authorities. I am happy to say that our personal relations are as close and interesting as they have ever been, and that his heart was big enough to separate official duties and personal relations.

Charges had been preferred against Brigadier-General E. M. Law for surreptitiously disposing of an official communication to the War Department that had been intrusted to his care, in which was enclosed his pretended resignation from the Confederate army. The President refused to entertain the charges, and ordered the officer released from arrest and restored to his command.

Of the paper that was improperly disposed of, General Cooper, adjutant and inspector-general of the army, reported,--

The resignation within referred to never came to the office. It appears from inquiry at the War Department that it was presented by a friend of General Law, unofficially, to the Secretary [549] of War, and never came through the regular channels as an official paper.1

General Lee wrote to the Department of the charges,--

I examined the charges against General Law and find them of a very grave character. I think it due to General Law, as well as to the interest of the service, that they should be investigated and his innocence or guilt should be declared by a court-martial. There have been instances of officers obtaining indulgences on not true grounds, which I think discreditable and prejudicial to military discipline, and should be stopped. 2

The indorsement of General Cooper shows that the paper was fraudulently handled. The letter of General Lee shows the offence a high crime and misdemeanor.

General Lee wrote to inform me that the authorities at Richmond had ordered General Law to be restored to duty with his command. The limit of endurance had thus been reached and passed. I ordered the rearrest of General Law upon his appearance within the limits of the command. To hold me at the head of the command while encouraging mutinous conduct in its ranks was beyond all laws and customs of war, and I wrote General Lee that my orders were out to have General Law again put under arrest, and that the case should be brought before a military tribunal, or I must be relieved of duty in the Confederate States service. The authorities then thought to find their way by transferring me to another command, but on that point General Lee became impatient, and inclined to serious thought and action. The commander of the army was involved as well as the commander of the First Corps, and both or neither must be relieved. The authorities halted, and that was the last that I heard of General Law until his newspaper articles began to appear, years after the surrender.

The following vote of thanks given by the Congress at [550] this juncture affords a remarkable commentary upon the conduct of the authorities, as well as constituting a compliment most heartily appreciated by the recipients:

Thanks of the Confederate Congress to Lieutenant-General James Longstreet and his command.3
no. 42. joint resolutions of thanks to Lieutenant-General Longstreet and the officers and men of his command.

Resolved by the Congress of the Confederate States of America, That the thanks of Congress are due, and hereby cordially tendered, to Lieutenant-General James Longstreet and the officers and men of his command, for their patriotic services and brilliant achievements in the present war, sharing as they have the arduous fatigues and privations of many campaigns in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Tennessee, and participating in nearly every great battle fought in those States, the commanding general ever displaying great ability, skill, and prudence in command, and the officers and men the most heroic bravery, fortitude, and energy, in every duty they have been called upon to perform.

Resolved, That the President be requested to transmit a copy of the foregoing resolution to Lieutenant-General Longstreet for publication to his command.

Approved February 17, 1864.

1 Rebellion Record.

2 Ibid.

3 rebellion Record, vol. XXXI. part i. P. 549.

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