previous next

Chapter 9: Robert E. Lee in command.

  • The great general's assignment not at first assuring to the army
  • -- able as an engineer but limited as to field service -- he makes the acquaintance of his lieutenants -- calls a council -- gains confidence by saying nothing-“a little humor now and then” -- Lee plans a simultaneous attack on McClellan's front and rear -- J. E. B. Stuart's daring reconnoissance around the Union army.

The assignment of General Lee to command the army of Northern Virginia was far from reconciling the troops to the loss of our beloved chief, Joseph E. Johnston, with whom the army had been closely connected since its earliest active life. All hearts had learned to lean upon him with confidence, and to love him dearly. General Lee's experience in active field work was limited to his West Virginia campaign against General Rosecrans, which was not successful. His services on our coast defences were known as able, and those who knew him in Mexico as one of the principal engineers of General Scott's column, marching for the capture of the capital of that great republic, knew that as military engineer he was especially distinguished; but officers of the line are not apt to look to the staff in choosing leaders of soldiers, either in tactics or strategy. There were, therefore, some misgivings as to the power and skill for field service of the new commander. The change was accepted, however, as a happy relief from the existing halting policy of the late temporary commander.

During the first week of his authority he called his general officers to meet him on the Nine Miles road for a general talk. This novelty was not reassuring, as experience had told that secrecy in war was an essential element of success; that public discussion and secrecy were incompatible. [113] As he disclosed nothing, those of serious thought became hopeful, and followed his wise example. The brigadiers talked freely, but only of the parts of the line occupied by their brigades; and the meeting finally took a playful turn. General Toombs's brigade was before some formidable works under construction by General Franklin. He suggested an elevation a few hundred yards in his rear, as a better defensive line and more comfortable position for his men; a very good military point. This seemed strange in General Toombs, however, as he was known to have frequent talks with his troops, complaining of West Point men holding the army from battle, digging and throwing up lines of sand instead of showing lines of battle, where all could have fair fight.

Referring to his suggestion to retire and construct a new line, General D. H. Hill, who behind the austere presence of a major-general had a fund of dry humor, said,--

I think it may be better to advance General Toombs' s brigade, till he can bring Franklin's working parties under the fire of his short-range arms, so that the working parties may be broken up.

General Whiting, who was apprehensive of bayous and parallels, complained of sickness in his command, and asked a change of position from the unfair Fair Oaks. Though of brilliant, highly cultivated mind, the dark side of the picture was always more imposing with him. Several of the major-generals failed to join us till the conference was about to disperse. All rode back to their camps little wiser than when they went, except that they found General Lee's object was to learn of the temper of those of his officers whom he did not know, and of the condition and tone among their troops. He ordered his engineers over the line occupied by the army, to rearrange its defensive construction, and to put working parties on all points needing reinforcing. Whiting's division was [114] broken up. Three of the brigades were ordered to A. P. Hill's division. He was permitted to choose two brigades that were to constitute his own command. Besides his own, he selected Hood's brigade. With these two he was ordered by way of Lynchburg to report to General Jackson, in the Valley district.

General Lee was seen almost daily riding over his lines, making suggestions to working parties and encouraging their efforts to put sand-banks between their persons and the enemy's batteries, and they were beginning to appreciate the value of such adjuncts. Above all, they soon began to look eagerly for his daily rides, his pleasing yet commanding presence, and the energy he displayed in speeding their labors.

The day after the conference on the Nine Miles road, availing myself of General Lee's invitation to free interchange of ideas, I rode over to his Headquarters, and renewed my suggestion of a move against General McClellan's right flank, which rested behind Beaver Dam Creek. The strength of the position was explained, and mention made that, in consequence of that strong ground, a move somewhat similar, ordered by General Johnston for the 28th of May, was abandoned. At the same time he was assured that a march of an hour could turn the head of the creek and dislodge the force behind it. He received me pleasantly and gave a patient hearing to the suggestions, without indicating approval or disapproval. A few days after he wrote General Jackson: 1

Headquarters, Near Richmond, Va., June 11, 1862.
Brigadier-General Thomas J. Jackson, Commanding Valley District:
Your recent successes have been the cause of the liveliest joy in this army as well as in the country. The admiration excited by your skill and boldness has been constantly [115] mingled with solicitude for your situation. The practicability of reinforcing you has been the subject of earnest consideration. It has been determined to do so at the expense of weakening this army. Brigadier-General Lawton, with six regiments from Georgia, is on the way to you, and Brigadier-General Whiting, with eight veteran regiments, leaves here to-day. The object is to enable you to crush the forces opposed to you. Leave your enfeebled troops to watch the country and guard the passes covered by your cavalry and artillery, and with your main body, including Ewell's division and Lawton's and Whiting's commands, move rapidly to Ashland by rail or otherwise, as you may find most advantageous, and sweep down between the Chickahominy and Pamunkey, cutting up the enemy's communications, etc., while this army attacks General McClellan in front. He will thus, I think, be forced to come out of his intrenchments, where he is strongly posted on the Chickahominy, and apparently preparing to move by gradual approaches on Richmond. Keep me advised of your movements, and, if practicable, precede your troops, that we may confer and arrange for simultaneous attack.

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.

The brigades under Generals Lawton and Whiting were transported as above ordered.

As indicated in his letter to General Jackson, General Lee's plan was a simultaneous attack on General McClellan's army front and rear. Following his instructions for General Jackson, on the same day he ordered his cavalry, under General Stuart, upon a forced reconnoissance around General McClellan's army to learn if the ground behind his army was open.

These plans and the promptness with which they were conceived and put in operation ought to be a sufficient refutation of the silly report that the Confederacy had any idea of withdrawing from their capital,--a report which, notwithstanding its unreasonable nature, was given a degree of credence in some quarters.2 [116]

Upon nearing Richmond, after leaving Yorktown, General Johnston's first thought had been to stand on the table-lands between the Pamunkey and the Chickahominy Rivers, on the flank of McClellan's march for Richmond, and force him into battle. He selected ground with that view and posted his army, where it remained some eight days, giving general and engineer officers opportunity to ride over and learn the topographical features of the surroundings. A prominent point was Beaver Dam Creek, which was so noted by the officers. When Johnston proposed to recross the Chickahominy and make battle on the 28th of May, in anticipation of McDowell's approach, the strong ground at Beaver Dam Creek again came under discussion and was common talk between the generals, so that the position and its approaches became a familiar subject. Then Stuart's famous ride had correlative relation to the same, and drew us to careful study of the grounds.

For the execution of his orders General Stuart took twelve hundred cavalry and a section of Stuart's horse artillery. The command was composed of parts of the First, Fourth, and Ninth Virginia Cavalry. The Fourth,

Fayetteville, Ark., February 4, 1879.
General James Longstreet: My Dear General,--
I never heard of the proposed abandonment of Richmond at the time General Lee took command. I had charge of one of the four divisions with which the retreat from Yorktown was effected, and was called several times into General Lee's most important councils. I never heard any officer suggest such a course in these councils or in private conversations.

I feel sure that General Johnston always intended to fight the invading force, and so far as I know no officer of rank entertained any other view.

I remember very well that some days before the council on the Nine Miles road (when yourself, A. P. Hill, and myself were present) that you suggested the plan of attacking McClellan's right flank, and that I expressed my preference for an attack on the other flank. This shows that there was no thought of retreat.

Very truly yours, D. H. Hill.

[117] having no field officer on duty with it, was distributed for the expedition between the First, Colonel Fitzhugh Lee, and the Ninth, Colonel W. H. F. Lee commanding; also two squadrons of the Jeff Davis Legion, Lieutenant-Colonel W. T. Martin commanding. The section of artillery was under First Lieutenant James Breathed.

On the night of the 12th of June he gathered his squadrons beyond the Chickahominy, and the next day marched by the road west of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad towards Louisa Court-House, to produce the impression, should the march be discovered, that he was going to join General Jackson. After a march of fifteen miles, he bivouacked in the pine forests of Hanover, near the South Anna Bridge, without light or sound of bugle, and, throwing aside the cares of the day and thoughts of the morrow, sunk to repose such as the soldier knows how to enjoy. An hour before daylight he was up in readiness to move as soon as the first light of morning revealed the line of march. Up to that moment no one of the expedition, except the commander, knew the direction or the purpose of the march. He called his principal officers about him and told of the object of the ride, and impressed the necessity for secrecy, prompt and intelligent attention to orders. At the mute signal the twelve hundred men swung into their saddles and took the road leading to the right and rear of McClellan's army. At Hanover Court-House a small force of the enemy's cavalry was discovered, but they retired towards their camp, out of the line of Stuart's ride. At Hawes's Shop a picket was driven off and several vedettes captured. They proved to be of the Fifth United States Cavalry, General Lee's old regiment. Between Hawes's Shop and Old Church the advance-guard, well to the front, reported the presence of the enemy, apparently in some force. The column pressed forward, expecting a fierce encounter of Southern volunteers with United States [118] regulars, but the latter was a single troop and retreated beyond Totopotomy Creek to Old Church, where there was a camp of four companies of the Fifth Cavalry under Captain Royal, which made a brave stand. Captain Latane led the first squadron, and Captain Royal received the first shock, and furiously the combat went on, both leaders falling, Latane dead and Royal severely wounded. The enemy fled and scattered through the woods. A number of prisoners were taken, including several officers, and there were captured horses, arms, equipments, and four guidons. In the enemy's camp, near Old Church, several officers and privates were captured, a number of horses and arms taken, and the stores and tents were burned. Here it became a question whether to attempt to return by way of Hanover Court-House or to press on and try to make a circuit around the entire army, and take the chance of fording or swimming the Chickahominy beyond the enemy's extreme left. Stuart decided that the bolder ride “was the quintessence of prudence.” 3 Arriving opposite Garlick's, on the Pamunkey,--one of the enemy's supply stations,--a squadron was sent out and burned two transports with army stores and a number of wagons. Near Tunstall's Station a wagon-train was discovered guarded by five companies of cavalry, which manifested a determination to stand and defend it, but they abandoned it and rode away, leaving the train in possession of Stuart, who burned it, and, night coming on, the country was brilliantly lighted up by its flames. After resting a few hours at Talleysville, the ride was resumed, and the party reached the Chickahominy at Forges Bridge at daylight. The stream was not fordable, but, by exercise of great energy and industry, a rude foot-bridge was laid. That part of the command near it dismounted and walked over, swimming their horses. In a few hours the [119] bridge was made strong and the artillery and other mounts were passed safely over to the Richmond side, and resumed the march for their old camp-grounds.

This was one of the most graceful and daring rides known to military history, and revealed valuable facts concerning the situation of the Union forces, their operations, communications, etc. When congratulated upon his success, General Stuart replied, with a lurking twinkle in his eye, that he had left a general behind him. Asked as to the identity of the unfortunate person, he said, with his joyful laugh, “General consternation.”

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XII. part III. p. 910.

2 Of interest in this connection is a letter to the author from General D. H. Hill:

3 Official account, Rebellion Record, vol. XI. part i. p. 1036.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 28th (2)
February 4th, 1879 AD (1)
June 11th, 1862 AD (1)
June 12th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: