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Chapter 25: Yorktown and Williamsburg.

On February 27, 1862, with the approval of the President, the office of Commanding-General of the Confederate forces was created by the House of Representatives.

When General McClellan heard of the retreat of the Confederate Army from Manassas, he ordered a reconnoissance and ascertained that our troops had crossed the Rapidan.

General McClellan's account of this movement was given in a report to the Secretary of War, dated Fairfax Court-House, March II, 1862, 8.30 P. M. From it I make a short extract:

I have just returned from a ride of more than forty miles. Have examined Centreville, Union Mills, Blackburn's Ford, etc. The works at Centreville are formidable; more so than at Manassas. Except the turnpike, the roads are horrible. The country entirely stripped of forage and provisions. Having fully consulted with General McDowell, I propose occupying Manassas with a portion of [262] Banks's command, and then at once throwing all the forces I can concentrate upon the line agreed upon last week.

The “formidable fortifications” at Centreville consisted of nine small earthworks containing thirty-one wooden guns, known at that time as “Quakers.” They were made of pine logs, charred black, and were in some cases mounted on wagon wheels; where they were not, leaves and brush were laid over the embrasures.

This armament was indeed formidable, in appearance at least, and had the effect of producing the impression desired upon General McClellan. “Intelligent contrabands” made frequent reports to him of the strong position of the Confederates at Centreville.

The Federal army was transferred to the Peninsula early in April, and General Mc-Clellan landed about one hundred thousand men at Fortress Monroe. At this time General Magruder occupied the lower Peninsula with seven or eight thousand men.

General Magruder was then reinforced until his army numbered about 20,000 men.

As soon as it was definitely ascertained that General McClellan, with his main army, was on the Peninsula, General J. E. Johnston was assigned to the command of that department. After spending a day on Magruder's [263] lines, he returned to Richmond, recommended the abandonment of the Peninsula, and that a position nearer Richmond should be taken.

The recommendation was held for consideration, and the President proposed to invite to the conference the Secretary of War, George Randolph, and General Lee, then stationed in Richmond.

General Johnston asked that he might invite General Longstreet and General G. W. Smith to be present, which was assented to.

After hearing the views expressed by the several officers named, the President decided to resist the enemy on the Peninsula, and, with the aid of the navy, to hold Norfolk and keep command of the James River.

The Confederates numbered, when General Johnston took command, over 50,000 men.

On April 16th, an assault was made upon the Confederate lines at Warwick, but was repulsed with heavy loss.

The month of April was cold and rainy, and our men were poorly provided with shelter and with only the plainest rations, but labored steadily to perfect the defences.

By the following telegram, sent by the President to General Johnston, the contents of that which he had received from him will be readily inferred. [264]

Accepting your conclusion that you must soon retire, arrangements are commenced for the abandonment of the Navy Yard and removal of public property both from Norfolk and the Peninsula.

Your announcement to-day that you would withdraw to-morrow night, takes us by surprise, and must involve enormous losses, including unfinished gunboats. Will the safety of your army allow more time?

Jefferson Davis.

General Johnston withdrew his army from the line of the Warwick River on the night of April 3d. Heavy cannonading both on the night of the 2d and 3d, concealed his intention, and the evacuation was made so successfully that the enemy was surprised the next morning to find the lines unoccupied.

The loss of public property was, as anticipated by Mr. Davis, very great.

General Johnston, after an engagement at Williamsburg, in which the Fifth North Carolina was annihilated, and the Twenty-Fourth Virginia suffered terribly in officers and men, and General Early was wounded, retired from the Peninsula, and halted his army in the vicinity of Richmond. [265]

As soon as Norfolk was evacuated, a very severe course was adopted toward the citizens. In consequence of some fancied offence to the wife of General Viele, the ladies were forbidden to speak while crossing on the ferry-boat, and every species of indignity was inflicted upon the townspeople. Mr. Davis's anxieties were greatly increased by the evacuation of the Peninsula, and the consequent losses that he saw no speedy means to repair.

He thought it could have been held, and yet had much faith in General Johnston's military opinions, and more in his patriotism.

Our supplies of every useful implement were beginning to require replenishing. We had lost large numbers of entrenching tools on the retreat, and many heavy guns, including some recently received and not yet mounted.

General Beauregard appealed for bells to be melted into cannon, March 20, 1862. These bells were contributed, and captured by the enemy in New Orleans, and sold in Boston at Lombard's North Wharf, East Boston, and averaged thirty cents a pound; the sum for which they were sold amounted to over $30,000. Thus resulted the sacrifice so gladly made by individuals in the Confederacy.

In this year the Church and the world sustained a great loss in the death of Bishop Meade. He had been General Lee's preceptor, [266] and when the General went to see him, he called him in the old simple way: “Robert, come near that I may bless you.”

He left a message for the Confederate people. “Tell your people to be more determined than ever. This is the most unjust and iniquitous war that was ever waged.” He was buried from St. Paul's Church, and followed by a multitude of sincere mourners.

In these days of self-sacrifice and dumb suffering many things were endured which should exalt the name of Confederates.

The burning of all the cotton in the country was a stupendous sacrifice, and there is probably no man who remembers it now well enough to state the facts. Generally it was burned by the owner, but in a few cases the Government agent was charged with the duty. The following is the form of certificate given for cotton burned June 10, 1862:

This is to certify that — bales of cotton, belonging to---, was burned on his plantation this day.

Provost-Marshal, Parish, La.

The issues for which we were battling fortunately rendered us indifferent to the personal losses we were everywhere sustaining. [267] Mr. Davis, after hearing of the loss of our property, the sacking of our house on Brierfield, the destruction of our fine library, the loss of all the blooded stock on the place, and the demoralization of the negroes, and their forcible deportation, wrote to me a long letter about the army, etc., and in a paragraph said:

You will have seen a notice of the destruction of our home. If our cause succeeds we shall not mourn over any personal deprivation; if it should not, why, “the deluge.” I hope I shall be able to provide for the comfort of the old negroes.

It is hard, in recalling the memory of all our heroes who fought and fell, to individualize their separate acts, heroism, or self-abnegation, but here is one culled from an old newspaper.

“The officers of the Second Louisiana Regiment, Stafford's Brigade, Johnson's Division, Army of Northern Virginia, went into the ranks as privates, not being near enough home to recruit.” No word of approval is appended to the announcement the act elicited no expression of surprise.

These men came of people who act rather than write, and now they have no historians; but their names are affectionately recalled by our firesides, and their deeds here, like the righteousness of the Hebrew warriors, exalted their nation.

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