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Chapter 23:

  • The autumn and winter campaigns of 1863.

Dreading to follow Lee and unable to resist importunate orders from Washington for an advance, Meade, after Lee returned to Virginia, recrossed the South mountain and then followed McClellan's route of the previous autumn, across the Potomac into Piedmont Virginia, guarding the passes of the Blue ridge, as he advanced, against attacks from Lee in the Valley. Lee, on the alert, anticipated this movement, and, on the 24th of July, placed his army across Meade's thin line of advance, in front of Culpeper Court House. The necessities at other points put a stop to military operations for a time in Virginia. Portions of Meade's army were called to New York city, to suppress riots and enforce the drafts to recruit the Federal armies. Lee was embarrassed by the calls for soldiers for other fields, after the fall of Vicksburg, which not only cut the Confederacy in twain, but opened to Federal gunboats and steamboats, for the transportation of troops and supplies, the thousands of miles of navigable waters in the Mississippi basin.

With the Trans-Mississippi portion of the Confederacy isolated, there only remained in the control of the Confederacy central and southern portions of the Atlantic highlands—the Appalachians and their slopes. The combined land power and sea power of the Federal government completely surrounded and enclosed the remnant of territory now left in the control of the Confederate government. Only through the port of Wilmington was there an outlet to the outer world, and only through that single port could supplies come from abroad to eke out the scanty stores of the Confederacy. The executive was besieged by calls for the defense of vital points, threatened from all directions. Rosecrans was advancing into the Great valley in east Tennessee. The fate of Charleston was but a question of a short time. Environed by such gloomy surroundings and threatenings, Lee [424] wrote to President Davis, from ‘Camp Orange,’ on the 8th of August, thanking him for his efforts to supply the wants of his army, commending the proclamation he had issued to the people, and hoping that would ‘stir up their virtue . . . that they may see their duty and perform it;’ cheerfully and hopefully adding, ‘Nothing is wanted but that their fortitude should equal their bravery to insure the success of our cause. We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.’ After mentioning the proneness of men to censure those who do not meet their expectations, Lee said: ‘The general remedy for the want of success in a military commander is removal. This is natural, and, in many instances, proper. For, no matter what may be the ability of an officer, if he loses the confidence of his troops, disaster must sooner or later ensue.’

The general commanding further stated, that since his return from Pennsylvania he had been intending to propose that another commander should be selected for his army; he had noted the discontent of the newspapers at the result of his campaign; did not know how far such feeling might exist in the army, as he had had no evidence of it from officers or men, but it was fair to suppose that it did exist, and, as success is a necessity, nothing should be risked to secure it. He continued:

I therefore, in all sincerity, request Your Excellency to supply my place. I do this with the more earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inabilities for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others? In addition, I sensibly feel the growing failure of my bodily strength. I have not yet recovered from the attack I experienced the past spring. I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel necessary. I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled. Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander, and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon Your Excellency from my belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be obtained. I know that he will have as gallant and brave an army as ever existed to second his efforts, and it would be the happiest day of my life to see at its head a worthy leader—one that could accomplish more than I could perform and all that I have [425] wished. I hope Your Excellency will attribute my request to the true reason—the desire to serve my country and to do all in my power to insure the success of her righteous cause.

In reply, President Davis wrote, among other things:

I am truly sorry to know that you still feel the effects of the illness you suffered last spring, and can readily understand the embarrassment you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so accustomed to making your own reconnoissances. . . . But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications. the points which you present, where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required?. . To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of reflecting men of the country, is to demand an impossibility.

Lee's morning reports show that by the 10th of August, by returns from hospitals and elsewhere, his army had increased to 58,600 men. On the 9th of September, he detached Longstreet, with two of his divisions, to help Bragg, in Tennessee, keep back Rosecrans from marching farther up the Great valley toward Virginia, leaving with himself some 46,000 men. Longstreet wrote, in farewell to Lee, speaking for himself and his corps: ‘Our affections for you are stronger, if it is possible for them to be stronger, than our admiration for you.’

On the 13th of September, Meade advanced, from beyond the Rappahannock, to learn what Lee was doing; the latter awaited an attack in the position he had chosen and partially fortified, in front of Orange Court House, overlooking the Rapidan. Meade took a distant look at the preparations made for him, and then withdrew to camps in Culpeper.

After learning of the battle at Chickamauga, Lee, on the 25th, wrote pleasantly to Longstreet:

My whole heart and soul have been with you and your brave corps in your late battle. It was natural to hear of Longstreet and Hill (D. H.) charging side by side, and pleasing to find the armies of the east and west vying with each other in valor and devotion to their country . . . . Finish the work before you, my dear general, and return to me; I want you badly, and you cannot get back too soon.

On the 9th of October, Lee again took the offensive and crossed the Rapidan to attack Meade, taking a concealed and circuitous route, hoping to flank him and bring him to battle on the plains of Culpeper; but the Federal commander, who professed to have marched all the way from Gettysburg seeking a battle, [426] promptly retreated during the night of the 10th, to beyond the Rappahannock. Lee then tried by another flank movement, by way of the Fauquier Springs and Warrenton, to bring on an engagement on the plains of Fauquier; but while Lee was halting to ration his troops, Meade hastened to the south side of the Orange & Alexandria railroad, by way of Bealeton, then took the road still farther to the southward, leading through Brentsville toward Alexandria. The two armies now engaged in a race, at times within sight of each other, on opposite sides of the railroad; Meade hastening to escape Lee, and Lee hurrying to intercept Meade and bring him to battle.

As he passed through Brentsville, Meade detached a portion of Warren's corps and sent it across to Bristoe Station, to guard his flank from attack by the highway from Lee's route that there crossed the railroad. This covering force was adroitly concealed in the cuts and behind the fills of the railway at Bristoe Station. A. P. Hill, leading Lee's advance, sent Cooke's superb North Carolina brigade to the same point, from the northward without advanced skirmishers. As these approached the station, Warren's men met them, with unexpected volleys, and drove the brigade back in confusion, with a loss of nearly 1,400 men. Lee met Hill with stern rebuke for his imprudence, then sadly directed him to gather his wounded and bury his dead. This disaster, at the head of the column, and the failure of Ewell to close up on Hill, gave check to Lee's advance, which enabled Meade to make good his escape to the fortifications at Centreville, on the northern side of Bull run. Lee followed to the vicinity of Manassas Junction and then retraced his steps to the Rappahannock, subsequently saying, in his report concerning this campaign:

Nothing prevented my continuing in his (Meade's) front but the destitute condition of the men, thousands of whom are barefooted, a greater number partially shod, and nearly all without overcoats, blankets or warm clothing. I think the sublimest sight of the war was the cheerfulness and alacrity exhibited by this army in the pursuit of the enemy under all the trials and privations to which it was exposed.

Stuart, with his usual vigilance and daring, covered the fords on either side of the railroad, and two of Early's brigades were left on the intrenched trap-dyke hill, on the northern bank of the Rappahannock, at the railroad [427] bridge, which had been destroyed, as a tete-de-pont to the pontoon Lee had there laid. In the midst of a sudden and heavy rain, late in the evening of November 7th,Meade, seizing this opportunity, made a rush upon and captured these two brigades, before help could reach them, securing 1,600 prisoners, eight flags and several guns.

After Lee had reached the southern bank of the Rappahannock, everything indicated that his army would remain in Culpeper for some time. Writing to his wife he said:

I moved yesterday into a nice pine thicket, and Perry is today engaged in constructing a chimney in front of my tent, which will make it warm and comfortable. . . . . I am glad you have some socks for the army. Send them to me. They will come safely. Tell the girls to send all they can. I wish they could make some shoes, too. We have thousands of barefooted men. There is no news. General Meade, I believe, is repairing the railroad, and I presume will come on again. If I could only get some shoes and clothes for the men I would save him the trouble.

The disaster at the bridge-head broke up all this, and Lee again retired with his army beyond the Rapidan, and put his men in winter quarters on the sunny side of the ‘little mountains of Orange,’ finding another dense pine thicket, on the mountain slope eastward from Orange Court House, where he fixed his headquarters for the winter.

The winter quiet of Lee's camps was rudely disturbed by Meade when he began his Mine Run campaign, on the 26th of November, by ordering the First and Fifth corps to cross the Rapidan at the Culpeper mine ford, near the mouth of the Wilderness run, the boundary between Orange and Spottsylvania counties, to be followed by the Second corps crossing at the Germanna ford, a few miles further up the river, and the Third and Sixth corps, that were to cross still higher up the stream, expecting these three strong columns of attack to converge upon the old turnpike and the plank road, both leading to Orange Court House, and turn the right of Lee's encampments. Meade found it no easy matter to overcome the steep banks and the chilly waters of the Rapidan, and unexpectedly lost a day in the beginning of his movement. His Third corps moved too far to the north to strike its ordered ford, and on the 27th, Johnson's division of Ewell's corps repulsed its attempted crossing. [428]

Stuart's sleepless vigilance gave Lee ample time to bring Hill from his left to Ewell on his right, and the two, advancing eastward to meet Meade, quickly found an admirable defensive line along Mine run, of the Rapidan, which flows directly northward, in a deep stream valley, crossing all the roads, and not far eastward from the right of Lee's encampments. The weather was intensely cold, but this only added to the vigor of Lee's poorly-clad veterans in fortifying their line with material from the adjacent forests and fences, warming themselves by labor and huge fires, so that when Meade appeared in their front on the 28th, they were ready to receive him in a strong line of battle, well punctuated with 150 guns, Johnson, in the meantime, holding the Third corps in engagement along the Rapidan. Finding a front attack uninviting, Meade sent Warren with his Second corps and a part of the Sixth in an effort to turn Lee's right, while Sedgwick thought he had found a weak place from which to attack Lee's left.

Warren took 26,000 men for his movement, which began early on the morning of the 30th; but when he reached the vicinity of Lee's right, he found that his coming had been anticipated, and that during the previous night the Confederates had there thrown up earth and timber works and planted artillery. Driven back with loss, he retired, and as nothing had come of Sedgwick's attempt, and the cold was increasing in intensity, Meade withdrew, in disgust, on the night of December 2d, across the Rapidan to his previous encampments in the vicinity of Brandy Station; not having had the courage, with his greatly superior and far better appointed force, to attack his staunch and ever-ready opponent.

After the Mine Run campaign, Lee's army was permitted to remain undisturbed in its cantonments in Orange county during the remainder of the winter of 1863-64, picketing 20 miles of the front of the Rapidan, from where Ewell's right rested on that river, near the mouth of Mine run, on the east to near Liberty mills, where the highway leading from Gordonsville, by way of Madison Court House, to New Market in the valley, crosses that stream on the west. The Orange & Alexandria railroad, passing between the camps, connected Lee with his base of supplies at Gordonsville, only a few miles away. Ewell established his headquarters at ‘Morton hall,’ [429] the country seat of Hon. Jere. Morton, near the middle of the encampment of his corps, which was mainly along the waters of Mountain run, and the tributaries of Mine run from the west. Lee betook himself again to his pine thicket.

Here, in the county of Orange, Lee's army contended, during the long and severe winter of 1863-64, with foes more difficult to overcome than Federal soldiery. These were want of food and want of clothing, which they met and endured, with heroic fortitude, in the log cabins that they constructed from the trees of the surrounding forests and on beds of straw, mainly without blankets, but fortunately with abundant supplies of fuel near at hand. The rations were reduced to a minimum; a quarter of a pound of pork and a scant portion of meal, or flour, per day, to a man—and even this was sometimes wanting. A depreciated currency added an enormous value, in paper dollars, to all the necessaries of life, and the high tide of starvation prices prevailed everywhere, and especially in the army, where the pay, of even officers of the highest grade, was scarcely sufficient to meet the most common wants. Corn meal was $50 a bushel; beans, $60; bacon, $8 and sugar $20 a pound. The redeeming features of these days of gloom and suffering were the bright shining of the heroic virtues, not only of the men but of the women and children of the Confederacy, and the steadfast faithfulness of all the negroes, most of them slaves, who, in quiet submission to home authority, cultivated the fields, and by the arts of handicraft helped to support the people of the Confederacy and their armies. Lee not only dwelt among his men, in simple fashion, but fared as they fared, saying, when luxuries were sent him, as they often were, and which he invariably sent to the sick and wounded in hospitals, ‘I am content to share the rations of my men.’

The luster of the heroic virtues of the army of Northern Virginia was brightened and heightened by their sublimer faith. A marked spirit of devotion characterized every portion of it. From nearly every tent and cabin could be heard the voice of prayer and the singing of hymns of devotion. Spacious, though rude, log chapels were constructed by willing hands, for religious services, and the country churches within and near the camps were utilized for like holy purposes. Not only army chaplains, [430] but the best and ablest of the preachers of the Gospel from all accessible parts of the Confederacy, ministered in these rude army churches to the soul-hunger of Lee's reverent, and most of them God-serving officers and men.

On the 6th of February, 1864, Meade sent a division to Morton's ford, near Ewell's right, to again try the winter temper of Lee's veterans. It was met with the old spirit and driven back across the Rapidan with considerable loss. Early in March, Kilpatrick and Dahlgren crossed their Federal cavalry at Ely's ford, of the Rapidan, and raided southward, through Spottsylvania toward Richmond, following the great highways leading in that direction. Dahlgren's special object was to burn the capital of the Confederacy, capture its officials, release and arm the Federal prisoners there held, and work general havoc. He was met, not far from that city, and repulsed, losing his own life, and failure was the only result of the expedition worth mentioning. [431]

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