previous next

Strategic points.

Their value in the war between the States, 1861-1861, and how fiercely they were fought for.

In reasoning from cause to effect we must not conclude that accident was the reason why great battles were more than once fought over the same fields during the great civil war in this country.

Examining carefully for the cause, we arrive at the conclusion that such points must have had within them some special value, and an analysis of this, deducts the conclusion that these places were ‘Strategic Points.’

There are several objective points, in the Old Dominion, over whose bosom the pendulum of war oscillated for four cruel years, where the contending armies crashed, that had in them this strategic value, and the fact that battles were fought more than once on these fields proves that the armies did not collide upon them by accident. Gettysburg was a battle-field of accident. Had Stuart been in touch with Lee, and the Confederate commander furnished with the information the cavalry are supposed to acquire, it is now considered more than doubtful that this little Pennsylvania town would have assumed conspicuous prominence in American history.

But strategic points is the subject of this paper, and it will be best to treat them in the order of their dates.

Beauregard's selection of Bull Run as his line defence showed his wisdom as an engineer. His outposts extended from Leesburg, through Drainesville, Fairfax and Wolf Run Shoals, to Acquia creek, with reserves at Centreville. This was in the early summer of 1861.

McDowell was organizing the Grand Army around a splendid nucleus of regulars. This army was not for the defence of Washington solely, but also for aggressive purposes.

There was a supreme authority in the Federal States which became director general, which gave orders to commanders and moved armies. This power was public clamor, and all through the four [377] years of carnage this influence was dominant. McDowell moved out of Washington under its orders. Burnside assaulted Lee's line at Fredericksburg under its arbitrary demand. Meade moved upon the Army of Northern Virginia at Mine Run at the dictation of this same power.

But pardon this digression, and go back to strategic points. McDowell moved out of Washington with the Grand Army, and developing Beauregard's outposts, soon pressed them back upon the reserves and precipitated the indecisive battle, 18th of July, 1861.

Pausing then, McDowell took advantage of his information to study the situation and plan accordingly.

Beauregard, finding his force inadequate, appealed to Johnston, then at Winchester, for assistance. His prompt response is too well known to detail here; how Bee and Bartow died; how Kirby Smith, coming into line almost on the run upon McDowell's flank, and ‘Jackson standing like a stone wall,’ snatched victory from defeat, and turned the triumph of the foe into an utter rout. The plains of Manassas drank in the best blood of the South, but victory laid her crown of immortelles upon ‘the banner of the stars and bars.’

Manassas, heretofore an insignificant railroad crossing, became the base of the Confederate army. Roads, both dirt and rail, radiated and crossed here, and its strategic worth, and the fierceness for which its possession was contended, demonstrated its value.

After McClellan had been paralyzed before Richmond, a year later, a new and powerful Federal army was being massed in Northern Virginia, causing concern to the Confederate government.

To check further advance, Lee transported his army from its intrenchments before Richmond, first to the line of the Rapidan, then to the banks of the Rappahannock. The summer rains had swollen the river, and thus gave the Federal commander a strong position. The fords were unavailable, and Pope held the key to the situation.

But the genius of Lee could not be neutralized by an obstacle like the roaring Rappahannock. He sent the energetic and phenomenal Jackson to secure Manassas in Pope's rear.

Silently and steadily the Stonewall corps tramped by a circuitous route, and before the Federal commander was aware of his absence from his front, Lee's great lieutenant had seized Manassas with its [378] vast stores of food, clothing, and ammunition. These were utilized to the extent of Jackson's ability, the excess given to the flames. He knew that Pope would resent this poaching upon his preserves, so after applying the torch he moved from the Junction to the neighborhood of the old battle-field, where a year before he had won his title and his spurs. He wanted elbow room, space to manoeuvre, and as he had to call upon Pope, he determined to select his own battle-ground.

The desperate battles of the 28th, 29th and 30th of August testify of Pope's anxiety to retain and Lee's determination to wrest from him this stragetic point.

Forty-nine thousand and seventy-seven worn but superb Confederates, after days of battle, defeated Pope's army, which, with McClellan's reinforcements, numbered 120,000, and forced them back into the works around Washington.

Thus the stragetic value of Manassas, drinking to satiety the blood of brave men, assumed conspicuous prominence in American annals.

In the late spring of 1862 McClellan environed Richmond with an army of 115,000 men. His immense works are monuments to his genius as an engineer. Of the points fortified by him Cold Harbor was the key to his right.

When the signal gun from the left of the Confederate fortifications announced the assault upon McClellan's lines, the brunt of the attack was upon his right. Fierce assaults followed and some of the strongholds yielded, but Cold Harbor, naturally strong and intensified by splendid works, resisted fiercely. Southern blood flowed like water, but as long as this point held out, McClellan maintained his right in tact.

Jackson sent imperative order to storm the works, and though fourteen heavy field guns and three lines of battles hurled shot, shell and bullets upon them, the gallant Hood with his splendid Texans finally carried the fort by storm, and doubled McClellan's right back upon his centre.

Successively, Mechanicsville, Ellerson's Mills, Cold Harbor, Gaines' Mill, Frazer's Farm, Savage Station, and White Oak Swamp were torn from McClellan's group, and these names blazoned in martial glory upon the star crossed flag, while McClellan's beaten army sought protection under the guns of the Federal fleet in James river. [379]

A lapse of two years brings us back to historic Cold Harbor. The war had now progressed more than three years. Other commanders had failed and public clamor was demanding better results for the money and blood so liberally and lavishly spent in the Old Dominion.

Grant was summoned from his successes in the West, and the government assigned him this terrible task. Unlimited resources were placed at his disposal; when he broke camp early in May, 1864, 141, 160 splendidly equipped and veteran soldiers followed his standard. Against this host Lee could oppose but 52,625 ill-fed and poorly-clad, yet superb troops.

Then followed the Spotsylvania, the North Anna, written in the blood of thousands of brave men. A month of almost incessant battle followed, the two armies gravitating toward Richmond. In June, in the course of these side movements, Cold Harbor was again reached, but circumstances and positions reversed. Lee now held the entrenchments and acted on the defensive. Grant massed his army for the assault. Up to this time the genius of the great Confederate commander had everywhere matched the enormous preponderance of the enemy.

Grant made three desperate assaults on Lee's works; the attack was made in the forenoon. Each attack was repelled with appalling slaughter. So terrific had been the Confederate fire that in one hour Grant's losses had amounted to more than 13,000, while he inflicted a loss of but 1,200 upon Lee.

History records General Grant as a man of great determination and tenacity. He was unwilling to yield his point, so determined was he to renew the assault in the afternoon. The order for attack descended in proper gradation from the lieutenant-general down to regimental commanders; but when the bugles sounded the onset, there was no forward movement, and the immoble lines of the army of the Potomac thus silently rebuked its commander for his butchery. Its inactive attitude spoke plainer than words:‘Show us a possibility and no troops will more loyally and promptly respond, but to again hurl us against certain defeat and direful slaughter, we must refuse to obey.’

Thus for the second time Cold Harbor became the scene of the fiercest of conflicts, and established its value as a strategic point.

It is worthy of note to mention the great disparity of numbers [380] engaged, and how, in the two battles, conditions were reversed. In the battles of Richmond, McClellan's army numbered 115,102 men, and, in this engagement, fought on the defensive Cold Harbor, next to Malvern Hill—the strongest position in his line. Lee's forces were 69,762, and in this, as in others of the Richmond battles, were the aggressors, yet he wrested this stronghold by one of the most daring assaults history records.

In the second battle of Cold Harbor conditions were reversed— Lee was behind the defenses, his army about 49,000. Grant was to attack with 140,000 men. He hurled his immense weight upon Lee, but with no effect, except to destroy his men. This leads up to the inquiry, ‘Was either the better soldier?’

The spring of 1863 found Lee's army at Fredericksburg watching his powerful antagonist across the Rappahannock. Longstreet had been detached for service near Suffolk, and the Army of Northern Virginia thus weakened.

Hooker had succeeded Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac. New hopes inspired the Federal army. Hooker was jubilant; he announced to the world ‘the finest army on the planet’ was about to exterminate its enemies. So sure was he of this, he dispatched to General Hallock at Washington:

‘The rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac.’

Rejecting Burnside's plan of direct assault, he divided his army of 132,000 men; 40,000 under Sedgwick crossed the Rappahannock on pontoons below Fredericksburg and threatened Lee's right; with the remainder Hooker crossed the upper fords and menaced the Confederate left.

Lee's army numbered 57,117. Matters to others than his master mind would have seemed gravely critical. Leaving Early with 9,000 muskets to hold his works behind Fredericksburg, with the remainder he moved out to give battle to Hooker.

Before developing the Federal battle line, for the protection of his flank and rear, he detached Wilcox with 6,000 men to guard the fords behind him.

Just as he struck Hooker's line, he detached Jackson with about 24,000 men, to place himself upon Hooker's right and rear. [381]

Silently and swiftly the old foot cavalry of the Stonewall corps traversed the secret by-paths of the wilderness, and late in the afternoon of the 3d of May he stealthily approached the unsuspecting Federals.

With a rush and a roar the Stonewall corps broke cover, and with one crash of musketry, then with the bayonet, swept the works.

Howard's Eleventh corps was just partaking of its evening meal when the storm swept upon it. Hooker's left wing was thrown into utter rout and rushed in confusion upon the centre. Night alone saved it from destruction.

But details are too volumnious. The world knows of Hooker's terrible punishment and defeat. How Lee, with one-third of Hooker's forces, crushed the Federal army and threw it beyond the Rappahannock.

Just one year later, on a balmy day in early May, 1864, Grant broke camp at Culpeper with the finest army ever organized upon the Western Continent. Without hinderance he placed 141,160 soldiers on the south bank of the Rapidan, and threw himself across Lee's road to Richmond.

It must have been apparent to the eye of the most ordinary soldier in Grant's army that his commander had blundered.

He saw at a glance how impossible to manoeuvre 141,000 men in the dense jungles and scrubs of the wilderness. Therefore it is not to be wondered that the genius of the great Confederate chieftain mastered the situation.

He broke cover with 52,626 ragged but veteran troops, and not waiting to be attacked, moved at once upon Grant's battle line and for three days fiercely assailed his overwhelming antagonist.

Finding it impossible to make any impression upon Lee's line, the night of the third day's fight the Federal commander silently moved his army by the left flank, trusting with the morning sun to envelope the right and rear of Lee's depleted army.

The genius of Lee seemed to have been inspired, for by some means he divined his adversary's plans and moved parallel to him, and as Grant changed from flank to front and moved forward, the battered but defiant Army of Northern Virginia was before him. [382] Thence followed the fierce battles around Spotsylvania, North Anna and Cold Harbor.

So ended the terrible Battle of the Wilderness. On nearly the same ground Lee and Hooker had fought two years before, and now the first captain in the Federal army was sent with the finest army to crush Lee, yet he failed, and Chancellorsville and the Wilderness became famous in history as stragetic spots. Here in each battle genius and unsurpassed courage more than matched numbers and splendid appointments.

Thus, in succession, Manassas, Cold Harbor, and Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, heretofore unknown, became luminous in history, and the terrific battle fought on these fields demonstrated their value as strategic points.

Less only in the number of troops engaged, Winchester, in the lower Valley, became conspicuous in Confederate annals as a strategic point. Early in 1861 Johnston recognized its value and so held it. Later Jackson made a vigorous attack on Shields at Kernstown for its recovery, but for paucity of numbers and exhaustion of his troops from rapid and severe marching would have wrested it from Federal grasp.

In the spring of 1862 this same Stonewall made a sudden rush upon Banks and drove him from the town and across the Potomac. So greatly did the Federal government appreciate its worth that two armies were dispatched, one under McDowell from Fredericksburg, and the other under Freemont from Franklin, each largely superior to Jackson, to drive him from Winchester.

Again the town became headquarters for Federal occupation of the Valley district, and again after Second Manassas was evacuated. On the retirement of Lee's army to Fredericksburg in the fall of 1862, again the town became the Federal headquarters for that section of Virginia. After Chancellorsville, in the order of Lee's combinations, Ewell burst through the gaps of the Blue mountains, and suddenly swooping down upon the little city, threw Milroy and the remnant of his garrison across the Potomac. After Gettysburg, Winchester again fell to the Federal occupation. General Jubal Early once again wrested it from the troops of the United States and again forced back, Federal occupation followed, and once more partial success almost [383] put it again in his possession. Thence to the close of the war, it remained in possession of the Federal troops.

No other place of similar importance so often changed hands as did the little city of Winchester; and while not contended for by so large forces as the other points mentioned, yet the frequency with which its occupation was fought for, testifies its value in the estimation, both of the Confederate and Federal forces.

The places enumerated are points, which should the blasting misfortunes of war ever oscillate over the Old Dominion again, will become the scenes of similar battles. Let us trust no more in the history of this country, this curse shall ever again come upon this fair land, and pray that ‘men may learn to war no more.’ [384]

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 People (automatically extracted)
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.
1861 AD (4)
1862 AD (3)
May, 1864 AD (2)
1863 AD (1)
July 18th, 1861 AD (1)
August 30th (1)
August 29th (1)
June (1)
May 3rd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: