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Book VI:—Virginia.

Chapter 1:

From the Potomac to the Rappahannock.

HAVING followed the struggle which took place in the West down to the close of the year 1862, we must now return to the two large armies of Lee and McClellan, which we left fronting each other on the opposite banks of the Potomac after the sanguinary battle of Antietam. It was the end of September. The Northern States had recovered from the great excitement into which they had been thrown by Lee's march upon Pennsylvania; they had eagerly responded to Mr. Lincoln's new appeal for troops to fill up the gaps in the armies caused by fighting, sickness and desertion. Thanks to the energetic and intelligent direction of its old commander, the army of the Potomac had taken heart again, and blotted out on the heights of Sharpsburg the fatal remembrance of its previous defeats. This army, which, three weeks before, vanquished and disorganized, had retired in dismay to Washington, had achieved a great victory and driven the enemy back into Virginia. If McClellan, after the check he experienced before Richmond, had lost a portion of his popularity with his soldiers, the errors of his successors and the manner in which he set to work to repair them had regained him all their confidence; they felt at last that they were led by a chief capable of coping with the Confederates.

In the South, on the contrary, a bitter disappointment had taken the place of overweening confidence, and the advantages obtained by Bragg in Kentucky could not compensate for the evacuation of Maryland in the eyes of those who already expected to see Washington and Philadelphia fall into the power of [536] Lee. Injustice was done to this illustrious general, and the inhabitants of Maryland were denounced in unmeasured terms for having looked upon his invasion with indifference, or having confined themselves to the expression of barren wishes for his success.

These different sentiments, however, only served to rekindle the ardor of the combatants on both sides and to spur them on to new efforts. The soldiers raised in the North were being rapidly organized, and public opinion impelled the government to spare no means for striking a decisive blow. The very magnitude of the sacrifice required by such a project imparted a new aspect to the war, and the earnestness with which the South proclaimed her attachment to the institution of slavery demonstrated to all clear-sighted people that the hardest blow that could be dealt her would be by striking her directly through this interest. This stern necessity overcame the constitutional scruples of many persons who had hitherto been anxious to smooth the way for reconciliation between the severed States. These were so many recruits for the Republican party, which from the first had probed the very depth of the disease, and was the only political organization that had not cherished patriotic but false illusions. President Lincoln simply endorsed this sentiment when on the 22d of September he issued a proclamation, as a war measure, declaring that from the 1st of January, 1863, all slaves residing in the States which should still be in rebellion at that period would be free. This great measure, of which we shall speak hereafter, was differently commented upon in the Federal armies, where all opinions were represented and freely expressed, without, however, at all interfering with discipline; but nearly all the commanders received it either with mistrust or regret. Before 1861 most of them had entertained sentiments opposed to the abolition of slavery; and, as they might be led into the midst of Southern communities by the war, they preferred not to present themselves before the latter as irreconcilable enemies of their institutions. The most prudent among them confined themselves to the task of executing, without comment, the instructions they received regarding this new policy, of which they were to be to a certain extent the instruments. General McClellan issued a general order to his [537] soldiers, reminding them, on one hand, of the restraints which their military duties imposed upon political discussions, and referring, on the other hand, to the ballot-box, through which, at the next election, they could ratify the errors of their government. Mr. Lincoln felt extremely hurt on finding himself thus put directly upon trial by one of his generals, in an official military document. At the South the proclamation of the President was received as a new challenge, and the very dangers which it had in store for them in the future increased, for a time, the energy of the Confederate States.

Instead of bringing back his army into the interior in order to protect Richmond, Lee boldly placed himself in the angle formed by the Potomac and the Shenandoah, continuing to menace Maryland with an offensive return. The rich valley of Virginia, whence his soldiers could perceive the heights of Sharpsburg and the hills of Harper's Ferry, the scenes of their exploits, promised him resources which he would have failed to obtain elsewhere. This land of wheat and forage had not been ravaged during the summer, and could supply his men and horses with abundance of food. His army, encamped on the borders of the Opequan, among the splendid farms lying between Winchester, Martinsburg and Charlestown, found the repose it had so well deserved. It received numerous reinforcements of recruits raised by the iron hand of the Confederate government. It was able, above all, to rally that second army of which we have heretofore spoken—that army of stragglers, sick and lame, which amounted to more than thirty thousand men when Lee had crossed the Potomac three weeks before, and which, being stopped by the river, had proceeded gloomily in long columns in the direction of the passes of the Blue Ridge. Owing to the active sympathy of the inhabitants for the cause of the South, all who had really been unable to follow the rapid march of Lee were protected, fed, and often even equipped, whilst the voluntary stragglers—and their number was enormous, according to the statements of Confederate officers themselves—were obliged, willingly or otherwise, on finding themselves strictly watched, to rejoin their comrades. The army, therefore, which did not number forty thousand men when it recrossed the Potomac on the night of September 18th or 19th, found, a [538] week later, its total effective force raised to nearly seventy-four thousand combatants. These ragged soldiers—as they were contemptuously styled by the inhabitants of Maryland, who had refused to compromise themselves for their sakes—found themselves at last in the midst of a population ready to share all their sufferings and sparing no efforts to alleviate them. The summer heats had been followed by a lovely Virginian autumn; the pure air, the dry soil, the wide open country, and the fresh waters rushing down from the Alleghanies, made the sick forget the forest swamps of the Chickahominy and the mud of Bull Run. The army of the Potomac also greatly needed reorganizing and rest. We have seen that when McClellan resumed the command of it, after Pope's disastrous campaign, it seemed to be on the point of dissolution, and the despondency which had invaded it looked like the certain prelude to new defeats. McClellan had infused fresh vigor into it, but had not been able, during the marches which preceded the battle of Antietam, to eradicate the evils which had been introduced into its organization, nor to repair the enormous losses it had previously sustained in stores and equipments. The regiments, deficient in their complement, and greatly reduced by fighting and desertion, only represented the strength of two or three companies each. Unable to consolidate them—that is to say, to merge several into one—McClellan requested that the regiments recently raised might be brigaded with them, so as to combine the two elements, thereby forming brigades, to which the new recruits would impart a numerical, and the old soldiers a moral, strength. The short time during which the army had been encamped in the neighborhood of Washington, before marching to meet Lee in Maryland, had been employed in effecting its reorganization and in arming the recruits and stragglers. But it had commenced the march without the necessary materiel for a long campaign. There was a great scarcity of saddle-horses and draught-horses, wagons and articles of clothing, especially shoes, nor had it any depots or storehouses for collecting such materials.

Under these circumstances, McClellan did not deem it expedient to undertake an offensive campaign in Virginia when Porter's unfortunate reconnaissance had shown him that the enemy was disposed to offer resistance. He did not dare to take position [539] with a large river behind him whose sudden overflows were always to be feared, nor to renew the attack upon the army that had so gallantly fought at Sharpsburg, before he was fully prepared to undertake an offensive campaign. According to his own calculation, he did not then possess the means of subsisting his large army at more than one day's march from a railroad or canal. His soldiers could not make long marches, some of them having marched during five weeks, almost without interruption, from the borders of the Rapidan to those of the Antietam, the others being newly-enlisted troops, a large number of whom had been wholly disabled by the last ten days campaign. The rapidity with which the Confederate army had dwindled away during the three weeks intervening between the battle of Manassas and that of Antietam, although entirely composed of tried soldiers long inured to every kind of hardship, fully accounts for all the difficulties which kept McClellan on the left bank of the Potomac. A general-in-chief, especially one whose army has just made a victorious effort, is alone able to judge what he may expect from his troops. Consequently, although his inaction after Lee's retreat in Virginia was entirely to the advantage of the latter, we should unquestionably defer to his judgment, if this judgment had not been influenced by an overestimate of the enemy's forces. In fact, as we have already said, the staff department of the army of the Potomac had from the very first contracted the habit of making no abatement from the figures given by deserters and fugitive negroes, and thereby furnished General McClellan with statements regarding the condition of the Confederate army which had no foundation in fact. Thus, for instance, whilst Lee was only able to oppose forty thousand men at Sharpsburg, McClellan imagined that he had to deal with ninety-seven thousand combatants.1 As will presently be seen, Grant committed a contrary error in his campaign against Vicksburg, when, thinking that his adversary was not so strong as he really was, he attacked him with a degree of boldness which proved successful, but which such a general as Lee would probably have made him pay dear for.

On the 22d of September the

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