On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

Lee in the Saddle

While Grant was earning a reputation as a fighting general in the West, Lee had been at a desk in Richmond attending to his duties as chief military adviser to the Confederate President, which prevented him from taking active part in any operations in the field. As a matter of fact, however, there had been no important engagements in the East, for "On to Richmond!" had become the war cry of the North, and all the energies of the Federal government had been centered on preparations for the capture of the Southern capital. Indeed, if Richmond had been the treasure house and last refuge of the Confederacy, no greater efforts could have been made to secure it, although it was by no means essential to either the North or the South and the war would have continued no matter which flag floated above its roofs. Nevertheless, the idea of marching into the enemy's capital appealed to the popular imagination and this undoubtedly dictated much of the early strategy of the war.

At all events, while the opening moves in the campaign for the possession of the Mississippi were being made, a vast army was being equipped near Washington for the express purpose of capturing Richmond. The preparation of this force had been entrusted to General George B. McClellan whose ability in organizing, drilling and disciplining the troops had made him a popular hero and given him such a reputation as a military genius that he was universally hailed as "the young Napoleon." He had, indeed, created the most thoroughly equipped army ever seen in America, and when he advanced toward Virginia in April, 1862, at the head of over 100,000 men the supporters of the Union believed that the doom of the Confederacy was already sealed.

From this office in Richmond Lee watched these formidable preparations for invading the South with no little apprehension. He knew that the Confederates had only about 50,000 available troops with which to oppose McClellan's great army and had the Union commander been aware of this he might have moved straight against the city and swept its defenders from his path. But McClellan always believed that he was outnumbered and on this occasion he wildly exaggerated his opponents' strength. In fact, he crept forward so cautiously that the Confederates, who had almost resigned themselves to losing the city, hastened to bring up reenforcements and erect defensive works of a really formidable character. The best that was hoped for, however, was to delay the Union army. To defeat it, or even to check its advance, seemed impossible, and doubtless it would have proved so had it not been for the brilliant exploits of the man who was destined to become Lee's "right hand."

This man was General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who had earned the nickname of "Stonewall" at Bull Run and was at that time in command of about 15,000 men guarding the fertile Shenandoah Valley, the "granary of Virginia." Opposing this comparatively small army were several strong Union forces which were considered amply sufficient to capture or destroy it, and McClellan proceeded southward, with no misgivings concerning Jackson. But the wily Confederate had no intention of remaining idle and McClellan's back was scarcely turned before he attacked and utterly routed his nearest opponents. A second, third and even a fourth army was launched against him, but he twisted, turned and doubled on his tracks with bewildering rapidity, cleverly luring his opponents apart; and then, falling on each in turn with overwhelming numbers, hurled them from his path with astonishing ease and suddenly appeared before Washington threatening its capture.

Astounded and alarmed at this unexpected peril, the Federal authorities instantly ordered McDowell's corps of 40,000 men, which was on the point of joining McClellan, to remain and defend the capital. This was a serious blow to McClellan who had counted upon using these troops, though even without them he greatly outnumbered the Confederates. But the idea that he was opposed by an overwhelming force had taken such a firm hold on his mind that he was almost afraid to move, and while he was timidly feeling his way General Joseph Johnston, commanding the defenses at Richmond, attacked his advance corps at Seven Pines, May 31, 1862. A fierce contest followed, during which Johnston was severely wounded, and Jefferson Davis, who was on the field, promptly summoned General Lee to the command.

It was a serious situation which confronted Lee when he was thus suddenly recalled to active duty, for McClellan's army outnumbered his by at least 40,000 men and it was within six miles of Richmond, from the roofs of whose houses the glow of the Union campfires was plainly visible. Nevertheless, he determined to put on a bold front and attack his opponent at his weakest point. But how to discover this was a difficult problem and the situation did not admit of a moment's delay. Under ordinary circumstances the information might have been secured through spies, but there was no time for this and confronted by the necessity for immediate action, Lee thought of "Jeb" Stuart, his son's classmate at West Point, who had acted as aide in the capture of John Brown.

Stuart was only twenty-nine years old but he had already made a name for himself as a general of cavalry, and Lee knew him well enough to feel confident that, if there was any one in the army who could procure the needed information, he was the man. He, accordingly, ordered him to take 1,200 troopers and a few field guns and ride straight at the right flank of the Union army until he got near enough to learn how McClellan's forces were posted at that point.

This perilous errand was just the opportunity for which Stuart had been waiting, and without the loss of a moment he set his horsemen in motion. Directly in his path lay the Federal cavalry but within twenty-four hours he had forced his way through them and carefully noted the exact position of the Union troops. His mission was then accomplished, but by this time the Federal camp was thoroughly aroused and, knowing that if he attempted to retrace his steps his capture was almost certain, he pushed rapidly forward and, passing around the right wing, proceeded to circle the rear of McClellan's entire army. So speedily did he move that the alarm of his approach was no sooner given in one quarter than he appeared in another and thus, like a boy disturbing a row of hornets' nests with a long stick, he flashed by the whole line, reached the Union left, swung around it and reported to Lee with his command practically intact.

That a few squadrons of cavalry should have been able to ride around his army of 100,000 men and escape unscathed astonished and annoyed McClellan but he utterly failed to grasp the true purpose of this brilliant exploit, and Lee took the utmost care to see that his suspicions were not aroused. Stuart's information had convinced him that the right wing of the Union army was badly exposed and might be attacked with every prospect of success, but to insure this it was necessary that McClellan's attention should be distracted from the real point of danger. The Confederate commander thoroughly understood his opponent's character and failings, for he had taken his measure during the Mexican War and knowing his cautious nature, he spread the news that heavy reenforcements had been forwarded to Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. This he felt sure would confirm McClellan's belief that he had such overwhelming numbers that he could afford to withdraw troops from Richmond, and the ruse was entirely successful, for the Union commander hesitated to advance, and the Federal authorities, hearing of Jackson's supposed reenforcement, became increasingly alarmed for the safety of Washington.

Meanwhile, a courier had been secretly hurried to Jackson, ordering him to rush his troops from the Shenandoah Valley and attack McClellan's right wing from the rear while Lee assaulted it from the front. But the Union right wing numbered fully 25,000 men and Jackson had only 15,000. So to make the attack overwhelming it was necessary for Lee to withdraw 40,000 men from the defenses of Richmond, leaving the city practically unprotected. Unquestionably, this was a most dangerous move, for had McClellan suspected the truth he might have forced his way into the capital without much difficulty. But here again Lee counted upon his adversary's character, for he directed the troops that remained in the trenches to keep up a continuous feint of attacking the Union left wing, in the hope that this show of force would cause McClellan to look to his safety in that quarter, which is precisely what he did. Indeed, he was still busy reporting the threatening movements against his left, when Lee and Jackson's combined force of 55,000 men fell upon his right with fearful effect at Gaines' Mill (June 27, 1862). From that moment his campaign for the capture of Richmond became a struggle to save his own army from capture or destruction.

The only safety lay in flight but at the moment of defeat and impending disaster it was not easy to extricate the troops from their dangerous position, and McClellan showed high skill in masking his line of retreat. Lee did not, therefore, immediately discover the direction in which he was moving and this delay probably prevented him from annihilating the remnants of the Union army. Once on the trail, however, he lost no time and, loosing "his dogs of war," they fell upon the retreating columns again and again in the series of terrible conflicts known as the "Seven Days' Battles." But the Union army was struggling for its life and, like a stag at bay, it fought off its pursuers with desperate courage, until finally at Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862), it rolled them back with such slaughter that a bolder leader might have been encouraged to advance again toward Richmond. As it was, however, McClellan was well content to remove his shattered legions to a point of safety at Harrison's Landing, leaving Lee in undisturbed possession of the field dyed with the blood of well-nigh 30,000 men.