It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. — James Madison

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




A Game of Strategy

While the remnants of McClellan's fine army were recuperating from the rough handling they had received, Lee was developing a plan to remove them still further from the vicinity of Richmond. Harrison's Landing was too close to the Confederate capital for comfort and the breastworks which the Union commander erected there were too formidable to be attacked. But, though he could not hope to drive his adversary away by force, Lee believed that he could lure him from his stronghold by carrying the war into another part of Virginia. The opportunity to do this was particularly favorable, for the Union forces in front of Washington, consisting of about 45,000 men, had been placed under the command of General John Pope. Pope had served with Grant in the Mississippi campaign and had begun his career in the East by boasting of the great things he was about to accomplish, referring contemptuously to his opponents and otherwise advertising himself as a braggart and a babbler. He had come, so he told his soldiers in a flamboyant address, from an army which had seen only the backs of its enemies. He had come to lead them to victories. He wanted to hear no more of "lines of retreat" or backward movements of any kind. His headquarters were "in the saddle" and his mission was to terrorize the foe.

These absurd proclamations pretty thoroughly exposed Pope's character, but he had been at West Point with General Longstreet, one of Lee's ablest advisers, and that officer speedily acquainted his chief with the full measure of his opponent's weaknesses. This was exceedingly useful to Lee and when he discovered that McClellan and Pope were pulling at different directions like balky circus horses, while Halleck with one foot on each was in imminent peril of a fall, he determined to take advantage of the situation and hasten the disaster.

McClellan, having 90,000 men, wanted Pope to reenforce him with his 45,000, and thus insure a renewal of his campaign against Richmond. But this, of course, did not suit Pope who wished McClellan's army to reenforce him and march to victory under his banner. But while each of the rivals was insisting that his plan should be adopted and Halleck, who held the chief of command, was wobbling between them, trying to make up his mind to favor one or the other, Lee took the whole matter out of his hands and decided it for him. He did not want McClellan to be reenforced; first, because he was the abler officer and, second, because he had or soon would have more than sufficient men to capture Richmond and might wake to a realization of this fact at any moment. From the Confederate standpoint it was much safer to have Pope reenforced, for he did not have the experience necessary to handle a large army. Therefore, the more troops he had to mismanage the better. Moreover, Lee knew that McClellan would cease to be dangerous as soon as he was obliged to send any part of his forces away, for, as usual, he imagined that his opponents already outnumbered him and that the withdrawal of even a single regiment would place him practically at their mercy.

Carefully bearing all these facts in mind and thinking that it was about time to force Halleck to transfer some of McClellan's troops to Pope, Lee ordered Jackson to attack the man who thus far had seen "only the backs of his foes." But at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, which followed (August 9, 1862), his enemies would not turn their backs and the fact evidently alarmed him, for he immediately began shouting lustily for help. Perhaps he called a little louder than was necessary in order to get as many of his rival's men as possible under his own command, but the result was that McClellan's army began rapidly melting away under orders to hurry to the rescue.

Lee's first object was, therefore, accomplished at one stroke and, as fast as McClellan's troops moved northward, he withdrew the forces guarding Richmond and rushed them by shorter routes to confront Pope, whom he had determined to destroy before his reenforcements reached the field. Indeed, a very neat trap had already been prepared for that gentleman who was on the point of stepping into it when he intercepted one of his adversary's letters which gave him sufficient warning to escape by beating a hasty retreat across the Rappahannock River. This was a perfectly proper movement under the circumstances, but in view of his absurd ideas concerning retreats it opened him up to public ridicule which was almost more than a man of his character could endure. He was soon busy, therefore, complaining, explaining, and protesting his readiness to recross the river at a moment's notice.

But, while he was thus foolishly wearing out the telegraph lines between his headquarters and Washington, Lee was putting into operation a plan which would have been rash to the point of folly against a really able soldier but which was perfectly justified against an incompetent. This plan was to divide his army, which numbered less than 50,000 men, into two parts, sending "Stonewall" Jackson with 25,000 to get behind the Union forces, while he attracted their commander's attention at the front. Of course, if Pope had discovered this audacious move, he could easily have crushed the divided Confederate forces in turn before either could have come to the other's rescue, for he had 70,000 at his command. But the armies were not far from Manassas or Bull Run, where the first important engagement of the war had been fought and Lee know every inch of the ground. Moreover, he believed that all Pope's provisions and supplies upon which he depended for feeding his army were behind him, and that, if Jackson succeeded in seizing them and getting between the Union army and Washington, Pope would lose his head and dash to the rescue regardless of consequences.

Great, therefore, as the risk was he determined to take it, and Jackson circled away with his 25,000 men, leaving Lee with the same number confronting an army of 70,000 which might have swept the field. But its commander never dreamed of the opportunity which lay before him and he remained utterly unsuspicious until the night of August 26, 1862, when his flow of telegrams was suddenly checked and he was informed that there was something the matter with the wires connecting him to Washington. There was, indeed, something the matter with them, for Jackson's men had cut them down and were at that moment greedily devouring Pope's provisions, helping themselves to new uniforms and shoes and leaving facetious letters complaining of the quality of the supplies.

For a while, however, the Union general had no suspicion of what was happening, for he interpreted the interference with the telegraph wires as the work of cavalry riders whom a comparatively small force could quickly disperse. But when the troops dispatched for this purpose came hurrying back with the news that Jackson's whole army was behind them, he acted precisely as Lee had expected, and completely forgetting to close the doors behind him, dashed madly after "Stonewall," whom he regarded as safe as a cat in a bag.

The door which he should have closed was Thoroughfare Gap, for that was the only opening through which Lee could have led his men with any hope of arriving in time to help his friends, and a few troops could have blocked it with the utmost ease. But it was left unguarded and Pope had scarcely turned his back to spring on Jackson before Lee slid through the Gap and sprang on him.

The contest that followed, called the Second Battle of Bull Run or Manassas (August 30, 1862), was almost a repetition of the first, except that in the earlier battle the Union soldiers had a fair chance and on this occasion they had none at all. Indeed, Lee and Jackson had Pope so situated that, despite the bravery of his men, they battered and pounded him until he staggered from the field in a state of hysterical confusion, wildly telegraphing that the enemy was badly crippled and that everything would be well, and following up this by asking if the capital would be safe, if his army should be destroyed. It is indeed possible that his army would have been reduced to a mere mob, had it not been for the proximity of the fortifications of Washington, into which his exhausted regiments were safely tumbled on the 2nd of September, 1862.

Thus, for the second time in two months, Lee calmly confronted the wreck of an opposing host, which, at the outset, had outnumbered him and confidently planned for his destruction.